Monday, 5 September 2011

Midnight Sun, Part 1: Senja!

I left the UK for two weeks in June / July this year for the first time in about four years. In fact, during that time I've only even visited England a handful of times. I've been a 'stay-at-home' but only in the sense that I haven't needed a passport - I'm out and about in my tent around Scotland during most of my spare time. Fours years previously I'd spent several months backpacking in Europe (most of the time spent amongst the jagged pointy bits Austria, Slovenia and Bulgaria). Maybe that is why I've been content to roam in the British hills for a while.

But I was really looking forward to going to Norway. Like, really really...

The second leg of our flight was spectacular. To start with after taking off from Oslo the cloud cover below was dense. But as the jet flew further and further North this first gave way to a few tantalizing snow capped peaks breaking the surface of the cloud, and then grand extensive views of mountains.

Our flight landed in Tromso, which is about 350km North of the Arctic Circle at a latitude of almost 70 degrees. We walked for half an hour from the airport, climbing up a hillside away from the streets and houses and pitched our tents. It was about 11pm by the time we had made camp for the night and it was still broad daylight. Of course, it was still broad daylight at midnight and we didn't see darkness until arriving back in Scotland two weeks later... after two weeks on holiday in really did seem dark, too.

The next morning saw the melting and re-solidification of our plans. The intention originally had been to head South, to the Rago National Park. Problems obtaining hiking maps for Rago (to be purchased in advance next time) and also the length of time required for travel in to the area caused a rethink and a hasty change of plans. This turned out very well.

Our first week, we decided over coffee, would be spent on the Island of Senja. Norway's second largest Island, Senja boasts magnificent mountains and fjords. It is comparable in in terms of scenery to the Lofoten Islands, slightly further South, but receives fewer visitors and is less developed for tourism. Before we even got there, we had the ferry ride through the Troms Fjord to enjoy with the mountains of the island coming closer.

To begin our backpack through the area we wanted to explore, the jagged North West of the island, we needed to catch a bus (faced with the unappealing alternative of a couple of days road walking) and the bus wasn't due until the following afternoon. So we spent our first night on Senja camped in the a forest of Birch - the first of many. We spent much time during this trip hiking amongst spindly birch, it being the hardiest variety of tree and capable of dealing with the extreme latitude. Wherever there were birch, there was also a bed of little white four-petaled flowers (the name of which I would like to learn).

The following morning we explored the dense and pathless woods around our campsite before making our way down to the edge of a nearby lake. From here I launched my boat for its first float on none Scottish waters.

Lunch was eaten amongst the trees and in the late afternoon we caught the bus we had been waiting for. The bus dropped us beside Bergsfjordan at the little settlement of Skaland after a journey through evermore jaw-dropping scenery.

We decided to walk late into the night to make the most of the good weather. We weren't to know that it would last pretty much the entire trip and had been warned to expect consistent heavy rain in the coming week. So we set off up the steep sides of the Strandbykaret ridge arriving sweaty at a col between the sharp summits of Hjussfellet and Steinsethogda. After a drink and a snack we continued to the dramatic summit of the latter of these two peaks, and the panoramic view was of blue sea to the West and sharp broken mountains in all other directions. I spent some time taking this scene in. My pictures don't do it justice I'm afraid.

Eventually we made our way down the Northern side of the ridge, skirting a wild lake and cautiously dealing with ankle threatening terrain.

Camp was made at around midnight beside the rusted and wrecked hull of a ship that had obviously fallen foul to the seas in less clement conditions.

A White Tailed Eagle, a Sea Eagle, rose up from a rock not far away and beat its massive wings off in to the distance. This was the only Eagle we saw during course of the trip, which surprised me. I've seen these massive and beautiful birds, nicknamed 'flying barn doors' in Britain, on a number of occasions around the islands off the Scottish North West Coast (Rum, Mull and even Skye where I don't think they nest). They are to be found in strong numbers in Scotland now. Having been initially reintroduced to the Isle of Rum during the eighties, the population has spread along the west coast as far North as Torridon. These immigrant birds were brought (and still every couple of years more are brought) form eyries located around Norway, from where they are plucked as Eaglets, tagged, and put in boxes to travel across the water to there new homes.

Going to sleep wasn't easy. Although I was tired the setting was so amazing that long after my companion had gone to his tent I stayed up and watched seals bobbing in the water, watched the light change on the mountains, and drank a healthy measure of Single Malt in accompaniment.

The 'morning' was fresh and bright. More relief could be discerned on the rocky faces of the mountains opposite, so a slow start was made after several cups of tea and a large breakfast.

The plan was to make our way around the headlands of the next two Fjords(Steinfjord and Ersfjord)) to a point from which we could set off back into the mountains.
But on such a good day, with such calm water and not even a breeze, it would have been a waste of a packraft for both of us to walk around the Fjord. So as Bill set off on foot I found a suitable launching spot and inflated my boat.

I stuck close to the shore until well within the sheltered inner of the Fjord. At that point I called out to Bill who was walking the shoreline, and gestured that I was going to cut straight across the water. The distance across the Fjord was short but as I ventured further from the shore the views all around opened up.

That morning's paddling was among the (many) highlights of the trip for me. At one point there appeared beneath me in the crystal clear saline water, thousands upon thousands of small fish (love to know what variety). They were swarming, moving in patterns together like a flock of Starlings and pretty soon there was a ravenous flock of birds spinning around me, diving and plucking the poor little buggers out of the water in their claws.

As I approached the Northern shore of Steinfjord an absolute racket of seabirds could be heard. The settlement of Steinfjord is home to a small fleet of fishing boats and I could see the fishermen sorting their catch on the quayside beside their little vessels. The birds were wheeling and diving around the boats, probably hoping the fishermen would lose a grip on the odd slippery little meal.

I pulled my little boat ashore and after a cup of tea lay down to doze in the sun. It took some time for Bill to make it right around the Fjord and he was tired and wanting a rest when he arrived. We agreed that a the next opportunity to float, I would take his heaviest items on board and make his walking easier while I was paddled.

When we set off again we were heading West around a headland separating Steinfjord from Ersfjord. At the tip of the headland we stopped again to take photos. From this point it did not seem wise to launch my boat, as the Fjord was still open and exposed at this point.

It wasn't until some distance further around the headland, when the fjord became more sheltered and the swell all but disappeared, that I decided to get back on the water. As planned I took the heavy items form Bill's pack and packed them into my raft. This eased the burden on his legs and when I arrived at the golden sandy beach we had planned to meet at, I didn't have to wait long this time for him to catch up.

I beached at Ersfjord and transferred Bill's excess load back to his backpack.

From this point we headed back inland. We began by climbing a steep a pathless route onto higher ground and from here we found ourselves looking down onto the pristine lake of Ersfjordvatnet. With mountains all around and wood for a fire scattered along the shore, this seemed a good place to camp.

After a (brief) dip in the chilly water I spent an hour or so paddling the clear blue lake before bed.

In the morning we agreed that I would pack both backpacks on to the raft and paddle the length of the lake. We would meet up at the Southern end of the lake, from where we planned to walk down the wooded slopes (more birch) to pick up a path that would take us higher in to the mountains.

After dropping down slightly from the lake and fighting through dense birch wood we climbed an extremely steep 'path' that increased our altitude by several hundred meters. The path was assisted by a rope belayed from the top and strung between trees. By the time we reached the top, we were truly knackered. Only a short walk further took us to another spot which also took our breath away.

A high level walk took us around the lake of Roaldsvatnet along a ridge that climbed up towards the summit of Snaufjellet. Although only 700M high, from the summit of Snaufjellet we had impressive views all around. The frigid lakes of Lille-Hestvatnet and Lornvatnet made impressive sights, as did the imposing view of Breidtinden (Senja's highest mountain) to the East.

The views unfolded further as we continued along the ridge. From near the summit I spotted first a reindeer Stag and then a female with child crossing a large patch of snow beneath us. Despite the grandeur, we did not intend to linger however. The sky began to glower. Presently, cold rain began to fall.

After a challenging descent from the mountains we camped among more birches above Hopsvatnet Fjord beside the small town of Senjahopen. It was raining and we were both knackered, so after a brief meal, a cup of tea and the last of the single Malt, we retired to our tents for a very long sleep. This was the only night of the trip that I went to sleep with rain on the tent roof. I woke up to the same sound after 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

As the morning wore on the weather picked up. And by the time we stopped for lunch, by the side of the Fjord and in the shadow of Breidtinden, the sun was once again ascendant.


After yet another steep climb away from the coast, this time on a clearly well trodden (and way-marked) path, we came to a lake named on the map both as Svartholvatnet and as Suohpajavri. The additional name, with the suffix 'javri' as opposed to 'vatnet' describing this as a lake, indicated we were into Sami territory. I hadn't thought of this area as being home to Sami people before, instead imagining them to be all roaming around on the interior plateau. In fact, there are groups of Sami living on the islands. They would probably lay claim to the reindeer we had seen at higher altitudes yesterday.

Again, I loaded both backpacks on to my raft leaving Bill free to scramble along the steep sides of the lake. From looking at the map it appeared that some parts of the lake side would be difficult and potentially dangerous to pass on foot. These were stretches where steep water courses plunged off the mountain side. Crossing these would certainly have been hazardous. So we arranged to rendezvous at a fixed point before the first difficult section of ground.

I proceeded quickly across the lake, despite the extra baggage, due to the current, which was very much in favour of my direction of travel. I reached a spit of land extending from the shore out in to the lake, pulled up my boat and removed both backpacks. From here I returned (against the current now) to our agreed meeting point and picked up my passenger. We returned to the backpacks and came ashore. I was boiling water for a brew and we were discussing the other stretches of this lake that would require a similar ferrying arrangement when a boat powered by an outboard motor came into view to the south of us. I waved at the driver, who first slowed his boat and then turned towards us. He may have been surprised to see two people sitting on this spit of land, halfway along the lake and a great distance from any path. Not as surprised as I was to see a motorised boat on this remote, high lake (how the fuck he got it up there I know not). Torgrim, the pilot of the boat, had been fishing with his family and had his wife and two children on board. They were returning to their cabin at the north of the lake, a wooden affair we had passed before taking to the water, and had decided to stop for a chat. When we revealed that we would be paddling the length of the lake, this generous boater offered instead to pack us and all our stuff into his boat and take us to the southern tip. We accepted and so he dropped off his family on our spit of land (!) and we took their place. I hope he remembered to pick them up again...

Torgrim directed us to a good spot to pitch our tents, with dry chopped wood and a ready made fire ring. Having had a shorter day than expected we decided on a longer evening of relaxation. While Bill went to explore the woods I inflated my raft and paddled out into the middle of the lake. A packraft is good to just kick back in, and I floated on the edge of sleep for half and hour or so before heading back to shore to shore to enjoy a blazing fire and dry some socks by its heat.

The next morning low cloud hung around the mountain sides and there was moisture in the air. The ground underfoot was also boggy as we made our way along an intermittent path through birch woods that would lead us to lose much altitude before picking up a waymarked trail.

The trail we followed for the next day and a half was the part of the long distance 'Troms-Turlag' and it took us through scenery and surrounds that completely contrasted with what we had experienced on the island so far. More and more birch wood was of course nothing new. But now the hills around became rolling fells, more like the fells I am accustomed to wandering on in the English Lake District than the sharpened spires we had moved between for the previous few days.

The jagged peaks were not even visible in the distance as we passed through a beautifully forested valley called Nor Heggedalen which rose to a broad coll between two rounded peaks. We made a camp at the coll beside a broad waterfall which was fed by snow melt and made for delicious, if freezing, drinking water.

The next day's walking was similar in tone and took us through the Valley of Sor Heggedalen. The cloud remained low but still it didn't rain. The path, although waymarked by painted red flashes and occasional cairns, was lost and found a couple of times and the going underfoot varied from solid to squelchy again and again. The walk had a remote feeling and was extremely enjoyable. Having looked at the full extent of this trail on the Island I am determined that I want to visit again and that the rest of this route will probably feature heavily in my plans.

Eventually we came to the road, from where we were to catch the bus back to the mainland before transferring to the express ferry back to Tromso. It seemed a pity to be back at the road with the noise of passing cars, even if they only passed occasionally. We sat and brewed tea while waiting or the bus, which Bill flagged down when it appeared.

It wasn't long before we were on the ferry. I drank a delicious can of Mack lager, the price of which I don't care to recall. Besides the beer I occupied myself by poring over the map of Senja. I nearly always feel I want to return to an area and explore more when I've been on a trip. I suppose that marks a trip as enjoyable, and I'm lucky to have had so many great trips. When I go back to Senja it will be with a fishing rod, as all the lovely looking fish flipping out of the crystal clear lakes were making my mouth water. I already have a route planned for my next trip to Senja - 3 days hiking (never having to cross a road) and then two days packrafting rivers and lakes, which forms a neat partial loop.

When I have the time.


Part two coming soon: Finnmark!


  1. What fantastic trips your packraft unlocks for you. I can see from the photos why you want to go back.

  2. Awesome Dave, it's always nice to read trip reports from people visiting my adopted home, especially when they visit parts of the nature that I haven't got to visit myself yet. This country screams packrafting potential. I will have to take the plunge and get myself one, but maybe next year, winter is coming and it's time to start thinking about those skis!

  3. Martin, you should get one and come with me :)

    Thanks Joe, you're lucky to be settled in such a beautiful place. I believe you're familiar with the setting for the next stage of our trip, a loop starting and finishing at Alta via Lake Iesjavri.

    I'm far from done with Norway :)

  4. When you're done with Norway, come to Finland ;)

    Well done, mate. Great photos and writing, and very smart of you to paddle with your mates gear in the packraft. Looking forward to the second installment.

  5. Thanks Hendrik... I'm very much looking forward to Finland (just a matter of when)... All that water and all those forests (not to mention drunken elk). There's all sorts of potential round your way!

    Cheers, Dave


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