14 Apr Going North
The plan was to go north and see how far we’d get. A summer whale trip from southern Norway almost to the North Pole.
»Bergen! Bergen is the most beautiful city in the world! You have to start with Bergen!« a friend said when we told him that we wanted to go north but didn't really know where to start.
This friend had been to Norway for studying and after that he traveled every continent and every major city of the world. So he definitely knows what he’s talking about. No surprise we started our trip at Bergen.
And yes, Bergen wins at being awesome: Cheerfully colorful wooden houses, bent small alleys, all crooked and confusing. All green, plants in every street, every corner and every bucket, a beautiful little harbor with a cozy fish market and the old Bryggen trading post (World Heritage Site!). At the edge of the city, either the cog railway or Gondola gets you a few hundred meters above city level and right into the middle of the picturesque Norwegian landscape where you can go hiking for hours without meeting a soul. Incredibly beautiful, all of it.
Bergen is also the perfect place to start a journey north, because the old post ship line called Hurtigruten starts here, connecting the north of the country with the south since hundreds of years. So, after a couple of days at Bergen we got ourselves onto a ship. Direction: northbound!
A journey with Hurtigruten is considered to be one of the most beautiful cruises in the world: You can go north for 12 days from Bergen and experience no less than 12 days of incredible landscapes.
The ship travels close to the coast, deep into the Geiranger- and Trollfjord with stops at Ålesund, Trondheim and Tromsø. Apart from experiencing dramatic fjords, the sun never sets once you passed the Arctic Circle on your way to the North Cape. The North Cape is usually said to be the northernmost part of Europe, however, that’s not really true: The northernmost part is Svalbard (or: Spitsbergen), a Norwegian cluster of islands high up in the Arctic – another 1.000 kilometers further up north.
Apart from tourists, Hurtigruten mainly transport goods for the north. The ships constantly keep traveling back and forth and you can also stay on board for only two or three stops like on a train, no cabin required. For a lot of routes in Norway, going by ship is still the easiest way of traveling.
No gimmicks and gadgets but lots of charm and splendor and class: Welcome on board of the lovely MS Lofoten!
Most ships are pretty new and the newer they get, the more they resemble a high class cruise ship: panoramic windows, a whirlpool on deck and suites with a balcony. These things. But there are also a few older and more nostalgic ships, the oldest and smallest one being the MS Lofoten, launched in Oslo in 1964. No gimmicks and gadgets but lots of charm and splendor and class. That’s the one we took.
Despite some rumbling and juddering (the MS Lofoten being the only Hurtigruten ship without stabilizers) and the occasional bruised knee in the morning because of some rocking motions of the ship at night: This was the most charming travel I was ever on, what a wonderful and classy old ship.
After four days, around midnight, all of the passengers scrambled towards the deck: Into the Trollfjord, through the Raftsund, entering the harbor of Svolvaer – arriving at the magical and mystical and ever beautiful Lofoten Islands.
Massive steep mountains, raising straight out of the ocean, building extremely beautiful and dramatic fjords: Welcome to Lofoten Islands!
I did some research about Lofoten Islands beforehand. Mostly reading books, then by Instagram. There are several very well kept accounts with a constant stream of great photos on @ilovenorway, @northernnorway or @visitnorway. They include hashtags of the various regions, making it pretty simple to find more accounts of people right there: Sometimes a tourist, a fisherman or a local tour guide give you a very authentic and up to date impression. I also tried Pinterest, but I only got the same 100 to 200 pictures there, repeatedly. That’s okay for getting a first impression but not for preparing for a trip there.
The best photos on Instagram are from the southern part of Lofoten, especially from a little town called Reine. This is where we went. The south is the most dramatic part of Lofoten: Mountains rise straight out of the water and despite of being just four hundred or six hundred meters high, they are incredibly massive and steep. When it comes to climbing, though, this is a little out of my (acrophobic) league.
Searching Instagram, you will soon find the great view from Reinebringen, the local mountain of Reine and THE picture from Lofoten, as it is the most impressive view and everybody wants to go up there. Us, too, of course. I did some research beforehand and when we were there: Both Reinebringen and Moskenesøya, the southern end of Lofoten in general, are not for people with a fear of heights: Much to steep, occasionally only accessible on all fours, way too much rubble, too slippery and not well secured. In my opinion at least. This is what it would have looked like from up there, from Reinebringen on a clear day.
But also without the climbing: Reine and Hamnøy next to it are two extremely beautiful places with a lot of small, rugged islands. They are all packed with little red fishermen’s huts, frames for the stockfish, which first gets put up to dry and then exported across half the globe. Stockfish wherever you look and smell. So we spent a few days between little red fishermen’s huts and stockfish frames. Lovely!
Apart from insanely steep mountains, the Lofoten Islands also offer insanely beautiful beaches. On the islands of Flakstadøya and Vestvågøya you can for example visit the beaches of Ramberg, Flakstad, Haukland and Utakleiv. They share an almost Caribbean look but also an arctic temperature. Gulf Stream or not, you can’t go swimming there. Trust me, I tried it myself. You should go there, nonetheless, sit on the beach for a few hours and watch the turquoise ice water. My Lofoten book expressively praised Kvalvika beach. It said you would comfortably hike up a hill between two mountains and after an easy descent into the valley on the other side you would be at one of the most beautiful beaches of the island in altogether about two hours. So this is where we went.
Let me digress for a minute and tell you something about hiking routes in books: Most descriptions of most routes tend to sound a bit confusing in most books. There is a lot of describing things but very little of showing them. So if you walk past some nondescript rock / bush / pole, which however is the ultimate marker in the book, you have basically struck out. The hiking trails on Lofoten are usually simple dirt tracks in the middle of nature and sometimes there is a stone figure for orientation, sometimes there’s an X on the ground and sometimes there is also nothing at all but some trampled down grass. This is all you get for orientation. There are barely any real signs from the tourist board along real tracks with some real information about distances and the like. In June, there are also barely any other hikers out there who you could ask for the way if you got a bit lost – most of the time it’s just you and Mother Nature.
Maybe the most beautiful place of the islands with a scenery straight from a postcard: Henningsvaer!
Anyway: Kvalvika! It was four hours instead of two, the hill was a mountain and the easy descent on the other side was rather rocky and abrasive in places. We were lost after a few meters. As soon as we reached the bottom, it suddenly started raining. However, we felt all outdoorsy, when we found a rock to take shelter under, put on our dry spare clothes, munched down an energy bar and were waiting for the rain to stop. After that, we did get a really wonderful day at an incredibly beautiful and lonesome beach.
We were urged to go to Henningsvaer, when going to Senja in winter, because it would be the most beautiful place of the islands in summer. Henningsvaer is stretched over several rocky islets and with the colorful wooden houses built around the little harbor and the mountains directly in the background, it all looks like straight from a postcard. A few kilometers away is Svolvaer, which is regarded as the capital of Lofoten. It’s a pretty town, too, with its red fishermen’s huts huddling around the harbor but the rest of it is somewhat more, well… let’s call it »functional«. We stayed in Henningsvaer for four days in a red wooden house on stilts over the water.
Henningsvaer is on Austvågøya, the easternmost island of Lofoten, separated from the Vesterålen Islands by the Raftsund. The landscape around Austvågøya is less drastic than on the southern islands: The mountains don’t shoot up straight out of the water, everything is a bit rounder, wavier, more inviting – at least for hikers with a fear of heights. We gave the Glomtinden and the Festvågtinden a try and I got up to about 80% of both before it got a bit too high and too steep and dizzying for my taste. However, the Glomtinden and the Festvågtinden also offer you a great view from only 80% of their total height.
At one point we found out about the great website 68north.com, on which professional Lofoten hiker Cody Duncan presents the best trails of the various islands. His blog doesn’t just contain honest descriptions of the routes with maps, but also photos from the ascent and the peak. This is something, most books lack: The first thing I want to see, when researching a route, is a picture from the peak, so that I can decide whether I need to go up there in the first place. Entries in Cody Duncan’s blog always start with a peak picture at optimum lighting and the very best weather. Cody Duncan knows how it’s done!
On 68north.com we found the hike up the Holandsmaelen, which sounded like a mountain I could manage. It offers a great view over Haukland beach. Of course, I got queasy before we got to the peak, because I always get queasy if it’s going steeply downhill on three of four sides around me. The Holandsmaelen, however, offers no view at 80% altitude, so I started humming the Rocky theme and went the full 100%. Proud me that day.
Northeast are the Vesterålen Islands, less dramatic in landscape but no less exciting at all - thanks to insanely beautiful beaches and the best birds in the world.
While you won’t find moose on Lofoten, the Vesterålen Islands do have moose – and besides you’ll meet puffins and sperm whales, which can be watched from Bleik and Andenes at the northern end of the island.
Compared to Reine, Henningsvaer or Solvaer, my expectations were a bit lower; probably because there are not half as many posts about Vesterålen on Instagram than about Lofoten. Everybody just seems to go to Lofoten. For my part, I think I liked Andenes with its adamant simplicity even a bit more than the lovely fishermen’s villages in the south, which seem to be randomly inserted into the landscape. In Andenes, every road is straight and fits the grid like in Manhattan – just a little bit smaller, flatter and more relaxed. Only 2.500 people live here. There’s a bakery, which also serves as kiosk and café, the tourist information is part of the post office, you only see a car every five minutes or so and to get to the airport, you usually walk. You’ll have a hard time getting lost in Andenes.
To this, the beach that stretches from Andenes almost on to Bleik is one of the longest and most beautiful ones in all of Norway. Actually, everything there looks like from a posterbook:
Famous for its puffins, Bleik is twenty kilometers south of Andenes. More than 80.000 couples are breeding on a cone-shaped mountain in front of the coast. The closer you get with your boat, the bigger the chaos and confusion get. Puffins in the sky, puffins in the sea, puffins everywhere. I’m not much of a birdwatcher, but I’m willing to make an exception for puffins: Puffins are awesome! They are clumsy, excited and always eager. They never get anything done, though. I’d like to give them a hug and comfort them – if only they weren’t that jittery. Totally loveable!
I was filming a puffin from the boat, which seemed to sit in the water pretty relaxed. However, when the boat got closer, it started to panic and decided to flee. Instead of just moving to the left or right and let us pass, this fantastic creature started flapping its wings like mad without managing to lift off, however. He kept this up for several minutes. Puffins are the best birds in the world.
Puffins aside, the main attraction of Andøya are whales! As one of only a few places in the world, you can book yourself onto a sperm whale safari from Andenes. That’s the kind of whale you know form Moby Dick: Very big (20 meters), very heavy (50 tons), very loud (220 decibel), teeth (25 cm) and sonar (hence the big head) included. Usually, they go hunting in depths of one to two kilometers far away from the coast and are almost unreachable for whale watching boats. However, less than an hour from the coast of Vesterålen is Bleik Canyon, a giant underwater canyon, home to a stable population of sperm whales. Together with Kaikoura in New Zealand, which has similar conditions, this makes Andenes one of the best places in the world to meet sperm whales.
Northern Norway is one of the best places in the world for whale watching: You'll mostly meet the giant sperm whales - and with some luck also orcas, humpbacks or pilot whales.
Sperm whales are the best whales for hobby photographers, as they always stick to the same routine of movements: They dive for about 30 minutes, which makes them easy to locate by sonar, as they, too, emit various clicking sounds for orientation. As soon as the clicking stops, the whales are on their way up. When they reach the surface, they lie still in the water for about ten minutes and are easy to find because of their slightly to the side directed blow. Before they dive again, they have to gather some momentum to move that giant body. If you are not one of the whalers of the times of Herman Melville, sperm whales behave both peaceful and predictable. They also always raise their fluke before diving, which makes for the best photographs. See (and hear) for yourself in the video:
But there are more whales to be spotted at the coasts of Bleik and Andenes. Orcas, humpbacks and finbacks usually come up to the fjords of Tromsø and Senja, making Norway one of the best places for whale watching in winter worldwide. You can get lucky in summer, too, though.
It’s always a good sign, when the tour guide himself gets nervous like on our second tour, which took place at midnight – thanks to the midnight sun! »Guys, we’ll do safety on board, we gotta be very quick, there’s pilot whales in the fjord, pilot whales are big fun, so come on, hurry, let’s go!« he said. Five minutes later, eight of us were in a zodiac and sped across the fjord towards the mainland. Bright as day, no wind, surreal lighting – and then, suddenly:
Pilot whales are four to six meters long and often travel in groups of up to 150 animals – and right in the middle of that: Us in the little zodiac for two or three hours. Whales everywhere! And so close to the boat that you could actually have touched them. I kept filming instead:
Speaking of which: Midnight sun! Even though the sky was clear enough while traveling around Lofoten, the sun always set at the other side of the massive mountains. You’ll have to go for a hike (like Cody Duncan) or you will only see the light of the midnight sun (nice, too!) but not the midnight sun itself. But finally, there was a clear view from Andenes! Right after our pilot whale tour, I set myself and an Isbjørn beer down at the harbor for two hours and watched the sun set and rise again right away. Stunning!
Discovering the land of ice and polar bears: In Svalbard we took a ship and crossed the 80th parallel in the north - from here the North Pole is already within sight.
From Andenes it takes about three hours by plane to get to Spitsbergen/Svalbard (Norwegian for »cold coast«). It’s only 500 nautical miles to the North Pole from here; you would need an ice-breaker, though.
The island is home to about 2.500 people and 3.500 polar bears. Everything is about polar bears here. If you leave the settlements, you should either carry a rifle or – probably better – have an armed guide with you. Technically, you are out of a settlement as soon as the last house is one meter behind you. Polar bears, however, often don’t play by that rule and march straight into the towns. On Svalbard, you have to be ready to meet polar bears anywhere and anytime.
There are several settlements on the island, the biggest one being Longyearbyen, which makes you feel like walking through Mos Eisley, that remote space station from the old Star Wars movies. Apart from Longyearbyen, there are the two Russian settlements Barentsburg and Pyramiden, which both set you back into the Soviet Union of the 1980ies. Further north is Ny-Ålesund, a research station with a handful of scientists from all over the world.
Apart from that, Svalbard is just mountains, glaciers, fjords and ice. Home is a long way to go on Svalbard.
In summer you can cruise around Svalbard by ship, if the ice allows it. This includes crossing the 80th parallel in the north. As a regular tourist, you won’t get any further north anywhere in the world. We booked a small cabin on the MS Nordstjernen with bunk beds and a porthole. The MS Nordstjernen was built by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg in 1956 and is even a bit more beautiful, charming and grand than the MS Lofoten.
Ice is the main thing you see on a trip around Svalbard. Everything is white, blue or grey all the time. At Longyearbyen, I had equipped myself with multiple layers of ultra warm expedition underwear to be able to hold out on deck as long as possible: Sleep little, eat fast and don’t miss a thing. Never before have I returned from a trip as tired and hypothermic. We went to Isfjord, Kongsfjord, Krossfjord, Magdalenenfjord, Liefdefjord, Woodfjord, and it was great everywhere and I was awake all the time.
We saw a polar bear right on the very first morning. It walked the shore of the Woodfjord, when I saw it even before the guides did. I’m a pretty good wildlife spotter. We accompanied it by boat for about half an hour and I made about 500 photos – a surreal and unforgettable moment. I can only hope that it’s still possible to see polar bears in the wild in twenty years.
I’ve read in a book that the arctic seas might be iceless in 2040 already. You could probably swim to the North Pole by then without any obstacles. All gone, molten away. Without the floating ice, it will be extremely hard for polar bears to find food, as they preferably hunt for seals. That is done by lying next to a hole in the ice, waiting for the seal to come up for air. Polar bears can patiently wait for hours, covering their snout and paws with snow, as they are smart enough to know that these are the only parts on them that are not white. When the seal finally surfaces, only 10% of the attempts to kill it are successful. Seals are smart, too. So that isn’t easy as it is, but feeding themselves by sources from land and water alone is almost impossible.
Polar bears need seals to survive - and therefore they need ice. But the Arctic is melting faster and faster.
I’ve also read, that polar bears are extremely good swimmers, especially over long distances. (Records state a distance of 700 kilometers in ten days – nonstop!). Over short distances, polar bears can swim faster than world class athletes like Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps (!). Still, hunting in water is hard for them, as pretty much every other animal around is even faster and more agile. On land, there is basically only reindeers and they are too fast and too enduring for a polar bear to have a chance of catching one. Odds against walruses are bad, too. Those might be pretty slow on land, but they still have giant teeth, which make them a mighty foe. Polar bears need seals to survive – and therefore ice. On Instagram, National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen showed what an iceless Svalbard would be like for polar bears – a very sad outlook:
Last summer I traveled with a group of friends to Svalbard, Norway in search of polar bears. We went to my favorite spot where I have always been able to find bears roaming around on sea ice throughout the summer. On this occasion, however, we didn't find any sea ice and we never found any bears alive. We did find two dead bears in this location and other groups found more dead bears. These bears were so skinny, they appeared to have died of starvation, as in the absence of sea ice, they were not able to hunt seals. In all of my years of growing up in the Arctic and later, working as a biologist, I had never found a dead polar bear. It is now becoming much more common. Through @sea_legacy and @natgeo we will continue to shine a light on our changing planet to convince the unconvinced. Please follow me on @paulnicklen to learn more about the effects of climate change. #polarbear #nature #wildlife #arctic #seaice @thephotosociety
Next to Svalbard, the area around Churchill in Canada is known as the second polar bear capital of the world. Thousands of polar bears live here, hunting on the ice of the Hudson Bay. Hudson Bay, however, has more and more iceless times every year, which makes the polar bears wander the shores more impatiently and more hungry. Until the ice comes, they resort to eating moss, grass and berries and roam the Tundra, where they seem out of place like in a zoo. I can only hope that polar bears can be seen where they belong in the future – on snow and ice. Just like on that morning at the shore of the Woodfjord.
Before setting out for our trip, I discovered the WWF-Species-Tracker. That’s a map documenting the migrations of endangered species, among them walruses and polar bears. It shows the distances polar bears travel on the ice and how extremely limited they would be without it. The polar bear at the shore of Woodfjord had such a tracker and was most likely the ten year old female N23882. I looked that up when we come back and on the map you can see where she is roaming now. This video above shows her at the shores of the Woodfjord.
With some luck (and a lot of time on deck), you can also see lots of other animals when traveling around Svalbard. Finbacks and humpbacks sometimes passed the boat at one-minute intervals. We even passed a blue whale, maybe – it might have been a very big and very blue finback as well. And walruses, of course! Walruses can only be found in the northern polar regions, are extremely endangered and you have to travel really far and be very lucky to see them in the wild.
At the northern end of Svalbard, above the 80th parallel, is Moffen Island, aka Walrus Island. Unfortunately, the nickname doesn’t stem from the huge number of walruses there but because hunting for walruses in the late 19th and early 20th century had one of its horrible climaxes here.
Thousands of walruses once lay here side by side, as walruses are very social and sociable animals. Then whalers came here on their uninhibited hunt for blubber and oil. They killed the animals lying on the outside of the group first, trapping the other ones inside. Then they massacred every single animal from the outside inwards. Human thoroughness paired with greed and ruthlessness made the walruses almost go extinct everywhere in the north. All for a little blubber and ivory. Since 1954, walruses are protected on Svalbard. The island is off limits for everybody and boats are allowed no closer than a hundred meters.
For a while I thought about what would be a good ending for this trip up north. What would be the point, where we just wouldn’t be able to go further north? Apart from polar bears and walruses I was really hoping to see pack ice. They said, the MS Nordstjernen would only cross the 80th parallel if the ice allowed it, so I was always hoping for unfavorable ice conditions with the ship right at the edge of the pack ice, no way to go on, an endless, craggy, billowing wall of ice like out of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Arctic Diary: A view to behold for life. I didn’t care about crossing some parallel, even if it was the 80th. But the ice situation was extremely favorable. Way too favorable, actually. Flat water, no pack ice anywhere, not even a reflection on the horizon. We probably could have gone up as far as the 81st parallel.
It’s no problem at all to stand on deck for hours at -15°C, staring at a giant wall of ice.
Then, on the last day: Excursion to Lilliehøøkbreen. Lilliehøøkbreen is a 22 kilometer long glacier, ending at the Lilliehøøkfjord in the north of the island. A giant wall of ice you can ride along for hours by boat.
We spent half a day by boat in the Lilliehøøkfjord, with this big wall of ice right in front of us. As it turns out, it’s no problem at all to stand on deck for hours at -15°C, staring at a giant wall of ice. We were taken as close as possible in little groups in zodiacs. On the photos it seems like we were almost next to the ice. Actually, it’s several hundreds of meters away, as ice keeps breaking off the wall with thunderous noise. The glacier is constantly calving, creating enormous waves. Everything is in motion, nothing is stable. Incredibly amazing!
You feel pretty small next to such a giant wall of ice. From now on, I’d suggest giant walls of ice as a perfect ending for a trip up north.
The plan was to go north and see how far we’d get. From Bergen we made it about 2.000 kilometers and across the 80th parallel. That’s as far north as you can get without an icebreaker. This is where we couldn’t go any further. The last stop of a great adventure. Next stop: home.