15 Jul 2016

On Your Bike: 700km in 5 days through Lapland

John’s solo trip - cycling in Norway & Sweden

This mini adventure begins close to the Arctic town of Narvik, a smudge of civilisation at the northern tip of Norway’s “Nordland” district. It cowers rather ruefully on the shores of Ofot Fjord, and wouldn’t exist at all were it not for Sweden’s need to export its vast reserves of iron ore from the huge open pit mines in Kiruna.  25m tonnes of the stuff pass through Narvik every year – one of the benefits of its status as an ice-free port, warmed as it is by the Gulf Stream.  Sweden’s own northern ports are frozen over in the winter months and so Narvik’s commercial prosperity seem set to continue.

But this prosperity has not always been a blessing. During WWII, Narvik came to the attention of both the Germans and allies as they fought a bitter campaign in 1940 for control of the port.  Churchill was desperate not only to cut off the supply of iron ore to Germany but also to maintain the supply routes north to the Soviet Union.

But I decided to stay in Bjerkvik, a small hamlet just north of Narvik, at the imaginatively named “Bjerkvik Hotel”. Any weary traveller faced with this sober façade, peering weepily through the drizzle, may well feel they have discovered the font of Scandinavia’s brooding melancholy.  

But inside the reception is warm and friendly and, of course, spotlessly clean.  My room is on the 3rd floor looking out over the fjord, which, even at midnight, is bathed in an ethereal glow, filtered by the blanket of cloud hovering over it.  Fortunately my bicycle has travelled well on the flights from London, wrapped only in cardboard and cling film!

Day 1: Bjerkvik to Abisko
Distance: 78km
Ascent: 1,028m

After a large breakfast and a leisurely start, I headed East on the E6, enjoying the relative lack of traffic, which plagued my ride up the E4 from Stockholm 6 years ago. I stopped and watched a young bull moose standing just 10m from the road, frozen still, with plants hanging from his mouth.  One great thing about Norway is how courteous the drivers are.  This is probably to be expected from a nation of milk drinking, woolly jumper wearers, but it’s still a very pleasant surprise coming from the UK.  On steep twisting roads, which in Africa would have been strictly the domain of kamikaze boda boda drivers and impromptu picnickers, the Norwegians hang back for cyclists before eventually overtaking more cautiously than Abu Hamza putting his contact lenses in.

But no amount of courtesy can make the long mountain tunnels any less daunting. I wondered whether bicycles are even allowed to use them, but there seemed no alternative and so I had no choice but to submit to the gravitational pull of these black holes, the arteries of Norway’s mountain roads.  The darkness vibrates with the rumble of oncoming (or even more unnervingly, overtaking) freight before it thunders past. Each time I thought what an unglamorous ending it would be, under the wheels of an iron ore truck being driven by a Noel Edmonds look-a-like.  But fortunately Norwegians are the second largest consumers of coffee in the world, and their road safety statistics are impressive.  And so after leaving the tunnels intact I was able to relish in the serenity of the rising Lapland plateau as I approached the Swedish border.  The border is manned but open and a large EU sign marks the entry into Sweden.

My first stop on the Swedish side is the small supermarket in the isolated and rather lunar looking landscape of Riksgräsen.  Although not great examples of their kind, I can’t resist buying 2 “kanel bullar” - cinnamon buns which are a staple of the Swedish “Fika” ritual.  From here I pressed on eastwards, finding that I could comfortably manage 40km/b (kilometres per “bulle”)

Arriving at the mountain station at Abisko, I couldn’t help feeling that despite the great location and super cleanliness, this was not great value for money.  A six bed dorm (which I shared with 5 women) cost a reasonable 395SEK a night but the extras, including 60SEK for a towel, 110SEK for breakfast and extra for sheets, seemed steep.  After a much anticipated sauna, I headed to bed and feigned interest in my book as bras were discarded around me.

DAY 2: Absiko to Gällivare
Distance: 216km
Ascent: 929m

Unfortunately the landmark twin peaks of “Lapporten” were concealed by cloud as I left Abisko the next morning, but I remembered them well from my Kungsleden hike many years ago.  Even in the drizzle this northern landscape is enduringly appealing to me.  Distant mountains, streaked with snow are softened by low lying cloud and in the foreground twisted birch trees, draped with lichen, imbue the air with a lush, peaty smell.  As I passed tiny settlements birch wood smoke hung in the damp air, adding an almost luxurious dimension to it.

There are no facilities at all on the 94km stretch of the E10 between Abisko and Kiruna, so having enough water and a few snacks is important.  The average population density in Lapland is 1.8 people per km² and in the no-man’s land between settlements it’s considerably lower than that.  The road surface was generally good but as the summer months are the only time when maintenance work can be carried out, there are regular but short sections of un-surfaced gravel.  The enormous slag heaps which surround Kiruna are visible long before you reach the modest town centre.  This is an affluent but desperately isolated mining town.  It is the northernmost town in Sweden and experiences 24 hour daylight at this time of year, but long, dark and bitterly cold winters.  It is also the subject of a radical urban relocation plan – there is a proposal to relocate the city 3km to the east to prevent it falling into the very mine which spawned its existence.  Hopefully the new town will have a better selection of restaurants – the only place I could find for a quick lunch on a Friday afternoon was the ubiquitous pizza and grill.  At least the pizza was pretty good.

Continuing East on the E10 a few kilometres past Kiruna, I passed the village of Jukkasjärvi, propelled about 15 years ago from complete anonymity to tourist hot spot, thanks to the world famous Ice Hotel.  After that it was another long, long slog to Gällivare with very little traffic but several reindeer en route.  By the time I arrived there, I had clocked up 216km and felt like I’d had a saddle-sized suppository.

As a treat I checked into the Scandic Hotel and asked about dinner options.  This was a very brief conversation in that there were only 2 – both pizza places!  Option 1 turned out to be closed, but option 2, the grill on the main square, saved the day.  Not bad, but after 2 pizzas in 1 day, I was getting tired of them.  Back at the hotel, I looked out of my window after midnight and watched 3 hares chasing one another on the lawn.

DAY 3: Gällivare to Jokkmokk
Distance: 94km
Ascent: 429m

The E45 south of Gällivare turns westwards again for about 40km, this time pointing me into the wind that had been such an advantage yesterday. Coupled with a long and gradual ascent out of town, this made for slow going. After about 30km the road follows the northern boundary of the ancient forest national park of Muddus.

Its remote interior is, according to scientific research, the quietest place in Sweden. This is not hard to believe, given that imposing silence is a common occurrence in the Lapland wilderness. Prolonged exposure to this ear-tingling solitude can even give rise to a recognised psychological disorder – “Lappsjuka”, as it is called by the locals. Such a fate seems to have befallen many of the residents of Porjus, my lunch stop for the day, who watched glassy eyed as I propped my bike outside the grill.

Things were really getting lively in Porjus
But the grill served up a decent hotdog and the neatly trimmed hedges and lawns gave a pleasant feel to the place. Continuing south on the E45 I hit long stretches of road works as the road descended towards the great dam about halfway between Porjus and Jokkmokk, before climbing steeply up the hillside opposite and continuing over a long plateau to Jokkmokk.  This was my one and only AirBnB stay on this trip, in the quiet Wästfeltsgatan, about a 10 minute walk from the centre of town. My host was away but talked me through how to let myself in.  I asked if he had any recommendations for dinner, to which he said “Do you like Pizza?” This was not the response I had hoped for and so I set off towards the centre to see what alternatives I could find.  Unfortunately the excellent “Café Gasskas” was closed, as was the Sami Museum Restaurant. But just before resigning myself to another pizza, I came across the “Buffe Trädet”. Despite looking very closed, this place was serving a choice of 3 main courses, although no starters or desserts.

Being the only customer, I didn’t linger after my dinner of fried reindeer with cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, and found myself drawn back to the main road and into the only place boasting a small huddle of people – the Pizzeria. It is generally thought that the Sami originate from the plains of Central Asia, but my own theory is that they must have some Italian ancestry given their predilection for pizza.

After one beer, I started walking back to my room, accompanied by the occasional muscle-car partaking in that uniquely Swedish sub-culture of “Raggare” (To find out more, here is a summary written by The Guardian)

DAY 4: Jokkmokk to Storforsen
Distance: 100km
Ascent: 353m

The day started again with a long, gradual climb south out of Jokkmokk on the E45. At one point I found myself neck-and-neck with a woman on a classic sit-up style Scandinavian bike. She had a childseat on the back, and I felt there was a matter of pride at stake as I slowly overtook. I thought what a healthy lifestyle it is up here. Just a few kilometres further on I saw the large sign marking the Arctic circle. 

Stopping for the mandatory photo opportunity, I saw super-mum peddling past a few moments later. The shop at the Arctic Circle is full of the sort of tat universally hawked at tourist attractions the world over - mugs, T-shirts, keyrings, etc. Having no reason to linger, I continued to the small town of Kåbdalis, stopping for a reindeer burger and to fill water. According to Wikipedia, Kåbdalis had a population of 95 in 2005 but it seems, if anything, to have shrunk since then. But these tiny settlements which go completely un-noticed by motorists, are necessary oases for cyclists. They must be very insular places to live.

A few kilometres after Kåbdalis, I left the E45 and turned onto the 374 towards Vidsel. This road is a cyclists dream - very little traffic, newly laid tarmac and downhill almost all the way to Bredsel. I had planned to clock up at least 120km today, but the Storforsen Hotel, sitting at the foot of the largest rapids in Northern Europe, on the banks of the Pite River, seemed worth a stay. Apparently 850 cubic metres of water flows through the falls every second, giving a dramatic backdrop to the panoramic restaurant terrace. 

The hotel is actually very good value at 890SEK for a single room with an impressive breakfast and sauna included.  I had the sauna to myself at 10.30pm at a toasty 82°C. Vastly preferable to the often luke-warm English ones, this is the hottest I’ve had since my unceremonious thrashing by Nikolai in Siberia 3 years ago. (Link to Siberian Lake Baikal post) Although not that hot by Scandinavian standards (over 100°C is not unheard of), 10 minutes was as much as I could take before a cold shower and a plunge into the small swimming pool. A nice touch is the small dumbwaiter which sends ice cold beer directly from the bar to the pool room, but alas I didn’t notice that until last orders!

DAY 5: Storforsen to Skellefteå
Distance: 184km
Ascent: 990m

A small road forks off South from the 374 at Vidsel, snaking it's way between near continuous lakes as far as Vistheden, where it crosses Route 94 (the principle East-West road between Luleå and Arvidsjaur). Continuing South from Vistheden towards Storsund and Långträsk, the tarmac ends and becomes a smaller and smaller gravel track hemmed in on both sides by dense forest. The google maps I had been relying on were of little use here without phone reception and at several unmarked forks I had to resort to following my compass and hoping for the best. 

There are virtually no houses or other signs of civilisation between here and Jörn, although animal life abounds. Every time I stopped I was attacked by the dreaded forest “broms” – voracious horse flies that have a painful bite and make the mosquitos seem positively urbane. But there were rewards too – at one point a year old moose calf stepped cautiously into the road, its clumsy legs still disproportionately long.

Finally reaching Route 95, it was a short ride East into Boliden, another mining town which should have been my stop over for the night. *Note to self* - do not arrive in a small Swedish town after 8pm without checking whether the hotel you are planning to stay at actually exists. In this case, the small and, by all accounts, formerly excellent “The Swedish House” had long since closed down. With nowhere else to try, I sat down on a sunny verge and pondered my options. The mosquitos accelerated my thinking and I decided to press on for the extra 40km to the final goal of Skellefteå.

After checking into the central Hotel Malmia, I parked my weary backside at the Max Burger joint on the E4. At around 11pm it played host to that universal species of bored teenager and, for this evening at least, one rather tired but wonderfully refreshed English man.

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