SITTING crosslegged at the end of a wooden jetty, I’m floating on a vast, watery mirror, marvelling at the reflection of motionless clouds hanging in a cornflower blue sky.
In a few months time, this lake will be frozen and the landscape wrapped with snow – the more recognisable face of Lapland. But right now, it’s summer and baking hot, so I find myself wearing shorts and a T-shirt only 300km south of the Arctic Circle.
At night, the sun skims the horizon and never properly sets, stealing the dark stage where the Northern Lights will perform much later in the year, attracting thousands of tourists to the region.
At a latitude of 64 degrees north, Skelleftea is a sleepy town in southern Swedish Lapland, not far from the Baltic Sea, characterised by clapboard houses in a palette of pastel hues. And thanks to a new direct three-hour flight from the UK with Ryanair, it’s likely to become the gateway to an area popular with adventure seekers and outdoor enthusiasts.
“Whatever season you come here, it’s beautiful,” says Thorbjorn, a sprightly, philosophical nature lover who runs the Svansele Wilderness Centre, an hour’s drive from Skelleftea. He owns nine overnight camps in Swedish Lapland, ranging from comfortable en-suite apartments to traditional lavvo tents lined with reindeer skins, and offers activities for both summer and winter months.
Heating a charred black kettle over a roasting fire, he prepares “the best coffee in the world” (the blacker the kettle, the better the coffee), and melts cheese on Swedish flatbreads using grills suspended above the flames.
We eat with wooden forks and plates handmade by Thorbjorn, using wood from a local saw mill. “I get through about 45,000 of these a year,”
he says, laughing. “There’s no need for washing up; we just throw them straight on the fire afterwards!”
In between mouthfuls of food, I trial a few of the on-site amusements; I attempt to lasso reindeer antlers with a long piece of cable, then throw an axe at a tree stump embedded in the wall.
Thorbjorn admits he never bothered going to school, but instead spent his childhood learning to hunt and fish – skills now fundamental to the business he set up after friends visiting from Stockholm described Svansele as one of most beautiful places on earth.
His appetite for adventure is insatiable and even his name has the comic book hero translation of Thunder Bear.
Give him 24 hours’ notice, and he boldly claims he can find a moose in the surrounding woodland – or he’ll refund the cost of your plane ticket home.
“I love this place,” he tells me.
“But if, when I’m old, my children don’t want to continue the business, I’ll lock it all up and throw the key in the river.”
I appreciate his passion for the wilderness on a quad bike ride through the boreal forest, thick with bristly birch and pine trees tickling the sky.
Before leaving, we visit another jewel in Thorbjorn’s crown, a taxidermy exhibition featuring 680 stuffed creatures, lovingly displayed in their natural surroundings.
Most of the menagerie are road kill, knocked over by cars... or possibly quad bikes being driven by reckless tourists.
There are bears, owls, moose and elk, but the most precious piece in the collection is a hermaphrodite ptarmigan.
Thorbjorn won’t part with that for any money, I’m told.
Many of the creatures on display can still be seen in the wild, although the hulking but shy brown bears are much harder to spot.
Matti and Stina, who run Lapland Canoe Central in Jokkmokk, just north of the Arctic Circle, tell me they’ve seen the ursus arctos fleetingly from the car. But I’m quite relieved we don’t encounter any angry mammals on the small island where we stop for a rest, tea and cinnamon buns, before continuing our canoe safari.
Gliding slowly through the water is one of the best ways to appreciate this pristine landscape, and with every dip of my paddle, I feel a little further from reality.
Respect for the natural world is vital for survival in this environment, something the indigenous Sami people know only too well. Once nomads who would roam the high latitudes, they have since adapted to more modern lifestyles, but their knowledge and love of nature remains undiluted.
Reindeer herder Lotta Svensson still visits a seite (sacred place) 2km from the Batsuoj Sami camp which she set up with her husband Tom to educate people about the Sami way of life. She describes the site as having a large stone shaped like a bear, a sacred animal respected for it’s strength and power, but she won’t specify its exact location.
“I don’t want them to touch it,” she says adamantly.
“Sometimes you don’t need to know everything. You have the words. That’s enough.”
Short, with dark skin and high cheekbones, Lotta is a typical Sami and she’s unequivocally proud of her culture. She even confesses to leaving books on the subject in the camp toilets, encouraging visitors to learn more. But she does draw the line at wearing a traditional Sami outfit, rarely used today, as “that would give the wrong impression”.
Using a lasso, she rounds up her reindeer, with many currently sporting blood-filled, furry summer horns. Far fewer Sami now make money from reindeer herding, she explains, and this year alone, she and Tom lost 60 per cent of their animals to predators, meaning they were unable to sell any for meat. She blames programmes to reintroduce wolves into the area, and demands the Swedish government should take action.
Travel facts – Skelleftea
- Sarah Marshall was a guest of Visit Sweden (visitsweden.com), Destination Skelleftea (destinationskelleftea.se/en/Destination) and Swedish Lapland (swedishlapland.co.uk).
- For more information on activities, visit Svansele Wilderness Centre (svansele.se) and Lapland Canoe Central (jokkmokkguiderna.com).
- An overnight stay at Batsuoj Sami Center (batsuoj.se/eng) costs 1,100 SEK (aprox. £96) pp, including breakfast, dinner, sleeping bag and use of boats.