RTWPaul: Riding Above the 60th Parallel and the Arctic Circle

Vodka Smugglers and Northern Winds

Riding to Nordkapp, Norway, the northernmost point of Europe, is on many riders’ bucket list. But while most will travel North following the Norwegian coast, then double back down, I wanted to take a different, less travelled route via Finland.

I knew Finland was said to be flat, covered in endless forests, and full of bat-sized mosquitoes, but there’s something about riding in the deep North that just can’t be explained. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s so remote, or perhaps it’s just a different kind of adventure.

Either way, Finland it was, and I picked a route leading me to one of the northernmost Finnish borders with Norway before heading towards Nordkapp. And while Finland was indeed flat, forested, and populated by blood-sucking mosquitoes more abundantly than people, this country surprised me in the best way possible.

The Vodka Route

Northern Finland is a land of few humans and plenty of deer. While the roads are in excellent condition, there are plenty of gas stations to find fuel, and you can find small towns along the way to get food and supplies, the entire region seems to be mostly unpopulated – which works just fine for me. For days on end, you can ride alone for hundreds of miles seeing nothing but wild deer, an occasional river loggers’ camp, and an odd village of blueberry farms.

Blueberry industry seems to have taken over the Finnish North: with cheap labour coming in from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, Finns are making a killing in growing world’s favourite superfood in the pristine forests and marshes.

But blueberries aren’t the only product the Finns appear to be very fond of. There’s another commodity that’s even more popular, and it’s got nothing to do with blueberry muffins or healthy breakfast smoothies. 

Vodka, Eastern and Northern Europe’s beloved beverage – I guess you you’ve got keep warm in those harsh temperatures – is being bought in Estonia for cheap, put on ferries and boats to Finland, and then ferried across country and into Norway where liquor is much more expensive but where people still like to party. Perhaps that’s the reason why the locals at the Karigasniemi border with Norway seemed so positively tipsy, sitting around in the local pub and boasting about their bootlegging exploits: because of the Schengen agreement, there is no official border between Norway and Finland any longer, and bringing a few cases of Smirnoff across is easy as pie.

I’ll never know whether the vodka smuggling stories were true or not, but seeing the drunken locals was definitely an amusing sight. The deep North suddenly seemed a lot more human.

The Road to Nordkapp

After crossing the Norwegian border, it felt like the nature played a cruel joke on the unsuspecting Finns. On the Finnish side, the landscape was flat, desolate, and straight for miles and miles. Entering Norway, the land quickly began to change, the road twisting in sweeping bends and climbing higher. Soon, I could feel the weather turn colder as the road began skirting the fjords of the Arctic Ocean. Gone were the endless pine forests: here, the climate was too harsh for trees, and the woods gave way to barren, rock and moss-covered ground.

Finally reaching Nordkapp felt like a victory. Even in August, the weather above the Arctic Circle is no cruise in the Caribbean, and the strong, icy cold winds from the Arctic Ocean make the ride that much more difficult. 

The views, however, were more than worth it. Nordkapp itself is just a rock facing the ocean, with the globe monument marking the spot, but the scenery around it is simply breath-taking. The jagged coastline is lined with dramatic cliffs plunging into the ocean, and the stark, unforgiving landscape is something to behold.

Nordkapp is not free, and Norway is not inexpensive, though, so I didn’t linger. After spending a night in small cabin in a campsite nearby and getting some much-needed warmth from a roaring fireplace, I set off to ride back South, but not before exploring Norway’s next bucket list destination: The Lofoten Islands.

Lofoten and the City of Å

I don’t regret my decision to ride to Nordkapp via Finland, as it was a very unique – and often entertaining - experience. However, riding back down along the Norwegian coast was definitely a hundred times more scenic. South of Nordkapp is where the legendary fjord country begins, and it is hands-down one of the most beautiful places in Europe you can explore on a bike.

Lofoten Islands is a large archipelago known for its dramatic mountain and arctic fjord scenery, but it is, in essence, an ancient community of fishing villages. Rich in cod migrating from the Barents Sea, Lofoten has been a fishing hotspot for more than a thousand years, and the traditions here run deep. It’s impossible to ride Lofiten quickly, as you’ll want to stop and take photos every ten miles or so: the local fishing villages are so picture-perfect, and the fjord views are so phenomenal that you feel like a postcard has come alive.

Fishing is still huge in Lofoten, except nowadays, it’s an expensive sport rather than a meagre means to feed a family. There’s no shortage of fishing tours and fishing boats for hire, and with Norwegian prices, it’s not for everybody. At the same time, though, Lofoten is very traveller-friendly, and you’ll find several campsites here if hotels are above your budget.

In Lotofen, the road ends at the colorful small harbor of Å, the one-syllable town that boasts a beautiful marina. From here, you can hop on a ferry bound to Bodo in mainland Norway, or ride back up the way you came in. I decided to take the ferry as it would save fuel costs, and besides, with the coming low temperatures of the fall snapping at my heels, it was time to keep moving South.

Riding above the 60th parallel is no walk in the park, even if you stick to tarmac roads. Cold temperatures, unforgiving Arctic winds, and sparse population means you’ll have to be more self-sufficient, and if your budget is tight, prepare to wild camp a lot in Finland and Norway.

Is it worth it, though? It’s a resounding yes from me, but you’ll have to find out for yourself. 

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