June 20, 2016. Before Matthew’s biking accident prohibited the use of his right hand, we had the chance to try out another popular Norwegian hobby — kayaking. Matthew and I have done tons of canoeing, but our kayaking has been limited to small lakes and rivers using easy-peasy “sit-on-tops.” We’ve only once tried to paddle a serious, two-seater touring model. The attempt ended rather poorly, by the way. The non-adjustable seats situated us so deeply inside the kayak that we were forced to hold our elbows up around our necks to paddle. We whimpered back to the dock within 20 minutes, having completely blown out our shoulder muscles.
But since Norwegians are famed for their kayaking skills, we felt confident that, in the hands of professionals, we’d get properly fitted and might actually enjoy the experience. With that in mind, we booked a three-hour jaunt around the fjord with Oslo Kayak Tours. I know, I know. Three hours on an ocean sounds pretty challenging for folks who couldn’t even make it 20 minutes on a lake. So you can understand my anxiety as we met up with our group, grabbed our gear, and got situated into our seats.
Annett, our guide, introduced herself as one of the two female owners of the company. (Nice to hear of women entrepreneurs in the sporting industry!) She and her business partner, Tanya, are both German, but immigrated to Norway long ago and are officially certified instructors with the Norwegian Kayak Union — Tanya has even kayaked around the entire coastline of Norway up to the Russian border. After hearing this, I felt loads more comfortable that not only wouldn’t I drown, but I might also gain some decent skills.
As it turns out, most everyone in our group was in the same boat (pardon the pun), having only limited kayaking experience. It seems our biggest fears were overturning and being trapped upside down underwater. (Who wouldn’t be nervous about this scenario, which gets played out in nearly every adventure film.) Annett calmed us down, saying that we didn’t have to use a spray skirt — the membrane that seals you into the kayak to prevent water from splashing inside. Of course, it’s a give-n-take, meaning that while you won’t drown without the cockpit covering, you’re likely to get mighty wet and chilly. Glad I wore my wool long-johns.
Next lesson: getting in and out of the boat without tipping it. Annette demonstrated that you simply straddle the kayak, grip the cockpit with your arms behind you, plop your butt down in the seat, then slowly pull in your legs. You’ll look like an ungainly spider, but at least you won’t tip. To exit, repeat the procedure in reverse, making sure to plant your feet before pushing yourself up and out of the hold. “Don’t try to vault out of the kayak with your feet still inside the boat — that’s the only time I’ve ever had someone overturn on a trip,” she assured us. Good to know.
After adjusting the seats and foot pegs (the things that help you keep your knees bent so that you can paddle comfortably), Annett taught us how to row. There is, in fact, a front and back to the paddles, and orienting them properly is pretty much all it takes to get some power with your stroke. However, the sort of natural, figure-eight motion that your arms make while paddling results in a lot of water cascading down the length of the paddle and onto your lap. Now I understand the need for a spray skirt.
The final instructions on how to use the rudder were for those folks in single-seaters, or for whomever took the rear spot in the doubles. Having relinquished the steering to Matthew, just as I do when we’re biking on the tandem, I can’t vouch for the ease of guiding a kayak. But in theory, your feet rest on two pedals that control the rudder. Press the right pedal to turn right, and the left one to turn left. Seems fairly simple. Perhaps the biggest challenge is remembering to raise the rudder before sliding up onto the shore; you don’t want to rip off the thing that steers your ship.
Thus properly educated, we climbed inside our crafts and pushed away from the coastline. Nausea swept over me as the motion of gliding backwards reminded me that I’d forgotten to bring my seasick medicine. Awesome. Visions of trying to ralph over the side of the kayak without tipping it paralyzed me for a second. But thankfully, the sensation subsided once we began moving forward, and I crossed my fingers that the water wouldn’t get choppy further out into the fjord.
As we skimmed through the harbor, Annett pointed out wacky houseboats with checkered pasts. One guy’s “designer special” looked so much like a suburban home that it had attracted the attention of the officials. The rules say you can’t create a permanent dwelling in the water — but nice try scheming to avoid those property taxes, buddy. Now the harbor patrol makes him move the boat regularly. I can’t imagine his fuel bill after motoring that mammoth thing all around the fjord.
Heading for open water, we glided along a shoreline that reminded me of Washington State — pebble-strewn beaches, rocks and trees draped in moss, towering conifers with blazingly orange bark, and dark granite monoliths that warped up out of the water at odd angles. I can totally see why Seattle hosts a substantial population of Norwegian-Americans; the landscape must’ve looked comfortably familiar to homesick immigrants.
Every now and then, rocky islets loomed up out of the water, looking like surfacing hippos with gulls perched on their backs. Upon closer inspection, their flanks sported shaggy carpets made of multicolored seaweed and barnacles. Little flotillas of seabirds methodically combed these buffets, each species picking out their favorite eats. In the distance, bright red and yellow summer hyttes (cabins) hopscotched along the spines of the larger islands. For once, it seemed humans had added something worthwhile to the naturescape.
Our path took us within viewing range of several noteworthy sights, including a local nude beach; a huge cruise ship that seemed to dwarf the island it had parked next to; and the uber-mod Statoil headquarters, “possibly the most expensive office building Norway has ever seen,” reported Annett. But our final destination and turnaround point was an adorable little lighthouse that sat atop a pile of rocks like a white hen roosting on her nest.
As we circled around it for the best view, Annett told us the story of the place, known as Dyna Fyr. (Fyr means “Fire,” which is what Norwegians call lighthouses). Built in 1874, the tiny structure had once held a beacon, a huge foghorn — and a family of six. The keeper’s four children supposedly swam to shore when the weather was warm, but in winter, they skated over the ice to get to school. Just in case they fell in and got wet, the first row of desks was always reserved for them, since it was closest to the schoolhouse fireplace. Bet they were thrilled — what kid doesn’t want to be at the front of the class?
On the way back home, we took a brief break to practice our beaching skills. While we refueled with granola bars, Annett shared funny stories of previous excursions — one of which involved an enormously fat American family whose mother had requested a kayak trip for her birthday. Unfortunately, the father’s monstrous belly prohibited him from sitting upright, which left his little daughter to do the most of the paddling. Halfway through, the father/daughter combo pooped out, as did the son and mom in singles. So poor Annett had to tow them all back to the marina by herself.
Thank goodness, no one in our group distinguished themselves so notably. Nobody rolled their kayak, nobody lost their lunch from seasickness, and no one complained incessantly of long distances or sore shoulders. I think we all had a truly relaxing time and wished it could have lasted even longer than three hours. So I’m thinking for our next trip, we’ll book one of the four-hour foodie tours….