Norwegian fjords expedition
Words: Robert Carroll
Photos: Robert Carroll unless stated
(First published in the Paddler magazine – December 2017)
Remote, ruggedly beautiful and large beyond words. As the years pass I’m swaying more and more towards such environments verging on inhospitable, devoid of noise and human activity.
An inexplicable pull and tranquillity draw me and so many others, escaping the comforts of home life. For a couple of years now, SUP Norway has been making this possible and rids us of the majority of the preparation that consumes so much time when exploring far and unspoilt places.
UNESCO heritage status doesn’t come easy but the Nærøyfjord and its surrounds must have earned theirs without struggle. Situated in the western county of Sogn og Fjordane and a branch of the Sognefjord, the scene is genuinely breathtaking. With SUP being the vehicle of choice, the perspective and freedom offered allows you to absorb the kilometre high cliffs and countless freshwater waterfalls at a pace of your choosing.
Before praising SUP more I must confess – After the initial launch of SUP, I wasn’t its biggest fan. Poor efficiency , potential back pain, tiny storage and being too easily influenced by wind were all equally concerning. Despite all of us in the expedition being relatively experienced paddlers, Titus ran through paddle technique and positioning on the board in the interest of ironing out bad habits or approaches that could cause reduced speed and muscle fatigue throughout the five-day paddle. With a reluctant grin I can safely say that this hour refresh was to be the start of a new mind set and relationship with the once ‘awkward’ stand up paddle board. A relationship that strengthened each day on the fjords.
The Nærøyfjord is well sheltered by high peaks either side and dense forest often stretching up to 750m high in places. Nevertheless it’s not immune to the elements, so with no boat support and limited landing options, safe practices are essential. SUP Norway’s main man – Titus Kidzoman, showed our group how crucial the abilities to forecast weather and adapt to changes quickly were on multiple occasions. He achieved this through good meteorology knowledge, from years of marine experience, built from a vast array of jobs and hobbies involving the sea. Luckily our conditions never became extreme but nerves were put at ease by his cautious approach, all the while sticking to original plans as closely as possible.
By day two, we were all getting accustomed to our Red Paddle Co. Explorers. The wakes from occasional ferries giving ample opportunity to test our balance and technique through water otherwise glassy. Progress was being made and yet despite day one being the shortest, some of us had completed our longest ever SUP distance with much longer ones ahead.
I was confused. My board was full of clothes, cooking utensils, cameras, lenses, a tent, sleeping bag plus food for the trip and I’d just completed my first 10k paddle. Considering I was piloting a craft ‘inefficient and awkward’ with added weight, I wasn’t sore or achy and fatigue hadn’t presented itself – Was something awry or did I just have the truths of SUP wrong all this time? Well, it looked that way, as I continued to feel fresh using the distance paddle technique adopted from the recap at the start.
SUP Norway employs Red Explorers for all lessons and expeditions to ensure consistent performance within groups. On our July trip, all parties seemed happy with the boards with the odd switch to test each other’s sizes (12’10 / 13’2). The quality equipment didn’t stop on the water… Lightweight double-layered North Face tents are provided alongside a traditional Norwegian ‘Lavvo’ for clothes drying, communal activity and food prep if conditions insist.
Alongside tents and boards 65L dry bags were supplied for clothes and electronics in the event of rain or a monstrous wake that may catch some off guard! Most surprising of all the provisions was the food; three meals a day, fresh lunch making up one. Brekkie and dinner mainly came in the form of high calorie, super-tasty, Drytech pouches that are used by the Norwegian military. These pouches go unnoticed on your board and provide a nutritious meal after a long day’s paddle. They’re so good I’ve tried to source some in the UK since, but to no avail.
On the water and off, Titus seemed to pride himself on flexibility, allowing us to stop and chill at places of interest within the group. Even though the distances were much longer than your average weekend ride there was more than enough time per day to get them done with often a good few hours in the evening to eat and recuperate. Over the course of these evenings we got to know Titus and his motives for starting SUP Norway…
Titus, you’ve been living in Norway for 20 years but what urged you to start SUP expeditions in the western Fjords?
I’d had a tough patch in my life and had hit a wall. I figured the best way to get my head straight was to grab a friend, and ride a board in the most amazing place I could find. It worked, and it was obvious to me that I had to share this experience with other people. The response I get from my guests is truly incredible, real life changing stuff!
The expeditions are unsupported and minimal, it’s just us and our boards in what I believe to be the most beautiful place on earth. I love to get out of the tent in the morning, shower in a perfect waterfall under a 1500 metre cliff and think ‘Another day at the office.’ with a massive smile on my face.
Why choose to teach and travel long distance on SUP of all things?
SUP is accessible to anyone, you can teach it where you are. I could teach kite surfing or free diving but most people would find that intimidating. A few years ago I reluctantly agreed to teach my son’s school class, initially they were all very nervous but after two hours I couldn’t get my boards back. Seeing the total stoke in their little faces reignited my own enthusiasm. Now sharing my passion for the ocean is what I live for and it also keeps me in the environment that I love. Last year I held three courses over a weekend and taught SUP to 30 blind people, it was an incredibly rewarding experience for all of us including a couple of the guide dogs.
Sometimes I have to be alone in big nature and long-distance expedition paddling is perfect for that. Last year I paddled Sognefjord, the longest navigable fjord in the world. It was 204 km in three days but I’m never really thinking about the distance, I’m focusing on being totally present in the moment and the next paddle stroke. I found myself amongst a pod of nearly 200 dolphins whilst surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it was heartbreakingly beautiful.
Have you any long term goals for SUP Norway and are you looking to expand elsewhere?
Exciting things are happening here, yes!
First, we are inviting applications of interest for an early exploratory expedition in May 2018. This is to find the most beautiful fjord routes in Western Norway to add to our summer itinerary.
Then we are heading up to north Norway to paddle with humpback whales and orca around the Lofoten islands and Tromsø.
We are also currently in talks with a major player in the Norwegian tourist industry. I can’t reveal too much at present but keep an eye on the website or sign up for the newsletter for some cool opportunities.
Is there a set ability criteria for those wanting to join you and are your expedition dates fixed in advance?
We want our summer expeditions to be as accessible as possible. A good basic paddle technique and a positive ‘can do’ attitude is all that we ask for. The exploratory expedition in May and the Whale expeditions in North Norway will require slightly more experienced paddlers.
We are also experienced in arranging and leading custom expeditions for groups of five or more tailored to the group’s abilities and wishes.
Only now after a few days was the enormity of this spot settling in, with no sign of the novelty wearing off. Each turn provided a new perspective, fresh glaciers and waterfalls uncovering themselves around every corner. Our group even spotted avalanche destruction at points along the route – the uprooted trees proving to be perfect fuel for our evening camp fires.
Confidence still growing and a body eager for more, sharing the water with kayaks was beginning to instil SUP benefits more than ever. Kayaking was starting to look like the true chore out of the pair, especially after witnessing a launch from Undredal; a small village on the banks of the Nærøyfjord. Wetsuits, skirts and heavy kayaks all took up a significant portion of the slipway and a much larger effort was required to operate on the whole.
In comparison to our self-sufficient approach, items stored in their kayaks weren’t as accessible and most of their food and luggage was transported by boat due to complexities of carrying it aboard. While I still feel there’s a place for kayaking, I couldn’t help but feel more closely connected with my surroundings throughout, with independence proving to be a fulfilling bonus.
As is natural before a trip, with excitement and apprehension flowing I had done some research on the region and envisaged covering ground in one of Europe’s most aesthetically pleasing surrounds. I had recent ocean practice under my belt and quality gear packed to boot but no online scrolling could have prepared me for the scale of the fjord we were to paddle. With four days paddling completed already, one of our last destinations – a supposed half day paddle visible from breakfast, sounded a doddle during Titus’s morning brief.
The sheer size of these Fjords seem to distort our understanding of distance and play mind games hour after hour. The sighting of our landing ground proved to be nothing more than a facade of reassuring clarity and major deception. The description by many travellers of the Nærøyfjord being a fairytale spot now seems convincing, for I have never come across mountains or shores distancing themselves the closer you get. Normal perspective is all but lost on these waters.
In fairness to SUP Norway, co-ordinating a expedition thats a good day’s distance from its base in Oslo is no simple task, especially when vast amounts of equipment are needed for a fully independent adventure. I think its safe to say it was however, more than we (judging by the groups enjoyment), could have expected and the moments spent in Sogn og Fjordane will be cherished most definitely.
After finishing our last delicious Norwegian dinner by the fire we shared our highlights of the trip with some fine Swiss Absinthe donated by one of the group and set out to secure our tents in advance of a forecasted storm. Luckily for us it wasn’t as vicious as expected and a pleasant night was had by all before our final leg of the journey. Soon after the rain arrived in its droves, just as we left the water for the final time after a fun downwind paddle to our Gudvangen ferry.
Once on and homeward bound I couldn’t help but sense an unusual vibe amongst our cohort – an unease of sorts. The dry luxury of the boat cabin seemed unnatural after such exposure and freedom over the past few days.
One thing is certain – the motor engine may have been a huge advancement for us humans but the desire to revert back to man powered craft is on the rise. The possibilities offered by stand up paddle boards are unrivalled and I am no longer confused why its popularity is rocketing. If you have a need to explore and want a guided entry into expedition paddling, the Nærøyfjord is a must add to the bucket list.