Living in the wilderness with no running water or electricity isn’t everyone’s idea of a perfect lifestyle.
But when Richard Rees moved to Sweden in 2011 from South Wales – along with his eight huskies – he was fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Going back to basics posed little problem for him. Before the move, he’d been running a bushcraft survival training business in Wales, where he also took people dog-sledding.
“The problem is that there’s hardly ever any snow in Wales,” he tells The Local. “So the huskies had to pull people around on a wheeled cart.”
Richard, aged 42, was already familiar with Sweden, having often visited his brother, who lived in Enköping – about an hour north of Stockholm.
But it was in the far north – in Jokkmokk, where he’d ended up conducting a few survival training courses – that he really fell in love with the country.
“It was the wild wilderness, the fauna and the cleanliness of the forests and all they had to offer that were the real draw for me,” he says. “I thought, this country is where I should have been born.”
Meanwhile, he’d asked his friend Claire, an activity organizer with a love of the outdoors, to look after the business in Wales.
But after deciding to move to Sweden, he realized that she might be more than a friend. They went out on a few dates and fell in love.
When Richard proposed soon afterwards, he gave her an axe and a knife – symbols of what he hoped would be their new life together.
“He thought they’d come in useful in the forest,” says Claire, 42. “I always said to him that I’m not one of those people who likes jewellery or ornaments.”
Together, the couple bought a dog-sledding business, which came with a further 19 huskies, and moved to a cabin in the resort of Huså – near the skiing area of Åre in the west of the country.
Claire with some of their dogs. Photo: Wild Spirit Bushcraft
“For dog-sledding, it was the perfect environment because you don’t want people skiing when you’re out on tour,” Richard explains.
As it turned out, however, setting up a business in a foreign country proved to be harder than they’d anticipated.
“It was tough,” says Claire. “It’s a completely different culture and there are different ways of approaching people.”
“If you speak to somebody and ask a question that they don’t know the answer to, then they say they can’t help you. It’s not like in the UK, where people often say: ‘I know someone who can help you’. The philosophy is that it’s up to you to find out for yourself.”
After two years of highs and lows, their business, Wildspirit Bushcraft, is now doing well. Earlier this summer, the couple appeared on the British programme Escape to the Wild, broadcast on Channel 4, which profiles the lives of Britons who’ve escaped the rat race to start a simpler life.
Claire (L) and Richard Rees (R) with the presenter of Escape to the Wild, Kevin McCloud. Photo: Wild Spirit Bushcraft
“It was quite tough because the crew had to get their equipment up here every day by snow scooter. But it was nice because we were able to give work to local people,” says Richard.
As well as offering dog-sledding, he teaches foraging and bushcraft courses which can last anything from a few days to a few weeks, while Claire coordinates and organizes all the activities.
Skills taught in the courses include how to make a fire without matches or lighters, create clothing from reindeer skins and construct a rope from stinging nettles.
Seventy percent of their guests are from Holland, where there are strict anti-roaming laws.
Richard teaches bushcraft skills. Photo: Wild Spirit Bushcraft
The couple insist that the skills they learn in the wild remain relevant even in today’s technology-driven world.
“People today are suppressed by technology,” says Claire. “Technology is supposed to make you go forwards, but we see people who come here and can’t even solve a simple problem.”
“When they come here and learn all these primitive skills, they go away with a new thirst.”
Of course, living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, with no running water or electricity and lows of -27 degrees is not for everyone.
“For me, the worst thing is the cold,” says Claire. “We have a wood burner, so when the snow starts to melt Richard cuts down some trees.”
No one should expect gourmet meals.
“It’s survival food, so lots of tinned stuff,” explains Claire. “We never follow recipes – we just use whatever we happen to have in the cupboard.”
Their ‘fridge’ is a box under a trap-door in the floor of their cabin, while their water supply comes from a river about five minutes’ walk away.
“At the beginning of the winter, we have to hack a hole in the ice and then keep it open so we can get water for us and the dogs,” she says.
For now, the couple are focusing their energies on building up the business.
“If we moved, we’d probably go somewhere like Alaska. But at the moment, we have no plans to move. We love the wilderness in Sweden.”
Wild Spirit Bushcraft offers a range of courses and tailor-made packages.