Blindsided

The words sent a chill down my spine. “I need you to cycle in front of me so I can follow you over that bridge.” Their meaning was more dire than appeared on the surface.

It was the first morning of this 18-day cycling tour in Norway. We were only a few miles out of town, and riding on a wide protected bike path. The safe and easy riding suddenly took on an aura of danger. As I passed him, Rich confirmed my fears. “I’m having trouble seeing again.”

Rich has been battling dry eyes for months. The problem intensified when he drove a car or did outdoor sports that involved air movement. Between excessive blinking and hazy images, his vision was decidedly impaired. Through lengthy research and trials, he accumulated a vast array of drops, goggles and glasses that helped alleviate the symptoms. He’d been biking through it all and thought he had it licked. That morning proved otherwise.

We made it over the bridge and seven more miles with Rich close on my fender. When the bike trail bike ended we proceeded with dread as cars sped by in close proximity. Fortunately, we were in a remote area of Arctic coastline, so traffic was light. As the day passed, Rich’s vision improved – as inexplicably as it deteriorated – and we completed the day’s cycling safely.

The next morning, Rich’s vision was good. But that was the norm for him. We could only hope it would last. I cycled in the lead once again, keeping a close eye on Rich in my rear view mirror. It was a quiet rural road and I inevitably gained a little distance on him when the road climbed. Going around a curve Rich disappeared from my mirror, so I stopped to wait. And wait. Far longer than it should have taken.

“I took a tumble,” he said when he caught up to me. Again, the words were an understatement. Not seeing clearly, he misjudged the edge of the pavement, ran off onto the dirt and fell into a ditch. He was cycling again, but gingerly. “I bruised my ribs, maybe even a fracture,” he said. It was quite a wake-up call. As bad as it was, images of what could have happened flashed through our minds.

We came up with a new strategy. I cycled behind Rich, forcing us to stay together and allowing me to keep close tabs on him. “Just yell at me if I veer into the road,” Rich requested. “Yell as often as you need. I won’t get mad.” That alone revealed the depth of his fear.

We’re taking this journey one day at a time. Slowing down. Choosing the shortest routes. Taking breaks when needed. Sometimes mental health breaks. “It’s incredibly wearing having to constantly focus on that white line on the edge of the road.” Yikes. Add breaks to see the amazing scenery that surrounds us.

Despite it all, Rich is still enjoying the trip. Norway is all we hoped it would be. Wilderness, coastline and mountains. Good cycling with reasonable distances each day. Accommodations in extraordinary locations. Fresh local fare for every meal. Perhaps most importantly, Rich can still see well enough to take his legendary bird photographs. While standing still.

In short, he’s coping. We’re making it work. Despite being blindsided by this unfortunate twist of fate, we’d still rather be here. Pedaling through this beautiful Arctic countryside. Carefully.

Divide and Conquer

Compromise isn’t always the answer. In the interest of marital harmony, there are times when doing your own thing is the best route to take. This was one of them.

The tour itinerary offered three options for the day. 1) Cycle from Sortland to Storvagan, a distance of 83 kilometers. 2) Add a detour to skirt the northwestern edge of the island, adding 46k. 3) Cycle 28k to Stokmarknes and take the Hurtigruten ferry to Svolvær, then cycle 7k to reach Storvagan.

Anyone who knows me, can easily predict my preference. Being a purist, I wanted to stay on my bicycle, not a ferry. And I hankered to do the full 129k. Still nursing his sore ribs from a tumble early in the trip, Rich sensibly opted for the ferry. I agreed with his choice, I just didn’t want it for myself.

Rich was opposed to me cycling alone. We had limited means of contacting one another, and my mechanical skills with a bicycle are woefully lacking. He had a point. Roadblock.

Salvation came with breakfast. We shared our respective plans for the day with Hector and Alexi, the other couple on our tour while scooping up meusli and slicing fresh warm bread. “We’re going to do the full route with the detour,” they told me. My mind raced and my heart leapt. “Would you mind if I cycled with you?” I asked, holding my breath.

What else could they say? “Not at all,” they replied. And I already knew Hector was capable of changing a flat tire. With a grin on my face and Rich’s support, I rushed to get ready for the longer journey.

Rich and I left together, enjoying the tailwind and waterside route. When I split off with Hector and Alexi, it became a mad dash to catch the short ferry we needed to the next island. We arrived with just five minutes to spare, granting us more time to For our extended route.

Our scenic detour began directly on the other end of the ferry. Instead of the busy main road, we took a small local lane that clung to the water’s edge. It drew us out to the open sea then circled back inland around the perimeter of a fjord. Then repeated the routine. The temperature swung with our location, hot and sunny inland, brisk and cool in the ocean winds.

The whole tenor of the day changed on that road. “We like to stop and take lots of pictures, and see things,” Alexi warned me. They also drifted apart then reconnected as interests and paces dictated. I took their lead and relished the freedom to savor the silence of the countryside, the majesty of the mountains towering over me. Hurry didn’t apply here.

Mid afternoon we cycled out to a small fishing village just off our route. Eating the sandwiches we’d made from the breakfast buffet (standard practice for this tour) on the edge of the harbor, we spied a local coffee shop. It called to us, and we lingered over lattes and cappuccinos and shared a decadent slice of chocolate torte. The sun beat down on our sheltered picnic table, rare warmth on this trip.

Turning inland to complete our detour, we found ourselves surrounded by mountains. Nothing but towering peaks in all directions. I realized they hadn’t given us the elevation profile for this detour, and a niggling feeling invaded my serenity. At first, we followed a fjord, which kept us on the flat. I couldn’t see any kind of mountain pass or road carved into the soaring hillsides. I cycled on, marveling at our lack of altitude gain. So far.

Nature came to our rescue. One fjord ended next to a lake, followed by another lake. Then a fjord originating from the other side. We slid right between all those peaks over delightful rolling hills and smooth pavement that delivered us all the way out to the main road.

Afternoon was waning by the time we approached Svolvær, and we could see the enormous Hurtigruten ship heading for port. Racing it to the terminal, we arrived just as it reached the dock and delivered Rich with his bicycle.

“We went right into the Troll Fjord and spun around in that narrow space!” he reported. I responded with enthusiastic praise for cycling the opposite coast. The seven kilometers to our hotel passed quickly under our tires and we gushed about our respective experiences over a late dinner.

The energy of that evening was as palpable as the tension in the morning. It was the right thing to do. To divide and conquer, reuniting refreshed and fulfilled.

Nordic Hospitality

“My guidelines for running my business came from my two grandmothers.” These words were spoken by Lisbeth, our hostess and owner of Marmelkroken, the small guesthouse where we were staying. I had to know more.

“My mother’s mother always greeted us when we arrived, and waved us off when we left.” Her warmth and hospitality left a lasting impression. Sure enough, although we arrived well ahead of the usual check-in time, she pulled into the drive to welcome us.

“My father’s mother never wasted food.” Our dinner and breakfast were served plated, straight from the kitchen piping hot. Homemade, fresh and cooked to perfection. No breakfast buffet here, but we had milk she collected in a bucket that morning and berries right off the vine. Plentiful, no excess.

We’ve stayed in some pretty swanky digs on this trip, but this quickly became my favorite. We were able to get into our room early, which opened right onto the back deck overlooking the long lawn bordered with wildflowers and a path out to the ocean front. We didn’t waste time finding a comfortable sheltered spot to enjoy the quiet afternoon.

It was warm enough to dine outside, so we eagerly took a table in the fresh air. Like most lodgings on this tour, we had a 3-course dinner included. Sometimes we were left to wonder what would appear on our plates. Not that night. Lisbeth herself came out from the kitchen to recite her menu. Root vegetable soup with cream for our starter along with traditional flatbread. Fresh redfish obtained that day from the local fish dock, homemade pickled onions, puréed green peas and baby potatoes for our main. We had two choices for dessert, but we both went for the traditional boiled pudding with rhubarb sauce. The service was unhurried, and we relaxed with her recommendation for an Austrian white wine (no, not Chardonnay).

The long lingering sunlight drew us down to the water’s edge after dinner. A wooden long boat lay next to the shore, and birds alighted on the pond in the midst of the wildflowers. The verdant green mountain dwarfed our red lodgings.

Facing directly west, the sun set over the ocean that night – about 10:40pm. Snoozing over my book I periodically peered out our window to check its progress. Just over a week ago it would never have dipped below the horizon. I watched the sky turn red after it disappeared, knowing it would rise again in just five hours.

We pedaled off in the morning with a heartfelt farewell from Lisbeth. And I carried away two good life lessons from Bo Norway. Home of unparalleled Nordic hospitality.

Tunnel Etiquette

We interrupt this bike trip to bring you… another tunnel. We’ve cycled through far more long tunnels in three days than we have in all our years of bike touring. Yesterday alone we cycled more than 5 kilometers underground. But it’s a welcome disruption, given the alternative! And we’ve mastered the art of navigating these dark caverns.

First – turn on blinky lights. I have them on my bike, front and rear. And atop my helmet.

Second – Replace sunglasses with regular clear glasses.

Third – Put on headlamp. Oops, I forgot to put it in my panniers…

Fourth – Hit the button to illuminate the sign. “Cyclists in Tunnel”

Fifth – Start pedaling and hope for low traffic. Watch out for the pillars that often mark the edge of the road.

Not all tunnels are created equal. Some are wide, well lit and have good pavement. Others not so much. One tunnel started out fairly bright but degraded to near darkness in the middle. This one was a lot darker than it appears, due to Rich’s flash. But you get the idea.

Our longest tunnel was 2.2k long. One was a constant incline for 1.2k. Anther was downhill all the way. But seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is always a relief!

When there is no sign to warn motorists of our presence, they provide reflector vests for cyclists. There is a receptacle that looks like a post box at each end of the tunnel, to pick up and return the vests. The size XL swamps my body but I wear it anyway. I have a vested interest in staying alive.

Although the whole purpose of tunnels is to avoid going over the mountain pass, it often requires a decent climb, perhaps even involving switchbacks, to reach the entrance. But the payoff is in the views en route. After a grueling ascent, we reached this unique roadside viewpoint, with a 44-meter long curvy platform for ogling the fjord down below. we weren’t the only cyclists stopping there for the view. And the rest.

Not all scenery involves tunnels. I rather enjoyed scrambling over the rocks to get closer to the Devil’s Teeth.

Today we did the unthinkable. We skipped a tunnel and a bridge in favor of the old road over the pass and around the fjord. Even Rich agreed it was well worth the extra effort.

Next time we’re likely to return to our senses and mind our manners, as we pedal through the tunnel.

Reflections atop a fjord

My back toasts in the sun while the ocean breeze cools my face and hands. I sit on a high rocky outcropping, the surrounding hillside covered with scrub grass. Across the way craggy peaks line the fjord for its full length. I know because we cycled its length today, following their majesty shrouded by local clouds. Their sheer sides are carved with narrow vertical crevices resembling dry waterfalls, likely the remnants of ancient glaciers.

Far below, the deep blue waters of the fjord ripple and a small fishing boat races for port leaving behind an ephemeral jet stream. His home is the same as mine tonight. A small fishing village nestled on a bay near the mouth of the fjord. The buildings hug the shoreline, hemmed in by another mountain range behind.

I set out to walk the breakwater, but got diverted. The notice board showed a map of local hikes. The words Peak and View attracted my attention. It was an short easy climb to the top of this rise. And it just invited a stay. For no reason other than to breathe deeply. Reflect. Ponder the beauty.

I hear water falling. The afternoon shadows on the mountainside behind me hide the stream tumbling in a narrow column to the seas below. Soothing. Like the wafts of thin grass bowing to the wind before me.

There is a lot more to bike touring than cycling. This tour in particular has a slower pace. Fewer miles, less time on the bikes. More opportunity to be spontaneous. To follow a sign. Sit high on a peak towering over a Norwegian fjord. To be grateful for the day’s memories.

Waiting for the morning ferry

Rich cycling up another mountain pass

Navigating four tunnels

A picnic lunch by the fjord

Passing through a colorful town

Arctic Perfection

Anticipation is half the fun of taking a vacation. And in dreaming about that upcoming adventure everything is always perfect. The weather, the activities, the food and lodging, the scenery. When bike touring, throw in good roads, little traffic, easy navigation and smooth riding. Today, day one of cycling in Norway, was all of that and more.

Our route took us 62 kilometers from Tromsø to the far outer edge of that region of Arctic islands. Starting off with 22k on a wide bike trail was an unexpected bonus, and a nice way to ease into the ride. That was followed by roads that got narrower the further afield we got, yet cars always made room for us. I couldn’t help but wonder how they could have such good pavement when they have brutal winters like ours.

Most of our biking followed water. First we skirted the outer edges of the islands as we moved from one to another. As long as we were next to the water, it was easy flat riding. Yet we had plenty of mountains to ogle in the distance.

Moving inland, we had a steep climb to get up into a mountain valley. Just like Duluth, as soon as we left the water it got warm! Traveling down the valley the rocky outcroppings were dotted with pools of leftover snow and ice.

At the end of our descent at the far end, we met Nordfjorden. We cycled right on the edge of this fjord where a narrow band of azure blue water followed the shoreline. My favorite part was going all the way down one side and back on the other around a narrow inlet lined with houses and boats bobbing in the water. The tidy colorful houses with steep roofs epitomized my expectations of a Norwegian scene. Even the lawn ornaments complied.

That let to wider sections that eventually opened out to the open sea. The stiff ocean breezes were chilly but invigorating!

Our final stretch took us out to a small island facing the sea. More azure water greeted us in the sheltered areas, along with sandy beaches. It seemed a study in contrasts.

Reaching our lodgings on a quiet cove while still under clear blue skies clinched it. Cycling in Norway was all I’d envisioned it to be. And then some. No matter how the rest of the tour goes, the first day attained perfection.

Red throats in Tromsø

The sun was still high in the sky even after lingering over a late dinner. In a effort to fight our arrival-day jet lag, Rich proposed hiking the steep hillside to Prestvannet, a lake at the highest point in Tromsø. Always up for a good walk I agreed, even knowing he had an ulterior motive.

We could hear the birds before even seeing them. Despite being loons, the wails emanating from their throats bore no resemblance to the yodels I am used to hearing. These were red throated loons. Rare in Minnesota, they have been eluding Rich for years. No longer. At least 30 populated the small lake.

I’m no birder, but I couldn’t help but be captivated by the quirky behavior of these loons. A handful would swarm, rear up then forge ahead as if in a race, their bodies skimming the water with beaks pivoting. All the while, emitting what Cornell Ornithologists call a prehistoric “gayorworrk” sound. Meanwhile, their cohorts around the lake chimed in with a chorus of cries that sounded like kittens mewing. Then it would all stop. And repeat.

It was entertaining enough that I followed Rich up the hill again in this morning for a repeat performance. With the warm sun on my back and dappling the quiet water, it was all the more pleasant. And this time I could truly see those red throats. With better light for photography, Rich was in his element. Even I pointed my camera at these exotic specimens.

Want to hear the cacophony? Rich captured it well in this video.

It was an unexpected way to spend a chunk of our time in Tromsø, but it didn’t keep me from meandering the rest of the city. Last time we were here was in the dead of winter, when we came to chase the northern lights and go cross-country skiing. I enjoyed the contrast with flowers blooming, long hours of sunshine and the relative warmth. Ok, so the high was in the mid-50s today. Sort of like a Duluth summer day.

The harbor is always a favorite.

I love the colorful buildings.

We are staying right across from the Tromsø Cathedral.

A mix of the old and new. Tromsø’s starkly modern library stands in the middle of the quaint shopping district, with the Arctic Cathedral across the harbor in the background.

It was well worth planning a recovery day in Tromsø. We figured we’d need the time to sort ourselves out, get some rest and do a bit of sightseeing. We just didn’t count on the red throats. They turned out to be the highlight of the day. Who knows what we might find tomorrow, when we pick up our rental bikes and start out Arctic Islands Cycling Tour.

A Dramatic Departure

Norway Flag LogoNorway, here we come!  Our next cycling tour adventure will take us above the Arctic Circle through the coastal islands of northern Norway.  We’re calling this one the Arctic Islands Cycling Tour.  But the destination is not the only unique aspect of this tour.

First, we are traveling in prime tourist season.  In the Arctic, there is a limited window between snow melt and the onset of winter.  If we wanted to see the beauty of this land, it had to be in July or August.

Next we discovered that the rest of the world wants to be there at the same time for the same reason, and accommodations are scarce.

It was time to call in the experts.  For the first time in our cycle touring history we are handing the reins over to someone else.  Rather than traveling as a self-supported duo, we booked two back-to-back cycling tours with Discover-Norway.

The appeal of these tours is that they are self-guided.  Each day we will be handed our itinerary and we are on our own to make our way to the evening’s lodgings.  Most of our meals are included.  Oh, and our bags will be there waiting for us when we arrive.  We only need carry extra clothing layers and the day’s supplies in our panniers.  Sweet!

Speaking of bikes, they are providing those as well.  After some minor trauma taking our own bikes to Scotland, we opted to rent bikes for this trip – one small, one large.  Heck, we even bought off-the-shelf Norway cycling jerseys instead of designing our own.

I have no idea who our fellow cyclists will be, or even how many of them we’ll have.  But I rather like the idea of swapping stories with them at the end of each day.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for me will be adapting to the pace of this tour.  I have to get into my vacation mode.  My sightseeing and stop to smell the flowers mindset.  Our daily mileages range from a measly 10 miles to 37 miles.  This isn’t about racking up the distances, it’s about taking in the scenery and experiencing life on these coastal islands.  I’m expecting the views to work their magic on me.

Norway area of tour

All this takes place above the Arctic Circle.  We start in Tromso and work our way out to the barrier islands, using ferries where necessary.  The Arctic Coast Tour tour lasts eight days, taking us to Svolvaer.  From there we immediately join the Lofoten Islands Tour for another six days.  That takes us down to the very tip of that archipelago, where we ferry to Bodo on the mainland.

For the next four days, we have Norway Tour Mapadded two out-and-back side trips on our own – mini adventures more in our usual style of cycle touring.  Just to remind us what it’s like.  And believe me, Rich booked those lodgings months ago.

Our finale will be hopping aboard the Hurtigruten Ferry, a near-cruise-ship vessel that hugs the coastline.  After four days of close-up shoreline views it will deliver us to Kirkenes, just miles from the border with Russia.  The end of the line for the ship.  A dramatic ending to our tour.