SCANDINAVIA: Across the Circle, and a small disaster

Rolling northwards in Scandinavia is an addictive experience. We had intended only to drive along the coastline of central Norway for a day or so to see some fjords and scenery, then cut across into Sweden to meet up with my friend Roger for some fishing, but as you move northwards that little dotted line on the map that says “Arctic Circle” seems to draw you further. It’s like a finish line in a race…a goal to be reached that puts a punctuation mark on the end of your journey. And like other addictions, once you reach that goal, there is another one over the horizon…the Northlands. The Arctic Circle crosses Norway at a narrow spot in the country, and northwards the border widens out to encompass a remote region of high mountains, deep valleys, cascading waterfalls, fascinating islands and interesting culture. So as we moved north along the coast, we decided to just push on late into the night making miles, cross the Arctic Circle, and drive up to a little town called Narvik which is right at the doorstep of the Northlands, then come down from far northern Sweden to my friend’s house.

But fate would have it differently.

As we moved northwards, the road gained elevation as we approached a high mountain pass. It was like going back in time…the green grasses and leaves of summer were replaced by budding trees and barren fields of early spring, then patches of snow gave way to white fields, frozen ponds and deep snowbanks. And just as we hit the highest, coldest part of the pass, with snowbanks about 4 feet deep and overhanging cornices above, a large sign announced that we were at the Arctic Circle.

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We stopped for a few quick photos, and managed to buy some t-shirts and postcards at the souvenir shop before it closed, and then got back on the road. The elevation quickly dropped and we re-entered the more temperate zone, with green trees, deep grasses and open water again.

Since it was more mountainous here, the road had lots of tunnels between watersheds, some of which were miles long. These tunnels were dug by hand in the distant past, when trucks were shorter, so it was pretty common for tall modern trucks to hug the center of the road as they drove through leading to some pretty nerve-wracking experiences when they came around a bend in the tunnel, forcing us up close to the side of the tunnel.

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Some of the fjords were too wide for the road to go around, so there were also many ferry crossings. At this late hour, we knew that the ferry about 50 miles ahead would be closed so we decided to find a cheap hotel for the night somewhere up ahead and cross over in the morning. The good news was that it meant that only a few trucks and cars would be approaching, so not only were the tunnels less scary, but we pretty much had the road to ourselves for a few hours.

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Coming out from a particularly long tunnel in a very remote part of the countryside, we emerged into a fantastic view. Tall, snow covered mountains rimmed a deep blue tarn lake, with a new road curving gracefully around the perimeter, descending into the valley.

Some construction equipment showed that they were finishing up a new section of road, covered with fresh blacktop that had not yet been painted. Cruising down the hill, I suddenly saw that a couple of reflectors had been placed right across the road up ahead, directing traffic onto the shoulder. Although I was not speeding, I quickly determined that I was going a bit too fast to make the unexpected turn, so I just aimed between the reflectors to stay on the hardtop as I braked and rolled through at about 10 mph.Unfortunately, the base of one of the reflectors had a cement footing that skimmed the side of our front tire and ripped out the sidewall. Rolling to a stop, we knew instantly that we had a flat tire.

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No biggie…Kevin and I are fine with changing tires, and we were on a great road surface, with plenty of warm clothes, food, water and time. We opened the trunk, pulled our gear bags out, lifted the deck and we were astounded to see that there was no spare tire!! Neither of us had EVER seen a rental car without a spare tire, and as this truck had only about 500 miles on it when we collected it, we could not imagine why it did not have a spare.

But more importantly, it completely changed our situation. Instead of a mild inconvenience and a little adventure, we now realized that we were broken down, far north of the Arctic Circle, on an almost-abandoned stretch of road. To make matters worse, there was no cell phone coverage. We were really on our own. The car came with “Volvo On Call”, an emergency rescue system that the EU has determined all vehicles must have, so I pressed the button, and to my pleasant surprise, someone answered who spoke english and we were able to explain our predicament.

They promised to send a tow truck from a town to our north who would tow us to the nearest Volvo dealer to fix the tire. We insisted that they only needed to bring us a spare and we could take care of the problem ourselves, but they said that protocol was to move the car to a dealer instead. IMG_9048For some reason, they were very late in contacting the tow truck, so while Kevin slept in the back, I stayed up all night until he arrived at about 4AM. We put the car on the back of his tow truck, and he drove us 2 hours back south to the town of Bodø where we had to wait 2 hours for Volvo to open and got the tire changed.

The tow driver told us the price of the tow was about 8000 Swedish Crowns, which is about US$900, but that he would bill Hertz for it, since it was their car. While I accept that rental insurance almost never covers tires and windshields and we are liable to pay for the tire (US$375), I am going to insist that it’s Volvo’s lack of a spare that required us to be towed and that they should pay the towing fee. We’ll see how that goes…I have a nagging feeling that they are going to bill my credit card and this is going to escalate. I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, after getting the new tire, we found a nice little breakfast place, then Kevin drove us out of Norway and into Sweden while I caught up on some sleep in the passenger seat. He got to see his first reindeer and took some photos, although I cautioned him that reindeer are so common up here that it’s like taking photos of cows, LOL. But they are still very cool the first time.

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