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Norway's legacy of ice

The Mountains and Fjords of Norway were carved out of stone by Ice-Age glaciers

We left the Shetlands shortly after noon and judging from the number of empty tables at dinner that evening many of the passengers had opted for gravol and bed rather than food. The M/S Expedition, 105 metres long and 6,000 tons, is big enough to safely cruise the world's oceans but small enough to get tossed about in rough seas — and our 300 km crossing from the Shetland Islands to the coast of Norway was decidedly rough. I wedged myself into my bunk with a couple of extra pillows and fell into a deep sleep (See previous travel article in Pique March 15, 2012).

Early the next morning I woke with a start - aware that something had suddenly changed. The pitching and rolling of the ship and the slap of waves against the hull were replaced by an eerie calm. It took me a few moments to realize that we had reached the coast of Norway and slipped into the sheltered waters of a fjord. I dressed and went up to the bridge where I met Tom, one of the zodiac drivers. "We've just entered Nordfjord," he told me. "It was a slow crossing so we won't get to Olden until almost noon."

My first impression of Nordfjord — it looks a lot like Howe Sound back home. Indeed there are many similarities between the west coast of Norway and the coast of British Columbia. Fjords, steep-sided gashes formed by glacial erosion during the last ice age, are the dominant feature of both landscapes and in both Norway and B.C. they provide protected inland waterways between the ocean and the interior.

During the last ice age virtually all of Norway was covered by ice, in places more than a kilometre thick. Under its enormous weight the land was depressed and as the ice moved it carved out deep, steep-walled valleys into the ocean floor. When the ice melted the land began to rebound and the sub-glacial valleys were flooded with seawater to become fjords. In most places uplift of the land, though slow and episodic, was faster than the rise of sea level. As a result, ancient sea caves and beaches are now preserved as much as 200 metres above the present ocean.

Nordfjord, with a total length of 106 kilometres, is actually a complex of many branches, each one a major fjord in its own right. It took us all morning to wind our way from the coast to the tiny town of Olden at the head of the most southeasterly branch. We dropped anchor a few hundred yards off shore and took the zodiacs to Olden's small pier and caught the bus to Briksdalen Lodge. From there it's a three-kilometre hike to Briksdal Glacier, a narrow distributary arm of the Josterdals Ice Field, Europe's largest mainland glacier.

From an elevation of 1,200 metres the Briksdal forms a narrow icefall that plunges down a steep slope to a flood-plane almost at sea level. For those of us who live in the Mountains of B.C. Bricksdal Glacier doesn't seem that remarkable, but each year it attracts more than 300,000 visitors from all over the world. For me the best part was the hike in. The trail winds back and forth across a turbulent mountain stream and each turn opens up new vistas of the surrounding mountains. The slopes are laced with spectacular waterfalls fed by meltwater from the Josterdals ice field high above us.

During our trip from Nordfjord up the Norwegian coast we cruised in and out of many other fjords, each one a visual treat of spectacular, ever changing mountain scenery. But Geirangerfjord, a 15-kilomitre branch of Storfjord is one of the most dramatic. Forming a narrow gash through rugged mountains it is famous for the many waterfalls cascading down its steep sides. The Seven Sisters, the Suitor, and the Bridal Veil Falls drop almost vertically for hundreds of metres and, when the sun is right, their cloud of mist creates a surreal display of shimmering rainbows.

At the head of Geirangerfjord we took a bus from the small village of Geiranger up to a lookout 1,500 metres above the ocean. The series of white-knuckle switchbacks lead through the snow line, around still frozen alpine lakes, and past the ski tracks of the previous winter. The lookout, which seems to hang directly over the head of the fjord, gave us a new perspective on the landscape and an appreciation for the colossal scale of the fjord system.

While Norway's fjords are the most obvious legacy of its icy past the ancient raised beaches and sea caves that were eroded during the ice age and later uplifted are also an important part of the country's landscape. Several million years ago Mt. Torghatten, the 'holed mountain', was an island and ice-age surf eroded deep sea-caves into opposite sides. The two finally met in the middle and today the prominent hole that was once a sea cave is 160 metres long and stands 112 metres above sea level. It has become one of northern Norway's most popular tourist attractions and, like the others, we climbed up and through the hole just for the novelty of walking through a mountain.

Though less well known than Mt. Torghatten the caves of Sanna Island have played a more important role in the country's early history. Kirkhelleren, the largest of twenty-odd caves on the island, is 32 metres high and 45 metres deep. For anyone who has read "Clan of the Cave Bear" Kirkhelleren will bring to mind the cave where Jean Auel's fictional stone-age family lived. But real people inhabited Kirkhelleren as early as 9,000 years ago, making it one of Norway's oldest archaeological sites. It must have been occupied soon after the ice began to disappear. As the land rebounded the cave was lifted farther and farther above the sea and eventually abandoned for houses built closer to the shore. Today the foundations of those houses, built thousands of years ago by Norway's first fishermen, tell the story of a people who, to this day, have never strayed far from the sea.

This article is a part of a travel series that took Jack from Scotland to the Norweigan arctic. You can find the first three in the series in the Pique on Feb.16, March 1, and March 12 of this year.