Monday, June 17, 2013

Marka 24: Norway's Craziness Race

This time yesterday I was paralyzed. After hiking 50+ kilometers in 24 hours from noon Saturday until noon Sunday, I absolutely couldn't move. But I only have myself and my inclination to do crazy amateur sporting events to blame. My currently sore legs and blistered feet can thank a uniquely Norwegian event known as Marka24. Marka is the term for the woods outside Oslo and 24 hours is the length of the competition, and this was not something I knew about or had any intention of participating in just 3 weeks ago. While out hiking I met some fellow wanderers (2 swedes and a german as it happens) who were training for this event and were looking for additional team mates. Me, never one to say to no extreme events, of course agreed to join. It reminded me of one time I agreed to sit in a canoe for 4 days in the tropic heat and survived (see here). Yup, I never learn.

Team does a final consultation of the map

The starting line full of sun-energized hikers

So at noon on a beautiful sunny Saturday at Sognvann (a very popular lake, picnic and running spot), I started off with my 3 teammates out into the woods. One of the guys had made an excellent plan to hit about 8 different cabins with about 50 km of hiking and a few hours rest time built in for the 24 hours. The goal of Marka24 is to visit as many of the designated Norwegian Tourist Association cabins (hyttas) as possible, with each worth a different number of points based on the difficulty of reaching it.

[These two screen shots don't quite line up, but they give you a good idea of the route (and the total walking was definitely well over 50 km if you count in all the winds and turns on the trail)]

And for the most part, everything went as planned. We hiked from noon until about 11pm until we found a good spot to set up a tent for a few hours rest (the big 3 on the map above). There were two goal points in the area, so we decided to leave our packs at the tent and travel lightweight for a couple hours. This proved to be a mistake after we arrived at the top of a steep hill after 2kms of hiking and were told that we were required to have our backpacks on us at all times. A rule we had overlooked. So at midnight we started marching back to the tent as we watched the light fade and the clouds roll in. We decided to get our bags and return to the goals as planned just as the rain started falling, hard. At about 1am we arrived back at the goal (which happened to be in the middle of swamp) with backpacks and received our points. We went on the next one, another 2 km further, and rested for just a couple mins before returning to the tent with our spirits, clothes and packs dampened (you can see this back and forth as the squiggly line near the 3 on the map).

The first goal, Skjenningstua, had a festive atmosphere

Well marked trails make hiking in Nordmarka easy

Having a dry tent waiting for us gave us an uplift for our 2.5 hours of downtime before we woke, broke down camp and were on our way again at 5:30am. As we headed towards our final goals, the rain was fierce with a brief shower of hail for variety. The morning wore on, the clouds thinned, and eventually the sun came out as we reached our last cabin. We had an hour to spare, so we enjoyed some coffee and waffles as we started to really feel the pain of the last 22 hours. I personally had underestimated the toll of hiking so far, up and down rocky trails and through muddy swamps and was in some pain for the last 5kms to the finish. I was glad for the gradual downward slope on a wide gravel travel.

One of many beautiful views 

Reaching a summit

Nordmarka view - stunning

Dusk is coming

Late night and still lake (all the lakes in the area are boat free to protect Oslo's drinking water)

This is what it looks like at close to 11pm

Reward for 22 hours of hiking

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Adventures up North

For the past few years as professional bureaucrat  some of the most interesting things I've been able to work on have related to the Arctic. But despite getting within spitting distance of the Arctic during a work trip up to Nome, Alaska, I had never actually BEEN to above the Arctic Circle*.  Lucky for me Norway has all sorts of Arctic so a trip to the Arctic was inevitable, but I didn't expect to get two back to back trips so soon after arriving.

My first official Arctic experience was a short trip up to Sætermoen, which is a little south of Tromsø on the West Coast. I gave a presentation to a large group of military folks (pat on my own back for giving an hour long presentation to 200 people on 4 days notice) and then spent the evening as a guest at an annual dinner that the group puts on. It was sunny and about 75 degrees the whole time I was there making this first Arctic experience anything but. The sun shone the whole night, encouraging the celebrations to do likewise. The strange thing though, was how temperate the scenery was. Plenty of trees and greenery, which you do not find in Nome or anywhere else in Northern Alaska.

View from my hotel room. 

This was as dark as it got. 

After returning from Sætermoen, I had just about a week and a half (with a trip to Amsterdam in between) before getting on a place to Kirkenes for another work meeting. Kirkenes sits right on the Norwegian border with Russia (yes, Norway and Russia share a border) and not far from Finland. It's a beautiful place, with rocky shores and meltwater lakes dotting the landscape.

See blue dot, yeah, it's WAY up there. 

Here the midnight sun is for real. While mingling with big wigs at a lovely reception, I watched the sun get close to the horizon right at midnight, then start to rise again. This time I went to bed, but peeked out at about 2am to confirm that it was bright and shiny as 5pm outside. So strange.

The meeting itself was interesting, with very high level participation. The participants were even treated to a special cultural event with acts from Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway. My favorite was an accordion-playing Finn who did an artistic presentation of being a wrestling coach. If it sounds like it doesn't make sense, then I think you know understand Finland. But it was impressive.

Coast Guard looking over us. 

This view from my hotel room was pretty great. 

The most amazing accordion-wrestling show I've ever seen. 

Sign and bomb shelter left behind by Austrian troops during WWII. 

Sun, at midnight, before starting to rise again.
Kirkenes from the top of the hill.

Back down in Oslo the nights are short and never completely dark, with a dark blue lasting between 12pm and 3am (again, despite my better judgement I have confirmed this with my own experience - the Norwegians definitely are all about using all the daylight that they are given even if it means giving up sleeping for the summer months).

*Note: To fair, after visiting Nome I could say that I had been to the THE Arctic, since the official U.S. definition of the Arctic includes the area around the Bering Strait on down to the Aleutian Islands. Being human, however, we like lines and borders so by Arctic experience by this definition never felt quite right.