I got my first mountain bike, a Raleigh Maverick 15, for Christmas. I think it was 1985. I proudly rode it to school when it restarted in January and it was immediately nicknamed ‘the tractor bike’ by my classmates. Almost 30 years later and I was sat with my latest ‘tractor bike’, a 2014 Salsa Mukluk, at Haugastøl, Norway, waiting for a guy who I only knew through through the internet. His plan was for us to explore the Hardangervidda National Park on our fatbikes and packrafts, on bike-legal ‘traktorvei’, which translates as ‘tractor roads’. His name is Mikkel Bølstad.
After a pretty standard SNAFU by NSB (the national rail operator), I arrived at our chosen meeting point several hours earlier than we had originally planned and so waited for Mikkel to make it from his home further south. Earlier concerns that I had misjudged the mountain weather proved unfounded and I was glad to be sitting in shorts and a t-shirt as the sun rounded the hotel/coffee shop and settled on warming the picnic benches out front.
I sat and thought about my travel companion. You do get a slight sense of someone’s character from reading their blog, or following their Twitter feed, but there are still a lot of unknowns. This is someone who I am going to be living in close proximity to, for the next four or five days, in all probability while we are both tired, cold, hungry and wet. How would we get on?
I got a text message from Mikkel to say he was on the final stretch, riding along the road from Geilo. I grabbed a final coffee, repacked my gear one last time and waited. Mikkel’s bright yellow Pugsley, the only distinctive marker I had that I was meeting the right guy, rolled into view. “Hei Mikkel”, “Hei Joe”, “It’s good to finally meet you!”.
We left the crowds at Haugastøl and ground our way up onto the Hardangervidda mountain plateau by road. On our laden fatbikes. Into a headwind. It wasn’t quick. But it sure was pretty. Eventually we left the tree-line behind. The cloud formations above were moving quickly and changing their moods just as fast. Menacing dark giants giving way to jollier puffy white airships.
With Mikkel being the route researcher and designer I quickly nominated him navigator. I was in for a shock as we took our turn off the main road. Almost immediately we were met with a stunning view across rolling green hills, the sun and clouds playing out their rapidly developing drama of dark and light across the landscape. And constant across it all, was a ribbon of pristine, buff-coloured gravel road. It snaked one way then the other, but generally in the direction of the wind. We whooped and hollered at the ease of our progress. The gravel was so compacted here that our tires barely hissed across the surface. Now our journey had really begun.
It stays light so long up here that I don’t even bother carrying a head-torch or flashlight in the summer, so it was a little perturbing to witness a wholesale darkening of the sky due to a massive wedge of dark cloud, scudding so low over the hills that it looked like it was going to fall on our heads. Mikkel was running around trying to capture the juxtaposition of the dark cloud against the thin sliver of low sun. Big, fat dollops of rain started spitting down as we left the groomed gravel road and headed out beyond conventional motorised traffic range, onto the real ‘traktorvei’.
We kept reducing our tyre pressure in stages. The rockier, sandier and worse the road became, the softer our tyres got. We forded streams, took a minor detour and revelled in the varied riding conditions. At every rise we were rewarded with another vista of hills, lakes, bogs and that tractor road, ploughing it’s way across it all.
We made camp on a small rise between two lakes. It was exposed but a bit of a breeze would help keep the bugs down and water wasn’t too far away. Neither were the lemmings. It’s been another bumper year for them, so we were careful not to drink potentially contaminated water. We guyed the tents down hard and set about preparing dinner. It was getting late and we were both tired from the travelling and riding.
I woke up first, after a solid night’s sleep. Our proximity to the lakes and the wind waning in the night meant moisture covered every surface. I set about getting more water and carrying out a little TLC on my drivetrain. The constant attention of water, gravel and sand had reduced my nearly new chain to rusty-looking junk. We ate breakfast and drank coffee in the lee of my tent, the wind was stirring and coming at us from a different direction now. Once packed we hit the trail and almost immediately noticed a shift in it’s character, more rugged, more rocks, more streams, more fatbike fun.
The road drifted between bogs and glacial moraines. It’s side-by-side nature allowed Mikkel and I to often ride close enough to maintain conversations. We were already at ease with each other and our surroundings. Even silences were perfectly comfortable.
At each ‘water obstacle’, from fording rocking streams to flooded trail, we often took it in turn to point our fat tyres forward and charge it. The other person was inevitably poised with a camera, ready to try and capture any ensuing drama. But the fatbikes were amazing, just calmly and comfortably ploughing over/through anything we put in their way.
And so the the crux. The section of the journey that would link one ‘traktorvei’ with another. In between them was a lake. It was why we were carrying our packrafts. But a stiff breeze was blowing. Any cessation in paddling effort and our wee boats would be blown across the lake. Mikkel stopped paddling shortly after leaving shore, to readjust his two-wheeled load. In hindsight I should have attempted to do the same.
Around the headland and the wind strengthened further, rolling down off the opposite hills and across the slate grey surface, unopposed. At times white caps signalled an even further increase. Progress was painfully slow, exacerbated by my poorly positioned load. The white-water deck on my Denali Llama packraft prohibits the ‘seat/handlebars forward’ orientation of a bike, forcing me to shorten my stroke. We skirted barely submerged boulders that made us head further out into the wind, which seemed to be shifting to remain forever on our bow. I aimed for short-term landmarks and just kept paddling.
After an hour and a half I was cooked. My meagre paddling experience this summer, on Bergen’s sheltered lakes, was insufficient training. I signalled Mikkel with a blast on the whistle above the noise of the wind and pulled to shore for a break. Scoffing a Snickers bar I told Mikkel I would rather push my bike along the shoreline than face another few hours of paddling into that headwind. We were only making around 1.5km/h. Mikkel was more comfortable paddling and could pull on years of kayaking experience. We agreed that I would push my bike, he would paddle. We would remain within sight of each other the entire time. Neither route was particularly easy but we would, at least, be working to our strengths.
I have the raft->bike transition pretty dialled so Mikkel didn’t have too much of a head-start by the time I got going. My route was to simply follow the shoreline but there wasn’t an obviously superior path. Close to the lake the surface flitted between mud and rocks, further inland, bushes and bogs. Periodically, faint, but welcome game trails. Then I stumbled upon The Beach. A surprise crescent of pale yellow sand, in stark contrast to all the green and blue. This was my first beach ride on the fatbike, it just happened to take place on a mountain lake, 1000m above sea, and regular beach, level. I remained wrapped in my rain gear and grazing on snacks, still feeling a little tired and cold. Lemming carcasses, at every conceivable level of death and decomposition, littered my path.
As our arc around the trackless promontory came to an end, it suddenly dawned on me that Mikkel’s earlier concern that my chosen path of pushing my bike along the lake shore would indeed result in a problem. Mikkel continued to fight wind and waves out on the lake, but he was at least able to paddle across to the other side of the outlet river, where our lake drained into another. I was on the wrong side, and as Mikkel had guessed, there was no bridge. My choice was simple: re-inflate my packraft and ferry across the mouth of the channel or walk down the river and try to find a place to ford. Late in the day and a little frazzled from a couple of hours of pushing/dragging my bike, I took the lazy option and trudged down stream. I gesticulated my intentions to Mikkel, coming ashore on the far bank, above the noise of the wind and water.
My memory thumbed through dusty files on crossing rivers, gleaned through years of reading about wilderness adventurers. I ditched the ‘souvenir’ reindeer antler I had found, picked a spot based on my internal risk assessment and went for it. The water wasn’t particularly cold and I could steady myself across the slimy, uneven rocks beneath my feet with my bike acting as an anchor. Half way across I took stock of the situation. The current was pushing but not so much that I couldn’t handle it. The water was up to my thighs. Mikkel was now out of sight behind rocks and bushes. This should be ok. Three quarters of the way across and I thought I was home dry, the far bank was so close. Then I stepped into a deeper channel and everything changed. The water went over my waist band and I discovered, somewhat alarmingly, that fatbikes float. Suddenly my bike was no longer offering stability, but floating on the river surface and trying to twist me around and disappear down stream. I slipped and dunked myself up to my chest but luckily found enough footing to stumble across the rest of the river and sheepishly drag myself on to the far bank. ‘That was stupid’, I chastised myself. Probably not life threatening, but it was an avoidable mistake. At the very least I should have waited for Mikkel and his camera to document my stupidity.
More pushing/pulling my bike through bushes brought me out to the lake shore where Mikkel was finalising his raft->bike transition. He was cold and wet too, from his hours in the raft. He told me to go ahead and find somewhere to make camp amongst some near-by scattered huts. With the adrenaline from my little dip wearing off, I was suddenly aware that I was wet up to my armpits, cold and shaking. I needed dry clothes and hot food. I found a spot offering a little shelter from the wind and spitting rain to set about getting the SL-3 pitched in ‘limpet’ mode. Once out of the wind I got changed and sat in my sleeping bag to make dinner. Mikkel set up his tent next to mine and while the evening gloaming settled around us we ate, drank and studied the busy lemming colony, into which we had unwittingly pitched our shelters.
I was so happy when my eyes fluttered open, to see pale sunlight on the rain fly. A gentle breeze was still blowing and I knew I had a shot at getting my clothes dry. I jumped out of my warm down cocoon and rigged up some clothes lines from my shelter to my up-turned bike. I busied myself with breakfast, coffee, rotating wet clothes and lemming study.
Once we were fed, caffeinated and our gear was dry we quickly found our new traktorvei but had little chance of a warm-up before our route climbed hard away from the lakes to trace a dry, rocky way along the spine of some hills. Lakes flanked our progress all morning and the sun climbed slowly over our backs.
As had happened so often on this trip, each rise conquered was rewarded with another view of rolling hills and our tractor road unwinding across it’s contours. This particular tractor road was rough and rocky. We met a few people along the way, in modified 4x4’s and a tractor. Some were genuinely interested in our journey, others were ambivalent. Some were drunk. The balance between access and responsible wilderness guardianship filled our conversation.
We rode pretty hard to make up any distance lost in the paddling yesterday. It was hot and heavy work under the sun. We even had to think carefully about drinking water and apply sunscreen in the heat of the midday. As the afternoon wore on my energy levels were flagging as quickly as my slightly miscalculated rations. We shared dried mango and Kornmo biscuits to refuel. Our third camp was a little more tricky to find than the previous ones, but once set-up, we sat around and ate together amongst the comfortable berry bushes, studded with an array of mushrooms. We kept an eye on the sky, swatting away mosquitoes as we marvelled at the sunset to the west and ominous dark clouds bearing down on us from the east. We shared a tot of rum as a nightcap.
I awoke from another good night’s sleep. Everything was warm, bright and green and I was glad I had taken a little time the previous evening to search out a wee hollow to nestle my bed into. My softly vegetated mattress was hard to pry myself from. The only downside was everything around me was bejewelled in dew. The sunshine was a signal to get up and make the most of any potential drying time. There was a useful breeze that morning but it was much cooler than the previous days. Wrapped in my puffy jacket I watched a falcon hunt across the morained hill that dropped away to the lake shore below us. The water for my oats and coffee heated noisily on the Jetboil.
After predominantly climbing yesterday, today we would be rolling over the edge of the plateau so our progress included several long descents that swapped between rocks and sand traps. As we neared the boundary of the national park there was a noticeable correlation to the tractor road’s quality. We also started seeing a lot more people. Day hikers, backpackers and fishermen. In several places we noticed the ‘slepa’, one of the ancient trails across the Hardangervidda, probably used by past generations to move reindeer, horses or cattle.
As we made our descent to the tourist hytte at the trail-head we were rudely reacquainted with the modern world as a convoy of three massive 4x4’s ploughed their slow, destructive way up the trail. We pulled over to let them make their dusty way past, feeling quite sad for the sheltered occupants who smiled impassively back us. There was so much more fresh air and communion with the natural world on our side of the electric windows!
We enjoyed some fresh coffee and sticky pastries at the hytte. We pulled out maps to plan our separate egress from the area to our respective destinations. It looked like Mikkel would have a long, slightly downhill road ride towards his home, but into the wind. I would have the tailwind but be forced to climb several 7% grades on the road in order to make it back to Haugastøl and my planned journey home along the Rallarvegen.
After a final dirt road/tarmac descent together, down to the valley floor, we made our farewells. It was telling how disappointed I was not to be continuing the journey with Mikkel, it felt that we had become good friends in a very short space of time. At the junction I turned left and immediately started the first slow, draggy climb on my laden fatbike up the steep road. Mikkel would turn right and no doubt enjoy the hum of fat tires as he made his way downhill, to the south.
After each painfully slow climb I had to wrap up warm for the ensuing downhill scream. Switchbacks and long straights made for plenty of time to alternate between the cacophony of wind noise or squealing disc brakes. When I finally arrived in Geilo the heavens and made up their mind to finally dump the rain they had threatened all afternoon and I sought shelter at a campground I frequented last summer. I bought some tokens for the shower and set about cleaning myself and my clothes. Later I walked into town in my sleep gear to find a gas station selling hot dogs and cold drinks.
The next morning I sat pensively in my cabin. The weather forecasts were for strong headwinds and rain all along the Rallarvegen. Swathed in rain gear I started out on the 30-or-so kilometre road ride to Haugastøl. Yesterday’s tailwind was nothing but a headwind now. I passed slowly under cloudbursts, rainbows and moments of electric sunshine. By half-way I was soaked on both sides of my rain gear, inside and out. The final straw was descending towards Hagastøl and seeing rain clouds pour out of the valley where the Rallarvegen lay. No more riding for me. At the coffee shop I changed back into my dry sleep gear, rolled down to the train station and took a couple of trains back to Bergen, the end of my journey, the end of my summer vacation, and the start of a new academic year.
This trip was so rewarding. Heartfelt thanks go out to Mikkel for inviting me to join him. Thank you for envisioning and planning such an interesting and enjoyable route, Mikkel. I hope we can journey again together soon. Thank you for opening my eyes to the places where these ‘traktovei’ can take us, and our fat-tired ‘tractor bikes’.
For Mikkel’s take on the trip here.