Into the accessible wild
Written by Doug Lansky
Both Norway and Sweden love to claim the slogan ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’. The problem is they didn’t tell me about the flip side until I moved here. For six months of the year, Scandinavia gets as dark, damp, and cold as the inside of my cross-country ski boots.
Come May, these Northerners emerge from their hyper-caffeinated (four to five cups a day average) social hibernation, say hello to their neighbours in the light of day, and start requesting outdoor tables at restaurants and cafés. Never mind that it’s only 5° after the sun dips below the horizon; restaurants oblige by handing out blankets and turning on gas heaters. Visitors from warmer climates watch the spectacle in shock as these bundled-up Norwegians and Swedes embrace something only they would call summer.
By the time June arrives in Stockholm, where I’ve now made my base camp, everyone is itching to put down their coffee and venture into nature. Stockholm makes it easy. The city sits on 14 islands and two-thirds of it is either water or parkland. The rest comprises what is arguably Northern Europe’s best-preserved medieval city. Against this backdrop of cobblestones and passageways, a few barely wider than my shoulders, there’s a population that looks like it was handpicked by a casting director for a jeans advert. The city is far more cosmopolitan and ethnically mixed than the blond stereotype, though some trends still stand out. After a spell of people-watching, you’ll likely detect a casual trendiness – a trouser cuff rolled up just so, a creatively knotted scarf dancing with each step – that belies the painstaking effort it took to look effortlessly thrown together. Or, more likely, you’ll observe a general level of fitness that will make you wonder if someone dumped Slimfast into Stockholm’s water supply.
One of the reasons Stockholmers appear fit is that they spend considerable time in nature. Water provides the preferred way to access it, even in the winter. When it gets cold enough, the brackish Baltic freezes far out into the 24,000-island fan of Stockholm’s archipelago. Adventurous visitors who manage to get a bit lucky with the weather can join a long-distance ice-skating group for an epic day (www.iceguide.se). Tour leaders monitor conditions and steer groups towards the newest formed, virgin ice. Skating on the mirror-perfect surface feels almost naughty, like you’re disturbing an artist’s canvas of wet paint. If it seems at times like the ice is bending beneath your feet, that’s because it probably is. One of the risks of pursuing fresh ice is that it can be dangerously thin. That’s why all skaters are equipped with throw ropes, a watertight bag containing a dry change of clothes and hand-held spikes to help skaters claw their way back up onto supporting ice in an emergency. Touch wood: I haven’t had to use mine yet.
You need decent weather for such skating adventures because the Swedes aren’t particularly fond of heading out during freezing rain and snowstorms. In this respect, they part ways with the Norwegians. On the west coast of Norway, where I lived for 18 months, it’s not unusual to see parents with small children in tow going on an hour-long hike with flashlights up the fjords at 4.30pm in complete darkness and icy drizzle. As they will tell anyone willing to listen: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” (The famous expression: “Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær” rolls off the tongue far better in Norwegian.) But my favourite example of their fondness for nature occurred when my wife and I opened a bank account. The welcome gift we got from our Norwegian banker was a canister of cross-country wax with the bank’s name on it.
Norwegians fortunate enough to live near fjords look upon them as entire fitness clubs provided by Mother Nature. They hike in them daily during the summer and autumn and ski them in the winter and spring. The only thing that puzzles them is why visitors would come halfway around the world then only experience the fjords from the deck of a cruise ship. To them, that’s like experiencing a Parisian café by flying over it in a helicopter.
Norway’s best-kept secret is arguably its hut-to-hut hiking system. Most think of Nepal or New Zealand for long treks. But Norway’s 20,000 km of hiking routes are in many ways superior. These routes wrap around glaciers, squeeze through canyons, and zig-zag around rock formations protruding like dislocated joints. Not only are they less congested than more famous treks in other countries, but they must have one of the highest waterfalls-per-kilometre ratios in the world.
If the hut-to-hut hiking is Norway’s summer treasure, then Sweden’s is kayaking. The only thing easier than renting kayaks in Stockholm is the paddling. There are no dangerous currents, no bears, no sharks. About the most dangerous thing you’re likely to encounter is a tick – and a vaccination can be easily arranged if you’re worried about those. Capsizing? The multitude of islands means you almost never need to be more than about 100 metres from a shoreline. Afraid of getting lost? Just ask Siri. You’ve got mobile phone coverage everywhere (but you’ll definitely want to bring a map as well).
You can even decide between high-end digs like Sandhamn’s yacht-clubby Seglarhotell (sandhamn.com) and Yasuragi, a Swedish-Japanese spa (yasuragi.se); more traditional cosy inns like Grinda Wärdshus grindawardshus.se); or rustic cottage rentals and – perhaps most impressive – your own camping sites. What makes the camping special is that you can do it almost anywhere, even on private property. Swedish law allows for this allmansratt (every man’s right). The proper etiquette for camping on someone’s property is to pick a spot that’s out of sight of the house, knock on the door to introduce yourself, and let them know where you’ve got your tent.
While paddling in the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ in June and July, you’ll get about 20 hours of daylight. I experienced just one problem with that: it’s hard to know when to stop.
Follow the ‘T’
In Norway, trails are well marked with rocks painted with a red ‘T’, so you don’t need to fiddle with a map very often. It’s also a pleasure to hike with a lighter load – you don’t need to pack food, a tent, or sleeping bags, as huts provide comfortable beds and duvets and, with a bit of luck, a fellow hiker will have a fire going by the time you arrive. If you’re planning on using the huts for more than about four nights, don’t forget to pick up a DNT membership (Norwegian Trekking Association: english.turist foreningen.no). It costs €76 for adults, €25 for teens, and €15 for kids on hut fees. Even with discount, a family of four relying on the hut meal plan is going to cost about €200 day. In one of the world’s most expensive countries, you can at least take some comfort in knowing that it’s cheaper than staying in one of Norway’s enchanting cities. Member or not, you can pay as you go with cash or credit card – the unstaffed huts rely on the honour system. The fact that Norwegians bestow their trust upon visitors so readily is one of the warmest of welcomes.
By the numbers
Swedish Islands (lake and sea)
Hut-to-Hut Hiking Huts
60 Huts Norway
Stockholm Iceskate Club
112 years since club founded