I returned to Jokkmokk at the end of January after a four month absence, when the sun barely rose above the top of the small hill behind the town. And while it got dark early, the whole town was transformed: snow that had lain thick on the streets since the beginning of October – I wasn’t to see a paved surface until mid-April – lent the town a picture postcard look. Many people got by on sparks – kick-sledges – to run their daily errands, while skis and ice-fishing gear were stacked up against people’s houses alongside the ubiquitous snowmobile.
There were also kilometres of cross-country ski tracks at the back of the town which I used almost daily. It was great to be swishing through the forests, and sometimes I would even find myself skiing behind a small herd of reindeer that would run in front of me. For a brief instant, I could imagine myself to be a reindeer herder of old. It could be very cold though: I nailed a thermometer outside my door and consulted it religiously, fascinated by the exotic temperatures. I could tell when it was minus twenty when the moisture in my nostrils froze the instant I stepped outside; one morning at the end of February it got down to a bone-chilling minus thirty-nine.
On a winter ski tour in the mountains meanwhile I saw displays of the ethereal northern lights. I was even forced to make a fire and sleep under a spruce tree on one trip when I failed to reach a cabin because of the metre-deep snow. Back in town, I started to take a few private lessons in the Sami language, learning a few of their words for different kinds of snow. Life seemed adventurous and interesting, and I could see why some people even preferred the winter to the summer.
Just two weeks after arriving back, the February winter market shook Jokkmokk out of its mid-winter reverie as thousands descended upon the town for the yearly event. My girlfriend also came back for a few weeks. The streets were packed with all manner of traders and events showcasing Sweden’s north. Officially opening the market, a local politician gave a rousing speech declaring that Norrbotten was “a living place, not just a tourist destination.”
But I also came to realize that under the soft cushion of snow and veneer of pretty wooden houses, the town was grappling with real issues. “As soon as people finish high school, they just want to get out of here,” my friend Jonas told me. “Jokkmokk is a nice place to live, but it’s hard to get a job,” says Kent who works in the outdoor shop.
Sweden’s small towns are in demographic crisis as the population concentrates on the three main conurbations of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. The population of Jokkmokk municipality is only half of what it was fifty years ago; in the past fifteen years alone the population has declined by twenty percent. The problem is particularly acute in the outlying villages around Jokkmokk. What will it look like in another fifteen years time I wonder? But those who remain here are adamant that they wouldn’t live anywhere else. Nevertheless, people have been driven south or to the coast in search of jobs and for the lack of alternatives.
But while the population might be in decline, there are people bucking the trend and moving in. I was surprised to learn that there are over thirty nationalities living in Jokkmokk. Quite a few Germans and Dutch have moved here, but then there are also a handful of people from England and then from further afield such as Iran, Colombia, and even Afghanistan.
Patricia Cowern moved from England to Porjus, a village forty kilometres north of Jokkmokk, in 1997. ”I was overawed by the physical space and the lack of people,” she says. “I was always made very welcome but the change was so great from England it took time to adjust to the pace of life and the type of life – life doesn’t move very fast. If you can’t adjust to that, you’ll probably get frustrated.” A photographer specializing in the northern lights, she runs her own gallery called Arctic Colours in the old railway station.
Anders Nygårds moved from Hälsingland to Jokkmokk with his family in 1995. Originally they planned to stay for only two or three years, but fifteen years later they are still here. He is now head of the municipality. “It’s a great place to raise a family,” Anders says. “There’s also a welcoming mentality here, it’s a very nice society, and we’re used to accepting people in our small community and have fewer problems, for example, in integrating refugees than the larger towns.” Although he admits the job situation is difficult, with hydropower in the region not employing as many people as it used to, he sees a lot of future potential in the tourism industry to generate jobs.
Apart from the lifestyle and landscape, the much cheaper property prices are an added incentive to move, and the local business support organisation Strukturum, which has an office in the centre of town, offers a lot of support and advice for those – including foreigners – wishing to start up new businesses.
Once some of the novelty and romanticism of living in the Arctic had worn off, I often imagined it to be easier to integrate if I had a job in the community or a family. Copy-editing was a lonely task in front of the computer that did not require much interaction. Of those who had come from the outside, the place seemed to attract loners or dreamers who enjoyed the solitude and introspection, something which I also appreciated but could not cope with indefinitely. Although I made valued friends, and I probably could have made a greater effort, the periods of seclusion were just a little too long. I also had to be content without a decent pub or a bookshop to browse in, and I missed sometimes just sharing a coffee with someone. The great café that had been open in summer closed for the winter. The cinema had the same poster up for three months. One soon ran out of options. At the same time, I did not sense the same anonymity I sometimes felt in Stockholm nor did I ever miss the crowded metro during rush hour. And then the opportunities for getting out into the fantastic nature were everywhere.
I sense that the future of such communities lies partly in immigration – from both within Sweden and abroad. Take, for example, Hans de Waard, a jazz musician from the Netherlands, who runs a camping and lodging site on the edge of Jokkmokk, and who has started to produce cheese with his own “Arctic herd” of cows. There is now a good Thai restaurant in town, even a weightlifting club. It perhaps needs outsiders to come in and see the potential for new ideas and for forming new associations – and so contribute to a thriving small town life in Sweden’s far north.
I left Jokkmokk towards the end of April as the snow was thawing. The week before I left, I bumped into my landlady from the previous summer. With a knowing look in her eye, she told me “people who visit Jokkmokk always come back.”
The north just gets under your skin it seems.