An Archipelago Pedal: E-Bikes and Islands in Northern Norway | Public holidays in Norway
I a bit balking at the idea of riding an e-bike for our multi-day trip through the Helgeland archipelago in northern Norway. Except for a brief hiatus in my twenties, I’ve cycled nearly every day of my life without power assist. And we’re only set to average 22 miles (35 km) a day, even though we’re carrying a week’s worth of clothes, which I don’t usually do.
“You’ll enjoy it more that way,” says Maylinn Storjord at the tourist office, where my friend and I rent bikes. “It’s flat, but Norwegian flat.”
The comparison reminds me of how Hawaiian surfers measure their waves differently than the rest of us, due to their enormous size. I take his advice but swear not to light the battery for at least the first day. I almost immediately regret this decision, as e-bikes are much heavier than regular bikes, especially with panniers full of supplies.
Our journey begins in the small port town of Brønnøysund on the mainland. For seven days we will travel by bicycle and ferry across the archipelago, covering approximately 140 miles in total. Helgeland, an atmospheric name if there ever was one, is the southern part of northern Norway, just below the Arctic Circle. The people here outnumber the islands: there are more than 12,000, some tiny, rising just high enough from the sea for a cormorant to roost on, and others larger, with modest colonies of beautifully painted wooden houses. And the mountains. Everywhere you look there are mountains.
The first we cycle to is Mount Torghatten, about 10 miles away at the southern tip of nearby Torget Island, which we reach by crossing a bridge. We park our bikes at the base, and as we climb the short, steep climb, it seems to me that another good reason to ride an e-bike is to save energy for the hike.
Torghatten is robust in stature, a granite dome wider than it is tall, with a gaping hole 160 meters long in its center, which legend has it was formed when the King of Sømnafjellene threw down his hat to block a deadly arrow and save a beautiful girl from a troll. Folklore abounds in these areas, a legacy of the days when fishermen traveled north up the coast with their sons on their way to work in Lofoten and used the dramatic scenery as a backdrop to distract them during long voyages.
We stay in Brønnøysund the next day, which has a picturesque harbor and cozy cafes, including Goma, where I refuel with a tasty dish of baked eggplant. In the afternoon we go to Hildurs Urterarium, a farmhouse restaurant with a lush herb garden. The next morning, under bright blue skies, we take the breakfast ferry, or “subway” as the locals call it, north to Vega, about 16 miles away. The ferry network is fast and efficient, so getting from island to island is easy without a car and a great way to enjoy the legendary scenery. I see the 858 meter Dønnamannen mountain and understand why people thought it looked like a giant lying down to gaze at the stars and why the nearby Seven Sisters range of peaks inspired a story about girls who snuck out when their father fell asleep and were turned to stone. The mountains are useful for orientation in the archipelago if there are no clouds. Today is beautiful and clear, however.
We stop at a bakery for a few vegalefsa, an energizing snack similar to a cinnamon pancake traditionally enjoyed by fishermen, then head to the Vega World Heritage Center. The island was Unesco status in 2004 due to its typically frugal lifestyle dating back to prehistoric times, centered on fishing and harvesting the down of eider ducks. The museum, an angular modernist building just above the shoreline, documents the symbiotic relationship in which the islanders maintain tiny houses for the ducks, to protect them from eagles and otters, in exchange for harvesting the soft down. There is also an exhibit of heroic local women, for while the fairy tales defend the men, it is clear that the women who stayed on the farm and looked after the ducks while the men went on long journeys of peach worked just as hard if not harder than their partners.
After a lunch of cod cheek, a local specialty (tasty but a little chewy), we drive on empty winding roads, past green fields and distant rocky shores to Mount Ravnfloget. There we climb the 2,000 steps of the Vegatrappa Trail, which takes you from the beach through a path of sculptures and up to the top, which offers the kind of panoramic views that stir the soul. The stages were completed in 2019 and there is also a new via ferrata and a budding climbing community, which has been helpful in encouraging young people to return to these islands, which have suffered from emigration for decades.
We rented a clapboard cabin (£140 per night for up to six people) near the overnight ferry port, and end the day with a gentle kayak along the weather-beaten coast and docks. The next day we take the express boat north to Herøy, which takes a few hours. We circle the island stopping at empty golden sand beaches and climbing small hills with spongy grass paths that we spot from the road. Now I’m done not using the e-bike battery; the roads are rarely steep, but they do roll a lot, so I ride the current like it’s morphine and I’ve just had major surgery.
We stay at Elfis Sjostuer (£70 for up to four people), which roughly translates to ‘sea camp’. The setting is breathtaking, a renovated fisherman’s hut, boathouse and camping pods sit along the water’s edge, and the view of Dønnamannen fills the sky. Cycling has overtaken fishing as one of the main reasons to visit the area, and Elfis Sjøstuer, like most accommodation in Helgeland, has a “Syklist Velkommen” sign. This means they have secure bicycle parking, late-night dining options and packed lunches, as well as facilities for drying and washing clothes.
We bathe in the freezing shallows to relieve our heavy legs, then relax on the wooden jetty reading in the sun. The weather can be brutal here, but on our trip in August it’s mild; the best time to visit is from May to early September. Like much of the Arctic region, Helgeland is warming in ways that are alarming and worrying to locals, but could also perversely make it more attractive to summer tourists. The pandemic has certainly reminded Norwegians how attractive the region is, although it is still relatively unknown to international visitors.
Rain and mist shroud us on our ride to Dønna, the longest and hilliest part of the trip, which doesn’t stop us from cycling but does mean we do it with our heads down and we don’t let’s not take advantage of the reassuring presence of the mountains in our eyes. We end up in Sandnessjøen and return our bikes to the tourist office tired but happy. Considering the accumulated mileage, luggage, hilly profile and weather at the end, the e-bike decision seemed absolutely the right decision.