A week alone in the Norwegian wilderness.
This is a short chronicle covering the fears and perils that come with being a solo, female hiker in the nether-regions of Scandinavia (gasp!)
Will I be eaten by a terrestrial Kraken? Swallowed by a hungry Maelstrom? Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion!
What brings me to address the dire hazards that await anyone so brash as to head out into the mountainous tundra alone? Well, it all started in July, when I was Skype chatting with my sister, who lives in Los Angeles.
“…we heard gunshots and you could see the flashing lights reflected off of the back fence. I think they arrested the guy right in front of our house…” my sister related the story of her bad night’s sleep to me “…it was so crazy. Anyway – you’re going to Norway? Hiking? Alone? Isn’t that dangerous??”
My sister had already been debriefed by my dad on my hair-brained plans to hop a plane up to the Arctic Circle and spend five days alone in the Norwegian wilderness. While I am making a valiant effort to desensitise my family to my erratic and unconventional travel style, it seems I still have a ways to go.
The Lofoten Islands in Norway have been on my to-do list for a while – and all of the sudden I realised I had only six months left in Scandinavia! Or, more accurately, I found myself on an impromptu day trip to Åland, Finland with a Slovenian friend and his sister. His sister was hanging out in Sweden for a couple days before heading up to Lofoten. A light turned on. “How are you getting there?” I inquired. “Oh it’s easy, there is a direct flight up to Bodø, then you just hop the ferry across.” The wheels began to grind as images of imposing fjordland dashed through my head.
That evening I searched for flights. They came up at less than $300 for the round-trip. Booked.
At this point I briefly considered inviting a friend or two. I tossed out the idea vaguely over beers later that week, but got no bites. This was actually my intention. Despite my family’s anxiety, I actually like – even prefer – to travel alone.
Especially when it comes to hiking, I would rather be solo. Why? Well…
I am not a fun person to hike with.
I want to walk at my own pace, stop for photos at my leisure and eat whenever the mood strikes me. Kicking back for ten minutes (or two hours) at a scenic viewpoint is never out of the question. Also, when I have ears around me I complain – a lot. By the end of the hike my companions will probably be ready to leave me snoring in my tent, and to be frank I often feel the same (about myself that is – what a pain I can be!).
If a tree falls in the woods…
However, when I’m hiking on my own I am a superhero. I feel badass knowing I am lugging all my own gear, planning my own routes, reading my own map, cooking my own food: totally self-sufficient. I also sing when I’m alone – really loudly, off key, without rhythm and mostly forgetting/making up the words. Being alone in the wilderness is 100x better than those singing-in-the shower moments – you know, when all the good ideas come to you? While hiking I can relax, think, sing, reflect, let my mind wander and build up my imaginary life as a mountain-woman. Which trees would I pick to build my shelter? What berries are around to forage? I guess maybe that’s just me though…
Is it dangerous to hike alone?
Everything has its risks. Last month I was biking to work and went head-to-head with a French physicist. He smashed up his nose (possibly broken?) on my cheekbone, I had a massive iPhone shaped bruise on my leg and my bike’s front tire was rearranged into an L-shape.
And all of this was just for the innocuous task of getting myself to work.
I know this is apples and oranges, but relatively speaking the risks of solo hiking and camping are minor. It is purely the daily risks you are aware of vs non-daily (ie travel) risks that you don’t have a benchmark for. And not having a benchmark scares people. But let’s break down the risks and find a benchmark for solo hiking in Norway.
Worst case scenarios:
- I break my ankle/leg/neck by falling down a ravine
- I get hopelessly lost
- I am eaten by a bear
- A mountain-man finds me asleep in my tent and rapes/enslaves/kills me
Luckily there are no bears on the Lofoten Islands, my odds of being sexually assaulted are significantly higher during a night out in Stockholm and getting lost in Lofoten is actually pretty hard to do – it may be remote, but from the top of any peak you can usually see a small village in some direction.
Though I make light of other’s concern I know that all their worries are because they love me. I know there are real risks to travel, especially alone, but I also feel that they are often blown out of proportion.
To me, the only legitimate concern while hiking solo is Norway is the chance that I will injure myself (or worse, be knocked unconscious) and have no one to fetch help. Yes – this is a risk. No – it won’t keep me from an amazing adventure.
Whenever I travel, especially when I am alone and especially, especially when I am hiking I carry an emergency kit with me. This includes:
- Needles and thread
- Lots of bandages and gauze
- Tape (duct tape and athletic tape)
- An ACE bandage
- Two emergency space blankets
- Pain killers
- A knife
- A flashlight
- A host of other small items that may come in handy
I also have a whistle attached to my bag and I know the Morse signal for SOS. I should carry an emergency flare. But I don’t. I’ll add it to the list.
Furthermore, I am a little more careful when I am hiking alone. In June I ended up in a river at the end of a 30 km hike. I let my guard down and slipped – but I knew I had two friends there to help me. I would like to think this wouldn’t have happened if I was alone. Had I been on my own I probably would have taped up my blisters and braced my knee earlier – two key factors that led to the mis-footing and unexpected dip in the water.
But back to the point: Was I eaten by a Kraken??
No. I was not.
Well, didn’t something terrible happen?
Actually… no. I came out unscathed – not even a single blister. To my knowledge I didn’t meet any serial killers, and all the whales stayed safely in the ocean (or in the whale-burgers that were sold in kiosks along the road).
So… did something good actually happen then?
Absolutely. I had an amazing trip – which I may write another more complete blog about later. But here is a taster:
On the third day I camped along the trail to the summit of Justadtinden. I woke up early, and as soon as the rain let up I summited the mountain.
The reward? I was the first person on top of the mountain by several hours. I had a 360 degree view of the island, more mountaintops in the distance than I could count and perfect solitude.
It was a high – physical and emotional. Nature all around me, not a single human sound except my own breathing. I had passed some sheep on the way up, and their bells clamoured in the distance.
Being up there all alone felt free, accomplished, exhilarating. And so self-sufficient. As much as I love my friends, the moment would have been ruined if anyone else had been there.
I ate an entire chocolate bar, played “I’m on Top of the World” on my phone a couple of times, danced, then laid back on a granite boulder and basked.
And… every time I come back from a trip without incident I am relieved. When my computer was stolen in Honduras in February I was honestly amazed that that was the worst incident I have had to endure in ten years of travel. I’ve been lucky. I’ve also been cautious and well-prepared. It is all about balance.
I appreciate the concern I receive – and (again) I know it means everyone loves me! But I do hope that my friends and family see my antics in context. Life comes with risks. Living in LA means you may wake up to gunshots, just like camping in a bog means you may wake up to flash flooding.
When the risks outweigh the benefits I will stop traveling. Until then, bring on the Kraken!
In case you were wondering, the Morse for SOS is: (· · · – – – · · ·). If you hear that whistling from the side of the trail, please come looking for me.