Paddling the Tromsø Archipelago

The search for an Arctic Eden beneath Norway's midnight sun

Jun 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

The arctic landscape of Norway

Catch a break from the North Wind, paddle 24 miles, and trust the advice of a modern-day Viking named Bent, and we just might make it to Eden. That's the plan as Tim Conlan, the leader of our sea-kayaking expedition, spreads his nautical charts out on the dune grass inside our lavvu, an indigenous Scandinavian tepee. Twig in hand, he sketches the route to a long, sandy beach on the island of Rebbenesøya. There, in a crescent-shaped bay, awaits Eden, or at least that's what Conlan's sailing buddy Bent indicated on the chart. And as we were besieged at our first campsite by voracious sheep, thwarted the next day by a headwind so fierce it took us an hour to paddle a mile, and kept off the water by heavy gusts on our third day, this idyllic campsite—beachfront property, with freshwater streams and majestic ridges—sounds like Valhalla. We agree to an early start (4:30 a.m.) and pray that the wind abates.

We're four days into a ten-day kayak tour through the thousands of mountainous islands west of Tromsø, well above the Arctic Circle and about 1,100 miles north of Oslo. The Tromsø archipelago covers about 450 square miles, and the rugged coast reminds me of the High Sierra, only with the valleys flooded by the sea. The region's wide fetches and channels leave us exposed to the wind, and our progress has been slow. In fact, by the end of the trip we'll have managed only 64 miles of a planned 100. Fortunately, the hilarity of tackling language barriers and debates about everything from polar bears to taxes to Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe will have gelled our international team during the wind-enforced downtime.
Ten of us—four Americans, three Swedes, a German, a Brit, and an Afrikaner-Canadian—signed on for this Nordic ramble with Crossing Latitudes, Conlan's Bozeman, Montana-based guide service. For seven years, Tim and his Swedish business partner and wife, Lena, have led kayak trips south of Tromsø, threading the granite towers of Lofoten and island-hopping the skerries of Vester&3229;len. The Conlans wanted to know what's around the next fjord, so they arranged this exploratory, as outfitters call trips they have yet to complete themselves and run with experienced clients to gauge feasibility.
Aside from paddling, we've played spirited matches of the Viking game kubb (think horseshoes with rocks) and hiked to the top of Haaja, a 1,600-foot peak with a dead-drop to the breakers below. Aside from the sheep incident, our campsites have been untracked, snug in the curve of dunes or perched on low bluffs, and we've taken full advantage of the midnight sun. Last night, sensing a lull after dinner, we hit the water and covered 18 miles between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., all the while reveling in the strange, affecting glow. It may cause insomnia, but the midnight sun sustains you, too, as if you were a plant in bloom. The one thing you don't want to do here is flip your kayak: The water is a frigid 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
It takes about seven hours of paddling over two days to get there, and then, finally, we surf a two-foot break into the deserted beach on Rebbenesøya, and Bent's Eden is, well . . . fallen, but beautiful. Several detonated mines from World War II lie half buried in the dunes. We beachcomb and scramble up the ravines behind camp and drink from snowmelt streams that trickle through mountain birch. Scores of bright forget-me-nots, carnivorous sundews, and budding multe (cloudberries) crowd our feet. Above us, a sea eagle soars.
Conlan concedes he won't rush to add Tromsø to his outfitted trips. Nevertheless, he's considering a second Troms" exploratory trip for 2003, farther north, where the archipelago hides more-secluded coves of glacier-smoothed rock and sun.
Access and Resources:
Crossing Latitudes (800-572-8747, Offers guided kayak trips in Sweden and Norway. Wilderness Center (011-47-77-69-60-02, and the Vesterålen Padleklubb (011-47-776-12-40-73) in Troms" rent kayaks and/or provide transport for put-in and take-out. For relatively inexpensive lodging in Troms", try Ami Hotel bed and Breakfast (doubles, $81-$93 per night; 011-47-77-68-22-08, For information, contact the Norwegian Tourist Bureau (212-885-9700, For backcountry planning, contact the Oslo offices of Den Norske Turistforening, the Norwegian equivalent of the Sierra Club (011-47-22-82-28-00, www.