Each winter I like to get away to the snow.
I enjoy winter mountain walking in Scotland.
Ski touring in Norway is also a favourite.
But the northern forest in winter has a special allure which is hard to escape.
I’ve experienced this environment many times and I’ve certainly written about my love of it before.
Despite many visits, the pull of the boreal forest seems to grow stronger with greater familiarity.
I’m not the only one to be drawn by the magnetic north.
Every year for the past few years I’ve teamed up with some like-minded friends and headed north.
We’re all enthusiasts of winter camping and the accompanying traditional skills.
It’s a mode of wilderness living, travel and interaction with the environment that, to us, just seems right. It has somehow resonated with us.
So it was that we again headed north – a long way north – up to the top of Sweden, once again in search of the boreal forest’s winter magic.
Less Distance; Greater Diversity
In the past we have undertaken trips where the main objective is to cover a route. Between moving, setting up camp, sleeping and striking camp, there is little time to do anything else. Winter days are short and it becomes dark early.
Until you stay in an area for more than a couple of nights, it’s hard to move beyond attending to only your immediate needs – locating, sawing and splitting firewood for the stove, melting snow for water and cooking food.
On this trip we wanted to devote time to a greater diversity of activities. So we had planned to maintain a static base camp and make shorter journeys out from there. But even though we would have more time for the extra things we wanted to do, we were still keen to get into the forest as soon as we could. We arranged for a friend to take us out by snow machine and trailer and asked to be dropped off in an area we had visited before.
The first job was to locate and prepare a campsite. We quickly chose a flat area up away from the local low points which would collect cold air. Preparation involves treading an area of snow while wearing snowshoes. This transforms the snow, knocking the arms off the snow flakes and warming the snow very slightly. The snow then freezes into a relatively solid crust that can be camped upon. This freezing process takes a little while (quicker if very cold).
While the platform was freezing, we headed up into the woods to locate firewood. We picked our path carefully so that it was an efficient route. This trail would be used repeatedly over coming days. One thing was clear – there was a lot of snow this year! We were very glad of our snowshoes, sinking into the powder only a few inches. Without them we’d have been up to our waists. Evidence of recent heavy snowfall was everywhere from the unconsolidated powder under our feet to the weight of snow balancing on all the trees around us.
We explored the area and readily located some small dead, standing pine trees for firewood. These were felled, cut into sections and taken back to our camp. We also explored the area a little more and located additional dead trees that would see us through several days. These were left in situ.
We also needed to collect various poles to support the stove and chimney as well as to peg out the tent. Once we’d sourced all of our materials, our camping area was hardened enough to set up the tent and get our camp organised.
Cold Comfort But A Room With A View
The sky cleared overnight and temperatures dropped. For the next few days we had low and stable temperatures, blue skies and sunshine followed by starry nights.
During the day we had temperatures of around minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit) and night-time temperatures around minus 35 degrees Celsius (minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit).
Under the brilliant blue skies the fresh white snow looked stunning and we had certainly picked a choice spot to camp. The vista from our camp was beautiful.
Meals and Daily Chores
The plan was to be self-sufficient for 15 days. We weren’t going to be living off the land though. We were taking all of our food supplies with us. One of the objectives of this trip was to avoid the easy option of quickly prepared dehydrated packet meals and do more cooking from first principles than we sometimes have time for.
So we had visited a Sami butcher in Kiruna and procured around 10kg of meat – a mixture of reindeer and elk. We also visited a local store for basics such as flour, butter, coffee, sugar, herbs and spices. We added this to other foodstuffs that had been prepared by a member of our group back in the UK.
We did stick with our favourite packet porridge though – apart from the fact we really enjoy it, it’s quick to make in the mornings and we wanted to get up, out and doing things.
What we did need from the forest, however, was plenty of firewood for cooking and keeping our tent warm, drying our clothing and airing our sleeping bags. Daily sorties into the forest for firewood were required. Efficient sawing and splitting turned whole trees into top-quality firewood.
Producing water by melting snow was also an important and – when we were in the tent – an almost continuous task. A large kettle and a cooking pot ensured the four of us stayed well-hydrated and had plenty of water for cooking.
Skills Capture: Watch This Space
One of my goals for the trip was to capture some skills for the winter forest environment for future blogs (watch this space!) and magazine articles.
For this purpose I brought my digital SLR as well as the small camera I always carry with me.
Whatever area of activity or hobby you are interested in, from time-to-time it’s good to go back, revisit the basics and think about why you do things in a certain way. As an instructor I always find this deconstruction and analysis useful.
I really enjoyed running through my checklist of skills and photographing them. I went out on my own to do this and it was good to have time solo in the forest. Off I went on my snowshoes, carrying a small backpack and looking for resources.
The forest in winter is very quiet, almost silent. Apart from the “craw-craw” calls of a pair of ravens, I occasionally heard the strange “clop-clop-clop” of a capercaillie. One day I spotted a couple of reindeer in the woods ahead, moved forward as much as I could and watched them moving through the forest looking for, uncovering and feeding on lichen.
In addition to the animals I actually saw and heard in the forest, there were tracks and sign in abundance.
Snow is a great medium on which to read tracks. Snow is so good at recording the detail of an animal’s activity, it’s hard not to be fascinated by what’s left behind.
This year we saw a lot of fox tracks in the forest and crossing swamps and lakes. In fact there were more than I’d ever seen in my ten years of visiting this area of Sweden. Speaking to locals at the end of our trip we learned that the fox population had done very well on the back of a boom in rodent numbers last year. I’m guessing they were finding the winter a lot harder, particularly with the deep snow.
As well as fox tracks, we saw the tracks and sign of hares (not so many this year), reindeer, elk, capercaillie, ptarmigan (more than in recent years), stoat and even mice.
When everything is covered in snow, though, it makes some things less obvious. Horses’s hoof fungus, Fomes fomentarius, grow over many years so these fungi are still present over winter. I spotted a few on birch trees in the area including some quite big specimens.
Whenever you camp in these forests the Siberian Jay, Perisoreus infaustus, quickly zeroes in on you. These inquisitive, bold birds are soon around the outside of your tent looking for tidbits of food. We had a group of four birds regularly visit us this year. There was one particularly brazen individual, who we called “fluffy” due to its particularly fluffy breast feathers, come right up to our feet when we were around camp. The birds took great interest in an old reindeer skin we kept outside, at which the birds would peck and try to remove tiny fragments, presumably for food.
Partly due to weight and space restrictions, I didn’t take a telephoto lens along with my DSLR. In retrospect I wish I had. I would have had the opportunity to obtain some great shots of both the reindeer I encountered in the forest as well as the jays around camp.
I had only my standard/wide lens with me. This was because in addition to the photos for skills articles mentioned above, I had two particular photographic projects in mind for this trip.
The first was to take some monochrome (black and white) images of the northern forest. This is not something I had done before but having attended a monochrome photography workshop in London last year, I wanted to experiment.
In certain light conditions, the northern forest environment in winter can look almost monochrome anyway, with only subtle hints of colour; I was interested in the potential starkness of images without these soft hues.
I also thought that black and white images of our camp might be someone reminiscent of those of the old pioneers and prospectors of the American north. You can see a selection of the black and white photos on my Flickr page.
The second photographic objective was to obtain images of the northern lights, aurora borealis. The winter of 2012/2013 had been predicted to be a good one for aurora, being driven by an 11-year solar maximum.
We were heading out to the forest at a time when there was no moon either. As the clouds cleared and the temperatures dropped, the photographic conditions were perfect.
The only problem was the northern lights didn’t show up.
I did get some nice shots of Orion though (such as the one at the beginning of this article).
We then had a period of warmer, cloudy weather with more snow. So no chance of seeing the lights even if they were there.
It wasn’t until the second week, when the skies cleared again – with a waxing moon higher in the sky each evening – that we witnessed some aurora action. The first night was very faint though. With broken cloud drifting in from the north east, I called it a day.
The next evening, the sky completely cleared (and temperatures dropped). I stood outside at minus 30 degrees Celsius and finally got a few good images.
Testing Kit and Clothing
My kit and clothing for the north is a fairly stable outfit these days. I’ve established what works for me and I stick to it, keeping things as simple as possible.
But there are always opportunities to test out equipment or clothing and this trip was no exception. At this stage, however, I’m not going to say much more about most of these items. Some require further testing. Thoughts, opinions and findings will be written up as appropriate and appear in future articles. Again watch this space…
One thing I was very impressed with was hand made for me. To be more precise a pair were made for me. Following her attendance on one of my bushcraft courses over at Frontier Bushcraft, Elen Sentier was kind enough to knit me a pair of socks from North Ronaldsay wool. Comfortable and unrestrictive, they proved fantastic for arctic conditions. I wore them every day for two weeks over a pair of Thorlo mountaineering socks. The combination was luxurious. Elen’s socks have earned a firm place in my arctic outfit!
Freed from man-hauling toboggans every day (as we have done on some trips), venturing out on snowshoes with only a day-pack seemed leisurely by comparison.
We took advantage of this light order by exploring off the beaten track, striking out across frozen bogs, roving through deep snow, pushing deeper into the woods and skirting unvisited lakes.
The area wasn’t completely new to us though. We revisited places we’d been before, including the lean-to shelter from last winter.
The shelter was still standing strong but under a lot of snow. In the time we were there we renovated the shelter, with Stuart doing much of the work.
To me this further demonstrates the value of building these shelters well, especially if you intend to return to an area. It didn’t take too long to get this shelter back into good shape; much less time than building it in the first place. Again it proved to be comfortable and protective. More on this in an upcoming blog article.
Visits From Friends
Because we had established a base-camp area that we returned to most evenings, our local friends knew where we’d be.
So they visited.
We had a visit from one of our friends who is an extremely experienced snow-machine driver. He was passing on his machine and stopped off to deliver us some Swedish cinnamon buns known as bullar.
Another day, a friend who has a team of huskies swung by for fika. We provided fresh coffee and again the offering from our guest was bullar.
Huskies really are beautiful dogs and it was a treat to have a team of them visit our camp. When it came for them to depart they were really ready to go. The sun was already below the horizon. They were off like a shot and on their way home in the dimming light.
Research and Development
One of the aspects of wilderness skills that keeps my interest keen and my humility healthy is that there is always more to learn, both in terms of skills to be mastered as well as experience to be had.
On this trip, I took the opportunity to experiment with various aspects of skills as well as further test a little-known shelter design. I will be writing more about this shelter in a future blog article as it deserves the space for a full explanation. It proved effective and has applications wider than just in the boreal forest. There’s a sneak preview in the photo below.
All Good Things Come To An End
During the afternoon of the day before our last, we organised our equipment and prepared for leaving. After a final night in the tent (and a monumental meal of meat we had left), we packed up and loaded our toboggans in the morning. We stacked the poles we had cut for the tent and scoured the site for any inadvertent littering, particularly inside the footprint of the tent, which does not have an integral groundsheet.
We were then ready for our trek to the hamlet in which we had booked accommodation. We would be walking on established trails used by snow machines and dog teams and it hadn’t snowed much in the previous days. Therefore for the most part, we were unlikely to need to wear our snowshoes. We kept them handy on top of our equipment though. We each hauled a toboggan.
A Different Kind Of Magic
Our walk back to the village was uneventful and we made good time. After some time spent unpacking, the sauna was up to temperature. I’m a big fan of saunas and steam rooms anyway but after 15 days in the forest, this was bliss.
Our walk, a sauna, good fresh food and a local beer saw that we slept well that night.
For the following day we had hired a snow machine each for a tour of the wider area.
Now snow machines are noisy and smelly (although less so than they used to be). They do have an impact on the environment. But they do provide an important means of transport in winter for remote communities.
Tourism provides significant employment in the north of Sweden. Snow machines are needed for transporting guests, servicing remote lodges and cabins and for helping to keep dog-sledding trails open in an efficient manner.
You are never far from snow machines in this part of Sweden and if you spend time up here, it is worth learning how to drive one properly, including having an understanding of the risks.
They are also fun to drive.
So we had reserved our last full day in Sweden for a snow machine tour of the area. We consulted our experienced snow machine friend for potential routes, to learn the state of some of the tracks in the area, where there was overflow water on lakes and where it was safe to cross various rivers, as well as areas to avoid. We devised a good route, including some areas I had not been to before.
The high-point of the route – both literally and figuratively – was the summit of a mountain. It’s a large rounded hill with a broad shoulder and access from the eastern flank. To get to it we headed south through the forest, back past where we had camped and onto a large lake, then back onto a winding trail through the forest. With whippy birch saplings and twigs across the trail in places, it’s important to wear goggles to protect the eyes.
The trees were interspersed with crossings of various swamps and small lakes before plunging back into the trees. Eventually we swung east and powered along a chain of lakes. Here we got our first clear view of the mountain in the distance.
After checking the map, we continued on our route east, picking up the main north-south snow machine trail as it crossed the lake. We headed south again over increasingly undulating terrain until we picked up a trail that runs up the flank fo the mountain.
This trail reminded me of my old BMX days, with steep rises, flat table-tops and steep drop-offs. Just on a larger scale. It was quite technical and more of a challenge to drive than the previous 30km but definitely exhilarating. And not just for the driving. As we gained elevation, we started gaining tantalising views of the surrounding area.
When you are in the forest, you can’t see very far. You can’t see outside the forest and except for looking at maps of the area, you don’t really get any sort of overall view of the terrain with its blanket covering of trees interlaced with lakes, rivers, swamps and bogs. There are very few vantage points here. So it was a real thrill to rise above the tree line and look out on the expanse of wilderness that surrounded us.
From this saddle point in the landscape we headed off the trail and onto the shoulder of the mountain. We followed the main broad ridge up towards a top. Being a UK-qualified Mountain Leader, I’ve spent many a day walking to the top of hills in the Lake District, Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands. I also love being in the hills in winter, winter boots on and ice axe and crampons packed, trudging through the snow on brilliant, sunny, clear days.
The fact that we were now effortlessly powering our way up a UK-sized summit on snow machines seemed like cheating. Frankly it’s not something I’d want to do regularly. I felt like I was sullying the mountain somewhat. At the first summit we all agreed, though, that it was an incredible experience.
We had picked the perfect day for the trip. It had started overcast and not overly cold. As the day progressed the sky cleared from the north-east and the low-angled sun eventually shone across the landscape. By the time we were at the highest top of the hill we had clear views of all the surrounding terrain – an expanse of forest and lakes to the north and east with more hills to the south and west.
We didn’t linger too long at the top and soon found ourselves retracing our tracks back up to the second top then down the broad ridge to rejoin the roller-coaster trail. This descent took us back to the main snow machine trail and we soon crossed a lake and were back into the forest proper. Another 30km of forest trails and we were back where we started having had a thrilling day out.
It was very different to the majority of our trip which comprised quiet enjoyment of the natural environment in a peaceful corner of the woods. But after 15 days in the same area this had started to feel a little claustrophobic. A day out exploring the wider environment was refreshing and re-iterated the scale of the terrain. We had covered 75km on snow machines and barely scratched the surface.
For the final evening we were invited by another friend to an ice bar. I was dubious about the hot chocolate milk laced with vodka until I tried it. Unlike many cocktails, this beverage is too easy to drink and would be dangerously easy to replicate! I limited my self to two…
You might be reading this and thinking I’m lucky to be able to have these adventures. And you’d be right; I do consider myself lucky. That’s one of the reasons I like to share the experience as much as possible.
For me it’s also a valuable reckoner. The arctic is an environment which is potentially lethal to the uninitiated and poses many risks even to the seasoned visitor. No matter how experienced you are, you must respect the north.
I’m very comfortable living in the woods in the UK. It’s easy. When I head to the boreal forest, I raise my game. Everyone has to. Skills must be efficient and care must be taken. You rely on your skills and knowledge on a daily basis rather than merely practice them. For example, I’ve noticed the improvement in the axe skills of my friends over the years we’ve been winter camping together. These guys are not professional outdoors instructors yet their axe skills are now on a par with many I have worked with.
These trips allow me to reflect upon what is important. This is partly the environment and partly the mental space it allows. It’s quiet. There are few distractions. My phone is turned off and I’m away from the day-to-day running of Frontier Bushcraft. I spend time with my friends and, in the absence of TV, stereos and the internet, we make our own entertainment; I never laugh so much. It’s also great to return to an area that I’m familiar with and visit friends there too.
It’s interesting to return home after these trips. I feel physically stronger, mentally refreshed, more relaxed but at the same time sharper and more focused in my bushcraft skills and their real-world application. It’s also a juxtaposition going from the depths of arctic winter to a relatively benign UK season that is on the verge of Spring.
I’m always extremely busy teaching bushcraft courses in the Spring and Summer and my annual winter trip north sets me up for the rigors of this course season perfectly.
But I’m always looking forward to my next return to the northern forest….
Let me know in the comments which photo you like the most or which area of this trip you found most interesting/would like to hear more about.