Friday, 6 April 2012

Keel Hauling

Shouldering the full rucksack I let out a slight 'Ooof'. This was no minimalist camping trip. With the packraft and all that it entails (PFD, paddle, sprayskirt, deck poles, inflation bag, repair kit, etc, etc) and some almost winter-weight clothing and sleeping bag due to the sudden reversion to Arctic cold my pack weighed in pretty hefty. Sure that I had everything I needed (the kitchen sink might have been in there...) I headed to the bus station. Away, haul away.

I exited the buss out at Søfteland and had a bit of a walk to find somewhere to get in the water. I wanted to try the river but I couldn't scout far enough along to check for weirs or rapids and the levels were already lower than last time. Eventually I found a boathouse at the end of Gåssandvatnet that served as a picturesque and sheltered quay. Ice ringed the margins of the lake. I wrapped up warm against the cold breeze and put in. Sunlight danced on the rocks. Along the shore I startled a fox, fuzzy ears pricked in my direction while he worked out if I was a threat or not. Apparently I am as he loped off across the rocks and into the forest. At the end of the lake I had a choice. Beach at a farm yard and sprint across private property to the farm track that led maybe 2km to Krokvatnet or exit 100 metres to the south that would entail a significantly longer hike through wooded hillsides.

Ok, so not wanting to break any rules or incur the wrath of some farmer or semi-feral farm dog I chose to exit the lake just the other side of the stream outlet. The trail was well trodden and despite the chill of the shady trees the sun speckled the undergrowth through the canopy. Having learned my lesson of following the single hashed black 'trail' markings on the maps in this area before I walked with map in hand and compass ready. When I eventually found Øvereidsdalen it was such unadulterated beauty. Carpeted with soft, springy moss that was so vibrantly green it almost made my eyes weep with joy. A stream chuckled over ancient rocks and pebbles. This was surely the better option that walking down a dusty farm track.

When the trail ended at a tiny hytte in the middle of the woods so did the enchantment. Route finding was back to compass, map and swearing. A tried and trusted method. Bushwhacking was now the order of the day, as if the hills were saying "Ok, so you enjoyed that stroll down easy street? Well, now it's time to pay the entrance fee". When the vegetation did open up it was a frost-topped boggy slog. I worried about the boat slung casually on my back like this. Twigs and branches leaning in for the chance of a poke. I finally crashed out onto the shore of Krokvatnet, a little way along the shore from where I was supposed to be. Scratched and sore hipped from a slip on a rock. On a precarious rock I inflated the boat and set off for the far corner of the lake.

Steindalsselva was just a stream according to the map, linking one lake to another. Here there wasn't supposed to be a trail but that's what I found. Well marked but in the clutches of permanent shadow that ensured the ice that adorned every rock and twig near the stream would stay that way for some time to come. The trail topped out on the back on an ancient moss covered dam. It was so cold. A sharp breeze rolled down the valley and poured over spillway like the water it was chasing. In the shade, on a bed of snow, I inflated the boat and paddled hard into the wind towards the island. In its lee I scoped out for a possible camping site but with none located I followed my map to the far shore.

Once on the far side of Steindalsvatnet I was out of the wind and enjoying some fine evening sunshine. It still wasn't warm though. Next struggle was finding some dry land. There simply wasn't any. Only recently freed from it's winter coat the boggy ground was still struggling to shed it's watery remnants. I perched myself on top of a small hill over looking a sheltered cove and found the flattest acreage I could. With the boat deflated and acting as a super groundsheet I had as dry as shelter as I was going to find under the circumstances. 

With a fine dinner of potetmos, dried soup and cheese being oh-so delicately prepared in a ziploc freezer bag I busied myself with laying out my belongings on islands of rocks amongst the bog to dry in the final sunlight of the day. Belly full I took more photos and video, wishing for a better camera to capture the purple alpenglow washed across all the snowy peaks around me. Smiling, I bedded down at a very rock and roll 9pm and after some minor map reading for tomorrow I fell asleep almost instantly.

It was a long, warm and comfortable sleep. I opened my eyes to sunlight filtering through the frost freckled shelter walls. A bird of unknown species but some considerable size flapped and squawked right outside as I unzipped by sleeping bag. The lake below was now half covered in ice again and I had to smash a hole to get to the water for coffee and porridge. The Jetboil roared instantly to life.

I ate breakfast wrapped in my warmest layers, facing the sun whenever possible to catch it's barely warm rays. I shook the ice crystals from my shelter and packed. A hard frost ensured my feet only got about half as soaked as they would have as some areas of swamp took my weight and some didn't. I found a marked trail but quickly discovered it was going in the wrong direction. Daily morning back-track done. Down onto the tarmac switchbacks into Løyningdalen the glimmering Samnangerfjord hoved into view. With lakes well and truly done it was time to see if this little boat could cope with the sea.

So, to the story of Øyra. It started well enough, sitting in the shelter of a refurbished fjord-side warehouse (the wee black triangle to the left of my grubby fingernail), basking in the sunshine and watching the men, hard at work at the salmon farm across the inlet. Under their curious gaze ("Look 'ere Erik, what's this city dwelling land-lubber up to?") I blew up the Denali Llama, tempered the tubes and set forth on her sea trials. The plan was to stick close to the shore, tracing the fjord north east. The water was like liquid crystal. I gawped at the sea life under my keel. Fish, crustaceans, forests of sea plants I didn't know along with the customary flotsam and jetsam of this kind of inlet. Pieces of boat, lobster pots, fishing nets, chain and rope.

After about 200 metres things didn't feel right. The boat felt a little vague. I know I'm still getting used to her foibles but it didn't feel right. I pushed an index finger into the tube and was alarmed to see the vinyl not offer any resistance for a few inches. I was going down! Mayday! Mayday! In the belly of a shark! One big sweep stroke and I was heading to port, towards a boat house and it's seaweed carpeted ramp (the wee black triangle to the right of my grubby fingernail). Two guys on shore, with dumfounded looks across their faces as I asked for permission to land this silly little boat and check for a puncture. The older guy, well dressed and here to check on the progress of his motor boat spoke good English and offered the use of his boathouse and tools to facilitate any repairs. The other guy, dressed in a boiler suit, his hands busy polishing something mechanical in an oily rag, shook his head and walked away.

Despite my best efforts I couldn't find any puncture. Had I holed it last night sleeping on it? The mouth valve can be a bit tricky to close, especially when wet. Had I sealed it right? Another quick sea trial off of this chaps launch ramp but by now my mind had convinced me that she wasn't sea-worthy. Is she deflating again? No, it doesn't feel right. I scuttled back to shore. I thanked the guy for his hospitality, rolled up the boat and dropped it into my pack. With a new mind set of taking the next 14km of road walking simply as training I hunkered down under my pack and set to. Walking back past the salmon farm one toothless, bearded midget worker with a glint in eye called out to me "Short trip?", "Ha ha, yeah, hole in the boat". Prick.

Dusting off my pride I turned my concentration to pounding out the road miles, thankful for the warming sun, gentle breeze and views of snow capped mountains on either side of this fjord. Where possible I walked on the soft verge but where the road had been blasted through the rock I was forced to hug the armco barrier.

The wind played a forlorn tune on the upturned paddle sections lashed to the side of my pack. It sounded like a drunk, absent mindedly blowing across the top of an empty booze bottle. I counted down the kilometres and tried to stay out of the way of the speeding traffic, all bursting with skis and suitcases as Norway, en masse it seemed, raced to the sun, snow and hyttes for the Easter break.

When I finally reached my turn off the road I was grateful to be on a more forgiving surface, a fleeting thought of relief as the track, then trail, kicked up hard. Leaning forward under my pack I grabbed at the shoulders straps and sucked in air. The task was made slightly easier by the cool air flowing down from Svenningen and Gullfjellet, chilled by it's passage over snow and under the shade of the pine forest. The Sandelvi flowed passed me, her sweet waters had saved me in the past.  I picked a spot in the sun and stopped for a mid afternoon break of hot chocolate drink and elk sausage.

Rejuvenated, I shouldered the pack again and stomped further up Vestredalen. The gaps between short breathers got shorter and shorter. My loose plan to camp at Litle Brekkevatnet, where I could try and discover the source of the air loss from my raft in the clear water, was foiled by an ever deepening snow pack. Instead I chose to keep on going over the saddle and down into Brekkedalen.

The snow thinned as I descended the valley, one eye constantly on the river to see if this was floatable. It wasn't. Too low already after the early thaw this year. I camped on the island again. A comfortable spot with regards to access to water, space and level pitch but somewhat spoiled by three fire rings and grounded hammered hard by a thousand footfalls. Ultralight sleeping pads require natural bedding materials to augment their spartan proportions.

I set about drying my footwear components and inflated the Llama to try and work out what was going on. I carried out a thorough (and potentially embarrassing to passers by...) examination, passing my lips over suspect marks to try and feel for any air escaping. I couldn't find the cause for the boats sudden loss of air. Or feeling of? Had it all just in my head? Was I so nervous of the long paddle on open fjord that I just psyched myself out? Was it as obvious as not tightening the mouth valve securely? Whatever, it was a lost opportunity but I was thankful to have my boat back in fine fettle for tomorrows long paddle along Fjellveitvatnet and Hauglandsvatnet. For some reason, instead of sleeping on my upturned boat that night I left her tied to a tree muttering something about leaving her inflated to be really sure that she wasn't leaking.

I slept fitfully. Totally warm enough on this trip thanks to more appropriate insulation than last time but the hard ground that made for such a sweet pitch also made for broken sleep cycles. During one period of half-sleep during the night I heard the faint chatter of precipitation on the silnylon.

In the morning everything felt muffled. I could hear the distant percussion of woodpeckers, perfectly laying down the rhythm track for the song birds to lay their melody over. I opened my eyes and was greeted to sagging yellow fabric bearing down on my face. What the? Snow. Last nights chattering precipitation had been wet snow, not rain, plastering the 'mid and sticking to the material. A quick shake and I enjoyed the satisfying sight and zipping sound of it sloughing off. I had a slow, methodical and warm breakfast in bed. I savoured the warming get-up-and-go-ness of a cup of coffe and the extravagance of eating some fruit and nut chocolate in addition to my cinnamon laced porridge. 

While I packed up almost completely under the shelter I heard the snow turn to rain as the day incrementally warmed up. I tried to guess my clothing needs for the day ahead and bundled everything else away in dry bags. The boat was still inflated. A good sign. I left camp, splashing through the river, the chill impact dulled by the neoprene socks. I stopped to dip my toothbrush in the water and hiked off down the fire road, covered in virgin snow, brushing my teeth. No one around. That morning, that snow, that moment, was all mine.

By the time I hit the valley road the snow was washing away down the gullies in rivers of grey slush. I peeled off left onto a jeep track and downsized further still onto a narrow trail atop a low ridge. This would take me below the small, narrow rapids that drained into the top lake. Juniper bushes, bowing under the weight of the rapidly softening snow transferred their damp baggage onto my clothes. I worked fast to get the boat inflated, tempered and loaded. One last mouthful of Non Stop and I cast off. I paddled under misty skies, veiling the hills around me and continuously dumping fat dollops of sleet silently onto the dark lake surface.

Through the portage and past 'the beach' I didn't stop. Totally absorbed in forward motion. It wasn't that I wanted the trip to end particularly but I knew that stopping for too long in these conditions would be cold and difficult to warm up again. With my camera battery now totally dead I concentrated on simply paddling. One stroke in front of the other. Trying not to scare the ducks that looked like they were pairing off and looking for a place to raise their young until this dork in a bright red inflatable inner tube came splashing by.

The end of the trip was not filled with contentment and glowing. That would come later. Right now it was about getting packed up, out of this rain and onto the bus. The bus that just drove by as I walked across the parking place. Balls. I contemplated a well earned hot meal in the kro but a more pressing matter was getting drier and warmer. Unceremoniously I stripped in the perspex walled bus shelter as cars sped by and exchanged sodden clothing for the drier options in my pack. Finally bundled up in my warmest gear I shouldered the slightly lighter pack and waited for the next bus. Hauling this mix of winter and boating gear out for the past few days had been totally worth it. I wondered and planned about when I would haul away again.

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