Senja likes to call itself “Norway in miniature” since the country’s second-biggest island (1,600 sq km, with a population of 7,864) contains pretty much every landscape you’re likely to encounter elsewhere in the Scandinavian nation. What you won’t come across, though, are the ski resorts, which is why I find myself slogging up one of Senja’s many mountains on my skis rather than sailing effortlessly heavenwards on a chairlift. Not that I mind.
As our small group of ski enthusiasts approaches the summit of Litjemoa, at about 800 metres, we negotiate a wide ridge with, on one side, enormous crags plummeting down to the black waters of a deep fjord while, behind us, the Atlantic Ocean glints steel-blue. With a pay-off like that in return for a couple of hours of uphill hiking, who cares if it has involved a bit of effort?
Senja’s mountains see relatively few visitors, which means the reward for having hiked up the slopes are descents down wide, open, untracked powder fields and through sheltered birch forests, the clank of ski lifts and hubbub of the pole-wielding hordes a world away. True, Senja’s mountains are modest in altitude – the highest point on the island is just over 1,000 metres – but they soar straight up from sea level, offering more than enough “vertical” to keep any skier happy. It’s this dramatic conjunction of coastline and mountain that makes the experience so special.
“This is remote country, so ski carefully,” says mountain guide Dick Johansson, before we set off up Litjemoa. The laconic 60-something from nearby Sweden then leads at a slow and steady pace, the rest of us following like ducklings behind momma duck.
Because we’re close to sea level, there are no issues with altitude. We gradually rise above the valley floor into expansive snow fields with even more expansive horizons: inland stand wild, unnamed mountains punctuated by deep, winding fjords; in the opposite direction, and far below, waves roll onto a shoreline that, in places, is as clear and turquoise-blue as the Caribbean.
After a brief picnic on the summit we don’t hoon back down the slopes with the abandon you might take for granted at a ski resort, because an accident out here would be a serious matter.
Among the safety equipment we’re carrying are transceivers, so we can be located if buried in an avalanche, collapsible shovels and probes. Nevertheless, the wide, unconfined powder fields are, even taken relatively slowly, lots of fun, the more so because we get to cut our own tracks down them.
Hamn i Senja is a fishing station that dates back to the 17th century, and has a permanent population of about 10. Fishing boats still operate out of the harbour and the sturdy wooden buildings tucked beneath dark cliffs must be a welcome sight when the men and women aboard them return from the wild, rich fishing grounds of the North Atlantic. In the 1880s, more than 650 people lived here, according to guest literature in our hotel, the 65-bedroom Hamn i Senja Lodge, and the man running affairs, one Adolf Lund, was regarded as a local “king” and kept two tame sea eagles as pets.
The lodge offers the height of luxury – which in these parts means sauna and outdoor hot tub – and it feels almost decadent to return to these hedonistic surroundings after a hard day in the mountains.
Day two sees clouds the colour of deep bruises amass out at sea.
“We’ll head inland,” says Johansson, “That way, we may avoid the worst of the weather.” The guide has decided that the lowering cloud and a forecast of heavy snow later in the day mean a summit push to the top of a mountain with no name isn’t feasible; instead we’ll climb up through the birch forests that blanket the valley’s lower slopes and, once at the tree line, where flat light reduces visibility, we’ll ski back down, then repeat, effectively doing laps.
Despite being within the Arctic Circle, there’s a wide variety of trees and shrubs on the lower slopes of Senja, thanks to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, and while “laps” may not sound that rewarding, it’s hard to complain when you’re floating downhill through perfect powder and between trees that, according to one of our party, “were obviously planted by the Norwegian Tourist Board to be the ideal distance apart for tree skiing”.
In the late afternoon, a snowstorm hits, flakes the size of bottle tops reducing visibility so much that we retire to the hot tub in Hamn, where it’s decided that, to be allowed to enjoy a shot from our bottle of whisky, each member of the party must first jump into the ocean from one of the harbour’s jetties.
There’s plenty of screaming and gasping as we hit the water, the temperature of which is about four degrees Celsius, but the hot tub feels twice as good afterwards, as does the whisky.
The snow is still falling the next day as we drive to the small village of Bergsbotn. Many of the buildings here have seen better days, and sitting as the settlement does beneath towering crags and above the dark waters of Bergsfjord there’s a drab, monochrome feel to the place, so it’s something of a relief when we begin the ascent of a small mountain that does have a name: Purka.
Johansson sets a leisurely pace up a small valley of close-packed birch trees then up and across wind-lashed open slopes towards the summit. Heavy snow showers sweep in from the sea and the forbidding crags thrusting up from the deep, dark waters of the fjord disappear behind a thick grey curtain: it’s like a scene in Game of Thrones – it’s possible to imagine a White Walker charging out of the swirling blizzard.
The most enjoyable skiing is again through the trees lower down the mountain, where the tourism board’s tree-spacing specialist has also apparently been at work, setting the timber just right so that we’re able to ski fast and relaxed without too much risk of piling into a trunk.
Despite the weather having restricted us to mostly skiing amid the trees, where there’s better visibility, so elemental is the environment on Senja, and so exhilarating has the experience of ski touring through the heart of it been, that on the drive back to Tromsø, for our flights home, we all agree we’ll keep this island a secret, just for ourselves …
Finnair and SAS offer connecting flights from Hong Kong to Tromsø.