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All year swimming in North Norway

I have a childhood friend who emigrated to Norway some years ago. Knowing that I like open water swimming, she told me about her colleagues’ lunchbreak swims – adventures that she could see from her office window. That they happen all year round intrigued me because where she is in Harstad is in the far north of Norway – so far north that it’s in the Arctic circle, where winters are very cold and very dark.

It wasn’t until I read this article, kindly written for us by one of my friend’s Norwegian colleagues, that I contemplated what this might sometimes mean – imagine swimming in the light of the northern lights...

I love how Katrine’s article – and the photos she has sent with it – reveal how ordinary the extraordinary has become in her life. She was surprised that anyone would ask for a blog entry on the ‘little dips’ they take during their lunchbreaks, braving some treacherous-looking steps to get there; baffled that anyone could be interested by ice swims in a wintery Norwegian sea lit up by the aurora borealis, or swims beneath a midnight sun in the summer – and always with the amazing backdrop of that incredible landscape.

Perhaps that is one of the take-aways from this piece. Those of us who swim in the open water, whether we swim in the cold or the very cold, whether we tackle long distances or not, have slipped our aquatic exploits into our routine; it’s baffling that it is a surprise to anyone.

I recently came across a term in Blue Mind by Wallace J Nichols: hedonistic habituation. This is the idea that something ceases to remain as pleasurable if it is often repeated. Observing two friends who are new to open water swimming, I see them emerge from the water on a high that I don’t now experience from the same swim; I’m hooked but rarely get that sensation. I crave new rivers, lakes and seas. I dream of swimming beneath a waterfall. Like a drug tolerance, to get the same kick, I need more.

Katrine has reminded me not to take for granted my ‘ordinary’ swims; usually I pass under a medieval bridge to swim alongside ancient woodlands, which is its own sort of extraordinary. Yet her article leaves me hoping that one day, I might swim in the far north of Norway – but what time of year to go...?

This piece is maybe not as much on actual ‘swimming’ as it is on ‘bathing’, but it will tell you a little story about the experience and joy of the beautiful open waters in Northern Norway. More specifically, in and around the town of Harstad. For those who don’t know this pearl of a coastal town, it lies close to 69 degrees north, not too long a drive away from (the maybe more famous) Lofoten.

I grew up in this part of the country (even further north actually) and I really love what nature here has to offer. Hiking and skiing in the mountains, camping by the beach, swimming, and hammocking in the woods are all activities close to my heart. And when we talk about swimming, I must say that I prefer the ocean to lakes. There’s nothing wrong with lakes, honestly, but there is something really refreshing about the saline open waters.

And I know that I am not alone here. Almost four years ago, I started a new job in Harstad, in an office building located just by the sea. The view itself is amazing, but so also is the fact that you can have a little dip in the water during your lunchbreak! This may sound kind of crazy but it’s just great!

What started as a little cool-off, just for fun, after a workout session during lunch on a warm summer day, quickly became a weekly habit. It’s still for fun, but now also partly for exercise. Once you have started having a dip after the lunch gym, you have to keep doing it – and, of course, winter or snow are no excuse to stop!

During the winter, Harstad experiences polar nights and the daylight is basically gone from 2nd December to 10th January. In the weeks coming up to and following this period, the days are still very short, which means a total of about two months of little sunlight. A bit of a sidenote here: the polar nights may be dark, but they are for sure not pitch black! They also come with some spectacular colours, like the Auroras. During this time, it is always nice to stay active, even though energy levels might be running low. Now, I am not sure if there is any ‘scientific proof’ of this, but open water baths feel like a proper energizer during the winter! It makes you feel both refreshed and very awake to tackle the rest of your workday.

I sometimes hear people saying that the waters up here are cold all year round, regardless of the season, and that, in general, they don’t enjoy ocean swimming unless it's in southern latitudes. Well, when it comes to the temperature of the water, they are mostly right; although when you are used to having a weekly dip during the winter, water temperatures of 10–12°C in the summer feel quite nice!

Cold-water swimming has become a bit of a trend and it seems that more people are trying it out to see what the fuss is about. Just outside of Harstad town, an annual cold-water swimming day is arranged sometime during December. It’s for anyone to attend, and the concept is simple: gather at the beach, get in the water, swim for as long as you want, and get out. There is also a prize for the person who stays in the water the longest; just a little something for the extra-engaged ones to compete for. Unfortunately, this could not be arranged in 2020 for Covid-reasons, but the event of 2019 was a great fun and almost 300 people attended!

After winter, spring suddenly arrives! And really, here in these northern areas, spring may arrive overnight. When the sun is starting to warm you up, the temperatures are jumping from 5°C one day to 15°C the next, and you have to remember that sunscreen exists. There’s nothing like the first summer season swim – although it’s always too early in the season to qualify for a ‘summer’ swim, which you quickly realize when your body senses the water temperature. But there’s still something special about this first swim after all the winter snow has melted.

A bit later, the actual summer arrives. In the north, summer may be highly variable and therefore it’s a matter of being ready with your swimwear for whenever the sun pops out. We have a funny saying: ‘If we’re lucky, summer will fall on a weekend this year’. It may feel like that sometimes, but it's really not that bad! In fact, I am tempted to say that we’re spoiled with our northern Norwegian summers, especially with the midnight sun, and the many opportunities to enjoy the open waters – whether it be cooling off on a warm day by jumping in from the dock in town, bathing from a cliff beside your hammock camp, or just swimming by the boat in between some water skiing.

Ever since I was a little girl, swimming was mandatory during the summer. Wherever my parents would take me and my sibling on vacation, the only requirement was that there would be somewhere to swim. At that time, pools were the preferred option, but that slowly evolved into beaches and, eventually, any kind of open water. And it also evolved from only belonging to the summer, to now being an all-year thing.

For me, it has been one of those things that you just get dragged into more and more – then suddenly, it's like an addiction. There’s something therapeutic about the feeling of floating around close to the surface (in the summer, of course, when the water temperature actually allows you to do that), the rush from the cold water in the winter, and the energized feeling bubbling inside you afterwards.

Katrine Gotliebsen


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