The World Needs More of Norway's Friluftsliv
Margo Pfeiff spends time in the glorious outdoors of Norway and discovers that the world needs more of Norway's Friluftsliv. Friluftsliv, a word coined in 1859 by writer Henrik Ibsen, loosely means “free air life,” and it signifies a fundamental understanding of the healing effects of nature.
Bundled up against the chilly fall air I stood at the end of a small pier at the stylish/rustic remote Arctic Hideaway retreat on the tongue-twisting Norwegian island of Fordypningsrommet Fleinvær north of the Arctic Circle. Suddenly, the sauna door flew open and eight ladies in bathing suits burst outside, rosy and steaming. They happily tugged on neoprene booties and gloves then leapt with a joyous whoop into the Norwegian Sea's frigid waters.
Chatting as they bobbed in a circle for 10 minutes or more, they eventually climbed out and headed back to the sauna, a process repeated over and over until the sun set. Then they showered and headed up to the dining area to sip white wine and a creamy chowder that completed their Sunday "Soup & Sauna Getaway."
"Mixing the super cold with the super hot is a feeling I love and you feel so good afterwards," says a glowing Heidi Fossum, one of the "Badeenglene" or "Bathing Angels," a dynamic group of gals from nearby Bodø who gather in the island-dotted region at least once a week for an ocean swim with an accompanying sauna or beach bonfire. "We only do it from fall through winter," she said. "For us it's too warm in summer."
Ice bathing or winter swimming is a popular Nordic tradition, something like season-long Polar Bear Swims. Some ice chopping to reach water may be required. There's even an International Winter Swimming Association which hosts biannual World Championships.
I first became fascinated with Norwegian's intense year-round passion for immersing themselves into the outdoors during 10 days in Canada's high Arctic community of Resolute with a group of professional Norwegian guides. They were preparing an Indian military team for an attempt at the North Pole in February 2012, heading out several times during the short days for training sessions in -42C weather.
"Starting in kindergarten we learn backcountry skiing and winter survival," one of the guides, Bjørn Moa of Oslo's Piteraq outdoor and climbing gear store, told me. "We feel it's important to connect people with nature as early as possible." About 10% of Norway's kindergartens operate on the Scandinavian concept of udeskole ("outdoor school") where toddlers learn about nature, history, map reading, hiking and even math outdoors year-round, warming up and resting in a tent during winter.
Outdoor education, I learned, continues as part of the national school curriculum. By high school, students have tackled ecology, the environment, navigation, first aid, trip planning, mountain and paddling skills. Multi-day school field trips are part of growing up.
No wonder they love their outdoors. And to Norwegians it would be no surprise that more and more studies are showing that kids who spend time in nature become happier adults. That jives perfectly with Norway consistently ranking among the top trio of the world's happiest countries according to the annual World Happiness Report.
Recently, in a massive landmark study, researchers at Denmark's Aarhus University combed through data from almost one million Danes collected between 1985 and 2013 which proved that being raised surrounded by nature as a child - wilderness, public parks, even urban green spaces - meant a 55 percent lower incidence of developing adult mental health issues.
As a Canadian, we pride ourselves on being an outdoorsy lot, but as I quickly came to learn as I prowled the Western Fjordland and further north through Lofoten that we don't even come close to Norwegians' everyday engagement with friluftsliv (pronounced "free-loofts-liv"). Literally meaning "open air living", it's an expression popularised in 1859 by Norwegian playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen, to describe the attributes of appreciating and spending time in nature for spiritual and physical wellbeing.
I came across friluftsliv everywhere on my road trip around Norway. Kayakers happily paddled around Alesund one frosty morning. A super-charged gaggle of 3-5 year-olds trekked an alpine trail at Trollsstigen in rain jackets and fishermen hats during an epic downpour. "We are looking for trolls," they informed me as the supervising dad waited patiently, a baby strapped to his chest. And at the Loen Skylift almost all of the occupants of the sleek new gondola were outfitted with hiking boots and poles: the ride to the scenic summit of 1,011-metre Mt. Hoven was not just a destination for its fjord panoramas, but also a starting point for hikes into the snow-dusted alpine terrain.
Norwegians enjoy an official rambling freedom law legislated in 1957 called allmansrätten, the "right to roam", that allows anyone to walk or camp practically anywhere, as long as they show respect for the surrounding nature, wildlife and locals. This open-minded law means that you can picnic on any beach, meander through any forest and even hike and camp on undeveloped private property nationwide without obtaining permission.
That roaming freedom has created flung villages that are hubs for outdoor addicts. In the Lofoten Peninsula's traditional fishing village of Henningsvaer, set alongside soaring mountains, I ran into groups of kayakers, cyclists and hikers of all ages who have taken over this small and charming mountain Mecca. They gather at funky cafes like the cozy Climbers Cafe that has been accurately called by one visitor "... a strange hybrid between a French restaurant in Nice, Everest base camp and a Nepali tea house." It's also an informal alpine museum where visitors compare gear notes and chat longingly about upcoming winter surfing and backcountry ski expeditions.
Norwegian's love of the outdoors extends far into the wild. Along 18 designated National Scenic Routes that wind and zigzag into the country's most remote reaches there are roadside stops for experiencing nature's power. Walkways jut out above sheer fjords, like spectacular Aurland designed by Canadian architect Ted Saunders (now living in Bergen), who also created Newfoundland's five star Fogo Island Inn.
There are rest stops whose designs often blend perfectly into the scenery, including visitors' centres, picnic spots, cafes, even a toilet block with a waterfall view. And what other country would build a stunning one room, glass-walled Wild Reindeer Pavilion for critter viewing that can only be reached via a mile-long walk across treeless mountain terrain?
Accommodations too immersed me into the surrounding nature, unique projects created by wilderness lovers who wanted to transform visitors by suspending them between the indoors and outdoors. Arctic Hideaway, where I met the Bathing Angels, is a collection of simple but stunning wooden sleeping cubes perched on rock overlooking the ocean, a restful retreat conceived by nature-loving jazz musician and composer Håvard Lund.
At chic contemporary Manshausen, my suite on stilts perched over the ocean was three walls of ceiling-to-floor windows which suspended me magically over the sea amid water and rocky islands. Owned by Norwegian polar explorer Børge Ousland who had a roll call of Arctic crossing firsts under his belt before he became the first person ever to solo cross Antarctica unsupported, it is a base for kayaking, diving, cycling, climbing, summer and winter hiking and award-winning cuisine that emphasizes wild local ingredients.
And at the Juvet Landscape Hotel, my discreet wooden getaway had three darkened walls and one entirely made of glass looking out onto a bright green, lush forest of ferns and trees that made it hard to tell if I was sleeping indoors or out, the ultimate glamping experience.
When I reached Oslo to fly back home, I thought I had left friluftsliv behind in the countryside as I strolled city streets. But as I approached the stunning new opera house whose architecture slopes down into the sea, I spotted two funky floating saunas bobbing along the shore with a backdrop of city skyscrapers. Operated by the non-profit Sorenga Sauna and Swimming Club, it is often open to the public. Suddenly, the door to the Skarven Sauna burst open and three happily roasted bathers flew off the sauna and into the frigid Oslo Fjord with a joyous shout.