The Northern Fringes
Chasing Waves and Views in Norway
Written by Hannah Stocks // Photography by James Bowden
We woke blind to our surroundings. First glimpses out of the back windows came with anticipation and excitement as we lay in our sleeping bags, tucked up in the warmth of the van. The faint sound of a dog’s tail sweeping the lino floor, big brown eyes like daggers into the backs of our heads and the start of a whimper told us it was time to get up. Arriving in the darkness the night before, we’d brushed our teeth and made our beds by head torch, surroundings a complete mystery; just the sound of waves crashing, the still and salty air, and the beams of light projected from our torches showed us our home for the night.
We’d been driving for the last four days. From England into France, we raced through Belgium, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and into Norway. Then we’d hopped on a ferry to carry us across the Arctic Circle and north of the sun. The swell charts gave us our schedule – the first big swell of the autumn was coming. We had made and met our deadline. Now, looking out towards the sea, four days’ drive away from home, it was intoxicating to think that we’d got here, yet strangely peaceful to think there was no quick way back.
The roaring of the sea that morning fooled us into thinking the swell was bigger than it was. We took our time, enjoying our van rituals of porridge and coffee, sensing the swell would arrive later than expected. We were encased in a valley between mountains either side, shadows cascading down. A white chapel just behind us, a boat shed in front, sheep roaming free churning up the grass.
We ate our porridge whilst studying the map, watched the small waves roll in, thinking about the potential. Above, sun lanced through a mixture of bright blue and dull grey. A cold breeze crept through the valley. I zipped my jacket up to my chin and pulled my beanie down over my ears, layers bundled underneath.
We were encased in a valley between mountains either side, shadows cascading down. A white chapel just behind us, a boat shed in front, sheep roaming free churning up the grass.
Our bare skin stung on impact as we launched ourselves into the water, and an automatic shriek escaped from our lungs as we surfaced, gasping for breath. The ice-cream headache was automatic. Swimming a few strokes was enough.
I glanced over. James had walked off to find drinking water and now stood beckoning me over to him. Dillon stood at his side, wagging his tail.
‘Bring a towel!’
He stood beaming. I followed his gaze. The basin lay still, the water’s surface a mirror, reflecting the towering mountains that lined the edges. The sun glistened, blue skies emerging, puffy white clouds drifting by. ‘I’m game if you are!’
While the sea stayed calm we’d find fun in different places.
The air was icy in the shadow of the hill. Peeling off our clothes reminded us we’d crossed into the Arctic Circle and the sun was just for show. You could see every detail of each rock, the water acting like a window into the bottom of the lake. Our bare skin stung on impact as we launched ourselves into the water, and an automatic shriek escaped from our lungs as we surfaced, gasping for breath. The ice-cream headache was automatic. Swimming a few strokes was enough. Clambering out and onto the rocks, the heat was instant, burning through our bodies as our hearts worked on overdrive, pumping blood through our veins. We sat and relished the feeling, as if it were a summer’s day, basking in the sunshine. Dillon jumped in and out of the water, chasing sticks and splashes of water; he didn’t need an excuse, no matter how cold it was.
We hiked up to the top of the mountain just behind us, replacing goosebumps with beads of sweat. The air was still. As we looked down upon the bay, searching the skyline for traces of surf, the people became mere specks in the distance, ants to the naked eye bobbing on their boards. Clouds were beginning to form, blankets of white across the sky from horizon to horizon.
The next day, winter arrived.
The wind howled through the valley, shaking the van, and sheets of rain drenched everything in its path. With the turning weather came the much-anticipated first swell of the autumn. From the time it took us to layer ourselves in thick neoprene to the time it took to paddle out, the waves had grown bigger – much bigger than we’d anticipated. We marvelled at the difference minutes could make whilst we paddled out and duck dived under the thick lumps of water. Hoods up, pulled tight around our faces, no stopping the ice-cream headaches, wincing, waiting for the next set, how big is it going to get? As the swell increased further, I became an observer – sitting on my board, watching on as others took off, choosing their lines carefully, plumes of spray billowing off the back, mesmerised by my surroundings and humbled by the power of nature. Only a handful of surfers remained in the water. The howling offshore wind grew stronger with every minute.
I caught a wave in and stood in the shallows, hands beginning to sting from the cold wind. The main beach had become barely rideable and now the right handers in the corner of the bay came to life, throwing out thick barrels just a few metres from the boulders. Just watching on was enough, for now. I’ll get there, one day.
‘Hey, wait up!’
Walking back up the beach, I turned to see James behind me, board in one hand, broken leash in the other and a smile as big as his face. The conditions had become ferocious, sets relentless; he’d been unlucky, getting caught inside while his board washed away from him and onto the rocks, bouncing along, from one boulder to another. As he swam in to the shore to find his board unscathed, that smile the size of his face was a mixture of equal parts relief and excitement.
‘This is just the start!’ His words faded as he turned away from me, jogged past and back to the van to find a replacement leash. I unzipped the front of my wetsuit and pulled the hood back and over my head, leaving the warmth of the cocoon to the sudden rush of cold air.
The next few weeks lay ahead of us, chasing waves and views on the northern fringes of Europe. The three of us and everything we needed, in the back of our van.
You can read more from this trip in ‘Observers’, a Single Moment story by Hannah in Sidetracked Volume Nine.
Hannah stocks uses her creative writing, 35mm SLR in hand, to take you on a journey near & far, from adventures on the road to mundane musings of her mind.
James Bowden is a photographer, surfer and lover of adventure. He lives and breathes what he shoots, looking for stories to tell the grandkids and photos to show them as well.