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Kayaking Norway’s Lofoten Islands

kayaking in norway

In 2008, a friend and I took a trip to Norway’s Lofoten Islands to kayak and tour the countryside. I wrote about the Fram Museum Kayaks in Oslo before, but I’ve never written about the trip itself. I usually write a bit more about the nitty gritty details of my trips, but this time, I’m mainly going to include photos and talk slideshow style, because the trip had its upsides and downside due to the nature of how it was designed by a tour company we hired — we didn’t kayak camp and we sometimes drove to new places to kayak instead of starting at one point and making our way to another point without using cars. The later is more my style.

The Bad

I’ll get the bad out of the way first. We decided to book a tour through a guiding company to handle all the logistics of obtaining kayaking gear and kayaks. Unfortunately, even though the water and air temperatures were low enough to need immersion wear, and even though we were told ahead of the trip that we would get it, it wasn’t provided. My friend forced them to rent him a drysuit, and I used a drytop that my friend brought with him as I didn’t bother to bring anything because we were told it would be provided. One of the owners tried to give us a when-in-the-outdoors-there-are-risks speech, but being a guide and instructor, I didn’t let him succeed. I’m a strong believer in wearing a wetsuit or drysuit when the water temps drop, and there are risks I’ll accept and some that I won’t. In the end, I accepted the risk, because it wasn’t likely that I was going to capsize or miss a roll if I did in the conditions that we were likely to paddle in. I didn’t even do a roll on this trip, which I would have liked to do, because they didn’t provide the gear. It was a bummer.

While the accommodations that the company booked were ideal, I felt like some corners were cut. For example, we had to make our lunches from the breakfast buffet in the places that we stayed. That felt pretty tacky. When we compared the prices of candy bars, granola bars, etc. that the tour company provided with what we found in the stores, we often found that they had purchased the least expensive items. We ate out almost every night, except for one when one of the guides cooked stock fish. We ate lots of fish. I hate fish, especially monk fish… If I were to speculate about why things were done so inexpensively, I’d guess it was because they failed to fill the tour. There were only three participants.

The Map

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The Good

After we got on the ground in the islands, we stayed a few days each in Svolvær, Nusfjord and Reine, although I’m a little unsure for sure about the later. I don’t remember the names as well, because it was driving between the cities and I just tuned out, and I didn’t have a map to watch the progress.

In the towns we stayed in rorbuer, old fisherman huts that were converted to tourist accommodations. The styles of the huts were basic. Usually, rectangular with simple furnishings. The Lofotens have a 1000-year history of cod fishing, and the fishermen would stay in these inexpensive buildings during the season.

After caught, the cod are dried on racks and sold as “stock fish.” To use the stock fish you have to hydrate it in a stew or if you live in Minnesota (or have a holiday in Norway), you can also make lutefisk. You could tell that the area had been used for drying cod for a 1000 years, because the entire islands smelled like fish.

The kayaking was fun, albeit short on mileage. I don’t think we paddled more than 5 miles a day and the pace was leisurely even for a tour. One thing that I noticed, and notice this when I go to the ocean, is that the waves feel different than the waves on the Great Lakes. On the Great Lakes the waves are steeper and shorter period, but on the ocean the waves feel gentle with longer periods and smooth faces. The old Norwegians that settled on the north shore commented on this by calling Lake Superior waves “square.” The science supports this as the less dense fresh water can get steeper than salt water. Our biggest wave day was about 2- to 3-foot, and I remember thinking that I wished that 2- to 3-foot waves on the Great Lakes felt the same. Seldom have I experienced that type of long period gentle waves on the Great Lakes.

Because it was a multi-sport adventure tour, we also helped row a Viking ship and did lots of hiking. I enjoyed both and the hiking really was beautiful, especially a coastal trail from Nusfjord to Nesland, which we hiked one day. On the Viking ship, we couldn’t get the ship moving fast enough, so a small tug pushed around the lake and we pretended to row.

The scenery in the Lofoten Islands is so good that you could drop a camera, have it go off and get a good picture. Three-thousand-foot mountains burst from the ocean and rise in sheer granite cliffs that often come to a summit so pointy that you’d image it topping a Egyptian pyramid. It would be a climbers dream. One day, I sat at the base of one for about 30 minutes just following route after route after route up the rock that seemed just as good as Yosemite in the U.S.

The houses seemed to fit into the landscape in a way that made them feel like they had always been there. Without the white, yellow and red buildings, the landscape would feel empty.

Before we left the island, we took a zodiac tour to caves that contain old paintings from way back in the day. We also went through the legendary maelstrom that was in This is the Sea 2. For dinner before the tour, we ate monk fish, which has to be the worst fish I’ve ever tasted. It immediately upset my stomach and riding on the zodiac was miserable for me for the first part of the trip. After we landed near the cave and I was able to walk around, my stomach calmed down. The ride back was really fun. I’d love to have a zodiac to be able to give shoreline tours with it.

After the tour part of the trip was over, we toured the countryside and my friend found a place to rent kayaks. I was sort of kayaked out after the experience with the tour company, but I’m glad he twisted my arm to get into the kayaks, because it was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip. We kayaked in a Fjord near Flåm. The day was sunny blue, the water was warm and dead calm. The mountains, covered in the greenest green vegetation rose around us on each side to a 1000 feet and waterfalls 100s of feet tall tumbled down the cliffs.

In Retrospect

In retrospect, I learned a bit about myself on this tour. I do much better on trips where I stay active all the time. On this one, we had so much downtime between activities that I started to get bored and restless. I did a lot of walking on my own, read under the all-night-long daylight and just wished that I would have been able to have more flexibility outside of a tour. It’s funny, because I actually guide tours and I don’t feel that way when I’m guiding. I wonder if this is common among guides, that they are better guides than participants.

Norway was amazingly beautiful and I’d go back in a second, but if I were going to do it again, I’d organize the entire trip on my own and spend the time circumnavigating the Lofoten Islands and kayak camping. I’d also take a better camera. Back in 2008, we didn’t have the small mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras that equal the quality of DSLRs, so I took a high-end point-and-shoot, because I didn’t want to deal with my big camera. I just picked up a Sony Nex-6, and it’s amazing quality in a small package. I’d take a m4/3rd, Nex or Nikon V camera if I was going today.

If you have a chance to visit the Lofoten Islands, I highly recommend the area for kayaking. Just be sure that you’re a tour kind of person or that you can mount your own trip.

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  • Bryan, nice article! I enjoyed your perspective as a a guide being a participant. Like you I too would much rather kayak camp than be ferried around by car. Still, glad to hear you had a good time and would go back again.

  • Nice pictures!
    I have never been to Lofoten but it’s on the list.
    Another great area for kayaking in Norway is Helgelandskusten a bit south from Lofoten. We have been there a couple of times and will go there again.

    • I think a circumnavigation would be really fun depending on how rough the north sea was when you did it.

  • Sorry to hear about your “not so good” experiences in Lofoten. I am norwegian, but have never paddled in Lofoten. I think there are a lot of serious guiding companies here in Norway, who are focused on the customers needs and wishes, and who keeps a high focus on safety details, like drysuit (water seldom gets above 6-7 degrees Celsius up there), whistles, PFD, etc, but sadly there are also some companies who are there for the “easy money”, and who haven’t understood the importance of safety.
    At many companies it is not possible to rent kayaks unless you also rent safety equipment (or show your own, and you have to show them a proof of your paddling certification like BCU or similiar (we have a norwegian “wet card” system, which is mostly similar to BCU).
    I have only paddled in northern Norway once, when I spent a week at “Arctic Sea Kayak Race” in Vesteralen a couple of years ago, and had a great week there. You should check out their website and facebook pages (!/pages/Arctic-Sea-Kayak-Race-ASKR/216979528334080?id=216979528334080&sk=photos_stream ). It will be arranged July 21-26 this year.

    Better luck next time!

    • One thing I didn’t mention in the trip report was that the water in Lofoten was actually warmer than the waters I typically paddle on Lake Superior, but it was still cold enough that immersion gear should have been provided by the guiding company. The company that we booked with was an American company running trips in Scandinavia; I have no experience with Norwegian guiding companies there other than the zodiac charter, and the captain of the boat had us wear survival suits.

      As far as the rentals, that’s what we found as well. We had to show our cards to prove that we had the training. They accepted ACA certification.

      In retrospect, I would have rented kayaks and did the trip on my own had I known.

  • Bryan, even with the ups and downs, this trip sounds fantastic. Kayaking and also hiking in Norway has also been on my list for awhile. I have searched out some guided tours before but being vegetarian, I am always a little hesitant to get stuck having to eat what is provided. My brother is a guide as well, however like you he does not do well being in a guided tour without flexibility. I always figured it was because he likes to lead and design his own course as opposed to follow someone else’s. I think it is what makes him a great guide… maybe it is the same for you.

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