Vacation Dreams

For months, the word claimed ownership to weeks on our calendar. It feels like a lifetime ago that Rich and I sat down and plunked “Vacation” on three separate chunks of winter and spring. I knew the drill – if we didn’t dedicate the time early on, we’d fill up the calendar and never get away. But this time it wasn’t being busy that posed a threat.

As Rich’s eyesight issues progressed through the fall, we put our lives on hold. Ordinary outings like going for a walk, having dinner at a restaurant, attending a party all assumed an onerous significance. Could Rich manage it? The future meant later today, maybe tomorrow. Beyond that we could not see. The words languished on the calendar.

As winter’s cold, dry climate and brilliant snow reflections wreaked havoc with Rich’s eyes, we began to ponder the unthinkable. Might we have to become snowbirds? Would Rich have to give up his love of the Northwoods, his hunt for winter owls, and his passion for cross-country skiing to hibernate in a warm and humid climate that was kinder to his eyes? If that’s what it took to regain his eyesight, so be it.

Fortunately, the magic of Rich’s botox treatments turned our world around. With each stride forward, Rich regained aspects of his life he feared were lost forever, and we tenderly ventured to believe we could make plans again. So it was that I deleted late January’s “Vacation” week and replaced it with “Florida.”

Through the generosity of our friends, Arlene and Steve, we spent a glorious sunny week with them in Fort Myers. Rich and I were both there, but had distinctly different experiences.

For me, it was a week of indulging in long walks with Arlene, biking with Arlene and our friend Myra, lapping up the friendships. The constantly sunny days in the 70s salved my winter body. Ventures to Sanibel and Captiva delivered my requisite doses of beach and waves.  Dinners in the company of good friends capped each day.

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling Myra, Arlene and Molly bikers Molly and Rich on Captiva beach Cocktail hour at Arlene and Steves Molly Steve Rich dinner outside at the club

While I reveled in the pure Florida vacation, Rich still faced a series of trials. If Rich’s eye troubles have taught us anything, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted. What the blepharospasm took away from him will take months to regain. Things that used to be second nature, now require conquering anew. His confidence is badly shaken. Even the air travel proved stressful.

On this trip, bicycling posed a major hurdle. Battling fear of failure, Rich took Steve’s bike out for a spin in the safe environs of the development. Hesitant at first, belief dawning gradually, he covered eight miles on the quiet roads. His text to declare success contained four exclamation points, five smiley faces! Over the remainder of the week he expanded his distances, braving the real world, even biking to a birding spot. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to resume our bike touring. For now we celebrate one success at a time.

Ever the birder, Rich researched wildlife preserves and stalked local birds with great success. Perusing his photos each day, I reveled in the beauty – envious of his finds, but fully aware of my lack of patience to find and watch these rarities. Photos would do. Virtually guaranteeing success, Rich lured the three of us out early one morning in search of burrowing owls. Sure enough, we found eight tiny owls perched on their burrows in the vicinity of a ball field in Cape Coral. They weren’t hard to spot – the hovels of this threatened species were cordoned off by plastic piping, their holes marked by wooden crosses. Birding for dummies, perhaps, but they were gosh darn cute.

Burrowing OwlPainted Bunting

Florida may not become our winter home after all, providing the botox keeps up its work. But our sojourn south had many healing benefits.

Merely going on vacation – something so basic, so normal – felt like our re-entry to the world. Rich started to believe again. The future began to stretch out ahead of us once more. And we renamed another Vacation segment on the calendar. Costa Rica, here we come! We might as well dream big.

Farvel Norge

It was an alien feeling. Walking down the jetway in Copenhagen in 81 degrees of sunshine felt like a blast furnace. Just the day before it was 42 degrees when we awoke in the Norwegian Arctic.

Clearly my head was on bike touring when I made my packing list. I brought every layer of warm bike clothes I owned. I didn’t think very clearly about our post-bike adventures in the far north. I looked on with envy at the passengers on Hurtigruten, snug in their quilted jackets, hats and gloves. Thankfully, hunkering down in my layers of cycling clothes was nearly as good. I admit to feeling silly in my sandals. In fact, in four weeks in Norway, where sturdy hiking shoes are the norm, I only saw one other person in sandals besides the two of us. And he was wearing socks. Okay, so I resorted to the same measure of desperation.

Norway and especially its islands are reputed to be wet. After 16 days of cycling in near perfect sunshine and moderate temperatures, I could hardly argue with cloudy skies and a few showers once we were off the bicycles. Our timing was impeccable. I could easily deal with cold and damp from the protected environs of the ship. And after all, it wasn’t too far removed from a typical Duluth summer.

The remoteness and low population density of Norway also reminded me of Northern Minnesota. With one big exception – the mountains. They were everywhere, a constant backdrop to the coastal views, the picturesque fishing villages, the harbor scenes and even sandy beaches. Ranging from towering rocky peaks to softer tundra mounds and sheer cliffs, I never grew tired of them.

We just missed the last day of the midnight sun. But we still had 18 hours of sunlight each day accompanied by near light on each end. Sunsets lingered forever, as the sun reluctantly retreated toward the horizon. On the flip side, the length and quality of my sleep depended on the effectiveness of that night’s blackout curtains.

Breakfast was always included in our lodgings, and consistently meant a breakfast buffet that rarely varied in its offerings. Skipping over the cold fish, meats, cheeses and relishes that are Norwegian staples I’d head straight for the fresh loaves of hearty warm bread, wrapped in a cotton cloth just waiting for me to cut a thick slice or two. A bowl of muesli – not to be confused with granola – soaked with milk and topped with raisins and almonds would hold me long into the afternoon. Sweet options were noticeably absent.

At dinner time I was in my element. As a fish lover married to a solid meat eater, I relished the opportunity to indulge my tastes. I made it a point to order fish every evening, which wasn’t hard given the ubiquitous coastline and fishing industry of Norway. I’m rather proud of my record, eating meat only 4 times for dinner. And three of those were evenings when we had set menus.

If there’s anything I’m looking forward to eating at home, it’s fresh fruits and vegetables. We rarely had them beyond a few offerings at breakfast, and leafy salads as we know them did not exist. Beyond that, I admit to having a hankering for a thick chewy chocolate chip cookie.

Our travels often reveal a favorite drink of the day. This trip we discovered pear cider. Already fans of hard cider, we quickly adapted to this local variation. The cold slightly fizzy brew went down easily after a long day of cycling.  Or just sightseeing.

We certainly never had to worry about being connected. No matter how remote the town or how modest our lodgings, we nearly always had free WiFi. Even on board the ship, it came with our passage.  You won’t find that on any cruise ship!

Norwegians do love their bicycles. City centers were full of them. Kids all ride them to school, just as their parents cycle to work. Bike trails are the norm, both in town where they are shared with pedestrians, and out in the countryside. And colorful bikes posing as flower pots adorn many front yards.

Three flights down and two to go before we reach home. Flicking through my photos I’m already feeling nostalgic. Savoring the memories.  Here’s a favorite.

Farewell Norway!

Making a Trade

It didn’t seem quite like a fair trade. Our two bicycles for an Audi. I felt like we lost on the deal. But it was the right thing to do.

Following our 14 days of touring the Arctic Islands with the Discover Norway Tour we planned four more days of cycling on our own on the mainland. This was more the style of touring we were used to. No more swanky lodgings. No more 3-course dinners. This involved two out-and-back trips to accommodations Rich scouted months ago via the Internet. Roads that he scoped on Google Maps.

The first went off without a hitch. Mostly. Following the coast north from Bodø we cycled quiet roads that skirted the mountains and provided sea views most of the way. We traversed farmland and passed secluded reservoirs. Sheep grazed alongside the road, their bells alerting us to their presence. The lack of traffic made it relaxing, and even the hill climbs seemed milder than anticipated. After taking a ferry to cross a fjord, we had the road nearly to ourselves. The final 33 kilometers dead ended at our lodgings.

The Kjellingfjord Rorbusenter sat on a quiet harbor. Boats bobbed on their moorings, and the whole place was suspended above the water, built on pilings. Our humble rorbu had two sets of bunk beds and a small living area. I spent the afternoon on the deck out front. It felt like the middle of nowhere. Which it was.

Our return trip reversed the route the next day, and being Sunday it was even quieter. Stopping for a break at a beach, we lingered in the warm sunshine. It would prove to be a fatal choice, as we got caught in a sudden torrent of wind and rain before reaching our hotel. The duration was about what we spent at the beach… But we agreed it was worth it.

Despite that success, there were signs that we needed to reconsider our plan. Rich’s sketchy eyesight was taking its toll. Cycling was mentally exhausting. As if in cahoots, his bike had begun to complain. It’s squeaks were amplified that final day of cycling, then accompanied by persistent pinging and intermittent rubbing.

Thankful for a safe journey so far, we chose to end our cycling while that was still true. Our do-it-yourself tours gave us the flexibility to change course. Rich arranged for a rental car, and visibly relaxed. When we retrieved our bikes the next morning to ship them back to Tromsø, Rich’s rear tire was totally flat. It was just the first indication that we had chosen well.

What would have taken us all day on our bicycles required only an hour in the car. So what better way to spend the afternoon than watching swirling water?

We were eager to see the Saltstraumen Maelstrom, which was right on our way. It is acclaimed to be the world’s strongest tidal current. Four times a day when the tide changes, the incoming and outgoing tides battle and create a confluence of rough water and swirling whirlpools. It is caused by water rushing through the narrow opening between two large fjords.

We arrived a couple of hours before the peak of the action. Feeling the warmth of the afternoon sunshine we quickly talked ourselves into having a snack at the the little cafe perched high above the water flow. There we could sit out on the deck and watch the fishermen as well as the growing clash of the tides. It was easy to while away the time, and indeed it was an impressive show. I especially enjoyed watching the seagulls spin around the edges of the whirlpools.

Turning into the drive for the Kjellingstaum Fjordcamp I admit to having my doubts. It was dominated by campers seemingly helter skelter on the unkempt grounds, with a few cabins that had seen better days. The elderly proprietor showed us to a small cabin with bunk beds, a tiny table and chairs and kitchenette – more time worn than quaint. The toilets and shower were located in a building just down the way, he informed us. And the restaurant we thought they had? No, the only food option was at the gas station 5 kilometers back.

First impressions aside, the place turned out to be a gem in its own right. Situated on the edge of a fjord with the tall suspension bridge in the distance, there were ample spots to sit and take in the view. I quickly adopted the big rock as my personal favorite.

Dinner was another adventure. True to his word, the gas station had a food counter. We paid a king’s ransom for fried frozen chicken and fish, with a hearty serving of fries and a bit of greenery. At best we could say we had enough to eat. A trip to the local Coop market scored a box of Musli and milk for breakfast. Let it never be said that our bike touring meals are not memorable. At least we didn’t have to cycle the extra 10k for these!

We returned to find a campfire ablaze on the shore. The chairs were all empty, but soon other campers drifted in and we joined the small group huddled around its heat. Despite the late hour and the fact that the sun had disappeared behind the mountains, it continued to paint the clouds pink and red. A long, lazy process this far north. Gradually the group’s quiet conversations began to knit together and camaraderie grew as we shared our stories around that fire. The kind of experience that can’t be planned.

Driving back to Bodø we acknowledged the obvious. The busy road. The lack of shoulders. The repeating hills. Challenging conditions even for a perfectly sighted cyclist. No room for mistakes. We had indeed made a good trade.

A Sunny Sendoff

When Rich opened the curtains, the morning sunshine that streamed in came as a complete surprise. I assumed the cloud cover had moved in for the duration. I jumped out of bed, eager to see all the scenery that had been hiding for the past two days.

The dock just outside our rorbu was perfectly positioned for some of the iconic views.

Our itinerary said that the road into Reine “has been voted the most picturesque view in Norway.” How could I resist? Rich rolled his eyes when I asked for one more photo.

We had only five kilometers to cycle to Moskenes to catch the ferry to Bodo, on the mainland. It was no hardship to wait for the ferry in the warm sunshine, surrounded by mountains.

When we left port, I stood on the back deck of the ferry to catch my final glimpse of the Lofoten Islands, starting with the harbor views.

It was when we pulled away from shore that I gathered the full impact of the islands. Mountain peaks stretched from left to right. 180 degrees. As far as I could see. Not just a single ridge line, this scene was in 3D. I couldn’t do it justice with my camera, so I just stood to take it all in. Watching the mountain range retreat. A sunny and majestic sendoff.

Rough Riding to Reine

The rain splattered windows frame the gray water of the harbor, reflecting the dull skies above. Flanked by soaring mountains of rock draped in clouds, red buildings trimmed in white line the opposite shore next to long wooden piers. A sturdy fishing boat motors past. I sit in our cosy rorbu, this one refurbished from an original fisherman’s cottage, with rough scarred log walls and a creaky uneven floor. More red buildings surround this one, capped with sod roofs, angled toward the water.

Clearly the weather pattern has changed. After 13 days of near perfect sunshine, yesterday we donned our rain jackets for the first time. We had no choice but to cycle in the rain, as we had a ferry to catch. This was no ordinary transit, it was a bike ferry!

Hidden away down a small lane, the crew members waved us over to board the small wooden fishing trawler. As they lashed our bikes to the front deck, we checked out the boat while awaiting our fellow cyclists, pleased that the rain had stopped. Once they were on board, we were off.

I never gave it a thought. It was a calm day, and only a 45 minute trip. I settled into a plastic chair on the lower deck breathing in the crisp air as we headed out to sea. That right there was the problem. This was not a sheltered trip between islands. It was a journey out and around to the next island. That became apparent as soon as we cleared the breakwater.

The lack of wind was irrelevant. Strong currents and waves coming up from the south created huge swells. The bow crawled up each one and dove down the other side. The railings rose and dipped from side to side. Gamely, I juggled my body to counteract the movement of the boat, certain I could handle it. But the waves won, and the mate gave me a sympathetic look as he brought me a bucket. Which I put to use. When we left the boat, the captain engulfed me in a big bear hug. And I hugged him back.

Despite the misery that gripped my body uncontrollably and left me weak and sweaty, I don’t regret the trip. I just hoped that the eager group of cyclists who boarded for the return trip knew what they were getting into.

We landed in Nusfjord, a fishing village with exceptionally well preserved wooden buildings lining the harbor. It was worth exploring, and walking its perimeter and gingerly climbing up a rocky outlook on the opposite side helped get me back on my feet before mounting my bike again.

Cycling under leaden skies does not invite lingering for photos or exploring. But the remainder of the day remained dry and I did my best to imagine the scenery in better light.

We had several tunnels on that stretch. But the two long ones still had the old road in tact, which made delightful bike trails right on the water’s edge.

It was the last full day of cycling on our tour. I looked forward to staying in Reine, reputed to be in one of the prettiest spots in the Lofoten Islands. Approaching the village, I spotted our rorbu in the distance, pleased with our home for the next two nights. Right on the waterfront. At the foot of a mountain. Where I now contentedly peer out the windows.

Legendary Lofoten

It’s impossible to.plan a trip to Arctic Norway without hearing of Lofoten. Before I could even correctly pronounce the name of this archipelago (luf’ uh tn) I knew of its reputation for spectacular scenery – rugged mountains that drop precipitously into the sea, deep fjords, picturesque fishing villages and isolated beaches. When we chose among our bike tour options, we immediately gravitated to Lofoten for the second half of our trip.

Along with its reputation for beauty naturally comes tourism. It’s popularity overruns the inventory of lodgings we were told, and the main highway would be a busy challenge for cycling. After relishing the unpopulated and scenic wilderness of the islands to the north, we braced ourselves.

July is high season here, followed closely by August. But to our delight the feared crowds have not materialized. By cycling the smaller roads and sticking to the coast, we still have the place to ourselves. Our pace is relaxed. We can dally and soak up the scenery as we go. Since we are on a tour, our lodgings are already secured, our dinner booked. If those commodities are tight, it’s no worry for us.

On our first two nights we got our taste of “rorbu” or fishermen’s cabins.  Tourist hype alludes to these accommodations as rustic and shared, perhaps even privately owned. A throwback to the fishing days, and a way to expand lodging options for this popular area. True life revealed them to be modern copies of said structures. Cabins in name, modern in construction and amenities. Ours had a comfortable living space with kitchen facilities and a bathroom downstairs. Steep ladder like steps led to two attic bedrooms above.  Conceivably one might have to share with strangers, but we were spared that experience. Once I got past legend, accepting the reality wasn’t hard.  And I couldn’t argue with our waterfront location.

This tour is more relaxed than the first. We cover fewer miles per day and we stay two nights in several locations, enabling rest days, day trips or booking other adventures. On our first we cycled to Henningsvaer, a nearby fishing village.

Photos tell the story best, as we work our way down the coastline from island to island and experience legendary Lofoten for ourselves.

Beach activity on a warm day

A rare glimpse of civilization on this stretch

A study in gold

Cycling the narrow edge between mountains and water

Morning calm

An idyllic spot for a picnic lunch

A well earned rest and view at the top of a pass

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.