Sunday, 25 May 2014

Lofoten Islands, Norway - Insomnia

Sun beating down on the tent. Birds singing. Daylight flooding in under the flysheet. Normally these are cues to get out of bed to start another day of cycling. But here, in the land of the midnight sun, it's often eleven at night or two in the morning when I wake up and look at the watch and the all-day daylight has me day-dreaming of the dark.

There's been plenty of sunshine around since we cycled off the Hurtigruten ferry and cycled into another snowy white arctic landscape where we had one of our strangest camp spots. The land was covered with a metre of fresh snow and the only places cleared were the parking areas in front of holiday cabins. We put our tent up late one day in one of these parking places, thinking nobody would arrive but later a car pulled in and out stepped the owner of the cabin. Luckily he was quite happy for us to be there and wished us a nice evening.

After that, we finally moved south and arrived on Norway's west coast. We're still above the Arctic Circle but here warmer ocean currents are allowing summer to begin to break through the ice. The frozen lakes are melting, the snow line is creeping upwards and the natural world is beginning to take advantage of the very short summer ahead. The people here are also preparing for summer as the small pastures of the little farms along the coast begin to turn green and come alive with lambs. Mind you, people are already preparing the wood for next winter.

Views of snow capped mountains dominate and the sea is our constant companion as we pedal along the winding coastlines and islands. Sometimes it's on our left, next on our right and occasionally above us as we cycle through undersea tunnels. We often see dolphins in the water and sea eagles in the air space. The tunnels are hell for cyclists. Too narrow, too dark, too fume filled and even a small car coming up behind can sound like a freight train.

A few days ago, we cycled onto another ferry that took us to a place l have always dreamed about visiting. Imagine islands where sheer snow-capped mountains rise from the sea, where idyllic brightly-painted fishing villages nestle around bays of aquamarine water and where Atlantic rollers break onto white sand beaches. This is the Lofoten Islands, an unimaginably spectacular archipelago of dramatic rock that stretches west into the ocean off Norway's coast. Small, quiet roads follow the coastline and fjords, and connect sleepy little hamlets. Fishing boats bob in the water and sea birds circle overhead. If it sounds too idyllic, you should also know that there is an ever-present stench of rotting fish as March to May is the fish drying season. Thousands upon thousands of cod are hung in wooden frames along the roads, in the villages and even right above people's front doors.

We'll continue to cycle south down Norway's west coast over the next couple of weeks looking for more beautiful scenery, great cycling and a good night's sleep under the midnight sun. But meantime, I'll leave you with more photos from the lovely Lofoten Islands.

Fact file

Daylight - 24 hours
Distance - 3108 miles
Days - 57
Route - followed E6 south then picked up quiet roads where possible. Ferry to Harstad on Vesteralen islands then another ferry to Lofotens. Cycled down its main road  to end of the idlands at village of A. Lofotens are beautiful and a great cycle but there is a bit of wind and lots of tunnels, many have cycle bypass routes.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Oksfjordhamn, Norway - London, Paris, The Arctic

After two weeks of cycling and camping above the Arctic Circle, Bart and I now consider ourselves to be hardy, polar explorer types but you're probably sitting at home wondering what one wears for cycling in cold Arctic conditions and even if you're not, I'm going to tell you.

Bart is seen here modelling fleece-backed long cycle bibs on top of his bib -style cycling shorts. He's wearing two pairs of long wool socks and Goretex cycling overshoes on his feet to beat the windchill. His upper base layer is a breathable t-shirt and on top of that a Helly Hansen long-sleeved wool top, a softshell fleece-backed jacket and a windproof jacket. On his head he has a Thinsulate-lined Goretex hat with earflaps that's become a bit of a favourite and can be worn with flaps up or down. For cosy hands he has wool mitts with Goretex mitts on top to keep out the wind.

As for me, I'm wearing running leggings with cycle shorts on top and fleece-lined cycle leg-warmers which are a little too big and tend to slide downwards creating unsightly wrinkles. On my feet I'm wearing two pairs of wool socks, neoprene toe covers and Eager waterproof overshoes. My body baselayer is an Icebreaker long-sleeved wool top in girly pink and I've added a thin breathable fleece, a mid-weight hooded fleece and a windproof jacket in an attractive "glacier blue" shade. That co-ordinates nicely with my junior wool buff for a cosy neck which I can pull up over my face in the coldest winds. Cycle glasses are great for sun reflected off the snow or protecting your eyes in a blizzard. I've finished my outfit off with a windproof peaked hat and windproof gloves with silk liners.

Finally, we're both considering growing beards so that we can have icicles dangling from them!

Friday, 16 May 2014

Alta, Norway - The midnight sun

All our lives we learn that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But here at the top of Norway in summer, it doesn't do that. Standstill and it does a 360 degree circle around you. l cycled to the northernmost point of Norway, the North Cape, to see the midnight sun and arrived on the very first date of the year when that's possible. But a late winter delivered blizzards that blocked out the sun and chased Bart and I away from the place. That's how things work out sometimes. But we were grateful to see the Cape on our own terms, looking so dramatic under snow and free of the crowds of summer.

We did experience another midnight sun up near the North Cape - the appropriately named Hurtigruten ferry, the MidnatSol which took us from Honningsvag to Hammerfest on a spectacular journey through snow-covered peaks that plunged into the sea and wintry squalls that engulfed the ship. The ferry enabled us to avoid repeating 100 miles of road and 4 miles of fume-filled undersea tunnel.

As we now cycle south down the fjords of Norway's west coast, we have finally entered midnight sun. It won't set again until August and as Bart is always telling me that he works on solar energy, presumably neither will he!

Fact File
Daylight - 24 hours
Distance - 2719 miles
Days - 48
Route - Hurtigruten ferries service the west coast of Norway. We made a short hop of 5 hours to Hammerfest and started cycling again from there down highway E6 - lots of snow on the high points, not too much traffic. We have 24 hours of daylight for somd dsys now but today is the first official day at our location when the sun doesn't set.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Honningsvag, Norway - 70 degrees north

A bitterly cold wind funnels down from the surrounding mountains and blows successive squalls of heavy snow through the narrow streets of Honningsvag which, at 70 degrees of latitude, is Norway's most northerly town. There are pockets of sunshine between the squalls which cast light over the colourful monopoly houses that are stacked on steep, snow-covered slopes above the busy harbour. We pull hoods over our heads and snuggle into our duvet jackets to brave the weather. It's a day off cycling after making it to the North Cape ... only just!

A few days ago we arrived on Norway's northern shores where big blocks of ice were stranded on the deserted beach, waiting to be refloated by the incoming tide. We cycled north up the long tongue of the fjord, at first in wind and snow showers and latterly in gorgeous sunshine that opened up views of idyllic bays of blue-green water surrounded by snowy peaks where winter-white reindeer grazed at the beach on seaweed. Beautiful though it was, we lingered only briefly on our mission to cycle to the North Cape in a tiny window of good weather.

At three o'clock in the afternoon we set out from our last stop with a sense of urgency to cycle the final 15 miles north of Honningsvag. A small road climbed and fell and climbed again across snow-covered plateaux scoured by strong, bitterly cold winds.  Small sections of road were covered with snow which we passed easily and we excitedly cycled the last few metres to the monument that marks the North Cape on a cliff top at the very top of Europe. We had the place to ourselves - just us on our bikes, the snow, the cold, the wind and the northern seas stretching to a northern horizon.

As we enjoyed our moment, our weather window was closing fast. Winds were picking up and blowing in blizzards and spindrift that covered the road back out. The evening temperature was dropping and turning wet snow to ice. The cycle back out was a real battle with the elements. In the end, I cycled some of the road back but pushed for most of the 15 miles through the snow finally arriving back at ten o'clock at night. And while I'll remember the struggle, I'll also remember the reward in the beautiful northern evening sunshine that briefly broke through and bathed the landscape in light and shadow.

You have to grab your chances when you're 70 degrees north.

More pics on flickr and see blog below for map and stats.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The North Cape, Norway - We made it

Today we made it to the North Cape, through snow and blizzards, to the top of Europe. Full story and pics will follow.

Fact file
Daylight - 24 hours
Distance - 2593 miles
Days - 45
Route - we continued north on highway E6 passing through Lakselv - lots of snow on higher ground and road mostly quiet. Had to cycle through the 7km long Nordkapp Tunnel which descends to 212m below the sea before rising steeply again out the other side - we were happy there was not a lot of traffic. Final 30km to North Cape  were beautiful with steep climbs and lots of snow and wind. Cycle to the Cape was fine but when we headed back the road was clagged in with snow and ice and we had a couple of blizzards.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Karasjok, Norway - There's a moose loose aboot the hoose

"We've had snow here for the last seven months and I'm fed up with it" said the lady in the gas station who'd stopped to chat. We were in the small village of Vuotso in northern Finland which, even in May, was under a foot of fresh snow. Of course the local opinion was at odds with our own view of the snow which had given us a magical journey and an edge of adventure as we cycled through Arctic Finland.

This last week of cycling and camping has been cold and snowy. Vuotso was the only village on a long stretch of empty, winter road. Much of the landscape in this area has been open snow-covered plains, sparsely covered with pine forests. Our brief stop at Vuotso was one of many gas station stops that have become a regular part of our day as a place to eat our picnic lunch warm indoors, heat up with a cup of coffee or pick up groceries, water for cooking and petrol for our camp stove. For local people on remote roads the gas station is also the grocery store, the bar, the cafe, the cinema and the post office. One day we were having coffee in a gas station to escape a heavy snow shower, when a long line of people trooped into a room at the back for an afternoon ballroom dancing lesson.

It's become progressively colder and more snow-covered as we've cycled north through Finland and at times our road has climbed to high, exposed places where the pine forests give way to thin, stunted birch trees. We've camped in temperatures as low as minus 10 and cycled in minus 4. Mostly it's the north wind that adds a bitterly cold edge to the day and we often cycle with numb hands and freezing feet. The hardest things are forcing ourselves out of cosy sleeping bags in the mornings and doing the small fiddly jobs around camp that you need bare hands for such as cooking or washing. I'm talking about washing the pots as we've had few chances to wash ourselves or our clothes since most campgrounds in Finland don't open until June. And so we've often camped in the snow- covered woods, forcing our tent pegs into ground that's still frozen.

It may be cold but on the plus side, we've had spectacularly sunny days and endless blue skies.  The snow sparkles in the crisp, northern light and the trees cast long shadows across the white snow. Every now and then our road crosses the vast, surreal, white plain of a snow- covered, frozen lake. Sometimes cranes are gathered on the ice and whooper swans are cautiously exploring any free water. However, the most magical moment is when we are pedalling along in sunshine and a shower of snowflakes starts to fall gently from the sky.

There have been many highlights to our journey through Finland. We'll never forget the vast blue lakes of the south or cycling through the beautiful winter landscape of the Arctic. And we'll never forget meeting Santa Claus at his Lapland headquarters. It's a horrible tourist trap, deserted at this time of year, with old grey snow scraped back from an ugly car park. We'd agreed that if we could do it for free, we would get a photo of ourselves and our bicycles with Santa Claus. As the place wasn't busy, the man himself duly obliged. It was a silly moment, getting my picture taken with an actor in a Santa costume at a theme park but I have to confess it put into the heart of this 44-year-old woman, a little sprinkle of magic!

We've cycled into Norway now to pedal even further north to mainland Europe's most northerly point, the North Cape. But Finland had one final treat in store for us as we approached the border when two giant moose galloped across the road in front of us and disappeared into the snow-covered woods. It was too fast for a photo but here's one of a reindeer!

More pics on flickr - click on the link.

Fact File

Daylight - 22 hours
Distance - 2408 miles
Days - 42
Route - cycling north from Oulu we picked up national cycle route 4 which looked like it followed the coast but we didnt see the sea until we left the route at Kemi. It ws also disapointing in that it was in a busy highway for much of the way. We turned inland to the city of Rovaniemi and crossed the Arctic Circle 8km further on. We've a straight line north on the main road through Sodankyla, Ivalo and Inari which wasn't our original plan but a forecast for severe weather changed our route. The main road was not too busy and got more quiet. Highest point was 365m. We've crossed into Norway here at Karasjok, the traditional Saami capital. There's still a lot of snow here and very cold temperatures.  More later on the kit we are using to deal with that.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Korvala, Finland - The Arctic

A very exciting day today! Not only did we cycle into the Arctic Circle ...
 ... but we also met Santa Claus at his home in Lappland ... and yes, it is snowing!

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Oulu, Finland - Ice cold in Oulu

It may be May and the sun may be shining but icy cold Arctic winds from the north have turned the season back to winter in northern Finland. As we pedal along, we pass people wrapped up in ski suits and winter coats, and the banks of the rivers out of the sun are still frozen under ice and old snow. We ourselves are encased in several layers to try to keep warm for cycling and camping in snow showers and temperatures below zero.  But as we cycled into the city of Oulu, our hands and feet felt like blocks of ice.

Oulu is an old city, founded in 1605 and sitting on the mouth of the Oulu River as it empties into the cold waters of the Gulf of Bothnia. It's one of the most northern cities of its size in the world. Oulu's history  reached its zenith in the 19th century thanks to trading, mainly in the tar industry. Tar was made from pinewood from the vast inland forests and then shipped down the Oulu River for export.  The Oulu River is a great salmon river and that commodity was also traded. The remains of this history can still be seen today in the old waterfront warehouses that these days house trendy cafes.

Bart and I had several reasons for visiting Oulu. Firstly, we wanted to see some of the Finnish coast to vary our journey from pedalling through the endless pine forests. Secondly, we wanted a rest day off the bicycles. And lastly, given the extreme cold weather with more low temperatures forecast, we wanted to do a bit of shopping to upgrade our clothing and kit before we cycle across the Arctic Circle.

All goals were achieved and we're especially happy with our new ice cold-beating hats.

Fact file
Daylight - 19 hours, 20 minutes
Distance - 1991 miles
Days - 35
Route - north from Kiuruvesi on quiet back roads with not much to see except forests. Followed Oulu River from Muhos to Oulu on the coast to pick up again cycle route 4. Really not been much to see out on the back roads, only the occasional gas station where we get a warming coffee is a highlight. Always good bike paths in towns and cities. Not much charm to the towns and villages in Finland and you wouldn't believe it could be so cold in May.