Cycling the Norwegian Strandflat

For the active geotourist, cycling the Nordland coastal route in northern Norway offers an excellent opportunity to get in close contact with a scenic and unique landscape of beautiful mountains, strandflat, beaches, islands and skerries.
This article appeared in Vol. 9, No. 5 - 2013


The island of Lovund, with the sun setting close to midnight. Source: Morten Smelror View from the mainland toward the islands of Lovund and Træna (to the right). Source: Turid Helle
The RV 17 coastal road in northern Norway, running from Steinkjer to Bodø, is often described as one of the most beautiful car journeys in the world. An increasing number of tourists have now discovered that your enjoyment of the scenic nature along the route is more intimate and authentic from the seat of a bicycle. You have the freedom to decide yourself how fast and how far to go, and you can stop wherever and whenever you like and enjoy what the landscape around so generously offers you.

In particular, cycling in Helgeland, the most southerly part of northern Norway, has become very popular. The coast of Helgeland consists of thousands of isles, islets and skerries. Some of the isles have fairly high and steep mountains, but the local communities and roads lie on the strandflat (the typical low-lying Norwegian coastal region), and you do not need to be a well-trained sportsman to travel by bicycle on these islands. On our visit we met families with young kids, and there were bikes with trolleys carrying small children. At Pizza Hut in Brønnøysund we shared a table with a cool teenage boy and his grey-haired grandmother, who were spending a week together cycling in the area. You can bring your own bike or rent one at the tourist offices, and you can create your own route or follow some of the routes recommended by the travel agencies. A network of local ferries and express boats will take you out to the islands you choose to visit.

Caledonian Remains

Cycling on the island of Dønna. In the background are parts of the Seven Sisters mountains on the mainland. Source: Morten Smelror The mountains along the coast of Helgeland comprise the remains of the Caledonides, a mountain chain that was created about 400 million years ago when the Baltic plate (with Norway) collided with the Laurentian plate (North America and Greenland). The Caledonides once stretched from Scotland to Svalbard, and reached thousands of metres high, like today’s Himalayas. Repeated phases of uplift and erosion during hundreds of millions of years throughout the Mesozoic and Cenozoic, and finally the glacial finish during the Pliocene and Pleistocene, have left us with a scenic landscape of steep mountains, fjords and islands. Some of the geological sites are quite unique since they offer us an opportunity to look into the deeper part of this Palaeozoic mountain chain, and to study details of the composition and mineralogy of deep crust, and to see the geological features of large-scale over-thrusting and metamorphic processes.

The mountains stand up as majestic landmarks along the routes. Many of them are the subjects of fantastic mythological stories, such as ‘De Syv Søstre’ (The Seven Sisters), reaching from 910m to 1,072m and forming the great panorama behind Sandnessjøen.

The Norwegian Strandflat

The strandflat is the name of the low-lying, flat land and sea area along the coast of Norway. Similar geomorphological features are also known from other Arctic and Antarctic areas that once were covered by ice. The strandflat is thought to have been formed by glacial and marine erosion and sub-aerial weathering, where frost processes have played an important part.

The origin of the Norwegian strandflat, however, has been described as a geomorphological puzzle, and many mechanisms have been proposed for the formation of this distinct surface. While the strandflat in southern and mid-Norway to a great extent seems to be related to the Late Weichselian marine limit (100,000–11,000 years ago), along the Helgeland coast there is a great discrepancy in the height of this event and the limits of the low, geologically very mature, partly submerged strandflat. Therefore, in this area the strandflat was probably already formed by Late Pliocene and Pleistocene times (during the last 2.7 million years). However, as already mentioned, the Norwegian coastline has been subjected to several phases of uplift and erosion during Mesozoic and Cenozoic times, and in some areas, the strandflat may coincide with an even older exhumed pre-Jurassic surface.

Along the coast of Helgeland the contrasts between the low-lying strandflat and the steep projecting mountain peaks (called ‘nyker’ in Norwegian) form a very unique, picturesque landscape. Most of the shoreline islands are only a few metres above sea level, while others have mountains reaching up to 1,000m. A visit to the islands of Dønna, Lovund and Træna during mid-summer, when the sun sets for just a few short hours behind the oceanic horizon, is a guaranteed memorable experience.

Rich and Varied Geology and Heritage

The mountains known as ‘The Seven Sisters’ on the mainland just south of Sandnessjøen: note the glacier-shaped valleys between the alpine peaks, and the low strandflat in the front.  Source:  Morten Smelror View of the strandflat as seen from the top of Dønnamannen, on the island of Dønna. We are looking towards Vega (about 50 km away) and the little island of Søla. The group of islands in between includes Husvær, Blomsøy, Skålvær and Hysvær. Source: Morten Smelror The varied Caledonian geology, the ice-shaped landscape with sharp topographic variations, and a coastline with innumerable islands and skerries, are the basis for a rich and abundant flora and fauna. The biodiversity is considerable both above and below the water. Good fishing spots are found all around, and you can frequently watch sea eagles, otters, seals and small whales nearby. Some of the most ornithologically rich wetlands along the coast of Helgeland are found on the islands of Tjøtta, Herøy and Dønna. Every year, in mid-April, thousands of puffins return from the open ocean to nest on the island of Lovund. On 14 April, a day called the homecoming day or puffin-coming day (Norwegian: ‘heimkommardagen’ or ‘lundkommardagen’) the people of this small island and a number of visiting tourists celebrate the special event.

The small municipalities along the coast of Helgeland have histories reaching way back in time, and the cultural heritages are kept well alive. Names from Helgeland appearing in the Viking Age Sagas include Sigrid and Torolv Kveldulvson and Hårek of Tjøtta, and Viking remains can be found in many places. A visit to the Petter Dass museum at Alstahaug is also recommended. The museum is dedicated to a clergyman-poet who lived in Alstahaug and was minister there from 1689. Many of his hymns are still popular today. In addition to the church, dating from about the year 1200, the foreign geotourist will also find the modern museum built in 2007 interesting. The building is in perfect harmony with the landscape, as it is literally cut into the hill, leaving spectacular, clean surfaces of Caledonian rocks to be seen on each side of the entrance. It was designed by Snøhetta, an architectural company also responsible for designing the famous library of Alexandria in Egypt, as well as the new Opera House in Oslo.

The coast of Helgeland is an Eldorado for those who enjoy beautiful landscapes, outdoor life and geological and biological treasures. Do not always expect perfect weather conditions, but on sunny days the Helgeland coastal route may indeed show itself as one of the world’s most beautiful journeys – and going by bicycle will make the experience even more enjoyable.


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