Chasing Waterfalls*

* For my hometown girls.

Geirangerfjord and Trollstigen, Norway
August 2015

After the Sognefjord, Voringfossen, and Hardangervidda, I’ve probably seen more than a hundred waterfalls in Norway. With so many waterfalls, can any of them be impressive anymore?

After driving through the Trollstigen, the answer is “yes.”

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Geirangerfjord

This morning the Hurtigruten coastal ferry Lofoten turned into the Geirangerfjord after a winding cruise from Ålesund. The deck was packed with people, cameras at the ready, nylon hoods blown back, and fingers icy. The steep rock outcroppings on either shore of the mouth of the fjord were like a Nordic Scylla and Charybdis.

Geirangerfjord is the northernmost of Norway’s three classic fjord routes. Its one-hour leg between Hellesylt and Geiranger is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Hurtigruten ferries make the voyage on their northern run, their only detour from the North Atlantic coast. Even in August, the weather is bracing — any other time of year it would be sub-Arctic. Along the steep mountainsides, there were small farms. I’ve seen this elsewhere in Norway, but here, far removed from the relative warmth of the south, they appeared more in keeping with their surroundings than bygone relics of an earlier time.

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The Seven Sisters

As the Lofoten puttered through the narrow straits, people on deck circulated to the front for a photo, then to the other side of the ship to capture the opposite view. There was a crevasse called the Devil’s Canyon and dozens of streaming falls like the ones in the Sognefjord and Hardangervidda. Only here, they were a constant, and they were building up to something grander.

About two-thirds of the way to Geiranger, the ship turned a bend and we beheld the fjord’s two most famous waterfalls. To the left, the Seven Sisters, a series of narrow falls spilling down from a broad rock face. To the right, the Suitor, one great fall, supposedly wooing the sisters. The legend is that the Suitor was once a man who could not choose between the sisters, so he was transformed into a waterfall. Another legend says he had broken his vow to one of them.

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The Suitor

Approaching Geiranger, the harbor was filled with tour boats and a huge German cruise ship that dwarfed the Lofoten ferry. The cruise day-trippers and people like me who were disembarking at Geiranger took a boat to the tiny village as the Lofoten circled around for its return to the coast. Geiranger is the typical mountain tourist village: overrun by cruise ships and tourists by day during the summer, and sleepy and calm the rest of the time.

I took the local ferry tour for a closer look at the falls, then returned for the bus across the mountains to Åndalsnes. The bus route ascended from Geiranger on a winding road — the Eagles Way — turning through 11 hairpin switchbacks until it reached the summit. Here, the view of the Geirangerfjord was like a panoramic set piece.

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Stigfossen

From the summit, the bus took off across a stark landscape of rolling plateaus between mountains of jagged rock that recalled scenes from heroic Viking sagas. At a rest stop along the Trollstigen (troll’s road), I hurried to look down the steep drop from the Stigfossen waterfall, which is fed by a rushing stream running steadily down a hillside from its nearby mountain source before making the plunge. For me, the descent began along a spiraling road, where the waterfall ran down the banks and cut beneath sections of the road in multiple places, as the bus crossed over, the water rushing headlong until it reached the bottom and flowed out into a verdant valley of clouds and green fields.

It was as close as I’ve come to simulating the rush and crash of going over the edge of a waterfall. And yes, even after all that had come before, it was impressive.

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