VIII. 70th Parallel

Malla Strict Nature Reserve in Kilpisjärvi Municipality, Lapland Region, Finland;
Storfjord, Kåfjord, Nordreisa, Skjervøy Municipalities, Troms County, North Norway

Previous: VII. Three Borders Point

Next: IX. Return Trip


So here I am at Treriksröset, the border stone of Finland, Sweden, and Norway, and I’ve got to return to civilization as soon as possible. Booking.com said Birtavarre Camping reception closes at 20:00, and it was about 15:00 at the moment, and walking the trail from the parking lot at Northern Lights Road to Treriksröset in first place took me 3.5 hours. As exhausted as I was, I couldn’t afford to waste much time.

1. The first section of the way back was the hardest, with a slow long climb back onto the plateau through a birch forest. Each five minutes or so I stopped for a minute to catch my breath.

2. Back on the plateau walking became much easier. The weather became a bit clearer and the lighting got nicer in the late afternoon.

3.

4. Malla mountain is to the left.

5. Walking on Malla slope.

6. And by the small mountain lakes after Malla.

7. The huge cracked boulder meant I was fairly close, although not as close as I imagined.

8. Descend through a pretty birch forest and…

9. It was finally over. I don’t think I had ever been so happy to see my car before. Having walked 23 km on a mountain trail with no major stops, I was utterly exhausted, and despite thick soles my feet hurt badly after walking on all kinds of rocks. My boots and jeans were also caked with mud up to knee level, which was annoying. I changed into my usual running shoes, but I had no spare pants and couldn’t really clean my jeans at the moment. Then I remembered about that washing machine left behind in Äkäslompolo cabin 250 km away. Well hopefully no one would think I’m retarded because of my muddy jeans during my detour in Norway, before I get back to Äkäslompolo.

The time was 18:20, so I had a little over an hour and a half remaining (or so I thought at the moment). After resting for a bit staring at one more nearby reindeer herd, I drove away towards Norway. One more thing I love about driving is that you can be extremely exhausted from walking (or say feeling bloated after a big meal) but still be perfectly able to drive several hundred kilometers more, just because being exhausted from walking and being exhausted from driving are two completely unrelated conditions.

10. Less than a kilometer from a parking lot, there was a customs station. It is located on the Finnish side of the border, but both Finnish and Norwegian personnel are stationed there. A customs officer (probably Norwegian but it didn’t occur to me to look closely) actually ordered me to stop, asked for my passport, inquired where I was going, and had a brief look into my trunk. I didn’t mind in the slightest. I can’t help feeling a little uneasy each time I cross the border from Russia to Finland, but the other borders feel perfectly safe and friendly in comparison. Also, I actually had experienced a full search of my (rental) car, with a dog and everything, the previous year on the Swedish-Norwegian border, and the officers there were perfectly polite and respectful and even apologetic when it turned out we weren’t carrying any drugs after all.

11. Welcome to Norway! You can tell it’s Norway by the white background of the signs; it’s yellow in Finland and Sweden. (90 km/h limitation is also never used in Finland, it’s either 80 km/h or 100 km/h.) Of course there was a border cairn and some signs, but I stopped to take pictures of them only on my way back the following day. Administratively, it was Storfjord Municipality of Troms County of Norway.

The watershed between Baltic Sea (which is a basin of the Atlantic Ocean) and Arctic Ocean more or less follows the border, and from here, about 550 m above sea level, Northern Lights Road began slowly descending. Pretty soon I spotted a river to the left of me again; it was Skibotnelva. Starting as a relatively small mountain stream, it soon turned into a huge canyon.

12. It was pretty dark already and I didn’t stop much; this was about the only stop I made on my way towards the Lyngenfjord.

13. A big sign at that parking lot warned about a salmon parasite. It is not dangerous to humans in any way, but it is pretty horrible for freshwater fish, and lots of Norway rivers are infested with it. So the sign tells you how to avoid accidentally bringing this parasite to other rivers.

14. The E8 road ends at a rather uninspired-looking intersection with Route E6, on the shore of the fjord. E6 here also looks unimpressive, but it is the trunk road of Norway, going all the way from Swedish border through Oslo, Trondheim, and some other major cities, all the way to Kirkenes far in the northeast, near the Russian border at the Kola Peninsula. The vast majority of the E6 is still an ordinary two-lane highway; the traffic and the conditions just do not warrant building anything better.

Turning right onto the E6, I almost immediately entered a small town of Skibotn (Norw. Ship Bottom, as in “bottom of the fjord”). With a population of 570, Skibotn does not really qualify as a town, although it definitely looked bigger than Kilpisjärvi or Kaaresuvanto/Karesuando.

15. I was very eager to have a look at the fjord, and stopped on a pier in Skibotn. Well, this was it. Lyngenfjord is the largest fjord of Troms County, at 82 km long. Its width does not exceed 10 kilometers. Skibotn is located at its eastern shore; I never visited its western shore but it has some pretty big moutains (up to 1833 m high), known as Lyngen Alps, and visible in this picture.

Somewhere in these Lyngen Alps are the remains of the Lyngen Line, a line of bunkers and other fortifications (not unlike Mannerheim Line or Salpa Line in Finland) actually built after World War II, to shield Norway against the possible Soviet invasion. A perfectly reasonable move for the Norwegians, I’d say, given the post-war developments in Europe. You can’t drive around Lyngen Alps which stretch down to the Swedish border, and there are only a few usable valleys and mountain passes there, so the location would be relatively easy to defend against an invasion from the east. Luckily for everyone such an invasion never materialized.

16. The pier at Skibotn. The hour was late, and the weather and the sea looked very unhospitable, so I didn’t actually go down to the water to have a taste of the Arctic Ocean until the next day.

Actually it’s disputable whether I had really been at the Arctic Ocean, because there are several different definitions of where that ocean starts. The Norwegians, I think, generally think that the Arctic Ocean starts to the north of the Lofoten Islands. That would place Lyngenfjord firmly in the Arctic Ocean of course. On the other hand, Norwegian Sea stretches as far to the northeast as the North Cape, and Lyngenfjord belongs to the Norwegian Sea, and Norwegian Sea is generally considered a sea of the Atlantic Ocean. Well anyway, for all practical purposes I was at the shore of the Arctic Ocean, and significantly beyond the Arctic Circle.

For some reason I assumed Birtavarre Camping would be very close to Skibotn, and hadn’t bothered to type it into the navigation app to make sure beforehand. I was dismayed to learn it was in some more 50 kilometers away, at the bottom of the Kåfjord, a fairly small branch of the Lyngenfjord. Well, time for some night driving. I drove on the fjord coast through three tunnels before seeing a sign for Birtavarre Camping. On the brighter side, I had completely forgotten about time zones! Norway is in a different time zone from Finland, and despite entering it from south to north, I still had to move my clocks an hour earlier, which meant I had an extra hour until 20:00 when the camping reception supposedly closed.

The camping looked small, especially in the rain after dark. I had some doubts about whether I was at the right place, as the signs said simply “Birtavarre Camping”, while the place I had booked at Booking.com was named “High-North Birtavarre Camping”. I stopped near the reception building and went out to ask. The reception was locked, but there was an envelope pinned on a board outside. It had my name, number of my cabin, and contained a key inside. It looked like I hadn’t needed to worry about being on time after all.

My cabin was number 9, and there were about twenty in total, scattered around some meadows which were drenched and had huge puddles already in the rain. No one camped with a tent, and there were only two or three motorhomes. Most of the cabins didn’t seem occupied either. Still, I had some difficulty locating cabin 9. The numbers were assigned seemingly completely at random, and number 9 was literally the last cabin I checked.

I parked my car on the meadow outside, unlocked the cabin, and brought my stuff inside. At that moment, some black Audi pulled up, and a man stepped out, shook my hand and asked whether I had had any problems. That was the owner of the camping site, of course. I went with him to pay for my cabin, and he wished me good night.

The cabin was small but furnished better than I expected. In particular it had a small kitchen, which I immediately used to warm up some microwave burgers. As I discovered, there are at least two varietes of microwaveable burgers in Finnish supermarkets. The first costs €1-2, and it’s pretty much a patty in a bun without any other ingridients. These tasted pretty horrible. The second kind of burgers costs €2-3, and includes a sealed satchet with some yellow sauce, which you have to squeze out inside a burger before microwaving it. This sauce or whatever it was actually made the whole thing taste like an acceptable cheeseburger, maybe still on the shittier side, but perfectly edible and even somewhat enjoyable. Again, I wonder why Russian supermarkets don’t stock microwaveable burgers. Just microwaveable pizza. I tried buying some many years ago back in college, and I still have nightmares about that pizza.

The cabin of course didn’t have a toilet or a shower; these belonged to a separate building. I was lucky my cabin had been right next to it. I intended to take a shower, feeling sweaty and filthy after that Treriksröset walk. My hopes were shattered when I saw that the showers required a 10 Norwegian Krone coin to operate. I would have paid five times that but where would I find Norwegian Krones in cash? I didn’t even have many euros in cash; Nordic countries accept cards pretty much everywhere and I was kind of spoiled by that. Well, it was their loss that I ended up going to bed without a shower.

A more pleasant surprise was that the camping actually had a perfect Wi-Fi connection. I wouldn’t have expected a small camping site to have any sort of Internet at all. So I ended up wasting the rest of my evening and the entire following morning online.

17. This is what the camping looked like in the morning. My cabin is to the right of the car, and the larger building in the foreground is where showers/toilets are. A river flowed just beyond the camping, not visible here due to the trees. As seems to be common in Norwegian fjords, the names of the river, its valley, and the fjord that continues it are the same: Kåfjordelva, Kåfjorddalen, and Kåfjord.

The mountain in the background which forms the southeastern wall of Kåfjord and Kåfjorddalen is Isfjellet (Norw. Icy Mountain, incidentally same word as “iceberg”). Its highest point is 1375 m high, but of course you cannot really see higher parts of Isfjellet here because of low cloud cover. It’s a shame, because Troms County is generally an unusually dry and sunny place for Norway. The river flowing down from Isfjellet in the distance and forming a waterfall is named Okselva.

18. Last look inside a cabin at Birtavarre Camping.

19. As far as toilet-less cabins go, this one was really quite nice.

20. I threw out my trash in one of these bins. I like the way their lids are held on against the winds by stones.

21. Time to go! I spent that entire morning considered various routes, and the idea I finally came up with was simply to keep driving north until I reach the 70th parallel, and then go back via the same road. So this is where I turned right, onto E6 Route towards the northernmost parts of the country. I wonder why Narvik is signposted for the opposite direction rather than Tromsø; Tromsø is closer and it’s much larger city. Unlike Narvik it’s not located right on the E6 Route though.

22. First stop on E6 along Kåfjord, in Trollvik village. E6 Route in Northern Norway basically traces the contours of every fjord, only occasionally making a shortcut through some valley. As a result road distances are quite significant. I wonder how often do the inhabitants of these villages get out of their area. I mean you’d be probably bored to tears even of these amazing fjord landscapes after some twenty years or so, but it would take a very long drive to get anywhere, even in Tromsø. Norway has a network of small airports though, and this probably helps somewhat.

23. Isfjelltunnelen (Norw. Ice Mountain Tunnel), a 3.2 km tunnel on E6 along Kåfjord. Mountains in fjords often rise steeply right from the water level, leaving no usable land, and even building a shore road around them is difficult. This particular strech of road around Isfjellet was prone to avalanches, hence the tunnel. The streams running down from the mountain are Indre and Ytre Iselva (Norw. Inner, Outer Ice River).

24. Birtavarre and Kåfjorddalen valley.

25. Driving on along Kåfjord.

26. Roads in Norway, like in Finland or Sweden, don’t really have a shoulder, but still there are usually ample opportunities to stop in any mildly scenic places. Only the largest designated rest areas get the familiar “spruce and picnic table” sign, and usually there’s not even a P-sign, but there’s still enough place to pull over safely.

27. I left Kåfjord and drove on along the eastern coast of the huge Lyngenfjord. Administratively this is still Kåfjord Municipality though, its center being Olderdalen town.

While Norway doesn’t generally have bilingual signs, Kåfjord Municipality is officially referred to as Gáivuotna-Kåfjord, Gáivuotna being its Sami name. Kåfjord is in fact simply the “Norwegianized” version of Gáivuotna word; vuotna means “fjord” and no one is sure what gái means. The total population of Kåfjord is about 2200, supposedly with a large fraction of Sami, although I couldn’t find exact numbers. A Sami music and culture festival named Riddu Riđđu is held in Manndalen village in Kåfjord every summer. First held in 1991, it was sort of a reaction to Sami discrimination (or, more properly, assimilation), which Norway sadly had a long tradition of. The policy on Sami reversed only in the 1980s, following massive Sami protests against the construction of hydroelectric dam at Alta. King Harald V officially apologized before the Sami for the history of Norwegianization in 1997.

28. At the mouth of Vikelva river in Nordmannvik village.

29. Lyngen Alps on the west coast of Lyngenfjord are still hidden in the clouds.

30. Route E6 cuts through a narrow isthmus and continues on to the east towards Finnmark County and the city of Alta. I turned left onto Road 866 here, driving on towards Kågen and Skjervøya islands. The 70th parallel north, as far as I could tell from examining maps in the morning, goes right across the bridge between Kågen and Skjervøya. This crossroads is located in the next municipality, Nordreisa.

Road 866 is designated as Fylkesvei (Norw. County Road; abbreviated as Fv.). Norway has a somewhat chaotic road numbering system very similar to Sweden, distinguishing European Routes (E-designation), National Roads (Riksvei, Rv.), County Roads (Fylkesvei, Fv.), and other roads, municipal and the like. National Roads and County Roads are in practice difficult to distinguish; they both have white signs with black numbers, one to three digits long. Less important roads generally have greater numbers. Local roads are not signposted. Despite often very difficult terrain virtually all roads seem to be paved, although they are often narrow, even one-lane in some cases. Tunnels are also extremely common. Norway roads are slow and sometimes dangerous-looking, but the network seems to be pretty much as dense as physically possible.

31. I could not place this picture on the map. Maybe I messed up their order.

32. The first half of Road 866 runs along a long peninsula squeezed between Lyngenfjord and a smaller irregularly-shaped fjord named Reisafjord. This is Reisafjord; the landmasses to the right are a small mountain named Latterfjellet, and Bonnikaholmen islet to the left of it. The village on the far side of the fjord is Storvik.

33. The impressive-looking flat-topped mountain hanging over Road 866 is named Gjøvarden (532 m). There is a small rest area with a good view on it, and a trail to the summit of Gjøvarden starts here — it is visible under two small orange signs on a tree to the left. The trail is only 2.2 km long (although rather steep), and I regretted not having enough time to climb the mountain. Interestingly, this particular trail seems to have been established fairly recently; there are no traces of it in Google Street View (which has panoramas of Road 866 as of August 2010), and the online map of Norway, which by the way is quite great (how do you think I know the names of all these mountains and the like?), doesn’t show it either.

34. Road 866 weaving behind. You can see it’s narrow enough to have no centerline; it’s no big deal, even some stretches of the E6 Route are like that. The width is enough to pass an oncoming semi while only being a little bit scared. There are some narrower roads too, of course.

35. Another place I failed to locate.

36. Soon afterwards Road 866 dives underground, into an undersea tunnel named Maursundtunnelen, connecting a mid-sized island named Kågen to the mainland. The 2122 m long tunnel goes under a strait named Maursundet, 850 m wide, at the depth of 92.5 m under sea level. The tunnel is quite steep and scary; I had to downshift to go through it safely. At least it was wide enough to accomodate two regular lanes. There was no way I could take the picture of the tunnel itself, but after the tunnel I could stop and actually walk down to the sea shore, which I had wanted to do since the previous way. So, yep, this is where I tasted the Arctic Ocean. Quite salty, as expected, and completely unlike Baltic Sea, which tastes almost like freshwater. I gathered a few small purplish sea shells on this rocky beach to bring them back from the trip.

37. The mouth of the last tunnel on my way north, the Kågentunnelen. It is 1737 m long and it’s a fairly calm drive; this is an avalanche protection tunnel, not an undersea one.

38. A seemingly unused ferry landing near Kågentunnelen. The destinations mentioned, Havnnes and Rotsund, refer to a ferry crossing to Uløya, an island pretty similar to Kågen in size but lacking a road connection to the mainland. It would be a very long detour to visit both Kågen and Uløya though. It seems likely this landing (named Flåten) fell into disuse after the opening of Maursundtunnelen in 1991, but it doesn’t seem completely abandoned.

39. And here I am at the last island I visited, named Skjervøya. It is connected to Kågen not by a tunnel but by a bridge over Skattørsundet strait. After turning onto the bridge I realized that it had only a single lane, and that a semi truck was entering it from the opposite direction. I briefly panicked, but then noticed that the bridge had a passing point in a small widening in the middle where I could safely wait for the semi.

40. View from Skjervøya onto Kågen. Skjervøya is not the northernmost island; I could drive on without turning onto the bridge, and reach Laukøya and Arnøya islands from Kågen using a ferry. Arnøya is the northernmost island of this particular archipelago which probably doesn’t have any particular name, so I’ll call it Road 866 Archipelago.

41. The bridge lies on the 70th parallel north, and thus I reached the destination I had chosen in the morning. The part of Skjervøya near the bridge has tundra-like treeless zone starting right at the sea level, but most of Skjervøya is still forested. Northern Norway generally has very mild climate for its latitudes due to proximity of ocean and Gulf Stream. Notrably, it is significantly warmer than Lapland. The treeline eventually gets lower, but only the northernmost fjords in Finnmark County (where North Cape, the northernmost point of Europe, is located) are completely treeless.

42. Still, the 70th parallel north is pretty far. Excluding Northern Norway itself (Finnmark Country and the northernmost parts of Troms County), there are virtually no permanently inhabited places north of 70° N. Even in Russia only Yamal and Taymyr are beyond the 70th parallel — the places also known as endless nasty frozen tundra which isn’t good for anything other than drilling for oil and gas. Notably, Kola Peninsula is entirely southwards of 70° N. So is nearly all of Alaska, apart from its northern coast, which as far as I know is only inhabited for oil too. So, not taking into account various uninhabited Arctic archipelagoes, only Svalbard Archipelago (which belongs to Norway too) and some minor villages on Greenland coast remain.

Still, I believe there are some transcontinental flights that go through the vicinity of the North Pole; sometimes it’s just the shortest way. Which makes a casual person significantly more likely to travel (briefly) beyond the 70th parallel north in their life.

Myself, I hadn’t taken any transcontinental flights so far, so I decided to take home another memento from my own northernmost point ever visited. I looked around a bit and found a large and very flat rock, about 30 cm wide and 3 cm thick, and decided that it would suit just perfectly. It took some effort to lug it from this tundra into my trunk, and when some car appeared on the bridge I dropped the rock and pretended I wasn’t doing anything. It wasn’t a police car and I don’t believe bringing large rocks from parts of Norway which aren’t national parks is forbidden, but I still felt like I was doing something illegal. Nonetheless I’m happy to report I brought this rock to St. Petersburg successfully and it serves me as a small tabletop.

43. As for Skjervøya, it’s a relatively small island, only a few kilometers long, much smaller than Kågen or Arnøya, and lacking great mountains. Skjervøya however is the capital of “Road 866 Archipelago” of sorts; it has a town named Skjervøy where 2300 people of the total 2800 population of Skjervøy Municipality live.

I didn’t have the time to visit Skjervøy though, and so I turned around and drove back south. I had to cover 430 kilometers to get back to my cabin at Äkäslompolo. For some reason I didn’t feel worried about having to drive after dark at all, but still I had to go. To be continued.

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