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My Second Chance at a Real Norwegian Overnight Hike

16 August 2011

After reading about my family’s adventurous and in many ways unsuccessful journey to Kalvedalshytta six years ago, my Norwegian friend Aina took it upon herself to ensure that I had good memories of this national Norwegian pastime. She invited me to hike to Selhamar, another cabin operated by the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT), in the Stølsheimen mountains near Sognefjord.

And how could I say no? I was desperate to prove to myself that I could hike a DNT trail to a mountain cabin. It would be a sort of test: Have I in fact become more Norwegian in the past six years?

I also took it as an opportunity to learn. While Aina might not consider herself an advanced hiker, she grew up in Norway and knew what I didn’t: how to be prepared in the mountains. Her backpack was stocked with tins of mackerel, a fish rich in vitamins, protein and oils. She had a flashlight (so very useful when needing the toilet in the middle of the night), a knife, a waterproof folder for the map and a compass. (By now all of you real hikers are probably thinking, “Umm … Yes. Who wouldn’t think of those things?” So I guess you know what kind of novices we were on the Kalvedalshytta hike.) Aina also carried a survivor’s kit containing an emergency tent and bright orange ponchos.

I was full of questions, as any good student should be. “Aina. Let’s say we need to use this pop-up shelter, and okay, we have the orange to make us easy to spot, but how is anyone even going to know to look for us out here?”

“Well, Berent knows I’m going to call him by 8 p.m. tomorrow and if I don’t call by, let’s say midnight, then he knows to call a helicopter.”

“Midnight tomorrow? That’s a really long time!” It was one o’clock, which would mean “surviving” for over twenty-four hours.

“That’s what the mackerel is for,” she said.

Her calm assurance in the face of doom was astounding. It reminded me that so much of hiking depends on preparedness.

Aina’s other piece of advice? Talk to everyone you see (which, in any other circumstances, would be the most un-Norwegian thing to do). Every single person on the trail is a source of information and a possible key to your survival.

We only passed three people that first day, and only one on the second, but to each of them Aina dutifully asked: “Where are you coming from?” and “Where are you going?” She also inquired about the condition of the trail ahead of us.

I thought back to our mysterious savior on the Kalvedalshytta trail. I didn’t think anything about it at the time, but he had asked where we were headed. The question, which seemed like the sort of small talk one makes when hiking, was the information that allowed him to check on our safe arrival later. When it was getting dark and we still hadn’t showed up at the cabin, he knew to come out looking for us.

“That’s such a good system!” I told Aina.

“It’s not a system! It’s instinct.”

Instinct. The instinct that comprises the very core of Norwegian culture: I watch out for you, you watch out for me. I could not help but reflect, once again, on why the attacks on the 22nd of July were such a shock, and why they produced such disbelief that this sort of thing could happen in Norway.

We talked about the 22nd of July and how incongruous the attacks were with the tremendous peace we felt hiking along these mountains lakes, a peace that surprised me because six years ago a similarly wild and isolated terrain had induced panic. Then, the terrifying realization that my mobile phone did not have a signal, now seemed a joyous benefit. (Maybe I am just a little bit more Norwegian?)

I thought about how much fear plays a part in American culture, how it keeps us from waking alone at night, or keeps us from giving our children true independence. How it prevents real moments of solitude because, just think of what might happen!

So I shared my American instinct with Aina: “An American might say, ‘Is it safe for two women to go to a cabin and spend the night in the middle of nowhere?’ Would you be scared if two mean-looking men showed up at the cabin? I mean, what’s to keep them from raping us, or killing us with no one else around?”

Aina was incredulous. “Why on earth would two men who wanted to rape women drive up into the mountains and then hike for three hours? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier just to stay in town?”

Point taken.

“So it doesn’t scare you to sleep alone in a cabin with strangers?”

“I’m actually more afraid of the sheep.”

“The sheep?!”

“They can be really aggressive.”

I imagined Aina wielding her knife to defend us against a charging sheep, the bell around his neck clanging out a war cry. But then again, she had thought to bring along a knife.

I decided if the worst I had to fear was the sheep, I would be all right. If the second worst was sitting under an impromptu shelter for twenty-four hours eating mackerel and scanning the skies for helicopters, then that would also be okay. If I lost my footing and slid down the side of the mountain, well, I was sure Aina would know what to do.

Three hours later, with no ovine confrontations, no emergency tent-making, and even before I had reached the point of total exhaustion, the cabins at Selhamar appeared on the path below us: two neat little wooden cabins painted olive-green, sitting firmly between two glistening lakes. I was elated.

Our evening at the cabin was a tranquil delight. We enjoyed a can of hearty soup from the cabin’s well-stocked, and thankfully not-expired pantry and then lit candles and read through a stack of well-used books we found on a shelf by the fireplace. One told the history of Stølsheimen, the area we were in. In summer a “budeie,” often a farmer’s wife or the oldest unmarried daughter, would come up to the mountains with the cows and sheep to let them graze on the vast grasslands. These women would stay in a small cabin, called a “støl” for the six to eight weeks of summer and make butter, cheese, and sour cream. “Stølsheimen” thus means “home of the støl.” Most of the støler in this region fell into disuse in the 1950s, but in other areas of Norway the støl tradition is still strong (although now men commonly share the work of the budeier).

Six to eight weeks on my own with sheep and cows, even amidst so much natural beauty, sounded both wonderfully freeing and, well, frighteningly lonely. But time spent on one’s own, times of thoughtful solitude, whether through long walks, hikes, or weekends at DNT cabins, is also a significant part of Norwegian culture, and these women must have come to know themselves and nature in a way that I have not.

That night I climbed into my wooden bunk-bed and stretched myself flat under the comforting weight of the duvet. I relished the blissful exhaustion of a body that had spent the day moving over rocks and moss, breathing in the fresh air, intoxicated by endless beauty.

Throughout the night I could hear the howling and thumping of the wind as it roared across the valley. And I heard the sound of sheeps’ bells as they, too, came in from their mountain rambling, seeking shelter for the night beside the cabin walls.


Takk for turen, Aina!

Photos from the hike follow. Click on the individual picture if you would like to see a larger version of it. We hiked out the next day via a different, and longer route, but we made it back to our car in 5 1/2 hours — this time at the point of sheer exhaustion! It was a wonderful and very memorable trip.

Has the path of the sun divided this landscape? Our trail cuts through juniper and moss, and along rolling white stones, but across from us loom bare and jagged black rocks and the stubborn remnants of last winter's snow.

The pastures of Stølsheimen: clearly a sheep's heaven! In the distance a stream curls down into one of the hundreds of mountain lakes in this area.

The soft "soapstone" found here was used for carving out pots in the Stone Age. (People lived up here in the Stone Age?!) "When do you think they stopped carving pots here?" I asked Aina. "When they discovered iron?" she quipped. She's so clever.

The DNT cabins at Selhamar (880 m./ 2887 ft. above sea level.) We have arrived! ... WE HAVE ARRIVED!!!

Important notice to cabin dwellers: Drinking water to the left, bathing water to the right. And do not brush your teeth in the drinking water for heaven's sakes!

A different, and longer route out the next day. Visible in the distance is the red top of Raudberget (The Red Mountain), which we will eventually hike around.

The collapsed side of Raudberget ("The Red Mountain"). What a bummer it must have been to be the first hiker to find this mess! Nothing to do but go over, under, around and through. And, as we didn't meet aggressive sheep or need helicopter rescue, we voted this the worst part of our hike.

Island hopping.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Annegreet permalink
    16 August 2011 12:32

    Wow Jena, I am impressed! What a great trip, sounds like you really had a blast. You are SOO Norwegian 🙂 ! Let’s have a hike soon, Løvstakken is nice too, so welcome to this side of town!

    • 16 August 2011 19:45

      You should be impressed — because I hiked at Norwegian speed! 🙂 Did I tell you we did Løvstakken a few weekends ago? It is my new favorite hike in Bergen. The views were amazing! We went up the Skillingsbolle side. Very easy. Can you get there from your place?

  2. 16 August 2011 14:58

    Love your writing, Jena, AND your growing independence. A few of us Americans actually have travelled / camped alone in the US and other countries. Challenge for contemplation: what makes one self-reliant, independent, or daring?

    • 16 August 2011 20:12

      Thank you so much! And thank you for this interesting question as well (which is what makes you such a good teacher!) I have thought about it all day. Here’s why: I actually considered myself a very independent and self-reliant person. I have traveled to many different countries alone and have never been afraid of being in a foreign city by myself. BUT I am terrified to be in the middle of nowhere — no people, no cell phone, no rescue services, no one to help me should I need it. So was I really self-reliant and independent, or was I still well within my comfort zone in London, Tunis or San Jose? How would I have managed this hike without Aina guiding me? And so I pick up Thoreau’s Walden (as any good English major should!) and begin to think about what it really means to be alone, and what is to be learned by being alone.

      I will certainly continue thinking about this. Thank you!

  3. Teresa Owens permalink
    16 August 2011 21:49

    Fabulous photos, and what a gorgeous looking hike! I can’t wait to do the same. It is so nice to see that you have had a good experience for a multi-day venture. I have visited family in Bergen several times and will be there for 3 months in January to scout things out, as my husband also applies for work. Anyway, during one of my first stays, my goal was to just get out and do all 7 “hills”, which we did…not in the same day like the Norwegians do, but I’ll just save that for after I move there. Lovstakken was about my favorte also, and was Grieg’s favorite, I’m told. The longest day I had was hiking up Uhlriken then over to Monkeybutton (that’s what we call it, anyway), then down into town to catch a Bob Dylan concert…..does it get any better than that? Standing around hearing everyone speaking Norwegian, and then when the music starts, they all scream at the top of their lungs: “How does it FEEL!!! To be ON YOUR OWN….LIKE A ROLLING STONE” with their Norwegian accents….it brought an actual tear to my eye! My cousin is not much for hiking, but her ex-huband and his new wife and SUPER hikers, and whenever we are there, we huck up to their cabin with them, and spend the time just hiking around in the hills….no real goal, just getting outside and thrashing about….

    • 17 August 2011 10:23

      Monkeybutton! How funny! Your experience sounds quintessentially Norwegian. And yes, the purpose of the hike is to hike — “getting outside and thrashing about.” WELL SAID! At the cabin that night three families also arrived with children between the ages of 5-10 and they sat down and read on the sofas or colored and were completely silent. “Look how quiet those kids are!” I commented to Aina. She reminded me that this is what lots of fresh air and exercise does to children. Magic! 🙂

  4. 17 August 2011 02:18

    My first trip to Norway involved hiking between DNT huts in Jotenheimen and it was something I’ll never forget! I’m headed back to Norway for an extended period in just a few weeks and I am so very excited!!

  5. 19 August 2011 19:16

    Your comment (or paranoia) about being raped by two strange men in a cabin in the wilderness is definitely an American mindset. Those things cross my mind, too, and often did when I was running or hiking alone in the foothills of Utah. I feel much safer with my big black dog, with her vicious bark and NO bite!

    Thank you so very much for the comments on my last post. There have been some down days lately, and it’s good to get them off my chest. I hesitate sometimes sharing such personal feelings, especially when they are feelings of despair, but I want people to know the truth about this whole experience. And, the support and feedback that I’ve gotten has been really nice. Everyone from friends who emailed and skyped (and stepped up to the plate), to blogger friends, to my father-in-law who told my husband how much they wish they could help somehow. It is a HUGE relief to hear how normal it is. And I know it’s normal, but as I wrote–that doesn’t make it any easier! I just hope it doesn’t take 5 years to feel “good” about being here. But part of me thought I’d be somewhat immune to the first year doldrums, so I don’t know why I should be any different on the 5-year timeline!

    Best wishes on the rest of your hiking! Glad you “bagged” a good experience.

    • 19 August 2011 20:43

      And remember to not be too hard on yourself. You can’t know what you do not know. (Plus, if someone had told me how things the first year I probably wouldn’t have believed them. I’d have thought: yah, but I’ve traveled a lot. I’m not the average immigrant … or something like that! 🙂 oh humility.)

  6. 19 August 2011 19:19

    Also amused by your “norwegian speed” comment. Sooo true! Our first trip to Norway involved a day hike into a DNT mountain hotel in Jotenheimen, and feeling pretty fit and knowing that if a hike in the US says it takes 2 hours, that we’d do it in 1. If it said 5 hours, we’d do it in about 3. So, when this hike said 4 hours, we thought. . . ok, maybe an even 4 hours, nothing more. I don’t remember the specifics, but needless to say we were not hiking at Norwegian speed. It was perhaps 5.5 hours. We arrived cold, wet, hungry. I was unhappy. Luckily–it was a DNT hotel, and not just a cabin–and they served us warm dinner and WINE.

    Ahhhh. . . .

    • 19 August 2011 20:41

      Ahhhh indeed! 🙂 We need to try one of the DNT hotels for sure!

  7. 19 August 2011 22:15

    I adore Norwegians for their passions for nature and it seems you’ve integrated very well 😉

    This is probably why I didn’t feel at home when I was doing my 1-year work stint in Norway, I was (still am) too much of a city girl X-D

    • 23 August 2011 09:43

      I’ve decided that passion for nature is really a passion for being ALONE! (new post coming on that!) … I think I have become a hiker because I live in Bergen. It is not integration, but survival! (What the heck else am I gonna do here?!)

  8. 22 August 2011 10:43

    Great post! Very inspiring to me, as my husband and I have been talking about how we’ve never been backpacking here in Norway, or even for a long, satisfying hike in the mountains. We used to backpack a lot in Yosemite in California, so are almost ashamed of ourselves for our laziness here, in such a beautiful country! I’m going to get online pronto and check out the DNT cabins and hotels in our area and get something planned ASAP. Good to know about the “Norwegian speed” thing, so thanks to you and Emily for explaining that in detail. Cheers!

  9. 23 August 2011 09:45

    Thanks, Michele. And good! I’m so glad you’ve decided to do a hike! (Make sure you do it soon — like before mid-October — if you don’t want to encounter snow in the mountains!) I look forward to reading about it!

  10. Chris Allen permalink
    8 November 2011 03:54

    Hello Jena – it is so good to read about your experiences after spending time with you last summer. I remember fondly our conversations about travel, family, and life in Norway. I appreciate your help exploring Lovstakken and the other hike with the boys (can you email me the name of that peak?). I am forever grateful for your kindness to me any my family and for sharing your real experience of living in Norway – it was the only insight I had into Norwegian culture after 6 weeks of being in Bergen. I will continue to visit your blog. And by the way – I did not get to hike one mountain this fall here in Vermont. And it was a beautiful autumn. There is something awry with the pace of life here as both parents work so hard and we have our children so busy with activities….

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