To Norway, To Swim

By Neil King Jr.

When my first daughter was three weeks old I dunked her into the Mediterranean north of Rome. She squealed. When she was two she would beg to go out stomping through the rain puddles in Brussels. I obliged. When she was seven she pleaded for me to throw her into the frigid Roaring Fork River in the Rockies outside Aspen. I did so, with glee, and dove in myself.

Over the years we dared each other to dive into Lake Michigan in late October or into alpine lakes at the foot of glaciers. A swim in the northern Atlantic three days after Christmas? Definitely. Nothing topped swimming; the more bracing, the better.

So I wasn’t surprised how Lilly responded when I presented her with a college graduation offer: A father-daughter adventure anywhere in the world. She mulled it for a few days and shot me her decision. “Let’s go swimming in the fjords of Norway,” she said.

I liked the idea: Several days roaming western Norway in search of swimming holes with a daughter about to plunge into full adulthood. We’d done “just-us” adventures before, just as I had with her younger sister, Frances, also a very adventurous swimmer. Lilly and I went to her birthplace of Prague when she was 10; to Montreal in the depths of winter at 14; to New York the year after, just as Frances and I went to Brussels, to New York, and much later for five glorious days cruising the coast of Croatia.

So this would be another fine chapter, sweetened by the knowledge that our lives were changing, that Lilly was heading out on her own, once and for all. And all of it woven around our shared loved of swimming. The perfect combination.

I’ll confess, though, to a mild hesitation. She’d be graduating in early June, still chilly days in Norway. Many of the famous hikes along the western coast aren’t fully passable until mid-June, when the snow finally melts. That didn’t bode well for how welcoming the fjords would be.

What about the Dalmatian coast, I suggested? Nope. Scotland? Nope. 

So, Norway it was. Guide books and web searches unearthed precious little about our chosen mission: a few blog posts, a Q&A or two on TripAdvisor, a couple clips on YouTube. Fjord swimming didn’t appear to be the focus of many jaunts to Norway. For most travelers, the fjords were those glorious fingers of water that lure cruise ships in from the sea. They weren’t really meant for bodily immersion.

By the time we nosed our rental car into the line to catch the ferry across the shimmering Hardangerfjord from the tiny burg of Torvikbygd, we had our trepidations. We’d crossed the mountains the day before by train from Oslo to Bergen—a most magnificent ride—and it was veritable winter up there. Frozen lakes, snow drifts, river still rimmed with ice. And in the distance, as the ferry rumbled our way, we saw the mountains capped with snow and the waterfalls, like so many strands of pearls, hurling fresh snowmelt to lower elevations.

I slipped out of the car and scrambled over to a jetty to test the waters. In went my arm up to the elbow. My fingers began to tingle after half a minute or so. “How’s it feel?” Lilly asked. “Invigorating,” I said.

The ferry operator wasn’t much more upbeat. “How cold is the water?” I asked when paying for the crossing. “Eleven degrees or so, I guess. It warms up later in the summer.” Hmm, 50 degrees Fahrenheit, colder even than the San Francisco Bay at its nippiest. Then we met a fellow from Bergen who was off to go skiing for the day. “Skiing?” I said, reminding him it was almost summer. There’s a ski area just up the road from the ferry landing, he said.

The drive to the Fonna Glacier Ski Resort spoke to the wondrous contrasts of Norway. In 10 minutes, we’d left the tall grass, buzzing bees and grazing cattle of June and were well into a November moonscape of slate-grey rock fields and waterfalls plummeting into black lakes. Another 10 minutes and it was a deep January of snow fields, scudding clouds and—coming around the last bend—a ski area packed with people in parkas who hadn’t come to Norway to swim.

So, imagine the shock, half an hour later and back into June, when we caught a glimpse along the shore of something truly remarkable: Swimmers! There, just up from the village of Jondal through an opening in the trees, we saw a boy push two girls off a wooden plank that jutted out over the fjord. They screamed on the way down and scurried out within seconds of hitting water. But hey, they existed. 

By the time we got back, ready to swim, the kids were gone and we had the plank to ourselves. A patch of sun broke out far across the fjord, creating an idyllic scene of white houses, church steeple, and the tiny dots of grazing cattle.

Here we have a confession: In an act of caution—or utter weakness—we had brought neoprene tops and shorts. So our first swim, plunging off that plank to the slap of water on the face, was utterly fantastic, invigorating, comforting—and slightly unreal. We lolled like seals that first time, protected by the equivalent of a thin layer of blubber. We swam and dove and took a long float, examining the clouds, the silence, the breath. 

But wetsuits aside, we had, right then, truly arrived in Norway. That’s the wonder of it, the beauty of traveling to swim. Nothing else puts you in a place quite like diving into it.  Images flashed of so many other immersions: off cliffs in Colorado, late-night beaches in Sumatra, from a dock in Switzerland’s Lake Constance, that heart-stopping May swim off the tip of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton. Each, a punctuation point, a true moment of being there.

Still, nibbling smoked mackerel and crackers on the deck of our Airbnb in Herand that afternoon, we were ashamed. It was obvious: Real swimmers don’t wear padding. Swim caps, sure. Swim shoes, definitely. But from then on, that was it.

Next morning, we hiked out to a point and took a sunrise swim from a gentle swoop of rock that made for a perfect launch. Lilly, ever the sport, rubbed the sleep from her eyes and tiptoed, shivering, out to her waist before diving. Then the jolt, the breathlessness, the whoops and laughter until calmness came and the heart evened out. 

We had no plans for swims in advance. If the perfect place arose, in we went. And so it happened later that same day when we’d looped over to the gorgeous Sorfjorden, a 24-mile finger of blue-green water interlaced with the white of the snowy peaks above. Coming around a bend near Lofthus I swerved to the shoulder and there it was: An old fisherman’s pier, weathered but firm, with a ladder coming up from the water and the peaks stretching for miles into the distance.

We took turns diving from that pier, exulting in the cold slap of the water and the unexpected bath of sunlight. We should have a word in English for that moment, post launch, when you are suspended in air but have yet to hit water, have yet to break the calm and descend into murk. We’d travelled far for that moment of exhilaration distilled. 

We swam in five fjords in all over just a few days, leaping from shorelines and high rocks and piers. Between swims we scouted places for improvised smorgasbords of salmon, cheese, apples, and wine, all while plotting futures—hers and mine—and debating the ingredients of a life well lived.

One morning early, with the Norwegian flag snapping on its pole outside and clouds hugging the fjord, we trod through the foyer of the Utne Hotel in the tiny village of Utne, clad only in bathing suits and towels around our necks. “Are you going swimming?” an elderly Norwegian couple asked, horrified as they sipped their morning coffee. “We are,” we said. And off we went into a wonderful chiaroscuro of cloud and distant sunbeam, plunging in just feet from where a river disgorged fresh snow melt into the fjord.

That was the first of several swims that day, and each added its bodily glow to the hours that followed.

Back in Oslo on our last full day in Norway, we had our most humorous, if least scenic, swim. Oslo, too, sits along its own fjord, so why not jump in? On a brisk, cloudy afternoon we wandered past the strollers, the bikers, the café chatterers. We went out past the Museum of Modern Art. At the end of the high pier alongside the Tjuvholmen Sculpture Park, we stripped to our suits as people in parkas and scarves pushed prams or stood glued to their phones, paying no heed. And then, first Lilly and then me, we jumped off the edge into the cold water.

One last midair-suspended-moment-of-delight. One last brisk watery welcome. One last fjord.

Trip over, Lilly’s life moved on, as did mine. But emails quickly flew: “Wow, check out these images of the English Lake District.” Response: “Let’s do it!”

Neil King Jr. is the editor of Gotham Canoe and a writer who, when not at home in Washington DC, is very happy to be elsewhere.