High spirits on the High Coast of Sweden
It was a trip to Sweden 7 years ago, our first encounter with nature at its wildest, that provided the spark of inspiration for Miscellaneous Adventures, setting us on a new path with nature and outdoor adventure as our guides. When we began making plans for a special trip this summer, Sweden was naturally the first place that came to mind; we hoped the wild landscape and strong outdoor culture would be enliven our spirits as much now as it did 7 years ago. This time however, it wouldn't be just the two of us; we would be bringing Benji, our nearly two year old son, along for the journey.
This trip was special for a number of reasons, firstly, it was to mark Emma's birthday; a milestone year. Secondly it would potentially be our last chance to do a long multi-day trek with Benji for a while; his ever increasing weight is shortening the distances we're able to carry him along with all our gear, plus we feel it's time for him to enjoy the freedom of walking in wild places on his own two feet. The High Coast area of Sweden had been much recommended to us by friends and it certainly sounded appealing; steep granite cliffs rising from the Baltic Sea, low mountains cloaked in old growth forests and areas of wilderness inhabited by lynx, bear, pine marten and moose. We originally considered walking part of The High Coast Trail, a popular 130km route divided into 13 sections starting at the High Coast bridge in the south, passing through a UNESCO World Heritage Site, small fishing villages, areas of coastline, wilderness and countryside before ending in Örnsköldsvik in the north. Part of the trail also travels through Skuleskogens National Park, the wildest section of the route; upon researching this area further we decided to focus our entire hike here, starting on the High Coast Trail and then taking a detour, delving deeper into the National Park to explore its primeval forests, remote tarns and rugged terrain.
Although we have hiked many miles with Benji on our backs, this was his first long multi-day hike; we planned to walk for three days, camping at a new spot each night. With Benji weighing 13 kgs alone, we knew one of the big challenges of the hike would be having to carry heavy packs; one of us would be carrying Benji along with his essential items, the other carrying food, water, clothing and camping gear for the three of us. When fully loaded, each pack weighed over 23kg which is heavier than we would usually like to carry, but it was manageable and the beauty of our surroundings soon took our minds off the discomfort. (We have a forthcoming post detailing all the gear we took coming soon; keep an eye on our feeds for details!)
The High Coast is very much a landscape still being formed; the land is continuously rising from the sea thanks to a process called rapid glacio-isostatic uplift. During the last ice age, this part of Sweden lay under huge volumes of glacial ice, the land being depressed by the extraordinary weight. As the ice retreated 9,600 years ago, the land began to literally rebound and continues to rise to this day creating unusual geological and ecological phenomena. Primeval forests formed at the end of the ice age co-exist with lakes, coastlines and islands only hundreds of years old; the changes happen so fast they can be witnessed in the span of a human lifetime. Alpine species share habitats with those typically seen in warmer climates. Is it at once old and new. As you make your way along the trails, up and over low flat topped mountains, down again through ancient forests to the coastline, its easy to sense that the forces of nature are still working fervently towards their as yet unfinished masterpiece.
We hiked from the south entrance of the national park, winding through spruce forests and clambering up glacial cobblestone fields before passing through the majestic Slåttdalsskreva crevice. The terrain was tough going with our heavy packs and the hot, never setting, sun shone down making for a hard but rewarding first section of the hike. We were joined on our first day by new friends, Therese, Mat and their 18 month old son Sixten. We had met via Instagram some months ago and it was a joy to have like minded companions on the trail; hiking with good company makes the hard miles pass more easily, that's for sure. Benji too seemed happy to have an adventure buddy on his first multi day outing. We descended towards the Baltic coastline, over smooth granite boulders where stunted ancient pines clung to what little soil their roots could find, back through dark spruce forests to our chosen camp spot; one of the designated camping areas in the national park right on the shore of a wooded island jutting out into the sea. At each of these areas, as well being able to camp, a cabin or wind shelter sits waiting for weary hikers. The cabins are totally free to use, and are well equipped with bunk beds, a wood stove, candles and other bits and pieces. Next to each cabin there is usually a woodshed, stocked with dry firewood which is flown in by helicopter, plus an axe and saw. Coming from the UK, where much energy seems to be expended on keeping people out of the countryside we always marvel that such infrastructure exists in other countries, particularly Sweden and Norway where the right to roam, camp, forage and enjoy spending time in nature is respected by the authorities and cherished by visitors to the great outdoors.
From our island camp, the rest of our hike was somewhat dictated by the need for water; Sweden was (and still is) experiencing an unprecedented dry spell, and all the creeks and streams from which we were expecting to be able to replenish our supplies had dried up. Our previous Swedish and Norwegian treks have been characterised by constantly gurgling streams, raging rivers and gushing waterfalls so a lack of water was not something we had prepared for. I don't mind admitting that we were mildly alarmed; not only did we need drinking water for ourselves, more importantly we needed to keep Benji hydrated. We decided to study the map, finding a new route that would take us via a reliable source of water. There are a lot of new challenges to be faced when hiking with a toddler in tow; a two year old introduces an element of unpredictability of the kind that you try to minimise when travelling in wild places. Now would be the time when Benji decided to have what we call a "total meltdown" about seemingly nothing, hampering our ability to focus and concentrate, turning a moderately stressful situation into a monumental challenge. Our new route would retrace some of the previous day's hike, but we found what we were looking for - after an hour or so of walking, we heard the unmistakable sound of water trickling over rocks. What was obviously often once an impressive waterfall was now a mere trickle, but it was cold, clear and refreshing and we were glad to fill our bodies and bottles. We hiked for 9 hours, through forest, over boulder fields, along the edges of lakes and down to the coast along a narrow inlet to our next camping spot. It was a clear, cold, breezy evening, we were grateful for the shelter of our tent and the promise of warm down sleeping bags to slide into. After reading stories to Benji and settling him into his own tiny sleeping bag and a deep sleep, we sat outside, lit a small fire to keep the midges at bay, and simply sat, watching the perpetual but ever changing light play upon the water.
Venturing to the western side of the national park on our third day revealed one of our favourite sections of our hike. Steep paths wound down through rich, old growth spruce forests, bilberry, lingonberry, wild strawberry and twin flowers under foot, dotted with signs of wildlife everywhere, eventually leading to natural meadows full of wild flowers; willowherbs, cinquefoils and cranesbills created a vivid mosaic of colour. The meadows gave way to a cool, clear tarn fringed with cottongrass waving gently in the wind. Benji plucked the fluffy seeds and watched them float away on the breeze. We stopped here for a long while, absorbing the silence and feeling of wilderness. We knew that brown bears are visitors to this part of the national park, and if anywhere on our trek felt like a good place to spot one, this was it. There is a thrill that comes with walking in places inhabited by large animals: bear, lynx, wolf, wolverine and moose all excite the imagination and contribute to the wild feeling of a place. The idea that we might even see tracks or other evidence of their presence filled us with excitement, tinged perhaps with a little fear. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your point of view, we had with us one the best bear bells available; a chattering toddler, sure to alert any wild animals that humans were around from miles away so wildlife sightings were minimal. We miss this thrill when walking back at home in the UK, even places that feel "wild" due to their remoteness or ruggedness had their true wildness extinguished a long time ago when the last wolf, lynx and beaver were killed, the last tree was felled and the land was first burned to make way for farming and private land ownership. Walking in an ecologically healthy landscape, where natural processes are allowed to take place unhindered such as the remote parts of Sweden, fills our hearts with joy and invigorates our spirits because we know we are truly experiencing nature's finest work, full of life and rugged vigor. Sometimes we regret having made the discovery that not that long ago our uplands would of looked much like those in Sweden and parts of Norway, now when we visit Scotland, Wales or the Lake District it's hard to see beyond the destruction that the hand of humankind has inflicted on the landscape and to not be saddened by the lack of flora and fauna. Maybe one day life will be allowed to return to these places and we can call them wild again...
Our pace was quicker than we expected on the third section of our hike. Maybe it was because we knew the hike was nearly complete, or maybe we had finally settled into the rhythm of walking with our heavy packs but the kilometres passed easily and quickly. We ended up walking past our intended camp spot and to a campsite just outside the national park. Although a little down hearted to of left the wilderness behind, we were grateful for a hot shower and the chance to give Benji his first proper wash in three days. It was the last night of our multi-day hike, our last night in the tent before heading to a cabin a little further south the next day, and a good chance to reflect back on the journey. Although fairly short, and a little less wild than some of the places we have been, this had been a true adventure for us; taking our nearly two year old son into remote locations for the first time, camping each night, and sharing with him the things that bring us joy was an experience that we'll never forget.
The following day we hiked to the top of Skuleberget to celebrate Emma's birthday - what better way to mark a milestone year than climbing a mountain? - and then headed to a cosy red cabin situated on the shore of a peaceful treelined lake where soft beds and cold beers awaited us. We raised glasses to toast Emma's birthday and also our successful adventure, feeling somewhat proud of what we had achieved. I think it had been harder than we expected, but of course with that comes a greater sense of accomplishment.
So 7 years on from our first experience of Sweden, we found exactly what we wanted on the High Coast, and perhaps even a little more than we bargained for. We have new friends, new stories, new ideas, new schemes and a rekindled thirst for wild landscapes; we're excited to see what this latest trip inspires, even if it's only another Swedish adventure..