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Travel to Oslo


68 Degrees North, Norway

1 February 2015

Words and images: Mats Kahlström

Mats KahlstrÖm hits the road to document a spectacular surf trip to Norway’s Lofoten Islands

The train slowly comes to a halt. It is the end of January and the thermometer indicates five degrees Fahrenheit. Snowflakes swirl up from the tracks, occasionally revealing a sign on the old station building: Kiruna. I started my journey four-and-a-half hours ago, upon receiving numerous phone-­calls from a good friend, during which he talked excitingly about a big swell supposed to hit the north of Norway in the following few days. 

With no hesitation, I geared up and booked train tickets that would take me from my home in Sweden 489 miles north-­west to Norway’s Lofoten Islands, situated within the Arctic Circle. A whistle blows and the train rolls out of Kiruna, heading for the mountain range that separates Sweden from Norway. Snow covers the ground; it is more than a metre thick. From my window I spot the occasional reindeer and watch as the sun slowly disappears behind the peaks. 

It’s only two in the afternoon, but at this latitude there are only a few hours of daylight at this time of year. Vast snow-­covered forests of fir are replaced by steep peaks and dark fjords. Upon arriving into the train station in Norway, I have travelled more than two-thirds of the distance, but only one-third of the total time it will take to reach my final destination. I continue by long-­distance bus; it is late afternoon, and I fall asleep to the rhythmic motion of the bus navigating its way down the narrow coastal road. 

Eighteen hours later, I am dropped off at a closed gas station, having sent an SMS to Olav, the man who I will live with and photograph in the days to follow. I have never met him before, but have heard he is a talented SUP rider who recently moved out here to Lofoten in order to surf as much as possible. Within minutes, an old Caravelle pulls up to the gas station. 

The driver nods at me. This must be Olav. We shake hands, and I quickly jump in the car, fleeing the chilly winter night. The smell of deep-fried food enters my nostrils; Olav explains he has converted his car so that it runs on frying oil, which he collects from the local restaurants every now and then. “Free driving,” he says with a chuckle.

We spend a few days scoping the forecast. Olav rents a house in a narrow fjord surrounded by 3,000ft peaks, climbing almost vertically from the waterline. We make daily trips to various spots, checking whether or not the swell has arrived. The coastline is jagged, with hidden coves and fjords around every new corner.

Even though there is no sign of the massive eight-foot 18-second Atlantic swell that we are waiting for, overhead waves keep pumping in every day. However, the wind is at times quite fierce and, when combined with snow, reduces the visibility to almost zero. In the evenings, Olav cooks fresh fish, which he has bought for a dollar per pound from the local fishermen. 

Finally, our patience is rewarded. Big time. Upon waking up at seven in the morning we check the webcam located at Unstad Beach, a 50-minute drive from Olav’s house. He grins and thinks out loud, “Maybe Søppelplassen could work.” Translated, Søppelplassen means “the Waste site” – a left point break that comes alive during a large western swell. 

Our Caravelle has been turned on for a few minutes; the engine needs to get warm before Olav can switch over to frying oil. Through tunnels and over bridges crossing fjords, we drive on narrow snow-­covered roads while the sun covers the highest peaks in a pink and red drape. As we arrive, driving down the Unstad Valley the beach stretches out in front, revealing what we have been waiting for: the swell. 

Søppelplassen is firing. Sets of double-­overhead bombs peel like freight trains down the boulder-­covered shoreline. In between, the sea surface is dead flat; finally the wind stops hurling the arctic chill at us. Olav pulls out his short SUP board, gears up in a 6/5/4 wetsuit with seven millimetre gloves and booties. The water-­temperature is just above freezing and the air temperature is just below. 

He makes an easy paddle out between one of the sets. We are all alone here, just us and the waves. Olav rips the waves apart. Nearly two hours after entering the water, he kicks off yet another 300-yard ride and heads for dry land. He plods through deep snow when returning to the warmth of his Caravelle, pouring himself a cup of fresh ginger tea from his thermos. A smile covers his entire face.