The freedom to roam: rediscovering nature in Swedish Lapland
We didn’t expect to discover a love story in Swedish Lapland. We’d expected the endless woodlands and crisp autumnal air. We’d prepared for the frigid weather and a road trip through rugged wilderness. We’d hoped to cross paths with herds of reindeer, and kept our fingers crossed for a cheeky early smattering of snow. We’d even anticipated the cleverly sleek Scandinavian design and held our breath all week that the green lights of the aurora would whirl above our heads at night (spoiler: they didn’t).
What we didn’t bank on was that between the memories of lush forests and pristine mirrored lakes, our lasting impressions of life in the north of Sweden would be a deeply respectful, unwavering relationship.
Of the bond between Lapland’s humans, and the wilds they call home.
Admittedly, we - two travellers from the warmth of ‘down under’, with zero experience in arctic climates - had constructed an image in our heads of what it must be like to live in such a place, mostly cobbled together via Pinterest boards full of glittering icy tundras.
We’d assumed that in this place where days are measured by how far below zero they reach, life must be difficult. Beautiful, yes, but harsh. That the elements were something you struggled against for two-thirds of the year, and only relished in the other third. After all, it was sculpted by an ice age and cold is still a very relative term (that is, until your eyelashes freeze).
Our assumption couldn’t have been more wrong.
Ask any local here what defines them, and watch as the smile spreads infectiously across their face. Most will laugh, as though it’s plainly obvious: nature, in all its elements, of course.
“You could take one breath of air up here and be full for a year,” says Mikael, inhaling deep.
We’re chatting in the dining room of his hotel in Pjesker, just east of Arvidsjaur Kommun, where he runs his adventure tour company Pjesker Adventure. We’re supposed to be out on the lake fishing with him today, but heavy rain is keeping us ashore for now. It’s a reminder that the weather gets the ultimate say in these parts.
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“Bah - it’s just proof that Sweden really does have the cleanest water in the world!” he laughs at our disappointment.
He’s been telling us about what’s on offer on his tours, his eyes alive with excitement as he talks about his toys. There’s car racing on frozen lakes, cross country skis, mountain bike and ice-fishing gear. But his (and, we think, most of the locals here) pride and joy is his collection of snowmobiles.
The thrill, he says, is the freedom of being able to drive through snowy forests, over frozen lakes, and into a wilderness normally impenetrable in the snow. He loves the speed of them, of course, but at its heart, it’s all about getting outside. They’re a means to real-life experiences, to get out into nature and feel its power.
When we ask him what the best part about living here is, there’s no hesitation: “nature. You have to be an outdoors person though, to enjoy the calm. This is not the place if you don’t like being outside”.
The forest floor is unexpectedly spongy, squelching with the damp under our feet. It’s ankle-deep, a carpet of vivid colour rolling out before us. Wild berries and mushrooms pepper the verdant lichen, while autumn biting at the leaves has transformed the trees above into matchstick flames.
It’s almost unfathomable that these same woods will be laden with thick snow in just a few short months. It’s also difficult to comprehend that this world exists only a few hours from the bustle and chaos of London’s doorstep.
Ahead, Caroline, our guide from Sandsjogarden, loyal malamute Djanga at her side, is pointing out flora and fauna of interest around us: rowan berries (inedible until treated), lingonberries (delicious as jam), wild blueberries, yellow chanterelles.
“It’s fine to pick them,” she says, “but only if you just take what you need”.
“Here, we leave enough berries for the birds”.
It’s a refreshing approach to consumerism, particularly coming from London where plastic-wrapped food can be bought and disposed of just as quickly without a second thought. As we discover, foraging and sustainability are fundamental to life in Sweden, and this won’t be the last time we hear Caroline’s words echoed while we’re here.
A centuries-old Swedish law called Alleemansrätten (“every man’s right”) grants everybody the freedom to roam the forests and forage for wild fare - on the condition that nature isn’t disturbed or destroyed. It’s a necessity turned cherished part of Swedish identity. Game of Thrones jokes aside, winter is coming soon, and everyone here knows that survival is dependent on looking out for each other.
It echoes the ways of the indigenous Sami people, who have roamed the Arctic region with their reindeer for thousands of years. Lapland (Sápmi in their own language) is their home, and they are its guardians. At the essence of their rich culture is living from the land; hunting, fishing, and gathering are in their blood. But so is resourcefulness, and never wasting a skerrick of mother nature’s provisions.
Most people up north hunt, fish, and grow their own produce with pride. We’re taken on a tour of the Northern Lights Guesthouse owner in Harads, Annika’s, veggie patch, and are surprised to see Asparagus growing so close to the Arctic Circle. She laughs and says that no one ever believes it grows up here either.
We’re here at a good time actually. Autumn is the time of in-betweens and preparations. Of pausing between tourist seasons, roaming in forests and restocking larders, readying oneself for the approaching frost. If slow, deliberate living was a place, I think it would be Swedish Lapland in Autumn.
As two Australians who grew up enjoying ‘the great outdoors’, but who have called the urban sprawl of London home for the past year, being here for a week helped us rediscover how much we missed nature. In the crunch of forest tracks and the crisp fresh air, our nature clocks were entirely reset and our minds re-balanced.
That’s the beauty of a life lived under green aurora skies and the balmy glow of a midnight sun. It seems calmer, more present. This is the kind of place where locals don’t blink when traffic jams are caused by reindeer, or rain and snow wash away your plans. It’s the simple joys. A feeling that the world is both your playground and your keeper, where the answer to every question starts with the freedom to roam.
And the best part? You and I are invited too.