Karen Schroeder - Solo Wayfaring Norway’s Trail System: A Story Of Trusting Yourself And Respecting Mother Nature

Karen J. Schroeder

Hello! Who are you and where are your hiking roots?

Hello all!  I’m Karen Schroeder - avid hiker, rock climber, and physical education teacher in the mountainous state of Colorado.  I’m often told I have energy in abundance. This is why I find myself on a trail- it is where I find serenity. 

Hiking and exploring the outdoors has always been in my blood.  As an infant and toddler, my father would take me out hiking each weekend in “The Snuggly.”  If you are not familiar with this contraption, it was a less-safe (albeit more rugged-looking) version of the packs in which toddlers are toted around today on the trails.

(Granted: this is at Disney World, but you get the idea)

Anytime I saw the Snuggly, I would jump for joy at the prospect of a new trail adventure with my dad.  I can still remember the crunch of the dirt beneath his hiking boots. When I was old enough to walk in stride, I would try my darndest to replicate it with my tiny feet.  I still can’t manage to make that same satisfying sound he would as his boot struck trail: gritting and crunching the dirt underfoot.  Perhaps this is why I’m still hiking...

As I grew, the task became my own to complete longer trails with him.  My father was a saint on the trail. He would generously give me a piggyback ride in order to complete a hike before sunset. He would carry all of our water and snacks (one of my favorite parts of our adventures was eating).  As we explored the desert together, we would take pause along the way to observe landscapes of red, jagged rock, the scent of desert sage bushes, the way the saguaro help shape the horizon, and the sound of birds chirping in the distance.

My father has such passion for the outdoors and he managed to instill that in me (even through my teenage years when I would have rather spent time with friends).  Nonetheless, he persisted and provided me with backpacking skills and a love for the outdoors that permeates all aspects of my life to this day. I owe a great deal to my father in that respect.  Because of him, I long for more wild spaces, more mountain tops, and more tranquility on the trail.

Perhaps, at the time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to grow up in a place as rugged and unique as Arizona.  It has taken a move across the globe and then settling in Colorado to fully appreciate the Sonoran Desert for the strikingly beautiful place that it is.  Arizona’s diverse landscapes are at the heart of my passion for hiking.

What’s your Story From The Mountain?

Summer 2019: Scandinavian Excursion.  I set out for three weeks in Scandinavia.  I ran my 9th marathon (The Stockholm Marathon), took a week exploring Finland, and then headed to Norway.  I had done extensive research and found the Norway Trekking Association's (locally referred to as DNT) trail and cabin network.

The cabins are open for use year-round, and you must be a member of the association to utilize the facilities.  To use this incredible cabin network, one will sign a log book upon arrival at a cabin, find a bunk, and log any food or equipment used during the stay.  Firewood and water are provided free of charge (nature provides free-flowing water by each cabin). The network operates on an honor system, and all totals are settled up via hand-written carbon copy credit card forms.  They collect these a couple of times per year. 

I arrived in Bergen to begin my preparation and planning.  After spending an hour route planning with the DNT office officials, acquiring a detailed map and compass, and strategically packing my Kelty Women's Coyote 60 Liter Backpacking Backpack, I felt ready to depart the following morning.

I chose a route that would take me above the fjords and above Norway’s treeline (approximately 500 meters), but one that would also give me options to retreat back to safety should injury or inclement weather hinder my progress on trail.

The loop began in the marshland near Vaksdal, and ascended up and out of the trees over the course of 6 steep miles.  My journey would end near the small township Eikedalen. Day one included waterfall crossings, encountering overly-aggressive herds of sheep, hiking into the clouds (and windstorm), and learning the true purpose of my map and compass.

After arriving at the trailhead, the cab driver mentioned I was a brave soul  to take on such a trek on a stormy day. She also mentioned that no one would be on the trail with weather like that and I should heed her warnings to step carefully.  

I easily ascended the first two hours of the trek until I was met with dense clouds, intense wind, and heavy sleet upon emerging from treeline.  In order to identify the trail, one must rely on their compass, map, and tiny red “T” markings on rocks along the way.

I was thrown off when the trail turned into rock slab and the next red “T” could not be found.  I inched forward: rock cliff. I turned north: alpine lake. As the wind thrashed my poncho, and my Saucony Xodus trail shoes grew drenched in rain and muck, I quickly sought shelter to make an attempt to calm the sense of panic that was growing inside of my gut knowing I was lost.

(A view of the clouds I was hiking up into on my first day)

I found a rock out-cropping to block the wind and rain, added warmer layers to my basic light rain coat, and whipped out my map and compass.  The sudden quiet behind the rock gave me reprieve from the harsh elements around me. It also provided me with a place of solace to gather myself; no hyper-stressed person successfully found their way on a mountain in a cloud, this I knew.  

As I took in a few deep breaths, I stopped shaking and made logical decisions based on what I knew about the trail.  I had more than enough daylight to get back down to town if I could not find my way or if things got too dicey. After all, the sun doesn’t really set in Scandinavia around the solstice.  That gave me five hours to find my next “T” from my current spot of solitude.  

Within twenty minutes, as I patiently looked to the north (where I knew the trail turned and where my compass led me), the clouds and mist parted for a split second to reveal my next spot!  I cannot even begin to tell you how relieved and excited I was to see that next target. The rest of the trail continued in this way, stopping at every “T” and checking for the next one before departing.

The trails over the next couple of days taught me that if I, even for a moment, let my mind wander away from finding that red “T,” I’d lose my way.  That first day of hiking was a giant warning that I should take extreme caution with every day’s trek. This type of hiking puts you on edge, makes you hyper-focused, and forces you to be as present as you possibly can.  Each step, each breath is committed to that trail.  

What it taught me was about my inner-self, my perseverance, and my independence.  It taught me discernment when crossing snowfields as I postholed up to my hip. It taught me to choose each step carefully as I teetered on the edge of a slippery, steep cliff.  It taught me to leap to a rock, knowing full well that if I faltered, I could pummel down a 50 foot waterfall. It taught me that I can trust myself and the tools I have to get out of a troublesome situation.

Through deep fjord valleys, sharp rock cliffs, muddy marshland, and swift waterfall crossings, Norway’s vast landscape will cause one to contemplate how meek we are and how Mother Nature is a force to be respected.  It also causes one to see how strong we are, and how resilient.  

Through hiking/climbing, have you learned anything about yourself or nature you’d like to pass on to others?

Nature is the strongest force.  Her beauty and grandeur are not to be taken lightly.  She can teach us so much about ourselves and this perfect planet on which we dwell.  Through hiking, I have learned to be resilient. I have learned that our planet is not one to take for granted.  Because of the scenery I have been lucky to explore around the globe, I have an immense amount of respect for the place we call “wild.”  

The immense, wild spaces we explore bring us such joy and awe.  I urge everyone to make an effort to get on a trail and explore.  It doesn’t have to be the tallest mountain or the most treacherous trail.  It can be as simple as enjoying a dirt path that meanders through a local open space.

I’m often told I have energy in abundance.  This is why I find myself on a trail- it is where I find serenity.

When I brought my inner-city students to a hiking trail this year, you would not believe the impact it made on how they see our planet.  It opened up their eyes to something bigger than their small world in Denver. That type of impact from one hike has the potential to positively impact someone for a lifetime.  

As we explore, we also have a duty as humans to honor our trails and mountains, practice Leave No Trace, and respect the wilderness for what it is- wild.  I want us to care enough about it to believe that we should protect and preserve it.

Not a moment goes by when I am on a trail that I don’t think about how my presence will leave an impact.  No matter how careful we are, we will leave an impact. I just hope we manage to leave a positive one.  

What’s your favorite item in your pack?

To be honest, I will never leave home without at least 64 oz. of water between my Hydroflask and my Nalgene (in addition to a larger bladder for longer hikes and I keep a 5 liter jug of water in my trunk for emergencies).

It has taken a move across the globe and then settling in Colorado to fully appreciate the Sonoran Desert for the strikingly beautiful place that it is.

I always pack my Melanzana Hoodie as a fleece layer because, honestly, I haven’t found a warmer product that can serve as an all-around solid insulator with a hood.

For those times when I need to use the facili-trees, I keep my Kula Cloth clipped to my bag to limit waste.  This zero-waste cloth (for women) is for #1 ONLY.  It boasts both an antimicrobial layer and waterproof side to keep things where they need to stay: off of your pack and off of your hands! 

Do you have any advice for other hikers who are just starting out?

We all have to begin somewhere.  Find a local trail and start slowly.  Explore a local park, a nearby nature preserve, or pick a spot on the map and be a weekend warrior!  If you are itching to hike further out, check trail conditions on All Trails prior to departing, or call the local forest service.

Nature is the strongest force.  Her beauty and grandeur are not to be taken lightly.  She can teach us so much about ourselves and this perfect planet on which we dwell.

Get a bag together with plenty of layers (fleece, rain jacket, and down jacket if you are in a cold place), gloves, a hat, your favorite snack, and sunscreen.  Trekking poles are optional if you feel your knees aren’t stable and the trail is steep.  

When you are off the trail, basking in your achievement, recovery can feel arduous but it is essential.  I always follow up a hike with some mild stretching of my legs and back. If I am sore the next day, I take a light walk around my neighborhood followed by a little more stretching.  Keeping hydrated is also essential for recovery and keeping soreness at-bay.  

As far as nutrition is concerned, I allow myself a post-hike beer- my favorite is the Great Divide Titan IPA.  I personally believe that provides an immense amount of help in recovery.  I also include a snack that balances protein, carbohydrates, and fats. My favorite go-to “snack” after a hike is a black-bean burger and sweet potato fries.  Is anyone else craving that right now?

Most of all, if you are just starting out, be patient with yourself and the mountain.  It has so much to show you- take as many moments as you can to breathe, observe, explore, and have fun.  The reward is well worth it!  

What have been the most influential hiking books, podcasts, or people?

My obsession before, during, and after a trail adventure is the podcast Dirtbag Diaries.  The stories they share inspire me to try new trails, look for unique aspects of the wild, and be a better steward of Mother Nature.  From spooky to inspirational stories on the mountain, they have a little something for any adventurer to enjoy.

The book that is shared most among my friends and I is Into the Wild by John Karakauer.  It is an account of a man’s life as he isolates himself from society and finds solace in the wild.  Now a motion picture, it’s fame and popularity outlines the rugged wilderness of Alaska and man’s search for connection to it.

Where’s your next adventure?

This is always a challenging question.  Currently, I am looking into driving around the United States and exploring new trail systems our country has to offer.  If this adventure pans out, I see myself taking time to explore trails in the northwestern part of our country and into Canada.  I’d love to get into the Canadian Rockies to explore some of the enormous peaks out there.  

If that plan doesn’t come to fruition, I am looking to travel overseas again to trek more trails in Nepal.  I managed to do Annapurna Base Camp in 2016, and have been itching to get back there and explore more of the Himalayas.  The people are genuine, the food is fantastic (Dal Bhat is all-you-can-eat), and the mountains are twice as high as those in my backyard.  It is the most idyllic place to seek serenity and be present. There, I aim to complete the Annapurna Circuit. 

As far as personal goals in 2020, I am currently running at least one mile everyday.  I can tell you, the month of February is already a doozy with the snowstorms! It is my way of taking ten minutes of disconnected time all to myself to meditate, practice presence, and run a new route in Denver or nearby.  I also have been getting to a trail two times a week. These are not new trails, but rather me aiming to get my feet onto dirt trails because I love love LOVE the way the dirt crunches under my feet while I hike… it still isn’t quite the same as my father’s stride, but I’ll keep working on it.

Where can others learn more about you?

Instagram: @karen.j.schroeder

Facebook: Karen Schroeder

Email: kschroeder10210@gmail.com

Or, if you are up for an adventure, you can catch me on the trail in the Rocky Mountains any given day of the week!  See you there!


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