North Utsire, South Utsire

The ferry from Denmark to Norway is swish and a bit glam. It’s a bit like going for a night out in Chester, all oversized light up plant pots, shiny surfaces and lurid lighting but thankfully without the stag and hen do’s. In fact for a Saturday night, it’s surprisingly quiet. By complete chance, I’ve bumped into Erin Bastian who I’ve met at several kayaking events in the Uk and who runs her own business guiding people on expeditions. She’s off to Norway to take groups to Sognefjordur and Lofoten. We’re both trying to bag space on the floor of the lounge to avoid having to sleep in the cheap seats. it’s an overnight crossing arriving in Stavanger at 6am then onward to Bergen. As I scope the place out after boarding, maintenance men are polishing the brass of the fake ships wheel handles on glass doorways which I’m sure is just for show. I’ve forgotten that I’ve booked buffet dinner and after catching up with Erin, dash off to fill my plate full of a bit of everything and a generous helping of seafood. A choice I will later live to regret. 

I don’t think I’ve witnessed anything invoke so much panic as the words ‘the car decks are now open’ announced on a ferry. As we approach Stavanger, people push their way down through a couple of small stairwells laden with duty free booze. My kayak is on the cargo deck and I negotiate my way past refrigerated lorries and containers before trundling off the ferry pulling it behind me. I’m met by friends Alina and Ivar Kim who have kindly offered to pick me up and drive to Bergen to start the trip with the northerly wind behind us. We’ve switched the direction around to make the most of the conditions. Alina will join me on the water and ivar Kim will join us in spirit, advising on the Forecast and camping spots. They have made a special sign for me and it’s great to see their smiling faces especially given it’s ridiculously early on a Sunday morning. I’m exhausted as we drive north but excited to talk through the plans for this next leg including stories of the notorious ‘Sletta’ which we will need to cross and charts marked with notes warning of ‘Dangerous Waves’. There are a couple of ferry rides across the fjords and we can spread the maps out properly. Alina tells us of her friend who was employed by the state to rid the school in Utsira of ghosts. My stomach is rumbling as we drive through the low cloud and drizzle that apparently signals that we must be nearing Bergen. The trip will take us island hopping down the coast of Norway with an open sea crossing to the small island of Utsira. We set off from a harbour just south of Bergen where people are going about their Sunday afternoon business of tinkering with boats. There is low cloud still and relatively low visibility as we negotiate shipping lanes between the islands. I have to make an emergency landing toilet stop and quickly get out of my dry suit, narrowly avoiding what could have been a horrible mess. I’m reminded of a book we had as kids where Father Christmas goes on holiday and overdoes it on rich creamy food and shellfish, something that his laplandic stomach promptly rejects.

This settles over the next few days as we pick our way through small inlets and islands, relying heavily on compasses and recognising  manmade insertions in the rocky landscape. We have biggish swell from behind us and F4/5 wind. The porous coast is peppered with lighthouses and I do my best to try to spot them and pick out the names. Around the islands, large fish farms are useful navigational aids, with their circular nets and yellow markers. Salmon being a major export for Norway. The other important fish are Cod and Herring. As we head south from Bergen, the land flattens and trees disappear. Large slabs of glacier smoothed rock with summer houses clustered like barnacles, give way to small vertical faces. There is a subtle pinkyness in the rock where deep wrinkles, creases and folds make it look like the life worn skin of an elderly relative. The rolling sea and clear sky are deep blue with the occasional Eider family bobbing along. The rock turns whiter, it’s seemingly sun bleached and from a distance looks like ice, with a feint backdrop of pointy mountains behind. Pushing south, to position ourselves for a drop in the wind later in the week, we unintentionally have an 11hr day. Broken by a stop an island where goats nibble on our shoes and a family from Oslo unload kids, bags, food and toys from a small boat for a trip to their summerhouse. Several detours later, we arrive on the small beach in Hiskjo and pitch tents as the sky burns orangey pink and the air starts to cool. 

We have a shorter hop the following day to the pretty island of Espevær. It’s famed for an unexplained oval impression in the grass which appeared overnight in the 70’s and has been attributed to a UFO landing. Several theories including that it’s the work of rabbits, fungus or soil conditions abound but none are confirmed so the aliens are as likely as any. Alina navigates us skilfully to the hidden spot where we see the imprint and are watched over by alien faces painted on rocks. Below them is a bag of charcoal and some lighter fluid which we decide is a sign that we should have a bbq. We meet some British sailors from a yacht called Sula (gannet in these parts) they’ve sailed from the Baltic Sea and are heading for Shetland. They direct us to the local shop which they assure us should sell beer. It’s one of a chain of shops called ‘Joker’ which I find hard to trust, as if they’ll leave banana skins on the floor just for comic book laughs. The woman in the Joker thinks we’re crazy kayaking to Utsira but laughs that if we miss it then the next stop is England. She tells us you can see Utsira from here if you go up on the hill, this fills me with excitement as the name of a place so familiar suddenly is within reach. After our alien assisted bbq, we take a walk into the woods to higher ground where things are not quite what they seem. Small eyes painted on the trees follow us through the makeshift path, wooden fishes swing from ropes and add to the surreal feeling of the place as if one strange thing has led to another. The wind has picked up and whip away Alina’s cap as we stand looking at the small wooden finger post sign pointing out the nearby island including, right in the distance of the hazy evening a small spec of land. Utsira or Utsire if you are a Shipping Forecast stickler. 

The crossing is around 18km and takes us just over 3hrs. We kayak on a bearing and spend a long time staring at a speck in the distance that doesn’t grow any bigger for a long time. As well as GPS and charts, we have a comedic map of the island that is a large sheet of paper with blue all around and a small blob in the middle that is our target. There is a north and south harbour which can be used alternately depending on conditions. We are heading for the north harbour with light swell and good visibility. As luck would have it, after disregarding the obvious entrance and unnecessarily negotiating some interesting clapotic sea, we arrived into the small fishing harbour and landed on a slipway next to the pub on one of the two nights of the week it is open. The island is rocky and has a lighthouse on top, as well as the Shipping Forecast fame, it is also home to over 300types of bird, is the smallest community in Norway, the first to have a female major and the first to have a harbour built  with funds from the Norwegian government due to its importance in the herring trade. Oh and did I mention the haunted school? 

The north harbour is a relaxed place with timber wharf buildings lining the quay and some small fishing boats in the harbour. There is a ferry service here and paintings on the wall of the waiting room suggest it can be a pretty choppy crossing. We pitch our tents on the hillside overlooking the harbour as directed by the softly spoken, tanned barmaid who says ‘wonderful’ a lot, warns us of loud music later and gives us free nuts as the pizza oven is temporarily broken.  We sit outside in down jackets in the last remaining sun of the day, pleased with our achievement and serendipitous planning. A group of locals inside are watching the World Cup on a projector. The bar is in an old timber building that looks like a fishing warehouse. It’s long tree trunk beams creating a clear span across the main room with a eco direction room above and space in the roof. It has a worn, friendly feeling to it. The loud music we’ve been warned against turns out to be speakers plugged into a phone through which the barmaid plays us the song ‘Utsira’ which she says gets locals going but doesn’t seem to impress the three other women in the bar. We amble up the hill, stopping to look at the full moon that is bright against the pinky blue, clear sky.  

We wake to thick fog. Visibility is definitely poor. The smooth flat water of the harbour reflects the eery calm of the most immediate surroundings but the rest is erased by this white blanket. We’ve decided to take a walk to south Utsira which seems quite intrepid from our new home in the north. One road leads there and it’s not easy to get lost. The fog starts to clear and we immediately pick out what must be the haunted school, it’s dominant presence atop a rocky outcrop and long narrow windows make it look like a scene from Scooby doo.  There is a macabre street art exhibition in the basement gallery with fake blood and handprints on the windows not helping the spooky feeling. We carry on to the south harbour which is more open than the north and the buildings more scattered. Some deck chairs give it a holiday feeling and we buy ice cream and postcards from the Joker on the harbour front. There is a small beach and a fleet of timber rowing boats. The afternoon crossing back is uneventful as the fog breaks up and visibility improves. We have a sense of madness as there is very little to look at along the way and start singing songs to keep ourselves entertained.  We land in Skudeneshavn as the wind picks up, we’re kindly met by a local kayaker who lets us into the club toilets and lets us camp in the harbour. Alina cooks reindeer meatballs for our dinner which with some powdered mash, are good solid camping food. Before going to bed, we stroll around the pretty town in the evening light. It reminds me of some of the towns on the east coast of England. Red pantile roofs and white painted timber cover the higgldy piggldy houses with overhangs and roofs at jaunty angles giving a relaxed feeling to the place. Large, shiny motor boats jostle for space in the harbour with traditional fishing boats and large trawlers and drilling boats. It’s very quiet. 

The next day we cross the widest fjord in Norway. It feels like it too. Shipping lanes we’ve been warned about turn out not to be as busy as expected and we run the gauntlet across a group of sailing boats. We dodge the ferries crossing the fjord and have a cross wind most of the day, my boat behaves badly in the wind as its pointy ends are high out of the water and get pushed around with each gust. It’s tiring constantly pulling it back on course and feels like a battle. The landscape feels different and I realise it’s because there are trees again. Towards the end of the day, as we near our destination in Finnøy, the sea picks up and pushy waves suggest some tidal movement, something we haven’t seen much of here but which makes the final stretch a bit of a slog. This is soon washed away when we land, met by Iva Kim who has cold beer in the fridge and homemade pizza in the oven. We spend the next day fishing in the heat of the day and Ivar Kim dives for scallops. We eat our bounty later, cooked simply in butter, the scallops are tender and fresh, the fish I caught is tasty but too small to make a good meal. It’s followed by fish burgers before we jump in the car and I start a side leg of my trip to the spectacular cod fishing grounds of Lofoten further north and within the Arctic Circle. I sit on the bus as the sun sets and we cover the ground it’s taken Alina and I a week to paddle. I doze off feeling tired but relaxed, contented and full of fish.