Up, Up and Away: Sweden’s Canoe Camping Paradise
Nothing dramatic marked the end; the dirt road just dwindled away into forest. Not that this mattered to us. Between the trees, sunlight glinted alluringly off water, and after a two thousand mile drive, only a few yards now stood between our stationary vehicle and the lake edge.
Our canoe was soon afloat. Leaving the van poised between civilization and wilderness, we pushed away from the shore. Perhaps an hour later, a pine studded rocky shore to our left, and a vast sheet of reflected summer sky to the front, right and rear, we crossed an invisible line. We were back again, north of the Arctic Circle.
We camped that night on a sloping fold of volcanic stone, one of the few open spots on this rugged tree-pressed shore able to take our tent. Late that night, with the sun dipped for a moment behind the mountains ahead, the breeze fell still. Thousands of acres of water stretched away before us like glass. Lit by the golden glow of dusk, billowing clouds sat both above and below the distant wooded horizon, the upturned versions on the lake surface as sharply defined as their twins sat high overhead. Only the occasional trout, rising to a floundering bug, disturbed this immense reflected panorama.
Drifting out in the canoe to float with the loons between one sky and another, I looked back towards our camp. A thin column of blue-grey smoke, lifting vertically from the shore, marked the only sign of a human presence in this vast northern Scandinavian setting.
The Draw of the North
It’s perhaps understandable to want to reach this artificial boundary, the curving line on a map marking the southern edge of the great Arctic wilderness beyond. There’s also no doubt that the sizeable portion of Sweden to the north of this boundary represents a landscape of astonishing beauty. Thinly populated, and thick with wildlife, the almost endless forest and rugged open uplands provide a potent northern attraction to anyone wishing to escape the bustle and noise of lower latitudes. Majestic rivers fall from the mountain border with Norway, making for a coast fringed by some of the most beautiful islands in the world. On their journey these great watercourses shift in character with almost every bend, one minute heaving and leaping like a herd of reindeer over rough ground, the next easing and slowing to fill yet another sky-mirrored lake.
But while this line, heralded for the Arctic pilgrim by the compulsory roadside sign, might mark a significant divide in our minds, the land to either side knows none of this of course. It’s fun to reach 66° north, and the land up there is special, but you don’t need to motor nearly so far up Sweden’s central E45 to find your dose of canoeing splendour.
Lakes, Coastal Islands and Rivers: Sweden’s Endless Paddling Opportunities
Reputed to hold over 100,000 lakes, this glorious country has spread them wide. Drive almost anywhere in Sweden and the flicker of sunlight reflected off waves beckons from between the birch trees. Some of the largest and most majestic bodies of water lie only about a third of the way up the country. One is so big, it has its own weather forecast. Anyone from the American Great Lakes, looking out across a wide Vänern horizon, without any sign of land, would feel at home. Our Pal canoe, built on the shore of Lake Superior, certainly seemed to be in its element here.
We arrived in Sweden by road, working our van through an ever-busier central Europe to find our northern canoeing paradise, but those of you with an ocean in the way shouldn’t to be put off a visit. Transport routes across the country are excellent, with numerous opportunities to rent gear at journey’s end. For those with restricted visiting time, only a short drive or train ride from any of the country’s airports is needed before somewhere enticing to launch will be found. In fact, if you arrive in the capital, Stockholm, you could happily spend your whole holiday canoeing amidst the many hundred coastal islands that make up the city and its watery suburbs.
Islands seem to be the crowning feature along almost Sweden’s entire coast, whichever side you choose. We once launched from about half way up the Bothnian shore on the eastern side, where a vast pine crested archipelago seemed to extend out beyond the horizon forever. Setting out to test this possibility we must have paddled nearly two miles out to sea without finding the outer edge. Yet we were never more than a few hundred yards from one of these stunning mini-kingdoms, each a perfect Japanese-garden fusion of stone, tree and moss.
Then there are those amazing rivers. And while a search for the most unkempt and exhilarating will inevitably be repaid by heading north, many very fine examples can be found in the more populated southern parts of the country. After all, even these are pretty thinly inhabited, and pretty wild too, especially once you set off upstream.
The reindeer and elk certainly seem to agree. Like some form of antlered barometer to Sweden’s wilderness potential, both species are understandably more numerous in the north, but it is often a surprise to find just how far south these species can be seen, particularly in the upland areas to the west. And while the rare wolf, Arctic fox, wolverine and muskox might stick rigidly to the far-flung northern expanses, bears also populate the Swedish forests in unexpectedly large numbers, even close to large settlements in the southern parts of the country.
For those who like to see wildlife during their travels, the tameness of many Swedish birds will also come as a pleasant surprise. Everything from tiny wrens, bluethroats and colourful crossbills, through to snowy owls, osprey and sea eagles are likely swing into view. Many of the smaller birds are surprisingly fearless, seemingly quite happy to creep in close to take a good look at us strange two-legged visitors. I’ve had to step around ptarmigan on mountain paths in Sweden.
Anglers will be impressed too, not only by the number of salmon, grayling trout and Arctic char that work their way beneath their hull on almost every trip, but by the incredibly low cost of fishing licenses across much of the country. On our last visit to the northern municipality of Arjeplog, a permit allowing me to fish for a week across an area of nearly 5,000 square miles, cost me the equivalent of about $40. I had over 8,000 lakes, streams and rivers to choose from.
On our first visit to Sweden, aware of the importance of being able to the purchase of a fishing license, I took the trouble of learning how to ask for one in Swedish. I needn’t have bothered. Just about anyone here, at least under retirement age, speaks almost faultless English.
Freedom to Roam
Useful as this is, it isn’t the most important or impressive aspect of Swedish culture for a visiting British or U.S. canoeist. Along with the natural splendour of mountains and forest, and to accompany those numerous lakes, stunning rivers and almost countless coastal islands, comes a human creation of astonishing value. It’s called Allemansrätten, literally ‘all man’s right’. This glorious institution is pretty much enshrined within Sweden’s very identity, and offers some of the most impressive attitudes to access to be found anywhere in the world. As long as you don’t harm the environment, you can walk or paddle (or ski, climb or snow-shoe) almost anywhere you wish. And at the end of the day, unless you choose someone’s garden or a crop-filled field, you can then put up a tent.
Not only does Allemansrätten provide the opportunity to explore without bounds, but this refreshing approach to access seems to have had a profound impact on the Swedish people too. This is a truly generous country, and these mature and liberal attitudes, experienced over many generations, appear to have produced an outlook in which the Swedes see their land as genuinely open to all, wherever you come from. Just care for it all as they do, and in our experience anyone wishing to explore Sweden’s wilder parts will be met only with smiles and encouragement. This is a bighearted country in so many ways, and all this results in a sense of freedom that cannot really be believed until it is experienced.
It has allowed us to launch our canoe wherever the mood or vista takes us, to choose our route without any sense of restriction. It has offered the chance to set out and explore one glorious lake after another, paddling or hauling up the interconnecting river sections, portaging around the wilder falls. It has also given us the opportunity to put up a tent where we wish; one night perhaps on a reindeer speckled island, the next on a sunlit sandy beach, collecting dead wood to make a fire, and berries to flavour our food. In short, Sweden has allowed us to be canoe campers.
–Tim Gent is a freelance writer and photographer, living in Devon, England. Tim writes regularly for a number of outdoor magazines, and is the author of Canoe Camping, published by Pesda Press.
More from C&K
Paddling Scotland’s West Coast
Nahanni Journal: Three Families Tackle the Northwest Territories’ Classic Canoe Route