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.

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.

In the 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.

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

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.

Million Dollar Views

We arrived in Durango, Colorado by pure happenstance two years ago.  Today’s return was very deliberate.  On our last visit, we took a short drive on the Million Dollar Highway, a 70-mile stretch through the Rocky Mountains with hairpin curves surrounded by snowy peaks in all directions.  We vowed to return to complete the journey.

We were selective about our plans.  For days we monitored the weather reports, only intending to make the drive if we had a clear sunny day.  Luck was with us, and with the promise of good weather we booked our room at the Adventure Inn once again.

Over dinner last night, we eagerly shared our plans with our waiter.  “You know, that road’s only been open for 4 or 5 days,” he said.  It never occurred to us to check the snow conditions.  At breakfast this morning, motel owner Nigel showed us videos of the double avalanche that blocked the road between Silverton and Ouray.  Two massive columns of snow blew down the mountainside, taking trees and boulders down with it as it ripped through the forest.  Crossing the road, it filled the 150-foot canyon below and “splashed” up the opposite side.  Leaving 60 feet of debris-filled snow on a lengthy stretch of the highway in the Red Mountain Pass, it took highway crews 20 days to reopen the road.  Little did we know.

Today we drove that highway under blue skies on perfectly dry pavement.  We had learned that they had record snowfalls this winter, topping 360 inches.  It was still very much in evidence even on this April day.  With each turn of the road, we had more snowy peaks to admire.  At our elevation, the snow was pristine with only a few snowmobile and ski tracks crossing its silky mounds.  Occasionally I could make out curvy trails through the mountainsides, evidence of some intrepid skiers enjoying pure powder.

Million Dollar Highway 1 Million Dollar Highway 2 Million Dollar Highway 3 Million Dollar Highway 4 Million Dollar Highway 5

The wintry journey from Durango to Ouray was well worth the return trip.  With the avalanche video replaying in my mind, I had renewed respect for the seemingly pastoral scenes passing outside my car window.  Million dollar views indeed.