Updated: Feb 11, 2019
A Kindred Spirit and Soul Country
I have to start off by warning you, I have a severe obsession with Norway.
It started as a mild interest and then quickly grew to genuine intrigue. Now, I'm afraid, it has consumed me. I am in love with this wild, northern, rainy, epic country.
I blame Haakon Kjeldsberg, a Norwegian guitar kid, who showed up in my neck of the woods in Bigfork, Montana to play music with Dweezil Zappa (THE Dweezil Zappa!) at a guitar festival and workshop I had gotten a part-time summer job with. I was offered the opportunity to organize a week of activities for some of the incoming brilliant Fellowship musicians between the ages of 18 and 32. I was 27 years old, a violinist, an adventurous type, and adored managing musical and outdoorsy events, so it was a perfect job for me. The fellowship week was truly historic. It will forever live in the hearts of all those involved...we boated, we swam, we jammed, we cooked epic meals, we hiked, and we performed. But what will always stand out to me is that over the course of that week I became friends with Haakon and for the first time in my life the concept that Norway was a place a person could go occurred to me.
I couldn't possibly sum up a friendship in the course of one story, so I'll just fast forward to say that despite our 9 year age difference, Haakon and I became best friends. Essentially, I found the little brother I never had.
Haakon and I have music at the very core of our friendship, and our senses of humor, perfectionism, and homebody tendencies make us incredibly similar. I knew in 2016, less than a year into our friendship, that I had to see him again and learn more about his country and community. His family graciously allowed me to visit for Christmas in 2016 and I felt like I had arrived home. Norway...who would have thought.
One doesn't simply walk into Norway...and then not want to go back.
Obviously, one trip to Norway was not enough for this girl's lifetime. I had seen Norway in winter, so naturally the next trip had to be in the summertime. It took me a few years of saving money and just 5 months of following Nomadic Matt's travel hacking tips, and then I was off on another Norwegian adventure. This time for an entire month, renting a car, and going solo. First stop was Stavanger to see Haakon. Then Rosendal. Then Voss. And next...for a number of reasons I chose to explore Loen.
Reason 1: I saw it listed on Youtube in a great travel photographer's top 10 places to see that aren't on all the typical tourist routes. Sadly, these sort of lists let the cat out of the bag, and the tourist traffic trickles into the hidden gem locations...but I am grateful that his information allowed me to travel in an inconspicuous way (leave-no-trace, solo traveling, and not on an irritating tour bus) to a truly remarkable place.
Reason 2: My Rosendal host family reinforced that I should indeed see Loen because her family grew up spending summers there in a collection of cabins. They assuaged my snobby Montanan fears that it would look too similar to Glacier National Park, and thus would not be so interesting to me. HAHAHA! I laugh now because Glacier Park has nothing on this place...no offense GNP...I still love you.
Reason 3: It was conveniently on my route northwards headed to Andalsnes. Why not stop by?
Top 3 favorite spots around Loen, Norway
Lovatnet, "Lo" for Loen and "vatnet" for lake. This valley was absolutely stunning and is just a short drive from the Nordfjord towns of Loen and Olden. For the record, narrow roads in Norway are NOT like narrow roads in the United States. The way in to the lake is more of a paved pathway that dares cars to drive upon it. It made my heart thump in my throat. It curves and odds are good that you'll encounter the threat of large physics-defying tour buses coming around the corner with the last shoulder long behind you. By some miracle, maybe the fact that I arrived at 10:30pm (in nearly full daylight, ah Norwegian summer sun), I had a calm drive in with no outgoing traffic. The next day on my way to a glacier hike was a bit different and I had to close my eyes, hold my breath, and pray as the large beast-like buses breezed past my rental car, with just an inch to spare. HINT: get the extra rental car insurance...I got lucky and escaped the rental period unscathed, but I was very glad that I had purchased the extra peace of mind.
This place doesn't have an insane amount of travel and I was lucky enough to make a last second cabin booking at Sande Camping. ALWAYS get a cabin! Unless being constantly cold and soggy is your thing. No judgement! But I will reiterate the wisdom that I read in so many Norway travel blogs....IT RAINS mostly always. I'm sure you are tough and outdoorsy and looking forward to enjoying Norway's allemannsrett "Every Man's Right", but in Montana, we are taught from childhood to always have extra dry socks, a coat, and a healthy respect for the power of the elements. Camping in the rain is fun for a night with the right gear, but a week of putting up and taking down a soaked tent in the rain didn't sound like a smart decision for me, or a comfortable one. All campgrounds have a few or even lots of cabins available for rent and if one campground is full there is usually another not too far down the road. In a pinch, you can even sleep in your car and at least be dry and warm. At Sande Camping I chose the tiniest cabin and it was about $40 american dollars per night and it had a hot plate, a little heater (which I didn't discover until the second night), a place to recharge my camera battery (NECESSARY) and wifi! Plus they had a little convenience store with coffee and pastries and a market with local cheese, sausages, and veggies. I stayed for two nights and was able to stock up some of my travel snacks and hiking lunches. They rent little motor boats and the lake is a great place to fish, with a peninsula that reaches out into the lake. A little ways back down the road is another campground that rents kayaks, which would have been nice if there had been a long enough break in the rain. I'll have to return in July or August someday and see if there is a bit more sunshine. Even so, this spot offers enough of a feast for eyes and in the summer you can observe the all night sun (see the second pic below). I believe I captured the night shot at about 1am.
2. Kjenndalsbreen - "Kjenndal Glacier"
My first exploration the following morning was to go see the Kjenndal Glacier. The drive to the south end of the lake was beyond spectacular and it inspired the silk scarf above that I painted. The sun came out just long enough to have a nice afternoon walk up the well-traveled path to the viewing point. This location is indeed a tourist spot, so there were a few buses idling in the Kjenndalstova lodge parking lot. The main path is accessible to all ages, which is really a nice thing, and it is not a long walk before you can see the breathtaking glacier. I didn't mind weaving my way past a few of the tour groups. Most people there had a good sense of respect for the place and it was nothing compared to the crowds that now sadly trample down the beach at Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park back home in Montana. For the solo traveler looking for a moment of peace and quiet reflection, the nice part about these small points of interest is that the tour buses are on a schedule and if you wait 15 minutes you can suddenly find yourself alone with nothing but the sound of the glacial river rushing by and the still magnificence of the glacier. There are fewer rules about where you can hike in Norway, as compared to the United States, so I was able to go off trail and find a peaceful place to have a snack and take pictures. When the sky began threatening rain again I headed back to the Kjenndalstova lodge and stopped in to have a waffle with cream, jam, and coffee.
I am easily entertained by simply being out in nature. An easy walk, jaw-dropping views around every turn, and a steaming cup of coffee to get warmed back up...what could be better? This is a place to stand and take in the magical blue hue of a glacier and ponder the majesty of our world and contemplate the importance of its preservation. I'm grateful for national parks because they offer us the chance to experience untouched wilderness.
3. Bodalseter and Bodalsbreen in Jostedalsbreen National Park
This was truly one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been on in my life. It wasn't extreme with heart-stopping cliffs like I imagine Trolltunga or Preikestolen to be, but this particular hanging glacial valley hike was breathtaking and I had never set foot in a place that made me feel so small and yet so much a part of it. It was as if the mountains far across the valley were cradling me, guiding me along a gentle path that was never strenuous but still felt endless. The steepness of the mountains and the size of the glacier at the end of the valley distort your sense of scale, making you feel like you are standing on the top of the world...and in a way, you are.
High up in this valley is Bodal's "seter" or summer farm where farmers bring their cows and sheep to graze on the sweet mountain grasses. The road leading to the trailhead is an even narrower road than before and guarded by free roaming sheep. If you say the secret password they will let you pass.
As you drive onwards, past the sheep gatekeeper you will pass a stunning waterfall is formed by a collection of streams and a river. I stopped the car and did a few dangerous camera timer runs down the slippery road to the falls to get a solo shot of myself embracing the world.
At the end of the road lies a large parking area and I saw about 5 cars, which was reassuring. It wouldn't be crowded but I wouldn't be entirely alone in the event of a rolled ankle or something. I packed my backpack with the rain gear, water, and lots of delicious Norwegian snacks. Not long after passing the trailhead, I found myself at the most quintessential Norwegian farmers cabins, surrounded by glorious noble cows. I guarantee a silk painting will be created in the future to honor that particular moment. It was easy to follow the marked trails whenever there was a split and I meandered along the river far down the valley towards the second glacier of my Loen trip: Bodal Glacier. All along the way I encountered beautiful little fluffy wild flowers called "myrull" that looked like tufts of cotton. The temperature was cool but ideal for hiking and I was lucky enough to have a break in the rain. I ran across other human beings only after an hour or so. They were a family who lived in Olden during the summers and actually had knowledge of my Norwegian friend Elisa's family who grew up in the area. Small country! They were impressed that I was out solo adventuring and that I had found such an obscure place to explore. After we bid adieu I carried on towards a gorgeous overlook to view the glacier. I could feel the cold air blowing off of the ice, even from quite a distance, but it was refreshing as I rested and ate some sausage and cheese, and peanut butter jelly sandwiches made with dark seed bread that Elisa had given me. I never saw another person after that until I made it back to Bodalsetra an hour and a half later. I felt like my mind had been renewed, all stress I had ever known melted away, and I drove the long road back to my little cabin on Lovatnet with a rested smile on my face. I don't know if I could ever fully explain the beauty of this place in words...all I can say is that it is worth a visit or two or three. I see why the farmers bring their animals to graze here, why they built the stoic and picturesque bright red cabins that stand in stark contrast against the green, green, green landscape. I hope I can return here very soon and bring my love, Adam, so he can experience it himself.
There are likely one hundred paintings of Loen waiting to be brushed onto silk. I'll take it day by day.
Thank you for reading and I hope you find some help in my account of this amazing place.