The sailboat has barely left the dock in Alta, Norway, when I notice a ski pole taped to the stern. The lone weather-beaten Swix pole is splinted with black electrical tape to the rear of the Humla, the 15-metre sloop I’m on that’s motoring into the Arctic Ocean. Mats Grimsæth, the lanky, long-haired skipper, notices what I’m staring at. “That pole came with the Humla,” he explains. “I don’t dare take it off. It’s probably holding the boat together!”
He’s joking, but I’m still relieved to see plenty of backup ski poles on board, and plenty of life jackets too. Scattered among them are fat skis wedged next to kayaks, and T-shirts and ball caps hang next to winter jackets below deck. This bewildering mix of gear only makes sense for the month of May in the northeastern extreme of Norway, in a land called Finnmark, where winter flirts with spring, the sun forgets to set and snow-capped mountains melt directly into the sea. These are the borderlands SeilNorge, a boutique Norwegian expedition company, specializes in exploring through hybrid skiing and hiking journeys north of the Arctic Circle. On board two of the company’s sailboats (Humla and Valiente) for the next four days are 23 journalists and athletes of varying ski abilities — from Kaylin Richardson, the American two-time Olympic alpine racer, to Frankie Hill, a magazine writer from England who can barely snowplow — who have come here to carve slopes best reached by boat, with a modern-day Viking at the helm.
In Finnmark, winter flirts with spring, the sun forgets to set and snow-capped mountains melt directly into the sea.
Grimsæth rolls his Rs like an old salt, but at 24, he’s a prodigy of the seas. As a newborn, his parents strapped him into a baby seat meant for a bicycle in the cockpit of their sailboat. He saved up to buy his own vessel as a teenager, then spent the first 48 hours of its maiden voyage from Belgium to Norway retching. Grimsæth still gets seasick on occasion, but this hasn’t stopped him from sailing more than 40,000 kilometres along Norway’s convoluted coast, and from loving every queasy second of it. Now sponsored by Helly Hansen (one of the organizers of this trip), he supports himself as a freelance photographer from his floating office, sailing wherever whim and the winds take him, and occasionally works as a skipper for SeilNorge, tasked with showing the ropes to rookies like myself. But on a sailboat, I quickly learn, there are no ropes, only lines.
Grimsæth instructs me to grab one now to help hoist the mainsail. As wind fills the canvas he cuts the engine, and we surge over the inky sea in an eerie, exhilarating silence. All I hear is the splash of water against the hull, the creaking of lanyards, the cries of gulls orbiting the mast. Mountains rise from the ocean all around us in a series of whitecaps, and it’s impossible to tell where one range ends and the other begins. Above our heads, in the fierce wind, birds fly in place simply by unfurling their wings.
“If there’s anything a coast imparts,” observed the poet Katherine Larson, “it’s patience with imperfect lines.” But imperfect lines are what this trip is all about: the tacks of a sailboat through narrow fiords and islands on the Finnmark coast, and the tracks of skis up and down the peaks edging them. As for patience, you won’t find much of it on board the Humla, where Helly Hansen-sponsored athletes Richardson and Dennis Risvoll, a Norwegian pro freeskier, begin plotting their dream ski lines down mountains from the moment we set sail. They seem eager to plunge down steep chutes of snow hung between ragged cliffs, the sort of death run that at a distance resembles lightning frozen in its flash. Given I’m no double-black-diamond skier, I’m relieved when Grimsæth anchors the boat a few hours later next to a rather less vertical slope, on the northeast end of the Øksfjord peninsula.
We cram into inflatable dinghies that look like pincushions with all the skis and poles sticking out of them. “My elbow is coming for you,” Grimsæth warns me in charmingly literal English, meaning I should watch out for his flailing arm as he pulls the engine starter cord. Three tugs later, each successfully dodged, the motor putts to life. He drops us off on seaweed-slick cobbles with a reminder to leave our life jackets and ski bags on the snow farther up the beach. “That way,” he explains, “the tide won’t steal your stuff while you’re gone.”
It’s 10 p.m. but I wouldn’t know it if I hadn’t checked my watch. The Arctic sun tilts above us, tireless. Salt tangs the air to the point that I question whether the white substance we’re skinning up is truly snow. The higher we climb, the crisper the air and the more powdery the slopes. From a distance, the water in the bay looks blue-black, a sea of bruises. We ski down in honeyed light that lingers long after we’re back in our bunks on the Humla, where I lie buzzing with joy and jetlag. I stare out the porthole next to my pillow at mountains distorted through drops of seawater and curse my insomnia, because the sooner I fall asleep, the sooner I get to wake up and ski some more.
I’m beginning to understand why skiing is a national obsession in Norway — and has been for millennia. Before flying to Alta, we visited the Holmenkollen Ski Museum in Oslo, which showcases replicas of 5,000-year-old rock carvings of skis on the island of Tro off this country’s northern coast (the original carvings have sadly been vandalized). Also on display was a model in miniature of the cross-country ski trails webbing the outskirts of Oslo, a network so extensive, at 2,600 kilometres, you could go a different way every day of the year. “Are those trails free to access?” someone asked the museum guide. “Of course,” she said, appalled. “You mean you have to pay to ski where you’re from?”
Yes, we generally do, perhaps because where we’re from — Canada and America and Britain and France, among a smattering of other nationalities on the trip — there’s no word or way of life quite like friluftsliv. Norwegian for “free air life,” the term is embodied by the likes of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, national heroes who slogged across Greenland and the South Pole before anyone else. The museum holds artifacts from their pioneering expeditions, from old wooden skis to linseed oil-soaked anoraks to … dogs? The guide explains how Amundsen’s team relied on dog teams for added muscle on their way to the South Pole, and for extra calories on the way back. “One by one they put the dogs on the table,” she grimly acknowledged. “It was about survival in nature.”
I’m beginning to understand why skiing is a national obsession in Norway — and has been for millennia.
Our survival in nature in Finnmark, to everyone’s relief, is both less harmful to canines and more scrumptious. Cooking for SeilNorge is Qaaqqutsiaq “Tipi” Lynge, a renowned chef from Greenland, who somehow conjures mouth-watering, multi-course feasts from a cramped galley: Korean tacos with pork, kimchi and peanut sauce; roasted broccoli with sweet potatoes and fresh-baked bread; bratwurst and apple crumble with whipped cream for dessert. The servings are so generous that even our crew of tired and hungry skiers barely manages to clean our plates. Total silence ensues whenever meals are served, and not because we have nothing to talk about.
We take turns doing the dishes and tidying up, ensuring the cupboards are firmly latched and loose objects are tucked away before setting sail. The quarters below deck are comfortable, if a bit cramped, in part because there’s wet ski gear hanging everywhere to dry, including in the two bathrooms that the 10 people aboard must share. But who needs showers when you have the sea? “I wash everyone,” Grimsæth announces a little too gleefully after a wave crashes broadside into the boat, soaking me and the others on deck.
I forgive him instantly. Who wouldn’t, with his goofy grin and equally goofy (yet undeniably warm) fur hat with ear flaps, which he wears to ward off the windchill as we sail? His buoyant charisma is undergirded by the quiet competence of someone who has weathered, all alone, the craziest seas the Arctic can throw at a sailboat. He’s essentially a poster boy for friluftsliv: part athlete, part artist, part philosopher of the deeps. “In the valley of a wave, you feel like nothing else exists,” he says, as the boat plunges into exactly that kind of oblivion. “But on the crest of a wave,” he exults as the boat rises, “you feel on top of the world.”
The ski pole that’s taped to the Humla’s stern holds fast throughout the trip — a perfect figurehead for sea-to-summit sailing journeys, only it’s located at the back instead of the front of the boat. Traditionally, Vikings would decorate the prow with an ornamental carving or painting to ward off evil spirits, but the Humla only has a narrow wooden seat on which we all take turns sitting. Cruising low and fast over the waves, with the wind singing in my ears, I understand why Vikings sometimes wore helmets with whole birds fixed to them, instead of the horns you see in cartoons: isn’t sailing a kind of flight? Wind and water let you soar, if only in spirit, if only for a little while, until your face gets too cold and the waves get too big and it’s time to retreat below deck.
Gravity and snow enable another kind of flight, and this is our last chance to experience it: tomorrow we’ll dock in Tromso, the endpoint of the trip. On our second last day of winter in May, we ski up a peak called Stølfjellet, meaning either “summer farm” or “muscle soreness mountain.” The latter interpretation seems most apt as we stumble across the tundra in rigid ski boots to reach snowline. “This is mental,” says Frankie Hill as she trips over a tussock. So it goes with the free air life. What it offers is not comfort and ease, but the sort of absurd slogging that, if you stick at it, can take you somewhere sublime. In this sense, climbing a mountain is like sailing in big seas. Nothing exists as you switchback up a peak except for the snow directly in front of you, at least until you reach the top and the view turns oceanic.
Under blue skies on the summit of Stølfjellet, the water below looks so turquoise, and I’m so warm with exertion, that I can almost believe we’re in the tropics, slippery white stuff under my skis notwithstanding. Then the sun ducks behind a cloud and I remember that winter lives year-round at a certain latitude and altitude in Finnmark. I put on my jacket and soar back down to sea level, stopping only when the snow runs out and the tips of my skis touch kelp.
Kate Harris (@kateonmars) is a writer whose first book, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road, won the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize.