Saturday, June 27, 2015

Kayaking the Lofoten Islands

(If you want to skip the words, jump straight to the photos here.  They were taken by Ed, Caroline, and myself.)

It all started last November with an email from Ed, whom I'd recently met at John Carmody's Mid Coast Rendezvous in Maine.  "I'm working on a trip to paddle the Lofoten archipelago next summer, including a crossing from Moskensøya to Værøy and Røstlandet (weather permitting).  I'm looking at the 15 - 30 June 2015, and have been in contact with someone who rents kayaks.  The thought is to paddle west and east coasts, and to spend some days hiking / climbing to take advantage of a really spectacular location."

While grateful to be invited, I knew nothing about the Lofoten Islands.  But I'm half Norwegian, and I thoroughly enjoyed one prior trip to Norway, so I was predisposed to say yes.  A bit of research confirmed that this would be a wonderful opportunity:  an archipelago north of the Arctic Circle, midnight sun, mountains that drop down to the sea, fjords, fishing villages...  Wanting more would just be greedy.

Before long a group of 6 had committed.  Ed and Heidi from Maine (Heidi speaking fluent Norwegian), Caroline from Connecticut, Alice and Ansgar from Scotland, and me. 

Over the next few months we figured out logistics and learned more about where we were going.  Ed worked with Jann Engstad of Lofoten Kajakk to rent boats.  Based on boat availability, we eventually settled on launching on Friday, June 19 and returning on Thursday, June 25.  First quarter moon would be the 24th.  A couple of us started learning some Norwegian.   

The Lofoten islands form the southern part of the archipelago that marks the outer edge of the Vestfjorden -- a large fjord or bay that is home to a major cod fishery during the winter months.  Norwegians have fished these waters for hundreds of years.  There's some farming on the islands in valleys, but their aspect is mostly mountainous. 

The tidal range is about 2 meters or 6 feet.  The main tidal flows are between the islands in the archipelago.  As the tide rises and falls in the open sea, it starts flowing into and out of the Vestfjorden any way it can.  Although all of the passages (straumen) have currents that vary with the tidal cycle, our main concern was the Moskenstraumen, between the southern end of the Lofoten Islands and the island of Værøy. It was the Moskenstraumen that inspired Edgar Allen Poe to write The Maelstrom.  Poe's story took quite a bit of poetic license, but the real world current can exceed 10 knots, and there are whirlpools (the largest of which is reported to be between 40 and 60 meters in diameter)  and standing waves.  Definitely a place to treat with respect.

Detailed information in English was difficult to find.  There were some blog posts (see References at bottom of post.)  There was an article about a couple of BCU Level 5 coaches doing the crossing and finding it a bit challenging.  There were definitely some uneventful crossings, but the information I could find seemed contradictory. I attempted to translate the Norwegian Sailing Instructions (Den Norske Los) for the Moskenstraumen, which includes a diagram of the direction and and relative strength of the currents every 90 minutes of the tidal cycle, along with a detailed description. The fact that my translation attempt came up with results like "power snow drift" didn't inspire confidence (did they mean overfalls?). There was also one term ("Strinna") that I couldn't find a definition of anywhere.  

Looking at the diagrams, there was never a time when everything went slack, so the trip would have to be planned around the whirlpools and Strinna, and use the ever present currents to one's advantage.  Timings for the current flows in the passages between other islands were inconsistent from source to source, and were very general. 

Talking with Jann after we arrived seemed like a good idea.

I left for Norway on a Saturday morning and arrived in Oslo on Sunday morning.  A long wait in Gardemoen Airport, a somewhat groggy flight to
Bodø, and arrival in the rain. A hunt for dinner after checking into my hotel.  May I always remember how much I appreciated the simple friendliness of the server at The Cup restaurant as I tried out my very limited Norwegian.

On Monday I tracked down fuel for my camp stove and got a ticket for the ferry to Svolvær.  I also spent some time with the charts planning possible trip routes.  I saw several cars in Bodø with kayak racks and/or kayaks, but never saw any of those kayaks' people. 

Monday evening I took the daily express boat to Svolvær. (GPS track) The ferry worked its way north along the mainland, stopping at half a dozen small village ports, then cut across the Vestfjorden to Skrova and then Svolvær.  We weren't long into the trip when I spotted a beautiful rainbow, and I spent most of the rest of the journey outside on the aft deck, looking at the islands and hills and distant mountains.


The black and white cairns on top of the islands are called "varde".  Many have been in place since Viking times.  Their silhouettes show up well in daylight, which is useful in the land of the midnight sun.  Jann said they don't turn the navigation lights on until mid-August, when it starts getting dark at night again. 

Tuesday and Wednesday were mine to explore, hike, take photos, and get groceries for the trip.  Caroline arrived on Wednesday night.  We had dinner and did some more wandering to take the edge off of her jet lag.  

Thursday morning we met Ansgar and Alice to start trip planning.  They had found some information from a 1950s Admiralty pilot that was much more detailed about currents in the Moskenstraumen and other passages.  It also had a definition of Strinna: "violent turbulence with swirls and steep heavy breaking seas which occurs at different times in different parts of the channel."   Good to know.

We passed the notes around, transferring the information to our maps and charts.  Later in the day we headed to Kabelvåg to find Jann's place.  It wasn't hard to spot "Camp Chaos" (Jann's term) once we got close. Jann was off working, but it was good to have found where to go the next morning. We had a treat in Kabelvåg at the Præstengbrygga (notice someone's Tahe Marine on the dock in front of the restaurant in the photo). 

We still hadn't connected with Ed and Heidi, who had spent a few days in Oslo before coming up north.  Caroline and I were within sight of the express boat we thought they'd be on when it arrived that night, and I went to look for them, but apparently they went left when I was looking for them to the right and we missed each other.  

So it wasn't until Friday, the morning of our departure, that our full group gathered at Jann's.  We had the chart and maps out on the hood of Jann's van to discuss trip options.  Jann was marking possible campsites on the map as we sorted out weather, boats, paddles, sprayskirts, and other gear.  Camp Chaos indeed, but it all worked.

The forecast was north winds force 3 to 4 Friday - Sunday, building to force 4 - 5 on Monday and Tuesday.  The swells (longish period - 10 to 13 seconds) were around a meter or less, but Wednesday and Thursday would build to over a meter.  

We came up with a plan of Jann dropping us off at Ramberg on the west side.  We would paddle south down the west side of the archipelago, round Lofotodden on the southern end on Monday morning, and would then be on the more protected east side and heading north before the winds and swell picked up.

The west side of Moskenesøya where we would be paddling is a fairly committing place.  No cell phone coverage, no roads, no towns south of Ramberg. The lovely big ocean-facing beaches would have dumping surf if the swell was of any size, so the reliable landing spots were Mulstøa, Horseid, Stokkvidmulen, Revsvika, and possibly Ertnhelvika.  Assuming we were at Revsvika by Sunday night, we would have to be on the water at 8:00 AM on Monday morning to catch the favorable current around the southern end.

After working with us on our route, Jann left  to drive a group of biking clients to their destination with their guide, so we had some time to get our gear and boats sorted out and breathe a bit.  Route selection had been a big unknown for us, with no local knowledge and a group that hadn't paddled together before, so it was good to have a plan.

Then we and the trailer headed off to Ramberg -- a bit over 30 miles as the crow flies, but much farther in this land of islands, mountains and fjords.  Jann, a born and bred Lofotian, shared a bit of Lofoten and Norway with us along the way.

Day 1:  (days are hyperlinked to GPS tracks if I have one.) 

We launched from the beach at Ramberg, after filling up our water bags at the adjacent campground.  The day and the scenery were lovely.  Actually, that could pretty much be said for every day, so just assume that for the rest of this blog post.

A couple folks needed a pit stop at Kvalvika Beach, which was indeed dumpy and well over the heads of the landers as we watched them go in.  Someone else chose to get out on the rocks on the side of the beach.  

One of our group was getting a little seasick in the following wind/following swells, and two of us stayed close to her.  (Just goes to show how being seasick can pop up with experienced paddlers who don't normally get seasick.)  After a while, she said she was starting to feel dizzy.  Caroline rafted up with her and I clipped in to tow.  We were within a couple of kilometers of our destination on Horseid Beach.  After towing by myself for a while, we tried adding another paddler in front of me, but with the swells, the second paddler, despite being a strong paddler, wasn't helping.  It was a bit of a learning for me -- towing in swells is not the same as flat water.  Fortunately, as we got close to the destination our seasick paddler recovered and was able to proceed on her own.
Paddling into Horseid -- the big beach surrounded by mountains, a stark shadow from the peak to the right -- was one of those paddles you just want to slow down, stretch out, and savor.

After settling into camp and having dinner, we had a discussion about what to do tomorrow -- whether to go forward or to turn around and head back to Ramberg, through the Sundstraumen, and down the east side.  We agreed to think about it overnight and decide in the morning.

Day 2:  In the morning, we continued the discussion.  Our intended campsite was 14 nautical miles down the coast, with the first definitely reliable landing spot about 10 miles away.  The conditions would be about the same, so again a possibility of sea sickness from anyone.  We were all new to paddling with each other.  Folks with 3 season tents were cold camping in the wind on the west side.  We had a range of skills and comfort in landing on surf beaches.  Nobody in the group had first hand knowledge of what the currents would be like as we went around the Lofotodden, and the group had no experience paddling together in moving water.  We didn't have any history of being packed and on the water by 8:00 AM.  There were other concerns, and I think that each of us came to the same conclusion for different reasons, but in the end we decided to head back to Ramberg and over to the east side.  In some ways it was an easy decision -- the east side of the island was equally inviting.  We were all a bit sad not to get the chance to see the rest of the west side, but we had at least spent a couple of days there, and camped on one of the magnificent beaches.  Clearly another trip is needed.

So ... back we went.

It seemed like a whole new route to be seeing the mountains and headlands from the opposite direction.  This time we stopped for lunch at Mulstøa, surrounded by sheep who completely ignored us.  

We paddled past Ramberg and through the Rossøystraumen, trying to line up the information we had on current flows through this passage with what we were experiencing.  Hard to tell, given what seemed to be some good sized eddies.

As we passed under the bridge, we were starting to think about where to camp.  In Norway, Freedom to Roam access rights are codified in an Outdoor Recreation Act.  On uncultivated land, you can walk, ski, or picnic wherever you want. You can also camp if you're not within 150 meters of a house/cabin. If you're planning to stay for more than two consecutive nights, you need the landowner's permission.  

However, access rights are one thing;  physical space on which to land 6 kayaks, get them above the high water mark, and set up 5 tents is another thing.  We spotted an island soon after crossing under the bridge and paddled around its steep sides looking for a place to land.  A small islet became separated from the main island at high water, and as we paddled between the two, two rams bolted off the islet as fast as they could and swam back to the main island in front of us.  They kept an eye on us until we left.

Alice was scouting ahead and soon found a rocky beach on the south side that we could land on.  Debris had washed up on it, and we were able to build a ramp out of driftwood and slide the kayaks up above the high water mark.  Splendid trick, ramp building.

Being back in the vicinity of roads and villages, we had cell phone coverage again, and took the opportunity to update our weather forecast. (I had listened to one of the scheduled VHF weather radio forecasts when I was in Svolvær, but my Norwegian was nowhere near good enough to rely on it.  Heidi's would have been, but the Yr weather app on my smart phone was much easier.)

Day 3:  Sunday we continued through the Sundstraumen, and this time we did get a lovely
current assist as expected.  As we approached the open coast on the east side, we could look across the Vestfjorden to the snow covered mountains on the Norwegian mainland.

We turned south towards Reine, a lovely fishing village located by a string of islands at the mouth of a fjord, surrounded by stunning mountains. We found a rocky ledge to land on in one of the villages adjacent to Reine.  One of our alternate plans had been to paddle into the Reinefjord, land at Vindstad and hike the trail over to Bunes Beach on the west side as a day hike, but we never ended up doing that.

After lunch we paddled on to Å.  As we approached this small village at the end of the road, we also caught our first view of the islands of Værøy and Mosken.

We'd been keeping our eyes open for landing spots for the last hour or so.  Not having spotted much, we were planning on staying at the campground in Å that Jann had told us about. When we got there, the folks at the reception desk told us that the campground was now limited to vehicle camping only. They said that some people did tent camp to the west, but that the campground facilities were not available for public use. 

To the west of the campground seemed to be a perfectly fine option.  We carried the full boats up onto the rocks and found some lovely campsites above.  Other tenters were doing the same thing.  The bus station, which we eventually tracked down, was the only public "facility" we found.  (When it was unlocked.)

Four of us took a break from camp food and walked into town for dinner that night. Did I mention that all of the restaurants we ate at served wonderful food?  

After getting a weather update, we decided to paddle down to the end of the island and back the next day (Monday), which would be the nicest day for paddling, then take the ferry to Værøy and back on Tuesday, and start back north on Wednesday.

Day 4:  Monday's first order of business was to get some of the famous cinnamon buns from the local bakery for today's breakfast and also for tomorrow's, when the bus to the ferry in Moskenes would leave shortly after 7:00 AM.  

We eventually got on the water and headed south.  More mountains, more beautiful scenery.

We paddled through some crystal clear, calm, shallow water and stopped to float along looking at the kelp and small fish and jellyfish in the blue water.  If we stayed out of the water and ignored our dry suits, we could have been in the tropics.

Continuing on, we spotted some paddlers camped at Anstadvika, which Jann had pointed out as a possible campsite.  (There was a house there, so one would need permission from the owners if within 150 meters.)  We had seen this group paddling past Å yesterday, so we stopped in to say hi.  I did my best at "Hello, where are you from?" in Norwegian.  Turned out that the other group was British and delighted that we could also speak English.  They were a group of friends who paddled Feathercraft at home and periodically packed them up for trips abroad.  

We continued south and landed on the beach by Yttertuven, and stretched our legs while taking a look at the area and what we could see of the Moskenstraumen.  All agreed that it would be lovely to come and watch a tidal cycle from a good vantage point.  Ansgar found six fishing floats washed up on the beach -- one for each of us to take back as a souvenir.  We headed back north before the current was expected to turn to the south and west.

Back in Å, we had a couple hours on our own.  Some of the group went to the fishing museum. I had some puttering to do, then chatted with some other campers and watched a pod of orcas off shore.  We all met up in town and had a beer, then dinner back in camp, and after that we read Poe's The Maelstrom aloud.  I believe that this was the night that Ansgar generously introduced us to some lovely peaty Scotch whisky, 12 year old Caol Ila.

Day 5:  In the morning we got up bright and early and caught the bus to Moskenes, where the ferry stops.  The ferry dock was a pretty industrial area with no place to find coffee anywhere in sight, but the day old cinnamon buns were still very tasty.  Once we got on the boat, we managed to get front row seats and hot coffee, and enjoyed both while we took in the view.

The ferry goes well east of the Moskenstraumen on its way to Værøy, so  we didn't get a close look at the straight line route between Lofotedden and Mosken.  On the return trip, though, those with good eyesight and/or binoculars could see standing waves in the Moskenstraumen.

After getting off the ferry in Sørland on Værøy, we got a tourist map that showed some hiking options and set out.  We climbed to a saddle that looked out on the other side of the island.  Two of us decided to turn around then (note to self:  must make time for exercising legs as well as paddling before next trip) while the rest continued climbing.  

We regrouped in town and after a treat of softis (pronounced something like "soft ice" - Norwegian soft serve ice cream that actually tastes good), we took a taxi to the chocolate factory that had been started up in the abandoned airport.  Sadly, the show room was closed for the day, so we got no closer than peering in through the windows.  However, as long as we were there, we decided to take a walk along the beach, asking the taxi driver to pick us up at 6:00 that evening.  

The beach was lovely.  Napping, wading barefoot, reading, wandering and general relaxing happened for the next hour or so.

Tuesday, June 23 was Midsummer's Eve, celebrated in Norway by building big bonfires.  We spotted the first of them up on the abandoned landing field, then more as we got back to Sørland.  Oddly, we saw few to no people anywhere near any of the fires.

Back in Moskenes at the ferry terminal around 9:00 or so, we called the taxi number we found.  I suspect we got someone up who had settled in at home for the evening, but he came and gave four of us a ride back to Å.  Alice and Ansgar walked, making it a long day for them.  

Day 6:  Wednesday we started north.  We sent a text to Jann requesting a pickup, but weren't sure whether it went through. (Another learning:  test your communications methods before you leave.) 

We stopped in Reine for elevenses, then found a lovely little cove on Kunna that made a good place to stop for lunch, though there probably wouldn't have been room to land at high water.  Alice climbed up to where she hoped to get cell coverage and picked up a text message from Jann asking whether we were okay.  Alice replied that yes, we were fine and having a wonderful time, and that we would like to be picked up in Ballstad, also asking where in Ballstad the best place to be picked up was.  Communications had a lag time due to Jann's work and probably both Jann and us being in and out of cell coverage.  But later in the day Alice got a reply confirming pickup about 7:00 PM the next day and saying that the best place for a pickup was "near the road :-)". Got it.

A north wind was building and the clouds lowering as we paddled north.  We were heading for another campsite that Jann had told us about, in a cove behind Straumøya Island in the Nappstraumen.  There were actually two lovely campsites there;  we chose the one with the creek.  That was the only night we had mosquitoes.

Day 7:  As we started out on our final day of paddling, a north wind was now blowing hard down the Nappstraumen, easily force 4-5.  We paddled up the west coast, then crossed at a ferry angle.  Once across we tucked into a welcome cove for lunch, and from then on it was an easy paddle into Ballstad.

Our final challenge in Ballstad was finding a place to land.  We found a commercial slipway and kept looking.  We scouted the marina, but didn't find anything.  We landed on another slipway next to a jetty, and that turned out to be a splendid option based on ensuing events.

Our first order of business was to get into dry clothes, button up the boats, and find a cafe.  We headed out on our cafe search on foot, and when we saw someone out in his yard, Heidi asked him to point us towards a cafe.  He generously offered to drive us all there, after asking his wife to hold dinner until he got back.

We had salad and fish soup and a beer at the cafe, then walked back to start unloading the boats so that when Jann arrived, we could toss them on the trailer and be on our way.  While we were doing that, a man came up and asked whether we were having any problems.  Turns out that we were on his private jetty, but he didn't mind.  We had several of lovely chats with him over the next hour or so.  He had been born in the Shetland Islands (part of Scotland), and was delighted to hear that we had a couple of folks from Scotland in our group.  They went in to his house and looked at maps while Ed and I were still sorting out our gear.  Later on I had a chance to talk to him.  As a boy in Norway, after school was over for the summer, he and other boys would hop on a boat heading to the Shetland Islands, spend the summer there, and catch another boat back when it was time to go back to school.  (A simpler time, that was.)  He'd been an engineer in the merchant marine and a fisherman, and now had his own business doing something with scales.  

He talked about building the jetty, which he'd just finished this year.  They'd use dynamite at low tide to break up the rock, then use the rubble to build the jetty.

We had assumed that Jann would know all of the places to land in Ballstad and had given him the name of the street to turn in on, but we faked him out by landing on this brand new jetty.  When he arrived, he had a hard time finding us.  We put our new friend onto the phone with Jann, and they figured it out.  Trailer was soon loaded and we were on our way back to Kabelvåg, with a stop along the way for dinner for Jann and softis for some of our group.

We spent Thursday night at a campground in Kabelvåg, and then it was time to start splitting up.  Alice and Ansgar had another week in Norway.  Ed and Heidi would depart from Svolvær Friday night, I would leave Saturday morning, and Caroline Saturday evening.   

Farewells are always sad, but there was talk about possible other trips.  And Jann did suggest coming back to paddle middle to end of August, after it started getting dark at night, when one just might see the Northern Lights...


Books and Boats
  • Jann Engstad is working on "The Lofoten Islands Sea Kayking Guide", with Olly Sanders from the UK assisting.  Hopefully it will be out yet in 2015.
  • Jann also runs Lofoten Kayak, aka Lofoten Aktiv, located in Kabelvåg, and offers opportunities for sea kayaking, biking, hiking, rowing, northern lights, snowshoeing, and plenty of other ways to play outside in Lofoten.
  • You can get Norwegian nautical charts from Oceangrafix or Bluewater.  However, if I had it to do over, I'd probably use the 1:50.000 Turkart hiking maps, more like the British OS maps.  I got paper versions of them at a bookstore in Svolvær before I left (2673, 2745, and 2671).  I think they might also be available on waterproof versions, but I'm not certain.
  • Norwegian Online Chart viewer
  • Norway has a site with better satellite imagery of Norway than Google Earth
Interesting blog posts and articles
Tide and Current Information
  • I found a used copy of the Imray Pilot for Norway on eBay that was somewhat helpful.  
  • Word is that the older Admiralty pilots (1950s) have better information for small boats, and can sometimes be found on eBay
  • Animated current models on Yr
  • Swell:  best I could find was Unstad Beach on Magic Seaweed
  • Tides
  • Den Norske Los.  The Norwegian Pilot Guide - Sailing Directions.  It's in Norwegian and I couldn't find a translation into English.  I wish I'd spent more time with it, though, as there's a fair amount that can be deciphered without much Norwegian.  Example.


Jerry said...

Hi Peggy O, thanks for a really informative post about your trip. Lots of learning points! I was in the Lofoten Islands last summer, also with a group of sea kayakers equipped by Jann, and am returning in June 2016 with a group of five from the UK to explore a bit further down towards Moskenes so your post is really helpful; really appreciate you taking the time to share it. Do you read Ocean Paddler magazine at all?

Peggy O said...

Hi, Jerry. Thanks for the note. Yes, I do read Ocean Paddler!