Monthly Archives: Jul 2017

Norway – Tromsø

A short visit to the northern city of Tromsø, Norway

Leaving AuroraSpirit, we drove back along the same awful-surfaced road to reach the main E6 where we finally met some smooth rolling tarmac and made good progress towards Tromsø.  There was a shorter way but that included an uncertain (time and cost) ferry trip, so we chose to drive around by road. Tromsø was to be the furthest north we had decided to travel on this trip, having recently made the decision not to push on to visit Nordkapp, at least not this time.  Instead we would work slowly south, back to Oslo and beyond, exploring Norway’s northern west coast.

Tromso - (arriving at island)

Tromso - (bridge across)

We approached Tromsø from the south, seeing the busy, built-up island on our left as we made our way to the connecting bridge over.  This was our first city visit in quite a while, and we weren’t too delighted by the busy traffic and unprotected roadworks that greeted us on arrival.  We nudged, stuttered and bumped our way through the centre to reach the only centrally located overnighting aire we knew of, but when we arrived we found it was basically a construction site car-park, due to the new student accommodation  building being built right next door.

Tromso - (marina)

Tromso - (waterfront)

We drove another unproductive loop before stopping at the next available parking close to the centre and paying for an hour, as we had a time sensitive job to do.  We had located a store on-line that could potentially replace the shattered screen on Nicky’s iPhone, dropped and cracked back in Flåm moments before boarding the Flåmsbana railway.  We found the shop just a few minutes before it closed at 5pm and confirmed they had all appropriate stock and time, so we could drop the phone in first thing in the morning and it would be ready in an hour; perfect.

Tromso - (Elverhoy church on hill)

We went for a short walk around the centre before our parking expired, seeing the Kulturhuset and Bibliotek buildings, along with a quick look into Tromsø Domkirke.  There was a classical music concert on so we didn’t linger too long inside.  Returning to Benny, we decided to drive a little further out of town, and climbed the hill behind to visit Elverhøy Church.  This was a red-painted timber church set in light forest, but we only visited it as a potentially interesting time waster until the construction workers cleared out of the parking spaces at the aire, which we assumed would be soon after 6pm.  We returned later, the aire much quieter and more inviting than before and we bagged ourselves a nice marina view.  Parking was only free from 9pm to 8am, so we paid the requisite amount to allow us to stay until 11am the next morning, giving us time to have the phone repaired and to visit a museum.

Tromso - (polaris museum)

Tromso - (arctic boards)

Tromso - (nicky with polar bear)

After dinner we had another walk into the centre, where we first encountered the dominos-falling Polaris building, an Arctic themed experience centre.  It had fantastic external display boards on Arctic and Environmental issues, reminiscent of those we saw in Granada many months ago. There was a life-size bronze statue of a polar bear to the side of the entrance that Nicky had a little cuddle with, looking like Lyra in The Golden Compass.  The neighbouring building was housing MS Polstjerna, The Polar Star, with a curved glulam beam and glass structure built to frame the fully preserved sealing ship. We spent time reading information boards and admiring the buildings and water-front setting.  We could see across to the Arctic Cathedral designed by Jan Inge Hovig, a notable feature in the distance.  The rain had abated and the evening was still and calm.  Tromsø had a much more peaceful feel to it in the evening and with us now on foot.

Tromso - (sealing ship)

Tromso - (arctic cathedral)

The following morning we arrived at the repair shop for 9am, leaving Nicky’s phone in their hopefully capable hands.  We had an hour and a half to look around town and so, choosing to feed our mini-obsession with all things polar, we walked along the front of the old harbour building to reach the Polarmuseet, the Polar Museum.  Situated inside a beautiful former Customs House building dating from the 1830s, the museum covered the history of Norwegian trapping, Arctic scientific research and, the big draw for us, polar expeditions.  We paid the 60 NOK entry fee and began our own exploration, working through the exhibits with the welcome help of our printed English translation pamphlet, as all of the permanent information displays in the museum were written in Norwegian only.

Tromso - (trapper hut)

Tromso - (seal skins)

There were detailed reconstructions of old trappers’ cabins, complete with tools, personal diaries and their hanging prey, such as Arctic foxes sold for scarves and terns for meat and down.  There were stuffed seals, musk ox, brown and polar bears scattered about, between all manner of other interesting exhibits.  The walls were hung with guns, knives and other tools, interspersed between old photos of their previous owners.   Climbing stairs to the first floor, we were greeted by a bust of Roald Amundsen at the top, alongside a scale model of the Norge, an airship he had built to fly over the North Pole.  This was the first (non-disputed) Transpolar flight; leaving from Spitsbergen, it succeeded in passing over the pole as planned and finally landed safely in Alaska.

Tromso - (amundsen and Norge)

Tromso - (musk ox corner)

Tromso - (n with bear)

We reached a beautiful first floor room, with glossy timber floors and trussed vaulted ceilings, that housed many delightful curiosities.  Between the stuffed animals, there were several detailed model ships, the Fram, The Gjøa and the Maud, all Arctic exploration vessels used by Nansen or Amundsen (or both) on various famous trips to the Poles.  They were framed by lots of personal photos of the men who travelled with them on the ships, creating a little personal background and story.  We saw a few colourful notebooks with interesting writings and wonderful, freehand sketches that brought the pages alive.

Tromso - (customs house)

Tromso - (top room display)

Back on the ground floor, the last room (or first if you turn right on entry) was all about glacial waters and the abundance of life that exists under the ice. We ate up the remainder of our available time reading of the biodiversity of the region, and the perils each tiny organism or delicate ecosystem faces with the challenges of global climate change.  We could have spent much longer inside the museum, immersing ourselves further in the details, but we unfortunately ran out of time. We had to get back to collect Nicky’s now fixed phone (1400 NOK – ouch) and quickly return to Benny before our parking expired.

Tromso - (arctic ship models)

Tromso - (voyage notebooks)

Tromso - (outside the museum)

We visited the small botanical gardens on the way out of town, after first a few unnecessary trips around, back and through the long tunnels passing under much of the island, due to missing our required turn.  The gardens were pretty, with a strong bias towards alpine rockeries, and they also had large populations of the difficult to grow Himalayan blue poppy brightening up their borders.  The day had clouded over again and a light rain fell as we walked a loop around the garden, enjoying the relative tranquillity of this calm space, once a farmhouse garden and meadow but now squeezed between a busy new road, a tunnel entrance and a few petrol stations.

Tromso - (Tibetan bliue poppy)

Tromso - (botanic gardens)

With Nicky’s phone all fixed and our whistle-stop look at Tromsø complete, we filled up with diesel and got back on the road out of town.  For almost the first time since we left home in April for Holland, we were now heading south.

 

 

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Kilpisjärvi and #Aurora Spirit

A flying visit to a rainy Kilpisjärvi and our return to Norway with a visit to the world’s northernmost distillery #Aurora Spirit


We left our quiet spot at Juoksengi Polcirkelhuset, to follow the road north along the river.  Lined with tall pine and birch trees, the road formed a narrow strip of grey in a wide expanse of green stretching hundreds of kilometres.  This was to be our longest drive to date, over 350km, taking us around seven hours.  Later we left the trees behind to meet a new landscape, awash with lowland scrub and rocks set in stagnant pools of still water. This was perfect mosquito breeding land, and we soon hit large swarms of them that clouded our vision. Thousands were splatted on our wing mirrors, front grille and windows.  Our attempts to clean up the mess ended with a thin, sticky layer of smeared mosquito all over the windscreen, obscuring our visibility.  The occasional lone reindeer, either oblivious or unconcerned about traffic, wandered casually into the road, sometimes seen only as a blur between the smudges.

Reindeer on road

The majority of the road we followed was on the east of the river, in Finland, not Sweden.  After a good, rolling start, we drove over long, horrible stretches of road where the top surface had been removed. We had to stay alert as the SatNav told us we had a right turn to watch out for in 199 miles.  There were roadworks on and off for over 80km of the route, a large percentage of this was reduced to single narrow lane of pot-holed gravel, controlled by long-hold traffic lights, a route that could only be passed with care. This really slowed our progress, beat up Benny’s tyres and tried our patience, but we eventually escaped to make it back onto smoother tarmac.  Just as we did, heavy rain joined us, to ensure our long driving day was kept topped up with concentration, challenges and surprises.

We arrived in the village of Kilpisjärvi, where we hoped to trek to the Three Countries Point, the place where Sweden, Norway and Finland all meet.  There are no roads near, so it can only be reached either by walking 11km there and the same back, or by catching a boat out to within 3km of the point, then walking back the 11km route.  We had arrived too late and the visitor centre had closed only minutes before at 5pm, so we spent a while walking along the road looking for signs of where the boat may leave from, and when.  We eventually found a small information board fixed to the side of a privately hired sauna, but there were no times listed nor any means of contacting anyone.  The pouring rain and the deep grey cloud smothering everything removed our resolve to look further, so instead we parked up in a large car-park aire by the water, closed out the world and opened a bottle.

Aurora Spirit- (building approach)

There was no change to the weather in the morning, so we reluctantly gave up our search for the boat.  The thought of trekking all 22km over steep, wet ground, with no map, in a miserable drizzle and low visibility simply to see a small monument to an arbitrary border point suddenly seemed ridiculous, so we stayed dry in Benny and moved on.  This was to be our only night spent in Finland on this trip, as we very soon passed back into Norway, reaching Lyngenfjord at Skibotn and turning left, following the coast line. We turned again at Oteren, sticking by the shores of the fjord as we juddered and bumped along another terrible road surface to the village of Lyngseidet.

Aurora Spirit- (distillery building)

Just north of here was our destination, a perfect choice for a rainy grey day; Aurora Spirit, the undisputed most northerly distillery in the world.  The final mile to their newly constructed visitor centre was a narrow gravel track through tightly packed trees.  We had a tour booked for 1pm, but we called on the way and got switched to the 11am tour, as we would now arrive just a few minutes past the hour and they were happy to hold it for us.  We arrived and were warmly greeted by Tor, founder, owner and for today, our guide.

Aurora Spirit- (taking the smell test)

Aurora Spirit- (typical slide)

Aurora Spirit- (presentation area)

Our distillery tour began as soon as we removed our coats.  We were led through, with five others, to a small presentation area with a flat screen TV and five Viking horns, complete with stoppers.  A sign behind read “Do you smell like a Viking?”. Our first act was to test our smelling capabilities so we sniffed each in turn, trying and failing to name all the ingredients and flavours related to spirit distillation. The chat was smooth and informative, and the presentation of images and information using Apple TVs and iPads was all very slick and polished.

Aurora Spirit- (production area presentation)

Aurora Spirit- (production and storage)

In the next room we smelled and tasted barley at various stages of roasting as we learnt more of the processes.  The mash was produced off-site at a local brewery and delivered, all to exacting specification, ready for distillation. Aurora Spirit had fully computerised distilling, controlled by iPads and phones, all accessible and tweakable from off-site if required.  The building had been designed and cut from timber by a CNC machine, and was constructed on site in only five days, before the high-end mechanical and electrical fit-out, the key distillation items and the main copper still were added. It was all highly efficient and technologically future-proofed.  They produced flavoured aquavit, gin and vodka already, with their first whisky set to be ready in 2019.

Aurora Spirit- (copper still and column)

Aurora Spirit- (rhubarb distillation)

The chosen name was formed from the joining of Aurora Borealis, visible all winter above their building set deep in the Arctic Circle, and Spirit, defining their will and heart to succeed, along with the obvious connection to the alcohol produced.  Their key product branding was called Bivrost, after the old Norse word for the Northern Lights.  In Asatru, bivrost was believed to be a bridge of light leading to Asgard, or Heaven, from the land of mortals.  It was crossable only by the Gods or the very bravest of men who had proven their valour in battle.  You too could prove yourself worthy by drinking this brand, made under the Northern Lights for Gods and adventurers.

Aurora Spirit- (a viking view)

Aurora Spirit- (in visitor centre)

After the end of the tour and a couple of tastings, we were kindly offered a cup of tea and sat down for a chat with Tor and Hans, another member of the team.  We talked of our journey to date, joking that we’d driven all the way from Scotland to visit them (technically, we had) and this sparked tales of Tor’s wish to drive a classic Morgan from distilleries in the west of Scotland back to Aurora Spirit, to form a connection between the two places, and create a lasting story, a whisky-bond, a future legend for the fledgling business.  It sounded like it would make a great trip and story, and we strongly encouraged it.

Aurora Spirit- (spirit tastings)

Aurora Spirit- (nicky checks weather)

Aurora Spirit- (chatting after tour)

The site was once a NATO coastal fort utilised for operations during the Cold War.  There were several bunkers scattered around the site, including a few older concrete ones that dated back to Germany’s occupation in World War II.  We were offered the opportunity of a personal visit to see the old NATO bunker, and jumped at the chance.  Originally there were plans to build the distillery over the bunker, but this had to be abandoned due to technical difficulties, but the bunker will be utilised for secure and stable cask storage, with a small exclusive tastings area.  We got to smell the intense flavours of some as-yet unfilled casks, previously used for Madeira, Sherry or Bourbon, sitting ready to begin imparting their subtle taste and colour on their first distilled whisky heart.

Aurora Spirit- (visitor centre restaurant)
Aurora Spirit - Tor anad his hammer

Aurora Spirit- (NATO bunker)

We said our goodbyes to Tor, thanking him for the tour, and spent a little time walking around the site.  We viewed the simple but beautiful building from a nearby jetty, reflecting on the chosen location.  It was in a stunning setting, on the edge of the fjord and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, deep in the Arctic Circle.  The pure glacial water used for the distillation must be some of the clearest and cleanest anywhere.

Aurora Spirit- (context setting)

We would love to return in deep winter, to see the Northern Lights dance above the distillery and to taste their three year old whisky on its initial release.  But there are many days to be lived between then and now, so as ever we moved onwards, this time in the direction of the region’s main city; Tromsø.

 

 

Swimming the Arctic Circle, Juoksengi

Participating in the Swim the Arctic Circle event, in the village of Juoksengi in northern Sweden.

We left our Workway project in Norrsken Lodge in torrential rain, saying our fond goodbyes to our host Max as we sheltered under the overhang of the workshop garage.  We drove only 17 miles north along the river Torne to reach the settlement of Juoksengi, the persistent rain not letting up at all along the way.  We stopped in at the café on the Arctic Circle line, the meeting point for our upcoming swim event and the site of our aire for the duration.  The focal point of the stop was a large metal globe at the centre of a circle of flags, each representing a nation or region that the Arctic Circle line runs through.  Large signboards explained the arbitrary and shifting nature of the line, not set on a fixed line of latitude but drifting 15m or so north each year in a long, cyclical wave with a period of 40000 years and variance of over 180km.  Juoksengi is really only a temporary custodian of the slowly passing Arctic Circle line.

Juoksengi - (Arctic Circle)

Juoksengi - (our base for a few nights)

After finding out where we could park up and getting very wet setting up, we relaxed inside and waited for the rain to subside.  We were finally in the Arctic Circle, if only by a few metres.  The swim itself was the following day, so we had time to relax and explore the town.  We had only found out about this swim via a Google search when in Denmark, and after becoming intrigued with the concept, we subsequently reshaped our trip route through Norway and Sweden on the premise of reaching this geographic location on this very date.  We would cross a national border, the Arctic Circle line and a time zone all in one 3km long river swim.  Due to Finland’s time difference we would time travel, beginning the swim at five minutes past midnight in Finland and, provided we swam fast enough, arrive back in Sweden late on the night before we began.

Juoksengi - (at the start)

Juoksengi - (River Torne)

Mid-afternoon brought a break in the clouds and we quickly readied ourselves for a local walk, to see both the start and finish for the first of our two swims the following day.  We walked first to the start of the 2km swim, a few kilometres north from where we were based.  The road followed the river and we could see marker buoys set up ready for the swim stretching out of sight along the wide river.  We looked out from the beach and imagined how we’d feel on the start; the excitement, the nervous anticipation. We later registered and paid our entry fee, chatting to the organisers.  We were told that the 2016 swim took place in torrential rain, and they joked that the spectators got wetter than the competitors.  The forecast was looking like being a lot more kind to the swimmers this year.

Juoksengi - (registration and 2k start)

Juoksengi - (getting ready)

The next morning we met swimmers from many nations; English, American, French, Swiss, Russian, South African, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and likely some others, all drawn here for the camaraderie and the same quirky experience.  There was a bit of controversy before the start as the official water temperature was listed as 15 degrees and, under Swedish rules, this meant compulsory wetsuit (or wet dress, as the Swedish announcer called them) wear.  Several very experienced swimmers wanted to swim without, stating participation in many events with much longer swims in colder water, but the officials were having none of it.  A compromise of sorts was reached; they could swim, but not officially, so they got their own personal time keepers and boat support, rather than being chipped and competing in the race.  Strange decision – same risk, more work, less reward for them, but everyone seemed happy, so all could proceed as planned.

Juoksengi - (route map)

Juoksengi - (us after 2k finish)

Juoksengi - (hot soup after)

The first swim went well for us; we weren’t here to compete, just to complete, so we stayed behind the frantic scrum, a triathlon-like start for all the competitive swimmers. We swam together the whole 2km, stroke by stroke, keeping the alternate blue-white and blue-yellow buoys, representing the flags of both nations, neatly on our left. The final 500m was quite choppy, the wind whipping up some breath-defying waves that slowed down progress. We eventually reached the mål, the finish, stopping my watch at just under 29 minutes.  We chatted to the other British swimmers a while, then jumped into the waiting timber hot-tub to warm up, before entering the fiery sauna to really warm up.  Unfortunately the issued timing chips malfunctioned so a manual calculation had to be completed with the help of video taken at the finish line, so we all had to wait longer than planned for our times and presentations.

Juoksengi - (post 2k hot tub)

Juoksengi - (n receives certificate)

Juoksengi - (a receives certificate)

We spent a lazy afternoon around Polar Circle House, resting up in anticipation of the longer midnight swim.  At the allocated time we caught the bus with all the other competitors to the start line in Finland, around 40 minutes away.  The bus drove south though Overtorneå, our previous base and closest bridge, before turning north to the Finish town of Juoksenki. On arrival we were surprisingly greeted by familiar faces, David and Alex, from our recent WorkAway in Norrsken Lodge – they had made it!  Luckily we had spare goggles to lend them as they had none, but they had managed to hire wetsuits, allowing them to participate in the swim.  We caught up a little with them as we watched a few rounds of random organised games, from a tug-of-war between Finland and Sweden, to golf ball throwing to short relay races, organised more to keep the spectators interested and distracted until the swim began.

Juoksengi - (3k start)

Juoksengi - (3k starting place)

Juoksengi - (boat support)

The time was upon us.  The sun had set just below the horizon, creating a deep red, almost permanent sunset glow that would last for the duration of the swim.  The trees lining the banks became flat silhouettes set against the red sky, neatly reflected in the shimmering pink river. The day chilled rapidly, the temperature dropping along with the lowering sun. We suited up and waited impatiently to enter the river, whose water was now warmer than the cool evening air.  It was just the perfect, still night for the swim; the previous night had been torrential rain and the following night was to be a dull, dark cloud-dominated grey.  We felt so lucky to be here, in these perfect conditions.

Juoksengi - (the still river)

Juoksengi - (on the start line)

Juoksengi - (nearing midnight)

A faint smell of diesel from the powerboats rose from the water, mixed with the scent of fertiliser recently spread on local fields.  A light mist lingered just above the surface, lit by the pink sunset behind.  00.05 arrived and the race began in earnest, with a huge scramble in the initial buoy-marked bottleneck that soon dissipated when the faster swimmers reached the main, wide body of the river. We were moving quickly, the power and pace of the current when we passed a buoy was palpable, and the weeds visible on the riverbed under us zoomed past under our noses.  Each breath taken brought us an incredible view of the deep red not-quite-sunset, the river on fire as we progressed together, feeling good and enjoying the intense scenery mixed with the comforting monotony of effort.

Juoksengi - (the finish line)

Juoksengi - (relaxing at 3k finish)

The Torne river, with its late evening water temperature now around 16 degrees, drove us along downstream, making the 3km swim take a much shorter time than a still-water swim of the same distance would.  We also swam quicker, or the current was flowing stronger, than on our earlier 2km swim. We didn’t want it to end, the embracing feel of the warm river, the lit-up look of the surrounding banks, the fresh taste of the clear water, the welcome burn of effort.  We were quite surprised when we realised we’d reached the finish already, in under 39 minutes, although we both said afterwards we’d felt strong all the way along the swim and could really have pushed on a little harder.  We arrived with plenty of Saturday still remaining; our swim crossing of a National boundary, of the Arctic Circle line and of a time zone all gratifyingly successful.

Juoksengi - (beers in hot tub)

Juoksengi - (presentations)

After taking a few photos around the finish, we jumped into the hot-tub with the French boys and two French ladies we’d met, and had a celebratory beer as we warmed through. We stayed around the finish late afterwards, meeting and greeting lots of other competitors.  People peeled off one by one, with flights to catch home tomorrow, and we said sad goodbyes, until only a fellow Brit and a Finnish guy remained.  The four of us chatted animatedly as we continually swapped our bodies between the hot tub and the burning sauna well into the wee small hours of Sunday morning.  Nicky and I finally dragged ourselves back to Benny around 3am then we sat up to after 4am, still buzzing from the experience and enjoying the views of the bright morning sun lighting up the steaming fields outside.  We sipped a few celebratory whiskies as we relived the day before finally making ourselves go to sleep, our day of time travelling swimming finally at an end.

Juoksengi - (Arctic Circle flags)

We spent the following day on the same site, resting up and doing as little as possible.  We had a long, lazy lie-in after our late night revelry, and by the time we emerged, most others had cleared out and headed home.  We were in the comforting position of having nowhere we had to be, back on our own time and our own schedule.  We were deeply glad we had discovered this swim and decided to make it a part of our journey, even if it was originally a few thousand kilometres drive out of our way.  It had led us through some very beautiful parts of central Sweden that we would most likely have missed otherwise, and gave us this memory that would now be a cherished part of our story.

Additional info:

Swim the Arctic Circle – Website >

Race times available here >

 

WorkAway – Norrsken Lodge, Overtorneå

Volunteering for a WorkAway week at Norrsken Lodge in Overtorneå.

We drove north on the Finland side of the river Torne, until we reached Overtorneå.  After a quick look around the town, we moved on and parked up at Norrsken Lodge, quietly admiring the scale of it all.  It was a long, thin site, with over 300m of prime riverside frontage, with a small forested area to one end and a cycle path back to town on the other.  We parked up and wandered a little around the site’s pretty location and timber buildings, where we ran into the owners Max and Yasmine, along with their two boys and their huge slobbering bloodhound Brian.

Norrsken Lodge - main house

Norrsken Lodge - reception area

They had moved their lives from Switzerland to build a new, more relaxing, lifestyle.  Over many years of visiting they had fallen in love with winter in the north of Scandinavia; the crisp nights under the Northern Lights, the outdoors lifestyle around a crackling campfire, from learning simple survival and bush craft skills, to the thriving cultures of supportive friendship, reindeer herding and smoke saunas.  Max had once been a global supply-chain manager, but suffered from burnout and was seeking a new, much less stressful and much more rewarding, path in life.  His long-term plans included the possibility of setting up a high-end burnout treatment centre on this quiet stretch of river, to help introduce those in a similar situation to the enduring qualities of peaceful reflection.  In the shorter term the goal was simpler – to ensure all visitors here had a ‘Fantastic Time’, the chosen strap-line for his Norrsken Lodge re-branding.

Norrsken Lodge - (river view)

Norrsken Lodge - (evening tea on rock)

Norrsken Lodge - (1am glow)

We picked out a spot to base ourselves for the week, at the far edge of the site and right on the banks of the river, and settled in. Later we met some of the other WorkAwayers – there were six other volunteers on site presently.  One girl, Akiko, arrived directly from Japan on the same day as we did, to make a total of nine WorkAwayers on site.  Many others were volunteering for a month or more, but we had only one week to spare. We all had a beautiful salmon dinner and a local beer in the site restaurant as we chatted to each other and learned a little of the history of Norrsken Lodge and that of the new owners.  Max and Yasmine had bought the lodge only four months ago and this was to be their first summer in charge.  The ice and snows had receded only in late May and its transformative disappearance had highlighted the extent of the maintenance work required in order to ‘bring back the shine’, our motto for the week.

Norrsken Lodge - (nicky rows)

Norrsken Lodge - (midnight sun)

Our first evening, around 10.30pm, we took a small wooden rowing boat out on the river, under the slowly setting but not quite managing to set sun.  We took turns rowing up the river and back, slowly relaxing and soaking up the idyllic setting and enjoying the late sunshine.  The water was clear and still, reflecting the campsite frontage and nearby tree-line with exceptional clarity.  We returned to Benny and stayed up until nearly 1am watching out our window as the mirror-calm water glowed with the redness of the midnight sun.  It was quite difficult to finally close the privacy blinds and make ourselves go to sleep, although we really needed to; we were to start work at 8am.

Norrsken Lodge - (reindeer herd approches)

Norrsken Lodge - (local catchers)

On our second evening we drove Benny, with two other WorkAwayers on board, an hour north and east, to visit a local reindeer farm.  We had been invited to watch the herding and collating of new births on the site where the reindeer were seasonally penned, numbered and tagged.  The last 5km of road was a tight single-width gravel track with huge bumps and ruts, making our progress very slow, with the constant worry of grounding on our minds.  We finally made it to the small car-park and walked the last few hundred metres to where the timber corral was positioned.  There were lots of cars in attendance; all locals holding interests in the herd were here to check on their investment and count the new generation of herd members.

Norrsken Lodge - (losing winter fur)

Norrsken Lodge - (in the corral)

Soon the silence of the forest was disrupted by the incoming herd.  It was wild, chaotic and very noisy with the deep bleating and echoing low grunts of the stampeding reindeer.  Temporary fencing and many volunteers shepherded the deer along the required path to the pen. Many hundreds were finally gathered up, with a few lost stragglers running wild around the corral, feeling obvious separation anxiety.  The reindeer were in the process of losing their thick winter fur and looked rather mangy and ragged, patchy and mottled.  The blotches of lost hair looked, from a distance, a lot like areas of rotted flesh.  They seemed were like how a horror movie might imagine undead zombie reindeers to look, the white ones especially having a ghostly, unreal presence.

Norrsken Lodge - (campfire dinner)

Norrsken Lodge - (campfire)

Whilst the tagging of the new-borns took place, we toggled between watching the myriad reindeer herd scatter and regroup within the corral and sitting around the nearby birchwood campfire, cooking sausages on sticks for dinner.  We enjoyed the process of cooking over an open fire, searching out the best glowing embers to evenly cook our meat.  We were joined by the locals who cooked salmon and large chunks of thick sausage as they chatted animatedly in Swedish.  We enjoyed setting our own fires and learning how best to strip bark thinly to provide suitable kindling that would take under a single flint spark.  The evening in the forest was a small but powerful introduction into the collaborative, sociable lifestyle that had so intoxicated Max to move to these Northern Wilds.

Norrsken Lodge - (beach building sand)

Norrsken Lodge - (early sketch)

We were both drafted onto a beach project, where a slightly sad stretch of sand was to be expanded and tidied up to provide a focal point for the site.  Nicky was given the task of researching SUPs, kayaks and canoes, weighing up which would be most suitable for the business to offer for paying clients on this river.  She produced detailed spreadsheets, price comparisons and contacted suppliers to set up ordering accounts.  She created sign-out sheets for hired equipment, standardised liability forms and other essential items for management to consider, allowing them to get started on offering water sports services for the summer months.

Norrsken Lodge - (barbecue night)

Norrsken Lodge - (big steaks on)

Norrsken Lodge - (serenity on the river)

Although I was much happier being left to brushing up, raking sand and digging out stones, I inevitably got dragged into providing professional services for various larger projects around the site.  I attended meetings with building suppliers, redesigned layouts for future cottages, and directed builders on site, providing them with basic drawings and setting-out dimensions.  I had to double check their built foundation levels, ensuring the site was set up and properly prepared to receive the soon-to-be relocated timber sauna buildings.  I was architect, site engineer, foreman, labourer and general dogsbody all in one.  But it was all very interesting, helping out and being a small part of the far-reaching vision Max had for the future of his business.

Norrsken Lodge - (setting the levels)

Norrsken Lodge - (sauna foundations)

Away from our daily work responsibilities, we had a few long swims in the pretty side-branch of the river Torne facing Benny.  One late evening, under a reddening sky, we got suited and booted and swam up stream in totally still water, the glassy reflection just stunningly beautiful.  The water was warm, around 17 degrees, so we were in no hurry to return, and dawdled a slow mile up and down the river.  Another day we swam a 2km loop out to the main Torne river, around an island on the junction where our small branch met the main flow, and back.  We swam around 5km in total in the few days we were camped on the grassy banks.  We mentioned our upcoming Arctic Circle swim to the group and two young Frenchman, David and Alex, were both very keen to see if they could attend the event, so we helped where we could to make it happen for them.

Norrsken Lodge - (ready for swim)

Norrsken Lodge - (nicky swims)

Norrsken Lodge - (calm water)

Our final work day brought the moving of the smoke sauna.  I removed the old timber boards from the external porch that would later be replaced by a new decking area.  This allowed the 3m long forks on the digger to slide in under the concrete base and lift it entirely whole to its new position.  Two side strips of concrete, essential for supporting the timber roof, were strapped up around the roof for additional support as only the internal rebar was stopping then from snapping off when lifted.  The slow, careful move went well, two separate diggers nudging the sauna around, with only minor tweaks to the pre-prepared gravel base required to level up the smoke sauna in its new position.

Norrsken Lodge - (smoke sauna deck removed)

Norrsken Lodge - (agreeing the plans)

Norrsken Lodge - (relocated smoke sauna)

It was a good finish to our WorkAway week efforts, seeing the first of several big changes that would happen in the coming weeks after we’ve moved on. The final morning there was torrential rain as we packed up and said our sad goodbyes to Max, and to Norrsken Lodge.  We had only a short journey north, to the village of Juoksengi, where our next adventure was to swim back in time, across the Arctic Circle from Finland to Sweden.

Sweden’s north Baltic Coast to Overtorneå

Sweden’s north Baltic Coast to Overtorneå

Leaving the north entrance of Skuleskogen National Park and with it Sweden’s beautiful Höga Kusten behind, we drove north following the E4 along the coast.  The weather had changed, our blue skies replaced overnight with a solid grey mass of muddy cloud and the constant threat of rain.  We passed through the towns of Örnsköldsvik and Umeå stopping only briefly in each to have a look around.  We kept motoring along, making good distance under the grey skies.  We turned east off the main road just after Lövånger and proceeded up a narrow side road that terminated at a noted lighthouse called Bjuröklubb Fyren.  Just short of here was a quiet grassy aire near a small sandy beach where we pulled in to spend the night as the rains arrived.

Bjuroklubb Fyren

The next morning we drove a few miles further along the small peninsula to the end of the road, parking where it terminated at Bjuröklubb Fyren.  It was rainy and grey, the sky a single flat colour with no sign of an edge. We walked over the nearby hillside first, seeing the ruins of old Russian-built buildings and ovens once used to support raiding parties during a long-past war.  We then reached the lighthouse on the rocky headland by way of built timber walkways, where we had a rather wet and dismal view out to sea, before deciding to return to Benny and move on.

Bjuroklubb Fyren - walkways

Back on the coast road we passed Skellefteå and Piteå as we made our way to the outskirts of Luleå.  Our goal was to visit Gammelstad Church town, a UNESCO world heritage site, just to the west of the main town.  We parked at what we thought would be our overnighting aire, to find that signs had been put up that very morning by Q-Park to turn it into max. 3 hours parking.  We asked in the nearby tourist shop and they seemed a little apologetic about it, all beyond their control.  We parked anyway and walked into town, with the visitor centre our first stop for information.

Gammalstad - (visitor centre)

Gammalstad - (museum)

We learned that there were two other areas very near the town where we could overnight, so that solved our first dilemma.  Then we visited the beautifully presented free museum upstairs, watching a video on the local area and scanning all the displays.  We also noted the official UNESCO heritage certification letter for Gammelstad Church Town was framed on the side wall, a nice touch.  The winds and rain continued outside the large windows, so we lingered longer and learnt more than we might have had the day been bright and clear.

Gammalstad - (central church)

Gammalstad - (approaching church)

At the centre was the late Medieval Nederluleå church, with over 40 different types of rock used in the construction of its fieldstone walls.  There were some areas of brick detailing high on gable ends and within window reveals, breaking up the expanse of stone.  Inside, the gilded altarpiece had a detailed wood carving depicting the passion of Christ, said to be one of the finest in Sweden. A wall-mounted and ornately decorated pulpit overlooked the single nave, set below the simple, plain white vaulted roof.

Gammalstad - (church interior)

Gammalstad - (UNESCO world heritage site)

We walked on through the town, following a short dictated route that picked up most of the historical items of interest.  There were once hundreds of such church towns scattered around Sweden, but of the 16 now remaining in existence Gammalstd is said to be the best preserved. There are 408 small red-painted timber houses positioned around the central church.  The houses were built to allow parishioners who lived long distances away the opportunity to visit the church for worship and then stay over before making their long journey home.  Many of the church cottages are still utilised in this traditional way.

Gammalstad - (traditional houses)

Gammalstad - (main street)

Gammalstad - (wandering the streets)

We spent the night in the recommended car-park near a rarely used railway line, under a deluge that cut up the hard gravel into a swamp.  We didn’t venture out at all, but watched our unfortunate neighbours parked across the yard struggle with attempting to fix their clearly leaking door in the driving rain; we didn’t envy them their task.

Next morning we drove into Luleå, where we called into a large caravan showroom to enquire about buying propane gas and the required Swedish connection.  They sold both, but the prices were staggering – over £60 for the small connection adaptor needed, and an additional £150 for a standard 11kg propane bottle (the same sized ones that are £9 in Spain) and this was one that could only later be exchanged with them.  No thanks, that was much too expensive and limiting, and so for the first time we decided to wait until back in Norway to buy something at a more reasonable price.

Nikkala marina

Crossing into Finland

We continued on through Kalix, before turning off to overnight at Nikkala marina.  We initially decided to park nose-out to have a view, but we gave up this prime sea view spot and instead cowered behind the service building, safe and protected as the incredible cross winds battered the entire site into submission.  We lost our view but stayed stable and unrocked as we slept.  We passed through busy Haparanda the following morning before crossing into Finland to visit a nearby Lidl we had spotted on Google maps.  We stocked up as necessary, then rather than return to Sweden we drove north on the Finnish side until we reached the bridge back to Overtorneå, our primary destination.

Overtornea church - exterior

Overtornea church - interior

We entered the village and noted there were several signs pointing the way to our goal.  We were here to stay at Norrsken Lodge for another WorkAway volunteer week.  First we visited the small town and looked around the pretty, decorative church before progressing to meet our Workaway hosts and learn what tasks awaited us.

Sweden’s High Coast (Höga Kusten) Part 2

Following on from Sweden’s High Coast (Höga Kusten) Part 1

We awoke to the sound of birdsong echoing through the trees, mixed with the low hum of a ticking car engine. We discovered a few other walkers had finally arrived, as it was the weekend, to explore this beautiful national park.  We had a long walk planned for the day but still had a very slow start, taking time over our breakfast in the glorious morning sun.  We finally got ourselves moving around 11am and headed off into the forest, initially following the same easy trail as the previous night.

Hoga Kusten - (trekking cabin)

Hoga Kusten - camping lodge

We soon turned off the path and dropped steeply down to the shores of Långtjärnen.  We circled the north edge and continued on through neat paths threading their way by ever-present fir trees, where we reached the forest opening of Norrsvedjebodarna.  This was a beautiful meadow with a free to use camping cabin, fire pits and picnic tables. We had a look inside the beautiful timber cabin, fully kitted out with beds, kitchen and log fire, signing the visitor book with a message thanking Sweden for being so awesome.  Near to the cabin was a small path leading to lake Skrattabborrtjärnen, a very inviting, sun-warmed waterhole that we would definitely return to later.

Hoga Kusten - (swim lake)

The path continued around the lake, climbing on to a high plateau with incredible far-reaching views out over the islands and the Baltic Sea. The path was strewn with twisted and withered white trees, their gnarly forms intricate and fascinating. The sun continued to pour down on us, making the walk sweaty work, but we were so glad for the clear, cloudless skies.  Again we dropped steeply down from the plateau, finally passing some other hikers, an organised group outing it seemed, coming up the same path.  We were now near to the main long-distance coastal path that passed through Skuleskogen National Park, so we certainly expected to see a few more walkers now.

Hoga Kusten - (twisted trees)

Hoga Kusten - (top view)

Hoga Kusten - (summit selfie)

We turned north up the wider, well-walked path and after a short scramble over a discarded boulder field, we reached Slåttdalsskrevan, a deep, wide chasm in the rock, and a key focal point for many walks in the park.  The steep sided cleft in the rock face left a deep cavity, filled with mossy boulders at its dark, ever-shadowed base.  We climbed up over the left-hand side where there were again incredible views out over the coastline.  Below us there was a many-islanded archipelago, green splodges of land scattered at random intervals in the beautiful, calm sea, all framed within a backdrop of light blue sky and wispy white cloud.  We found a nice spot on the flat rock above the chasm and ate some snacks, savouring the calories along with the exceptional view.

Hoga Kusten - (chasm)

Hoga Kusten - (a above chasm)

Hoga Kusten - (plateau views)

From here we retraced our way a little, before climbing up over Slåttdalsberget, a high ridge running parallel to the main hiking path.  The route was marked with helpful cairns and had scatterings of pretty white flowers growing wherever small pools of standing water were found. The same incredible views over the forest trails and out to sea greeted us as we walked, loving the easily accessible beauty of this rugged coast.  With the view implanted on our minds, we finally dropped off the end of the ridge, re-joined the High Coast Trail path north for a little while, before turning west and headed back the same route we had arrived on.

Hoga Kusten - (ridge walk top)

Hoga Kusten - (n in boulder field)

Hoga Kusten - (easy walking)

We paused again at lake Skrattabborrtjärnen, near the camping cabin, and enjoyed a very refreshing dip in the lake we had promised ourselves earlier.  We played around, jumping off the wooden pontoon into the idyllic peaty lake surrounded by trees and with intermittent water-lilies peppering the calm surface.   It was so lovely to jump into the water like carefree loons, cooling off from our trek and enjoying its refreshing coolness caress our hot skin.  Refreshed, we returned to Benny and passed another simple, very pleasant evening in the quiet forest, with all other day visitors having completed their walks and left us in total peace, alone with the birds.

Hoga Kusten - (swim time)

Hoga Kusten - (star jumps)

Hoga Kusten - (post swim bliss)

We woke early the next morning and left the west entrance, driving a short loop around to park up at the north entrance, positioned on the coastline.  This was a similar set-up with the same buildings, but with more signs of life; there were seven other motorhomes parked up here, along with quite a few cars.  We wanted to do a more low-level walk, to taste a little of all the varied environments available within the park.  We walked south, through very similar terrain, enjoying an easy and mostly level trail through the fir trees and along the water’s edge.

Hoga Kusten - (island cabin)

Hoga Kusten - (lunch spot)

We reached the turn for Tärnättholmarna, an island group that is now reachable by foot across a natural causeway.  The land has risen from the sea and sand had silted up to create the causeway that now linked the island to the mainland.  A smaller island sat behind the larger, and we rested here a while simply staring out to sea, its metronomic regularity mesmerising.  Both islands had timber cabins available and would be beautiful camping spots, with wood seats, fire pit areas and a multitude of swim spots, and we could easily have passed a few peaceful days here enjoying nature.

Hoga Kusten - (view back to islands)

Hoga Kusten - (lake on retrun walk)

We returned to the mainland and, to make our outing a circular route, we took a steep uphill path to Gamm Bodarna, gaining height quickly on the wet path.  This brought a lovely coastal view back over the islands we had just left, before the path headed back into the trees to two inviting lakes at Tärnättvattnen.  After our many swims over recent days, on this occasion we managed to resist jumping straight in.  We overnighted at the North Entrance and enjoyed another tranquil night in the wooded wilderness, most other visitors having left again.  We continue to delight at the expansive size of Scandinavian countries relative to their low populations and at how easy it is to find a beautiful spot to call your own.