A new life in northern Sweden – Part One

Macho men, monotony, mosquitoes: Englishman Alec Forss heard all the clichés trotted out as he made known his plans to move to northern Sweden. But nothing could deter him from plunging headlong into the vast wilderness beyond the Arctic circle. Part one in a two-part series.

A new life in northern Sweden - Part One

I had lived in Stockholm for two years when a yearning for wide open spaces and images of wood-fired saunas by crystal-clear lakes gnawed at my soul. I longed to experience a different pulse of Sweden away from the capital, and so I decided to leave my office job and spend a few months in the far north of the country. I had visited the mountains in the national parks up north on summer trekking trips in the past, but had not properly lived in the area. I also wanted to sample life in a small community having so far lived most of my life in big cities.

Jokkmokk, a small town of less than 3,000 people just above the Arctic circle in Swedish Lapland, seemed to fit the bill. I had visited it once before during its famous February winter market, and it seemed to possess some of the small town charm I assumed to be lacking in the bigger centres of the north such as Gällivare and Kiruna.

My Stockholm friends thought me mad when I announced I was moving. “But you do know about the mosquitoes?” was by far the most common response I received, as if I would be eaten alive by fighter squadrons of them the moment I set foot there. Others told me that I would need to dress in camouflage and carry a large hunting knife on my belt at all times – otherwise no one would talk to me. “It’ll be just as strong an experience as going to India,” ventured another. Others feared I would be bored.

I came to understand that the Swedish north conjured up all sorts of enduring myths and stereotypes, as well as general ignorance, among many southern Swedes. Genuinely puzzled as to why I should want to move there, it was clear that anyone with ambitions did not move north. It might be good for fishing, but that was about it. Rather than putting me off, it made me want to go there all the more.

My Canadian girlfriend agreed to join me for the summer, and we travelled by means of the Inlandsbanan, savouring the long train journey north over four days at the end of June last year. Villages became further and further apart and the evening light lingered on the further north we travelled. Stopping in Storuman in Västerbotten, we already felt a long way from Stockholm as we watched an arm-wrestling competition with burly men competing for the “strongest arm in the north.” Things and people seemed to take on a rougher, unpretentious edge.

Finally arriving in Jokkmokk, in the middle of a heatwave, it seemed as if we’d come to the end of the world – that it would suddenly stop around the next corner. We took a walk to the top of a small hill and could barely see the town, swallowed up as it was by seemingly endless forest. The nearest large city was Luleå – and that was some 200 km away.

We rented a cheap room on the edge of town and equipped it with a mosquito net and also a blind to shut out the midnight sun. For the next seven weeks it failed to get completely dark. We quite often made dinner during those long summer evenings on an open fire under a small cliff nearby. We also trekked for days on end in the majestic national parks further west near the border with Norway. Buying Arctic char and fresh stone baked bread from the Sami in their summer villages without roads or electricity, we witnessed old traditions such as the marking of the reindeer calves in the mountains.

Exploring the town, we found it, in some respects, like anywhere else in Sweden: it had a Systembolaget, and the familiar ICA and Konsum were also here. But inspecting the shelves, we also found many northern specialities. We cooked elk burgers, bought smoked reindeer meat and locally produced cheese, while the forest also provided a supermarket of blueberries and cloudberries and I learnt how to fish for the first time, sometimes bringing back perch for dinner.

There were also surprises. We found Bio Norden – one of Sweden’s oldest working cinemas with the original fittings from the 1930s. Café Gasskas, a bohemian café in the centre of town, meanwhile served up dishes including birch leaf soup and delicious blueberry milkshakes and sometimes hosted local bands.

There was a culture here that was not all macho and about hunting that southern Swedes who’d never been north presumed. There was an excellent museum, too, portraying the indigenous population, Jokkmokk being the cultural capital of the Sami. Practically, it also had a pleasant library where I could work in my job as a freelance copy-editor.

As we got to know some of the town’s residents, we found people friendly and welcoming, if a little surprised why we had come to Jokkmokk. One student from the town but who had moved to Stockholm called me a “freak” for actually wanting to live here, but on the whole people were happy and even flattered that we’d made the effort to come.

In turn, I found the informality refreshing. It didn’t matter how you dressed, and people had time to talk. “Don’t bother knocking on the door, just come in!” one neighbour told me. And while it took time to adjust to the change in pace – we sometimes missed the adrenalin rush of the city – we learnt to enjoy and take our time over small things such as drinking a coffee or chopping wood. Soon my girlfriend was saying that it felt not like the end of the world but the centre as we found it difficult to envisage the stress and fast pace of our home cities of Birmingham and Montreal – or even of Stockholm.

But the summer wouldn’t last forever. My girlfriend was restless to travel, and by the end of September amidst the changing colours of autumn, the first snowfall was just around the corner. I left for more southern climes, but resolved to come back to Jokkmokk in January to experience a real winter alone.

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How Sweden’s Sami reindeer herders are being forced to adapt to climate change

The indigenous Sami people have herded reindeer in northern Sweden for generations, but climate change poses a new threat to their way of life and livelihood.

How Sweden's Sami reindeer herders are being forced to adapt to climate change
Reindeer pictured near the northern city of Kiruna. Photo: AP Photo/Malin Moberg

Once, the lynx, wolverines and eagles that preyed on their animals were the main concern for reindeer herders as they moved them to find food in the winter. But now Margret Fjellstrom and Daniel Viklund, a married couple from Sweden's indigenous Sami community with hundreds of tawny reindeer, worry about a new threat.

Shifting weather patterns in northern Sweden are forcing them to go further afield to find grazing for their hungry reindeer, pushing up costs and taking more time.

Dressed warmly in jackets and ski pants against the minus 17-degree-Celsius (1.4 Fahrenheit) temperatures, the couple watched on a February morning as their animals pawed through deep snow for the lichen they eat. It's their main food source in winter on the hillsides near Sweden's Baltic Sea coast.

Back when snowfall like this was a regular occurrence, Fjellstrom's herder parents would follow the same migration routes year in, year out, stopping at tried-and-tested spots for food. But that isn't the case now.

“It can rain in January, it can snow in May, there's no logic to it any more,” Fjellstrom, 39, said, sitting with Viklund by their snowmobiles.

Photo: AP Photo/Malin Moberg

Between 1991 and 2019, parts of northern and eastern Sweden saw a rise in average temperature of nearly two degrees C compared to the 1860-1900 period, Sweden's meteorological institute said in a report. For several days in early January, temperatures in the north climbed about 10C more than normal, the institute said. And on January 2nd, three weather stations in central Sweden reported their highest temperatures for the month since 1971.

Unseasonably high temperatures cause the snow to thaw and freeze again when the cold returns, building up thicker layers of ice that prevent the reindeer from digging down through the snow to the lichen.

To ensure they will find food during the migration, the couple spends two months taking turns to scout out unfamiliar areas, before setting off with the animals. Moving the reindeer from their summer pasture now often involves navigating them around motorways, windfarms or hydroelectric projects. The journey this year took nearly twice as long as it would have done in predictable weather, Fjellstrom said.

The Sami have herded reindeer across areas of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia for generations and are thought to number between 80,000 and 100,000, with many living above the Arctic Circle. In Sweden, only the Sami are allowed to herd the animals, raised for their meat, pelts and antlers.

Fjellstrom and Viklund annually move their herd from Dikanas, a village 800 kilometres (500 miles) north of Stockholm, to the plains near Ornskoldsvik. They transport them first by lorry, then release them and follow by snowmobile, tracking them using GPS collars.

Viklund watched as the reindeer disappeared into the snow-dusted forest, before launching a drone with a speaker attached into the freezing air above. It allows him to keep track of the animals when poor snowfall makes travel by snowmobile impossible. He can also herd them on with recordings of his dog barking when they head to areas with little food or hazards like roads or windfarms whose turbine noise scares the reindeer.

“We're getting more and more days that don't look like this, the snow is just a few centimetres,” he said. “It's a way to adapt.”

Reindeer herding on the Vindelälven river. Photo: Grahame Soden

Concerned that the animals get enough to eat, the couple split their herd and asked Fjellstrom's cousin to move the other half. It's an added expense for 31-year-old Neila Fjellstrom but he understands the need.

The Sami peoples and their reindeer are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according to research. 

A “warming climate alters the vegetation conditions and threatens the reindeer's wellbeing and access to food,” Finland's University of Oulu and its Center for Environmental and Respiratory Health Research said in a study last year.

Many Sami are more worried about fluctuating temperatures now, than encroaching infrastructure, said Gunhild Rosqvist, a Stockholm University researcher into the effects of climate change in mountain and polar environments.

“I think their awareness of their vulnerability has increased a lot,” she told AFP.

At the annual Sami market in Jokkmokk above the Arctic Circle in early February, thousands of Sami mixed with tourists, just weeks before the new coronavirus forced countries around the world to introduce lockdowns. Reindeer products were proudly on display, from steaming pots of reindeer stew to soft pelts and knives with handles carved from antlers.

“Reindeer herding has been practised for many hundreds of years and it's an important part of Sami culture,” Kjell-Ake Aronsson, a researcher at the local museum, said. “Reindeer meat is an important product. A lot of people are related indirectly to reindeer herding.”

Sweden's Sami parliament estimates around 2,000 people are directly dependent on herding the country's 250,000 animals for a living. Away from the crowds, young Sami activists, in traditional outfits embroidered in blues and reds, gathered for a “climate strike” attended by Greta Thunberg.

Fjellstrom and Viklund's 17-year-old daughter Alva also spoke at the event and hopes to become a herder herself. But the increased effort needed for herding reindeer now makes Viklund worry about the future.

“I want to give my children the opportunity to do it,” he said, the sun casting long, blue shadows across the snow. “Climate change could destroy that dream.”

By Tom Little/AFP