Dancing with the Midnight Sun
Finding the perfect destination wasn’t easy. We’d considered the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Svalbard, but it was the Norwegian islands north of Tromsø that captured our attention. We knew a 15-day, self-supported SUP journey around the islands of Rebbenesøya, Grøtøya and Nordkvaløyac wasn’t going to be easy, but we never could have imagined just how rewarding it would be.
The water is cold in the 70th Parallel, far into the Arctic Circle, the days are never-ending and the adventure is pumped up to max. Our SUP experience so far is limited to the lakes of Switzerland, but Norway takes it up a notch. To paddle the open ocean, standing on our own inflatable island of just three metres by one, with our gear strapped to the board, raises several unknowns. Are we going to sink or get blown away? Will paddling be so difficult that we can’t make progress?
As our SUPs hit the near-freezing water on day one, a feeling of unease runs our nerves a little ragged. The weather plays a critical role, but thankfully we’re blessed with calm seas, a gentle breeze and warming sunshine. It’s a chance to get a feel for the boards loaded with food, camping gear, clothes and photography equipment.
In the beginning, we monitor the weather closely, using apps that are updated hourly and pinpoint our exact location. Our days are filled with riding the ocean swell as it rises and falls. Hours pass as we stare at the blue-hued mountains approaching in the distance and the physical challenge becomes draining, but there is no chance to stop. We are surrounded by water, which holds no mercy for surrender. We have no choice but to paddle on.
Occasionally, we check our phones for reception. If the weather is going to change we need to be vigilant, otherwise we could be in danger of getting blown out to sea. SUPs don’t handle wind very well and it doesn’t take much of a headwind to stop progress. If it really turns nasty and starts blowing offshore, our closest landmass is Greenland, 1500 kilometres away – if we’re lucky.
It’s not all weather-watching, though. On a trip as long as this, we have many hours to immerse ourselves in the surrounding nature. The commotion of the city fades behind us and it’s replaced by the sounds of Mother Nature. Even when the waves aren’t lapping against the board and stillness takes over, there is always a far-off cry of a bird or gentle splash. When the seas grow rough, nature amps up the volume as if to tell us it’s time to be aware.
The midnight sun is elusive. As evening falls, the clouds stretch their way across the horizon, creating an impenetrable wall for the ball of light. Sure, our evening is clear, but the shy sun disappointingly hides behind the clouds. We still have 15 days ahead of us, and nature heeds no call to a wish.
Surrounding us is the rugged Norwegian landscape, shaped by the winter winds. The cliffs are dark and powerful, and their jagged edges drop vertically to the sea. It’s as intimidating as it is mesmerising. We realise, at this moment, we are weak in the face of such power and so small in these surroundings. This landscape is certainly delivering the adventure we sought.
Although we’re paddling around three main islands, there are hundreds of smaller ones, too tiny to earn a mention on our maps, scattered like shells on a beach. They seem to huddle together as if seeking protection and draw us nearer as we seek the same. Most of the islands are low-lying, free of trees and surrounded by rocks with the odd sandy cove to entice the weary traveller. The flowers on the islands know this is their chance too. They have been dormant, covered in a blanket of snow so thick and suffocating it seemed almost unlikely they would ever see light again. But their blues, yellows and purples now cluster low, escaping the fierce winds of the Norwegian Sea. Waking each morning to a field of beautiful colour heightens our senses and excites our spirit.
Camping reveals the beautiful coves, islands and rocky outcrops, and there’s not a person in sight. Being on SUPs allows us to move close to the shore to find the best spots to pitch a tent for the night. Once we tie down our boards together to ensure they aren’t blown away in our sleep, we turn to dinner. Norway is famous for its fishing and marine life, but unfortunately for us, fish swim in abundance during winter, while at this time of year, in the summer months, there’s just the occasional small cod to be caught. We feast on mussels at low tide and eat fish most nights, supplemented by our dehydrated packaged food.
As we approach the end of our first week, the weather ups its intensity and slows our progress. The calm seas and blue skies pass, but we are racing a deadline and need to keep pushing – hunkering down in our tents for a week while we wait for the winds to pass would create a problem down the track. They are so strong it feels as if we are barely moving and, at one point, we end up kilometres away from our destination. Doubts start to creep into our minds and while we are comfortable on the boards, we start to see the wind as the enemy. Our arms begin to tire and our minds are just as exhausted, constantly reminding us to beware of ending up in Greenland.
The weather is unforgiving, and as the days pass, it grows more and more dangerous, forcing us into a two-day layover. We make the most of the opportunity and explore the inner islands, swapping our paddles for hiking boots. As we reach the top of cliffs, we’re rewarded with the most spectacular view of Norway. The wind whips the grass, as if trying to pull its roots from the soil and our breath is almost entirely stolen, due to a combination of the hike, the wind’s ferocity and the view before us. As we maintain a healthy distance from the edge of the cliff for fear of the wind toppling us over, deep menacing clouds present themselves on the horizon, threatening to dump their freezing water within minutes. We watch on as the sun pokes its way through, shining its hopefulness, before being suffocated by the next grey mass in what seemed like a never-ending game of peek-a-boo.
Of all the land masses that cross our paths, it is the small island of Sørfugløya that really inspires. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in grandeur. It is dark and powerful, and has us spellbound with its vertical walls rising from watery depths. The sun’s rays expose the cliff’s scars from years of heavy winter winds. Its pyramid silhouette shimmers against the backdrop of the evening sky like a mirage. As it’s a bird sanctuary, camping is prohibited on the island and it seems almost lost in the space between the waves. We have made it to the westernmost point of our trip and, as we continue, Sørfugløya becomes the backdrop of many of our photos and keeps us company in our tiresome paddles.
When calm finally sets in again after days of storms, we have to make up for the lost time. We paddle hard, our bodies yearning for rest and our food supplies running short. Often our thoughts drift with the Arctic terns as they skim the swells synchronised to the ocean’s peaks and troughs. One could watch these amazing birds for days. They are the ultimate travellers, covering more than 64,000 kilometres each year as they travel from pole to pole.
Throughout history, the Norwegian Arctic region has played a special part in polar expeditions. Amundsen, like the Arctic terns above, also undertook a famous journey from the northern Arctic to be the first to the South Pole. His travels are admired, documented and made legend.
We came to the Arctic with less ambition, but a similar fascination about experiencing life under the midnight sun and feeling 24-hour daylight. It isn’t until our last day that the weather decides to take our side. As our aching bodies paddle towards our final destination, aching for relief, the blue sky pushes through the clouds as if drawing a curtain to make way for the sun. Nature was finally granting us our wish.
Qatar Airways flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Oslo via Doha. Its code-share partner Scandinavian Airlines continues the journey to Tromsø.
The Scandic Ishavshotel is located centrally in Tromsø, right on the waterfront, and offers one of the best breakfast buffets in town.
Due to its geographic location within the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is both a winter and summer destination. It’s one of the main viewing areas for the northern lights, but in summer the 24-hour daylight allows around-the-clock exploring including hiking, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, fishing and the chance to spot some of the amazing wildlife on offer. The group on this trip was from PlanetVisible, a photography collective working out of Zurich, Switzerland.
Words Justin Hession
Photos Justin Hession