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The Nordic Way

By: Camey VanSant

By Gabriel

August 25 – October 25

At the end of the summer, I closed the chapter on my European adventures with family and friends. My sister, dad and I hiked the Tour Du Mont Blanc, a 100-mile trek through France, Italy, and Switzerland around Europe’s highest peak. My friends and I hiked up to huts in Switzerland experiencing a hailstorm, cold glacial air, and alpine animals such as Ibex and Marmot. I also visited some of the most popular (as well as hot and crowded) destinations of Americans and tourists everywhere- Rome, Paris, Berlin, Lake Como, Milan, among others.

The stark contrast between these experiences provided me with greater insight into what I wanted.

Fewer people. Less heat. More wildlife.

After a difficult goodbye to my sister who had to return to college in Boston, I was left solo with full autonomy for where to venture next. It did not take long for me to reach my decision.


I flew to Oslo from Berlin with no plan of where I wanted to go, but with a tent, sleeping quilt, pad, and an open mind.

I drew upon the most important knowledge about the Nordic countries my uncle taught me.

Allemannsretten, or “right to roam,” was the foundation of my trip. As long as you are at least 150 meters away from any building structures, you can camp anywhere.

Oslo had many great camping opportunities, my favorite being an island in the fjord that an electric ferry serviced as part of the public transit system.

With this being my first time in Norway, I was not sure how to travel around or better understand the interworking of the country.

Luckily I had the help of two things: Chat GPT and Duke Alumni!! I reached out to alumni around the Nordic countries hoping to learn more about their local way of life, family, and their unique paths through Duke to the Nordic Countries.

My interactions with Duke alums made me feel at home in a place previously foreign, helped me envision what my path at Duke could look like, and gave me ideas that I could offer back to ChatGPT.

After some persistence, I was able to refine an itinerary that would give me the insight into Nordic life I searched for. I learned that if I wanted to camp and spend my time outdoors, I needed to head north to beat the darkness and cold quickly approaching.

I set off to as far north as the train ventured. From there, I ferried to Moskenes, an Island in Lofoten, passing north of the arctic circle for my first time ever.

I walked down to the southernmost island in the chain, Å.

Å was quintessential Norway, a small fishing village with red painted houses and racks all around for fish drying. There was one narrow two lane road ending on this island, leaving it with only one small store, and few people.

Without a bus running for hours, I tested my hitchhiking abilities. The first person passing me picked me up. Not only did I have a ride several islands down, I now had a Swiss friend and company for lunch. I got to learn about the media production company he started back home, why he started it, and the most challenging parts of the business.

I realized the experience I had longed for was only ever a thumbs up away.

Lofoten taught me more than ChatGPT would have been able to. I began exploring and camping on remote beaches beyond where cell signal could reach. Many times the only person I would talk to would be myself. This was the down time and reflection I needed.

The islands offered great freedom, yet required intentionality. After deciding the food I would carry out from the first grocery store I had seen in days, I met a couple from Dubai. We were able to relate to the magic this place offered.

I stayed on Kvalvika Beach. Swimming in the Artic ocean just outside my tent (which was as cold as you might expect).

I stumbled upon a hobbit-like hut built into the rocks with a grass roof.

There was an old note recounting a story of two surfers who built the hut from marine debris and lived in it to surf throughout the winter. They left it to teach people about their simple living. I slept inside the hut. My first night ‘inside’ in many weeks. The Hakuna Matata hut, as they named it, showed a real life example of minimalism, cleaning the environment and creating something. They used an oil barrel for a stove, and the plastic bottles that washed up on the beach as insulation. A truly inspiring initiative turned into a documentary called ‘Nord du Soleil’ or North of the Sun. Since it was already the end of tourist season, it was pretty quiet on the beach. My most social encounter one day was the local grazers:

I went on to meet fellow campers at Unstad, the famed artic surf beach. I felt the numbing of my body during our sunset surf session. The night before they had to leave, we saw for the first time the scientific phenomena that I had only read about in text books- The Northern Lights! I was in awe as the green and purple hues danced in the night sky.

With temperatures dropping, I knew it would soon be too cold for my Floridian blood to continue sleeping outside in the freezing rain of these northern parts.

Of the many people I met as I came off Lofoten, the most interesting conversation was with a Somalian truck driver that had fled the war in his home for a life in Norway. Not only was I impressed by his ability to speak 3 languages fluently, I was fascinated while riding in his truck over 3 hours to hear his life story and values. He is one of 15 children. The greatest lesson I learned was the value of family in Somalian culture. It always comes first, and he is sometimes disheartened when families do not take care of each other or put material possessions or money in front of family. He reminded me how important it is to be there for them when they need someone to listen and offer support.

After calling my sister, I did my daily night hike up a mountain looking for a place to camp, and while the northern lights guided me, I found a lean-to I could sleep in. I woke up to a beautiful view of snowcapped mountains surrounding a fjord.

I then went to the northernmost university in the world. In Tromsø I hiked atop a hill once again experiencing the northern lights, had frost lining the inside of my tent, woke up in a puddle of water which broke my computer, and saw my first reindeer.

I ventured to Alta afterwards. I started having issues with my sleeping pad. Every couple hours it would be fully deflated and I would wake up too cold to sleep, so I would blow it back up, fall asleep, and the cycle would repeat itself.

I convinced myself that I was building my tolerance to physical stress and discomfort, which may have been true, but I would spend the rest of the day half asleep in the nearest library where I could dry my wet clothes.

In the Alta library, as I was inflating my sleeping pad between bookshelves trying to find and patch any holes, I met a local commercial diver that had a special glue for just this issue. I learned he was also headed to NordKapp in the next couple days and could give me a ride.

He made sure I liked dogs because they had 13 of them at home. I stayed with them and learned about his wife’s hobby: dog mushing. I got to help take care of the dogs, and train them in the morning as they pulled her summer sleigh. The endless pets and kisses from all of the huskies alleviated my dog withdrawal from our dog back home.

We set off in their RV many hundred kilometers north. At one point, my new friend turns to me and asks me if I can drive so he can take pictures of the landscape. Not ever driving an RV or stick shift, I hesitate. He assures me that he will teach me. As I drive, we pass more and more reindeer which become easy to spot since we are beyond the treeline. We stop along a fjord spotting porpoises playing below.

As the sun sets, I make it to the northernmost point of Europe and look for a campsite. There is not a tree in sight. After checking what I thought was the forecast and seeing calmness through the night, I go to sleep. I get woken up by unfathomable winds and go and look for the forecast again, only this time finding out that I set up my tent in a gale force 8 storm alongside a thousand foot cliff. This was not my first time camping in an exposed area, so I had put hundreds of pounds of rocks all around my tent to hold the stakes down.

Not enough for 50 mph constant winds- I soon realize. As my tent collapses with me inside, and I can feel the wind trying to lift me off of the ground, I decide it is best to pack up my tent and look for shelter from the wind. In the dark I find all of my stakes and my trekking poles scattered around. The one thing I cannot find: my shoes. Left in the vestibule before the tent collapsed, I look all around barely able to stand and follow the direction of the wind until I can see the ocean 1000 feet down below the cliff I am at the edge of. I think my shoes went off this cliff.

I walk barefoot to the museum hundreds of meters away, and wait many hours until they open their doors. I now check to make sure I have the right forecast. As the day went on, I looked through my phone for the nearest shoe store, a four hour drive south. I didn’t let not having shoes put a damper on my enjoyment of the breathtaking view.

After many hours walking around shoeless, a Sami women on the way to this town learns of my shoelessness, and insists on finding me shoes. After a stop at her cousin’s house, I am once again grateful for the kindness of locals as they gift me a spare pair they have.

The Finnish way

I entered Finnish Lapland heading south. I had always loved hearing stories about Lapland, so I was incredibly excited to experience it first hand. As a wildlife enthusiast, the statistic that there were more reindeer than people was very enticing.

I met a very interesting King Crab fisherman who shared with me the difficulties of the job, especially the loneliness out at sea.

The most interesting thing was the majority of locals that I talked to about the polar night, which is a period of many weeks where the sun does not rise above the horizon, said they very much enjoyed the peacefulness it came with. They saw it as a time to slow down and go into a hibernative state. Going with the patterns of nature, and slowing down stuck with me. As it continued to be colder and darker during my travels, finding joy regardless of what the weather was, and looking at it as an opportunity to learn and adjust my way of living to be more in tune with nature have brought me more awareness of my ability to determine how my experiences impact my mood.

I have come out of every experience appreciating what it taught me.

Every night I set up my tent was an opportunity to alter my strategy and approach a little bit to increase the effectiveness and safety of my tent sites.

One issue that I had to approach strategically was staying clean. When I learned that there were 1.8 saunas for every person in Finland, I was thankful to immerse myself in the local culture and get to not only take a shower, but also a sauna as part of my routine.

After many conversations with reindeer about where I could find Santa, I set my focus on making it to his home in Rovaniemi. It was pretty clear that this would be the right place after I met locals on my way into town.

It was pretty clear who was in charge in this town. Despite not being sure that Santa will grant me my wish of letting me borrow a few of his reindeer for my gap year, I had a great visit and got to meet many of his elves.

With this accomplished, I could leave the artic circle after a month of transformative experiences.

Swedish Ikea food

Walking across the open border from Finland to Sweden, it would have been difficult to know when I had officially crossed into Sweden for the first time. Luckily, within steps of Sweden, I found the infamous blue and yellow colors symbolizing the flag in the form of a large building with the letters IKEA posted on the front.

After mazing my way through the store, I made it to the cafeteria for my first meal in the country. Their plant-based meatballs with a big side of lingonberries.

Making my way down through Sweden, I pass through Umea, Uppsala, and finally into Stockholm. I was lucky to observe the change of arms at the royal palace, see the fungi exhibition in the Nobel Prize Museum, and see the great Vasa ship.

My favorite part of Sweden was hearing the stories and unique paths of Duke Alumni that led them to live abroad.

The lessons they are able to teach about specific fields, staying true to your passions, while making the world a better place always empowers and inspires me.

Seeing people in many different stages and ways of life has been the greatest gift thus far of my gap year. Every time I step into a family’s home and life, I appreciate the differences in cultures and traditions, yet also see how similar we all are no matter where we are from or how we are raised.

Previously I would not have been at ease not knowing where I would sleep or what I would encounter. Traveling on my own and being able to enter and exit society as I wished, I have learned how to be more present in each moment of my life.

Living on a gap year has allowed me to turn off the autopilot I used to have to engage in order to maneuver the monotony of day to day life. Having a direction, but not a plan has led me to be more mindful and intentional about the small steps I take in self growth.

As I continue on this journey, I am excited to share what lessons I learn from different environments and how the broadening of my global understanding will help me become a better student at Duke and of the world, and to follow the rainbow.

Categories: Gabriel