The Right to Roam – Wandering above the Arctic Circle

The Norwegians love to be outside in nature.  They have a wonderful concept called “allemannsretten” which means the right to roam (literally everyone’s right).  It was codified into law in 1957 in the “Outdoor Recreation Act”.  What this right entails is the ability for any person to walk or camp anywhere in Norway as long as it is not cultivated land, even if the land is privately owned.  There are some stipulations, but essentially you can camp anywhere for two days (no closer than 500 feet from the nearest house or camping car), longer with the permission of the land owner; and you have the right to hike anywhere in Norway.  We exercised the right to roam above the Arctic circle hiking near the town of Sortland one cold gray day.


Sortland is a small town, like so many others on the Norwegian coastline, that straddles the side of a fjord with the city center on one side of a bridge and the farmlands on the other.  Most of its inhabitants live in the countryside rather than the city center so they can be closer to nature, according to our guide.  The bridge itself is an amazing commitment to public infrastructure, but not at all uncommon along the thousands of inlets and islands that make up the coast here.


Sortland is located in the Lofoten region of Norway which consists of an amazingly beautiful archipelago of islands that sticks out like a peninsula into the Norwegian Sea.  It is roughly located where the boat icon is on the map below.


Because it is so remote, it is responsible for its own power supply, and thus the wind turbines you see on the mountain above the town in the picture below.  They are somewhat difficult to see because of the rain/sleet/snow that was moving through the area.


A perfect day for a hike!  Our guide got off the bus in the pouring rain as we were ready to begin the hike and announced that in Norway, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing…”  Then off we went, up the path.  In many ways the early climb could have taken place anywhere in Colorado.  I often described this journey as if the seas flooded all the valleys in Colorado so you could sail through the Rockies or the San Juans in a ship.



But then a closer look at the trees reveals that we are indeed somewhere entirely different.  They are covered with lichen that only the reindeer can digest.  This is not a disease, it is the sign of good air quality and plenty of moisture.


Within a mile of hiking a brisk ascent, we arrived at tree line, maybe 1000m above sea level.  Further north on the Barents Sea, the tree line is at sea level!  Although it didn’t pour the entire hike, it was clear from the condition of the trail that a lot of water moves in a hurry across this landscape.


Most of the mountains and steep valleys were cut by glaciers that retreated during the last few ice ages.  Some are still in retreat.  The result is breathtakingly beautiful valleys, often flooded with sea water as fjords, and incredibly steep and majestic mountains rising straight up out of them on all sides.


The growing season is short this far north so the trees seem stunted, and only the heartiest species of berries can be found.  According to the concept of the right to roam, if they are naturally occuring (not cultivated by some farmer), anyone has the right to pick the berries, collect mushrooms and otherwise enjoy the abundance that nature provides to all.  These blueberries and lingonberries were delicious!


Higher up at tree line we found even heartier and stranger plants still clinging to life as the first snowfall began.  They looked like coral reef I had seen off the coast of Belize.


There was so much standing water that it even covered some of the plants and flowers in a way that reminded me of the tide pools we visit off the coasts of Oregon each summer.


The idea that everyone has a right to roam across this planet and enjoy the beauty and abundance that nature has to offer calls to mind a time before private property that Rousseau describes in his “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men.”  A time when we believed that the earth belonged to all of us and that no one could put down fences and say “this is mine and you can’t come through.”  That move was the start of untold sorrow as a result of the privatization of what is all our right.  This debate is still raging in the western US over our public lands.  But public or private, according to “allemannsretten” we all have a right to roam the landscape because it is central to who we are as people.  We hoped to go further, but the weather bid us turn back.  We might not be able to deny each other the right to roam, but nature can always put such limitations in our path.


This one will have to wait for another day, now it was time to rejoin Paula and Erin at the ship in Sortland where they had been waiting for me to excise a bit of wanderlust.  As the ferry came into sight, I was reminded, like every good Irishman, that my greatest treasure does indeed lie at the end of the rainbow.  It is not a possession to be had but as a gift, the love of my family.  I am a rich man, indeed!




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I am a professor of Political Science at Colorado Mesa University on sabbatical in the fall semester 2018. I study public land policy and a wide variety of other subjects. Currently I am studying about European Landscape Policies while on sabbatical. That is the focus of this blog.

2 thoughts on “The Right to Roam – Wandering above the Arctic Circle”

    1. Clothes worked very well. Shoes no longer living up to their waterproof claim. Had to wear flip flops on the boat for two days while the others dried out! Brrr

      On Sat, Nov 17, 2018 at 04:05 2018 Sabbatical Sojourn Stories with TC wrote:



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