Saturday, May 7, 2011

New Hot Spot: Norway's Glaciers

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A view of Styggevatnet Lake.

Glaciers made western Norway's landscape: Their Ice Age predecessors dug its fjords over hundreds of thousands of years. Though they've left their impact everywhere, when viewed from a cruise ship or a trail, the great ice masses can look impossibly far away.

Ice Troll

Ice Troll kayakers head for the glacier on the Styggevatnet lake.

A young generation of adventure-sports lovers is turning the glaciers of Norway's fjord country into a vast natural playground. Although organized glacier hikes, usually lasting a couple of hours, have gone on for decades in this region about 150 miles northeast of Bergen, wilderness activities have increased sharply in the last few years—everything from a kayak cruise on a glacier-filled lake to a tour on horseback across an expansive glacial flood plain.

Some of these new activities are for experienced athletes, like "riverboarding," or putting on a wet suit and crash helmet and riding down river rapids on a small flotation device. But most others "look like extreme sports but they're really not," says Peder Kjaervik, director of the visitors' center near the Nigardsbreen, the area's most approachable glacier, of the many activities now on offer. Andy Cullens, a native New Zealander, whose Jostedal Valley company Ice Troll specializes in kayak and rafting trips for the whole family, says his customers range in age from 2 to 87.

Trip Planner

[GLACIER]Ice Troll

Ice Troll's activities include glacier walking down a water hole.

Getting There

Sogndal is the Jostedal area's transportation hub. Wideroe, the Norwegian regional airline owned by SAS Group, offers regular turboprop service from Oslo. More-scenic options: a five-hour fjord cruise from Bergen to Fjaerland or a surprisingly enjoyable bus ride from Oslo or Bergen to Sogndal. From there, since public transportation is infrequent and often costly, it makes most sense to rent a car.

Where to Stay:

In Fjaerland, the Hotel Mundal (opened in 1891) is full of rustic Victorian charm, the kind of place where you want to linger in the public rooms and browse the ample library. At its cafe, try the locally caught smoked trout with potato salad. Open May 1–Sept. 30, and by request the rest of the year. About $330 for a large double room, including breakfast. Tel: +47 5769-3101;

Near Valldal, about 70 miles north of Stryn, at the Jostedalsbreen's northern edge, the Juvet Landscape Hotel, opened this May, is an experiment in designer luxury. Made up of seven guest houses, the hotel offers customized packages for exploring the region. June, July and August start at about $380 for a double. Off-season rates, including full board, are around $320 per person. +47 9503-2010;

For Guided Tours

For activities in and around the Nigardsbreen glacier and the Jostedal valley, contact the Breheimsenteret. Telephone: +47 5768-3250;

Other than warm clothing, the local guides will provide all necessary equipment, including ice axes and crampons (the jagged skate-like shoe attachments necessary for walking on a glacier), and even hiking boots, if any last-minute arrivals are wearing tennis shoes or sandals. "People turn up with their lunch and a camera," says Mr. Cullens, of his kayak tours of a remote, high-altitude lake called Styggevatnet, which culminates in a hike onto a nearby glacier.

A good first stop for a glacier jaunt is the Norwegian Glacier Museum, on the southern edge of continental Europe's largest glacier, the Jostedalsbreen. (Around 190 square miles, it's technically an ice cap and contains some 25 named glaciers that sweep down into surrounding valleys.) In this idyllic fjord-side resort, called Fjaerland, two glaciers nearly come down all the way into the fjord.

At the museum, a panoramic film displays the area's lunar-like moraines, polar ice fields and steep, green valleys, giving airborne views of many major glaciers in the neighborhood. "Each glacier has its own beauty," says the 36-year-old Mr. Cullens. A veteran glacier guide who's worked in Iceland and New Zealand, he likes the accessibility and variety of the Jostedalsbreen.

The glacier museum encourages visitors to touch hunks of glacial ice, streaked with crystals formed over hundreds of years. The late Sverre Fehn, who won architecture's prestigious Pritzker Prize, designed the museum—made from textured concrete, slate and wood—as a kind of celestial bunker. The austere building "communicates like a poem with its surroundings." says Norwegian architect Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, a partner in the Oslo firm Snohetta, who designed the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion being built in lower Manhattan.

Before roads were built, farmers sometimes crossed the ice cap on foot to visit relatives in a neighboring valley. These days, a winding road network, much of it constructed in the last few decades, makes getting around much easier.

The Nigardsbreen glacier, part of the Jostedalsbreen, is about a three-hour ride from Fjaerland. The trip goes through hills and, toward the end, up the narrow Jostedal valley, which has an almost tropical lushness in summer, enriched by glacier runoff.

About a 45-minute hike from a parking lot, the Nigardsbreen is particularly accessible and beautiful, says German geologist and glacier expert Anne Hormes, who's an associate professor at UNIS, a university in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago east of Greenland. (It's one of the most northerly universities in the world.) In photographs, the glacier looks like a sooty snowbank; close-up, it's an eerie blue mountain of ice, winding its way down to a milky-green glacial lake with hardly a plant in sight.

[GLACIER]Ice Troll

A view of an arm of the Jostedalsbreen glacier late in summer.

"I like the area because of the contrast" between the all-white, treeless top of the glaciers and the rich green valleys, says Martin Alex Nielsen, a young Oslo-based events coordinator and glacier guide for DNT, Norway's national trekking association. DNT has boosted its seasonal activities on the Jostedalsbreen, from a two-day ski trip in spring, when participants ski up and across the whole of the ice cap, camping out overnight on the surface, to advanced "glacier workshops" in August, when summer melting opens up dangerous gaps, or crevasses, that participants are taught to master.

Ice Troll's kayak trips on the high glacial lake of Styggevatnet and hikes on the adjoining Austdalsbreen glacier generally start in early July and last through September. Mr. Cullens started organizing kayak trips here in 2002. More recently, he added white-water rafting in the Jostedal valley's river, and this year he introduced riverboarding.

Early this summer, Mr. Cullens and some friends crossed a lake by kayak and then came down a glacier arm that they believe hadn't been walked on in decades. Last month, together with the six-year-old Jostedal company that organizes summer horseback rides, he turned that experience into a guided tour.

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