Barely Legal Bikerafting
Mikkel Soya Bølstad
I live in a slightly posh area of town in a not so posh house. I stubbornly refuse to conform, and I haven’t yet convinced myself that I need a drivers licence. In this part of Norway, people without one have either been speeding or drink-driving. It makes for fun conversations.
I work as a part time teacher, as I’d rather say goodbye to a decent income and do what I love: being outdoors. If I can’t be outdoors, I write about being outdoors. This might sound like a recipe for a wild, bohemian lifestyle, but – in a smallish town – being non-conformist can also be a recipe for loneliness. But it was because of this, in this age of virtual socialising, that I was willing to take a risk on Mr. Joe being a nice guy, hoping that he was as great a trip companion as our brief encounters on the internet had led me to believe.
He turned out to be an extremely nice guy. He didn’t bat an eyelid when I rolled my wheels into the mountain lodge parking lot more than half an hour late. Any worry that we might have difficulties recognising each other proved unfounded: our fatbikes gave us away.
We rode, and fought with the holiday traffic on the tarmac for a while, watching the mountain birches dwindle in number before finally climbing above the tree line. We were at the Handangervidda plateau. An old dream of mine was about to be fulfilled: crossing Europe’s largest mountain plateau by bike. The Hardangervidda is a national park that supports Europe’s largest population of wild reindeers, so we were only allowed to cycle on the tractor roads. Two of them crossed from north to east almost completely; with the notable exception of those five or six kilometres in the centre, which are devoid of any path or track, near the shores of one of Hardangervidda’s larger lakes. No tractor roads meant no biking. It would have been tempting to just push the bikes that fairly short distance, but I respect both reindeers and national park rules. Not even pushing is allowed, it seemed. This simple fact had put me off embarking on this trip for many years – that is until packrafts entered my world, two of which we were carrying on our bikes.
Soon, we exchanged the humming of the tarmac for the crunch of gravel under our rubberised behemoth wheels and turned south, leaving the busy holiday traffic behind. Hiking on the plateau years ago, the sight of the gravel road cutting into the barren, open landscape would have saddened me, ruining the feeling of being deep into the wild. Riding a bike, though, the sight put a huge grin on our faces. We rolled through open plains of low-growth mountain birch, past a dogsled team escaping the soaring late summer heat in Bergen on the west coast. Fields of grassland and bogs, criss-crossed with streams and rivers, flanked both sides of our tracks.
Soon, we exchanged the humming of the tarmac for the crunch of gravel under our rubberised behemoth wheels and turned south, leaving the busy holiday traffic behind.
Hardangervidda is not about epic mountain ranges. It’s not about spectacular waterfalls or deep gorges. It’s about wide open spaces. It’s a place for wandering thoughts; a place for letting the beast on your back ease off your shoulders for a while.
A parking lot marked the final gateway to that vast openness. The hiking track took off to our right. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted by it. Instead, we took the legal route and followed the tractor road, bumping along boulder-strewn patches, splashing through streams, dodging muddy trenches, enjoying the occasional silky smooth, sandy singletrack on the moraines. Or rather, ‘social singletrack’, as Joe called the parallel tracks from the tractor wheels, enabling us to share our stories. We had plenty to share.
Dark clouds hung like a half-shut blind over the sky, leaving a strip of warm afternoon light to bathe the sparse vegetation. The navigation should literally have been a walk in the park, but two likeminded outdoor companions talk too much and I made one small mistake after another. We met yet another stream too deep to cross by bike without getting our feet wet; so we slid through the water, laughing like kids when it turned out to be deeper than expected.
The humid, late-summer night descended on the tents like a wet blanket. The low, hissing sound of Joe’s Jetstream cooker disappeared a quarter of an hour before my tiny beer can stove even got close to bringing my minuscule pot to the boil. The sensible thing might have been to bring my own propane burner, but sometimes we don’t need to be sensible. Watching the flames from my little, hotheaded friend lick the bottom of my pot is the kind of simple joy I came here for.
Norwegians love their mountain cabins. Regularly, I find myself sifting through the cabin ads from time to time, dreaming about life in my very own tiny shelter in the mountains. Then I dismiss the thought, realising it would be a chain around my neck. It would never beat the feeling of watching a starry sky from the tent door, or the first rays of the morning sun licking the mountain ridge in the west. The feeling when you have packed all your necessities for the next few days and are free to put up your little home wherever you fancy.
The vastness of the plateau shrinks when taking on the landscape with bikes, and too soon we reached the end of the tractor road. Normally, this would be the end for bikers. Not so for us.
Our packrafts should quickly link the fairly short distance of water between the two tractor roads, but a strong headwind threatened otherwise. The bikes on the front of our bobbing boats restricted our paddle stroke to the last and least effective part, further limiting our progress. Still, a life devoted to flat water paddling gave me a slight edge over Joe, who fought it out with an even shorter paddle stroke due to his packraft being decked for white water, and the consequential difficult positioning of his bike. Looking at the shoreline, it was hard to tell if we were moving at all, and if we did, whether it was in the right direction.
After more than an hour and a half of all-in effort, and less than three kilometres of progress on the water, Joe resigned and resorted to pushing his bike along the rocky shoreline, sweetened by a short ride on a sandy beach. I paddled like a madman myself, barely keeping ahead of him during a blissful moment of moderate winds. What should have been a parade with a diagonal tailwind in a northernly bend of the lake, turned into a detour as the waves threatened to swamp my tiny craft.
I deflated my packraft, teeth chattering from the cold crossing, while Joe a couple hundred metres away unintentionally realised that fatbikes make for great floatation devises as he attempted to cross the river from the lake, only to discover a waist deep trench of chilling water grabbing hold of his bike, threatening to drag the whole equipage downstream.
We erected the tents on the grassy fields surrounding the old, abandoned cluster of stone huts from the days of livestock herding. To call the crossing the crux of the trip would be pompous. Still, the feeling of something coming to an end crept under our skin, even with a full day of riding left the next day.
The feeling of seeing our road meander down the hillside, over a plain, up the next hill, before disappearing somewhere in the horizon. The bliss of letting the wheels spin freely, slaloming between rocks, rolling through little streams with the added benefit of the occasional foot bath. Refreshing yourself with soothing water straight from the lakes, doing your best not to think about the potential risk of catching some ugly bug from the increasing population of lemmings skittering amongst rocks and bushes. The light sky, lifting us up the hills. Each time we crested another hilltop, the landscape once again opened up around us, letting another tense fibre of everyday life ease off.
I have had my share of flings with Hardangervidda. Riding on its gentle back made me fall even deeper in love. Sharing it with Joe made it even better. I guess that’s what you get from being utterly irresponsible on the internet. Just don’t tell my daughters.
Mikkel Soya Bølstad is a Norwegian outdoor writer and photographer taking advantage of the vast possibilities Scandinavia has to offer as a playground for outdoor life. Educated as a zoologist, recent years has seen him dive into freelance magazine writing as well as book writing. He also has a soft spot for paddling and biking.