Sometimes you have to hike on another continent to appreciate the Southern Appalachians. Negotiating the rocks and stark mountains of Jotunheimen National Park in Norway, I ponder the differences. Jotunheimen—which means “the home of the giants”—is the most-visited park in Norway, yet it attracts only a fraction of the 10 million people who travel to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year.
For a week, I’m hiking from lodge to lodge, accompanied by 15 strong Scandinavian hikers who are members of the DNT—Den Norske Turistforening—the Norwegian Trekking Association. Founded in 1868, the DNT is Norway’s largest outdoor-life organization, part of the fabric and culture of the country.
In Jotunheimen, barren mountains loom as I walk through glacial valleys. Blazed with a big red “T,” the trail follows a series of cascading lakes, each with its own waterfall barreling down from the snowy peaks. The sun is hot and full, and daylight lasts until 11 p.m. Families have come up to picnic and swim in the glacial lake. I dip my hand in; the water is freezing. In another valley, I spy a hut backed into the mountain and fronted by a lake. Not a single tree—I can see forever in this rocky terrain.
It’s quite a contrast to the bounty of forests that cover most of our region, where glaciers never scoured the land and even our highest peak remains below the tree line. That gives us a diversity of plants and animals. In the glaciated valleys of Norway, however, only a few species of flowers hug the rocky ground; the most loved is the glacier buttercup, Ranunculus glacialis.
Each day, we walk about 10 miles and make 2,500-foot ascents. Think of North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain hike or the Hospital Rock Trail in upstate South Carolina, and multiply by 10 for difficulty. Spoiled by Southern Appalachia’s switchbacked trails, I go slowly, especially downhill.
American hikers wouldn’t dream of signing up for such a trip unless they’d trained regularly. But most of my Scandinavian companions have never even day-hiked before. Their attitude is: It’s just walking; what’s the big deal? The DNT Web site describes the trip as “hilly, challenging and suitable for everyone.” It also notes: “Participation is at your own risk. Participants must read the information given thoroughly and consider whether he/she is fit both physically and psychologically to participate.”
No health or release form—a far cry from the Carolina Mountain Club, which goes through more formalities than that for a half-day hike.
Water, water everywhere
There’s no place in North America where you can safely drink stream water. But in the high Norwegian mountains, we all scoop up water along the way. Most of the Norwegians carry only a thermos of tea, plus a cup that dangles from the pack so they can sip from every watercourse we cross. I like the security of having water. At home, I take two quarts for a day hike, and if I have to refill from a stream, I purify the water with an iodine tablet.
The hiking is tough, but thanks to the Norwegian lodge system, I pack light. Instead of the full gear necessary in the Smokies—tent, sleeping bag and cooking equipment—I carry only a sleeping sheet, extra clothes and a modicum of toiletries. The DNT operates a series of lodges and huts similar to LeConte Lodge’s bunk beds, warm comforters and three wonderful meals; some DNT lodges even have showers. The typical lodge breakfast is a classic Scandinavian smorgasbord: meat, fish, cheese, cereal and several types of whole-grain bread. From that array, we also made our trail lunches.
It’ll be tough to return to peanut-butter sandwiches back in the states.
In the 19th century, outsiders from England and from the Norwegian cities came to Jotunheimen to climb mountains—an activity that didn’t make much sense to the locals. Walking and modern recreation in Norway started in the 1850s—around the same time that Thomas Clingman and Arnold Guyot were exploring the Southern Appalachians.
The Norwegian lodges evolved from the mountain cabins once used as summer residences for sheep and reindeer herders. Several original huts still stand—small stone buildings equipped with fireplaces, large enough to sleep four people (albeit cheek to jowl). At one lodge, a reindeer trap has been restored. Our Native Americans burned mountaintops to attract deer. The indigenous people of the Nordic countries, the Sami, would build a V-shaped fence and herd reindeer into the V, which led to a big hole. The animals would fall, break a leg and be unable to escape. Now, reindeer and sheep graze in the grasses and low-lying scrub.
As I learn about Norway and speak to its people, it’s difficult to explain where Asheville is located. Somewhere between Washington and Florida is not precise enough. Luckily, many Norwegians have seen the movie Cold Mountain, which gives them a reference point.
One morning at breakfast, a couple of Norwegians whisper to me, “The prime minister is here with us—Jens Stoltenberg. He’s sitting over there next to the window with his bodyguards.” They point to a good-looking man in his late 40s, wearing a gray T-shirt and knickers. Imagine the U.S. president doing such a thing!
The breakfast room is full, but no one goes up to him to take his picture or shake his hand (though I was tempted). Afterward, as I sit on the lodge steps and put on my boots, the pack-carrying prime minister and his entourage pass us on their way to the next hut. I wonder if he packs his own lunch.