For approximately half the year this northern region which can proudly boast it’s own language, jämtska, as well as republican movement, is white. With the first snow falling on the mountain tops as early as September, the long, harsh and incredibly beautiful winter opens up normally inaccessible terrain to all different kinds of transport. The aptly named Kallsjön (cold lake) freezes to a thickness of over half a metre while the northern and southern ends remain open water, often steaming. This links both sides of the lake by foot, skis, snowbmobile, car, and I can happily testify still horse and cart. The drive is cut from the otherwise 30km around the south point to only 2km when the ice road opens.
The growing season is much shorter this far north and it’s common for people to add two more seasons to the year; ‘winter-spring’ and ‘autumn-winter’ because the winter is so drawn out and the snow remains for months after the temperature rises above freezing. Summer felt like it began in mid May this year but the sun determines a lot; it swings from the mid twenties to sub ten degrees depending on whether the clouds let it through. I feel like I’ll never take for granted wearing simply shorts and a shirt again. Despite the short time period there is an abundance of gardening to be seen with the humble greenhouse playing it’s important role. The annual ‘kosläpp’ or letting out the cows is a family event with hundreds of people in attendance on a sunny day in June this year to observe the cows at their happiest, frolicking, headbutting, chomping and generally having fun in the fresh green grass they’d been away from for so long.
Out in the forest, no other people around. Pure white. If you stop you hear absolute silence. Looking around you can see various animal tracks winding through the trees. You smile to yourself hardly daring to believe that it’s real. And then a noise cuts the air, so harsh. It certainly doesn’t sound like it belongs out here where survival knowledge still matters. Then in the distance it roars into view and soon enough flies past, gliding, floating on the soft covering. The driver doesn’t even notice you standing in the trees. A minute later and the noise has subsided. Snowmobiles. Noisy but fun! And after cars the most common personal transport in the winter time.
There are however certain parts of the remarkable fjällmiljön, mountain environment, that are off limits to the snowmobiles. These are demarcated as protected reindeer areas. Reindeer husbandry has long been part of life for many of the indigenous Sami people of the north, whose traditional territory stretches as far south as Dalarna County in Sweden and north all the way to the coastal regions of Norway and Russia. They have been living on and from the land however since long before any of the national borders we know today were created, and their lands can be approximately divided along linguistic lines which traverse the earth horizontally. The creation of the nordic nation states and their borders has dramatically changed the Sami way of life, with religion playing a key part as it so often does in the colonising of new lands and oppression of the traditional inhabitants. Reindeer husbandry is still practised today by a minority of the Sami.
The björk, or birch tree is an iconic symbol of the north and for very good reason. The trees can be found in abundance and are the most common type used for firewood. Their bark when dry is an excellent firestarter and can get a warming blaze started from a few sparks on flint. As the winter begins to fade away each year the sap rises through the tree and for a period of around one month before spring kicks in properly it’s possible to harvest this by boring a small hole into the trunk, or cutting a branch. The resulting liquid can be drunk straight as a kind of spring tonic or frozen for use later. It can be brewed into a kind of wine with excellent results, or boiled down to create a strong and delectable syrup as is famously done with the maple. The sap of the birch contains a far lower sugar content however and so from 100L about 1L of thick, dark syrup can be obtained. When the sap stops flowing and the buds open into leaves telling everyone around that spring has sprung, these can be eaten and are great in a salad. They often have a sweet sticky coating which means that you’ll have plenty of competition from the small, winged locals when picking them.
Åre is one of the, if not the most well known ski resorts in Scandinavia. Mt Åreskutan and several surrounding mountains have been developed over many years into a modern resort equipped with high speed chairlifts and a gondola. Many thousands of wealthy tourists flock here each winter to enjoy the powder and many other attractions on offer at quite a price, so that among many locals it’s earnt the nickname “Little Stockholm”. The train station has been renovated into a complete three storey shopping centre and lies opposite the large hotel ‘Holiday Club’ which is situated right on the shore of lake Åresjön. This hotel incorporates several shops into it’s main hall too which gives the impression of wandering into a shopping mall. There are a multitude of bars with the usual apres-ski offerings. In short it’s a glitzy, expensive mountain town.
But just on the other side of the mountain in Kallsjöbygden, the surrounds of Lake Kallsjön, lies an entirely different world. Villages so small they don’t even have a shop with dirt roads leading the way to them (the result being that the road is much smoother in winter when covered by ice and snow) on which two buses a day run. The undeveloped rural life, so close to Åre yet so far removed.