In mid-June I was hired by Arvika Kanot and Turistcenter to write a travelogue about a canoe trip in Värmland. This project will soon turn into something more, namely the „Sounds of Värmland“. But here is the detailed report.
Water hiking in Värmland: Of lonely lakes and long nights
For five days, a small boat has been our home on our water hikes on the lakes and rivers in Sweden. A travelogue.
It is a light I am not used to from my home country. Even though it’s light for a long time here in Germany in June, it’s still something special to see the last rays of sunlight on the horizon shortly before midnight. While my friend Joshua and I sit on the beach with a beer and warm ourselves by a campfire, our boat (or rather our Canadian, which is a special form of canoe) lies on the beach waiting for its last leg of the journey the next morning. The light shimmers golden, the crackling of the burning wood provides the appropriate sound. I get my camera and capture a few moods. It is the secret finale of a journey that has demanded much of us, but given all the more. But first things first.
Prologue to the journey
After a night spent in a hut near the canoe centre in Ingestrand, we are given our equipment in the morning. They are plastic barrels to keep our equipment from getting wet. Some are empty, others have food and kitchen utensils waiting for us. Around 10 am we get a half-hour briefing from Johann, an employee of the canoe centre. We sit down on a wooden bench under some pine trees. Johann has a large map of Värmland’s lake landscape with him. At first glance I am struck by the sheer number of blue spots. There is more water than land in this area and the possibilities to discover all the spots by canoe seem endless. We are at the very beginning of the season at the beginning of June. A few weeks before there was a night frost, during our week it will not be colder than 10 degrees in the early morning. We find out where we are allowed to make fires and where we can set up camp. In Sweden, allemansrätten, which means „everyone’s right“, applies. As long as you don’t disturb or destroy anything, you can camp anywhere.
An hour later we are in the car with Felix, one of Johann’s colleagues. He drives us to our starting point. The atmosphere is relaxed, we joke a lot and talk about Swedish peculiarities like the high consumption of caviar from the tube or the early dinner. When we arrive at our destination, it starts to rain. We learn right on the first day how important it is to have suitable rainwear. I’m also glad I invested in outdoor trousers. They will prove to be one of the best investments in the coming days. A word of advice: never use jeans on the canoe. They rub and get wet.
Day 1: The lonely island and the sounds of the night
We start our trip around 2 pm on Bergsjön. This is one of the smaller lakes. We stow our luggage so that as much weight as possible is on the back of the boat. At first I can’t imagine how we are supposed to transport it all, but after a short time and a bit of „playing Tetris with the luggage“ everything fits. Because I have been river hiking before and have a little more experience than Joshua, I sit in the back and steer the boat.
At the beginning it takes me a few minutes to get back into it and we set off in a zig-zag. This happens because I have to practise the C and J strokes. These strokes, which are in the form of these letters in the water, manage to keep the canoe straight. By now it is already afternoon and the rain has increased in strength.
After about an hour and a half of travelling, we reach the first portage. This is a place where we have to portage the canoe. A small sign indicates the right place to portage, which is not always easy to spot. We carry barrel after barrel and bag after bag from one place to another. We find ourselves on a small river. Rivers – and we will notice this often during the journey – are much more pleasant to navigate than the big lakes. On the banks, pine trees entwine on the barren ground. Rocks merge from the land into the water. Fields of reeds alternate with water lilies. In short: pure idyll. We take a short break for navigation.
At the beginning it is still difficult to orientate ourselves on the map. But that will change. We don’t want to overdo it for this day and look for a place to sleep. On the map, some spots are marked with a red „shelter“ symbol. A few kilometres ahead of us there is probably one just like it on a lonely wooded island in the middle of the lake. We decide to paddle there. The island appears on the horizon and suddenly we feel like in a film. From a distance we can already make out the small huts that offer shelter for us and our luggage. But we won’t need it this night. After mooring the boat, we inspect the place and prepare everything. We want to make a campfire and are looking for wood.
Unfortunately, everything is wet due to the rain and we need some time to find suitable fuel. In a clearing there is a fallen birch tree, which we can easily cut up with our large pocket knife. The bark in particular is perfect for starting a fire. After more than two hours of setting up the tent, collecting firewood, cooking and other things, we sit down on the rocks with a glass of scotch and look into the distance. This is exactly how we had imagined it.
Day 2: We get to know the wind
I had a restless night behind me and therefore get up overtired. During the night we heard the sounds of the forest and some animals must have sniffed the tent. At first, this actually scared me a little, because I wasn’t used to it at all.
But at some point it’s nice to listen to the hustle and bustle of nature at night. We prepare coffee and muesli. It’s 20 degrees and a few rays of sunshine show themselves. It is not so easy to estimate the right amount of milk powder. Neither of us has ever tried this before, so we carefully feel our way to the right amount. In addition to our Trangia system, we have a gas cooker with us that will make coffee and tea every day from this day on. We use the Trangia system, which is a pretty ingenious multifunctional kitchen, for cooking. Basically, the system is a spirit burner on which you can place different pot attachments. After the meal, we can put them together again in a very compact way. The whole thing takes up hardly any space.
Around eleven o’clock we are back on the boat. Dismantling and loading takes about one and a half hours. On this day, we want to make good time and take a long route. At first we make good progress on this day. We pass the village of Gunnarskog and end up in a large lake (Gunnern), which is divided into two arms. Actually, we should take the western arm, because this course is further along our route. But there is a supermarket on the eastern branch. We estimate that we need about half an hour to get there, and half an hour each for shopping and for returning to the right arm of the lake.
But the wind throws a spanner in the works. For suddenly the gusts form small waves that get bigger and bigger and make paddling an effort. Rain is not the opponent of the water walkers, it is the wind. It takes us about an hour to reach the shore and the supermarket there. We are completely out of breath. After shopping, we decide to eat on the shore, which becomes a turbulent affair due to the gusts. Afterwards, we set off again because we want to get out of this windy scene as quickly as possible. We make the mistake of sailing across the open lake. The waves are much higher by now and slosh into the boat.
At the same time, I have to steer the canoe so that we don’t go across the waves. We run the risk of capsizing. At this moment it is important to just keep going and get to the shore as quickly as possible. It takes us about a quarter of an hour. After removing the water in the boat with a sponge and dressing warmer, our journey continues. Two hours late, we are back where we actually wanted to be. But the late afternoon is kinder to us. We make a lot of distance and then drive across a river and a few short portages into the small lake Bjälvern. We want to camp on a small island again this evening and head in that direction. However, after a few minutes on the lake we pass a section of shore where we see a shelter, fireplace and even firewood from the river. We decide to inspect the spot more closely and are completely thrilled with the location. It is not marked on the map. Wood is already piled up on the back wall of the hut. We start setting up camp, cook in peace and even jump into the river. A good, long evening with a roaring fire and Swedish folk beer begins.
Day 3: Robinson Crusoe Beach in Dallen
We overslept. And that is mainly due to the Hillenberg tent we got for our trip. Because the tent, which was actually designed for the military, is dark inside to make it easier to fall asleep because the sun sets at 11:30 pm and rises at three in the morning.
On this day, it looks like the weather will be more merciful with us and so we are not too worried. After the usual tidying up procedure, we begin our journey on a picturesque river that stretches quite a long way through the countryside. We want to get to Amotfors today and make a stop at the island of Öna beforehand. There are remains of a Viking settlement there that we want to have a look at. Spoiler: We won’t do that, because we will make an involuntary shore leave on the other side of the shore.
The large lake we arrive at after the river is called Dalsälven. It is s-shaped and ends at Amotfors. The shape of the lake influences whether we have a tailwind, crosswind or headwind, depending on our orientation. As yesterday, the wind picks up again today and we have to reckon with a crosswind on the first crossing. But we are prepared and have moored and covered our luggage as best we can. On the first crossing of the lake, after a lot of work and a short break, we arrive at a churchyard in Ny. There we want to take a break. Ny also marks the place where the lake turns 90 degrees.
After lunch, the coming section is fun, because we have a tailwind and waves that carry us along. Canoeing suddenly feels a bit like slow surfing. We reach the end of this section in record time and can already see the Viking island of Öna ahead of us. But to get there, the lake makes another 90 degree turn in the other direction and the pleasant tail wind suddenly blows us sideways. Quite a bit into the side.
We decide to abandon our plan with Öna, because a crossing is out of the question at this point. Instead, we sail close to the shore and try to fight the waves as best we can. But at some point the gusts are so strong that foam forms on the waves. We decide to get to the shore as quickly as possible. Problem: On this side of the lake there are huge stones on the shore against which the waves crash. We fear that we will also be pushed against the stones. At a distance of 100 metres there is a reed field that at least slows down the water masses a little. We reach the shore there, but immediately water sloshes into the boat.
We bring the luggage into the dry and tip the boat. The waves crash against the aluminium body without pause. We have reached a steep beach that is clearly beaver territory. Numerous trees have been nibbled or have already fallen and are blocking our way. At the same time, the wind blows relentlessly from behind. A little later we have shimmied our luggage over tree trunks and brought it to safety. My clothes have become soaking wet and I hang them on a rope into the wind. Next tip: You can never have enough rope! The adrenaline of the past hour is just kicking in completely and both Joshua and I feel like we’ve just braved the forces of nature. It’s a nice feeling to sit on the log that juts halfway into the lake and listen to the waves. We call the canoe centre.
Actually, we are only supposed to do this in emergencies, but this feels a bit like one right now. We get an announcement that the wind won’t drop for the next two hours. So that would be waiting and holding out until 7pm. We decide to explore the area and see that we weren’t the only ones sheltering their boat here. We see another canoe towed into the reeds a few metres away.
The paddles are still in the boat, but there is no trace of the people. Only 100 metres away, a gravel path begins, which ends after three kilometres in Amotfors. Although the path is so close, it is not accessible for us. At least not with the boat and the heavy barrels. We give the weather another hour and then load the canoe again. It works after several attempts and tree branches that we put in front of the boat as breakwaters. Our strategy is to continue through the reed beds. 300 metres later we give up this strategy. The waves have become stronger and push us back and forth in the water like a nutshell. We head for the shore, which fortunately is now a flat sandy beach with the big road only a few metres away. We call the canoe rental company Paul, who picks us up with the boat and luggage about two hours later by car and takes us to Amotfors. We eat a pizza and digest the horror. Paul then drives us to Lake Hugn.
We get back in with our boat at a beautiful spot. Behind us is a small meadow, in front of us the empty lake. As we say goodbye, Paul tells us that he has heard from a few boat groups that there is a great place to rest behind a nearby river bend. That is the destination for today. Indeed, we arrive there after 20 minutes, but the place undercuts our expectations tremendously. Firstly, it is close to a road, secondly, it is very small and thirdly, it is full of mosquitoes. This is nothing unusual for Sweden, but the sheer mass of mosquitoes in this place was unique on our trip. Our mood is depressed. We are physically exhausted, everything is still wet and the campsite is a disappointment. For the first time, I don’t feel like it any more. I imagine my flat in Bonn and especially my sofa. Joshua looks at me and we know we have to work on our mood. So we watch videos on how to make self-made fishing rods out of string. Of course we know we won’t catch anything with it, but having something to do helps in this situation. And a couple of glasses of the whiskey are certainly not bad at this moment either. We throw our homemade carrot wobbler, which is a fishing hook, into the water and catch – watch out, watch out – nothing, of course. But we have a lot of fun.
Shortly after midnight we decide to go to sleep and spend the night in the tent, which is dried out in record time. High-quality equipment shows itself above all in these moments.
Day 4: Sun, views and colours out of this world
This morning the trip starts earlier than usual. Because we know that we have to make up some kilometres today. The weather has eased and we set off in bright sunshine, a light breeze and 24 degrees. Lake Hugn is my favourite so far.
It is almost deserted and surrounded by forested hills that are reflected in the calm water. The crossing takes less than half an hour in these conditions. The following rivers and lakes are also spectacular. Although the wind is roaring a little again, we always have to head south on this day and thus have the wind on our side. We pass small islands, fishing boats and private estates on Lake Ränken. On this day we will have the longest portage ahead of us (five kilometres). Therefore, we decide to take an extended lunch break.
At the southern end of Ränken on the eastern shore we find the perfect spot for it. Rocks had formed a kind of natural terrace and from the number of fireplaces we can quickly see that we were not the only ones enjoying this spot. In a small bay we can park the boat safely. We sit in the sun and enjoy the food, which tastes much better in this setting.
We explore the rock formation a little and think that this would be the perfect place for the night. After the break, it is only a few hundred metres to the beginning of the portage. But it is a tough one. It is five kilometres that can be covered in different ways. Either on the paved road, which can be quite dangerous because of the cars. Or over field and gravel paths. We decide to do a mixture of both, as we want to buy firewood at the supermarket in Sulvig at the end of the portage. The portage takes about one and a half hours. We put the canoe on the wheels for this and carry the backpacks on our backs. At the beginning, I push at the back while Joshua pulls at the front. Later we realise that it’s easier to use a trick Johann had shown us. We hold a paddle across, wind it through the boat loop at the bow of the boat and push the boat with it. This works quite well, but the sun and the weight take their toll. It would have made more sense to start this portage rested in the morning.
The supermarket is close to Lake Glasfjorden. The canoe centre is also on the shores of this lake and so we know that we have most of our way behind us. Our goal: to find a spot to camp as soon as possible. But especially around Sulvig there are hardly any free spots. On the western shore of the coming lake, private land follows private land, and on the eastern shore of the lake the reed zones are so dense that we can’t possibly get through them by boat. So we continue. A meadow on the horizon turns out to be a horse paddock. So on we go. Still reeds. Reeds everywhere. A kilometre later we find a rock formation jutting into the water. And in the forest we spot a shelter and a fireplace. We think we’ve already reached our destination. Finally, a place to rest after 30 kilometres of day hiking. Unfortunately, we are disappointed again, because we are at the outer end of the Bergsklätten nature reserve. Camping is forbidden there. Shit.
Luckily, at this moment a man with trekking luggage comes running out of the forest. He seems to be from the area and I speak to him. On the other side of the lake you can sleep almost anywhere, he says. And we even have the evening sun there. So we decide to paddle this last section. After half an hour we are on the other shore and the waves are again too high to continue in peace. We are on a beautiful beach, but it is surrounded by a fence and the grass is mown. This is a sign of private property and we are not allowed to stay there. But we can’t and the waves make it impossible to continue.
I wait until I see a young woman passing the compound. She tells me that she doesn’t know the property well, but that we could sleep there safely. Good, that reassures me. Only fifteen minutes later I see a man coming towards us with his grandson. He introduces himself as Johann and wants to jump into the water again with his grandson Matheu. He tells me that this is a plot of land belonging to the local community and that we are welcome to spend the night here. We chat a bit more and toast with a beer. And then we make ourselves comfortable on the sandy beach and let ourselves be enchanted by the light. Because this view is worth all the exertions of the day. The scenery consists of a golden ground tone interspersed with splashes of red. In contrast, the lake shimmers dark blue. The waves and reflections provide white accents, the whole thing is completed with the light brown of the reeds and the lush green of the meadow. We sit there until shortly before midnight and enjoy.
Day 5: Barrows, the arrival and the first hot shower
This night was really fresh. Especially since we didn’t camp in the forest like the previous nights. Getting up is not easy and the exertions of yesterday make me feel every single muscle. Because we don’t have much distance ahead of us, we decide to pay another visit to the nature reserve.
We cross the lake again and end up exactly where we wanted to sleep the previous day. We start a short hike through the area. Unfortunately, several hiking trails are closed at the moment because many of the trees are no longer stable. Due to the rocky subsoil, there are only shallow-rooted trees growing here. A storm can make quite a few of them unstable or topple over. On the path we can walk, however, we see remains of Bronze Age burial mounds. Unfortunately, most of the descriptions are only in Swedish, so we can more or less interpret the information.
When we return to the rock, the sun is at its zenith. It is too warm on the rocks and we retreat a few metres into the forest. We recover a little there and start the return journey to the canoe centre in Ingestrand. That takes a good two hours. Around 3 pm we reach the shore. After coffee and snacks we put our boat on a jig to dry and return our equipment. This is exhausting one last time and costs nerves.
But the reward of a first hot shower in the canoe centre quickly makes us forget that. In fact, in the evening we sit contentedly on the jetty and look out over the water. We have paddled for five days, braved waves and been brought to our knees by waves. We have sometimes underestimated and sometimes overestimated ourselves. But above all, I think we were quite a good team.
The right equipment
If you’re going to do a trip like this, make sure you have the right equipment. This may sound like a platitude, but many people underestimate it. Very important: Take good clothes and good shoes. We have had great experience with merino wool. Shirts and shirts made of this material are quite expensive, but they dry super fast, don’t stink much and hardly let any wind through. It cools during the day and warms in the evening. The right trousers are also very important. They should definitely be long because of the many mosquitoes. I bought a pair of zip-up trousers with detachable legs and lots of side pockets. I was definitely kicked off the list of fashion-conscious people by some friends because of them, but it was definitely worth it for the trip. Also worth their weight in gold are a pocket knife, gas cooker, water shoes and sensible rainwear. Joshua had a poncho, I had a jacket. We were both satisfied. Since you probably can’t store your luggage 100 per cent in the bins, you have to be prepared for backpacks or suitcases to get wet. I bought a transport bag for my trekking backpack beforehand. This turned out to be very useful because it reliably kept my backpack and clothes dry, especially in windy and rainy conditions. You can order tents, insulated mats, kitchen equipment and sleeping bags from the Canoe Centre. But I personally prefer to sleep in my sleeping bag. And my secret favourite: a pair of knitted socks from my grandma. Of course, my feet and shoes were completely wet when we almost capsized. It also got really chilly in the evening. Being able to retreat into cosy woollen socks was definitely really helpful.
Apart from these larger items, don’t forget sunscreen, headgear and sunglasses. Because the light can bang hard and especially for a long time. We both had sunburns. And don’t skimp on anti-mosquito material either. Better invest a little here. Our three bottles of Autan only helped in a rudimentary way. For Swedish mosquitoes you need more.
In the end, however, the most important thing is who you do it with. You spend a lot of time in a small space. You will experience one or two adventurous activities. It helps if you know each other well. And above all, don’t overexert yourselves and have fun. We will definitely be back at the start.