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.

Not all Auroras are Equal

We are fortunate to live in northern Minnesota where we can see the Northern Lights when the conditions are right. Over the years, I’ve seen my share of Auroras. The very best was up at our cabin. Late at night, sitting around the campfire, someone looked up and noticed the green glow. We all trooped down to the dock where we had a view of the whole sky. There were rays shooting up from all directions, reaching the apex and waving.  Lying on our backs to watch the performance was awesome.

More commonly, the lights have been a green glow in the North. Sometimes they create spikes that stretch up into the sky.  Others form curtains that hang above the landscape like the display I saw in the Boundary Waters with my son Carl. Each is mesmerizing and special.

With that as my frame of reference, I was unprepared for the Northern Lights in Norway. Sure, I’d seen photographs and tourism posters, but those are unabashedly sensationalized.  I knew the chance of seeing the lights was better there. Pure geography means even weaker displays are visible.  I just hadn’t realized how different they would be.

Our first night we got really lucky.  In the vernacular of the serious Aurora Hunters, there was a “G2 storm” – which means an extraordinary amount of solar magnetic activity.  That translates to a high likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights.

Not only did the lights blanket the sky, but they were exceptionally brilliant and intense.  We didn’t have to look for a green glow.  The whole sky was glowing.  Against that backdrop bright rays shot across the sky, arcing over our heads and extending from horizon to horizon.  It was as if we were witnessing huge electric currents, pulsating and giving off waves of color.  Everything was perfectly aligned to bring us this fine display – location, clear skies, no moon and solar power in the atmosphere.  And boy, was that obvious.Mountain Pass AuroraThe following night, we knew that the solar activity was weaker, so we adjusted our expectations accordingly.  I think we were still harboring a Minnesota frame of reference, because once again we were amazed at what we saw.  This time the lights may not have been as intense, but the sharp streaks were replaced by patterns and movement and the performance lasted much longer.  For about an hour and a half we watched as the lights danced overhead.  They were constantly in motion, creating shapes then morphing into something else.  First active on one side of the ski, then picking up momentum on the other.  My favorite was the circular curtain of lights, waving its folds and draping its colors as it curved.  It was hard to know which way to look, because to view in one direction meant missing something behind me.Mountain Fjord Aurora 1Mountain Fjord Aurora 2Mountain Fjord Aurora 3I have Rich to thank for the photographs of these displays, as that is his specialty.  Often times I feel that the camera overstates what I was able to see with my own eyes.  But on this occasion, I think that the opposite is true.  His photos are quite true to what we saw, yet cannot do justice to the whole experience.  Not even his wide angle lens could capture the full image of what was happening up in the sky.  You had to be there to see it.  I can now fully appreciate the vast beauty of just what the Northern Lights can do.  And it is abundantly clear that not all Auroras are equal.  I’m convinced that we saw some of the best.

True Nordic Skiing

Skis, check. Poles, check. Boots, ski clothes and wax, check. For two avid skiers to visit the home of Nordic skiing in winter, the allure of plying the trails is irresistible. Never mind all the extra baggage required, we're going cross-country skiing in Norway!

Rich waxing our skis

There are plenty of trails to choose from around Tromso, and I select a loop based on the grooming reports – this one has fresh tracks laid just hours ago. Despite the old, dirty snow on the streets of Tromso, just a few kilometers away we find fresh powder. The lane where we park is pure ice – something we have learned is typical here, and we are thankful for the studded tires on our rental car. The sun tries to break through the clouds as Rich waxes our skis, and I feel the excitement build. We are really here, about to ski alongside a fjord.

Molly skiing by the fjord

I hadn't given it much thought, but if you ski away from the water, you're going to go up. Those mountains in the distance are beautiful, but they start right here. So we climb. And climb. The bonus is that we instantly have a wonderful view. The snow gets deeper and the grooming is excellent. At times it is wide enough for skate skiing, in other areas it narrows to a more modest woodland trail. But the firm tracks are a constant. They certainly know their skiing here.

Molly skiing by the lake

This isn't a workout, it's an “experiencial ski” Rich keeps reminding me. I don't need to be told, I have no inclination to hurry. No desire to push. I want to take it all in.

The trail skirts a lake with cabins alongside. We suspect we are skiing on a small road used to access the cabins in summer. However, it is clear that they are used in winter as well – perhaps reached by skis. That becomes my favorite part of the trail, winding through the trees. Scattered modest cabins on one side, lake on the other. Oddly enough, it feels very like Minnesota if I ignore the magnificent mountains.

Rich skiing by the mountains

Off trail the snow is deep and pristine. I am surprised to see numerous deep ski tracks criss-cross its surface, carving out their own back-country ski trails. It looks inviting and adventuresome, but I have no desire to leave the groomer's domain.

Here I can appreciate the silence of this sport. Swishing along the smooth tracks, we see only a couple of other skiers and a few walkers. At first I cringe to see those on foot, but clearly it is accepted here. They know enough to stay off the tracks and their boots barely break the firm surface of the snow.

The temperature is close to freezing, colder as we move inland. It is mild enough to get hot when we climb, cool enough to be chilly on our rapid descent. Our return trip is completed in a fraction of the time it took on the outbound leg. We now have a true Nordic ski experience in the bag. I can't wait to do it again tomorrow.

Sunny ski trail down to the fjord