Å i Lofoten: At the End of the World

Two men at swim in an Arctic landscape

My love affair with Scandinavia began with the Norwegian fjord. I loved the dramatic peaks and drops of those heady mountainsides and the way they plunged into the deep, brackish inlet. Thinking back to my most treasured memories, there is one place above them all: 68 degrees north of the equator, in Norway, is a pelagic paradise, where the land slices into the sea, sharper than the claw of a lynx. Snapshots from Lofoten dangle in my mind’s grotto, forming a dazzling mobile of rosy euphoria and estival gold. It was the very first days of August, 2014. I was twenty-four, and anticipation was the only thing I knew.

I remember the trip almost ending before it ever began. I had run the sprint of my life across the terminal of Zurich Airport, reaching the departure gate with barely a breath (or a minute) to spare. “Boarding completed,” declared the purser to the cabin crew as I sheepishly brought my staggering mass of sweat, tent poles, and loose shoelaces to my seat. Upon touchdown in Oslo, a small Widerøe double-engine propelled us another two hours north to Bodø, a peninsular town in Nordland county and the portal to one of Norway’s traditional and most idyllic islands: Moskenesøya in the Lofoten archipelago.

Map of Bodø and Lofoten in northern Norway

I landed in Bodø in what must have been the late afternoon, but concepts like afternoons and evenings were difficult to keep track of in the Arctic, where the darkest summer nights meant five hours of the brightest twilight, and the sun, even when it set, was never far below the horizon. Every angle of every house and every holm glowed with the charm and crepuscular perfection of an old photograph.

Arctic landscape of holms in an open ocean and wooden houses

At the docks, I learned that the ferry from Bodø to Lofoten had been canceled. One of the motors was malfunctioning and needed to be repaired. The next ferry would be leaving at half past three—the following morning. After all of the rush, excitement, and adrenaline, I felt suddenly empty, the spirit of adventure knocked out of my sails. Resigned to exploring the town and stocking up on supplies, I left the quay for a halfhearted stroll to the nearest grocery store, filling my sack with familiar things I used to eat when I lived in Norway: rosinboller, cinnamon lefser, and the Norwegians’ favorite hiking snack—Kvikk Lunsj. I can’t recall much else from my walk around Bodø, only the inner alertness that I wasn’t where I was meant to be.

I waited out the rest of the night in the ferry building with other stranded backpackers. An Italian, a Spaniard, and an American or Canadian living in Sweden were exchanging experiences and expectations. In the dusky haze, their murmurs mixed with my own thoughts and dreams. The American or Canadian was a biologist, and this was to be her last trip before she packs up her bags and leaves Sweden for good to travel the world. I wondered if I could ever do such a trip. The world…well, that’s a long way to go.

The energy in the building reached a palpitating level as the ferry emerged from the horizon. We jammed our belongings into our bags and boarded the giant purring vessel with drooping eyes that silently screamed for caffeine. But whatever doubt or regret I still harbored about about my trip was immediately dispelled by the roar of the engine. I was on the move again, and Bodø was soon a speck behind us.

“Where are you traveling to?” I asked the biologist while sipping a lukewarm cup of battery-acid coffee. Her name was Allison and she was from Seattle, as it turned out. She was headed to a cottage in the mountains called Munkebu and then continuing northeast. She asked me where I was going

“To Å,” I replied. It was in the opposite direction.

A small fishing village on a mountainous archipelago

The ferry docked in the village of Moskenes in Lofoten. We exchanged contacts and I parted ways with Allison there. She turned right in the direction of Munkebu, while I continued to the left, past the village of Sørvågen, towards the even smaller Tind, and ultimately to Å, an obscure fishing hamlet at the end of road—and the world.

Here was the bridge between civilization and absolute wilderness, where, despite a bare and bountyless landscape, humanity persevered.

I want to say that it was instinct which pulled me to this place, a subconscious longing to reconnect with some primordial beast dwelling inside of me. I felt an old blood surface, yearning to run and shout and swim, to abide by nobody’s rules and to be free from perception and judgement. It was the same longing that first brought me to Norway a decade ago. I was freshly out of high school, and my feet couldn’t carry me far enough from home. I wanted to fling myself somewhere distant, to lose track of everything completely. Europe was the Old Continent, but it was to be my New World. I wanted to give myself a chance to become somebody who I was happy with, and I didn’t think that I could do it in California. So, life for me began again at eighteen in a little Norwegian town called Horten by the Oslofjord.

A landscape featuring a large lake, mountains, and the sea

Past the red wooden fisherman cabins and the empty hjeller where cod and pollock hang through the long winter is the start of the route to Stokkvika. I found myself trailing a pair of German couples, and, together, we trekked along the southern bank of Ågvatnet. I cherished their company as we inched our way inland, through sparse woodlands of white birch and rowan. We emerged onto a stretch of sand on the lake’s western shore, which, as I learned later, was once reserved for raising dairy cattle. Villagers from Å used to row across Ågvatnet twice per day to come and milk the cows grazing here. The couples decided to set up camp nearby, and so we bade our farewells and I pressed on toward the pass of Stokkvikskaret.

The incline was steep, the descent even more brutal, and soon my knees were struggling beneath the weight of my backpack. Every step became a test of concentration and willpower. I grabbed onto a small boulder for anchorage only to have its jagged edges cut into my hand. Looking around, I realized that I was lost in a sea of rock, the path no longer visible amidst a graveyard of granite and gneiss. I was suddenly very wary that nobody could have heard me scream from this side of the mountain, not even the German campers. There wasn’t another living soul for miles around. I stewed in the silence of my own breathing and felt the incredible void of utter insignificance and isolation. I had become a particle so small, a molecule in a maelstrom, unobservable by the lake of Stokkvika.

It was a paradox: I was nobody, and yet at the same time, I was everything—the only person alive.

A green and rocky valley with a dramatic descent into the water

The following day, I retraced my steps back to the sandy milking beach, and there I soaked my aching body in the delightfully tepid freshwater for a long while.

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