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In March 2013, Bob from Nature Travels joined our Discover Mountain Ski Touring in Lapland experience…
(you can also see more pictures from the tour on the Nature Travels Facebook page)
As I reclined on my bunk, the night train from Stockholm to Gällivare rattled its way soothingly through the endless miles of forest, making its way steadily north. I’d recommend anyone travelling to the north of Sweden to choose the train above flying – not only for the environmental benefit and often a considerable cost saving, but also because it gives a much better impression of just how far you are travelling and the vast areas of wilderness that make up northern Sweden. From embarking at the station at Stockholm Arlanda airport to being disgorged blinking into the early afternoon sunshine 15 hours later at the regional town of Gällivare, the vista of forest and frozen lakes was virtually unbroken.
I was here to join our Discover Mountain Ski Touring in Lapland experience for a week’s introduction to ski touring in the Swedish fjäll chain. Intended for participants with some previous cross country or downhill experience, this tour bridges the gap between the comfort of the pistes and prepared cross country trails and the wild expanses accessible by point-to-point touring.
After the bus to Kebnats and transfer by snowmobile across the frozen lake to Saltoluokta Mountain Station, we were met by our guide, Conny, who exuded calm and gentle authority from the outset and an instant sense that we were in good hands. There were to be five participants in total in this group: Philip from the UK, not hugely experienced in cross country skiing but with plenty of additional fitness as a runner to make up for it, Maurice from Holland, an experienced cross country skier on prepared tracks, two Swedes – Petter, who would shortly be revealing his passion for retro outdoor clothing, and Gunilla, a seasoned hiker on trips worldwide and veteran of the “Tjej Vasaloppet”, a 30km cross country skiing race held annually in Sweden – and myself. Aware that my skiing would win no prizes for style or technique, I’d been preparing for the trip by upping my cycling days to the Nature Travels office in the weeks beforehand in an attempt to reduce the spare tyre that had been stubbornly sticking around since Christmas.
Following our long journey, we were starting gently. We collected our equipment and had a run-through of the days ahead. We would be using the next day to test out our gear on a trip around the local area before heading off into the wilds the following day. After briefing, we retired to the station sauna with its stunning view out over the lakes and surrounding mountains followed by an enormous three-course dinner at the station restaurant. Salto may be remote, but in the small station kitchen culinary wonders are conjured, mostly using organic and local ingredients. At this rate, I was going to have to do some serious exercise to work this lot off.
The next day, with the sun shining and a light wind blowing, we headed out across the lake to practise our “on-the-flat” skills and up the hill to try our climbing skins, for our first long-distance mountain view and for instruction in how to use the safety equipment that we would be carrying for the tour.
Windsacks and snow shovels are carried both as an emergency precaution and also to make lunch-stops more comfortable in windy or cold conditions.
After another sauna, another enormous dinner and fortified by a good night’s sleep and the extensive Salto breakfast buffet, we were packed and ready next morning to begin our adventure proper. It is around 20km from Salto across the bare mountain plains to the cabin at Sitojaure, where we would be spending the next three nights. Being an introductory tour, this leg is normally done by snowmobile transfer, with the option for hardy types to choose to ski the last half or so of the route. The sun shining and a cold wind was biting at our cheeks as we sped out above the treeline and into the stunning expanse of the “kallfjäll”. Eager to be moving under our own steam, after about 9km we hopped enthusiastically out of the trailer, shouldered our packs and equipment and watched as the snowmobile disappeared over the peak and out of view.
As the wind whipped across the open mountains and the warmth drained out of me, I quickly realised I’d underestimated how cold it was today and hadn’t put enough layers on for this part of the trip. Time to get moving! With my skis and equipment still feeling rather new and unfamiliar, I set off clumsily along the trail behind Conny, who was effortlessly gliding along at the front.
A lunch stop with our windsacks and a few hours later, we started the descent down through the treeline and were soon at the Sitojaure cabin. Although simple (no electricity, outside toilets, water from a hole in the lake ice), our cabin was very cosy and warm once heated and would provide a perfect base for the coming days.
After dinner, Conny got the map out to discuss the plan for the following day. One of the great advantages of having a fixed base for a few days is the freedom to plan each day as you wish, varying the distance covered and level of challenge depending on the weather and the level of the group. With clear skies and light winds forecast for the following day, we opted to go high and picked a likely-looking hilltop a few hours to the north.
Sure enough, next day we were greeted with bright blue skies and we headed for the hills. Although the going was hard work at times and I still felt more like a drunken penguin on my skis than a seasoned tourer, as soon as we left the trail and struck out into virgin snow, I found myself energised and uplifted both by the stark beauty of the landscape and the thrill of the adventure. When the soft powder gave way to hard packed icy snow, we dug our edges in furiously to keep from sliding back. When the terrain became too steep to use skis, we left our equipment and hiked the last few minutes to the top.
As we came over the rise, the world opened into a truly breathtaking panorama, with the mighty mountains of Sarek National Park to our west and the limitless forested lowlands stretching away to the east. With not a breath of wind and a cloudless sky, I felt literally on top of the world. We may have only been three hours from the comforting warmth of the cabin, but there was a real expedition feeling to this day. Philip celebrated by demonstrating his yoga skills with a flawless headstand!
On the way down we were very excited to cross the tracks of a wolverine, with the clearest prints I’d ever seen. We didn’t know then what was waiting for us the next day!
We took a different route down with a chance to try new techniques, picking our way down through the birch forest through icing-sugar snow. This was hugely enjoyable but also very tricky from a skiing point of view – we all fell regularly and with the deep snow refusing to support even the slightest pressure it often took several minutes to get ourselves back on our feet again. With the constant effort of hauling ourselves out of deep holes of snow following yet another wipe-out and laughing hysterically watching others trying to do the same, most of us were feeling it by the time we arrived back at the cabins. But we were happy. And double helpings of everything for dinner helped to soothe the aches and pains…
Like most visitors to the far north, we’d hoped that our time in the Arctic might also give us a display of the Northern Lights. The problem with seeing the Aurora on tours such as this is that after a long day in the fresh air, bedtime tends to come early – sometimes as early as 9 o’clock! – and later in the evening the heavens may blaze away spectacularly above on sleeping bodies blissfully unaware below! But tonight we were lucky that clear skies and some early activity coincided. We forced ourselves to stay up to the daring late hour of 10 o’clock and were greeted with luminescent fingers of green stabbing down through the dark and shifting curtains of light moving mysteriously above. A perfect end to what had been a memorable day.
For contrast, the next day Conny planned to take us along a ravine to set our skis into Sarek National Park itself. A couple of hours across the lake and though a lovely stretch of birch forest with delicious soft snow beneath our skis brought us into the ravine, with its twisting sculptures of snow and ice decorating the frozen river and valley sides. A little cloudier today, but still with some tantalizing glimpses of sunshine.
Quite by chance I looked up and saw, a couple of hundred metres away, a large brown animal clearly silhouetted against the shining white of the snow. Unmistakable – a wolverine! These elusive predators are one of Sweden’s rarest large mammals and I’d contented myself that tracks were all I would ever see of a wolverine outside Sweden’s animal parks. We were all stunned to see one in the wild – our shouts of excitement and surprise caused the wolverine to pause. He stopped, looked at us and sniffed the air before turning and loping effortlessly away over the hill and out of view. Amazing, and a true brush with the wild. Conny, who has been guiding tours in the area since the mid-70s, confirmed the privilege of the occasion by saying that this was only the fifth wolverine he had seen in 40 years in the mountains.
We reached Sarek for a tantalising view into its untamed heart before turning for home for the gentle ski back down the ravine, through the forest and home once more. An evening of cards and double helpings of everything rounded off another great day which had given us a different perspective on the Lapland wilderness and a great opportunity to improve the fluidity of our skiing over quite easy but varied terrain.
We’d had a climbing day and a ravine day. Today was distance day, as we prepared to ski the 21km back across the mountain plains to Salto. Conny estimated it would take us around 7 hours, so we started early to allow a buffer for bad weather or extra time if we went a little slower than expected. Once again the sun was shining today, but there was a cold headwind up on the hills which would make the going difficult at times.
The improvement in everyone’s skiing technique compared to the beginning of the week was marked. I myself, while still feeling that I had a lot to learn, noticed a marked increase in the ease with which I now moved along, covering more distance with each step and using less energy. We were clearly all show our guide, who had looked after us so well during the week, each other, and ourselves what we had learned, and we fairly flew along the first few kilometres. Maurice had kindly offered to treat the whole group to waffles when we got back, and the imagined smell of the waffle iron and the taste of succulent cloudberry jam spurred us on when we started to flag.
In the end, Conny had to slow us down with an extra long lunch break and some stops to just take a moment and enjoy some last looks at the beautiful mountain landscape before starting our descent. Coming down through the trees after the long trek across the mountains was joyous and gave us a chance to try out our new downhill skills (something I’ve never found easy on cross country skis). We eventually made it back to the station well in time for afternoon waffles, having completed the distance in about 6.5 hours.
Back in the sauna, looking out once more across the mountains, it seemed in some ways just yesterday and in others a lifetime ago since we had sat there last. Tours like this are wonderful bonding experiences, and we’d come to know each other well over the last few days. I’d also learned something about myself and certainly a fair bit about skiing.
A final meal of epic proportions in the station restaurant, some sharing of photos and memories and a bit of packing, and the next morning we started our long return journey south. Across the lake by snowmobile, onto the bus from Kebnats to Gällivare and then the night train to Stockholm. As I lay once more on my bunk on the train, my mind full of impressions from the week, I knew I’d caught the ski touring bug and would be back for more as soon as possible. I have my eye on the King’s Trail tour for next year!
Bob from the Nature Travels Team
What hits you the most when you are travelling by reindeer sled is the stillness that surrounds you – you really have time to be with yourself. It is now two weeks since I returned to the office after spending 6 days travelling on a reindeer sled over the mountain tundra in Sweden, over a mountain pass at 1000m and into Norway, staying in reindeer herders’ cabins and lavvu on the way.
When I came back, I got comments that I looked like I’d been to the North Pole, because I was sunburned, weather-beaten and had blisters on my lips, but none of these could wipe the smile off my face or the sense of freedom in my heart.
There were 10 of us – 5 persons (two guides, the two other participants and me) and 5 reindeer:
Na’sti (my reindeer) – meaning “Star” in Sami language (as he had a white star between his antlers).
Skoalbme Njunne – “Hump Nose”
C’iuavvat – “The Grey One”
Jaffouagaibi – “Flour Chin”
Gaire -“Long Dark Legs”
One thing I didn’t expect was the connection you got with your reindeer and how different they were as individuals. My reindeer Na’sti was the smallest and youngest of the five and this was his first really long trip. After spending the days with him travelling through the beautiful winter landscape, I really felt that he and I had a connection – we were friends.
With no electricity and no mobile phone cover for the duration of tour, it was a really get-away-from-it-all experience. If you add to this the stillness and calmness of travelling by reindeer sled, it was a real stress-releasing experience. When travelling by reindeer, you have to accept the pace – sure you can encourage them to move on, speed up, but if a reindeer wants to walk at a certain pace, that’s the pace you are going to travel at. You have to let go of wanting to control them too much and just go with the flow.
Now, when I’m back in the office and the stress of normal life, I just need to look out through the window and let my mind drift back there and I am again with my friend Na’sti travelling through the snow surrounded by snowclad peaks and the calmness comes back to me inside.
Sofia from The Nature Travels Team
See here for details of Nature Travels reindeer sledding tours in Lapland. For a shorter taster experience, our Experience Lapland multi-activity tour includes one-day reindeer and Sami culture activity.
Here in the UK we are accustomed to dividing the year into four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter – though sometimes it can feel that we have all four in one day!
Not so in the far north of Swedish Lapland, where the indigenous Sami have traditionally divided the year into not four but eight seasons.
March and April – when snow conditions are still good but the approaching spring brings longer hours of daylight and milder temperatures – is “spring winter”, a wonderful season offering a beguiling combination of the adventure of wintertime and the promise of spring.
For winter mountain activities such as ski touring and mountain dogsled tours, March is really the beginning of the winter season, when conditions become suitable for these activities in the northern mountain regions.
Spring-winter is an ideal time for a winter holiday in Lapland and other parts of northern Sweden, allowing access to stunning mountain areas where conditions are too extreme earlier in the winter season. In the mountains, good snow conditions normally remain until the end of April and into early May, so there is plenty of time to make the most of this winter playground!
If you’re considering getting out and about to discover the joys of Swedish spring-winter for yourself, here are some winter holiday ideas to tempt you:
Those looking for a mountain dog sledding adventure should find Husky Mountain Expedition in Lapland an ideal option. A dogsled tour through the mountain region of Abisko and along the world-famous Kungsleden (or King’s Trail), this is an 8-day winter adventure with accommodation in simple but comfortable mountain cabins along the way as well as a night in a traditional Sami “lavvu”, or tipi.
A lower altitude option also very suitable for a spring-winter tour is Discover Dog Sledding in Lapland, a 4-day tour running in a beautiful landscape of frozen lakes and rivers, suitable for adults or families and offering an ideal taste of the adventure of a longer expedition.
And if driving your own team of huskies is not to your taste, try an unusual alternative steeped in Sami culture and tradition – reindeer sledding!
Lapland is not the only part of Sweden with mountains for spring-winter adventures – a little further south in the county of Jämtland is the location for our most challenging dog sledding experience, Dog Sledding Across Jämtland: an 8-day expedition with wild winter camping ideal as a “next step” tour if you’ve done some dog sledding before and want to extend your mushing and winter mountain skills.
There are few better ways to enjoy the tranquility of the Swedish winter mountain world than ski touring – the pace may be slower under your own steam than with the help of four powerful huskies, but ski touring offers just as much adventure! Extended hut-hut ski touring tours on the Kungsleden are one of the most popular options, while if you have less experience, you should find Discover Mountain Ski Touring in Lapland the ideal introduction to prepare yourself for future expeditions.
Photo: Janey Shemilt
Once again, it is not only the Lapland mountains that beckon ski tourers to discover the delights of spring-winter – the county of Dalarna in the north-west offers world-class ski touring exploring both sides of the Swedish/Norwegian borderland.
However you choose to enjoy spring-winter in northern Sweden, there are few sensations to compare with looking out on across a snow-covered mountain landscape with the warm spring sun on your face. And there are seven other seasons to look forward to as well!
The Nature Travels Team
Sami is the name given to an indigenous people of northern Europe, whose traditional homeland is the area known as Sapmi. In modern times, Sapmi extends across the northern part of Sweden (Lapland), Finland, Norway and the Kola Peninsula in Russia as well as south into Jämtland and Dalarna in the north-west part of Sweden near the Norwegian border.
The Sami (which is also sometimes spelt Saami or Sámi) have in the past also been known as Lapps, though this term is now widely considered to be derogatory.
With a total population of around 50-75,000, of whom around 15-20,000 live in Sweden, the Sami are one of the largest indigenous ethnic groups in Europe. In Sweden, the Sami homeland area covers more than 150,000 square kilometres, around 35% of the country’s total area. In addition to Swedish (for Sami living in Sweden), many modern Sami also know and use the traditional Sami languages. There are a number of variations and dialects between groups and regions.
While the Sami have traditionally made their living in a variety of ways, from fishing to sheep herding, it is reindeer herding that is most closely associated with the Sami people and which forms the heart of their culture. The Sami are the only people legally permitted to be reindeer herders in Sweden, and reindeer herding still remains a central part of economic and cultural life for many Sami. Though times have changed and more traditional means of transportation have given way to snowscooters and other motorised transport as the most efficient means to move around the vast distances of their homeland, the Sami nevertheless retain a strong and vibrant culture with a strong focus on tradition. Today, around 10% of all Sami are actively involved in reindeer herding.
Reindeer herding is a semi-nomadic way of life, and the traditional Sami structure is therefore the tipi, or “kåta”. Tipis are versatile structures ideal for socialising, cooking and sleeping. Often the base is carpeted with fir branches and reindeer skins to make a comfortable and welcoming.
Reindeer-related products, along with music and handicrafts are the main exports of Sami society. Handicrafts include knives and other implements made from reindeer horn. Traditional Sami music is known as the “joik”, traditionally sung a cappella but, in more recent times, also accompanied by musical instruments and even fused with modern musical influences.
Nature Travels offers a number of summer activities and winter holidays in Sweden with a focus on Sami culture and led by local Sami guides, giving you the chance to experience and learn about this fascinating culture first hand from local people still strongly connected with the traditions of the Sami.
In summertime, we offer two options for horse riding in Sweden led by a Sami family and located in the far north using Icelandic horses:
- Skeble Mountain Tour (4 days)
- Vindel Mountains Expedition (7 days)
In winter, we offer both extended reindeer sledding tours and multi-activity winter experiences combining outdoor and cultural activities, both of which are led by local Sami guides:
Sami is a rich and living culture rooted in a deep connection with the Sami homeland and its flora and fauna. For more information on the Sami people, please see http://www.eng.samer.se/
The Nature Travels Ltd
If you find yourself in northern Sweden during the winter months, there is a very good chance you will step out on a cold, clear night and witness one of nature’s most spectacular and ethereal displays – the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights – a sight that many consider to be the most beautiful thing they have ever seen.
The term is a combination of Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, and Borealis, from the Greek word for North Wind. As the name suggests, the Aurora Borealis is only visible in the northern hemisphere – the southern hemisphere has its own version, the Aurora Australis.
What causes the Northern Lights?
It may look like magic, but there is some relatively simple science behind this unique phenomenon. Charged particles in the Earth’s magnetosphere called ions collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere. Energy from the collisions is emitted as light, which due to the dominance of atomic oxygen tends to be a greenish or dark-red colour. These colours persist for a relatively long period, while the blues and purples caused by molecular nitrogen vary much more quickly.
What does a display look like?
An instance of the aurora may look like a soft, diffuse glow in the nighttime sky or like multi-coloured “curtains” running east to west, each made up of parallel rays aligned with the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field. You may even see a kind of corona of diverging rays if a magnetic line runs directly overhead.
How often do the Northern Lights occur in Sweden?
Auroras occur more frequently near the poles, since the particles needed for the displays are attracted by the Earth’s magnetic field. Displays do in fact occur year-round, but it is in the deep darkness of the northern winter nights that they can be seen most easily and are at their most spectacular. Calm conditions are best, and the most intense part of a display will last between 10 and 30 minutes. In Sweden the most active auroras tend to occur before midnight, and during peak activity displays occur on average every other clear night, perhaps even more frequently.
When is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Sweden?
The darkest part of the year, between November and February, when the winter nights are long, offer some of the best chances to see a display, though the Northern Lights can be seen from as early as September until around the middle of April. Not only the time of year, but also the phases of the moon can have a significant impact – the light from a full moon may obscure an otherwise spectacular display. It is important to bear in mind that the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon and, as such, sightings can never be guaranteed – Lapland is a vast, beautiful wilderness area, and the reasons to travel there during the winter season are many, even if the Aurora does not show itself during your visit. The thrill of reindeer sledding or driving your own dogsled, sleeping in a tipi or mountain cabin, meeting the local Sami and learning about their culture are all wonderful experiences in themselves!
What cultural significance does the Aurora Borealis have in Sweden?
The scientific explanation is of course not the only one, and certainly not the most colourful. Such an other-worldly display has clearly had a profound effect on the culture and folklore of Scandinavia. An old Swedish name for the lights, “sillblixt”, translates as “herring flash”, and it was thought that the display was created by the reflections of huge shoals of herring swimming in the oceans. The Finnish word, “revontulet”, means “fox fires”, and comes from the ancient belief that Lapland was home to fire foxes, whose fur emitted sparks and caused the aurora.
One tale from the Nordic region describes the aurora as light from the fires surrounding the Earth’s oceans reflected in the sky (when the Earth was believed flat and itself surrounded by water). Another says that the sun could throw its rays above the horizon even after sunset, while a third attributed the display to powerful light energy absorbed by glaciers.
The Sami people, the indigenous people of Lapland, believe that when “observed” by the lights, you should be quiet and respectful. In particular, to make jokes or sing about the lights is to invite disaster – the lights may descend from the sky and kill the mocker. Many elderly Sami still remember that, as children, misbehaving during the aurora was very serious indeed. The lights were thought to be inhabited by the spirits of those who had died an early or violent death. Other indigenous peoples of the north, such as the Inuit in Greenland, also believed that the lights were inhabited by the dead – but that the display was caused by the spirits playing football with the skull of a walrus across the nighttime sky.
Further down, in the southern parts of Sweden far from the wild plains of Lapland, the aurora still occurs, though less frequently and usually less intensely. Here the people believed that the lights were caused by the Sami people in the north searching in the mountains for their lost reindeer herds!
How can I see the Northern Lights in Sweden?
Whatever explanation you choose to believe, there is little doubt that for many the Northern Lights are near the top of their “things to see before you die” list, and Sweden is a magnificent area to experience this beautiful sight. Swedish Lapland is a wonderful place to observe the aurora, and though a display can never of course be guaranteed, chances are good during the winter months.
Photo: Nils Torbjorn Nutti
Our Reindeer Sled Safari takes you out into the Lapland mountain wilderness for 6 days in one of the best areas in Sweden to see the Northern Lights, while Experience Lapland gives you an opportunity to try dogsledding, reindeer sledding and snowshoeing in a 4-day multi-activity adventure.
Photo: Peter Grant
Take a moment tonight to stand beneath the stars and imagine yourself wrapped in the enveloping darkness and silence of a winter night in northern Sweden. Picture the cold clear air pricking at your skin, the ground shining from horizon to horizon with reflected light from the snowfields, and all around you the sky filled with a swirling mass of spectral colour.
The skies are darkening, and winter is just around the corner…
The Nature Travels Team
UPDATE JUNE 2009:
In addition to reindeer sledding, we have now added two new dog sledding tours in Lapland giving very good chances to see the Northern Lights as you mush your own team of Siberian Huskies through the Arctic wilderness:
If you are in Sweden north of the Arctic Circle any time from May to mid-July, you may find it rather difficult to get to sleep at night – because the sun never sets! Even further south, the nights remain incredibly light, with the sun dipping reluctantly below the horizon at around 11pm, even then leaving in its wake more of a mystical half-light than real darkness, only to reappear ready for the new day at 3 o’clock the following morning.
Set amidst the vast, wild, awe-inspiring expanses of the Lapland mountain plains, the Midnight Sun is a very special phenomenon, one which each year attracts visitors from all over the world. Watching the sun descend towards the horizon, only seemingly to change its mind and climb once more into the sky, is an experience which alters our perception of what is “normal”, what is “real”. It goes against everything those who live further south think of as natural and self-evident. You may at first feel slightly unsettled as established “truths” are reassessed, but this quickly gives way to exhilaration and wonder that such a thing is possible. And that is the beauty of the Midnight Sun – its power is such that in those other-worldly night-time hours almost anything seems within reach. This is truly a magical time to be in northern Sweden!
Such extended daylight, of course, makes this time of year perfect for outdoor pursuits. It is not uncommon for the local people to come home from work and set off on a major hike into the hills, returning well after midnight. The Midnight Sun means that it is not only possible to enjoy the beautiful landscape for hour after hour, but, after a brief period of acclimatisation, visitors to the area usually find that they feel far more awake and have far more energy than usual. You may only be getting a few hours’ sleep a night, but you will awake with the birdsong, feeling refreshed and invigorated and eager to be out on the trail!
Winter will come around soon enough, and with it the welcoming darkness and a new range of pleasures. But for now it is time to revel in the unending daylight in the Land of the Midnight Sun!
The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels offers two hiking tours in Lapland at this time of year giving you a chance to experience the wonder of the Midnight Sun. Both take place well inside the Arctic Circle. Hiking in the National Parks of Laponia is an accessible experience taking you through three National Parks in this UNESCO World Heritage area, while The Unknown Face of Sarek and the Rapa Valley Delta is an expedition into the untamed wilderness of Sarek National Park. Slightly south of the Polar Circle, but still with almost continuous daylight during the summer, we offer a number of horse riding holidays in Sweden suitable for both novice and experienced riders.
Sarek – the name may well be unfamiliar to you, but Sarek National Park is one of the most special areas of northern Sweden, and, it might be said, unique within Europe.
Photo: Håkan Hjort/Niac-photo
The word “wilderness” is often overused these days, but in Sarek it is truly no exaggeration. Sarek is often called “Europe’s last wilderness”, and is one of the last and most important pristine wild areas to be found in Europe.
Even by Swedish standards, a country blessed with vast expanses of sparsely-populated mountains, plains and forests and dramatic and varied scenery, Sarek is something very special, and seen by many Swedish outdoor enthusiasts as something of a rite of passage.
Photo: Håkan Hjort/Niac-photo
Designated as a national park in 1909, Sarek was one of Europe’s first national parks. It covers a roughly circular area about 50km in diameter, and is home to around 100 glaciers and many mountain peaks above 2000m with six of Sweden’s thirteen highest mountains lying within the park. It also encapsulates the stunning Rapa River Delta, said to be one of the most beautiful in Europe and overlooked by the imposing peak of Skierfe. The climb up Skierfe is well worth the effort for the breathtaking view over the delta to be had from the top.
But such dramatic beauty comes at a cost, and hiking in Sarek is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced. “Wilderness” means just that. To find your way, you must rely on your map reading and compass skills – there are no paths. When it’s time to sleep, you must pitch your tent and crawl inside – there is no accommodation. And when you come to a river, well, then it’s time to roll up your trousers, find a stout stick and start wading – bridges are few and far between. Weather conditions can change in a moment and you must be prepared.
Photo: Håkan Hjort/Niac-photo
In return for such hardships, you are rewarded with an unforgettable taste of what we have lost in a developed world. In and around the park live some of Sweden’s most majestic and secretive predators – the brown bear, the lynx, and the wolverine. Sarek is also particularly famous for its unusually large elk. While glimpses of bears, lynx and wolverine require a great deal of luck and patience, you have a good chance of spotting elk and an impressive range of birds of prey.
Sarek has become to a certain extent a status symbol for hikers keen to prove themselves among its glacial valleys and wild flowing rivers. At Nature Travels, we prefer to think of it as a chance to look back into a quieter past, to forge a closer connection with the natural world and discover a different side of yourself – a side that you may have imagined could never exist!
The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels offers two guided hiking holidays in and around Sarek. The Unknown Face of Sarek and the Rapa Valley Delta takes you on a 9 day hike into the Sarek National Park, and is the more challenging of the two. Experience is required, though you do not need to be an expert explorer. Hiking in the National Parks of Laponia, suitable for those in good condition with some experience of hiking with a backpack, takes in three of Sweden’s most well-known parks – Stora Sjöfallet, Sarek and Padjelanta, all part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Laponia.
Each year in winter and summer, a select group of tour operators, journalists and equipment retailers gather somewhere in the wilds of Sweden for the Outdoor Academy. A partnership between the Swedish tourist authorities, SAS airlines and the Scandinavian Outdoor Group, the Academy aims to spread the word about Sweden as a wonderful holiday destination for outdoor experiences year-round.
This year, the area chosen was Swedish Lapland, in the far north of the country well inside the Arctic Circle. The Nature Travels team joined colleagues from Germany, Holland, France, Belgium and Switzerland for six days of snowy adventures, exploration, and VERY good food!
This year’s winter Academy (or rather “spring winter”, as the mountain areas of Sweden are said to have eight seasons) showcased the potential of this vast and beautiful area as an outdoor destination, both for those who enjoy the challenges of winter camping and those who prefer to keep the pleasures of home a little closer to hand!
As well as sampling the comfort, excellent cuisine and hospitality of some of the mountain stations in the area (perfect for a hot sauna after a hard day in the hills!), we spent cozy nights by the fire in a Sami Lavvu, a kind of teepee, sipping hot lingonberry juice and being slowly hypnotised by the crackle of the fire and the rising woodsmoke. The temperature was well below zero, but even now in early spring it was still light as we made our way with happy hearts and full stomachs towards our sleeping teepees. But with thick down sleeping bags and a mattress of reindeer skins to keep us warm, we were soon fast asleep, our dreams made sharper by the crisp night air and filled with sensations of endless space and silence. This part of Sweden has a population density of less than two people per square kilometre, compared to an average of 20 people for the country as a whole and around 250 for the UK, so there’s plenty of space for everyone!
We awoke early (it gets light around 3am up there at the moment) to the sounds of Ptarmigan echoing across the hills, feeling refreshed and oddly invigorated despite the brevity of our first night’s sleep in the Lavvu. It took a couple of days to acclimatise to the late sunset and early sunrise, but by the middle of the trip and a few adventure-filled days in the mountains, sleeping in was definitely no longer a problem!
And the days were adventure-filled (and sun-filled) indeed, with dog sledding, snowshoeing, telemark skiing, ski touring, ice fishing and caving all on the agenda. Lapland is a limitless playground for all who love the outdoors, and though our muscles are still rather sore from our attempts to master telemark technique and the exertion of mountain ascents on snowshoes, we have returned again to the UK with only happy memories.
How strange to see spring and early summer already in full swing here again, the forests and gardens bursting with new life – but we just need to close our eyes and we are transported once more to a very different world: a world of ice, of the cries of eagles and the snuffling of reindeer, and all around us a horizon of rolling mountains, colossal shapes dominating the landscape like patient guardians, and everywhere snow lying thick on the ground like a winter duvet over a sleeping world…..
Our greatest thanks to all those involved in the planning, organisation and running of this winter’s Outdoor Academy of Sweden – we can’t wait for the next one!
The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels offers a number of summer and winter holidays in Lapland, including horse riding in Vindelfjällen on Icelandic horses, the chance to drive your own reindeer sled on a Reindeer Sled Safari, and our multi-adventure Experience Lapland. Keep an eye on our website at www.naturetravels.co.uk for new summer activities in Lapland to be added shortly.
Find out more about this winter’s Outdoor Academy of Sweden in Lapland on the official OAS blog.
Lapland is a world of wide skies and quiet spaces – and what better way to experience the beauty and stillness of the mountain plains and forests than in the company of one of Lapland’s most special inhabitants – the reindeer.
Discover the heart of Lapland culture on a Reindeer Sled Safari!
What kind of landscape does the tour run in?
The reindeer tours take place in Swedish Lapland in the far north of Sweden. The area is part of the World Heritage Site of Laponia. This area has a long history of reindeer herding and all our tours are led by local Sámi guides. The Sámi are the indigenous people of Lapland and the only group licensed to carry out reindeer herding in Sweden.
For the first two days the tour passes through a forest landscape of ancient pine and fir forest. After that the landscape becomes increasingly tundra-like, with wide open plains, low rolling mountains and birch-covered hills.
The area is very sparsely populated and has a real wilderness feel.
Photo: Peter Grant
What are some of the highlights of the trip?
The silence, peace and stillness out in the wilderness. The cooperation between man and animals as you glide slowly and quietly forward through the natural surroundings and feel yourself a small part of the grandeur around you. There is no need for hurry on this tour – take the chance to move slowly through the wilds, enjoying the feel of the crisp, clean air in your lungs and take time to enjoy your surroundings. You have time for your own thoughts, this is a stress-free and calm time. The only sounds you hear are the sled runners in the snow and the reindeer hooves clopping as they draw you forward.
Experience a part of the Sámi culture and learn how they have survived and thrived for thousands of years in this wilderness. Learn to handle reindeer and drive the sled.
Photo: Peter Grant
What happens on a typical day?
Here is a description for the day spent snowshoeing during the tour:
MONDAY – Snowshoeing, tracking in the ancient forest
After the breakfast you put on your snowshoes and go for short trip. During the trip you will have a good chance to see tracks of ptarmigan (a type of grouse), hares, foxes, and moose and with some luck even wolverines and lynx. After lunch you continue your reindeer ride to the tundra. You will travel higher up into the mountains where the forest trees will turn more into mountain birch and willows. Here you will find a panoramic view of the mountains and forest landscape spread out in front of you. In the afternoon you arrive at the second Lávvu camp. Dinner will also be prepared in the Lávvu, where you spend the night.
What level of experience or skill is necessary? Is the tour suitable for children?
No previous experience is necessary to take part in the tour. You need only to be in generally good physical health and active. The tour is not suitable for those with movement difficulties or back problems – guests sleep comfortably but in basic conditions in tents on reindeer skin rugs.
It is not necessary to be used to working with animals, but participants should not be afraid of animals and should be willing to work with the reindeer. The reindeer are tamed and well-trained to draw the sleds, but at the same they are wild creatures who need to be handled confidently. All participants are given training in reindeer handling before the tour begins and help and advice is also given as necessary during the tour.
At the beginning, guests often find it a challenge to handle the animals successfully, but as time goes on this initial difficulty is overcome and by the end of the tour a strong bond of friendship and trust has usually formed between the guests and their reindeer.
The tour is not an expedition, but participants should be willing to put some effort into working with the reindeer and be prepared for basic living conditions.
A minimum age of 12 is imposed as the tour is unsuitable for children younger than this. All participants must be able and willing to handle a reindeer sled themselves. The low temperatures and basic living conditions can also be a problem for younger children. If children older than 12 participate but are unable to successfully handle their own sled, it is still possible for them to sit in their own sled, but the sled is drawn by a reindeer attached by a rope to the guide’s sled.
Photo: Peter Grant
When is the best time of year for a Reindeer Sled Safari?
The tour is offered in March and April. At this time of year it is still possible to rely on good snow cover for the experience. The days are longer and the temperatures milder than in January/February. Participants spend their days outdoors and will be sleeping for some of the time in Sámi tents, so it is much more comfortable to be out at this time of year.
What kind of accommodation is used on the tour?
Accommodation is in wilderness cabin, Sámi Lavvos (tents), and Sámi village log cabin at different stages of the tour.
Where can I find out more?
Further information on the tour is available on our website under Reindeer Sled Safari.
The Nature Travels Team
The arctic fox, Alopex lagopus, otherwise known as the polar fox, is one of Sweden’s most threatened mammals and in danger of extinction everywhere in the European Union. Currently the mainland European population stands at just 150 individuals. In summer 2006, just three litters of foxes were born in Sweden, five in Norway and none at all in Finland. For this reason, Nature Travels has chosen SEFALO, a joint project between Sweden, Finland and Norway, as its conservation project to support for 2007.
What problems does the arctic fox face?
– Such a small population makes the species extremely vulnerable to changes in demographic factors, or “accidents” such as an outbreak of disease.
-Large areas previously populated by arctic foxes are now empty, and remaining animals find it difficult to find a non-related partner with which to breed.
– Arctic foxes are highly dependent on the natural population fluctuations of small mammals, such as lemmings, on which they feed. These cycles of peaks and troughs tend to repeat every four years, and a “bad” year for rodents can be disastrous for arctic fox populations.
– The red fox, Vulpes vulpes, is a strong, successful competitor, and is currently expanding its range into territories inhabited by arctic foxes.
– Itself a top predator, the arctic fox is also a victim of predation, ironically from many species which are themselves endangered, including the wolf, wolverine and golden eagle. Traditionally, arctic foxes have been used by indigenous peoples as a source of meat and fur.
What can be done to conserve and enhance current arctic fox populations?
SEFALO is engaged in a number of activities to attempt to reverse the decline of arctic foxes in Sweden, Norway and Finland:
-With the assistance of volunteers, population and behavioural data for arctic foxes is collected. Some animals have been tagged with radio collars to allow their movements to be monitored and to increase understanding of their behavioural patterns.
-A programme of supplementary feeding is being trialled in an attempt to increase the rates of productivity and decrease mortality among juveniles. Birth and survival rates are then compared with years when no feeding took place to assess the effectiveness of the strategy.
-In some cases control of the red fox population is necessary to safeguard the most valuable arctic fox territories.
-In areas around arctic fox dens in Sweden, it is hoped that a ban on ptarmigan hunting will reduce disturbance in some of the important arctic fox breeding grounds.
-Populations are monitored for disease and there is ongoing research into the cause of diseases likely to affect the fox populations.
-A programme of public education aims to highlight the plight of the arctic fox and raise the profile of the species as a priority for conservation.
With careful conservation measures, sufficient financial and public support, and a generous amount of good fortune, we hope that the future for the arctic fox both in Sweden and elsewhere will begin to turn a corner.
Nature Travels has a number of experiences in Sweden which take place in and around one of the country’s most important remaining arctic fox strongholds – Vindelfjällen Nature Reserve – and some of our partners in the area are actively involved in the SEFALO feeding project, delivering supplementary food to the local fox populations when it is most needed.
Browse our portfolio of experiences in the Vindelfjällen area:
The Nature Travels Team
– For further information on SEFALO’s work to conserve the arctic fox, see http://www.zoologi.su.se/research/alopex/
– Nature Travels will donate 2% of its corporate pre-tax profits for 2007 to SEFALO, the Swedish-Finnish-Norwegian Arctic Fox Project.
– Read our previous post about the beautiful Vindelfjällen Nature Reserve.