Category Archives: Swimming

WorkAway – Ringstad (Part 2)

Ringstad Part 2:  Cooling swims at local lakes, foraging for berries on local islands, midnight camp fires and mountain hikes.

Ringstad - (Seahouse from sea)

Ringstad - (island across still bay)

Our work continued day to day, with each day a simple variation on a theme.  The weather stayed bright and clear, the views out to sea remained spectacular, the beauty never diminishing with familiarity.  The restaurant was busy and the house and apartment turnover high, so there was always plenty to be done.  I chipped in with cleaning a house when required, but managed to avoid the kitchen or restaurant in favour of more outdoor gardening work.  Each night Nicky and I drank and chatted late with Karina, learning more of the history and future of their busy lives and business.  The more we heard of the wild beauty of the Vesterålen islands in winter, its pristine snow glistening bright under green aurora skies, the more we vowed to return.

Ringstad - (setting sun over sea)

Ringstad - (barbecue hut)

Ringstad - (pink clouds)

One night, after closing the restaurant, we all walked a short way around to a comfortable timber shelter and spent the remainder of the late evening barbecuing on an open fire.  The site was kitted out with woolly blankets, cushions and lots of seasoned firewood, all we needed for a good night.  The sun turned the sky pink over the barbeque place, reflecting the lines of coloured-in clouds on the still, dark water of the adjacent sea.  When the flames died down a little, we devoured tender slabs of steak and pork straight from the metal grill, with sides of various potato salads.  Afterwards we sat around the dying fire sipping red wine, chatting into the small hours under the midnight sun.  Nicky and I were the last to leave, reluctantly abandoning the fire and the mesmerising pink skies around 2.30am.

Ringstad - (firestarters)

Ringstad - (barbecue hut chat)

The next morning, after a few hours work, the full group of Workawayers decided to take kayaks out to visit a few small islands to forage for berries, and perhaps wild mushrooms if they were ready.  We all paddled as a group out to a nearby spit of sand joining two small islands and exited our kayaks, with empty tubs in hand.  We walked through the low, springy bushes searching for ripe cloudberries, but we were a week or so early, as we could only find hard red fruit on each plant.

Ringstad - (view from beach)

Ringstad - (foraging beach spot)

Ringstad - (a kayaking on calm sea)

To compensate, there were many ripe wild blueberries, so we picked those instead.  We then kayaked to another grassy island, again landing on a small sandy beach between pointed rocks.  We all foraged for blueberries and found there to be an abundance, and ate many as we picked.  The collected blueberries were later made into very enjoyable sweet dumplings by our lead kayaker and resident chef, Xervin.

Ringstad - (A & N kayaking)

Ringstad - (second beach stop)

Over the week, we had a few short sea dips to cool off from the heat of the day, lasting only a few minutes each time but we emerged from the chilly sea water cooled and refreshed.   One afternoon we had a quick cycle to a popular sandy beach set on the end of a local lake.  It was only 3km away, an easy free-wheel down past a few other small lakes, huge expanses of wild lupins and a neat strawberry farm.  The tiny stretch of beach was packed with families, the parents sunbathing and the kids playing raucously in the water.  We slumped onto the short grass at the side of the sand and lazed a while, then tried to have a swim in lake.  The only issue was the shallowness of the water, and we had to walk a long way out to get deep enough water to cover our knees.  It was perfect for small children to splash around in, but not ideal for a proper swim.  Still, it cooled us down very nicely in the warm afternoon sun.

Ringstad - (sunset on seahouse)

Ringstad - (pre-dinner drinkspot)

On our last day in Ringstad, we worked through the busy morning shift to help out, even though it was a scheduled day off for us. Mid-afternoon we borrowed our host’s battered old jeep to drive a short way around the coast to where we could begin a climb of a nearby peak.  The 467m high hill, Vetten, had formed the solid backdrop of our stay and we had long talked of standing on its top to look down over the islands we had kayaked around, and the time was now.  It was a short walk, around an hour and half up to the top, with an initial steep climb turning into easy walking for most of the well-worn route.  We passed and examined a neat green cabin available for hikers to use before continuing up to the top of the hill where another small hut had been built for walkers to seek shelter.  We sat inside out of the chilling wind to eat our lunch, signing the scrappy visitor book as we took in the expansive view.

Ringstad - (view from Vetten)

Ringstad - (hut on Vetten)

Even on this rather dull, cloudy day, the setting was incredible; below us there were calm, protected bays scattered with rocky islands covered with green vegetation and nesting sea birds. It was an eye-opener to see the scale of the area in one vista.  Ringstad, where we had based ourselves, was visible on the end of a small peninsula, and we could just pick out Benny awaiting our return in the car-park behind the main house.  Ringstad was positioned on one of many small inlets scattered throughout this small tongue of the mighty fjord, with many other stretches of water and tall dark hills stretching to the horizon and beyond.  We could see why boat traffic and travel was so important here; a thirty minute jaunt on a fast boat to cross the fjord could be a three hour drive around the difficult, winding coast road.  Our high overview literally gave us a different perspective on the terrain we had immersed ourselves in.

Ringstad - (climbing Vetten)

Ringstad - (from top of Vetten)

Our ten days in residence in Ringstad proved to be a wondrous experience.  We worked hard, and played just the same, taking all kayaking opportunities, swims and hikes whenever possible.  The eagle viewing on the rib-boat nature safari was a visual treat, and the calm, ever-changing views of the surrounding inlet and far-away mountains were a constant delight.  We enjoyed the long chats with our hosts and our quiet, contemplative row boat trip under a cloudless sky.  We were hesitant to leave but equally hesitant to stay on, as we could easily have become trapped by the visual enchantments of such a place.  It was sad to drive away, but life is but a series of meetings and partings, that is the way of it, as a wise frog in a muppet movie once reminded us all.

Norway – Gratangsbotn & Årstein

Enjoying a few restful, lazy days around Gratangsbotn & Årstein, on the banks of a calm fjord.

We moved on the next morning from Senjatrollet, again following the tourist route road.  We first called into the tiny hamlet, or rather the hotel and fishermen apartments, of Hamm, and had a short walk around their pretty marina front, watching a few beginners have kayaking lessons in the still, protected water. From here we drove all the way to Gryllfjord, just to have a look.  As we arrived at the end of the road, staff on the about-to-leave ferry wildly gesticulated to us that we could quickly sneak on if we wanted.  We didn’t, although annoyingly if we had wanted to, we’d no doubt have been patiently waiting in the queue from several hours ago.

Hamm - apartments

Senja - (parked by the water)

We returned the same way, as the only way forward was that ferry to Andenes.  Instead we drove inland, to the town of Finnsnes where we paused for a bite of lunch.  After lunch we went hunting for LPG, and at a junction near Bardufoss we found exactly what we were after – 11kg propane –  and they even accepted our old, empty Spanish gas bottle in exchange (Norway and Spain have the same top connection) so it only cost us €25 for the refill.  This was our first gas purchase on this trip, and a happy result for us given the high prices we’d been quoted in Sweden.

Gratangsbotn (n with view)

Gratangsbotn (Benny parked)

After a few more hours driving, through mostly built-up townscapes and unusually scruffy countryside, we arrived in an aire at Gratangsbotn, a picnic spot set in front of a rather empty and sadly neglected looking hotel.  There were other motorhomes around when we parked up, but one by one they all disappeared down the hill and left us to enjoy the beautiful view over the fjord all by ourselves.  The sun set slowly into a pink bath as we enjoyed the peaceful quiet of this stop.

Arstein - (at the fjord)

The next morning, with the sun brightly lighting up the view below from a cloudless sky, we rolled down the hill about eight miles to another nearby aire in Årstein.  We parked up right on the edge of the same fjord we had been admiring from afar, on an area of rough gravelled ground by the base of a bridge.  There was a line of motorhomes already in residence, haphazardly parked along the edge, all bar one looking out over the water.  We had arrived in our chosen aire very early and now planned a very lazy down day, sitting in the sun and relaxing as we watched the light slowly change on the distant peaks.  Our one exertion of the day was to wander slowly across the bridge to the town of Årstein, where we found a Spar and bought some fresh bread.

Arstein - bridge across fjord

Arstein - (cycling along fjord)

The next morning we had initially planned to move on again, but changed our mind early on.  The day was beautiful, the aire peaceful and we had no place else to be.  Also, it had been 3205 miles, three countries and 51 days since we had last cycled, back at Guldbæk Vingård in Denmark, and it was time to change this; the poor bikes must have thought we’d forgotten about them.  The weather was kind, we had a full day to play, so why waste it?  We removed our bikes from the garage and, after some loving maintenance and a thorough garage tidy, we set off.  We first crossed the nearby bridge and followed the coast of the fjord anti-clockwise and north.  The cycling was hard work, our lungs felt and sounded like old, rusty cylinders being rubbed down with sandpaper.

Arstein - (n cycling fjord)

Arstein - (path down to fjord)

We were rasping and gasping on what were really only minor inclines, amazed at how desperately we were lacking bike fitness after only seven weeks out of the saddle.  Our efforts were being rewarded with a beautiful backdrop of jagged peaks, splattered with patches of snow that sat high above a tree line that formed a solid green band between the bare rock and the sea.  The water in the fjord was a milky green-blue, shimmering in the sunlight when the light wind ruffled the surface.  We rolled through a few settlements until we found a narrow cut path through some high grass, snaking down a steep hill that led, we hoped, to the banks of the fjord below.

Arstein - (aaron post-swim)

Arstein - (nicky swims)

We abandoned our bikes near the top of the slope and walked down, eventually finding a small beach area and an old timber fishing hut – a perfect spot for a sneaky fjord dip.  We stripped off, carefully crossing the jagged stones before gently easing ourselves into the cool water, feeling instantly refreshed.  The slightly salty water was sharp and cold, but clear and invigorating and we splashed around for a few minutes, enjoying the cleansing thrill after our sticky hot cycle.  We quickly dressed to avoid the attention of the persistent flies our presence had intruded upon, and re-climbed the steep path to reunite with our bikes.

Arstein - (a on road back)

Arstein - (n enjoys downhill)

Arstein - (seal watching)

We returned along the same route, our lungs better up to the task this time, and spent the rest of the afternoon seal watching in the bay.  One ‘seal’ we spotted from afar, on closer inspection, became a fully hooded snorkeller, with long fins, slowly making his way along the bay inspecting the bottom – for what, we had no idea.  It was really good to have a few relaxing days of easy sunshine, to recharge and relax.  Our next stop was at another WorkAway project, deep in the Vesterålen islands, where we would hopefully have some fjord kayaking opportunities alongside our other duties, so we wanted to be rested and ready.

 

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 palatable, 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.

Sweden’s High Coast (Höga Kusten) Part 1

We drove away from our tranquil perch on the banks of Lake Storsjön, first heading back into the main town of Östersund for a slightly longer explore.  We had a quick walk along the pedestrian streets lined with closed shops, and down to the waterfront to look at the marina, all perched on the same lake we had recently left.  It was a thriving town, quiet at this hour but with obvious affluence. We found a line of motorhomes parked up in what looked like a town centre aire, and whilst a nice location it definitely wasn’t a patch on our lake-side layby near Sonne.  We stopped briefly in the central Tourist Office for a map of the region we would next reach, then hit the road east heading to the Baltic coast.

Ostersund - (Sveriges Julgran)

Ostersund - (marina)

It hadn’t escaped our notice that the most northerly Distillery in the world (they say – I think Aurora Spirit in Norway may disagree) was on our direct route.  We called into Box whisky Distillery hoping for a tour visit and perhaps a few tastings, but they were right in the middle of preparing for their annual whisky festival.  It was organised carnage, lots of bodies running around stacking, building and relocating all manner of items, in advance of their 5pm opening.  They were definitely not geared up for, or expecting, any regular visitors this afternoon.  We had a brief wander around their main buildings and display, all the while ignored by their busy staff.  We just felt a little in the way, and whilst our younger selves would have embraced the party spirit, changed plans and stayed for the festival, we left them to it all and headed off for a more serene experience.

After many miles, we finally stopped at a free roadside aire for a late lunch.  It was a grassy rastplats, the front field peppered with caravans.  Behind was a large, clear lake where kids were playing and swimming as their parents picnicked on the grass. It had a busy but nice atmosphere, but there was also a lot of road noise.  Our original plan had been to spend the night here, but given we hadn’t spent any significant time at the whisky distillery and it was still early afternoon, we decided to push on a little further into the national park.  Our first stop was to be at their new Visitor Centre, Naturum Höga Kusten.

Hoga Kusten - (visitor centre)

Naturum Höga Kusten, still not fully complete externally, was still a great starting point to learn more about the park.  We enjoyed their colourful nature exhibition, picked up leaflets and maps for hiking trails and finally decided on which of the three National Park entrances we would head for first.  We checked that overnighting in Benny in the Park was allowed and had it confirmed as a definitive yes, if we were hiking in the park.  As that was exactly our intention for a couple of days, we happily headed off in search of the west entrance.  The maps showed it had bins, toilets, information areas and fire barbecue pits, with several of the main hiking trails starting from there; ideal.

Hoga Kusten - (west entrance)

Hoga Kusten - (forest walkways)

Straight off the main E4 road, a narrow gravel track rose up for the last few kilometres or so into Skuleskogen National Park, created as Sweden’s nineteenth National Park in 1984.  For some reason we were expecting a large and possibly busy car-park, but we found only a small strip of diagonal parking and only a few cars currently visiting.  We drove around the one-way loop and on the opposite side we parked up alone in a quiet spot, conveniently hitting a perfectly level patch of the sloping gravel on first try.  We were quite amazed, but also very glad, that such a prime spot for exploring the celebrated Höga Kusten was so under-used.  In early July we were expecting a lot more visitors, and motorhomes, in the park, especially with the option to overnight for free.

Hoga Kusten -(information deck)

We looked round the neat timber buildings that included refuse and WC facilities and, slightly deeper into the forest, a large curved information centre with pictures and boards explaining about the local scenery and wildlife. Later we walked around 4km to the two nearest viewpoints in the park, not seeing anyone on the paths.  We enjoyed expansive views overlooking Långtjärnen lake, tall forests and right out to sea.  We sat a while outside the shelters built on the highest point around, at a place called Långtjärnhällorna, still in shock at having this wonderful place practically to ourselves.  Where were the crowds we would expect in such a beautiful landscape, if this was in the UK?

Hoga Kusten - (viewpoint)

Hoga Kusten - (on viewpoint)

Returning to base, we again passed the barbecue fire pits set within stone on the decking, snuggled within the trees.  It had a wood store, complete with chopping axe, fully stocked with seasoned wood ready to use.  Delighted that we had picked up some BBQ smoked chicken earlier in the day, we decided to have a peaceful fireside evening in the woods, cooking on an open fire.  We packed up all we needed and returned to light a fire on the decking, enjoying the simple process of chopping wood and building the fire.

Hoga Kusten - (fire pit wood store)

Hoga Kusten - (starting fire)

We had chicken thighs with bundles of mixed vegetables wrapped in tinfoil that we slowly roasted to perfection on the large barbecue grill positioned over the glowing embers of the split spruce logs.  We ate at a table near the fire, enjoying its nearby warmth.  It was so incredibly tranquil, sat all alone in the forest, silent but for the crackling fire.  We split a banana and stuffed it with dark chocolate squares, leaving it to go mushy and gooey on the dying embers whilst we cleaned up. We brushed the decking and chopped up a few more logs, to leave some small fire-ready sticks as kindling for the next user to enjoy; the very least we could do since we were allowed access to such a wonderful facility.

Hoga Kusten -(cleaning decking)

We savoured our shared dessert spoonful by spoonful as we reflected on the easy beauty of Sweden’s coast.  We then had a very quiet night and readied ourselves for a long, exploratory walk around the area the following day.

Part 2 of Höga Kusten to follow.