Spring and summer bring the Arctic region and adventure-lovers to life, writes Ewen Bell.
The Scandinavian wilderness has remained dramatically pristine thanks to long winters and short summers. Around the Arctic Circle there are just a few months of the year when the snow and ice gives way to forests and flowers and everybody in Sweden heads outdoors to make the most of it.
In the far north of Sweden the locals of Lapland have earned a reputation for building excellent log cabins and cooking reindeer dumplings. But not all their outdoor adventures are restricted to dry land and a new breed of local adventure-lovers has a talent for getting wet and wild.
Adventure specialist Love Rynback, founder of CreActive Adventure, took me on a week-long exploration of the Lapland wilderness and did his best to nudge me out of the soft-adventure comfort zone.
If you've never been kayaking before, the gentle option is to tackle one of the Lapland lakes about three hours' drive to the north of Lulea. Thousands of years ago the glaciers retreated from Sweden and left behind a dazzling array of lakes, rivers and rocks. By the middle of April each year, the spring thaw turns the sheets of ice into pristine lakes. The forest edges up to the shoreline, adding a touch of green against the endless blue reflecting off the water.
Beginners can enjoy one of the more stable kayak designs and still make good time across the water. Just four hours of easy kayaking is enough to traverse 15kilometres of Lapland wilderness. We tried a journey from the southern shores of Stora Lappstrak, up the Livas River and into Grundtrask The Grand Laplander Lake.
In spring, migratory birds flood into the forests but by late summer the lakes are so quiet that the call of a single gull echoes across the valley.
In the centre of the lake is a small island with a modest forest of pine trees and elevated views of the wilderness. Nosing into the shore requires navigating a minor aquatic jungle of reeds and lilies. Once on dry land we let Rynback heat up the frying pan and kettle for a hot lunch. One of the advantages of kayaking with a local is their foresight to stack an entire kitchen in the hull.
Swedish cooking can lean heavily on the abundant varieties of fish that lurk in Lapland waters. A true local would go out and catch the fish, smoke it over the fire and serve with potatoes. In the fast-flowing sections of river they need nothing more than a net to trawl the eddies for salmon as they take a break from swimming.
Out here in the glacier lakes the preferred technique is to wait until winter, when you can walk out onto the lake and fish through a hole in the ice.
Wildlife below the water is less inspiring to kayakers than the scenery above it. Along the edges of the lakes and river you can keep an eye out for moose, reindeer and beaver. One thing you probably won't see is other people. Apart from the occasional waterfront cabin, there is no sign of civilised life.
The big challenge in Lulea for summer adventure-seekers is to take on the Baltic Sea by kayak, paddling from island to island around the Lulea Archipelago. There are more than 740 islands to navigate but don't expect to see more than a dozen on a single trip. Most islands have holiday cabins some of which you can rent during the summer hidden behind pine trees.
Three- to five-day trips work well in the archipelago, with most island hops manageable in less than five hours, leaving plenty of time to explore your island and its natural charms. A long day on the water is about 10 kilometres, crossing from one island group to another, which demands a good level of fitness.
Only a part of each day is spent paddling in the water, so the rest of your time on the archipelago is spent hiking empty islands or enjoying a Swedish sauna. Yes, even on a remote island with no electricity you can expect to find a specialised timber cabin with wood-heated hot rocks. The Swedes don't build a cabin without building a sauna.
Kayaking in the summer not only makes the water temperature a little more appealing but brings so much daylight that you can choose to paddle until midnight if you want. The sea breeze dies off early in the evening and you can sit out strong winds and still have several hours of paddling on flat water. It is also possible to visit the islands in the winter but you'll need a snow-mobile instead of a kayak.
Ferries float around the major islands twice a day in the summer but it's the unserviced islands that have the most appeal. Fishing villages may be the only signs of people you encounter for the entire journey.
I ask Rynback what we do if unseasonal weather forces us to shore ahead of schedule. "We have all the camping equipment stowed in the kayaks but no sauna," he replies.
Not all the water in Sweden is fed by glaciers, though, and the Ranea Valley meanders its way through the landscape as one of the few significant forest rivers to be found in the north. In contrast to the imperceptible flow of glacier streams, the Ranea River is bursting to the brim for much of the summer.
Water races down the valley and pounds into rocks along the way the perfect playground for white-water rafting. You can spend a day sampling a few short sections of river, honing your skills, or you can take the big ride and spend a whole week rafting along 240 kilometres of valley, sleeping in log cabins coated in copper-red paint.
This is the platinum option for white-water rafters working your way downstream with an endless supply of rapids to navigate and nothing but the forces of nature to get you home again.
Don't be fooled. There's more to rafting than just paddling along to pass the time. When you hit the rapids you'll want an experienced guide with you to keep the boat upright. As the water gathers speed to form eddies and stoppers, the challenge of navigating a rubber dinghy turns the scenic ride into an adrenalin overdose.
Behind you is one man guiding the boat, yelling orders to paddle forward, reverse, left or right. When he gives the word you just have to paddle for your life. The noise from swirling water, rushes of spray hitting your face and the crashing of water below is intense.
One section of the Ranea River has 12kilometres of relentless rapids that vary from grade three to grade five depending on the time of year. The highest grade is six. At the end of the ride your body feels as if it has been through a mincer. Every muscle aches from the tension of the ride and the full-body commitment to drive your paddle through the water. But when we entered the calm waters, all I wanted was to go back and do it again.
- Getting there Lulea is a great starting point for exploring Lapland and the Arctic Circle. Scandinavian Airlines flies twice a day from Stockholm with connecting services through to Sydney. Premium economy options for partor all of the journey help you to arrive in better shape to tackle the rapids. See flysas.com.au.
- When to go Between June and August is the peak time to explore this far north. It's also open for business between May and September but you'll need your wetsuit to survive the watertemperatures.
- Adventure packages Only one tour operator this far north handles the full range of options for thrill-seekers, hard or soft. CreActive Adventure is based between Lulea and Jokkmokk, operating outdoor schedules in summer and winter. For more details see creactive-adventure.se.
- Scenic stops Lulea itself is a modern town but has preserved its traditional centre, known as Gammelstad. Take a break from the adrenalin with a day in this UNESCO World Heritage-listed community. Small timber cottages painted white and copper red line narrow streets that guide visitors to the tall, white steeple of Nederlulea Church. See lulea.se/gammelstad.
- Further Information Visit Sweden has information on travel in the region (see visitsweden.com). You can get detailed information on wilderness highlights and adventure options from swedishlapland.com.
- The writer travelled courtesy of Scandinavian Airlines and CreActive Adventures.