Emerging from the forest’s dappled shadows onto a sudden, sunlit plateau, no one speaks for a moment. It’s partly to catch our breath after scrambling ascent of Haugtua, but also in reverence of the view: steep, wooded slopes tumble towards the steely surface of Storfjord, one of countless inlets that carve deep into Norway’s west coast, while in the distance, the Sunnmøre Alps rise like white smoke.
I sink down onto a picnic bench beside hiking guide Anniken Aavik and gesture at a few tussocks of yellow-brown grass poking up through the snow. ‘You must be glad,’ I remark, ‘that spring’s on its way, and you can get back outside again.’ Her glacier-blue eyes widen. ‘Get back outside?’ she grins, shaking her head. ‘Oh no, winter doesn’t stop us doing that in Norway.’
You might think the sub-zero temperatures and long, dark nights of a Scandinavian winter would make everyone go into hibernation mode, huddled on the sofa in a hygge torpor. Not so, according to Anniken. ‘It’s just a case of seizing the opportunities each season offers,’ she says. ‘As soon as the snow arrives, we’re out cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tobogganing. The warmer months are for hiking and kayaking, then in autumn, we go hunting. It’s sort of ingrained in us, you see, to spend time in nature.’
In fact, Norwegians have a specific word for this: friluftsliv (pronounced ‘free-loofts-liew’). Meaning ‘free-air living’, the term is credited to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose 1859 poem ‘On the Heights’ extols the spiritual and mental benefits of immersing oneself in natural surroundings. Today, a whole body of scientific research backs up what Ibsen intuited. The right to roam, or ‘allemannsretten’, is enshrined in Norwegian law. You can even take a degree in friluftsliv at the University of South-Eastern Norway.
As we settle on a picnic bench atop Haugtua, Anniken – looking every inch the wholesome Scandinavian in her yellow woollen jumper, a ‘lockdown knitting project’ – explains friluftsliv is ‘more of a philosophy or a way of life than a specific activity.’ It encompasses everything from an open-air swim or bike ride to picnics and foraging; high-octane, competitive sports don’t fit the bill, though. ‘Putting on your tracksuit and rushing from A to B, that’s not friluftsliv.’ Taking from her rucksack a Thermos and a couple of small, wooden mugs, she pours steaming hot chocolate into the cups. ‘It’s more this kind of thing, what we’re doing now. You gather, maybe have something to eat and drink, observe the wilderness, in a way you don’t when you’re exercising or competing. It’s more… experiential.’
Like gathering wild juniper branches to smoke a salmon fillet over the campfire, as we do for lunch after our hike; the leaves, when crushed in my fingers, release the botanical aroma of gin. Or later, when I’m kayaking past Glomset, a village in one of Storfjord’s sheltered coves, and local guide Edd Bjorke suggests we stop paddling to sit silently for a minute, allowing the lapping waves to turn us in a slow circle.
It’s only during this pause that I notice clumps of glossy brown seaweed beneath the clear water – a reminder that this is no lake but instead fed by the Norwegian Sea – and, like a cloud-spotter, trace the silhouettes of the fjord’s granite cliffs. Some are jagged like shards of black glass, others are smoothly cresting waves, foaming white where the snow lingers, or lumpen, rounded forms like great trolls hunkering down beside the water.
‘The mountains and the sea are a big part of life for people here,’ Bjorke reflects. ‘We grow up with skis on our legs and playing out in the woods.’ He says wild conditions force you to ‘just let go of everything else. When you’re out kayaking and there are big waves, your mind can’t be any other place than there.’
‘But we know to have respect for weather,’ he adds, nodding towards the horizon. ‘It changes fast here.’ True enough, dark clouds are beginning to blot out the Sunnmøre range and the kayaks are tugged by a strengthening current. On the hike with Anniken, I’d seen entire storm-felled fir trees with their roots exposed like electrical wires.
Luckily, I have a luxurious base camp to retreat to in Storfjord Hotel, where log fires, hot tubs and afternoon tea await. A cluster of Nordic log cabins overlooking the eponymous body of water, its grass-covered rooftops blend seamlessly into the hills above Glomset. Rooms similarly take their cues from nature – timber and slate strewn with woollen blanket and sheepskins. From the wraparound windows of my corner suite, all I can see is the forest, giving the impression of sleeping in a lavish treehouse. The spruces out there appear to be conversing with one another in the gathering storm, nodding, bristling and gesticulating (if there were ever a place to believe Tolkein’s ents are real, it would be here).
The rain soon passes, and parting clouds scatter diamonds across the fjord. Remembering that friluftsliv is all about seizing outdoor opportunities where one can, I grab my wellies and hit the woodland trail towards a neighbouring village, Valle. The soundtrack out here is purely elemental: the trickle of a stream meandering through the ferns, the squelch of sodden moss beneath my boots, the crunch of snow, branches creaking in the breeze. My mind clears. Spirits lift. I remember another Norwegian phrase Anniken told me, ‘Ut på tur, aldri sur’, which roughly translates as ‘Out on hike, never in a bad mood’.
Of course, plenty of other nationalities spend their weekends rambling, kayaking, fishing and so on, too; the Nordics hardly have a monopoly on nature-based activities. Still, if language captures cultural values, surely it speaks volumes that Norway has dedicated vocabulary for such matters. There’s even a word specifically for drinking a beer in the great outdoors (utepils, in case you’re wondering). And I suspect this valorisation of nature has something to do with why the country, despite its long, dark winters, routinely ranks in the world’s top 10 happiest countries. Friluftsliv is part of its winning formula for wellbeing, whatever the season.
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All photography by Louis AW Sheridan