Mountain biking and canoeing in Sweden
There comes a point in life when your children start to find excuses not to travel with you any more. Maddy (15) was quite diplomatic about it. “Dad, I’m not keen on mountain biking. I don’t think I’ll come, thanks.” But I was determined to get her to join me in Sweden; I like her company. So I did what any responsible parent would do in a similar situation: I lied. “Did I say ‘mountain biking’? It’s much more about wild swimming.”
I did feel a twinge of guilt, but to be honest, when it comes to travel we all lie to our kids. It starts with, “Not far now,” develops into “There’s a chocolate fairy on top of that mountain,” and ends with fabulous wild swims (on bikes).
We arrive in Åre in the heart of Jämtland, the region beside the Norwegian border renowned for its wild forests, to stay at the Holiday Club for a night. It has a great pool and slide. Maddy thinks I planned it, but actually I had no idea. Everything is going swimmingly. In the afternoon I lure Maddy out to the ski lifts where there’s a guide, Jesper, who is going to teach us to downhill bike ride correctly (1½-hour training from £15, day rental £73, areguiderna.se). Jesper makes it all sound easy: “One finger on each brake lever. Relax your arms.”
The ski lifts have special bike racks and sweep us up the mountain behind Åre. Maddy tackles a green run, then a blue (bike trails are graded like ski runs: green, blue, red and black. Green is easy; black is not). She manages both with ease. Bicycling without pedalling is a doddle. “It was all right,” she admits. “Can we go back to the pool?”
Next day we shift 40km south to the tiny village of Vålådalen, where there is Fjällstation mountain lodge (bikes £46 a day, doubles from £67, with half-board £150), run by English-Swedish duo Andy and Hanna. We find Andy inside the bike cafe. “Kevin! Maddy! Ready for some serious biking?”
Maddy shoots a black look at me, but it misses and instead buries itself in a jar of homemade brownies on the cafe counter. There are other distractions: the rustic, idiosyncratic charm of the enormous handmade wooden building, plus a set of outdoor hot tubs and a sauna. In winter this is a favourite training location for cross-country ski teams, but in summer the hikers and bikers take over. “We used to get around a thousand visitors all summer,” says Andy, “but now that the blue lake is becoming famous, we’re up to around 16,000.”
“A blue lake?” Maddy’s interest is piqued.
“The Blanktjärn is fed by underground springs that pass through chalk. The result is a rich blue water. You shouldn’t miss it.”
In the meantime, Andy sends us out in kayaks on a nearby lake (£25 a day). Next day the plan is to cycle a few miles to a lake, paddle across in a canoe, wild camp and fish. But Maddy flatly refuses to get on the bike. “I want to stay at the lodge. Dad, I need hot tubs.” Andy and Hanna are happy to keep an eye on her, so I pack the bike and set off.
The trails here are not steep, but the challenge is in the spongs, narrow planks set across boggy sections. Fjällstation’s bikes, however, are equipped to cope: full suspension, huge tyres and a handlebar switch that drops the saddle out of harm’s way for bouncy sections. The lodge keeps a small fleet of canoes on Nulltjärn lake and, after parking the bike against a tree, I set out, paddling across a dark mirror of water surrounded by forested mountains and snowy peaks. I spend an hour or two fishing, catching trout and char on a spinner, but releasing them: there is no possibility of cooking – the dry conditions mean even gas stoves are forbidden. Instead I’m carrying generous supplies of cold cuts supplied by the Fjällstation kitchen.
I pitch my tent in a clump of pine trees, and gather cloudberries and bilberries. The Swedes have a wonderful concept called allemansrätten och naturens skafferi, “everyman’s right and nature’s pantry”. The countryside is open to anyone. I had feared I might become part of the pantry too – there are midges – but I don’t need the head net Andy has lent me.
At 5am next day I slip the canoe out and catch an Arctic char. This one I will keep. Jenny, the chef at Fjällstation, had promised to cook one if I got lucky. I cycle back, drop the fish in the fridge and rouse Maddy. What about the Blue Lake? “Walking will take three hours,” says Andy, over coffee in the bike cafe, “or an hour on bikes.”
His psychology is spot on. Maddy borrows Hanna’s awesome fat bike, buoyed by the knowledge that its owner was a world championship medallist. Our route is red – quite a challenge – with long spongs and steep, rough sections full of boulders the size of an angry teenager’s head. “It’s like science at school,” Maddy says. “I can do it, but don’t like it.”
Finally we push up a steep ridge and below us the Blanktjärn appears, a startling turquoise. The water temperature is also breathtaking: sudden upswells of freezing water followed by brief patches of solar-heated warmth. Underwater, even without goggles, I’m astounded by the visibility and colour. We float in blue. Around us for miles there are only forests and snow-streaked mountains.
“When I found this area,” Andy told me, “I knew I’d come home. I never want to leave.” I know exactly what he means.
• The trip was provided by Visit Sweden. Holiday Club Åre has doubles from £120 a night B&B. EasyJet flies from Gatwick and Bristol to Ostersund/Åre from December to the end of March. At other times, fly to Trondheim (with Norwegian from Gatwick) and drive, take a train or bus to Åre (167km)