Two Days in Oslo's Wild North

Date walked: 23/06/2022

Time taken: 24 hours

Distance: 33km

Screenshot 2022-07-01 at 13.57.33.png
The Route

It is generally accepted that Oslo, and the east of Norway in general, is not the place to go for those looking to enjoy Norway's nature. This is a view advocated by tourists and natives alike, indeed a controversy recently blew up when the Rødt politician, Sofie Marhaug, suggested in an interview that Oslo's nature is a bit rubbish in comparison to her hometown of Bergen.

On a certain level I can understand this sentiment; it is an area absent of the great fells found in the west and north of Norway, and though the city sits at the head of a substantial fjord it isn't the steep sided impossibility one sees plastered across instagram more and more of late. Even I, having spent almost 3 years living here now, have often lamented at the lack of opportunity I've had for visiting the mountains.

Still I think there is something sad about this line of thought. It resembles a conversation I've always despised which compares Britain's mountains to some other country's mountains and argues about whether they're 'proper' mountains, or whether they can be considered 'as good' considering their size and any other number of arbitrary factors. I begin to wonder as I write this whether this is merely a projection of some bizarre masculinity contest onto a land that couldn't care less about these comparisons. Certainly I think it reflects an extractive, consumerist relationship with the land. Even here in Norway, where friluftsliv (an all encompassing term for things done in the outdoors) abounds in popularity, it seems the point is not so much to love nature and feel oneself as part of it, but rather to find the place that can provide the most successful instagram photos, or the place one can truly claim to have 'conquered' something.

All of this draws me to say that the thing that is lost and forgotten in all of this is the forests of Oslo. This is far from a nature-less city. Indeed, from an outsider's perspective to have access to nature like this in a capital city seems ridiculous. I find myself almost laughing about it sometimes when I find myself literally taking the metro to the wooded hills in the north of the city. The jewel in all of this is Nordmarka—a vast area of unbroken forest that stretches over 30km north from Oslo's outskirts. It was here that I turned my attention when my two weekly days off did that rare thing of falling consecutively.

I had been to Nordmarka several times already, the viewpoint at Vettakollen is a favourite haunt of mine and I had earlier walked up both Mellomkollen and Barlindåsen. This time however my intentions were to venture a little deeper, and spend a much needed night away from the city.

I began with the bus up to Skar Leir, it's a much quieter gateway to Nordmarka than the ever popular Sognsvann and Frognerseteren, and lying at the head of Maridalen it's perfectly placed for deeper explorations of the woods. From here I set off up the path beside Skarselva, making for the lake of Øyungen.

ImageSkarselva by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

It is, I think, impossible to overemphasise the immediacy with which one enters the embrace of the forest when walking in Nordmarka. The only city I've visited where one abandons city for nature so abruptly is Edinburgh, but even there the effect is not quite so stark. I'd barely taken 20 paces and already birch and spruce and pine surrounded me, the only voices to be heard were those of fieldfare and blackbird and jay and such, and my only companion was the river, Skarselva, whose character was not unlike that of those one sees in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

ImageOne of the many falls along Skarselva by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

I soon arrived at Øyungen where a few other people were scattered along the shores, though most of them gave the impression of being content to remain there.

ImageØyungen by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

Amongst Norway's many thousand lakes Øyungen doesn't stand out as being especially unique, but the next stretch of the walk along its shores was undoubtedly pretty, marked by views over to the islands that give it its name—øy being the Norwegian word for island.

ImageØyungen and two of its islands by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

After a short way the route took me away from the shores of Øyungen and for a while things were eerily still. Something about this part of the forest seemed to deaden the songs of the birds and even as I passed by the shores of another lake, called Kalven, there was little of that reassuring forest bustle I had been enjoying.

ImageKalven by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

This strangeness made me grateful for the brief respite from the confines of the forest that came in the form of Liggeren.

ImageLiggeren by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

Liggeren is a collection of old Norwegian farm buildings surrounded by a meadow. It is an example of what's called a seter, a seter being a seasonal home for farmers that was built in grazing areas that were a long way from the main farm. It's one of the oldest such buildings that remains in Nordmarka and it left me oddly contemplative as I paused there for a drink and a bite to eat. The dancing of the swallows about the barns, and the tall maple that stood there seemed to set themselves in contrast to the exhaustion of my daily life. I questioned my moving to Oslo, my staying there, the uselessness of week after repeated week of serving coffees to little avail in terms of community or actual direction in my life. I wept, thinking that I could perhaps live simply in the countryside somewhere, if only I could write my books, and play my music, and be with those I loved. It was the sort of moment I'd never allow myself in the city.

After a few minutes there though the path ahead called and I set off, climbing away from Liggeren, past Djupdalen and up towards Kvehøgda. It was here that I began to appreciate the forest for what it was, noticing the small contrasts from place to place as here birch and pine began to dominate, and heather sprung up in the undergrowth as the woods grew more sparse. Norway, I began to tell myself, would be far less the place it is if it all looked like the fjords in the west or Lofoten. Just as Scotland would be far less beautiful were it all Torridon, with no place for the Cairngorms, or Galloway. Though I love the mountains, and find myself drawn to them perhaps more than any other landscape, I would not have Oslo and the east of Norway look any different.

ImageKvehøgda by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

From Kvehøgda I descended a little way towards Myrtjern (literally Bog Tarn, both 'tarn' and 'tjern' come from the Old Norse 'tarn'. Fortunately I was spared interacting with the 'bog' part too much.) I encountered a noisy pair of black woodpeckers along the way as well as the strange sight of a number of dead shrew along the path. I wondered if some owl or some such thing that lived thereabouts had left them there. After that I paused at the shores of Helgeren for a few moments, watching a wading bird that I failed to identify before making my way further along to Fortjern.

For most of the path above Fortjern there are only small glimpses down to the tarn below. They are enough to convince you that it's a beautiful place but it's not until you step for a moment out of the forest at Fortjernbråtan that one receives the full impression. It seems a place apart from any other. Steep, densely wooded hills tumble about erratic shores and only the small window I had stepped through gives any connection to the outside world. Were it in a place with more celtic inclinations I'm certain it would have some tales of faerie about it. As it is, any folklore that it might have held has been lost, with three small, long abandoned farm buildings being all that remains of whatever history humans have with the place.

ImageFortjern by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

It is unfortunate to admit that I erred a little here. I'd only been thinking to myself a little earlier in the walk how difficult forests would be to navigate without clearly marked paths and here I proved it. The only clear path here was one that was definitely wrong so I set off down a half-trodden one that looked to be going in the right direction. That was until I emerged on the shores of a lake about two kilometres north of the one I was supposed to be at. Fortunately this was easily remedied and a short while later I arrived at my camp spot on the shores of Bjørnsjøen—the Bear Lake—a name that speaks of an older ecology in this place. I wondered how recently bears had roamed these parts, and what was it that made them retreat north with their siblings, abandoning the place that still bears their name.

ImageBjørnsjøen by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

The light that evening as I set up camp was a delight, and the location is perhaps the finest for camping in all over Nordmarka. Unfortunately this appears to be known, at least amongst some quarters, as a group of about half a dozen mountain bikers had also set up camp there. I managed to find a spot a little way away though, and gave my new Vango stove its first go out. (So far so good, easy to set up, easy to use, easy to pack away.)

I didn't sleep especially well that night. I'm not sure if it was the chatting of the mountain bikers nearby, or the fact it never gets dark this far north in the summer, but I was already tired when I woke. To make matters worse the forecasted sun had been covered over by a layer of low cloud that was covering the tops of the hills. I held out hope that things would improve though and set off before the mountain bikers, with a strange smugness about it too.

It is possible to ascend Kikut, the hill I'd come here for, directly from the shores of Bjørnsjøen. However in my planning I had noticed that Kikut was at the southern end of a clear and pronounced ridge that ran for several kilometres northwards. Such things are uncommon in this part of Norway so I knew I had to add the extra distance to get the whole ridge in. This added about 10km to my distance for that day but I would later find it was a 10km that was entirely worth it.

The walk up to the other end of the ridge wasn't much of special note. It consisted mostly of a gradual ascent through dense spruce forest punctuated by a few bogs that though pretty didn't exactly make for ideal walking terrain. I made quick progress though, and soon reached the point where I turned back on myself to start ascending the ridge. Almost immediately as I did the sun began to break through the clouds, and as the forest transitioned to that sparser, heather-clad kind that I had enjoyed so much on Kvehøgda I knew I was in for a good day.

It was as I reached a top called Askehøgda that I knew the extra distance had been justified. Though the main path continued along the ridge I spontaneously chose to take a smaller one to the side, hoping that it might lead me to a good view. What I discovered is that it would lead me to perhaps the finest view of the walk. My camera failed entirely to capture the way it opened up to reveal the tarn below, and beyond it the seemingly endless, rolling forests, bathed in the glow of the sun as it began to push the clouds to the side.

ImageAskengtjern by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

It was all I could do not to remain there for an hour or more but I was, unfortunately, on something of a schedule so I continued along the ridge. The path was marked by increasingly open views out towards the west, where some of the highest hills in Nordmarka are. By now the clouds had almost gone entirely, so the light didn't grant them quite the same magic as on Askehøgda but the scenes were no less impressive.

ImageDSCF1046 by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

Finally I reached the southern end of the ridge, and its highest point at Kikut. The name Kikut literally means 'lookout' and the views here are amongst the finest in Nordmarka. It was strange to think that Oslo lay less than a day's walk away when even from that height all I could see was forest giving way to forest.

ImageKikut by Daniel Fuller, on Flickr

After lunch and a much needed break I set off down and started to make my way in the straightest line I could to Frognerseteren, where I would catch the metro back into the city. There is little to say about this part, I was moving quickly to try and get there before my 24 hour ticket ran out, and the route didn't exactly show of the variety of the forest.

Still I couldn't help thinking about my earlier musings as I finished the walk, wondering what kind of mind makes these strange comparisons between the forests of the east and mountains of the west. What must happen to a person for them to call a walk in the woods 'boring'. What all of this says about the way we relate to the lands we live in and move through. I don't think it's wrong to be drawn towards a particular kind of landscape over another, I myself have often confessed my particular love for the Scottish Highlands. But as I arrived in a city far hotter and more humid than anywhere this far north ought to be, remembering that this so-called 'nature loving' country goes on digging up oil with seemingly no intention of stopping, I found myself grieving, and wishing that we loved the forests, and the less 'instagrammable' places a little better. Maybe we're missing something if we think the point of all this friluftsliv is to 'get something out of it'.

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Activity: Rambler
Mountain: Sgurr a Mhaim
Place: Rannoch Moor

Munros: 17
Corbetts: 2
Wainwrights: 16
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