Experiences in kayak
in Scandinavia

Kayak trip in the Stockholm outer archipelago
June 2005

The genial fellowship of the flock reminded me of picnics with friends in Drakenberg park. What about heaven? I think I'll convert to Buddhism and become a seal in the after- life.

 The outermost part of the Stockholm archipelago is something quite unique. There is a kind of simplicity about it, an exhilaration and a wildness that I find incredibly tempting. After travelling round in a Pettersson boat and later with an open wooden boat, a gig, I'm now going to experience it in a kayak.


I set off from Stavsnäs. At Rödkobbsfjärden I saw the horizon. It was magic. Beyond it was where I was heading for. I stopped for the night at Gjusharan north of Sandhamn. Is there anything more beautiful than a sunset? However, you have to experience them. It's impossible to capture them on canvas without them looking like messy blotches.

OK, William Turner managed it.

One of the thousands of small islets


I was keen to be on my way so I woke early by myself and got up before the sun had risen. All was calm. I set my course towards Gillöga. The sun rose straight ahead of me. Its reflection glittered in the calm waters which had not yet been rippled by any breath of wind. Yesterday's high ominous clouds remained visible out at sea and threatened wind.


Sunrise over Björkskärsfjärden

There were around 20 boats in the Björkskär archipelago. Not a soul in sight. A tern on the attack revealed a sea-eagle sitting on a rock. It sat and ducked under the onslaught for a while, then gave up and flew off with heavily beating wings.


A sea-eagle


The first razor bills appeared and seemed to be saying "Hi there mate" as they circled round me before continuing on their way. I was so keen to reach the horizon that I slipped carelessly past Bastulunsen and all the other small islets in Södra Lilla Nassa.



Gillöga from a distance


If you are going to sink your teeth into the best cake in the whole bakery you should take it slowly in order to gain the greatest possible enjoyment and satisfaction. I started with an after dinner nap on Flyttjan Island in south Gillöga. There were too many birds on Yttervingen.


When I awoke a pair of terns had settled very close to me. This slender bird is built in such an optimal way that it flies the farthest of all the birds in the world, to the Antarctic. If you calculate how far a tern flies during its lifetime it is farther than the distance to the moon.

The wind had changed and the water had been washed up onto the plateau where the kayak was lying. It was still there but the paddle had moved. Idiot! Losing the paddle would have been a really terrible start to my trip. Or wait a minute, how about this. Matte – the first guy to paddle through the archipelago using his bare hands.



Terns at Flyttjan

I drifted round Gillöga's endless number of small islands. Words failed me. Give everyone who's suffering from stress a kayak and a day out on Gillöga and they will return as cool as cucumbers.



Lillskär in the Gillöga archipelago

Gillöga's jumble of small islands

I heard them when I was in the middle of the bay going over to Utfredel. Seals. Just as I last saw them, west of Angödrommen they were lying on a flat rock far away from the other islands. Snorting, whimpering and splashing. The genial fellowship of the flock reminded me of picnics with friends in Drakenberg park. What about heaven? I think I'll convert to Buddhism and become a seal in the after-life.

At Angödrommen they weren't particularly nervous, but here they didn't like me being so close and they slipped off the rock when I was about 150 metres from them. Water to a seal is like a burrow to a rabbit. The curious ones stuck their heads up in different places and looked as though they were wondering what kind of strange figure was approaching. Now our roles were reversed and now it was them looking at me.

Dusk fell and I continued to Östra Mannskärs islet in Utfredel. After a delicious meal consisting of goulash and lager, with a marzipan and chocolate punch roll for dessert, I slept like a seal on a rock. My centimetre thick groundsheet couldn't quite simulate the feeling of a thick layer of blubber but sleep came easily anyway.

Seals at twilight

It was pouring down. The wind had increased and whipped up a very rough and choppy sea. I tested the waves. It felt strange at first but after a while I got into the rhythm. By taking a couple of strong strokes of the paddle and leaning forward into the current I was able to surf forwards.


 Pouring down at Östra Mannskär islet

I missed Lill-Gillöga but went ashore at Tärngrundet instead. Chives, a delicate pink, wilted St John's wort intensively rusty red, the shining yellow common tansy, blooming meadowsweet, wormwood - it was beautiful. A group of dunlins were wandering on the rocks looking for food. They are nice birds. A check through the telescope revealed a curlew in the flock. It's a rather unusual bird with a gently curved beak and a rusty red belly.



 Colourful flower display on Tärnskär skerry

The common tansy


On a walk round the island I saw three adders. One of them was wriggling across a rock and stopped dead when I came along. When I stood still, about a metre from it, it continued calmly along an almost perpendicular cliff using the small foothold given by the lichen. I must remember to wear rubber boots on my future walks, I thought to myself.



Adders on Utterrumpan

In one of the many pools that were crawling with tadpoles, I saw some things that at first looked like small eels, reddish brown and about 15 cm long. When I checked later on the web I found they were horse leeches which are the pioneer species that at an early stage colonise new water environments.

 I must slow down the tempo more often, I said to myself. By lying on my stomach for fifteen minutes and looking into a pool of water I had seen an animal I had never seen before. Not even on TV. And this is so much simpler than travelling to the depths of the Amazon in order to see remarkable animals. I was there in fact twenty years ago. Starting from Missauahi "the end of the road" in eastern Ecuador, my wife and I went on a four day guided tour of the jungle. We travelled in motor driven canoes, walked for long stretches and stayed overnight in pile-houses. Besides various insects we saw two parrots, the red eyes of a cayman in the darkness, tapir tracks in the mud and a poisonous snake. Quince minutos (fifteen minutes) our guide Carlos called it. After he had killed it with his machete we called him Dos secundos (two seconds).

 There was a reason for the sparse number of animals. Fishing with dynamite and plenty of rifles had cleared out the lot of them.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Swedish landscape offers one of the world's richest collection of species and the most easily accessible places for those wanting to investigate flora and fauna.

Horse leeches at Utterrumpan

The wind was approaching gale force on the way over to the Skarv archipelago. It was blowing broadside on.  Down near the bottom of the waves the horizon disappeared and then in the next second the waves piled up and lifted the kayak up to the top. Sitting in a boat in this type of sea was hard work with all the rolling but a kayak moves mostly up and down and sort of clings to the water. You have to brace your hips against the lurching moments. There was a great deal of spray as the waves crashed over me. This is the life!

 Some people think I'm crazy. But there is of course a temptation to ride the waves in new colours when you tire of the blue and green on the ski-slope.

 During the entire crossing there was only one wave powerful enough to knock me off balance and force me to steady myself with the paddle. It was when I was near a rock where the waves were extra high.

At the bottom of a trough

The Skarv archipelago

Söderskäret skerry should really be an area where birds are protected. I met hundreds of razor bills as I paddled around the island. I hadn't seen so many birds on any other island in the archipelago. They circled around me once and then flew back to sit on their favourite rocks. I didn't want to disturb them by going ashore.

Greetings from the razor bills

Razor bills at Söderskär

Bodskär skerry was where I met Jonas and Holger who, having been blown in, were lying in their boat - a mälar-22. It is long and slender with a low freeboard and without a leakage hole in the cockpit well. Not much fun in high seas.

Bodskäret skerry used to be a fishing village since there are good natural harbours and since it is one of the outermost islands. Here you can see rock carvings made by fishermen dating back to the period between the 16th and 19th centuries.

 Bodskär skerry in the Skarv archipelago

I have three girls. This must be the dream of many a man. I have a wife and two teenage daughters. However, I do need to escape with my kayak or go walking in new places every so often. It's a disease says Ingrid. I have never bothered to attempt a diagnosis but I guess that this is what it would be like: –The patient suffers from periodic relapses which are expressed in a definite search for reptilian native behaviour e.g. leisurely rambles, sleeping outdoors without a tent in strange places or travelling by water from point A to point A.  The disease which probably lies latent no doubt blossoms up due to over consumption of comics in childhood and adolescence and later on a surfeit of adventure stories, National Geographic magazines, and adventures with likeminded people etc. There is no known cure but it has been observed that overload at work, poor economy, the acquisition of possessions and childbirth put the temporary brakes on. It is, however, important to keep an eye on the patient so that he doesn't pack up his things and leave for good.

 Österskär in the Skarv archipelago

I made another trip round the skerry söderskäret. This was a magic island. I left Skarv and paddled off across Stenfjärden bay then stopped off at Österskäret in Röder. After paddling round the island I suddenly had a thought. –Where the heck was everyone? Smooth rocks, miniature marshes with cloudberries, lots of blue butterflies, a woodland lake, yes really even though there are no woods. Someone had planted a Scabrosa bush on the south side and it had reached gigantic proportions in the seaweed washed up on the shore. I cycle past the same kind of bush on my way to work - one growing beside the road to Södertälje. But it's a dwarf compared to this one. Two other creatures had found their way to this place. Two small curlews that usually fly over the islands in the archipelago where there are crowberries, according to my bird book.

Sundew- the meat eating plant

In Röder I drifted into a veritable summer idyll. An area with around fifteen old fishing huts had been converted into an area with summer cottages, jetties, a communal sauna, and a view of the horizon. Again I wondered –Where the heck was everyone? There wasn't a soul in sight. This was the middle of the works holiday period. A wilting mid-summer pole that was tilting precariously was the only sign that people had been here. Come on!  There should be pickled herring, Koskenkorva vodka and children and adults dancing together round the decorated pole at mid-summer. Then it's back to Stockholm on mid-summer day travelling at 60 knots in the newly purchased rib-boat. Maybe we'll come back in August. Then we expect crayfish, Absolut vodka and drinking songs with the schnapps. Is that what the archipelago means to some people? It's a bit like having children but only seeing them on their birthdays and on Christmas Eve. Is that perhaps the way things are going?

I heard from a friend that the people on Röder are certainly not jet setters in rib-boats. Damn! But in that case they could at least try to stay around the place and be standing in their blue working overalls cleaning fish when, for once, a Stockholmer comes paddling past their "over the top" muddy and picturesque fishing huts in the outer regions of the archipelago.




Röder - where the heck was everyone?


I swung north over the waters of Udd-djupet to Söderarm. It was a monotonous journey. Two hours paddling. It gave a chance, however, for me to meditate. The bay felt a bit frightening at first. Huge and open. The horizon was to the east and a diffuse grey strip of islands to the north and the west. Once out in the bay I felt more secure in the water nearest me. It's always there.

Finally I saw people both on boats and in kayaks. Söderarm was impressive. The islands were green and lush. The larger ones had thick woodland covering them. In the middle of Klintaskär I could see sallow growing and the largest ferns I have ever seen and on Hummelskär there were four metre high hawthorn bushes. If you have a sailing boat it's difficult to find sheltered natural harbours since the water is so shallow here. The boats have to come to an amicable agreement over those harbours that exist. If you have a kayak you can arrive last and pinch the best place in a shallow and shining inlet. The evening was remarkable with Finland ferries drifting through the kitsch caramel coloured sunset in the west and the thunder clouds and intensive flashes lighting up the heavens in the south. This was accompanied by the far off song of the seals. The marine forecast threatened northerly winds of gale force 10 to 15.

Forget the bit about the song of the seals. On my morning trip there wasn't a single seal in sight. It must have been some people that I heard making the noise. It isn't exactly easy to describe the sound of seals but I would say it is like the sound you hear when you put your ear close to someone's stomach blended with the sound of children having a bath.

Apart from the lack of seals and a rather poor birdlife the Söderarms archipelago was impressive. Stor-Mulan island lay black and biting and butted against the tireless attack of the waves from the Åland Sea. A stop on the top of Klundret afforded a magnificent view of the island world. There were small locked up fishing huts on some of the islands and they had jetties, pole structures for drying nets, toilets and heaps of stones around them. The stones functioned as ballast when the fishermen sailed out to the huts. If the catch was good they exchanged the stones for fish on the return journey.

Two sea-eagles rose up into the air from Stångskär and glided over to Ramskär. Out here the eagles are much more wary than the ones in Lake Mälaren. If you want to see them before they take flight you have to be watchful. In flight and from a distance they could be confused with herons but their wings are more rounded and the heron has a curved neck.


 With the wind and the rain at my back over Södra Spjutspetsfjärden paddling was easy. If I stopped paddling I travelled at two knots and if I started again my speed was five knots. I was also amazingly dry thanks to a cover with braces that reached up to my armpits. Over that I had a raincoat with a zip under the armholes (Gore-Tex doesn't work for me when I have to really exert myself. The sweat must be released in other ways) and the usual paddling mitts.



With the wind at my back over the bay Södra Spjutspetsfjärden


Norrpada was like no other archipelago I have seen with its high, rounded rocks. It felt as if they were double in size compared to those on other islands.


From the south inlet on Idskär skerry there was only one path leading upwards since the yew made a thick impassable wall. There was no undergrowth. The path, or rather the tunnel, got narrower and narrower and towards the end it was more like going through the birth process than being on a woodland walk. Automatically I started looking for landmarks so I could find my way back through the thick brushwood that was so difficult to navigate.

The way up from the southern inlet on Idskär.

You wonder if I go paddling on my own? Yes, sometimes. There is something pleasant and relaxing in voluntary solitude. In some way it is easier to create the feeling of being at one with nature when you are alone. You can concentrate on the here and now. You can let all your five senses sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste fill the present to 100% just as I feel is done by children, sea-gulls and pike. Of course it is fun to do things with other people, but then the focus is often on other things than the experiencing of nature. For example:

 - Can you take the tent down today, please?
 - I don't know how to do this and in fact I have washed up every day so far.
- And just how much fun do you think it is to prepare the meals every day?
 - You said you liked cooking.
- Its not my fault that you find everything boring.
 - That was b... unnecessary.

 Or as in example 2

 - d'ya wanna drop?
 - Yes, for christ's sake.
 - Grappa, just the job.
 - Oh, that's better. The last stuff I drank was pure rat poison.
 - You know, the Italians make it from what's left when they've crushed the wine out of the grapes.
 - What! You mean this is made on some bloody compost heap?
 - Never mind. Here's to the flea-bitten spaghetti eaters down there in the old boot of Italy.

 We need this kind of small talk now and then, but sometimes it is good to skip it and focus on other things.


Drizzle. There had been a change from a northerly to a southerly wind. It was hard leaving my sleeping bag where I had been snoring happily all night but after having moved to a more sheltered inlet, eaten some porridge and taken a dip, life was worth living again. They were talking about ABC on the radio again °±Accomodation, Beef and Cars°± . That is Stefan Edman's proposal for achieving a sustainable society which he submitted to the government. All the petrol-guzzling boats will probably get walloped too. Sailing boats and kayaks will be safe.


 Diagonally, across Örafjärden, to Vidingsöra island. Yet another nature reserve. This was as close as you can get to a tropical rain forest. Tall alders made a lofty leafy roof. Ferns, wild raspberries and stinging nettles combined to make the thick undergrowth. The warning cry of the birds, like a monotonous inward whistling sound, and their nervous behaviour created a tension in the air. But this island demanded a great deal of its visitors. A family on holiday wanting to go swimming would be tired of it in five minutes. To enjoy being here you would need high rubber boots, long trousers, preferably a mosquito net for all the horse flies and a telescope. This would be too much, even for me.



Vidingsöra island- Keep away from this one!


It was indeed much better in Rödlöga. There was a little shop for provisions, a café and a track marked out over the rough terrain between the red cottages. The blue overall gang stood together telling tall stories with a couple of freshly caught perches in their fists and fathers of small children from the city had exchanged their exercise bikes for digging over the potato patch with a garden fork. I was afraid I might trip over camera cables or hear someone shouting  °±taking 37 camera on°± and be stirred from this illusion and realise that it is merely a temporary set for the recording of Saltkråkan 2, the TV series from the 50s about idyllic family life in the archipelago. But no, this is for real.



Back to Stockholm

I paid 140 kronor extra to take the kayak with me on one of the Waxholm steamboats all the way into Strömkajen, a quay right in the middle of the city. It was amazingly cheap and went incredibly smoothly. When we arrived back I took the opportunity for a walk around summer Stockholm. I heard some good songs at the jazz festival, crashings and bangings from the fun-fair Gröna Lund and I saw the city lights reflected in the water. I went through the lock for the first time in a kayak and when darkness fell I drifted in to the jetties at Fridhem Canoe Club at the same time as a party boat which sailed slowly past me playing Per Gessle's - Going Fishing.


 Gröna Lund- the fun-fair

Gröna Lund