In Helsinki – Midnight Sun, Torrential Rain and Russian Visas
I tell you, the trip to Norway was absolute torture. Terrible. On the one hand the scenic little villages, steep mountains, glaciers, glass-calm water and constant sunlight were so photogenic that I wanted to stop and take a picture every time I went around a curve. On the other hand, well, there were a lot of curves and the weather was perfect, and I was having so much fun riding that I just didn’t want to stop. Absolutely dreadful being torn between choices like that. I managed to find some kind of halfway point between the two and stopped to take pictures only when I absolutely couldn’t stand the beauty any more. Though I knew I was ready to leave when I was like “ho-hum, another village of red houses perched above still water with a towering glacier-carved mountain behind it, nothing special”.
I left Umeå on the 20th of July and headed up for the mountains. I left late in the afternoon, and had a lovely little ride up to the interior, sweeping through pine forest along the sun dappled Umeå river and associated lakes along pleasantly windy roads (that’s with turns, not with wind – wind is never pleasant on a bike). The only minor drawback was that I was riding due west, and very long days mean that that dangerous driving time just before sunset is greatly expanded. Spent the night in Tarnaby at a youth hostel/ski chalet that looks like it would be great fun in the winter, as there was a chair lift right outside the hostel.
I went over the mountains in the morning, up in Sweden and down in Norway. Landscape changed from mostly coniferous forests to alpine, with blue and white mountains circling meadows and little red huts dotted everywhere. Going into Norway there was no big “Welcome to Norway” sign, let alone a border, but several things changed. The speed limits went way down (in Sweden they’re 90-110 kmh on two lane highways and 70 through towns, and there don’t seem to be many towns – in Norway, they’re 80 on most highways, and 60 whenever there’s a house), the road markings and signs changed, the houses went from red to brown and the electrical wires went above ground. The scenery continued being, well, scenic, as I descended to sea level again.
After a brief stop in Mo I Rana, I continued up the coast, which is where the fun really began. For one thing, many roads in Norway are about 1.5 lanes wide, with no centre line – two cars can get by each other, but just. And the roads wend along the sides of the mountains, just above the water, which means they twist and turn. And then there are the tunnels, ranging from a few hundred metres to 7.6 km. These tunnels are dark and uncovered, so all you see is rough hewn walls. They are freshly cool and have a clean dirt smell. On a bike the darkness makes them a little scary, especially the first one, since it’s not marked very well. You round a corner, and all of a sudden you’re in a narrow dark tunnel with sunglasses on and cars coming straight at you. At least that’s what happened to me and to another biker I talked to. Visor up quickly, and sunglasses snatched off. Whew. After that, I watched closely for signs and made sure to have the sunglasses off before the tunnel.
After about 11 hours on the road, over 400 km and a couple of ferries (including the one on which I crossed over the Arctic Circle), I found myself in Straumen, where there is a great tidal current – two neighbouring fjords are forever trying to equalize, causing whirlpools and quickly rushing water in the narrow passage between them. At the changing of the tide there is a roar as the water changes direction. The fish, the fisherman, and the sea gulls love it. When I went down to see it, I started talking to a biker camping near there and then decided I was too tired to go on, and decided to camp. I ended up camping near a party of Norwegian bikers, on 8 bikes and with a car along. All the women were passengers (as I’ve seen a lot here – very few women on their own bikes). They were not extremely friendly, and I ended up hanging out with the Swedes across the way who tried to feed me reindeer meat. The next morning as I was packing up it was very strange – the Norwegians were all sitting around in a half circle facing my tent, talking to themselves and not to me as I rolled it up. I felt like I was the entertainment. But then they got more friendly and waved madly as I left. Strange.
I took the ferry over to Å that night (yup that’s the whole name – actually two of them on the islands, but everyone knows the southern one). Å is a little restored fishing village on the southern tip of Lofoten. Filled with tourists of course, and a lot of them trying to catch fish, but very picturesque with lots of little traditional fishing shacks on stilts on rocks over the water (now vacation rentals). The whole town is a museum, and the hostels are in old houses two. Lovely.
The next day I went up the islands, almost all the way to the top. Another long day of riding through fjords, finishing at about midnight, as I found a camping spot along the beach by the light of the midnight sun, seeing which was the whole purpose of going up to the northern part of the islands. At midnight the whole sun was just above the horizon, and then it descended slowly until at about 1 am the top edge was showing. This top edge then moved along the horizon, never quite going down, stuck between sunrise and sunset. I went to bed before it came up again.
Of course, as beautiful as the sun was, it was a problem. At least I’m blaming it for what happened next. I think I must have had a touch of sunstroke, and not enough water. Yeah, that’s it.
After getting up fairly late and chatting with a German couple touring in a Smart car (which they let me sit in) who had stopped to take a picture, I went to the northernmost tip of the islands, Andenes, and cleaned up in the gas station and refuelled the bike and myself. I got on the road again in the mid-afternoon, heading south, aiming for Kiruna, Sweden. I was about an hour south of Andenes, riding through some mildly winding roads with almost no one around. My mind was feeling slow, and suddenly my eyes started doing those long blinks that presage falling asleep. These blinks are the human oil light, especially on a bike – they mean “You must pull over now, no matter where you are, or you will stop running!” Luckily, there was a big gravel parking lot off to the side, so I pulled in. I got to the end of it, and put down the kickstand, killing the engine. I’m not sure if I put my feet down – I definitely didn’t take any other gear off, including the helmet. I remember leaning backwards to rest, thinking, oh no, there’s soft food in there, and leaning forward, resting my head on the console and thinking I’d just rest my eyes for a bit. I’m not sure how long I stayed like that, but I know I was dreaming because it was sometime during that dream that I was rudely awakened by a loud crash as the bike fell over on its right side and I went sprawling out onto the gravel.
Well, this did wake me up, and I immediately went to pick up the bike. Luckily, it’s not very heavy, and I was able to pick it up while standing on the right side and grabbing the front and the back. Once it was upright, I let it go over a bit to the left, to rest on the extended kickstand. Which gave out, sending the bike over to the left side. I lifted it again, and rested it on the kickstand, this time ensuring that it was stable. At which point I noticed that the left mirror was still on the ground. Closer examination showed that the stem had broken in two – not repairable. And it was Saturday night, which meant that nothing resembling a repair shop would be open until Monday morning.
I reevaluated my plans of making Kiruna, Sweden that night, and decided to go to Narvik, still a couple hours away, figuring that if anything might be open on Sunday, that was the best bet. Slept in a conference room of a hotel which became a youth hostel in the summer. Tried a couple of gas stations in the morning, but no luck. Pressed on with only one mirror for the 176 km ride to Kiruna – just a short ride, no problem I thought.
I reckoned without the wind. Before that point I had never really understood the what clouds roiling out of the mountains really meant. But the wind was so gusty and and so strong that I was being pushed all over the road. I was fighting the whole time to keep the bike in my lane and on the road, while going up a winding mountain road. No where to stop, no time to think, just kept going on sheer adrenaline. When I got over the mountains it was better, but then the rain started. I was really glad to see the terraced mine leaving that used to be a mountain that dominates Kiruna.
In the morning, found the only bike repair guy in Kiruna, who almost had a mirror for me, but alas it was for the right side. Then went down the mine, had a very facts and figures filled propaganda tour while the Argentinian woman I was doing it with and I acted like the bad kids on a field trip. But it was interesting nonetheless.
That night, due to my lack of planning, I had to switch hostels. Due to a cancellation I found a bed in another hostel, and ended up sharing the room with a Chilean PhD student from the university in Sweden where my friend in Norwich went, who knew the Norwich friend. The world is entirely too small, and subsequent meetings have only confirmed this. In Helsinki on my first night I shared a room with a woman doing her MA in Planning in Germany (in Helsinki to do a course, on which there was a woman from my program at UBC). The next morning in the sauna I met a woman who used to play rugby for UVic, Velox and Canada, who is now doing her PhD in New Zealand. Very odd.
Back in Kiruna – had an interesting and fun discussion about economics with the Chilean, then the next morning went out to the Sami (Lapp) village of Jukkasjarvi. This is famous for two things – the ice hotel in the winter, and the Sami museum and cultural exhibition. Decided to only go to the cultural exhibition and had a lovely little tour with a Sami girl. Got to pet reindeer and feed them. They’re nowhere near as big as you expect, and they have really cool feet – they’re in four parts – two front shovel like hoofs, and two back spur like parts. They make a clicking sound when they walk. Rode down to Haparanda that afternoon.
Next morning went to the tourist info booth in Finland. The women there were excellent – actually all of the tourist info people so far have been great and extremely helpful. These Finns found the bike shop in Oulu and called down and made sure they would have a mirror for me. Very wonderful. On the ride to Oulu passed Ii, which would have been a contender for shortest name if it was only one i, and still might take up less space. Got the mirror, got it attached and rode on to Kuopio, about 300 km away, which is where I planned to spend the night.
Just after I left Oulu, the skies opened up and it proceeded to pour for the entire ride to Kuopio. I heard later that on this day there was more rain than Finns normally get in the month of July. And my pants aren’t very waterproof. And there is absolutely nothing between Oulu and just north of Kuopio – just mostly straight roads through pine forests. About an hour and a half into the trip I could feel the water dripping down the back of my leg, and by the time I got to Kuopio there were puddles splashing out of my boots when I walked.
During this rain my mind was in sort of a strange place and reality was shifting. At one point (while stuck for quite a while between two semis blasting up water) I had decided that since you cannot prove reality outside of yourself (and sometimes not even within yourself), that the cars that were coming only winked into existence before the straight parts of the road, and then stopped existing immediately thereafter.
Also, at some point I started to have a problem with the throttle – I give it gas and get nothing, and my speed would drop. But then it would come back. A little scary, but intermittent, so I didn’t stop.
The next day I did absolutely nothing. Stayed in bed and read and listened to the rain, outside where it belongs. Lovely. On the next, it was still raining so I went out and saw a couple of museums in Kuopio, then drank some vodka with some drunk Finnish boys.
Next day (we’re onto Saturday, July 31st by now), I rode to Savonlinna to see the castle and see if fate wanted me to go to the opera. Got there just after the castle had closed, managing to avoid the rain the whole way. At the castle the sky opened up, and a Finnish man waiting for his wife (they were going to the opera) shared his umbrella with me. Turns out he used to ride, and he was most skeptical about my scooter. But he got me in to take a quick look around the castle before the opera started. After which his wife arrived, and made sure to grab his arm very quickly – I think she was a little miffed that her husband was talking to a strange Canadian woman.
Leaving Savonlinna, tried to Heinola, where the LP said there was a hostel. Didn’t manage to avoid the rain, and got to Heinola, to find no hostel, and that the ones in the next town would already be closed. Camped at a campground, which luckily had a drying room.
Next day the sun finally came out and I had a lovely ride down through the historic town of Porvoo and to Helsinki. Took backroads where I could and revelled in the sunshine. Lovely.
Then spent just over a week in Helsinki looking into and getting a visa for Russia. Still complex – need to get an invitation letter from a hostel and have everything arranged just so. Went out and saw Helsinki some – nice enough place but not terribly exciting. Also got the bike looked at and the oil changed – turned out the throttle problems were from water in my air filter.
Also went to Tallinn, Estonia for the night on Saturday. Lovely little place – good for a nice stroll, and food was cheaper than Finland so I had a nice dinner at a sidewalk restaurant. Lovely. Sooooo many tourists though, the whole place was full of them. But a nice place to spend a few hours. I had been tempted by the idea of going south through the Baltic states and to Eastern Europe, but decided that that’s another trip. Anyone for an Eastern Europe excursion in the future?
Anyway, Russian visa is arranged, train tickets are booked (Barney is staying here at the hostel), and I’m on my way to St Petersburg in less than an hour. I’m coming back here on Monday, and then I’m taking the overnight ferry to Stockholm on Tuesday (I’ve even booked it – uncommonly forethinking for this trip). Then back through Sweden and Denmark, to Paris and on to Spain. I’m booked to come back to Canada on the 1st of October.
Sunset in Sweden
In the Swedish mountains, almost at the Norwegian border
Along the fjords
More fjords – Barney is below
Small Norwegian town
Bridge over tidal rapids at Straumen
Never ending sunset
Camping in the midnight sun – photo taken at about 12:30 am
At northernmost point of trip
Wind in the mountains
Holy Overcastness Batman!
Crossing back over Arctic Circle
Wet pants in Finland
I miss detailed curve signs
Old Norton in Porvoo, Finland
One thought on “In Helsinki – Midnight Sun, Torrential Rain and Russian Visas”
Sad to see that Norway was such a torture. Next time, go further south. That’s where the really dramatic landscape and good riding is! And those not-so-friendly people you met were most likely shy. We Norwegians are like that, unfortunately.