I watched the sun leave the island to my right, as it passed into shadow beneath an approaching ominous looming black cloud front. We were still paddling in the sun on flat seas as we made a 6km crossing from Kvaloya Island to Senja Island, and I was hoping we would make it at least half way before that dark beast, and the snow that would surely come with it, reached us. Fifteen minutes later, that same island disappeared into the snow that was falling like a curtain from the obsidian sky. Our double kayak still moved along efficiently as Amanda and I paddled, and we remained in the sun as it sparkled on the water around us. We were almost half way to the island when the sun left us to hide behind the slow moving colossus that was darkening the sky, and now us.
It was day two of our spring trip, and already arctic Norway was throwing every bit of weather it had at us. After 10 days of sunny hot weather, we packed up our double kayak and paddled away from the boat we’d been living on at a marina in Tromso. The night before there had been a light snow fall, but it wasn’t until day two that the snow really returned in force, with us waking up in our first camp with our tent covered in snow. And now we had been paddling west, waiting for a chance amongst the snow squalls to cross the large south channel towards Senja Island.
“Ok we have about ten minutes until that snow hits us and we are in a white out, so take a reading from the compass on the bow and keep me on course once it happens,” I inform Amanda who was sitting in the front seat. It was Amanda’s first compass navigation experience, and it was going to be a good one. Fifteen minutes later the snow began to fall, we were half way across, and one minute later we could not see anything but grey water and huge snowflakes falling everywhere. The wind picked up and ran along with the tide to the left. I let Amanda know we’d need to allow for an extra 5 degrees to the right on the compass to help make up for the movement. We plowed on into the nothing, trusting the compass to direct us to land. At this point I was thankful for my Kokatat Gore-Tex Radius dry suit and its ample and roomy adjustable hood as it protected my nose and cheeks from the biting snowy wind.
Thirty minutes later the snowy peaks of Senja Island started to appear through the frozen haze, and as we rounded the NE point and passed down the eastern shore, the sun began to break through again. We were now sheltered from the wind, paddling on sparkling glass water as snow fell shining from the sky. It was a winteresque wonderland. Searching the shoreline for a camp spot, we found a lovely flat snow covered grass patch among some twiggy bushes. Landing on the calm, yet rocky shore, the next task was unloading the boat enough so two of us could lift the heavy craft clear of the high tide line. If it wasn’t for the numbing wet cold on the hands, it probably wouldn’t have been too bad at all. Soon we were able to wipe our hands dry and get them warmish, as we cleared the snow to the ground to pitch the tent. The sun now sparkled upon the water and snow, the wind was no longer blowing, and I regretted not paddling on, though it was a lovely evening to sit in camp.
Sure enough in the morning, the winds swung and we paddled off into a head wind. We were aiming for the town of Finsness that day; I was to give a talk that night on the recent Svalbard World First Sea Kayak expedition my team had achieved last year. We had now paddled three days from Tromso, and thanks to the wind we were not going to make it on time. Thankfully we made it to the nearest road, and Local Kokatat paddler Frode Wiggen was able to come pick us up. The talk that night was small but successful for a little coastal town in Norway.
I had planned to paddle around all of Senja over the next ten days, but we decided to stay with Frode and Wivian for three days and “explore with the locals”. Frode and Wivian have been living on Senja a long time, in fact Wivian was born there. Both of them have paddled the area for years, but it was just last year that they finally paddled around all of Senja, which took seven days. Frode and Wivian are most notable for their stunning kayak images of the area that have been published in magazines all over the world and on their website www.senja365.com.
The next couple of days had us exploring the island, eating great food, and paddling in stunning areas for day trips. Frode and Wivian left us with our double kayak on the central northwest coast of Senja. The west coast of Senja is a stunning place; huge mountains that reach up from the ocean, topped in snow, sheer cliffs that almost lean out to sea as you paddle below them, hidden sand beaches among the thousands of islets, historical and quirky villages, and exotic looking surf beaches. As I gazed around at all this beauty I remember back three years to the first time I paddled here with fellow Kokatat ambassador Jeff Allen. You can read a bit about that trip on his blog www.expeditionpaddler.com. We came to Norway to paddle north in an attempt to get around Nordkapp, but instead choose to paddle twelve days from SommarOya (Summer Island) down to the Lofoten Islands via the outside, which led us to experience five days on the west coast of Senja along the way. A trip I would not forget for its pleasure and beauty. Now I was back and sharing it with Amanda, who had only done one big kayak and camping trip before this.
Amanda was learning about everything quickly, including the trying skills of winter camping. She impressed me with her laughs and smiles on days when the cold wanted to eat your fingers and toes, and all you wanted to do was get dry and inside the tent with a hot chocolate. The last few days had me swapping my Radius SwitchZip dry suit with Amanda, as her suit didn’t have a drop seat, and she’d been having difficulty peeing on shore breaks, even with her shewee/Gogirl. Luckily we fit in the same size suits, and instantly Amanda was all praise about the ease and comfort of the switchzip system when needing to pee while paddling. She also loved the fact that when we got to camp she could just zip off the jacket and leave the pants on; then equipped with her big down jacket for warmth could continue camp chores. I had to agree, that was a favorite feature of mine too! Most of the time, the dry suit pants would not be replaced until right as we got into the tent at the end of the day.
The sun sparkled on crystal clear turquoise waters that lapped upon a coral white beach; a scene thought to be tropical if it wasn’t for the snow capped mountains in the background, and the ever increasing falling snow that was building above the high tide line. We hunkered under our rain fly to cook as the snow front moved in and the sun slowly disappeared. We had it good for about three day with sun, a gentle wind, and good fishing for Cod. We had even been able to sun bathe for a couple of hours, sheltered from the wind. But now the snow and wind were back for a while, though we enjoyed the pace of being in no real rush.
Before long we were presented with good weather again. We pushed on up the coast of Senja, still in no rush, waiting for the light winds which were often in the afternoons, and enjoying about four hours of paddling each day in stunning arctic light. The days were getting longer, and it was now light from 4am to 11pm. No more did we see the northern lights that we loved to watch only 4 weeks ago. The days were long and the beaches stunning, though it was still cold and we were lucky when we had a day that got to 10 degrees Celsius.
Eventually the trip came to an end when we paddled into the community of Summer Island (SommarOya). There we met up with our friend Christian, who was just finishing up a kayak skills course in the area, and was able to transport us back to the boat in Tromso we had left 14 days earlier.
It was day two of our spring trip, and already arctic Norway was throwing every bit of weather it had at us.