staying warm on a sup - Stand Up Paddleboarding in the arctic
For years I had wished to go to Norway after seeing its magnificent fjords and breathtaking mountains…
I have been thinking wistfully about it for some years, but I had rather envisaged stand up paddleboarding in the fjords in summertime; endless light, sunshine and wild camping.
Instead, I found myself in Norway for the first time in December, when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, and the temperature fluctuates between minus two and minus twenty. And I loved every minute of it.
It was such a strange environment, with only four hours of light to see by each day, and even that was a mystical pink dusk. With the long, dark nights, I was perpetually confused as to what time it really was, and regularly found myself thinking it was bedtime only to discover it was 4pm. I felt a sort of mellowness and tiredness that come with such low light intensity, and slept deeply and readily at regular intervals.
I planned to do three activities whilst there: stand up paddle boarding, hiking up snowy mountains, and napping. My main concern was the correct kit, as since moving to the South West of England, my Northern hardness seems to have been replaced by a penchant for warmer weather, and an adversity to getting cold feet. Long gone are my days of Scottish surfing year round in a holey 3mm wetsuit from eBay during my time at Edinburgh uni.
I had often heard people say that the cold in really cold parts of the world like this isn't as bad as it is in the damp UK, despite being well into the minus numbers, and I had always thought it was a mildly ridiculous thing to say. But it’s surprisingly true! Firstly, you’re wrapped up in so many layers you don’t know quite how to go to the toilet, so you’re well and truly prepared for the biting cold. Secondly, you don’t stay still for prolonged periods of time, and moving about keeps you nice and warm (unless of course your boyfriend is a photographer, in which case you WILL get cold). And thirdly, it’s true what they say about the damp cold getting into your bones more noticeably than crisp, dry, chilly air - I don’t think I felt the cold as much as I had expected.
I found all of the layers a little troublesome when hiking up mountains, as I got so hot that I was then sweaty, which despite removing as many layers as was socially acceptable (basically down to my thermal onesie) still resulted in me then getting cold once we stopped. However for SUPing, I managed to maintain the perfect temperature.
I waterproofed myself up (kit list below), with plenty of thermal layers, accepted that my feet would be blue by the end (I have ridiculously long toes, or ‘tingers’ as I prefer to refer to them, so circulation to their extremities is none existent throughout English winter, let alone Norwegian December), and got out onto the water.
I was fortunate enough to have several days of low wind that were perfect for paddling, and as a result was treated to flat, calm water, reflecting the immense, jagged snow-topped mountains on its mirror-like surface, with a strange atmospheric twilight glow all around. It was absolutely magical, all my senses being fed by beauty, from the crisp cold air on what little skin was bare on my face, the sound of nothing but the water lapping around my board and paddle, the slightly salty sea smell of the fjord, and the landscape that had me repeating “oh my goodness” under my breath.
But it turns out that I hadn’t even experienced the half of it yet.
Since taking up stand up paddleboarding, and learning about the Northern Lights, it had been a dream of mine to paddle underneath them. One of those dreams that I honestly never really believed I would be fortunate enough to realise, between the elusiveness of the Lights and the perceived difficulty of finding the perfect spot, with my SUP, from which to watch them.
Night after night, for almost a week, we were treated to the most incredible shows, right on the edge of the atmosphere: greens, purples, reds, white… to try and describe them would be an insult to their beauty, but suffice to say that no picture I had ever seen of them prepared me for their movement. Ribbons dancing and flowing, and each night completely different to the last.
On the penultimate night of our trip, full of gratitude and wonder, I fulfilled my wish to witness them whilst standing on the ocean.
I am already plotting my return to what instantly became one of the most incredible places I have ever had the privilege of travelling to. Norway really is a paddling haven. The fjords come in all shapes and sizes, sheltered or open, vast or small and friendly, most surrounded by their contrasting mountains. There is no shortage of breath-taking landscape to gawp at, nature to marvel at, or water to calm you.
On one of my paddles on a very open fjord, looking directly out to sea, I was so blown away by the colour of the ocean, and the peace it instantly brought over me upon wading into the freezing waters, that without realising it I made a promise out loud to the sea: “I will protect you” I said aloud to her (out of earshot of James!). And I will. I’ll do what I can at least, and I’ll encourage whoever I can to fall in love with the ocean too, for their own wellbeing, and so that they too can do what is in their power to protect this beautiful, life-giving, peace-inducing entity.
With huge thanks James Appleton for the above photos, for driving us around the snowy roads, for being my mountain guide, and creating the incredible video below.
Thanks also to my sponsors and kit providers (in bold) for the kit that kept me warm and dry throughout the trip.
Dryrobe - used for travel (great for sleeping in when travelling), before and after SUPing, and taken up mountains to wrap up in out of wind and cold. In fact pretty much worn everywhere as a brilliant warm, waterproof and windproof outer layer.
Starboard inflatable 12’6” touring board
Three piece paddle
Palm Equipment Atom pants, Vantage top, Tsangpo thermal onesie (complete with very handy bum-flap. I barely took this off the entire trip), Tsangpo thermal socks, Force boots
Patagonia H2No trousers and down jacket
Keen Terradora Wintershell boots
Bureo sunglasses - wishful thinking
Heavy Duty down jacket borrowed from James
Insulated hat, gloves and trousers
Ski socks over thermal socks
Klean Kanteen insulated drinks bottle - absolutely essential and kept water warm for entire days and nights. Perfect to warm up up a mountain, or pour into frozen stiff wetsuit boots! Also essential for travel to remove need for single use plastic bottles.
Klean Kanteen reusable coffee cup - essential for travel when getting coffees or hot chocolates out and about to avoid single use coffee cups (which are plastic lined)
Eco toiletries - bamboo toothbrush from Surfers Against Sewage shop, shampoo and conditioner bars from Lush
A good book for the long nights, or alternatively a Norwegian Cluedo set which we found in one of our accommodations, which led to hours of fun, as neither of us speak any Norwegian.