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Go wild in the woods: canoeing Sweden’s backlands


Saturday

Bleary-eyed and sleep deprived, I take the coach from Bournemouth at an ungodly hour to Heathrow. Some hours later, I rendezvous at Stockholm Central station with Craig and Euan (our official photographer for the trip), who’ve flown in from Scotland, and Andrew, whitewater kayaking supremo from Switzerland. Andrew makes himself known to the rest of the group by appearing in a florescent shower cap and comedy sunglasses, attracting concerned glances from bewildered locals in the process. People don’t normally look like that in Sweden.

Fortified by pizza we board the train to Karlstad, where Euan and Craig break out their latest toys: a pair of ukeleles. It seems we’re in for an interesting week.

We make our way to the STF Karlstad Vandrarhem hostel in Karlstad and find it very nice indeed. A lovely old building that from its structure we suspect may have been a mental hospital in a previous life. Suddenly Andrew feels right at home.

It’s now 11.00 and we don’t expect a great deal to be going on in a sleepy rural town like Karlstad, but we leave our bags and go off in hopeful search of beer. To our surprise and delight we immediately find a lovely pub called The Bishop’s Arms right by the river, where we spend a very happy two hours sampling an astonishing range of obscure British and Swedish beers. Every few minutes a different classic American car packed with young Karlstadians and playing Eurovision music bounces by to keep us entertained (a love of classic cars and “schlager” music is a deep-rooted tradition in all parts of rural Sweden).

Sunday

After filling up on hostel breakfast, we take the bus to the canoe centre, where we’re issued with our gear before loading up and heading to the start point. We’re deposited with a cheery wave and a “See you on Friday!” and watch the truck disappearing into the distance until finally we are alone with just the sounds of birdsong, the wind in the trees and our own hearts thudding nervously in our chests. Overwhelmed by the sudden solitude and thinking Friday seems an awfully long way away, we do what any hardy adventurers would do and immediately sit down to make a cup of tea.

Pic: Euan Turner

Steeled by a brew, we load the canoes and paddle off across the glassy expanse of Västra Sundsjön, a beautiful lake bounded by forest. A few raindrops fall but suddenly we’re in high spirits and can’t wait to get going. We make our way steadily, gradually getting into the rhythm of paddling. After 10 minutes we’re really starting to relax and enjoy ourselves.

We make our first land transport (or LTP) and our first efforts at unloading the gear, placing the trolley, transporting the canoe overland and launching again are clumsy and time consuming. By the end of the tour, when we’ve done this about 40 times (once at the start and end of each LTP, once every evening and morning when making camp and a couple of extra times by mistake!), the process is as slick and well-rehearsed as any motor racing pit-stop team.

With evening approaching we reach a small peninsula with a lovely camping spot. As self-appointed Hilleberg tent geek, Euan takes charge of erecting the tent while we settle in and gather firewood. Out on the lake, the bizarre calls of Black-throated Divers (also known as Loons) echo atmospherically over the water.

Even though we’re only a third of the way up Sweden, it hardly gets dark at all at this time of year (early June). Hypnotised by the firelight and the wistful combination of Craig’s ukelele playing mixed with Diver song, we find it’s almost midnight before we even get around to breaking out the Trangias and making dinner.

Monday

Our first full day of paddling. Craig earns great respect by being the first of us to brave the waters for a morning swim, only to lose all credit later in the tour when the rest of us work up the courage to go in and find it’s actually rather warm.

We spend a leisurely morning organising ourselves before taking to the water to the soundtrack of cuckoo song, gliding our way through a lovely labyrinth of moss-covered islands into the more open waters beyond. Either there are a remarkable number of cuckoos in Bergslagen or the same cuckoo followed us for the rest of the tour, because for the next few days we would be accompanied by cuckoo calls wherever we went.

Pic: Euan Turner

A mix today of some beautiful paddling and some gruelling land transports, including one muddy and rocky episode we thought we would never see the end of. Fortunately the sun streams almost interrupted from a sky dotted with fluffy cumulus clouds and this helps to keep spirits up. In fact, the few raindrops at the start of the tour were to be the last we’d see during our time in Sweden and we would have glorious weather for almost the whole tour.

The longest and most tiring transport of the day brings us to Hästergsagen and some stunning paddling in the evening sun. We cruise the tiny islands dotting the lake at a leisurely pace, lost in our own thoughts and searching for the perfect camping spot. We find a lovely west-facing spot, pitch camp and spend the rest of the evening lazing in hammocks and watching the sun steadfastly refusing to set. Only Euan, gripped by his photographic muse, summons the energy to take to the water again to shoot some evening pictures.

Tuesday

We awake early as the tents heat up under a blazing morning sun. Craig immediately sets to work with the morning baking, while we pack the things together and load the boats, feeling a little sad to be leaving what must surely be the nicest camp spot we’ll find on the whole tour. Little do we realise that camping nirvana awaits us just a few hours’ paddling hence.

We make our way along the rest of this narrow and beautiful lake. Euan and I are in the same canoe today, and we have both sets of maps (bad idea). Supremely (over)confident in our navigational skills, we strike out for what we’re sure is the correct landing spot, while Andrew and Craig in the other boat eye us suspiciously before paddling off their own way into a different bay. “Hah, poor hapless souls”, we laugh, as Euan and I land and sit down to relax in the sun waiting for the others to arrive. Time passes, vague shouts and expletives are exchanged between us across the water, and finally the other canoe gives in and paddles back to us. We unload and head off, only to discover after a few minutes’ hacking through impenetrable bush that Andrew and Craig were right all along. Oops. Feeling sheepish, we reload the canoes again and paddle around the headland where, sure enough, the correct landing spot is perfectly obvious.

Another day of paddling in bright sunshine and a long land transport brings us to the aptly named “Bredsjön” or “wide lake”. With our muscles aching and our tummies rumbling, it certainly looks an imposing stretch of water to cross, but we steadfastly load the canoes and paddle off, keen to reach the far shore before the wind gets up.

Surprisingly, it turns out to be quite an easy crossing, and just as we’re thinking that we’ve really had enough for today and would like a rest, we round a small headland and our very own “paradise beach” swings into view – a beautiful, small sandy bay with a lovely raised area for the tents and a forest conveniently placed for firewood. We resolve immediately to ring our respective wives and girlfriends and inform them that we’ve decided to stay a while and may not be home for Christmas.

Having shown signs of flagging during the day’s paddling, as soon as Craig’s feet touch dry land he is possessed with a maniacal energy. Spontaneously, he and Andrew decide to make a bread oven and spend the next hour of so heaving huge stones into place and lighting a fire inside. Euan wanders around enthusing about the quality of the light and taking pictures by the dozen, the evening passes cheerfully and a while later the bakers present us with the most delicious bread rolls ever made by man. Emboldened by a full stomach, Euan serenades us with his fledgling ukelele skills until we beg him to stop and suggest tactfully that learning how to tune the thing first might be a good idea.

Wednesday

Pic: Euan Turner

This time we really are sorry to be leaving, and sorry especially to be constrained to doing the route in 6 days instead of the standard 7, which would have given us another day’s idyllic loafing about at the camp. As I suggest dismantling the bread oven, Craig and Andrew mutter about the heartless destruction of an architectural triumph, but after a little persuasion we all agree that in the interests of “Leave No Trace” it has to go. Wiping away a tear or two, the boys take the oven apart and scatter and bury the stones, and five minutes later it’s as if we were never there.

Every expedition has its “grumpy” day, and this is to be ours. Perhaps it’s the emotional wrench of leaving our beloved beach or perhaps the realisation that we’re over the half way mark it won’t be long before we’re heading home, but today we’re all a little fractious. After a long and tiring land transport we reach “Kanalen”, a 5km stretch of water that under normal conditions can be paddled without problem but today looks ominously shallow. Andrew and Craig once again make the sensible decision and opt immediately to do a land transport along the canal path. Euan and I foolishly elect to give it a go, unload the gear, manhandle the canoe down the bank, load the canoe, then half paddle, half walk through a few hundred metres of canal before it finally gets through to us that there’s not enough water to float the boat. We unload the gear, manhandle the canoe up the bank, load the gear and, hey ho, we’re back where we started, except it’s an hour later and we’re completely exhausted!

Nerves on a knife-edge, major fisticuffs are narrowly averted by Craig’s timely brewing of tea and gallant sacrifice of the last of the cinnamon rolls.

Optimism restored, we trudge on and are delighted to find that after a while the canal deepens and we’re able to take to the water after all. Andrew and Craig go into outdoor-catalogue-male-model-pose mode as Euan finds the possibility to take some photos gives him renewed zest for life. The rest of the day passes without incident. We admire the engineering of an enormous wooden-clad water pipe as we transport past a sluice gate and small hydro station (the pipe looks temptingly like a gigantic elongated beer keg and in our hot and slightly delirious state we fantasise briefly about bottomless supplies of ale).

We make camp on a small headland along the river Uvan, another lovely spot in its own right, though our hearts still yearn for the beach. Once again the cuckoo keeps us company as Craig and Andrew invent a new game – pine cone paddle cricket.

Thursday

It takes us a while to get going this morning, due in part to Euan becoming fixated on taking the perfect arty-perspective picture of our storage barrels. After indulging him patiently for the first few dozen shots, we drag him protesting into the boat and head off. Soon we’re into a lovely winding section of the river Uvan, watching cranes lift majestically from the bank and enjoying the change of scenery from the wider lakes of the earlier part of the tour.

Pic: Euan Turner

We’ve decided to make things easy for ourselves for tomorrow to give plenty of time to clean and organise the equipment and also to set up some final shots, so today we’re pushing on through the other side of the small town of Hagfors to give us just a short distance to paddle on the last day.

Approaching Hagfors feels strange – the prospect of beer and ice cream beckons, but the call of the wild tugs us back. We land by a lovely floating restaurant where Euan, consolidating his reputation as group nutter magnet, is immediately and helplessly cornered by an elderly local and grilled on the finer points of canoe packing. Mercilessly, we leave him to fend for himself and make immediately for the bar.

As with all Swedes, the waitress speaks excellent English, but her language skills are not quite up to dealing with Andrew’s Tasmanian humour and he’s surprised when he actually receives the half a burger he ordered, lovingly bisected.

After a surreal episode transporting our canoes right through the centre of town and parking them outside the supermarket, we tire of the bright lights of Hagfors and are keen to be back on the water. We find a nice camping spot on a headland just outside town. It’s cloudier and also windy and this evening, making it difficult to keep the fire going and hard to settle, and we bustle and fuss about for the evening before tiredness overtakes us.

Friday

Pic: Euan Turner

Our last day. The wind drops and the sun comes out once more to greet us for our final short stretch of paddling. We spend a leisurely couple of hours basking in the sunshine at the end point, brewing up the last of the tea, making a valiant effort to eat all the food and pottering about taking photos of the equipment and cleaning the canoes. Before long it’s time for Anders to collect us with the van for return to the canoe centre and bus back to Karlstad.

Having survived 6 days’ remote paddling unscathed, Andrew finds the walk from the bus stop to the youth hostel a bit too much of a challenge. We hear a yelp and turn round to find him in a heap on the verge clutching a badly twisted ankle. We drag him hobbling to the Bishop’s Arms for an emergency dose of field anaesthetic (aka single malt whisky) and the rest of the evening gives a fitting symmetry to the trip as we make a determined effort to blow our remaining Kronor.

It’s been a great trip all round – we’ve been ridiculously fortunate with the weather, found that we’re not in bad shape at all really for three 40-somethings and a 20-something, seen that four guys can spend an extended period in each other’s company without major violence and indeed actually enjoy it and discovered that, when it comes to our paradise campsite, heaven really is a place on earth. We’re already planning the next trip….

Practical information

Bob’s tour was arranged by Nature Travels, the UK specialists for outdoor experiences in Sweden. Nature Travels offers a range of self-guided canoe tours duration 4-14 days from family-friendly rural tours to challenging wilderness expeditions, as well as guided and self-guided archipelago sea kayaking 1-7 days. All tours feature wild camping. Price for Canoe in Berglsagen from £163/adult, £82/child for 7 days/6 nights.

Pic: Euan Turner

To travel to Bergslagen, you can choose to fly to any of the Gothenburg, Stockholm or Oslo airports for onward travel by public transport. Ryanair and EasyJet fly to Sweden for around £60 return, Norwegian £80 or BA and SAS £100-£120.

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