Norway Without the Gnarl

Whilst going through a few things I found this article I wrote ages ago and promptly forgot about. It brings back a few memories of an outstanding trip last year and has fired me up for the trips I’ve got planned this year. Just what I needed to get me out of the winter slump.

Me on the Ulla Slides
Me on the Ulla Slides

In the Beginning.

Norway: Trolls, fjords, a-Ha and big scary grade 5 rivers. Having never been there, my entire knowledge of paddling in Norway was based on the tales of beat downs, multiple swims and other such carnage that friends had spoken about in hushed tones after a pint or two. Despite this, in my mind it still seemed to be a place every self respecting white water paddler should visit at least once.

So when Andy cast his e-mail far and wide asking if anyone fancied a jaunt across to Scandinavia to visit the land of trolls, I jumped at the chance. It seems that I wasn’t the only one. What I originally assumed would be a small group paddlers quickly turned in to a large band of twelve friends of mixed paddling ability; from youngsters looking for grade five thrills to bus pass holders and a mix of thirty-something grade three and four paddlers looking for an alternative to the Alps.

Sitting firmly in the thirty-something bracket and being comfortable paddling grade four but slightly nervous about anything bigger I began to wonder: was it possible to do Norway without the Gnarl…

The calm before the storm
The calm before the storm

First Things First
Rivers aside, the first challenge was getting there. Since the ferry from Newcastle to Bergen was discontinued last year the easy option no longer existed. Our choices were essentially reduced to flying or driving.

Of course driving (being the harder option) was the one we chose. We decided that not being restricted by baggage allowances and hire car companies was worth the extra effort. That extra effort amounted to over 30 hours, 7 countries and 1500 miles of driving each way as, to keep costs down, we took the Dover to Calais ferry.

A few of the more sensible members of our party elected to fly with Ryan Air and, in what must be a first in my experience, didn’t get messed about by either the airline or car hire company. Although this worked out more expensive than driving, it’s an option I’d give a lot more serious thought to next time.

Still between three drivers and with the aid of the modern miracle that is satnav, the drive was bearable and even by the end of the trip we were all still talking to each other. Although, when it took seven attempts to get a non-draw result in a game of paper-scissor-stone, it became apparent that perhaps we had spent just a little too much time in each other’s company!

Dave Surman
Dave Surman

The Country
As a place, Norway is beautiful; a land of stunning scenery and friendly people. Outstanding mountain vistas, high desolate moors and expansive fjords provide a backdrop that will stay with you for a long time after you leave. 

After much consultation of the guidebook and various trip reports off the Internet we decided that we would start our trip in the Hedmark region. Here we hoped to find a higher percentage of grade 3/4 rivers to break us in gently, before becoming more nomadic and moving around to other areas sampling the watery delights.

This approach meant pitching and striking camp frequently. Fortunately Norway is blessed with a multitude of reasonably priced camp sites and wild camping is legal if you want to reduce the costs even more. Certainly you will soon be trying to spend as little as possible because, and there’s no other way of saying it, Norway is a bloody expensive place.

Forget eating and drinking out, bring some supplies with you and cook at your camp site to reduce trips to the supermarket. If you want to drink, buy your beer on the ferry as a single can of the cheapest lager cost the equivalent of £2.50 in the supermarket.

One option we did use at quite a few camp sites was the Hytta, small cabins with bunks and cooking facilities. These were a relatively inexpensive way of spending the night when it was raining or if we couldn’t face the prospect of putting up the tent yet again.

Hopefully my descriptions of the travelling and living haven’t put you off (and in reality we lived comfortably and affordably by being sensible) because it would be a shame to miss out on the highlight and point of the trip…

Checkin' it out
Checkin' it out

The Rivers

Norway is a white water Mecca, everyone knows that. The rivers are big and scary; it’s where people who use phrases like “super stoked” and “gnarly” inter-spaced with “dude” go to get their thrills.

And it’s true there is plenty of that kind of thing, big drops and long rapids are present in abundance. However it’s also true that if you’re comfortable on alpine type grade 3/4 rivers there is also plenty of stuff for you to paddle, the majority of it roadside with easily portable rapids if it all gets a bit too much.

Over nine days of paddling we managed fourteen sections of river ranging from grade 3 to 5. Not everyone paddled everything and on occasion we took the opportunity to split the group in two. This allowed everyone to run rivers that they were comfortable with. By doing this everyone found plenty to enjoy, and when you’ve got a large group of paddlers all looking for different levels of challenge, this is no mean feat.

We started in Hedmark and were lucky that it was raining as we arrived later in this region’s season. Here we paddled the Trysilevia, Unsetåa and Setninga. All of these were grade 3/4, each starting at the easier end and gradually ramping up to the harder stuff. They were different to the rivers we paddled later on in the trip; these rivers were almost British in character, which along with the rain made us feel at right at home.

Starting here was actually a great decision, it broke us back into paddling gradually, allowing us to dust off those cobwebs that had appeared since the winter paddling season.

Leaving Hedmark we decamped to Sjoa and got straight on the fabled Sjoa Playrun. The difference between this and the rivers in Hedmark was stark; the water was big, fast and cold whilst the sun shone from a clear blue sky.

Catching this at what the raft guides assured us was a very high level, our first run down rapidly turned from a hugely fun big water experience to a prolonged boat chase. It was a little bit of a wakeup call and I think we soon learnt that just because something was run by the locals in playboats, we shouldn’t treat it with any less respect. Still no harm was done, apart from one lost set of paddles and a subsequent rerun went far more smoothly.

The Store Ula despite being graded at 5 provided great easier sections for the entire group between the bigger drops. The keener members of the group lapped up the more difficult drops and slides whilst others took photos and we all played fantasy lines at the final famous waterfalls. Combined with the stunning scenery (even the portage was outstandingly beautiful) no one came away disappointed with the days paddling here.

The Upper Jori entertained the same bunch who had fun on the Ula Slides the day before, whilst others had a rest day. Despite the grey skies the power of the huge set piece rapids brightened up the day of those of us who fancied tackling some of the harder stuff.

Moving on a little further north we explored rivers around the Otta area. Here we split the group a bit more with those looking for the harder rivers paddling the Upper Rauma and Upper Asbjornia. The rest of the party sampled the Lora and Lower Jori; whilst these provided plenty of G3/4 fun for most of the group the Asbjornia nearly broke those who paddled it. The five kilometre walk-in, followed by several large portages and a lot of rope work seemed to sap the energy of the team leaving them seemingly keen to calm things down a bit over the next couple of days!

The Ulvåa provided miles of flat water interspersed with fantastically long rapids to entertain everyone as well as providing some amusing beatings for the video camera.

A brief foray to Lom provided the trips only culture quotient in the form of a rare 12th century stave church and gave the chance for the entire group to paddle the short but exciting Ostri (Åstre). This provided fast alpine style thrills that brought smiles to our faces (at least I think they were smiles!). The paddle out from the lake at the start is magnificent, although you don’t get long to appreciate it once the rapids start and you enter the gorge.

To end the trip two of our group were desperate to run the waterfalls at the end of the Store Ula, so we returned to watch them make perfect lines whilst the rest took photos and video from every conceivable angle.

The Åsengjuvet section of the Sjoa brought the trips paddling to an end with a hugely enjoyable big volume run that left everyone with happy memories to support us through the long drive home.

The Team
The Team

At the End.

Norway: Trolls, fjords, a-Ha and big scary grade 5 rivers? Well yes, we saw statues of trolls. We saw fjords. We drove across the border blasting a-Ha from the car stereo. And yes, we found big scary grade 5 rivers.

However, we also decided that Norway is a fantastic paddling destination, not just for the hair boaters out there. In just under two weeks we managed to paddle rivers that included big volume, steep creek, pool drop and continuous low volume at a range of grades that everyone in our group could enjoy.

We came back with our own tales of beat downs, multiple swims and other such carnage. But what paddling trip doesn’t? Besides, now I feel like I can call myself a self respecting white water paddler!

There is plenty of material out there to help you plan a trip to Norway; the guidebook is fantastic, giving the character of each river without spoiling it with a rapid by rapid description. This and various internet write-ups mean that there is no excuse for not being able to find something to suit your needs.

We clocked up the miles but could easily have squeezed in a few more rivers, to our disappointment we never managed to get over to Voss. Likewise if we’d taken it a little easier we could have easily allowed the scenery and the country to occupy us with its majesty for the entire trip. Still there’s always next year.

So if you’re bored of the same Alps trip every year or want to try something a little more challenging, give Norway a look. Being sensible and picking your rivers carefully will mean that you should have a fantastic time.

Hopefully this has given you a flavour of what to expect, now go and read the guidebook and start planning next year’s trip.


This trip was paddled by: Andy Wicks, Martyn Read, Jethro Peskett, Simon Knox, Dave Hodgkinson, Vicky Rolls, Lee Gill, Fred Wondre, Dave Surman, Phil Baker and Doug Johnson. Martin Rolls kindly provided shuttle bunny duties and Ol Renison came along for the drive.

If you don’t fancy driving then Ryan Air fly to Oslo Torp from various locations in the UK and are boat friendly. Plenty of hire companies will hire you a car. Our group hired one with rails and took their own bars which they cable tied on.

More information on paddling in Norway can be found in Jens Klatt and Olaf Obsommer’s book, Norway: The White Water Guide (ISBN13: 978-3980931540). There are also various write-ups at that we found helpful. Gene17 also produce a map of the Sjoa and Otta area that shows where to get in and out.

More picture here:

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