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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.