Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Cape to Kapp: Crossing Off "Crossing the Arctic Circle" Off the Bucket List

Teresie Hommersand grew up near Stavanger, a city known as the oil capital of Norway. She remembers eating supper every evening off plates with the logo of the national oil and gas company on them. Somehow she became the "green sheep" of the family. She has lived in Uganda, Oregon, and Australia. Learn more about her 13,700 km ride going from the most southern part of South Africa to the northernmost part of Norway (Capetown, South Africa to Kapp, Norway) and her charity crowdfunding campaign on her Facebook page and Instagram.  She is currently nearing the end of her journey - in Norway above the Arctic Circle. She has been riding a Soma Saga for the entire adventure.

One of my (many) definite highlights to date on my way from the southern tip of Africa to the northern tip of Norway on my Soma Saga, is riding across the Arctic Circle in winter. 

I was so looking forward to it. It's the Arctic Circle after all! The anticipation. Excitement. The unknown. Crossing it cycling across Saltfjellet... The Salt Mountain. 

The actual distance between the two boom barriers at both ends of the upper section of the mountain is only about 40 kilometers. But it's not about the length ;-) It's about what you experience. Why boom barriers? Saltfjellet is notorious for bad weather in winter and the road is often closed or one has to drive in a convoy. 

When I got to the first boom barrier it was already dusk. This far north, the daylight hours are not plentiful. There was a heated waiting room there. For all the times people get stuck on the mountain. It was super toasty, had a bathroom, tables and chairs. Hmmm. Should I stay here for the night? Or camp out in -15°C degrees in the snow? I was really torn. I had actually decided to stay when I got a thought that life is so short. It's the end of winter, it might be one of the last opportunities to camp out in full on winter conditions, and in the future I will have significantly more days of being warm and comfortable inside four walls than camping out. This is a once-in-a-lifetime journey - and opportunity. And so I put on my reflective jacket and fastened my bicycle lights and got on my bike! 

That is, also after being reunited with my snow shovel, haha. Two nights before I stayed with an amazing couple in the last town before Saltfjellet. In the midst of loading my bike and saying our goodbyes, I forgot my snow shovel. Fortunately, by posting on Facebook, a kind guy heading across the mountain by car got in touch, saying he could bring it with. So there, at the boom barrier, I was personally delivered and reunited with my much needed snow shovel. Absolutely amazing and very funny! Now, I was ready for anything! 

What a ride it was, riding under the stars, in the dark, on the mountain. Barely any traffic, just me and the snow clearing vehicle taking its turns. The dark vastness. Feeling encapsulated. At one point the wind picked up, causing snow to consistently being blown across the road in front of me. It was so beautiful. Seeing it in the spotlight from my bicycle light. Like moving white fluff. And the said snow clearing vehicle. Seeing it appear in the dark in the distance. A small dot of white and yellow blinking lights in the dark. The art it creates in its slipstream. Snow swirling everywhere and in different directions. I was having the best time! Behind my snow goggles and balaclava. 

The Arctic Circle Centre. Closed for 
obvious reasons. When open it has an operating 
Norwegian restaurant, a cinema and a
post office.

The Arctic Circle moved? Whereditgo?

I had planned to camp AT the Arctic Circle-- At the Arctic Circle Centre that was closed for the season. I thought it was the same place, but learned just a few days in advance that it's actually not the case anymore. Anymore? The Arctic Circle apparently moves. 'Its latitude depends on the Earth's axial tilt which fluctuates within a margin of more than 2° over a 41,000-year period, owing to tidal forces resulting from the orbit of the Moon (Berger 1976). Consequently, the Arctic Circle is currently drifting northwards (shrinking) at a speed of about 14,5 metres per year.' according to Wikipedia. So while I was now camping next a monument that used to mark the spot of the Arctic Circle, it was now commemorating it. Although I was a bit disappointed when I first learned about it, once I was there it still felt special. 
Monument that used to mark the Arctic Circle,
til the Arctic Circle moved north.

How the Arctic Circle Marker
looks when not covered with snow.
Photo: aoiaio

Special also because I had to work to get there. The wind picked up even more before I arrived there. Sometimes coming from the side, sometimes head on. And the side road to the centre wasn't cleared for snow as it was closed for the winter. Took quite a few turns of carrying my panniers and pushing my bike sometimes through the snow; other times on top of the snow - and across reindeer tracks. Found a super spot to pitch my tent behind the centre. The snow had not gathered so much here, so I just had to dig for 30 minutes to widen the pit to fit my tent. No danger of being cold. I had to take off layers not to sweat. 

Lost My Phone in the Snow!!!

In winter, I keep it on my body, normally in-between my base layers, using my body heat to avoid the battery from suddenly being empty and my phone dying. When I got to the centre and was going to start carrying all my stuff from the road and over to the building, I suddenly noticed my phone was not in my pants. A horrible feeling ran through me. All the diary entries since Africa that I haven't backed up! I felt so stupid. Pictures and videos too from the last few weeks. Then as I was standing there the huge snow clearing vehicle came behind me, most likely burying my phone with snow or crushing it under its weight. Nooooooo! I stopped it. 'Have you seen my phone laying on the road?'. The guy hadn't and I thought of where it possibly could have slipped out. Remembering that I climbed on top of the snow bank to take a picture of the nearby road sign for the centre, I asked if he'd seen anything there. No, but he could check he said and reversed. Me getting that terrible feeling again. Surely this time he'd definitely crush my phone if it was laying on the road! I saw him stop by the sign. Get out. Walk over to it and get in again. I couldn't make out if he found it. He came back to me again. Opened the door, and handed me my phone. It had slipped out where I suspected it, on top of the snow bank, off the road. He nearly didn't see it. It had fallen vertically into the snow. Just a small part of it was visible, making him say 'This phone wanted to be found'. What a relief! I had began to think I'd be in agony for the rest of my life over loosing these invaluable diary entries. 

Snowplow driver backed up to previous road marker
and found Teresie's phone. Hooray for kind people.

So there I was, after putting up my tent and having dinner, ready to get into my sleeping bag, but not wanting too, standing under the starry sky, looking up at it, taking in all the vastness. Both above me and around me. Feeling so grateful. And to top it all off? A hint of the northern lights! The first of the season. What a special moment, 'at' the Arctic Circle. Just what I had hoped for in the morning. Now I was entering the land of the polar nights, the midnight sun and the northern lights. All on my Soma Saga, from Cape to Kapp. 

Monday, January 3, 2022

Cape to Kapp: Bicycle Touring in the Norwegian Winter

Teresie Hommersand grew up near Stavanger, a city known as the oil capital of Norway. She remembers eating supper every evening off plates with the logo of the national oil and gas company on them. Somehow she became the "green sheep" of the family. She has lived in Uganda, Oregon, and Australia. Learn more about her 13,700 km ride going from the most southern part of South Africa to the northernmost part of Norway (Capetown, South Africa to Kapp, Norway) and her charity crowdfunding campaign on her Facebook page and Instagram.  She is currently nearing the end of her journey - in Norway above the Arctic Circle. She has been riding a Soma Saga for the entire adventure.

Your mode of transportation affects what you experience - as do the seasons while riding. Especially in a country like Norway with big seasonal differences. I thought I knew what cold was, but cycling into winter, en route from the most southern point of Africa to the most northern point in Europe on my Soma Saga, I quickly understood that I didn't.

When cycling across continents over time, you cannot always have blue skies and pleasant summer temperatures. 'Thank God' by the way! How boring wouldn't that be? When my friends saw that I was going to most likely hit Norway mid-winter, I was told to speed up, so I'd avoid cycling in winter. Warnings telling me how absolutely horrible the experiences of others had been. I'm so glad I didn't. Cycling and camping in full-on winter conditions is a challenge, but also a definite highlight on this journey! 

I'm so thankful for pretty much living outdoors en route. In my tent. Seeing and feeling the seasons gradually and subtly changing. Something I've never been in tune with before, living inside of four walls. It's fascinating, seeing the first thin ice at the edges of a small stream when refilling my water bottle. The shapes, colours and textures make it look like art. As do icicles next to the road. The excitement at the first frost on my tent. On my bike. Discovered when getting out of my tent in the morning. It was getting cold for sure, but I was still managing with the gear I had. 

Re-thinking My Equipment Strategy
Then, while staying with simply amazing people for a few nights, it suddenly got cold. Bone-chilling cold! From -5°C to -15. -20°C. Born and raised in Norway I though I knew what cold was. But there I was, for the first time truly understanding that the winter temperatures along the southwest coast of Norway is hardly comparable to that of the further north inland areas. This was serious. Dead serious. I realized I wasn't equipped to continue cycling without putting my life at risk. 

A few nights turned into a few weeks under the roof of Randi and Svein Helge, getting all the needed gear together. I'm still feeling so grateful thinking of them and how they helped me out in the biggest way - and included me in their lives. As I was about to hop on my bike again, Randi asked me what places en route I've stayed longer than a few days. To the relatively short list that includes Nairobi, Khartoum, Amman, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Athens, Vienna and Berlin, I now have to add H√łylandet. A random tiny village in Norway. We had to laugh as we hugged goodbye. 

Now the real adventure began! Every single piece of sponsored winter equipment was allowing me to not just survive but enjoy touring in winter! It's absolutely fascinating and amazing how one can keep warm with right equipment and enjoy - even though it's down to -30°C! I cannot think of much else that is as beautiful as a winter landscape - and riding through it. It's like a white desert. Silent. Vast. Muffled sounds. Snow crystals on my handlebar pannier. Crisp air. Low hanging branches under the weight of snow. And the light. Pastel colours at dusk. Pink. Purple. Now my favourite time of the day. You don't get light like this other times of the year. Waking up in winter wonder land. Emerging from my heavy duty winter sleeping bag. Peeping out of my tent each morning, I got a huge smile on my face that stayed there the whole day. So happy!

Three Hours to Set Up Camp?
And happy I was managing and thriving in my new circumstances. Cycling and camping in the snow and hefty minus degrees. A first for me and a real sense of achievement. But it does require a lot more work. Everything takes more time and goes slower. I am cycling on snowy and icy roads with an extra weighed-down bicycle due to all the must-have winter equipment. My winter sleeping bag alone was filling up one of my rear panniers. Also taking up more time was setting up and taking down camp. Before I hit winter I was using my light weight MSR Hubba NX solo tent. Self-standing and so easy and quick to put up. 10 minutes. For winter I exchanged it for Hilleberg's robust Nallo 2 sleeper, allowing me to fit all the extra gear and cook inside the large vestibule in case of bad weather. But putting up and taking down this tunnel tent was an exercise in patience. From the time I stepped off my bike until I was ready to hit the sack, it usually took around three hours. Three hours! 

I couldn't push my bike through the snow, it was too deep, so I had to take off all the stuff on my bike and take turns carrying it from the road over to my chosen camping spot. Then push my bike through the snow. Before erecting the tent I had to stomp the ground, making it flat and leveled. Since I didn't carry skis, I had to do it literally one step at a time. Other times I had to dig or shovel snow to make it nice. When putting up the tent, because the ground is frozen, I couldn't use normal pegs, but snow pegs. Fastening them also requires digging and snow shoveling, and there was 10 of them. The tent is very sturdy afterwards though. Then I had to unpack all my stuff. Cook. Melt water. Make a hot water bottle. None which I have to do other times of the year. I can eat cold food and get water from a stream. 

I addition, the number of daylight hours this far north in winter are few. Perhaps the greatest challenge for me riding in winter is to stay motivated when you're average distance per day is only 30 kilometers and you feel like more than half of the time all you're doing is putting up and down your tent. 

Still Rewarding
But despite all this extra work and occasionally cold toes and fingers, it's so worth it. And because it is a challenge, it's even more exciting and rewarding. I'm feeling so grateful for getting to experience all climates and seasons on my bike. From riding in 50°C in Sahara in Sudan, to riding in -30°C in winter in Norway. I'm now doing my second winter on my Soma Saga, this time above the Arctic Circle. This time in even more darkness. But I wouldn't have it any other way.