Norway: The bottom line on that elk tour

The pine forests and rivers of Norway offer great walking, canoeing, beavers ­ and, occasionally, elks.
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The Independent Travel

Stein Erik's buoyant optimism was sinking fast. We had been grinding along in first gear in his minibus along dusty forest tracks for nearly two hours, lurching to a gravel-spraying halt whenever anyone thought they saw something vaguely resembling an animal in the increasingly murky forest clearings. It was becoming a little boring. In the late evening gloom, the silhouettes of trees were playing elk-shaped tricks with our eyes. But we hadn't even spotted a squirrel.

Stein Erik's buoyant optimism was sinking fast. We had been grinding along in first gear in his minibus along dusty forest tracks for nearly two hours, lurching to a gravel-spraying halt whenever anyone thought they saw something vaguely resembling an animal in the increasingly murky forest clearings. It was becoming a little boring. In the late evening gloom, the silhouettes of trees were playing elk-shaped tricks with our eyes. But we hadn't even spotted a squirrel.

At nine on a summer's evening we had assembled with five or six others in a somewhat nondescript, shop-lined square in Trysil, an otherwise delightful little Norwegian town 150 miles northeast of Oslo. The extensive pine forests hereabouts offer excellent walking. What's more, they are supposed to teem with elk, those earth-brown, cow-sized creatures with antlers like spreading oak trees. They are actually a species of deer. We were going on a safari with local experts so we set off with a feeling of obvious excitement, eyes wide to spot the first of the evening's big beasts.

"We will travel slowly once we are in the forest. We must look for anything large and grey, the size of a small cow," announced Stein Erik our guide in measured, somewhat hushed phrases, as if we were about to be ushered into the presence of royalty.

It was past 11pm – and on a late summer's evening in southern Norway that means it isn't dark, just very dull – when we ground to yet another, rubber-searing, lurching halt. One of our eagle-eyed, fellow passengers had spotted a massive, grey backside beating a hasty retreat into the coal black forest. Stein Erik reckoned it was a female elk.

A little later someone spotted another, the minibus lurched again, and we had a quick flash of two more elk bums, one very large, the other small. Apparently a full grown female with a three-foot youngster. We took his word for it.

By the end of the trip, Stein Erik had become more downbeat, trying to come up with explanations to explain why we were the poor sods destined to get nothing but the rear view of these impressive animals. Apparently it was highly unusual. I suppose he was embarrassed by the fact that, for 400 Kroner (£30) per person, three fast-moving bums wasn't much of a memory to return home with. He was dead right.

The elk managed to avoid us for the duration of our holiday, despite several evenings spent sitting around forest tracks. We had walked past heaps of their rich brown, rugby ball-shaped droppings the size of 10-pence pieces. But to no avail. So when it came to beaver we opted for our own DIY safari in Ljordalen, a tiny hamlet of wooden houses, farms, and a couple of general stores. It's about 30 miles from Trysil and you can hire canoes on its shallow, crystal-clear, Ljora River.

We opted for a dark-green, two-seater canoe owned by Norvald Doksrud, an incredibly helpful and informative local builder. There were always beavers on the river, he told us, and the best time to see them was in the evening. We put our mammal-searching trust in him and hoped that he wasn't related to Stein Erik.

So, sprayed copiously with insect repellent, an essential summer evening precaution in Scandinavian forests against biting midges and mosquitoes, off we set with a push from Norvald into the sluggish but clear water.

We glided downstream on the imperceptible current, almost dreamlike under a cloudless, evening-blue sky, upside-down trees reflected in perfect leafy detail in the cool stillness of the water's surface. An occasional silver-grey fish noisily broke through the reflection of a tree, sending out a little circle of ripples and momentarily destroying this surreal image.

Regimentally spaced flotillas of grey-brown Goldeneye duck swam ahead of us. Bunches of leathery, green-stemmed water crowfoot rooted in the shallow, gravel ripples, floating their gorgeous, white-as- snow flowers on the water's surface to decorate our idyllic route.

Straining to see which was river and which was sky ahead, we suddenly spotted a tiny bow wave reflecting the evening sun. Behind it, V-shaped ripples were spreading across the river. The canoe yawed wildly as we grabbed our binoculars and dropped the paddles (thankfully, inside the boat). A full-grown beaver came into focus.

It eyed us cautiously and circled in the water, its three-feet long, chestnut- brown body hardly breaking the surface. It swam downstream and we paddled hard to try to keep up. Then, as if aware that we were in pursuit, it circled once more, its large eyes fixed on us. Suddenly, it arched its back, dived headfirst and slapped its large flat tail on the water's surface with a loud thwack, a beaver signal to warn others of danger.

It didn't work. As we paddled further on our four-mile downriver trip, we spotted another three beavers, all keeping their distance, swimming and diving in the clear, cool water, their tiny, sun-reflecting bow waves a give-away.

We spent much of the rest of the week walking in the forests that dominate this part of Norway. One day we followed one of the many well-marked forest paths from Ljordalen village. Most of the way, we walked between evenly aged spruces and pines, trees harvested regularly for their timber. But we also came across more natural areas of forest; white-barked birch and leaf-shimmering aspens among the conifers, the ground lush with mosses and shiny-wet fern.

This being late summer, berries were everywhere. Purple-berried bilberry, jet-black crowberry, and a scattering of orange-yellow cloudberry on ground-hugging, bramble-like leaves which added a vibrant, tinge of colour to the dark forest green. Drier areas sported a floor covering of pale lichens the texture of cauliflower florets.

But you don't need to wander deep into these lovely forests to admire what they have to offer. Our first morning, as we organised breakfast on the wooden patio outside the hytter (or chalet) we had borrowed from friends for the week, we were entertained by scampering red squirrels; the metallic calls of woodpeckers; and restless family parties of siskins.

On one unusually cold day we drove 60 or so miles north of Trysil to the Gutulia National Park, an area of uninhabited mountain and natural forest. On the way, and in the forest, we spotted several groups of reindeer, both youngsters and adults, their antlers more cumbersome than you would ever imagine from their Christmas-card images. Some of them, apparently, were the property of Lapps living in the area, as far south as they come in Norway. Others were wild.

We learnt this, and much more, from two retired schoolteachers we met in a renovated summer farm, a few miles walk from the nearest road, on the edge of the Gutulia forest. Here a local couple are paid to live all summer in one of the buildings to maintain them. They cook fantastic waffles served with strawberry jam and soured cream. Eating in front of a warming wood fire in the cosy farmhouse, sheltering from the cold drizzle outside, was sheer bliss.

It had been a wonderful week – seeing beavers at close quarters and walking in the peaceful, wildlife-rich forests. The elks' rear ends were a more dubious pleasure.

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