Remote and isolated, windswept, wild and endlessly open. Arctic Norway the perfect place for an overworked urbanist on the edge of anxiety.
Story and Photos (unless indicated) by Anna Maxymiw
We’re going on our 13th hour without power. Outside, the winds are whipping around at just over 100 kilometres an hour, officially gale-force. The windows are shaking so hard it sounds like a monster is trying to break its way in. Jets of air are shooting through all of the screw holes, and the building is rocking like a plane in turbulence.
Before the WiFi cut out, I was receiving worried messages from friends back home in Toronto: Will you have to evacuate? What happens if the windows shatter? Are you worried? I answered as best as I could: I don’t know, I don’t know, and, surprisingly, somehow, no.
I’m at the Arctic Hideaway, a hotel-slash-artists’ retreat on a tiny island in the Norwegian Arctic Circle. It wasn’t easy to get here: I flew from Toronto to Oslo; grabbed a flight to Bodø, a town about 1,200 kilometres north of Norway’s capital; then took a turbulent hour-long ferry ride to Sørvær, which is in the Fleinvær Archipelago, a cluster of islands in the Vestfjord.
The Arctic Hideaway isn’t the only building on Sørvær—there are several houses, most of them for summer vacationers, and one or two that are year-round residences—but in February, I make up one-fifth of the inhabitants of the island. The two caretakers who look after the Hideaway are another two-fifths, and two permanent residents of Sørvær round out the population. In total, Fleinvær is home to about 30 inhabitants distributed on six islands—but there are more than 360 in the archipelago.
I could stand on the tallest hill on Sørvær and howl, and it’s possible no one would hear me. By the end of my tenure here, I might want to do so.
You might think this is an odd retreat for someone with anxiety. When I first started talking about the trip, at least half a dozen people compared it to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, meaning that I was Jack Torrance, doomed to go crazy over my own writing and the power of solitude, of a place cold and wild and removed. I could never do that was the refrain; I’d go insane was the follow-up. Aren’t you worried? was the final statement in that holy trinity of muted judgment.
But the thought of standing alone on the edge of the world didn’t worry me. What worried me was the burnout I was feeling every day. I had just finished my first book while also working a full-time evening job as a newspaper editor. I was writing and editing every morning, then reading and editing every night.
I felt like every nerve was rubbed raw; my anxiety was so alive that even breathing was difficult on most days. I would bend over my keyboard at work and gulp straining breaths of air, trying to force my lungs to open up, trying to do it as quietly as possible so my coworkers didn’t hear me gasping.
But it was my rage that scared me most. I was angry at everyone: the people who walked slowly in front of me on the subway platform, the colleagues who asked me questions about a story they were editing, the family member who didn’t reply to a text in a satisfactory manner. Anxiety and anger were flooding my veins with a mean, potent cortisol cocktail, and I was becoming someone I disliked.
I knew I wasn’t going to harm myself, but I was worried that I was going to punch someone who looked at me the wrong way. I felt like I was becoming a monster, and it was clear to me that the only way to heal the wound that was my emotional state was to remove myself.
I found the Hideaway by googling “remote writing retreats.” When I clicked on the site, something about the dearth of information, the unworldly pictures of the northern lights, immediately called to me. “Here on the island there are no shops, and no cars,” the website read. “Here there is no stress, and no dangerous animals.” Sold, I thought confidently.
That confidence ebbs a little in the midst of a terrifying nighttime ferry ride across the Vestfjord, during which I clutch my gut and chew mints to keep myself from vomiting in front of a handful of stoic Norwegians as our captain plows us forward into the black waves. But when I step off the ferry, the open-ocean wind, and the nausea and the hours of travel, all fall away.
I’m clasped by a thick, bottomless silence, a darkness that is diluted only by the dock floodlights and that then spreads out abruptly into a black-velour sky embroidered with thousands of stars. The effect is so startling and soothing that I start to cry. This is not Toronto, thumping with 24-hour construction and sewn through with sirens. This is not even Bodø, shrieking with winter wind. This place feels ancient and deep; it feels like I’ve stepped back in time. For the first time in months, I don’t feel anxious. In fact, I feel safe.
The Hideaway is set up as a cluster of buildings all connected by outdoor stairways and paths. Up from the dock, there are four sleeping cabins. There’s a sauna on the pier, and a bathroom beside it. There’s a kitchen with a peaked ceiling and a long wooden table, and, across the deck, a studio that looks out west, out onto the Norwegian Sea and the edge of the archipelago, which, at the moment, is nothing but darkness.
Farthest up the hill, there’s a tower called the njalla, a glowing red-metal and wood building that rises above everything else. It’s based on the design of traditional Northern Sami storage huts that were built on poles to protect perishables from animals.
The current caretakers of the Hideaway, Matt and Melissa, a husband-and-wife team from Cumbria, England, walk me around the grounds while explaining the place that will be my home for the next three weeks: they show me where to find the freezers full of fish and reindeer, how to get the sauna going, what to do if the power goes out when we run too many appliances at once. It should all feel overwhelming, this sudden transfer to a place where I’m immediately at the whims of the land, but it doesn’t.
Already, there is something comforting about giving myself over to the environment. Because we’re not easily accessible, we’re here, for better or for worse. We’ve chosen our place.
I don’t stay up that first night. At this point of the year, where we are in Norway, the sun rises just after 9 a.m. and sets at 3:30 p.m., so I’ve been wrapped in darkness for several hours now and I feel exhausted. I bumble to my sleeping hut, a warm, tiny cabin on the water’s edge, and fall face first onto my pillow, listening to the sea lick at the shore, the steps of the others as they filter to their own beds, and, underneath it all, overtop of it all, the absolute yawning gape of quietness.
When I wake up the next morning it’s before the sun rises. I come out of sleep like I’m crawling out of muck, slowly, gaspingly, confused about where I am until I hear the soft chitter of seabirds, until I look to my left and, for the first time, see the rimed-snow islands of the archipelago.
They glow, statuesque in the odd ambiance of the no-show sun. I creak upright, layer myself in long johns and wool, and walk up the icy staircase to the kitchen. When I round the final huts before the staircase opens up into the deck, I turn to look behind me at the sea and suddenly feel like I’ve been struck by the hand of a god, like I’m truly on the edge of the world.
The sky is unending, strewn with the lace of snow clouds, arcing seamlessly into the grey velour of the horizon, where it kisses the shreds of the sea I can see between the other landforms of the archipelago. All of the islands and islets—scattered in the ocean around Sørvær by the handful, places with names like Løksøya, Helløya, Tverrøya—are painted with the same colours: serrated black, pearly grey.
And there is so much blue. Everything might be clouded with snow, but it is also blue, blue, blue: the deep blue of the winter ocean, the hidden blue of the sky, the slick candy-blue of the sea ice along Sørvær’s shore. I stand, gawping. I cry, just a little, at the absolute quiet of my first morning in this wild place. I gulp in the blue and snow and cold and, breath by breath, feel myself starting to let go.
Every day, the island changes a little bit. When I first disembark, Sørvær is in the throes of winter: the steps to the kitchen remain precariously packed with ice, and there’s snow dusting everything. As the first week unspools, we face down snowstorms so dense that when I go out for walks around the island in the aftermath, my knee-high Canadian-designed snow boots are almost inadequate.
Then it thaws. While back home, Toronto is suffering minus 30-degree weather and ice storms, Sørvær feels as though it’s on the cusp of spring.
I go for a swim in the sea, which is so clear that its turquoise water looks deceivingly Caribbean. I hang up my parka and am able to amble around the island in a long-sleeve shirt and a vest. As the snow melts a little, more peculiarities are revealed to me. I come across a shed with one of its outer walls covered in halibut tails, a tribute to the giant and holy fish that has sustained entire island populations. I find a pair of docked boats with big unblinking eyes painted on the hulls. I notice tiny triangular huts all around the island, like elf houses, and I’m confused by them until I find out they’re hutches for eider ducks.
I ask Matt and Melissa about the history of this place, about Odd and Nina, Sørvær’s permanent residents. I want to meet them, considering they’ve lived here the longest. Melissa and Matt tell me that Odd, being a fisherman, has seen some strange things around the island.
That once, when he was out fishing with his brother, Magne, they pulled up a shark that they estimated to be hundreds of years old, based on a stone tool that was stuck in its skin. Or that once, when their boats were running parallel to each other, something huge and serpentine swam between them, its humps gliding in and out of the water. But the strangest thing is a story Melissa tells me one night.
“Odd might not ever talk to you about this,” she says, “but back in the fifties, when he was a child, one of the neighbouring children went missing one day. They all assumed he had fallen into the sea, so they stopped the search for him. He turned up a few days later, unharmed. When they asked him what had happened, he told them that ‘the nice lady in the rock’ had saved him.”
Jötunn, my mind screams. Jötnar are mythological beings in Old Norse. Sometimes they’re antagonistic, sometimes kind. Sometimes they’re nature spirits, sometimes trolls, sometimes dwarves, sometimes giants. Sometimes they’re devastatingly beautiful, and sometimes they’re frightening. I feel a shudder go through my body, but it doesn’t seem to be fear. Instead, it’s recognition: that the sea is vast and the world is vaster, and that sometimes things exist outside of our realm of explanation.
It feels scary not to feel scared of this story, but all I can think of are waterhorses and nixies and mermaids and serpents ringing the island, living their lives alongside the people who choose to stay here. I imagine creatures in the rocks, in the clouds, in the earth under my feet. I imagine myself as only a tiny thing in the face of this place.
And so I start to feel comfortable with Sørvær, to learn the curves of it: the way the wind tastes, the way the water feels on my fingertips.
I start to understand how someone could live here, especially an artist. Like Melissa, who is working on a poetry manuscript. Like Nina, who is a photographer.
And Odd, who is a fisherman but who also makes ambient music. Or the music professor, who hauls his trumpet to and from the ferry when he visits on the weekend. Or the violinist, who was once married to the wood-cut artist. I understand how the mind unfurls here; I feel mine start to do so as I make inroads into my own manuscript.
Then the windstorms hit. The first one touches down on Valentine’s Day, with winds that are about 70 kilometres an hour. Matt, Melissa and I sit in the kitchen, eating chocolate hearts, and watch the hanging light fixtures sway back and forth as the building is buffeted around. I should feel anxiety, but living on Sørvær has imbued me with an odd sense of calm. Even when the power dips in and out, all we can do is shrug and head down to bed, letting the whip of the wind lull us to sleep.
Two days later, a bigger storm lands, with winds that reach about 105 kilometres an hour. The power goes out at about 4 a.m., hours before the storm is supposed to reach its midday peak, and the loss of the underlying hum of the water pump wakes me up. For a moment I struggle to recognize where I am; the wailing of the wind has started to sound like music, and I think I’ve just been dreaming about an orchestra.
I’m imagining strings and a baton and a chorus, voices coming from behind a door that is slowly being closed. A sea of glittering eyes waiting for the show to end. A mighty hand holding a cymbal, waiting to force it into sound. I sit up in bed, trying to understand the rhythm of the storm, trying to ignore the scratching of foliage all along the bottom of my cabin that reminds me of claws.
Getting to the kitchen is one of the scarier things I’ve done. The wind is blowing east, which means it’s moving inland and I won’t be swept into the sea—but it’s still like walking into a wall, into a scream. My hair streams out behind me; tears spill down my face. I could fall forward into the wind and be cradled by it for hours, held in a mythological stasis.
Eventually I manage to stagger up the staircase, at one point nearly crawling. As I sit in the kitchen beside Melissa and Matt and listen to the doors bang back and forth in their jambs, I understand why Norway believes in jötnar. Here, on a footstep island that seems formed from an insouciant instep, I can close my eyes and imagine that there is a jötunn knocking at the door. That if I slide it open, there will be something holding out a hand. Something I recognize, can see in the deepest parts of myself. Come see what else there is, it will tell me. You’ve come so far; come a little farther, a little deeper. Let go.
I startle when Melissa shrieks. I turn my head to see two figures tramping their way up the steps. Matt starts laughing: “It’s Odd and Nina!”
In the middle of the strongest winds Sørvær has seen this year, our sixty-something neighbours are visiting us from all the way down the island. While Nina slips inside through the door Matt is straining to hold open, Odd turns around to stare at the sea. He looks out at the ten-foot-tall spray coming from the waves shattering on the westernmost islands, at the way the storm has churned the water into a bright, silty aqua.
He stands there, immovable, until Matt hollers at him and beckons toward the door where we are waiting with half a cake Melissa baked last night when the electricity was briefly back on, and a pot of tea made with the gas burner.
I should be writing, but with no power I can’t charge my laptop, and with no Internet I can’t research. It’s easy, instead, to shut my computer, grab a slice of cake and listen to Odd and Nina talk about the last time they saw a storm this wild. To lose myself in the companionship that comes from being together in a frightening, freeing event like this. To let go.
When the wind dies down a little, in the late afternoon, after Odd and Nina have been blown back to their house, Melissa and I climb the hill to get some of our strange storm energy out. The sky has turned a brindled pink, the clouds purple with desperate gashes of sun peeking through. I have to shield my face with my hood and then my hands because there is hail on the still-powerful wind and my skin starts to bloom with pinpricks of blood.
But I stand there for as long as I can, imagining myself as some great giant afraid of nothing, imagining all of my anxiety leaching from me into the whirlwind of this storm, and I open my mouth and yell, raw and cathartic, into the howl.
The final week at the Hideaway sees me spending five days and nights on my own. The owner, Håvard, has booked a vacation for Melissa and Matt, who are both starting to get cabin fever. They’re going to the Lofoten, an archipelago about 250 kilometres away, which means I will be the de facto caretaker in their stead. I’ll be the one flipping the breaker if the power goes out; I’ll be the one turning the lights on in the morning and off in the evening; I’ll be the one facing down the weather and the deepness of the nights.
This is another thing that should fill me with anxiety. But something has shifted. In my travels, I’ve been lucky enough to visit places that felt magical. I’ve watched the sun go down from an isolated violet-tinged villa in Italy, stood atop a 2000-year old fort in Ireland, driven through Iceland’s eerie, silent Eldhraun lava field at dusk.
I’ve been on land that prickles with mythology and fairytales and superstition, and I’ve learned from it and mostly avoided it. But here, I can’t escape facing it head on; I’m working and living and existing in the middle of it, and I can’t change that. But it’s something that no longer scares me. Instead, it feels like power.
The Arctic Hideaway’s Norwegian name is “Fordypningsrommet,” which roughly translates to “a place for deeper thought.”
Before landing here, I didn’t understand the enormity of this phrase. I didn’t understand the healing of being able to release the anxieties that chase us, even if we don’t always register them. I didn’t understand how each day, the disgust I felt for myself and my worries was eroding me.
After landing here, with each hour of staring at the horizon, each night of sleep listening to the slow pattern of the tide, each tear, each breath, Fordypningsrommet became a place to sink into my own mind; to sit and stare; to loosen the tightness of my brain and my chest.
Each of the days I spend on my own at the Hideaway brings a gift. As I write, an otter backstrokes through the sea right in front of my window. Håvard and his two young daughters come for a visit, and I watch the girls whoop up and down the hills, sprinkling potato-chip crumbs in their wake.
The year’s biggest supermoon rises one evening, so shockingly bright and orange that for one moment I think it’s the sun and I’m sure the world has turned upside down. The next morning, the moon is still ripe, hugely gold in a mauve and pink sky, reflected in the glass-smooth water.
And I see the northern lights. One night, as I leave the kitchen to turn in for the evening, I look up after pulling the door shut to see fingers of shimmering, lurid green reaching out across the sky. I’m stopped in my tracks; all I can do is stand and watch as the lights swell and shiver their way over the ocean, waving toward me.
Come see, the aurora tells me. Whistle us down, and we’ll show you. I can see them from my bed, through the window; they hover over the roof of the sauna, touching their fingertips to the various islands of the archipelago, waiting, waiting. I fall asleep to the green-tinged light, dreaming of sea grass and green teeth and iridescent scales.
With another windstorm looming, I have to cut my time on the island a day short. Even as I wait for the ferry, I can feel the sea picking up, the heavy concrete dock rocking with the whisper of bad weather. Heavy clouds are crawling their way up and over the faraway islands like eager beasts, and I hope the boat is able to evade their reach.
If not, I’ll be stuck here until the weather decides to let up, and I can’t tell if that thought frightens or delights me. Either way, my time on Sørvær has reached its end fittingly on the cusp of what is sure to be another cabin-rocking, bravery-building storm, one I think I’m glad to see the end of.
“I come across a shed with one of its outer walls covered in halibut tails, a tribute to the giant and holy fish that has sustained entire island populations.”
The ferry ride back to Bodø is almost as choppy as my ride in, but this time I’m able to stare at the froth-grey sea that’s lapping up the windows. I try to fill my eyes as much as I can, to remember the embroidery of the archipelago, the endless sky, the wind-swept faces of the few other passengers.
I try to identify the feeling inside of me, a mix of sadness and fearlessness and awe, a reluctance to leave Sørvær behind. I wonder what the archipelago is like in summer, when the sun never sets and the hills are filled with wildflowers and nesting birds. I wonder what the island sounds like when every house is full and the boats with eyes are out on the water and the community hall hosts parties that stretch on into the endless no-night.
I wonder if I will ever come back, ever see Matt and Melissa again. I feel wistful and happy and curious about what being back in a city will be like after a month away and wrapped in quiet.
But mostly I feel proud. I came and I saw. I saw and I felt. I felt and I figured myself out just a little bit more than when I first arrived. I know I’ll never fully shed the beast of anxiety; my worries will always rattle at the door, drag their claws along my walls and sing like a symphony. I know that once I’m back home in Toronto, I’ll have to fight the burnout again when it lurches toward me.
But I also know that my time in Fleinvær Sørvær has shown me the other side: how something ugly is also beautiful, depending on how the story is told. How to give in to the rattling at the door and add your howl to the storm. How we can all be giants, standing with a foot in one world and a foot in the other, if we just allow ourselves to be. And I watch as Sørvær becomes smaller and smaller in the window of the ferry, my palm pressed to the glass like a paw, and feel myself growing and growing and growing.
How I Did My Arctic Norway Getaway
To get to Fleinvær Sørvær, I flew to Bodø, Norway. Norwegian Air and Scandinavian Airlines operate daily flights out of Oslo’s Gardermoen airport, and the trip is about an hour and a half. [NOTE: This experience occurred before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic; see airline websites for current information on current operational status and schedules. Also READ “Norwegian Air Resumes More Flights Than Planned to Meet Unexpected Demand.”] Once in Bodø, you can choose to stay a few days and explore: the city has a beautiful harbour and dozens of shops showcasing local artisans, and the area surrounding Bodø is home to Saltstraumen, the world’s largest maelstrom (a stunningly powerful whirlpool).
The Norwegian tourism authority has a great website with a solid listing of places you can travel to in-country as well as breakdown of specific things to do and see. It’s definitely worth checking out: www.visitnorway.com. Viking history, the northern lights, eco-friendly adventure options and wilderness activities are top themes and abundant across the country.
While in Bodø, I stayed at the Thon Hotel Nordlys (www.thonhotels.com), which has an all-you-can-eat breakfast that includes plenty of Norwegian options like caviar spread, pickled herring and brunost, a sweet brown cheese. However, be warned: Bodø almost completely shuts down on Sundays so plan accordingly.
Fleinvær Sørvær is accessible by express boat, or hurtigbåt (www.177nordland.no), which runs out of the Bodø ferry terminal. Depending on the time of day you’re departing, you’ll either get a straight shot to the island, which is about a 50-minute ride, or you’ll have to catch a connecting boat, which brings the trip to about an hour and a half. Ask the caretakers at the Arctic Hideaway (www.thearctichideaway.com) for help finding a departure time right for you.
Once at the Hideaway, it’s time to relax! During winter when I was there, the community hall was closed and few people visited the island on weekends. Be sure to bring lots of books, or lots of work, depending on the aim of your trip. You can break up the (very short) days by taking a walk around the island, or hopping in the sauna on the pier. At night you may even see the northern lights.
In summer, the community hall hosts a legendary all-you-can-eat seafood feast on many Fridays. You can also go crabbing, fishing and diving, or even visit an artist or two (check out www.facebook.com/AreAUtstilling). Bring an eye mask (and face mask!), since you’ll be sleeping in the land of the midnight sun, and the cabins don’t have curtains.
The Hideaway has internet in the kitchen and the studio, as well as a printer, a projector, speakers and a piano. It also provides waterproof ponchos for walking to and from the buildings. You can bring your own food, or pay to enroll in the meal plan. And bring alcohol if you want it. And finally, be prepared for the occasional power outage, depending on the weather, and to have a great experience.
Anna Maxymiw lives in Toronto, Canada, and hopes to one day again share tea and cake with Matt, Melissa, Odd and Nina. (Photo by Yuli Scheidt).