The Swedish Lessons
Through kayaking, I discovered the islands and countryside of my adopted country, Sweden
Swedish passport is the one of the most frequently sold passports on the black market. I can understand why. On this passport one can travel to 176 countries without requiring a visa.
When I received my Swedish passport, I made a promise to myself. While the burgundy and gold engraved passport would open the world for me to travel to, I will also make an effort to explore and understand my immediate surroundings. Despite my love for travel, it pinched me that I had not made a satisfying effort to study the country that had been my home for more than seven years. I planned to correct this skew now. To this end, on one fine weekend, I decided to take a kayaking trip in the waters of Skåne region in Sweden.
Skåne region, the southernmost part of Sweden, is a patchwork of farmlands, forests, and lakes. On its east is the city of Malmö, where I live, and on its west is Blekinge, one of the smallest provinces of Sweden. Blekinge gazes into the Baltic Sea. I plotted the kayaking trip in the archipelago of Blekinge, of which I knew very little, except that the name "Blekinge" comes from the Swedish word bleke, which roughly translate into "calm". It sounded just right for experimenting with the Swedish countryside. All I needed was a guide, for I was new to kayaking and uninformed about the topography of Blekinge.
Rickard Persson runs a small outdoor activity company that specialises in adventure sports in Skåne. An internet search landed me on his company’s webpage. I signed up for a weekend trip that promised to “provide participants with the basic skills in kayaking and climbing”. We exchanged emails and Rickard sent me a route plan for the trip, including the coordinates of the starting point, which were 56°10'29.3"N 15°4'39.1"E. Google Maps indicated these coordinates as an unmarked blip next to the village of Järnavik on the Blekinge coast. I had no clue how to get there. Without even having started, I was beginning to feel lost.
Luckily, since both Rickard and I lived in Malmö, he offered to pick me up after work so we could travel together to the starting point, where a third person would join us. “After work” turned out to be midnight. I saw his mini-truck arrive with three kayaks tied on the top.
“Welcome to my mobile office. Let’s find you some place.” Rickard offered with a smile as he shifted stuff at the back of the truck to make space for my camping gear. “Sorry for the delay. It took time to come home from the police station and prepare the kayaks”.
Noticing my confusion, Rickard explained that in his day job, he is a cop. In his free time, he runs this adventure company both out of passion for outdoor sports and driven by the desire to set up a business so that he can quit the police force. “I’d rather take up something that I enjoy doing, like being in the nature”, he justified.
Rickard spoke in a gentle avuncular tone. Away from his policing duties, he was relaxed and informal. It was the first time I sat next to a cop, and despite the misgivings we Indians typically carry about the police, Rickard gave off an air that made me feel we would get along well over the next three days. I felt in safe hands.
The preceding day had been uncharacteristically hot for Sweden at 35°C, and the evening sky had long been hinting rain. We had driven for two hours when thick rain drops began pelting the windscreen. At two in the morning, both Rickard and I were battling sleep, and now the dense rain reduced visibility. Rickard pulled up on the side, and decided we’d be better off camping by the road for the night.
“Are you carrying a waterproof tent as I wrote in my list?” Rickard asked. I nodded. “Good! In Sweden we say, there is nothing such as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
My Swedish adventure had begun.
I slept poorly. Water droplets kept trickling in throughout the night from the air vent on the top of the tent. Hurrying in rain, I had set up my tent badly, managing to cover the air vent partially in the rush. It was a bad decision. Later, sleepy and tired, I couldn’t gather courage to go out to readjust the vent covering. Instead I kept shifting within the tent, away from the dripping water.
In the morning, Rickard and I gathered our tents and settled in for the last 30 minutes of driving. As we approached Järnavik, Rickard pointed out the outlines of red-and-white log cabins that line up along the shore. The campsite appeared after several twists in a narrow unpaved road. Despite the grey skies, the campsite parking was filled with cars and trailers, hoisted with kayaks. Immediately after parking the truck, Rickard and I got into a fast-paced mechanical rhythm of loosening the straps and bringing the kayaks down.
At this point, Tomas, our third mate on the trip, joined in. Tomas had a studious sincere air and was not yet out of adolescence. He was waiting for us along with his parents who had come to drop him. As it was for me, this would be Tomas’ first kayaking trip. He spoke passable English and I understood a little Swedish – all in all, linguistically, we overlapped enough to get by.
I was impressed by how much space a light frame plastic kayak can offer. Kayaks are hollow from inside. There is an opening, called cockpit, for the paddler to step in, and space in the front and back to keep gear. I could fit in all of clothes, food and camping gear by sorting them into individual bits.
Wearing lifejackets, we pushed the kayaks into a sheltered bay, a narrow opening to which that led to the rippling Baltic Sea. I was sceptical if I would be able to keep my legs straight for hours inside the kayak, but Rickard taught us how to bend our legs sideways to avoid cramps. He then called out instructions, and made us practice basic paddling and safety techniques. An hour later, we kayaked through the passageway that unfolded into the sea. As we paddled haphazardly, Rickard shouted that we should remain close to the shore at all times. The water appeared deceptively calm but was frigid enough to freeze us motionless within minutes, Rickard warned.
The plan laid out by Rickard included paddling around the islands of the Blekinge archipelago. We would first go south of the island of Tjärö, and paddle for 29 kilometres, which at a speed of 4 km/hour on average would round up to 8 hours of kayaking on day 1. For the night, we would find a suitable island in the archipelago. The next day, we would kayak to Tjärö and climb on two rocks before ending the day. On the morning of the last day, we would paddle back to Järnavik.
The first thing I noticed about kayaking is that it works at a natural pace. Rowing at 4 km/hour is the same as leisurely walking on the ground. Details in the surrounding are easy to notice. Unlike driving, where eyeballs dart from one road sign to another, kayaking is about unhurriedly soaking in the scene. Another element of kayaking is that the waves, even tepid ones, lap dangerously on the kayak. Some even infiltrate into the cockpit. The fear of toppling into the sea is ever-present, despite the assurances that the kayak is designed not to tumble. So kayaking offers an unusual mix of serenity and peril.
I soon acquired a gentle rhythm – torso swung back and forth powering the paddles deep into the water. Rickard stopped shouting instructions, gaining more faith in our method. Hours slipped by, I kept stroking the paddle. Over me, the trees slanted dangerously, their roots dangling in the water. Once in a while, we stopped to search the woods for deer and rabbits. We circled around islands. Some were several kilometres in diameter, others were modest pop-ups in water. Sprinkled with pine trees, some islands were uninhabited, others had rustic wooden cottages painted in the Swedish flag’s yellow-blue, or more common red- whites. The sea branched off into the back-waters, and we coursed through these. In the middle of one such canal, jamming together our kayaks, and balancing the paddles in front, we ate a lunch of peanuts and crackers.
Around late afternoon, dark clouds appeared on the horizon. Rickard became anxious, and decided that we need to cut our day short and find a place to camp. We searched a few islands close by to locate suitable spots. The islands on this part of the archipelago were however rocky and crusted with bird shit. By now, the cloud had covered the sky overhead and Rickard pulled us in on an unappealing island.
Wrapped up in waterproof clothes, we waited for the rain. An hour later, the clouds had passed without showering down. At this hour, it was too late to get into the sea again to find another spot to camp. We remained at the island, gingerly stepping to avoid white-yellow mounds of crap. I was tired and irritated at Rickard for having chosen this island to spend the night. To top it all, I couldn’t set up my tent on the polished rocks. There was no soft ground to anchor it, and I eventually gave up. The quietness around accentuated the silence in the group.
Rickard put the water to boil. The air had picked up a chill and we gathered around the portable stove to warm ourselves. With warmth and hot spaghetti, humour began to return. Rickard cracked jokes and entertained us with cop stories. Tomas spoke about university life and how he wished to assimilate more in the sporty friend circles in his campus; his experiment with adventure sports was a way to gain favour with them. I was gaining an insight into the nature of men travelling together. Full stomachs and warmth go a long way in shaping camaraderie.
Rickard was carrying an additional bivouac that needed no anchoring. He lent it to me. It was too small but with no other option available, I rolled the sleeping bag inside and slipped in. Late that night, it collapsed in the wind, and I was left enveloped in the sheets of the sleeping bag and the bivouac. For the second night in a row, I slept poorly.
Next morning, sensing the mood in the group, Rickard updated the plan. Our plan for the day was not to have one. We would paddle in the directions that looked most appealing, and for as long as we could. The sun was out again as we set forth.
Later that afternoon, we dislodged from the shore and paddled into the middle of the sea. Both Tomas and I were keen to do a straight-line dash to Tjärö – we could see the island at a distance – instead of coursing along the coastline. Rickard allowed us into the sea, watching us from behind. The waves were gamier, and steering the kayak through the ruffling water was exhausting. The kayak wobbled and tilted, but thankfully didn’t topple. While crossing the channel, I experienced a few tense moments. The stern got blocked with wild sea grass, and I had difficulty steering – the kayak kept turning left. Rickard tried to clear it up but it remained jammed. Forty minutes later, our kayaks touched the white sand of Tjärö.
I was the last one to roll into the island. Once there, I stretched out on the sand, both drained and pleased, with the effort. For lunch, we walked to the heart of the island. Rickard had instructed us to carry our own food for the trip. I had packed enough food, mostly pasta. But I was happy to find that at Tjärö, I could supplement my selection with sandwiches from a local grocery store, a tiny shop with a hand-painted sign. I picked up a cheese sandwich and Tomas settled for an ice-cream.
The island of Tjärö is mostly bushes and rocks. Some of these rocks offer enough height and technical complexity to make them suitable for amateur rock climbing. On one such rock, pre-fixed with ropes and bolts, Rickard guided me to my first ever climb. I was depleted after two days of lack of sleep, and lunged my way up using strength of my arms, instead of my feet. Technically, my approach was a disaster, but I was still happy to have climbed all the way up.
The sky had turned a shade darker by the time we were done climbing. We retraced our steps to the beach where our kayaks were, and pitched the tents for the night. Rickard put some music and I prepared tea. Tomas searched for dry wood to light a fire.
Settling down with a cup of tea, I looked out into the sea. I realised that this adventure was nearing its end. The next day, I would head back home and indulge in luxuries of hot water shower and drinking real coffee. A seagull soared overhead as if beckoning me into the sea. I turned around to look at Rickard, tacitly seeking permission to go into the water alone. He nodded. I unspooled the anchor, got into the kayak and let it drift, silently. Above me was the sparkling sky and beneath me the gently rolling water of the Baltic. The islands, curving softly against the darkening sky, surrounded me as I carved another stroke.
A version of this story appeared in National Geographic Traveller India