It’s the last thing you expect to hear when you step off the train in central Sweden at the start of a bear-tracking trip: “The guy who was going to guide you is in hospital.”
“Really? What happened?”
“He was attacked by a bear.”
Standing on the platform at Tallberg station, my contact, Anders, shakes his head and smiles ruefully. “He was hunting, and he followed the animal into thick bush. It jumped on him. He put his hand into its mouth, grabbed its tongue, and used the other hand to call for help on his cell phone.”
The lights of the train that brought me from Stockholm, three hours away, are disappearing down the track. It’s too late. I’m stranded in Dalarna County. Tomorrow, like it or not, I will be looking for bears. In darkness we drive the short distance to Green Hotel. The headlights of Anders’ Volvo illuminate the wooden snow barriers that fringe the hotel’s steeply sloping lawn. It is October. The first snowfall of winter is no more than a month away. Soon these surroundings will be under a thick, white blanket that will remain until spring.
The night air has an autumnal bite. I am relieved to get inside, where an inviting fire crackles in the lobby. The receptionist is dressed in a traditional Dalarna folk costume. The hotel’s painted wooden decor also pays homage to those proud traditions. This region is the Swedish heartland, the purest manifestation of the nation’s culture and identity.
The resort hotels of Tallberg are popular country retreats for Stockholm residents, few of whom spend their first evening attending a briefing about bears. Over dinner, Anders tells me what to expect.
“You will be in the taiga forest, which is the biggest habitat in the world. It stretches unbroken from here, across Russia, to the Far East. You will be tracking European brown bears, which are the same species as the American grizzly, but slightly smaller. They are shy, and you probably won’t see any. You definitely won’t be attacked. But if it happens. . .”
“I’ll grab its tongue and phone for help.”
I retreat to my room. On TV, the local news bulletin includes an interview with my intended guide, speaking from his hospital bed. His left arm is heavily bandaged. It’s not surprising I don’t sleep well.
At first light, I open the curtains of my room and look out at an astounding view. I am gazing down on Lake Siljan, the largest of a ring of lakes marking the rim of an ancient meteor crater. There is nothing delicate about Sweden’s geology. Its mountain ranges have been thrust upward by the collision of the North American and European tectonic plates. Its valleys have been carved by massive, unrelenting glaciers. Its coastline has been eroded into thousands of islands and inlets by the waves and ice of the Baltic Sea. Its forests endure near-permanent daylight in summer and near-permanent darkness in winter. And if that weren’t enough, the occasional meteor falls from the heavens to leave a giant imprint.
The length and breadth of their country, Swedes have always had a special love of the outdoors, the length and breadth of their country. For the more intrepid visitors, there is no end to the adventures available within easy reach of the principal cities. The capital, Stockholm, is no exception. The city is built on an archipelago of islands, affording wonderful sailing and kayaking on sheltered waters. Several companies offer guided two- or three-day kayak tours, sometimes camping on isolated islands, sometimes staying overnight in the relative comfort of hostels or guesthouses.
It can be a disorienting experience. You hop on a bus in downtown, ride it to the city’s suburbs, and meet up on the water’s edge with your travel companions. Having stowed your belongings in the kayak’s waterproof compartments, and listened to a safety briefing, off you go. Within a few strokes of the paddle, the last vestiges of the city have slipped away. Ahead of you lies an unspoiled wilderness of forest and water, populated by seals and sea eagles.
Although the Stockholm archipelago provides the illusion of remoteness, the region of Lapland, which straddles the Arctic Circle in the far north of the country, delivers the real thing. Fly to the town of Kiruna, stay for a night in the world-famous IceHotel (which is literally made from ice), and then set off into the wild on a sled pulled by a reindeer.
For the next few days you will live and travel with the indigenous Sami people, learning how they have survived successfully for centuries in this harsh environment. During the day you will cut a trail across frozen lakes and rivers and through the snowy forest. At night, the Northern Lights will dance overhead. It’s about as remote as you can get in Europe, and it can be pretty tough. But a Lapland safari is guaranteed to be a life-changing experience.
My next few days will not be quite as challenging. I hope. After breakfast, we leave the comfort of Green Hotel and drive away from Lake Siljan across the thickly wooded 15-mile diameter of the crater. A moose crosses the road ahead of us. Around the next corner, two hunters are sitting in a hide with their guns primed, waiting for moose. We decide not to tell them what we’ve just seen. Nature will take its course — or not.
Hunting is a primal passion in Sweden, and mostly it’s the locals who snap up all of the required permits, especially for moose. There are dedicated hunting trips, however, available to tourists in the southern district of Halland, south of Gothenburg. The main quarry is roe deer; accommodations are in a log cabin overlooking a picturesque lake.
“Up here in Dalarna, it’s bear- and moose-hunting season at the moment,” Anders tells me. He nods at the red rain jacket I’m wearing: “That’s the perfect color. Our main danger is not bears, but hunters. At least nobody will think you’re a brown bear, wearing that.”
We reach the home of Andrea Friebe, a German zoologist who is one of the top bear researchers in Europe. She immediately kits me out with the essential tracking equipment — a large aerial, a radio receiver and a pair of headphones. When I switch the receiver on, I immediately pick up a faint beep. It strengthens as I swivel the antennae. “We have put radio collars on several bears,” Andrea tells me. “The one you are hearing is a female who has two cubs at the moment. She is maybe a mile away. We will drive.”
Sitting in the front passenger seat, I hold the aerial out of the open window. The most dominant sound through the headphones is the buzz of the car’s engine. But the beep continues, growing louder when we turn off the main road onto a logging track. Now we stop. Get out. The bear is close. I turn the aerial until the signal in my headphones is at its loudest. Andrea takes a bearing, and draws it onto the clipboard map she’s holding. We walk along the road then halt. I tune in to the beeps again, fixing on the strongest. Andrea draws another line, which intersects with the first. We repeat the process one more time — another bearing, another line.
Andrea drops her voice to a whisper. “See that bush?” she asks, pointing at a tangle of vegetation no more than 50 feet away. “That’s where they are.”
I sense the mother bear’s gaze on me. My heart pounds, but then settles. Birds twitter above us. A breeze rustles the autumn leaves. I begin to feel at ease. As long as I pose no threat to the bear and her offspring, she poses no threat to me.
We walk into the forest, following an undulating bear track until we reach an abandoned den. “This was the home of the family we just tracked,” says Andrea. “They moved out only a few weeks ago.”
Returning to the car, we are reminded that there are other animals in the forest. On the path, I almost tread on a snake, a venomous black adder. It winds itself into a taut coil, hissing, ready to strike. We skirt around it. Then, in a gully below us, we see gray, furry flanks moving through the undergrowth. Its tufted ears give it away: It’s a lynx, the European cousin of the American bobcat. Later, at Gronklitt Predator Center in the town of Orsa, the keepers invite me into the lynx enclosure, where we throw meat for these wild cats to catch. Their agility is amazing.
After three memorable days in Dalarna, I stand once again on the station platform. I’m sure I will be back; it’s one of the most b eautiful environments I’ve ever experienced. On the train journey to Stockholm, I watch the endless forest vistas glide by hypnotically. Sometimes the woodland opens up, and I spot a roe deer or a moose in a clearing, startled as the train rolls by.
In Stockholm, I check into my hotel. I can still smell the scent of the forest on my jacket. My hiking boots are caked with mud and pine needles. A group of tourists is milling in the lobby, preparing for a city tour. If that’s all they do on their visit, they will have missed out on the true nature of this great country. The essence of Sweden is wild.
INFO TO GO
The researchers do not offer organized tours. Circumstances permitting, you work with them as a volunteer, assisting with their existing research programs. To see Swedish bears, wolves and lynxes close up (albeit in enclosures), visit the Gronklitt Predator Center in Orsa (www.orsagronklitt.se). Reindeer sled safaris in Lapland are offered by Nutti Sami Siida (www.nutti.se); the 2007 season runs from March 10 to April 18. The five-day tour costs $1,625, excluding flights to Kiruna.Winter clothes and sleeping bags are provided. A night at the IceHotel (www.icehotel.com) can be arranged as an optional extra. Guided kayak trips in the Stockholm Archipelago are offered by Kayak & Uteliv (www.kayakuteliv.com). A three-day trip costs $500. Departures from Stockholm are in June and August. Kayak rental is also available.
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