An almost secret world of ice

This was my most daring tour on the sea ice yet. This article may not be for the faint-hearted. Spoiler alert: I kept safe and dry!

After an extremely lazy day yesterday I felt today like I had to go out and get some fresh air. Cross country skiing? No, the tracks are probably extremely icy. Jogging? No, the water puddles from the melting snow are deep and I wanted to keep my feet dry.

What about trying to walk to the island Bredskär? There’s a large patch of old ice that should be easy to cross. But behind the islands there could be weak ice.  Didn’t I want to keep dry?

Yes, I definitely wanted to keep dry. So I used a funny combination of equipment today. On the one hand snowshoes for winter walks, on the other hand a drysuit in case of breaking through the ice.

I took the car to the small boat harbour Tjuvkistan, changed into the rubber boots and started my tour from there. The ice was easy to cross even though there were some wet patches. That doesn’t automatically mean that the ice is weak. Mostly it’s freshwater from melted snow or seawater that found a way up through the cracks in the ice. Soon I arrived at the island Bredskär – it’s only 750 m to go. Unfortunately clouds had been approaching covering the sun.

I turned right and walked along the eastern shore. Wind, waves and winter’s coldness had built a ice wall along the shore.

When I reached the eastern tip I had a decision to make. Should I walk around the island and already go back? Or should I dare to cross the sea ice to the next islands Gråsidan and Nygrundet. I chose the latter. I opened the belt of the backpack, checked my ice claws and started carefully crossing the sea ice. Step by step. Step by step. The first half was no problem but then the ice started to look grey. That could be a sign for weak, thin or watery ice. I could see air bubbles moving under the ice with every step. I expected to break through the ice with every step. Perhaps the ice was not weak at all and only covered with water but I was not eager to find out and slowly continued. Step by step.

The ice seemed to get weaker and weaker, thinner and thinner, wetter and wetter. Perhaps it was real, maybe it was only my imagination that gave me this impression. After some more careful steps I finally reached the island Gråsidan. Hooray! Nevertheless only a temporary success because I knew that I would have to go back later on.

I arrived at the northern tip of Gråsidan, turned right and walked along the eastern shore heading south. It was there, where I found the almost secret world of ice. Of course it was not secret by purpose but I guess I was the only one that had managed to approach this special location.

East from the island there was a layer of sea ice and on that there was a huge variety of ice. Large ice floes, heaps of smaller ice discs, round-shaped ice objects and much more was there to see.

It was like an open air art exhibition. An art exhibition of one of my favourite artists: nature. And I had it all for myself. It was not easy to go. Sometimes I had to cross chaotic looking ice fields, sometimes my foot landed in a deep puddle of meltwater. Look at the next photo: This puddle had not only drowned half of my rubber boot but a snowshoe, too.

I was however wrong in one thing. Others visited this world of ice as well: moose. Countless moose tracks covered the sea ice heading seaward. What does a moose want there? There’s only ice and then – already visible in the distance – the open Baltic Sea. The next island in the southeast is more than 11 km away.

Either moose have a very poor sense of orientation or they like ice art just as me. I imagined several moose visiting the various objects and discuss shape, colour and the meaning of the artworks. These visitors however had left, only the tracks were left.

While strolling through the exhibition I already passed another island: Nygrundet, the outermost island of the archipelago. Nygrundet was near the open water. Very near. I approached a huge block of ice and there it was: My personal “Ultima Thule” for today.

After I was sure, that this ice block was connected to the island and no iceberg sailing to Finland I decided to climb the block and make myself comfortable. Although temperatures were slightly above zero it was quite cold due to the strong gale with wind gusts round 22 m/s. That’s round 80 km/h. Brrr! I was glad about my warm anorak that I took with me.

After eating and drinking a bit I decided to go back. I crossed a small patch of sea ice and then went along the island which is connected with Gråsidan by a stripe of land. Unnoticed by me the clouds had moved away and the sun came out. Ice gets a completely new look when sunlit. So I decided to go to the art exhibition once more and turned again.

And turned again to finally return home. On my way back I saw a manmade art object at the shore, but I could not understand its purpose. I preferred the tiny pine trees sticking out of the snow. Then I crossed the island Gråsidan from east to west (less than 200 meter).

The last photo clearly indicates that I hadn’t been in the Arctic. It’s still Skelleftehamn. On all of the mentioned islands there are summer cottages. The cottages on Nygrundet and Gråsidan were empty due to the difficulties to get there.

I started to look for a better place to cross the sea ice back to the island Bredskär. I had felt quite uneasy while crossing the ice to Gråsidan and I hoped for better ice. To make a long story short: I found a longer, but better and easier way.

I was relieved when I arrived Bredskär. Now the ice probably would be thicker and safer. I walked along the island somewhere between sea and land. There where a lot of very wet patches but on safe ice. Now I only had to cross the sea ice once more, then I would arrive on the mainland and at my car.

Here a lot of water, partly frozen, covered the ice. Snowmobiles and ATVs had left deep traces and wheel ruts. I started getting a bit impatient and instead of taking the same way home I turned left a bit earlier. First it went well then I had to plunge through surficially frozen water and slush. With the snowshoes that was quite exhausting but the shore came nearer and nearer.

I could spot my parked car and the snowy slope where I had to go up. 100 metres to go. 50 metres to go. 10 metr… – crash!

My right leg went through the ice to the upper leg. It was not weak ice, I just oversaw a large and broad crack. The rubber boot was soaking wet but not myself. The attached stockings of my drysuit had kept me dry. It’s funny anyway that this happened just seconds before finishing the tour.

Probably I will keep a bruise on my knee for some days as a nice memory of this very special inter-season snowshoe tour on the Baltic Sea. And a fabulous tour it was.

Equipment

Directly translated from my packing list with some comments.

  • smartphone + powerbank + charge cable + waterproof bag (the powerbank to be able to load the smartphone in emergency situations)
  • camera + memory card + cleaning tissue + reserve battery (all packed in a waterproof Ortlieb bag that I wore in front of my breast)
  • drysuit (to keep me dry in water. Only head and hands would get wet)
  • rubber boots (I chose my huuuge Russian rubber boots with thermal inner boots
  • snowshoes (flexible enough to work with the rubber boots)
  • 2× balaclava (for the head – one comfortable made of fleece, one tight and waterproof)
  • 2× gloves (one pair made of Powerstretch fleece, on pair of waterproof neoprene)
  • isdubbar – ice claws. (The most important thing! Two handles with spikes that you can use to pull yourself on safe ice after having broken through)
  • provisions (A cinnamon bun, chocolate and a coke(!) )
  • Cabela’s anorak (the insulated anorak with the fur trimmed hood you can see on my selfie)
  • waterproof bags (I stored everything in waterproof bags – from the other pair of gloves to the car keys)
  • sunglasses (today even used as wind protection)

 

Skiing from Viterskalet Fjällstuga to Syter Fjällstuga

Monday, 4 March

I wake up early in our four-bed room. Annika and I are in the Viterskalet Mountain Cabin in the Vindelfjällen, part of the Swedish mountains. I get up, take tripod and camera and go out. The temperature in the kitchen has dropped to 7 °C, but that’s almost 30 °C warmer than outside, where it’s -22 °C according to the outdoor thermometers at the windows.

I love it when the rising sun colours the snowy mountains in purple, pink, orange and yellow until it stands so high, that the snow looks white.

At ten o’click we start our tour: 12 or 13 km to Syter Fjällstuga, the next mountain cabin. We follow the winter trail that slowly bends eastwards into the valley Syterskalet.

Here we walk in the shadow of the mountains. First it’s a nameless top (1603 m), then the Södra Sytertoppen (1685 m) that blocks the sun. Round a kilometre before the emergency cots– also named Syterskalet – we leave the shadow and walk into bright sunlight. We take a break at Syterskalet, both for eating and drinking and for attaching the climbing skins to our skis.

After the rest we have to climb a bit, round 100 metres in altitude. That’s why we mounted the climbing skins. With them the ascend is easier than expected.

When we reach the peak I remove the skins. Although I’m a lousy downhill skier I want to try anyway. The terrain is difficult for me, because parts of it are icy and others are hardly covered with snow. With large bends and a bit of luck I manage to ski downhill the slope. Annika skis downhill with climbing skins that slow down her skis. Because of that she can use the snowmobile tracks that are to steep for me. We meet at the chain bridge over the stream or Svärfarbäcken. The Syter Mountain Cabin is on the other side. We don’t have to use the bridge to cross the stream, it is completely frozen. There’s only a marked hole in the ice for fetching drinking water.

We arrive at the cabin and the stugvärd – the host – welcomes us with hot juice; a nice tradition on the mountain cabins. We realise that we met before in Nallo, a small cozy cabin in August 2017, when we took a day off.

We get a cozy room with a bunk bed and take it easy the rest of the day.

Of course I have to go to the toilet again in the night and the sky is as starry as the night before. I made some photos and due to the long exposure you even can see polar lights on the photos. These polar lights however were hardly visible to the naked eye.

Tuesday, 5 March

Today we are going to take a day off and stay at the Syter Fjällstuga. I’m an early bird and get up before sunrise. Again it’s -22 °C and the temperature will not rise above -15 °C for the whole day.

After a breakfast (we have crisp bread, butter and cheese plus hot cocoa) we start a small day trip on skis. We want to go up the slopes north from Syter. It is fun to go without pulka. Flocks of ptarmigans (snow grouses) are overall. First you hear them, then you can see them as white spots. If you come closer they fly away and you realise that you hardly spotted half of them.

Today we do not follow any marks, we make our own tracks. The tour is shorter than expected. Annika still has climbing skins under the skis and does not have any problem with the many icy patches on the slope, but I have. Instead of descending any further we turn right and make our way to the Kungsleden that continues to the northeast. Here we ski back to the cabin.

The rest of the day we stay in and round the cabin. It’s awesome to ski through the incredible beautiful winter landscapes but it’s just as great to meet interesting people.

  • Stugvärd G. with whom we talk a lot. She travelled a lot in the whole world.
  • Myra de Rooy, who is going to go the 440 km to Abisko, the first week with a friend. She writes books, mostly about her adventures in Tibet and Nepal.
  • the man who temporary helps with the cabin. He seems to know every path and every rock of the Vindelfjällen, where we are.

Annika realised that today is fettisdagen, the day in the year where the Swedes eat en semla, a barm filled with marzipan and cream. And right – the man mentioned above prepares semlor for him and his family. We are invited to take one and gladly accept. The rest of the day is a lot of talking, resting, eating and Annika making pancakes. But we even start to pack our things. Tomorrow we are going to Umasjö and that’s 22 km to go. We want to get up at 6 o’clock to start the tour as early as possible.

The last photo shows a typical situation in the Swedish mountains in wintertime: Sitting on the loo. It is dark, so you need a headlight to go there. It is cold (-23 °C), so you need a warm jacket, too. You think, that’s uncomfortable? Then you never tented in wintertime where you long for such a utedass (the Swedish word for this type of outdoor toilet).

Skiing from Hemavan to the Viterskalet Fjällstuga

This article is part of the series “2019-03: Ski tour Vindelfjällen”.

Sunday, 3 March

A perfect day for a ski tour awaits us when Annika and I wake up in Hemavan, where we arrived the evening before. The ski is blue, the air is calm and the outside thermometer at Hemavans Fjällcenter shows -23 °C.

Today Annika and I will start our first ski tour together. We are going to be in the Vindelfjällen mountains for four days and stay overnight in two mountain cabins of the Swedish tourist association: Viterskalet and Syter. Annika is going to use a backpack and I a pulka sledge. Hopefully Annika’s backpack will hold, she already had to fix a friable strap the day before. After a breakfast we take my car and drive up the slope to park it near the Kungsleden sign.

Here the Northern Kungsleden starts, Sweden’s most popular hiking trail which is 450 km in total. We will follow the Kungsleden for two days and then turn west to Umasjö or south to Solberg back to civilisation.

At half past nine we are ready to start the tour. An employee of the ski area takes some pictures of us, wishes us a good tour, sits down on his snowmobile and drives away.

Now we have to climb up the ski slope, luckily not directly. Anyway we have climbing skins under our skis that prevent slipping back when ascending slopes. It’s no fun at all to use a pulka without them. We ski on broad prepared ski trails. It doesn’t take long and the fixed strap of Annika’s backpack breaks again. At the small hut of a ski lift she replaces it provisionally by another strap. Luckily this makeshift solution will work for the rest of the tour.

Although the sport holidays started the day before the ski resort is anything but crowded. When we however leave the ski resort behind us we are really alone for a while. Only another pair of skiers faster than us overtakes us at the steepest slope of the day. We are above the tree line. Only some solitary birch trees interrupt the snowy kalfjäll.

After a while we meet the snowmobile track. This track is quite popular because the Viterskalet cabin serves waffles – a welcome destination for snowmobile enthusiasts. For us as skiers it is a bit boring to walk on a five to ten meter broad “snowmobile Autobahn” and the exhaust fumes of the less modern snöskoter stink terribly.

We pass the summer bridge over the Västra Syterbäcken. Here’s even a toilet in the middle of the snow covered mountains. Only four other kilometres to go.

The whole winter trail is marked with red wooden crosses and there are many of them. In nice weather this seems a bit overdone but all people who followed such a winter trail in snow storm know that it can be very hard to find the next mark even when it is near.

Another hour of skiing and we arrive at the Viterskalet cabin. The stugvärd who is responsible for the mountain cabin greets us. There are two larger buildings: The cabin of the stugvärd with shop and even a small café and the guest cottage. The shop is tiny but has everything you need. Therefore we can buy most food in the shops and do not need to bear everything for four days.

We allow ourselves the luxury of a cold coke and a waffle. Then we move into the guest cottage. It is huge and hasn’t been heated for a while. Our sleeping room is heated by gas and temperature is at least over 10 °C but the huge kitchen has only 1 °C and it will take hours to warm it up some centigrades. The other guests have left. We will be the only ones to stay overnight.

I stroll around and take photos while the sun is slowly going down.

Annika and I still have garlic bread bought in Hamavan and eat it with a goulash soup bought in the shop. It doesn’t take long and we cuddle ourselves in our sleeping bags. Soon we fall asleep. Mountain air makes you tired!

I however have to pee in the night. For that I have to go outside. That means putting on boots, mittens and a down parka, because it’s -20 °C. This seems to be very uncomfortable but it has its advantages. I can watch an incredible starry night in the Swedish mountains. It is so bright and clear that it only takes seconds to spot the milky way. I just have to go in to fetch my camera and tripod. The green lights over the horizon is a Northern light, but a very weak one.

A snowshoe tour over the snaufjell

This article is part of the series “2019-02: Northern Norway”.

After some very lazy days I decided to make a snowshoe tour today. I just had to move! I’m here without my own car and therefore with quite limited baggage, but I was lucky to be able to get snowshoes from the Snowhotel Kirkenes.

First I followed a marked snowshoe route. It was -8 °C and in contradiction to the forecast the sun was shining. After some time I left the trampled path and made my own tracks. That’s what snowshoes are made for.

I went around and up some of the higher hills. First I love the view and then I love the snaufjell, the part of the mountains above the treeline. In Swedish it is called kalfjäll, but both words mean the same: bare fell. And soon I got my views.

One thing is special: There are boulders everywhere. I guess it’s leftovers from the last ice age but I don’t know why you hardly find those round-shaped boulders at other places on the bare fell.

The sun had vanished behind a layer of clouds and it started to snow. Sometimes the snow underneath my feet was of such a perfect white that I could not see whether it was going up or down. At least the sight was good and the terrain is easily accessible.

I navigated only by sight, therefore I cannot give you the name of the mountain top that was marked with a pile of stones and a wooden stick.

After some time I started my way back and descended from the snaufjell until trees got more common again.

I walked down through the fresh white snow – sometimes knee deep even with snowshoes – until I came to the trampled path again. Here the snow was so firm that I unmounted the snowshoes and went the rest of the tour without. Three hours later I was back in my host’s house.

It doesn’t happen often that I have a clear photo favourite of a certain day. Today I have:

#escapism – skiing through the landscapes

When I walked home from an early meeting today it snowed at -12 °C. I trudged through the fresh snow like a small child.

Actually, I wanted to work with my online shop for my photo website. Outside it continued snowing. It took less than a minute to change plans. I took my skis, the backpack with the camera equipment, ski pants and my old Norrøna-jacket and went outside. I went down the snowy stairs, put on my skis and started a local ski tour. I skied 300 meter and was in the …

Forest

First I followed a snowy snowmobile track (with a detour to a small wetland) and then paw prints of a hare.

Following the paw prints led me to a …

Swamp

In winter however these swampy areas are frozen – no problem with skis.

The snow was round 30 cm deep and quite fluffy so that I sank down even with the skis. Perhaps my 240 cm long wooden Tegsnäs skis would have been the better choice. I crossed a small pond and a small ridge – probably formed in the last ice age – and then I came to a larger …

Lake

The lake Snesviken had been frozen already in November. Now it was just a snowy plain with a small island in the middle.

I took a selfie …

…crossed the lake and came to a …

Dense forest

I knew that this forest was dense with a lot of underwood and many rocks, but I forgot how hard it is to find a way through it on skis. Now I was quite glad that I didn’t take the Tegsnäs skis.

I fought my way through birch thickets and rocky passages. It took a long time until I left the forest and reached a snowy road, part of a …

Cottage area

I followed the road to its end. Skiing was easy and effortless after the dense forest.

As in the whole of Sweden there are many summer cottages in Skelleftehamn, too. This cottage – as most of them – was by the …

Sea

I crossed the small thicket at the rocky shore …

… then I stood on the frozen Baltic Sea. I started skiing leaving the mainland behind. It was much windier and I was glad about my fur-trimmed hood. The field of view however is limited. Looking down I saw the fur, the skis and a white featureless surface. Almost whiteout conditions. Parts of the landscape were featureless as well.

It may look like I was in the middle of the Arctic, but no, right behind me there was an …

Island

The Island Storgrundet is the nearest island from the mainland. Here I had looked at the sea ice 10 days ago, here I watched the lunar eclipse last week.

I followed the coastal line, crossed a frozen bay and arrived at the old boat shed that probably had been there for ages.

Then I crossed the island through the forest.

The island is not very wide. After 200 meter I could see the mainland’s …

Coast

This part of the coast is one of my favourite places in Skelleftehamn. In summer it has a nice sandy beach, in winter it’s the first part of the sea that freezes. In summer I use to paddle kayak, but most locals prefer small motorboats. Now all boats lie upside down on the shore.

Where there are boats are also houses. Where there are houses there’s also a …

Road

And this road is special, because it leads …

Home

Here I arrived three hours later. I put off the skis, shock of the snow and went in.

Oh, I love winter!

Rime at the Bergsbyn dam

After photoing the lunar eclipse this very early morning I went into bed again and took a long nap. After that I actually wanted to work but the weather was so fine that I took the car looking for photo motives. Temperatures below -20 °C, a clear blue sky and all birch trees covered with rime – that’s ingredients for a beautiful winter day. While I was looking at the white birch trees I got an idea. How would it look like at the dam in Bergsbyn where there’s always open water downstream.

I drove there and parked the car. Indeed the trees by the river were covered even more with hoarfrost and rime. I walked along the river through knee-deep snow. Beside of some animal tracks the snow was untouched. Strange, that I was the first one that went along the riverside since the last snow one week ago.

The open water was smoking with cold and frozen fog blowed along the river. It covered the opposite riverside and partly the sun as well. Small ice floes drifted by. The river is quite fast here. Hardly imaginable that the river upstream is completely frozen over.

I experimented with the fisheye lens. It will take some time until I get used to it, especially when the light situations are as difficult as they were today. I do not like these white spots where the sun is but today it was hardly avoidable.

Kayak season is over

Two days ago I considered to go kayaking a last time before the sea freezes over. Large parts of the inshore Baltic Sea were still open but it was hard to reach the open water without bearing the heavy kayak over the icy, rocky shore or walking on unstable ice. So I decided against paddling.

When I arrived at the seashore this morning it was clear that the kayak season would be over for a while.

Temperatures between -15°C and -20 °C have made the Baltic Sea freeze. It almost looks like one could walk to the island Gåsören, but that wouldn’t work. That, what looks like a solid surface of ice is actually a pattern of floating ice floes. It’s not visible to the naked eye, but comparing photos shows, that there are still tiny waves under the ice floes that make them go up and down.

Snowshoe tour on the Vyöhtjage

The situation is like three years ago: it’s the days after Christmas and there is not much snow in Skelleftehamn. As in 2015 Annika and I decide to make a tour to Arvidsjaur.

Arvidsjaur lies northwest of Skelleftehamn, two hours drive away in the inland. It is located in Norrbotten, Sweden most northern county, is part of the historical province Lappland and part of Sapmí, the region of the Sámi people. Arvidsjaur is well known by German Sweden fans since there are direct flights in wintertime from several German cities.

Arvidsjaur has a nice mountain called Vyöhtjage (Sámi) or Vittjåkk (Swedish). The Vyöhtjage is too steep for us to use skis so we used snow shoes to go up to the mountain top (650 m).

Here some photos of yesterdays tour:

It’s funny that we did almost the same tour (with another route) to the Vyöhtjage as exactly three years ago with the same weather (sunny and not too cold) and snow conditions (half a meter of snow). This nice place however is worth to be visited several times, especially because it is quite near to Skelleftehamn.

We had an overnight stay in Arvidsjaur. Today we will drive back but take a stopover in the village Kusfors to visit friends.