As someone who has spent most of his life living in and around London, I can say with confidence that my experience of country life has pretty much been confined to camping in fields at music festivals.
And beyond buying meat at the supermarket, the closest I’ve been to a dead animal was flushing my beloved dead goldfish, Jaws, down the toilet when I was 10 years old.
So it was with a combination of nerves, curiosity and excitement that I accepted an invitation from my girlfriend’s dad, Macke, to accompany him and his buddies elk hunting up north in the Swedish wilderness.
My destination was land dominated by towering pine trees and rolling green pastures near the tiny community of Västanå, which is tucked in among a huge swath of trees about 100 kilometres from both Östersund and Sundsvall.
It takes about four hours to get there from Stockholm by train, and while it’s technically only 30 kilometers from the geographic centre of Sweden, Västanå is considered to be part of Norrland.
It also happens to be where my girlfriend Emmelie was brought up, and where Macke has lived, worked and hunted elk for more than 40 years.
As the boyfriend of his youngest daughter, hunting is the next installment of what Macke jokingly refers to as my “man test”. Although Macke hasn’t said for sure, I think I’ve passed the other parts of his so-called test with a comfortable margin, primarily because they involved drinking alcohol, which is far more in my comfort zone.
Our first day starts with a 5am wake-up call. I’m told I’m not allowed to shower or use deodorant, to try to counter the elks’ sense of smell, which is one of the animals’ best forms of defense from humans, bears and wolves.
In borrowed clothes which leave me looking something like a cross between G.I. Joe and Elmer Fudd, I follow Macke quietly through the forest to our observation position. As elk also have exceptional hearing, we sit in our wooden tower in complete silence.
Surrounded by trees of green and yellow all the way to the horizon, it’s probably the first time in my life I’ve ever heard pure silence. No cars, no people, just the occasional bird chirping. I’ve never understood why people want to live in the middle of nowhere, but at this moment I get it.
And few sights are more sobering than that of the father of your girlfriend holding a rifle. He’s a short man with blue eyes and a friendly smile. But sitting holding a sizeable Weatherby Mark V Magnum, he suddenly seems a lot bigger.
Four more members of our hunting team are stationed at pre-selected watchtowers doing the same thing we are: nothing. Nothing but waiting for the sight of an elk.
Another team member, Pär, is out with a hunting dog equipped with a GPS device so he can track the dog’s location and speed. Based on the dog’s movements, Pär sends a text message to warn the other team members that an elk is headed their way. Who knew that sitting in the woods would involve so much high-tech gadgetry?
Nevertheless, we wait.
And wait some more.
After more waiting, no one has yet to spot an elk. Suddenly, I hear something resembling a long, stuttering fart coming from the direction of Macke. I realize he’s simply mimicking the elk’s mating call. But sadly, no elks appear.
After nine hours, three position changes, and a hefty campfire lunch break with the rest of the team, I sit on a rock in the middle of the forest drifting off.
The silence is suddenly broken by the sound of a shotgun echoing in the distance.
One of the members of our team, Kalle, has shot a male elk. We immediately jump in the car and rush out to find him. After climbing our way through the dense forest, we find Kalle and one of the hunting dogs. Next to them is a male elk, laying stiff and lifeless against a tree.
Male elks roll in their own urine during mating season to attract the females. The smell is awful.
The stench, combined with the sight of this huge 350 kilogramme beast, its tongue hanging out of the side of its mouth, blood pouring from the a single bullet hole, is a bit surreal to a city dweller like me.
To get the elk out of the forest and on to the back of the trailer it needs to be lighter. The three of us roll the elk onto its back and I’m told to hold one of its legs.
Macke grabs a knife, cuts open the elk, and removes its stomach. Again, it’s quite sobering to see the ease with which your girlfriend’s father can plunge his hands wrist deep into a dead animal before pulling out its stomach and intestines. Seeing his hands covered in blood, I tell myself that I’ll always treat Emmelie well.
Macke turns to me: “You wait here and look after the elk while we go back and try to find the best route to get out of here.”
“Look after?” I say.
“Yes, we’ll leave you a gun and dog…in case a bear comes.”
Thankfully, no bear turns up. I’d rather not contemplate what might have happened if one had.
Now, even with the elk now slimmed down to a mere 270 kilogrammes, getting it out of the forest remains a complicated and difficult project involving a machine best described as a trolley with tank tracks beneath it.
Hoisting the massive carcass up requires two of the team’s most well-built members. One of them, Lasse, works in security by day, helping to protect a foreign ambassador to Sweden. He’s tall and muscular with silver hair. Put him in a black suit, give him an earpiece, and he looks like something right out of a movie about the CIA. It takes every inch of his strength to get the elk to the waiting trailer.
We spend the night in a cabin in the forest that has no electricity or running water. Camaraderie seems to be the main attraction for the hunters. But I’m still reeling from the blood and guts I saw just hours before. A few sips of whisky helps numb my senses to the scenes still etched in my brain.
The next morning we pack up and head for the butcher. Four men in aprons stand around drinking beer and hacking away at meat in a dingy, blood-stained room. I feel like I’m in one of the “Saw” horror movies.
New elks arrive. Standing there watching heads and legs get cut off and skin removed leaves me filling somewhat queasy.
One of the other hunters, Mats, turns to me, as if reading my mind.
“Are we barbarians?” he asks.
I force myself to keep watching. It may be unpleasant to see but it’s reality. This kind of hunting yields organic meat, after all, and feels far more humane than eating meat from animals raised and slaughtered in squalor.
Lasse reflects on the attraction of the hunt, helping me get past the gory scenes before me.
“I like to be in the nature, I like the hunting colleagues, I like being in the forest and I like meat,” he explains.
“The elks are living in nature and so are we”
“I also like the thrill, he adds.
“When you shoot one you get a real kick out of it.”
That evening, packed up and in the more familiar confines of a train heading back to Stockholm with slabs of meat in my cooler, I relish the fact that, for once, I know exactly where the meat I’ll be eating came from.
My notepad is more used to ink and paper cuts than the patches of elk blood that now stain its pages, but to be honest I prefer it that way. The whole experience has given me a better understanding of an aspect of life in Sweden that is miles away from Stockholm’s urban sophistication.
I respect it.
I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to live it the way Emmelie’s father and his hunting mates do.
But at least I passed the next phase of Macke’s “man test”.