Fancy holidaying in the wilderness but never really had the nerve? No problem, it’s never too late to start. Follow two outdoor novices on a kayaking trip in Dalsland and learn the truth about the outdoor life.
Challenge. Getting into a kayak is harder than it looks. Probably best to get one leg in at a time.
With a determined stroke, I slide my paddle into the glistening water for the first time. The kayak picks up speed and glides forward. Svärdlången, one of Dalsland’s many freshwater lakes lies before me, nestling between rugged mountains and dark green forests. The Dalsland-Nordmarken lake system is largely made up of precisely these types of deep, long and narrow lakes, which often lie completely windstill. It’s a dream for beginners who want to try out canoeing.
For the next three days, Linn, my photographer, and I will head north via the lake system, up through Svärdlången, up into Västra Silen, and on into Östra Silen. Silently gliding along the shoreline is, of course, an unbeatable way of experiencing the Dalsland countryside, and as you sit in the kayak, you breathe in the heavy scents of pine forest and soil, and listen to the euphoric birdsong that rises from the deciduous trees. Here and there, you might also be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a shy beaver, or spot an elk or deer quenching their thirst on the edge of the lake. It is, quite simply, the perfect way to get really close to the wilderness. The question is whether it’ll be worth the challenges that the real outdoor life entails.
Because the simple act of getting yourself seated in a kayak that lurches alarmingly if you get the balance even slightly wrong can be a trial… Eventually, however, I manage to straddle the kayak, cautiously lower my rear end, and then fold my legs into the footwell.
I set my sights on the other side of the lake and try and steer in a straight line. It’s going reasonably well, albeit slowly. Linn, however, paddles rapidly with a swinging style that makes her zigzag back and forth in front of me. Somehow, this means we more or less keep up with each other, although Linn’s technique means she’s going to paddle twice as many kilometres as me. What she doesn’t know is that tonight, she’s going to wake up in her tent, so stiff that she feels as though her “arms are going to fall off”.
There are perfectly good reasons why I’ve never gone in for this sort of advanced outdoor life. Yes, my roots are in Dalsland and yes, I’ve spent all my summers here. But never with a tent and a Trangia camping stove. Wilderness adventures have often seemed to me to be reserved for “proper” outdoors people, with a cellar full of expensive Haglöfs underwear, 4-man tents, and well-used hiking boots. People with sinewy muscles, tanned cheeks, who are irrepressibly cheerful. The sort of person who can easily start a fire without lighter fluid and who can comfortably “use the facilities” offered by a coppice of trees. But what if you’re just an ordinary, everyday sort of person, who spends their summers in a holiday cottage or goes on charter flights abroad… are outdoor holidays for you too?
That’s what we’re going to find out.
After paddling for three hours, we have blisters on our hands and sunburnt arms, but fortunately, we’ve also got a better idea how to control our kayaks. Our bodies seem to figure out for themselves the best way of manoeuvring the paddle and kayak to make progress. The fact that we screwed up and packed our water bottles at the bottom of the bags where we can’t reach them doesn’t matter. This far north, the water in the Dalsland lakes is so clean that it’s fine to drink. Thirsty? Simply lower a cupped hand into the lake and take a mouthfull!
There are some limitations on the Allemansrätten right of public access alongside Svärdlången, which means you are only allowed to stay overnight at an official campsite. We head for the one we’ve chosen, beautifully located in a forest clearing. There’s not much there – just a simple firepit and some wood left there for fuel, so now its up to us to conquer the wilderness and sort out food and a place to sleep.
If you’ve never done something before, chances are you don’t know how to do it, so it’s a case of trial and error. How will you otherwise find out the amount of spirit needed to fill the camping stove? Or know that today’s tents have undergone a minor design revolution since those long ago school outings? I have to top up the spirit a few times to get the water to boil, and Linn has to scratch her head a few times before the borrowed, modern tent is up. But the fact is that necessity is the mother of invention and we figure it out quickly enough. Some things, like folding knives, obviously make things easier, and the amateur kit we’ve packed does actually work. Yes, you can drink from plastic picnic wine glasses and eat off kitschy, flowery plastic plates.
When we eventually ramble back down the path to the little beach, we feel hardy and indomitable. We have food, we have a place to sleep, and I’ve even been foresighted enough to fix up a refrigerator from an old piece of string for two of the light beers we made space for in our bags. As the sun sets, we contentedly fish the bottles out of the cool water and eat our dinner, sitting on the beach.
This is perhaps the loveliest time of the day and Dalsland is stunningly beautiful. The light that falls over the tops of the pines is a warm golden colour and the inshore water laps tranquilly against the shoreline. Over-cooked macaroni and tuna salad have never tasted better!
As we climb into our kayaks the next morning, we are filled with a new confidence. Linn is still suffering from aching muscles, yes, and our backs are stiff after a night on the sleeping mats. But all of a sudden, we’re feeling we are on much firmer ground.
After a while, I start feeling that the kayak is actually part of me. A new, agile and cooperative body part that does what the brain wants it to. My map is folded neatly in a plastic bag and placed in the breast pocket of my life jacket. And in the spraydeck’s little storage area, I have a bag of dried apricots and almonds. Suddenly, I almost feel professional, and when we encounter a group of Danish families with questionable technique, struggling with their clumsy, Canadian style canoes, I sit up straight, take a couple of firm strokes with my paddle, and smile generously at the happy canoeists. And dare I hope that there’s some admiration in the looks they give me?
It’s time for another pause – stomachs are rumbling and sweat is dripping. And this whole taking a pause thing is something else you quickly learn: into the shore, stand up and get out, and pull the kayaks on land. Take out your bags, light the camping stove, and then up into the forest to answer a call of nature. Wash your hands in the lake, cook the food, make the coffee. It takes a while before you can finally flop down on the rocky slabs and eat your meal – this time, it’s fried soya sausages with bread and ketchup. We sit there and ponder the meaning of life: we agree that including a bottle of Johnny’s Mustard in the luggage would probably have been good, wonder whether it would have been worth bringing a six-pack of light beer, rather than just four. Dip our toes in the water, drink some instant coffee, and brush the red ants off our legs.
After lunch, we go for a swim. The water is wonderfully cool and revives our tired muscles. Over our heads, the sky is the classic blue of early summer, the lake water smells of the forest, and we feel Ronja the Robber’s Daughter’s shout of spring in our chests. And actually, that’s not so illogical – it’s only 40 km as the crow flies from where we are to Sörknatten mountain where much of Tage Danielsson’s film about Ronja was shot.
Lapland is often called Europe’s last wilderness, while Dalsland is, in turn, called Europe’s closest wilderness. And although Dalsland may not be as distantly exotic as northern Sweden, there are similarities.
This little county is made up of scattered rural municipalities that are struggling with depopulation, and the industries to which many small company towns used to be home have breathed their last. But at the same time, this means the landscape is characterised by a sort of pleasing loneliness. Unlike the neighbouring county of Bohuslän, whose coast has been heavily developed, all you see on the shores of the lakes is the odd jetty or simple holiday home. It’s a place of calm, stillness and freedom.
At Skifors, it’s time for the first portage of the day. We start by trying to carry the kayaks as they are, but don’t get far before they feel impossibly heavy. We have a rethink, unpack the canoes, and are helped by a kindly older man from Orust who’s camping here with his wife. He takes our bags while we carry the empty kayaks, and before we know it, we’re climbing back into the kayaks on the next lake, Västra Silen.
The sky suddenly turns dark grey and ominous rumbles can be heard overhead. We paddle into the shore, don our rain jackets and head out again 15 minutes later in the belief that we’ve waited out the bad weather. But the thunder returns with new force once we’re out on the open water and heading for the lake’s opposite shore. The thunderclaps are so powerful that they reverberate through the kayaks’ hulls, and as the lightning illuminates the sky, we decide on a rapid change of plans and start frantically paddling for the first campsite we can find.
And then comes the rain. Heavy drops fill the air around us and whip up the surface of the water. When we reach the shore and glimpse the wind shelter behind the birch trees, we breathe a huge sigh of relief. Maybe this is what makes the wilderness simultaneously so scary and so attractive: it’s totally uncontrollable.
If the power of the weather is not something that you’ve ever really thought about before, you absolutely will after you’ve been alone in a little kayak on open water as the thunder roars. All you can do is surrender, crawl into the wind shelter, and wait for the weather to break. Because it always does – break, that is. The rain is soon over, the grove is suddenly full of sunshine, and the air feels almost tropically moist. It’s getting late, so we decide to spend the night here. We seem to have already developed a kind of routine, and setting up camp and cooking dinner suddenly goes really quickly. After just two days, we’re working efficiently and as a team.
A couple of hours later, we’re sitting on the rocks with a light beer, salty crackers, and blue cheese. Faint strands of mist glide over the surface of the water. It’s so still that we can eavesdrop on the conversations of people in the small fishing boats that pass by on the lake. How often do we sit like this nowadays? Completely still, staring at an evening sky that slowly turns a shade of rose, while we mentally absorb and process everything we’ve seen and done?
That moment alone is worth every stroke of the paddle.
Our best experiences:
1. Put the things you’re going to want while paddling close to you. Once you’re out on the water, it’s hard to change position without tipping the kayak. Remember that splashes get everywhere, so fold your map, for example, and store it in a little plastic bag.
2. A kayak trip can take a lot of different
forms: lively, with lots of locks, or more peaceful, or a combination of kayaking, hiking, and rail-biking. Ask the rental firm to draw up a route in line with your preferences and ability.
3. Pack in small units and put everything in waterproof bags. There is always a small risk that you’ll capsize, in which case everything will get wet. Think about what you’ll need, next time you take a break, and put that on top.
4. When porting the kayak over long stretches, remove the heavy bags first.
5. The hell with personal hygiene! All you really need in your toilet bag is a toothbrush, toothpaste, sun tan lotion, toilet paper, plasters for your blisters, and any medicines you take.
6. Nothing to wear? Use ordinary exercise clothes. Leggings and a t-shirt made from a functional material work just fine.
7. Don’t buy expensive equipment unnecessarily. We hired kayaks and a camping stove, and borrowed waterproof knapsacks, sleeping mats, and sleeping bags, long underwear, folding knives, and tents.