Lofoten - the Magic Islands

Posted by Andy Waddington on 2005-07-08

During 2005, eight sea kayakers from Swaledale Outdoor Club visited the Lofoten Isles, north of the Arctic Circle off the Norwegian coast.

The Lofoten Islands are a long way up Norway north of the Arctic Circle


Lofoten is a fabulous paddling destination north of the Arctic circle, renowned for its committing Atlantic coast and the biggest whirlpool in the world - Moskenestraumen. But it needs a bit of logistics to get boats and paddlers there, being a 1400 mile drive north of the Norwegian ports reached by ferry from Newcastle. It became apparent about 18 months ahead of the trip, that I would have a window of opportunity in which I could take three or four weeks for the trip if it happened in 2005, and during school term. So I planned to take a week to drive north and a week to drive back, with one or two weeks of paddling in between. A year later, we had a definite team, and had agreed dates to get the neap tides at the start of the trip when we would be paddling through one of the world's most notorious tide races. I had managed to find a trailer that would carry eight boats whilst being under 2m high, so I could get cheaper ferry fares on the car deck (taller vehicles pay more than twice as much on the lorry deck). I'd booked the ferry, and Johnny had managed to organise flights via Oslo to Bodø, from where they could take a ferry and meet me in Lofoten. Squeezing the maximum paddling time out of this week left me with only four days for each of the drives, and there is a 80 kph speed limit almost everywhere (in fact, with an unbraked trailer over 300 kg, I should have stuck to 60).

The trailer in Lofoten nearing the end of a fifteen hundred mile solo drive, after midnight... Photo: Andy Waddington
The trailer arriving in Lofoten - super scenery and well after midnight

A week ahead, I had everyone's boats and paddles loaded, and all the stuff which can't go by air, like flares and gas cylinders. It's a 22 hour crossing to Haugesund, which gives access to the roads without any additional ferry crossings or major toll roads. Daylight was not quite 24 hours in the south, but even crossing the Hardangervidda late at night in overcast and drizzle, there was twilight. For a lot of the journey, roads winding around fjords are narrow and bendy enough that a 80 kph speed limit doesn't seem like an imposition, and even on the E6, I could engage cruise control and have time to look at the scenery without risking my speed creeping up. So much so that just over a day later, I was crossing the Arctic Circle on the bleak Saltfjell, then following some impressive whitewater down the far side. Midnight saw me at the end of the road system at Bognes - whichever route I chose now involved a ferry, so I crossed to Vesteraalen by the midnight sun. A day spent with an unsuccessful bid to reach a summit with a view was followed by a winding drive back through the islands, linked by bridges and tunnels until one final short ferry crossing got me into the Lofoten islands themselves, two days after leaving Haugesund. A fine solo drive, I'd recommend it to anyone !

Two days were spent on photography (best light between about 11 pm and 3 am), a solo paddle into the deep, sheltered fjords which penetrate the interior of Moskenes and a bit of reconnaissance, before the team arrived from England in glorious (midnight) sunshine. Where was Mary's personal thundercloud ? Would we survive the Maelstrom of the world's biggest whirlpool ?

Packing the boats by the harbourside at Moskens. Photo: Andy Waddington
Packing the boats by the harbourside at Moskens

Much research had given us some confidence that we knew when the tide stream slackened off, but the Atlantic swell and the weather still left the conditions we would find as something of an imponderable. On the morning of the 2nd July, Johnny and Richard set off to find a better put-in than the one from our campsite, whilst the rest of us breakfasted and packed up. We found that they had negotiated with a "man painting his ship" to get organised in his carpark and then manhandle boats down his slippery wooden steps under a couple of slimy ropes and then directly into the harbour. Eight boats came off the trailer, got filled with tons of gear and the car and trailer hidden behind the church. We were on the water before lunchtime in conditions that were more reminiscent of the Mediterranean than what we had expected of the Arctic. You can see the route of the trip on this Eniro Map which shows lots more photos on a Norwegian Nautical chart (and you can switch to aerial photography of a much higher quality than on Google Maps).

Looking four miles across Moskenestraumen to Væroy from the peak above our campsite. Photo: Andy WaddingtonPaddling out into the Vestfjorden, barely a ripple crossed the mirror-flat surface except where a boat was being rocked by the weight of fish being pulled out by a couple just offshore. Always after useful tips, Johnny and Richard watched as a line went down, was jerked about for several seconds, then pulled out with five large Pollack attached. Looked promising ! We paddled on, to find a rocky landing just south of Å, a picturesque village with a short name, where the road system ends. Paddling south, we passed the sites of settlements abandoned in the first half of the twentieth century when motor boats started to make close proximity to the fishing less of a critical factor in the choice of place to live. As we neared the dreaded tide race, we listened for any roar of breaking waves in the overfalls, but conditions remained resolutely mirror-calm under the hot sun. We looked across to Væroy, four miles away across the full width of the world's largest whirlpool, and saw that "biggest" doesn't necessarily mean "most fearsome", at least if you can pick your conditions. There was some tidal flow as we picked our way along the coast, but a sense of anticlimax was definitely in evidence. Round one last bit of rock and we turned into a bay, always out of the flow, to find the shallow water warm and remarkably green. We landed at "Helle", made camp and climbed the adjacent vertiginous mountainlet to get a better view over the sound.

Our understanding of the tides was that passing this point committed us to the west coast, as a current flows north making a return harder. This obviously called for some celebration, and by late evening, we had become quite relaxed. At this point, looking at the map, we realised that we were now but a short distance from a famous cave into which the sun shines directly at midnight in the summer. Immediately, ignoring any thought of ocean current making a return impossible, plans were made for a midnight sun paddle. Richard and Jennie decided to try to walk along the coast, others were still too exhausted by the previous days' travel to contemplate kitting up again, so Pete, Johnny, Rachel and Andy set off into the "sunset" in four boats with three buoyancy aids, oblivious to any risk.

Paddling into the midnight sun, Moskensøya west coast. Photo: Andy Waddington.
Paddling into the midnight sun, Moskensøya west coast

Midnight in the Arctic really is a magic time to paddle, and it didn't take long to reach the bay with the cave by sea. Richard and Jennie fared less well - cliffs prevented much progress on foot along the coast, and we learned that the route by land lay up a huge stone-shoot and down a similar scree-filled gully on the other side, a route used by fishermen's children to reach their school near our campsite, in days gone by. The cave itself really is quite impressive, though we weren't equipped to explore the further reaches where there are supposed to be some remarkable cave paintings. The beach was littered with enough tree trunks and planks for a year's worth of huge bonfires - the result of a Russian freighter having lost its deck load of timber in a storm. Fortunately, the neap tide remained imperceptible and we soon returned safely to our tents.

Paddling through the fog with glimpses of the towering cliffs above. Photo: Andy Waddington.Next morning, the weather surprised us with a sea fog. This meant a bit of paddling on bearings, with the sea apparently flat calm, but the eery sound of surf breaking on an unseen beach to our right. We paused for lunch as the mist started to clear, and made another rocky landing at the foot of a waterfall. Climbing up this brought us to a freshwater lake surrounded by mountains and a view out to banks of fog just offshore. It was just about clear, and heating up again as we set off for the second stretch, past massive granite cliffs and headlands jutting out into the north Atlantic - a potentially intimidating coast to paddle, though very benign in the conditions we had. The days' total of fifteen miles brought us to a beach where conditions were not so perfect. A low pass through the hills concentrates the wind, giving some impressive sand dunes between Yosemite-style granite cliffs. This offshore wind was steepening the slight ocean swell, giving us a surf landing. Picking the easiest spot to land left us no good camping spots, but walking to the cliffs either side revealed little better, so we reluctantly pitched on the sand near the boats. Driftwood was at a premium, and the flames of our small fire were constantly fanned, whilst the midnight sun disappeared behind a massive headland. In the morning, the breeze was no less, and, packing my boat, I suddenly found the sky being blotted out as Pete's still erect tent was snatched from his hands and blown straight at me on its way out to sea. Fortunately, I managed to field this without hang-gliding to Iceland.

Paddling north below a series of imposing headlands. Photo: Johnny Proud.
Paddling north below a series of imposing headlands

The superb mountain and cliff scenery was punctuated by the occasional fish eagle on our days' journey north, but we noticed that a lot of the wildlife tended to get out of sight as rapidly as possible on our approach. Seals didn't hang around to investigate the kayaks as they might at home, but disappeared into the water in haste. We put this down to the Norwegians' propensity to eat anything they could catch - especially anything that might be competing for fish dinners ! We contemplated lunch at one valley, but found the beach rocky and continued to Kvalvika, a bay which I had investigated on foot before the others' arrival. This would have been an excellent campsite, with both the sea and a shallow inland lake for swimming (both tested, though the sea changed Johnny's anatomy for the worse). But it was too early and we were keen to get within spitting distance of an escape route, in case the conditions should turn against us. 14 miles saw us to Mulstoa, a small bay with a nice beach, and one house, whose owners soon appeared. They were not staying overnight and were happy for us to camp, pointing out the good fishing spots in the tide round the offshore islets. This proved an excellent find, and Pollack was on the nights' menu. This was our best campsite for midnight-sun viewing, and the uninterrupted sunshine continued for yet another night.

After midnight from the Mulstoa campsite. Photo: Ann Jones.
After midnight from the Mulstoa campsite

From Mulstoa, the next leg would see us round the most exposed headland and into another tide race to get back to the sheltered side of the Lofotens, but would the ridiculous hot calm weather last ? A slight increase in the level of daylight indicating morning ensued, and no clouds materialised...

Johnny paddling past a tiny lighthouse on a granite skerry north of Mulstoa. Photo: Pete BallAt this point, we had an option to escape through a channel back to the sheltered side, but the continuing windless heat wave made the decision simple. Round the headlands and dotted islands (dodging the occasional manic fishing boat) and across to Ramberg, where we had just enough tide to reach a landing to refill with fresh water, and visit a nice tea shop. More fishing gear was bought and we dragged the boats back to some water for a final exposed section up past Vikten. There was a bit more swell on this section, and another stop on the beach at Vikten was a bit manky owing to the great quantities of comminuted seaweed awash in the surf. There was boulder hopping for those who wanted it (and an awkward boulder landing for anyone who had had too much coffee at Ramberg) before we rounded the northernmost point of Flakstadøya, to start heading into the channel between it and Vestvagøya.

This is supposed to be a serious tide race (I took photos of some quite impressive standing waves here on my drive home), and we were trying to time it to be swept through in an exciting flush. But we couldn't leave it too long if we wanted to make it to a quiet bit of coast in time to camp, and although the current picked up, Napptraumen was hardly a roller-coaster ride. By this time, I had already caught one fish, and whilst I lagged behind the group catching another pollack, and throwing back a rather spiny Gulpin, the others forged ahead to a camp, from where Johnny and Richard both paddled back out, to catch a Codling apiece. Lots of interesting variations on a cooking-over-the-fire theme were tried, finally using some fencing wire to suspend the last fish in the smoke above the embers. We still hadn't found the perfect recipe.

Another sunny night and day, and we were now paddling south in sheltered waters back towards Vestfjorden. This is another stretch of the coast once occupied by settlements, but not very accessible by land until the picturesque fishing village of Nusfjord, much photographed by tourists (try a google search:).

The fishing village of Nusfjord. Photo: Andy Waddington.
The fishing village of Nusfjord

We had lunch on the rocky shore opposite, near a cliff full of nesting kittiwakes. Further south, we found a man who had even more success than us with his fishing, busy pulling big dinners out of a long net tied to the cliffs. Our destination was Sund, where we had arranged to meet up with Paul, Alison and Isobel who would not be paddling. The route lay either side of a large island, three folk one way, and five the other. We established a camp on an island just outside the harbour, but visited for icecreams.

The start of a change in the weather - no wind, but a cold sea mist in patches next day. We set off under the Kåkersundetbrua, photographed by Paul, and headed into another narrow tide race, Sundstraumen, almost like a river in its narrowness and shallowness. But with no wind, excitement still eluded us. This brought us to a large enclosed sea loch, where the mist hung in banks part way up the hills, illuminated by the ever-present sunshine.

Paddling up the inland sea of Selfjorden under banks of mist. Photo: Andy Waddington.
Paddling up the inland sea of Selfjorden under banks of mist

A paddle to the end, a landing and a good thrash through the birch and alder scrub brought us to a lake where several brave fools found the water icy, except Rachel, who thought it was fine ! The mist was still drifting around as we reversed our route back to the same camping spot at Sund.

Clouds and wind greeted us on the final day, and finally a few waves as we paddled south down the east coast of Moskensøya. There are very few landings on this coast, so Johnny was unable to plant his footprints in the large midsummer snowpatch tantalisingly just out of reach on this coast.

Paddling the final section back to Reine in low cloud and a short chop. Photo: Andy Waddington.
Paddling the final section back to Reine in low cloud and a short chop

The unaccustomed chill hurried us along until we turned into the harbour at Reine - possibly the most photographed location in Norway ? We found a jetty to land and treated ourselves to hot snacks, including a couple of whale burgers which some felt obliged to try, just so as to be able to speak from a position of knowledge. Back on the water, it was but a short run back to our original campsite, where I landed, but the carry up proved sufficently difficult that everyone else decided to paddle the extra mile back to the slippery steps in Moskenes harbour.

Paddling out of Reine harbour for the very last leg to Moskens. Photo: Andy Waddington.
Paddling out of Reine harbour for the very last leg to Moskens

A day at leisure on the island, then packed up and off for the flight home for most, and another fifteen hundred mile drive with the trailer for me. Yet more photography in Lofoten and Vesteralen, then poor weather for a lot of the way back, arriving somewhere in the Rondane at 5 am. The morning came clear and a twenty mile round trip walk saw me at the top of the highest peak in the massif, where it proved to be remarkably cold ! Reindeer moss cushioned the last of the descent, leaving me with just a few hundred more miles back to Haugesund and the ferry to Newcastle. A fine holiday. There looks to be some very good white water in Norway too !


Additional notes pages on weather, tides, and route; also a page on trip logistics, noting that the Newcastle ferry no longer runs. On the Additional Notes page, in the drop-down for "Trips elsewhere" choose either "Lofoten" or "Lofoten logistics".

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