Birthday Hike to Ullevålseter

April 27, 2015.  For Matthew’s birthday, I shanghaied him for the usual celebratory fine-dining experience, this time at the hilltop Ekeberg Restaurant overlooking Oslo’s harbor from Ekeberg Park.  The place has a cool, retro vibe that mixes modern Scandinavian interior design with historic architecture known as “Functionalism” in Norway but called “Art Moderne” in the States. The restaurant’s wraparound windows provide a spectacular view of the fjord — we witnessed an incoming storm that was probably the best dinner show we’ve seen yet.  The food was also quite wonderful, but as typical in a nice place, each dish elicited a long litany from the waiter about all the varied and unusual ingredients and flavors awaiting our palate.  Sometimes I do wish fancy food came without the sales job.

The sunny day brought out all the slack liners — for some reason, the exercise-obsessed Norwegians are devoted to tightrope walking, and you’ll see slack-lining stations all over the city.

Beyond the requisite birthday meal, I decided to surprise Matthew with a hike into part of the woods around Oslo that we hadn’t yet seen.  We hopped on the T-bane and took the #1 line out to Frognerseteren, then hit the trailhead towards Ullevålseter, what was once an old farm up in the forests above Oslo.  I have no idea how old the original farm is, but it’s been owned by Oslo Municipality since 1900, and the adorable farmhouse has been run as a hiking stopover by the same family since 1927 — but more about that later.

At first, the snow seemed so innocuous. It’s just a little patch….

Our initial foray into the forest seemed promising as a few wildflowers poked up their heads from the verdant trailside.  Lots of folks equipped for hiking, slack lining, and bike riding headed out in a variety of directions from the Oslo overlook.  But the crowd thinned as we trekked along the skiing/biking path, and before long, we encountered a thick, icy patch of snow — now keep in mind, it’s the end of April.

Yeah, I’m smiling now. Little do I know there’s another hour left of slipping and sliding on this ice pack.

We hoped for the best, assuming that this was simply a section that had been well-packed by winter skiers and had not yet been exposed to sunlight due to the angle of the hill.  Mmm, not so much.  The  trail soon became a veritable glacier, with a two-foot-deep layer of crystalized snow covering its entire width.  And me without my crampons.  But still, we kept up hope, thinking that surely, just over the next rise, everything would be melted.  More wishful dreaming.

These white-haired older folks are out for a spring bike ride on an ice sheet.

We negotiated our way delicately, aiming for the slushy sections with the goal of gaining better traction.  Eventually, we resorted to stomping out each step like Bigfoot, hoping to make a dent in the densely packed crust.  Our frustration grew every time a Norwegian hiker or a runner in shorts — no crampons in sight — would speed past us like a mountain goat.  (Although I did see one slip a bit, and it gave me secret satisfaction).  Even elderly bikers seemed undeterred by the ice and blithely pedaled their way along the snowpack.

Finally, in desperation to make progress, we ventured off the trail and picked our way along its steep sides, where underlying plant life had helped warm the ground and melt the snow.  It was slow going, but along the path, we discovered some precious hidden treasures:  a tiny fairy forest of mosses and lichens that contained more shades of green than a Crayola box; forest pools that still sat encased in coatings of ice laid out in gorgeous fractal patterns; roadside puddles that harbored frothy bubbles in whimsical designs; and an enormous anthill made of pine needles that practically hummed with the work of a thousand energetic inhabitants busily carrying food to feed their brood.

Made it to the farmstead — Happy Birthday Matthew!

After almost three hours, we broke into a clearing and came upon the Ullevålseter farmstead.  A fair number of hikers and bikers had plunked themselves down on picturesque rock outcroppings or at restaurant tables to enjoy a picnic lunch.  We’d made ourselves ravenously hungry with our own exertions, so we headed inside to grab some grub and join the picnickers.  After our eyes adjusted to the dim light, we realized we’d stumbled into a Norwegian fairytale.  The interior dripped with chalet-chic details that included corner fireplaces, copious candlelight, and hand-carved wooden chandeliers and wall sconces made to look like trolls, bears, and other woodland creatures.

While waiting in line for our yummy moose goulash and apple cake, we noted photos on the wall showing Louis Armstrong and other celebrities who’d visited this rather remote eatery over the years.  Who’d a thunk it?  Carrying our trays outside, we tucked into our meal, and then sat for a bit to catalog the variety of birds that flitted down in hopes of catching a crumb or two.  Nearby, a couple of kids began squawking and poking at something in the pond, so we wandered over to see what was causing the fuss.

Thousands of frog eggs floated on the surface of the water, each little bubble with its own tiny embryo wriggling about inside.  I couldn’t resist, and poked a bare finger at some of bulging eggs to see what they felt like.  Jello, was the answer.  They reminded me of the gelatin balls in the bottom of your cup when your order a bubble-tea smoothie in a Chinese joint.  The frogspawn didn’t seem to mind the disruption and the embryos continued busily churning inside their little pods, waiting for the day they’d be big enough to join the wider world.

Back on the trail, we encountered our next hurdle.  The bog.  What looked like solid land was in fact a squishy, soggy mat of sphagnum moss.  We tried jumping from hillock to hillock, where trees had rooted, but water still poured in over the tops of our boots.  Climbing the occasional sapling gave us a brief respite from the flood, as did the occasional partially submerged boardwalk, but after a half hour of trying to walk on water, we were ready for some relief.  Luckily, more snowbanks awaited us ahead.

Another half-hour jaunt through the remnants of winter finally brought us to a rocky, hilly area that remained high and dry.  From here on, the path was free and clear, providing awesome views of mountain streams and lakes, some so shallow that you could see the bottom, where dozens of sizable frogs gazed stoically up at us.  Around many of these waterways, Norwegians had already commenced the camping season, with tipi-like lavvus pitched along the shorelines.  As fun as this looked, we decided we’d still wait for the weather to warm up a bit before pulling out the tent, so we headed back home to hot food, cake, and coffee.  Happy Birthday, Matthew!

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