Extreme low water in Skelleftehamn

When I was a child we used to drive to Cuxhaven, a coastal town in Northern Germany. We never checked the tidal calendar in advance, so it was always a surprise what we got: high tide or low tide. Bathing or mud walking.

Here in Skelleftehamn at the Bothian Bay the situation is much simpler. The tidal effect is insignificant. Low water and high water may occur, but they are mostly caused by wind and independent from the gravitational effects of the moon.

The last two days the water level was extremely low. Yesterday evening the relative water level was -103 cm. Last time that this happened was in 1998 – 21 years ago.

Where ice fishers sat on the ice of the Kallholmsfjärden only weeks ago was now a wide area of wet sand and stones. A very unusual view. I went there twice and made some photos. They are not particularly beautiful but a memory of a special situation I’d like to share.

I would have loved to explore other bays as Harrbäckssand or the Innervikfjärden but these are still completely covered by ice. Perhaps another time. Perhaps in 21 years …

By ferry to Vaasa

It’s true what some friends say: I travelled a lot this winter. It wasn’t the one long journey but several small ones. To Kirkenes, to Trondheim by Hurtigruten, the ski tour with Annika and last not least the journey to Murmansk.

On Monday Annika and I started another journey, this time to one of Umeå’s neighbour towns. This town is in the east and you have to cross the Baltic Sea. I’m talking about Vaasa in Finland. How good, that there’s a ferry from Umeå’s seaport Holmsund.

After I parked the car in the ship we went on the upper deck. To my disappointment the whole Baltic Sea was free of ice.

At 12 o’clock the ferry started its journey across the Baltic Sea to Finland. First along some skerries and islets. Even Holmön, where we have been last December was visible on the horizon.

Then we reached the open sea. Nothing much to see and a good time to have lunch. Quite expensive but especially the starters were delicious.

After a while I could spot the Finnish coastline. It seemed to be surrounded by ice – and so it was. One minute the ship drove through open water, the next minute through ice floes.

Now there was a lot more to see – at least for winter and ice lovers. There was ice to both sides and behind the stern of the boat you could watch the open water closing within a minute.

The structures and textures of the ice changed every minute.

We passed a ship that was surrounded by ice. First it looked like it could have been there for months, but there was an open waterway, probably it hadn’t been there for long.

The Finnish coast came nearer and nearer. Harbour and industrial plants came into view. Some last photos, than we had to enter the car. The ferry docked and we left it.

Finland – another country, another time zone and a language that is completely unknowable to most non-Finnish people.

Late March at the coast

The last few days it was quite warm with maximum temperatures round 10 °C. The warmth of the sun warmed the rocks and made the ice melt around them. Today it was very windy and the water level was 50 cm above average. Therefore the sea ice rose while the coastal ice has still been frozen solid to the shore. That has resulted in large cracks in the ice which made the high water flow up through the cracks and cover the coastal ice.

This turquoise blue water almost looks Caribbean, but of course the water is still literally ice cold. And while the air is warm at daytime, the ground is still so cold, that ice needles grow on the undercooled water puddles.

Spring equinox was a week ago, now the days are longer here than in Central Europe. Sunrise tomorrow will be already at 5:00. I hope that sun and wind will remove the ice cover on the Baltic Sea soon. I’m longing for opening the kayak season 2019.

A view from the rock dump

The peninsula Näsgrundet is one of my favourite places for photographing in Skelleftehamn. There are many motifs especially in wintertime. The snowy rocky coast, the ice covered Baltic Sea or the island Gåsören on the horizon. Probably you have seen some of the motifs here in my blog.

Mostly I take the car. I drive along the street Näsuddsvägen. To the left there are the huge cisterns for storing oil and other chemicals, part of Oljehamn, the oil port of Skellefteå. To the right, on the other side of the bay Kallholmsfjärden there’s the peninsula Rönnskär, home to several industrial facilities. Most prominent is Boliden Rönnskär, one of the world most efficient copper smelters.

There are several rock dumps beside the street. Since last year there’s a huge one between street and bay. Today I went up the slope and watched the sunset. These are perhaps not the photos I normally made home in Skelleftehamn, but the industry is part of this coastal region, too.

Have a look at the last photo: It looks like the peninsula Näsgrundet with its red houses and the tug boat to the left would almost touch the island Gåsören with its lighthouse. The distance between them however is more than 1.5 km. It’s the telephoto lens that makes the distance shrink, at least visually.

By the way: if you live here and wonder why my car is so dirty – one of the reasons is this huge water puddle that I have to “ford” when going to eller coming from Näsgrundet.

 

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)

 

Just a short walk to the seaside of Storgrundet

I had been inside most of the day. Finally I just had to go out to enjoy the nice blue sky, at least for a short time. I parked my car at Storgrundet, crossed the ice to the island of the same name and went to the seaside of the island. There I spotted moose tracks on the sea ice that went criss-cross and led to another island.

I was walking without snowshoes and it had been exhausting to cross the narrow island. The snow had been more than knee deep, easy to sink in, still pretty firm and hard to get out. It was much easier to go on the snow covered ice on the Baltic Sea although the snow was very wet sometimes. Rubber boots are a good choice in this season.

The Baltic Sea behind the island however looked like winter would be eternal. Just a snowy layer as far as the eye could see.

 

Closing ceremony of the Ice Swimming World Championship in Murmansk

This article is part of the series “2019-03: Redex Murmansk”.

I was in Murmansk with Barents Press with a project called Redex 2019. The project goal is to establish contacts between sports journalists and exchange experiences.

Saturday, 16 March

This evening we gather on the Площадь Пять Углов, the Five Corners Square in Murmansk. We want to join the closing ceremony of the 3rd Ice Swimming World Championship. The event has started already and we are not alone.

And it’s a big, long show with loud music. And I mean really, really loud! Never ever will I travel to Russia again without ear protection. Right after some children dances the flag parade that was rehearsed some days ago starts. Loud playback music: A male voice sings a very patriotic sounding song. The only words I understand: “Murmansk! Murmansk!”. To this song flag bearers are marching on the elevated walkway and onto the stage. One group in some kind of winter uniform bears the flag of the event, others clad in black uniforms carry the flags of the participating nations. “Murmansk! Murmansk!” The final country is Russia and of course it gets the biggest applause.

 

Now the Russian regions whose swimmers participated were presented, and these are a lot. Russia is divided into 55 oblasts and krais, 22 republics and 8 other regions. Not all of them were involved in this World Championship, but many were.

Alexandr Brylin, the guy who swam with the flags yesterday comes for example from the Amur Oblast which is north of China. Альметьевск/Almetyevsk – the town presented in the photo below – is much nearer, just 2500 km by car. Russia is huge!

Everything is accompanied by music, fireworks and flames. An enormous and perfectly staged spectacle.

After that a singer enters the scene accompanied by girls in metallic dresses. The singer is dancing, acting, jumping and gesticulating all the time and finishes his number with a big jump from the winner’s podium.

Finally the award ceremony starts and with that the swimmers enter the scene. They are welcomed by a speaker that stands near the mixer unit in the darkness of the night. TO be able to read the names he wears a headlight. Many people stand around the fenced area, others stand a bit back in the snow that covers the flowerbeds. One child however seems to be longing for a quieter place. It rests a while on some kind of box before it has loaded its batteries and jumps back to its family.

The rest of the evening? A delicious dinner in the restaurant Terrasa with the other participants of Redex 2019 including translator Anna and journalist Dmitry.

We return to the hotel quite early, because tomorrow we will travel back to Luleå in Sweden and already leave at 6:30 local time, that’s 4:30 Swedish time! The journey back will turn out to be relaxed and without any problems. 15 hours later I’ll be home in Skelleftehamn again.

The lake Semyonovskoye in Murmansk

This article is part of the series “2019-03: Redex Murmansk”.

I was in Murmansk with Barents Press with a project called Redex 2019. The project goal is to establish contacts between sports journalists and exchange experiences.

Saturday, 16 March

While swimmers still compete in 1000 m of ice swimming as part of the 3rd Ice Swimming World Championship in Murmansk I leave the spot and start to go back to our Hotel Park Inn. That’s round 5 km to go.

In Summer I would have to go round the lake Семёновское озеро/Lake Semyonovskoye. Now it’s winter and I can simply go across. The ice is at least 50–60 cm thick as the huge ice cuboids along the way show. In the heap of these ice blocks kids were playing. One of them probably will become next generation’s polar explorer.

On the other side of the lake I can spot grey concrete buildings – as cuboid as the ice blocks – and the Russian orthodox church Спас на водах/Saviour on Waters. They have been the background scenery of the championship, too.

And I see people everywhere. The lake is not crowded, but used of many people for different activities. Some of them are sitting on folding stools and doing ice fishing. Others are going for a walk or doing cross country skiing. The nice thing: some of the skiers are quite athletic and fast, others are do not have any technique and are quite slow. But they ski anyway. And all of them seem to enjoy being outside.

These funny “motor-bananas” probably only exist during the ice swimming: The vehicles consist of three parts. In the middle there’s the “chauffeur” standing in a sledge-like plastic tub. At the rear a banana-shaped inflatable rubber thingy is attached on which people can ride. The whole thing is driven by a small caterpillar attached to the front of the plastic tub and operated by the man in the middle.

I start to cross the lake. I pass a snowman and admire his artful face. He looks however too serious to be my namesake Olaf from the film Frozen.

The lake is not so big and soon I reach the other side. Here’s the winter bathing place I already heard of before. I’m angry with myself that I didn’t take swimming trunks and towel with me because the cold water looks inviting. But no swimwear, no bath.

Here I have to leave the Lake Semyonovskoye and I start following the main road Улица Челюскинцев/Ulitsa Chelyuskintsev back to the hotel. Temperature is above zero and the snow is soft, brown and greasy, but it’s easier to walk on that than on blank ice. At the branch Улица Туристов (“Tourists Street”) a woman comes my way. She bears skis with an old-fashioned binding system. I’m sure she wants to go to the place I just left: the Lake Semyonovskoye.

March snow at the coast

Today I finally had to work with my it job again.

But before that I just had to take my camera and drive to different places by the sea. I was curious how it would look like after the snowfalls of the last days. This morning between 75 cm and 80 cm of snow in my backyard and we are talking about the average, not the snow drifts.

1. Peninsula Näsgrundet

Normally the coastal line is quite visible here. Either you see stones sticking out of the rocky coast or you can spot the raised ice edge. Today you mainly saw a white plain. Only some of the largest rock and some brown tufts of grass were sticking out of the snow. I really had to look for motives to avoid images with a plain-white bottom half.

I would not dare to enter the ice because you cannot see its thickness. Probably there are weak spots that wouldn’t bear my weight.

2. Boat harbour Kurjoviken

On the roofs protecting the two wooden boats there was hardly any snow. Probably it had been too windy. Parts of the outside furniture of the restaurant Sjökrog were buried deepely in the snow. There was also a completely buried table, but that would have given a very boring photo.

3. Nameless boat bridge, Rönnskär

The boat bridge normally shows nice contrasts between the wooden construction and the water, whether covered with ice or not. Even here the snow made it all the same today: snow everywhere reduced the contrasts radically.

Now I was satisfied enough to start working, but first I had to shovel snow. I had already cleared the garage driveway last Sunday, not I had to dig a bay into the snow so that the postman could approach the mailbox by car. Phew, that was work, round about 1.5 m³ of frozen snow had to be moved and thrown in my front yard.

Snow makes everything beautiful, it’s only a matter of the amount.

 

The 3rd Ice Swimming World Championship in Murmansk

This article is part of the series “2019-03: Redex Murmansk”.

I was in Murmansk with Barents Press with a project called Redex 2019. The project goal is to establish contacts between sports journalists and exchange experiences.

The main reason for us to visit Murmansk just this week was the 3rd Ice Swimming World Championship and the 1st Ice Swimming Arctic Cup 2019. There were 7 individual distances/styles and 2 relay distances/styles, all from 50 m butterfly to 1000 m (!) freestyle. The event is organised by the IISA and the town of Murmansk. 400 swimmers from 33 countries will participate.

Friday, 15 March

After breakfast we meet Dmitry, a local journalist at the hotel lobby and then take the trolley bus to the ice swimming pool, which is located in the freshwater lake Семёновское озеро/Lake Semyonovskoye, 5 km from the centre. We arrive there to see the opening ceremony at 11:30 but due to the many starts the competitions already have begun in the morning. As usual we have to show our press badge to be able to enter the arena.

I’ve been on several winter swimming championships before: in Joensuu and Rovaniemi in Finland and of course several times in Skellefteå.

The first thing I notice are the many people wearing robust drysuits. There were two for each lane, all secured with ropes, plus additional divers. They belong to EMERCOM,  the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

The next thing are the restrictions for the press. We have got a plan with the marked areas where we are allowed to stand, but even there we sometimes are shooed away because we block the audience’s view. We are not allowed to go too near to the ice. Security first! The area behind the pool was open for a short time and then closed for the rest of the competitions.

When we arrive the 500 m freestyle competition is in full swing. A total of 47 swimmers compete in this distance. Some people are so exhausted after the swimming that they have to be helped out of the water. Some of them are even lad to the hot tub where they are able to warm up, but most people can walk by theirselves.

The opening ceremony starts with a flag parade in groups of three, one for each country: a boy presenting a sign with the name of the country, a cadet holding the country’s flag and a swimmer of that country. Here we meet again Mongolian swimmer Davaadorj Shagdarsuren.

Then a line of women walk along the green walkway. They are clad in white and blue dresses and hold traditional Russian welcome gifts in their hands: bread and salt. They walk around the pool and present these gifts to the guests from all countries that stand there in one line.

Finally the championship is opened by the outstanding Russian ice swimmer Alexandr Brylin who swims 25 meter holding two flags in his hands.

The next hours I take various pictures: Of the two mascots dancing around, of the swimming itself, or of the Chinese people having fun with the Russian women.

I have a lot to watch and I reflect on similarities and differences of this ice swimming event compared to others. While Skellefteå is partly a fun event with short distances and a funny cap competition, this competition is a 100% serious sport competition. On the other side the opening and closing ceremonies (we got a sneak preview two days before) in Murmansk are colossally enormous. Nevertheless the championships in Skellefteå have a larger public, partly because it’s in the middle of the city, partly because in Skellefteå you can compete in 25 m, too and many locals do this.

The scenery has its contrasts, too: snow – cold ice – open water – people with warm clothes – women wearing fur – swimmers in bathing suits – colourful flags everywhere – grey concrete buildings in the distance.

I take the freedom to loosely quote Tim, who helped organising Redex 2019: Russia will always surprise you!

Saturday, 16 March

Today it’s the day of the 1000 m freestyle competitions. To be allowed to participate you have to proof that you are able to cope being in the ice water for at least 25 minutes. Nothing for the average leisure swimmer. We arrive to heat number 2, where among others Ren Feng Wang from China participates. Just before swimming all participants get a medical exam and another after the swim.

The start commando: all others swim crawling while Ren Feng Wang breaststrokes. At the end of the competition he will be slowest of all with a time of 24:05:04. For me this would be worth an extra medal for being able to cope the icy water such a long time.

Winner of heat 4, men is the German Martin Kuchenmeister, a professional ice swimmer with a time of 16:56:94.

In the same heat a swimmer has to give up. He is helped out at the other side of the pool by the people of EMERCOM.

Some more photos:

Again, it’s the contrasts that fascinate me. The competition, the concrete buildings and the white Russian orthodox church Savior on Waters.

When you watch the championship you hardly realise that there is a lot of life on the Lake Semyonovskoye outside of the fenced area. People are walking, skiing or ice fishing and some of them stand outside the fence and watch the championship as well. After a while I leave the temporary arena and walk across the lake to make some non-swimming photos.

At the end of the day there are two winners of the 1000 m run:

For the men: Petar Stoychev from Bulgaria with 12:10:81. For the women: Alisa Fatum from Germany with 13:02:39. Chapeau!

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