I was looking for a green ski pole stuck in a snow bank. The road was solid ice without a trace of sand ever being applied to it, and this was the middle of March. There was a lot of snow. In fact, the snow was over the road signs and only the roofs of buildings were visible. Hence the need for a ski pole. Robert had emailed me that he would leave one pole where I was to turn off the “main” road and the other in front of the cabin.
This wasn’t Peacham. A week after town meeting I flew the coop for a three week trip to Norway and Iceland. One is a land of legendary fjords and the other a lesser known island of raw and mysterious landscapes. The excuse for the trip was to ski in the premier cross-country skiing area of the premier cross country skiing country on earth. The recent winter Olympics showcased the prowess of Norwegian skiers, their superiority hardly dented by the herculean efforts of Jessie Diggins and her American teammates.
To say all Norwegians ski is an overstatement, of course. I’d say at least 2 percent of the 5 million hardy souls are couch potatoes. In my two weeks there, I even saw two obese people, though one was on skis. Groomed cross-country trails are ubiquitous, including an amazing network around Oslo. I was headed for a spot on the map called Sjusjøen (there is no English pronunciation that works, so just make something up), set in the hills above Lillehammer at an elevation of 2,200 – 3,000 feet, about three hours north of Oslo. Sjusjøen sits near the high point of the biggest cross country ski race in Norway, the Birkebeiner, which follows a 54 km course that climbs from the valley to the east, over the hills around Sjusjøen, and down to Lillehammer in the west. The race was Robert’s excuse for being here. I had no interest in racing but looked forward to spectating on skis.
Robert had rented a cabin of a type Norwegians call hytte (pronounced hee-ta). They are similar to camps in Vermont, as is the culture surrounding them. This hytte is one of a few dozen built in a cluster, each on its own plot of about half an acre. They have small solar panels to run some lights, but no running water or septic system. There is a separate “bath house” containing the privy, the wood fired sauna, and a basin in which to take a sponge bath afterwards.
Luckily it was a nice afternoon as I drove up the icy road and the green ski pole was obvious. I turned up the one lane access road between high vertical snow banks. I was instructed to go 500 meters and look for the second pole, marking which hytte was ours. The cabins were essentially identical, or at least the roofs were, which was all I could see. Sure enough, at a turn in the road I saw the second green ski pole, marking the entrance to a path into the snow, one shovel in width. Just 22 hours after leaving Peacham, I had arrived.
I pushed open the heavy wood door and entered. There was Robert, sitting by the fire, having warmed things up in honor of my arrival. The rustic scene was illuminated by small LED lights. The small kitchen was equipped with a propane stove, a metal locker under the floor (accessed on hands and knees through a trap door) which served as a refrigerator, and a set of plastic basins to wash in. A small wood stove provided plenty of heat and the big kettle always on top provided hot water. The well which provided water for all the surrounding hytte was about 100 feet from our door. My bunk was in a converted porch. The mattress was fine and the heavy duvet warm. Aside from the bath house with the sauna next to the throne room, it was similar to many hunting camps in Vermont.
I decided to go out on my skis right away to get the feel of the place and help me sleep off any jet lag. The temperature was about 10F and the wind out of the north was biting. I was at the same latitude as southern Greenland so I was not surprised at the cold. At home, I’m not a groomed trail kind of guy. I seldom drive 45 minutes to Craftsbury or Burke to experience a finely honed 16 foot wide trail with smooth corduroy in the middle and tracks set neatly on both sides. In Norway, finely groomed trails are everywhere, totaling over 30,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) from the Baltic Sea to the Arctic Ocean. I’m not sure who pays for the grooming, because the trails are all free, including the lighted tracks that make it possible to ski after work in December and January. The opportunity to ski appears to be considered a right in Norway, and it must be paid for with tax dollars, as are many aspects of Norwegian life.
After an invigorating hour in the cold, I slept well and woke up Wednesday morning ready to experience this new place. It was a gorgeous day, cold and clear. We decided to ski 10 km (6 miles) over some high hills to a small village called Nordseter, where there is a little café with a few groceries. We could pick up food to keep us alive for a few days and ski back. Only a mile or so from the cabin we skied past a teepee, not a common sight in Norway. It houses a business offering dogsled rides, and a bunch of dogs and a few sleds were arrayed around it. Beyond the teepee was a small dam at the outlet of a good sized lake called Kroksjøen. There were so few trees that we could see our route ahead for a long way. From the lake we climbed about 400 feet over a couple of miles to the top of an open ridge at an elevation of 1000 meters (3100 feet). The 360 degree view was over topography similar to Vermont with rolling hills, a major valley that leads through Lillehammer and runs to the sea at Oslo, and mountains in the distance.
We encountered an amazing number of people out on the trails. A number were in the area for the big race on Saturday including four New Englanders from Hanover and Boston who ski regularly at Craftsbury. The most impressive skiers were the kids. Families were everywhere, the parents of toddlers pulling sleds sleekly designed to fit in the groomed tracks, their little ones skiing as they wanted and riding if they got tired. Grandparents were just as common.
After a fast run down to Nordseter we gladly stopped at the café and sat down with a pastry. Within minutes the place was packed, including a school group out skiing for the day. We took advantage of the wifi to catch up on emails, then stuffed our groceries into our packs and headed back up the hill. We took a different route back and I was glad to spot the teepee and know we were almost there. As I pushed open the cabin door I was knackered after our 22 km ski. I lit a fire in the sauna and filled the reservoir. In a half hour it was as ready as I was. I was new to this but it didn’t take long to appreciate the deep relaxation brought on by the deep heat. It’s really not a good idea to fall asleep in a sauna, but I easily could have. After a half hour or so I reluctantly emerged, took my sponge bath, and dashed back to the cabin. We enjoyed a hearty supper and once again I slept like a log.
The Birkebeiner features a smaller race on Friday for skate skiers, and the main event on Saturday for classic skiers. Over 30,000 skiers participate in one of the various events including divisions for kids, seniors, and ladies. Friday was another beauty and I headed out to explore off the trails. Over a couple of hills I intersected the race route at its high point. It was 10 a.m. and soon the first skiers appeared, gamely skating up the steep pitch. The leaders were elite skiers and very impressive. The fact that they had been skiing uphill for over 30 km was a testament to their endurance.
It was only about 10 degrees and I was getting cold standing around so I consulted my map and struck off through the deep snow toward a mountain dome called Snorvillen that dominates the surrounding countryside. I could see others on the groomed trail that leads up the mountain, but with my backcountry skis I was happy to make my own trail. The top offered a sweeping view of several kilometers of the race, not to mention views of mountains in Sweden to the east, around Oslo to the south, and the jagged peaks of the fjord country to the west. I skied over another gentle peak and then down to make a loop back to the cabin. There were hundreds of skiers on the trails and as I crossed the race trail, called the Birkebeinerløype, it was 1:30 and there was still a stream of competitors. Back at the cabin, Robert was waxing his skis for the big race. For racers, waxing is a complex science and art and Robert spent several hours at it.
Saturday was another cold, clear day. I skied south a few kilometers to intersect the race trail and watch the skiers coming through. Overnight the groomers had set eight pairs of tracks and the snow was perfect. Racers were poling their way along a flat stretch, and all along the trail spectators were either skiing along, or had brought a picnic and were set up along the sides. Big banners were common and music blared out over the countryside.
The day was too nice to sit and watch, so I skied up another mountain and ended up back at the cabin, tired and sated with perfect skiing. Robert arrived later, happy at having finished the race and still able to walk. It had been a memorable few days, but it was time to move on. The next morning we packed up the rental car and headed north and west, to the mountains and fjords that we all picture when we think of Norway. But that is a story for another day.