Part 1: Arrival at our WorkAway in Ringstad and settling in with our hosts, our allocated jobs and our responsibilities.
We left our fjord-side aire in Årstein and headed west, deep into the Vesterålen islands. The weather was incredible on the way over; clear, bright skies with light wispy cloud and the temperature stuck around 24 degrees. The bodies of water we passed as we crawled our way through to the Vesterålen islands were of such luminous light green colour, mineral rich with blonde sand visible below, each framed with brooding, dark mountain peaks. We passed through the main town of Sortland on our way, pausing for a quick look at the famed blue houses at the harbour. We also passed the town’s bronze statue of their recently retired, very dedicated and much loved litter-picker.
The winding route we followed hugged the coast, avoiding any of the large, jagged mountains that formed the ever-present backdrop to our scenic drive. We arrived into Ringstad , at Huset på Yttersiden, after around three hours driving, where we met the proprietor Ian, originally of Cornwall, and several of the other current WorkAwayers, who were mostly young students from various places around Europe. The WorkAwayers were all living in the same house and we were offered a tiny room with bunks alongside them, but politely declined, deciding to live in Benny instead. The house’s clutter, grime and noise was just a little too much of a reminder of our own student days, times we had left behind us twenty years ago, and we didn’t want our old, grumpy heads to cramp their laid-back student style.
After having been on site for less than an hour we got invited to join a beginner’s kayak trip, out around the local skerries, but with only one spare kayak remaining Nicky bagged the only available spot. She was to be trained up to perhaps lead future kayaking trips, once she learned how the site was set-up and where the standard local route goes. She followed the group out, led by Ian, taking in the direction of the route and learning how best to deal with novice kayakers in what could be a dangerous environment if the winds or weather were to quickly change or someone went over. The trip took a leisurely three hours or so, and Nicky enjoyed every minute on the calm water.
That evening we finally met the lady of the house, Karina, when we all sat down for dinner. Ian and Karina had met many years ago in Germany, before returning to Karina’s homeland of Norway where they had now run their hospitality and tour business for over ten years. Along with many kayaking trips, Ian led rib-boat bird-watching and photography tours, local hiking tours and hired out fishing boats to guests. There were bookings to manage for their houses and apartments, along with all associated house cleaning, laundry and daily maintenance. On top of that, they ran a busy bar and restaurant, the only one in the local vicinity. No wonder the welcome assistance of keen, hard-working WorkAwayers was something they relied upon.
We all sat on the external decking as we ate dinner, looking out to sea, the night still and beautiful. Seagulls were nesting on a nearby island and they were the only disturbers of the peace, with their raucous calls and squawking the main background noise. With the skies entirely cloud free the views out to the far mountain ranges were simply incredible, but the temperature had cooled dramatically and we shivered in the cold air for a while, until thick, woollen blankets were brought out to help warm us. Even in the summer, being this far north we should have expected to experience cold, crisp nights. Wrapped up well, we talked late into the night as we continually stared out at the island-filled view, enchanted by its simple, still beauty.
I was put on gardening and maintenance duty, a job that suited me just fine. I strimmed edges and pathways, raked off moss, trimmed hedges, weeded and cut grass all around the site on their sit-on mower. It was sticky work under the hot afternoon sun, but it involved a level of pleasant effort that kept me very active and produced immediate, satisfying results. I also engraved a couple of fishing gaffs with personal messages, to be presented as a small token of their appreciation to long-term returning guests. I was also tasked with sketching up a quick site plan for both WorkAwayers and customers, so they would know where each property was located for cleaning or visiting respectively. I was later asked to help with producing fire plans for each of the properties, and sketched up quick floor plans of each, noting escape routes and positions of fire extinguishers and break glass points, that were later to be framed and hung in the properties.
Nicky had been on cleaning duties, either in the kitchen or turning over apartments between guests. But with our host Ian feeling rather ill one morning, Nicky was tasked with leading her first kayak group, with my back-up support. Nicky led them out of the bay, after explaining all the basics; how to put on spray decks, how to get in and out of the kayak safely, and how to paddle correctly and efficiently. I followed behind, carrying the safety tow line, medical kit and spare paddle, staying at the back to keep a watchful eye over the novice paddlers. I had to correct a few, those somehow using their paddles upside down or back to front, and taught several how best to steer their kayak, but generally they all managed to muddle their way through the peaceful island tour with no real issues. The sea was mirror-calm and the warm sun glimmered lightly off the flat surface, making the whole experience quite idyllic, perfect for their first ever sea paddle and for Nicky’s first kayak guiding experience.
Afterwards, as we hadn’t lost any paying guests to the sea, we were rewarded with seats on the rib boat for a Nature Safari trip. There were ten paying guests so we sneaked on at the back as the last two extras. Before setting out we were all dressed in full fleece overalls and life vests, with hats and gloves optional. The powerful rib could run at over 60 km/hour, bouncing smoothly over the small waves. We visited Hellfjorden, a spectacular, narrow strip of water with high cliffs, and the site of many nesting arctic terns. We watched the very pretty but highly territorial birds until they grew slightly irate with our presence, then moved off before we disturbed or upset them too much.
After a fast crossing of the wide Eidsfjorden, we reached a scattering of small rocky outcrops where a large colony of cormorants nested. They sat dramatically on the top of rounded bumps thickly coated with guano, their bodies neatly silhouetted against the greying sky. We next travelled to view a colony of yellow headed gannets, where they similarly stood around in large groups, resting in the afternoon sun. We cruised past many small lighthouses or stone day-markers, and later passed a very remote house on a small island that the current owner was transforming into a hotel to offer an exclusive, peaceful experience. It was perched precariously on a steep, rugged cliff and reachable only by boat.
On our return leg, close to home, Ian suddenly veered the rib boat violently to the left, turning a sharp bend and then cutting the engines to glide towards a small island. He had spotted the main focus of the trip, a sea eagle, watching us from its high perch. Ian threw a fish into the water, knowing that an eagle could spot it from up to 2km away, and we sat back with pregnant anticipation. In only a few moments, we saw the huge sea eagle take off, with its wing span of two and a half metres, then elegantly swoop down and take the fish from the water, talons first. It was the definite highlight of the rib-boat trip, and we felt privileged to have witnessed it at such close quarters.
That night we were offered a la carte in the restaurant, and we both chose to have peppered steaks with frites from the menu, which was a very tasty, richly sublime and rare treat. We later celebrated our wonderful day, and dinner, with a fun trip around the sheltered bay in a small rowing boat, peacefully floating around and absorbing the view. After a few days we have expected the beauty to wane and our enthusiasm for it all to wear off, even a little, but we were both still deeply enthralled by the subtlety of the changing light on the islands and on the extensive saw-tooth mountain backdrop. We could see the peaks of the Lofoten Islands far to the back, with the island of Hadsel standing tall in front, set just across the deep blue Eidsfjorden.
Part 2 to follow.