Alaska – Canoeing to the Bering Sea
»Big River« is what the Athabascan Indians call the Yukon. It’s one of the mightiest rivers on the planet. In this episode, Dirk Rohrbach travels the river all the way to the Bering Sea in a self-made canoe.
At last we settle down in the comfortable compartment of the Bergensbanen. This legendary stretch of railway connects the Norwegian capital of Oslo with the second-largest city in the kingdom, which is in the mountains on the west coast. Only a few hours by train separate us from the peace and quiet we’re longing for. Slowly the train sets off, disappearing into a nearly fourteen-kilometre-long tunnel that will lead us out of the city centre. The landscape changes rapidly. The stations and cities along the track get smaller and smaller, the distance between the stopping-points correspondingly bigger.
Before long we’re swaying leisurely past the lakes and rivers that flow towards the sea from the north, and which will accompany us for a good long while. We enjoy the view from the window, the typically Norwegian red houses with their contrasting white windows now the main feature of the countryside. I keep gazing in admiration at the farmhouses, many of which are enthroned high above the valley. The Norwegians are clever folk; up there the winters were more easily borne, there was more daylight, and the cold during the long winters always gathered at the bottom of the valley. That meant it didn’t get as freezing in those houses, during a period when this large country with a small population still didn’t dare quite believe in the prosperity it had already attained.
Time seems to slow down, the hands on our watches appearing to tick less quickly.
It’s mid-October, and here in the north dusk arrives in the afternoon. The train puffs slowly but surely out of the valley – you can almost hear the engine wheezing. By now it’s dark outside; only small railway stations offer a clue as to where we are.
We’re a bit on edge. Most likely we’ll be the only nutters to get out at the highest train station in Northern Europe – 1,222 metres above sea level – in the tiny mountain village of Finse.
It seems improbable that any of our fellow travellers would willingly swap the comfortable warmth of our snug, swaying train carriage for the cold darkness outside. But that’s exactly where we’re headed, out into the cold loneliness of the late-autumnal fjelds, on the merciless Hardangervidda plateau, for which we have enormous respect.
We’re seeking silence in order to find ourselves.
October isn’t really the ideal month to stride out into the Norwegian mountains. The weather, changeable even in summer, can be downright unpleasant at this time of year. From full-blown snowstorms to severe cold, anything could be in store for us, quickly turning a hike into a march into disaster.
A minor risk relative to the prospect of adventure.
If we’re lucky, what’s awaiting us is ice-cold, crisp air, bright sunshine and long, cosy nights snuggled up in warm sleeping bags in a tent. We’re planning to hike around the 73-square-metre Hardangerjøkulen glacier – a minor risk relative to the prospect of an honest-to-goodness adventure.
If conditions are good, the trip will be a relaxed hike of around seventy to eighty kilometres, for which we’ve got a total of eight days. ‘We’ being Martin, Chris and I – three lads who absolutely love being out and about in the fresh air.
The train glides softly out of the final station before our stopping-point in Finse. Around the popular winter-sports destination of Geilo you can see plenty of dense pines and bare birches in the glow of the lamps and lights in the small town. But further up, on the largest plateau in Northern Europe, Hardangervidda, rocks, moose and lichen dominate the landscape. The ticket inspector gives us a rather sympathetic look as we pack up our large rucksacks – ready for the first step into adventure. Slowly the train pulls into Finse. Well wrapped-up, we stand at the door, which opens for us a moment later with a soft farewell squeak. Ice-cold air. We hesitate briefly, but then step out onto the completely empty platform.
Finse doesn’t have much more than a hotel, a few houses and the little train station.
Welcome to adventure, where nature is vast and man very small.
Adventure mode engaged! With headlamps strapped to our foreheads, we set off into the darkness. Today we’re going to walk to one of the small cabins in the foothills of the glacier. From there we’ll be ideally situated to scale and cross the glacier tomorrow, and the weather forecast promises perfect conditions for it. We could always set up camp somewhere near the railway station, but then we probably wouldn’t make it over the glacier tomorrow.
It’s only a kilometre or two to the little cabins. In daylight and in good conditions it would be no more than an hour’s hike, but now, in the darkness and driving snow, things are a little more dicey. We find the right hiking path and follow it around the large Lake Finse. Slowly the final lights of the houses in Finse vanish behind us, and from now on we’ve got to rely totally on the skills we’ve acquired over years of trips like this. Since it’s dark and the snow is covering the landscape like a light dusting of sugar, it’s difficult to make out the signposts that are supposed to point us the right way. These small markers are usually stones or piles of stones daubed with a red ‘T’. The ‘T’ stands for the Norwegian Walking Association’s ‘Turistforeningen’, and even in summer they’re not very easy to spot among the rocks. Every couple of yards we pause and do a thorough scan of our surroundings, making sure we find the markers in the gloom. Sometimes we simply have to guess and hope for the best.
Two hours later we see a small cabin clinging to the slope like a shoebox a little way above us. It must be the Appelsinhytta. Relieved, we climb the last few metres to our home. The long day’s journey and the concentration required to follow the path have taken their toll, and by now we’re pretty tired. Opening the creaky door, we finally arrive: into a world where we often feel much better than at home.
Finally on the trail again, finally back to glass-clear air. And finally back to the silence so familiar to us, the silence in which we feel so infinitely safe.
The night in the small unheated cabin was cosy despite the cold. Gradually, as if in slow motion, we begin the day. First we’ve got to get used to the fact that there’s no heating and no electricity here – and none of the other creature comforts we take for granted every day back home.
After breakfast and a chilly morning wash we set off towards the glacier, as the early-morning mists slowly clear and the first rays of sunshine break through to the icy, snow-covered ground. Luckily the weather seems to be cooperating. We’ve soon scaled the first few elevation metres, and find ourselves standing on the end moraine of the Middalen glacier’s snout. We strap our lightweight crampons to our shoes. The climb goes like clockwork, and the weather is showing us its good side. We take a long break at one of the small cabins. The tiny Jøkulhytta is perched at nearly 1,800 metres above sea level, defying the icy storms. It’s a truly gorgeous place, but we’ve got to move on: we’re still intending to cross the glacier today, heading northwest.
Not long afterwards we feel like we’re on the icy planet Hoth, the rebels’ temporary base in Star Wars.
I’m finally in the fascinatingly silent northern world I’ve been craving.
* * *
It’s pretty cold in the small Ramnaberg cabin when we emerge from our cosy sleeping bags on the morning of our third day. It takes some effort crawling out of the snug downy nests and beginning the day. First we light the stove and put on long johns and thick socks. Then out come the woolly hats. The temperature has dropped sharply overnight.
With the stove roaring away, the cheerful warmth gradually spreads, and it’s not long before we’re sitting comfortably at the table, steaming cups of tea in front of us. We’re soon discussing the previous day’s experiences; none of us has ever experienced anything like that in Norway before. We’ll all carry that spectacular trek in our memories for a long time – how often do you get to walk across one of Norway’s biggest glaciers in October in gloriously sunny weather?
By now it’s so hot in the cabin that the window are fogging up. Over muesli and coffee we unfold the map and discuss our plans for the day. We’re going to head for an isolated cabin directly on the glacier, which is only a few kilometres as the crow flies and offers a magnificent view of Hardangerjøkulen’s escarpment. By a direct route and without any elevation, getting there would probably take no more than two hours, but we’ve got to find our own way across the terrain. There are no longer any markers. They were removed a few years ago because the path was considered too dangerous for inexperienced hikers.
After breakfast we stand outside the cabin and brush our teeth. If only my bathroom at home had a view like this, that would be awesome!
Around us, the sun creeps above the mountains. The first few days of a trip like this are usually the toughest, as it takes a while for you to get re-accustomed to the exertion involved.
We pack our belongings and tidy up the cabin. Another couple of snapshots and we’re off again.
First we climb over a large stretch of snow, down into a narrow valley filled with glacial ice. The sun accompanies us as we descend, while the slippery rocks sticking out of the snow here and there prove a challenge. Meltwater makes it possible for black algae to find purchase on the stone, and anybody who goes hiking in the north knows that this algae turns rocks into an incredibly slippery slide.
Very gingerly we climb down into a landscape that catapults us straight onto another planet. The glacier has carved deep gullies into the craggy rocks, and we have to pick our way carefully further downhill over wide snow fields and brittle chimneys.
In the mountains around us dank fog gathers into a grey blanket of clouds, the sun disappears and we draw our hats more tightly round our faces. On top of everything else, it now starts to drizzle. But that’s ok: we want to immerse ourselves in the staggering power of nature. We’re not chasing records or trying for a first ascent of these rugged cliffs; no, this trip is about experiencing nature, pure and unfiltered. So we don’t let this gloomy weather spoil our mood.
Shouldering our rucksacks, it’s not long before we bump into three hikers coming in the opposite direction. We could hardly make them out from a distance, but now they’re standing in front of us, telling us that one of the Norwegian Hiking Association’s most beautiful cabins is in store for us. Full of anticipation at this prospect, we say goodbye and begin to round the eastern side of two lakes, Øvre and Midtre Demmevatnet.
The shore here is much flatter than we’d thought, and we traverse the broad gravel banks with no problem. We leave the basin and its lakes via an enormous snow field that leads us towards the glacier. Over wet rocks and smaller snow fields our path continues; we briefly head the wrong way and are rewarded with raised pulses and an exciting climb down to a stream.
More adventure than anticipated!
After crossing the stream via slippery slabs of rock, we climb up a steep cliff. We’ve got no idea where the old path is taking us, but we follow the few faded markers we can see. The valley opens up now: far beneath us is another lake, Nedre Demmevatnet, into which the glacier is calving at the end of the valley. What a fabulous view!
I have arrived.
* * *
The tiny Demmevasshytta cabin is huddled on a ledge in the evening twilight, somewhere above the snout of the Rembesdalskåka glacier. The location could hardly be more spectacular: on one side you get a sweeping view of the whole snout, which a few decades ago reached almost to the cabin, while on the other side is the expanse of the valley. Beyond that, in the far distance, you can just make out the fjord. A marvellous spot!
As expected, there’s no one else around. We open the cabin, which has been perched here for more than a hundred years. It’s undergone repeated but modest renovations, and its cosy decor lends it a rough charm. After locating a source of water, we’ve soon got hot coffee on the table. We get settled in and light a fire in the cast-iron stove.
A little while later we explore the surroundings. We all set off alone on a mini expedition, each of us wanting to enjoy the peace and quiet by ourselves. One rather special discovery is the small outdoor privy about thirty metres from the cabin. It’s built out of small rough lumps of rock and offers the most amazing view you can imagine from a toilet in the Norwegian fjelds.
The next day we explore our surroundings together, then spend hours sitting in the comfortable room, chatting about God and the world or reading a book. In this remote cabin, we can retreat from the hubbub and noise that assails us every day back home.
After a thoroughly relaxing day’s rest, we set off once more.
With heavy hearts we take our leave, throwing a final glance over our shoulders as we scramble down steep ledges of rock to the glacier. We’ve got to cross it again, in order to continue our circumnavigation.
Deep cracks split the deep-blue ice, turning it into a maze, and it takes an effort to find the right path. How old is the ice creaking beneath our feet, we wonder?
Crossing a steep slope, we’re now moving away from the glacier. Instead we’ve got to navigate large, rugged rocks. We manage to overcome these obstacles with a minimum of swearing, and immediately find ourselves several hundred metres above the glacier’s snout, which now lies magnificently in the shadow of the glacier.
The terrain here is very different from before. Wide, grassy expanses of fjeld provide a backdrop to the craggy rocks, which are scattered around as if a giant has been using them like over-sized Lego pieces in some children’s game.
The landscape is shot through with softly gurgling streams of clear, ice-cold water. A number of the small pools along our pathless route are covered with the first ice of the year, and at night the temperature is perceptibly lower.
Over the following days the landscape becomes increasingly varied. We can hardly believe how diverse the area is. Sometimes we’re faced with green, terrace-like expanses, sometimes the ground is littered with flat slabs of stone, and on other days we trudge through broad, boggy terrain.
Time and again, glaciers topple spectacularly into the deep, narrow valleys, which the meltwater has worn out of the rock over thousands of years like gigantic, frozen waves.
To end our hike we want to climb the glacier one more time. Right at the top, at the very highest point, the Norwegians have built a small cabin, to which we made a brief detour on the second day. The cabin serves as a place for winter hikers to find rest and refuge. It’s not especially big, consisting only of one room and a little oven, but there’s enough space for three people to spend the night. Our goal for today is perched high up on a narrow band of rock surrounded by the eternal ice of Hardangerjøkulen.
Reaching the cabin, we make ourselves comfortable in the sun. Sitting outside our wooden shelter in the sunshine, we drink tea and eat chocolate, paying no heed to time or obligations. We’ve got no plans beyond relaxing in the sun and savouring the moment. The stillness and calm suffuse deep into our flesh and blood; we abandon ourselves to idleness in its most appealing form. Hardly a word is spoken. Each of us is sunk in thought, enjoying the view over the icy planet before us.
Around evening it rapidly gets colder. Up here in the north, the sun’s course ends earlier than at home in Germany. The light changes in mood from the bright sky of day to the orangey-blue fireworks of sunset.
None of us would claim to be deeply religious or a regular churchgoer, but in moments like this we feel as though there must be higher powers out there in nature, protecting us and giving us safe passage. Someone is holding a protective hand above us while we stand here, allowing us to watch them create something ineffably beautiful.
Gradually night falls around us, over the mountains and valleys. We shudder a little at the thought of having to return to everyday life the next day.
But inside I’m certain I’ll be back again and again. Here it doesn’t matter what your job is or what you’ve accomplished; here all that matters is your passion for nature. A longing for silence, calm and equilibrium will always draw me to areas like this, because only here can I feed my inner flame with new energy!
Next morning at Finse we clamber aboard the train that will take us to Oslo. Soon we’ll be thrust back into a world that, after the past week, could not seem more alien. We’ll lose our sense of direction at the big train station full of people, we’ll be stymied at the supermarket by the sheer choice on offer, and we’ll start paying attention to things that are meaningless again.
But then I’ll think of the cabin on the glacier. And I’ll smile.
* * *