Skinskatterberg: Searching for Wolves in Sweden

Introduction:

This blog post is about a trip to Sweden that I made in September 2015. I originally wrote it as a newsletter for my family and didn’t plan to publish it, feeling that “what I did on my holly-bobs by Jack aged 23 3/4” wasn’t inherently very interesting. The response from my family and friends who read it was so positive, though, that I decided to make this public. It’s a fairly long read, but believe me, it has been edited down.

I had wanted to go looking for wolves or bears, tigers, birds, or whales since I was about three, so when I got a full-time job, I booked a four night wildlife trip with Wild Sweden. The trip that I picked isn’t available any more, but it was the same as the one that the link shows, staying in a guesthouse instead of the eco-lodge. It focussed on beavers, moose and wolves, three animals that I had never seen, with a night camping in the woods. I have used the real names of the guesthouse owners and Wild Sweden guides, but changed the names of everyone else.

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I can’t remember what this place is called but it seems to be used as a stock photo for Sweden

I spent a week in Sweden in total; a part from camping, I was in Stockholm, and in Pensionat Udden, near a small village called Skinskatteberg (pronounced something like Hwinshatterbarri), two hours north of Stockholm.

Flying into Sweden, it was incredible how green everything in site was; green and covered in lakes. Outside the airport, I went to find a bus into the city.

“Hallå- pratar ni engelska?” I asked the driver (about the extent of my Swedish based on the Youtube tutorials that I watched).

“Of course.”

“Great. Can you take me to Stockholm?”

“Yes. Just put your bag in.”

“How much is it?”

“For you, nothing.”

“Thanks” I said, surprised. I’d heard that Sweden was very safe, so I decided he was probably really, really impressed at my ability to say “can you speak English” in another language.

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The bridge connecting Norrmalm to Gamla Stan, two of the islands that make up Sweden’s capital

That evening I walked around Stockholm. Not far from my hostel, I passed the Stadhus- a gorgeous building; not because it’s particularly striking, but for the way it blocks your path, ushers you in through  narrow doors to a huge courtyard, and from there… wow! You can see Gamla Stan (a small island with a lot of the old buildings) and the sea-that’s-not-quite-the-sea, the Gulf of Bothnia. The bridges and the views across the open water from the smaller islands were my favourite thing about Stockholm.

Day 1

The next day I took the train to Köping (pronounced Sherping), then a bus to Skinskatteberg. On the train we passed fields and farmland; from Köping, the roads were flanked by moody green forest. I tried to pin down what the abundance of green reminded me of; whether it was Princess Mononoke, the 90s animated film The Magic Sword, The Cabin  anyway, Central Sweden is green.

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The perpetually damp forest is home to many fungi

Partly it’s that at the end of September the trees (birch and aspen) still had leaves on them, but more than that, it’s the moss on the ground that makes the forest a 360 degree, 3D green experience. It’s inches thick in places, and pleasantly soft yet tricky to walk over. No wonder the wildlife is hard to find; the trees are so close that you must have to be as agile as a squirrel or as pushy as a moose to navigate it; and the inaccessible, squishy, dark forest is where the wolves live.

In Skinskatteberg, a bearded taxi driver identified me and drove me to Kolarbyn Eco-lodge. Kolarbyn looks fantastic; you stay in a hut and chop your own wood. However, it wasn’t where I was staying. The taxi driver took me on to Pensionat Udden (pronounced Ud-den, because Swedes separate double letters, which I love; one of the Wild Sweden guides, Jan, told me that in five years of guiding people around, he had “never seen an ot-ter”).

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The sign is a reminder of the forest’s industrial past

Eva, one of the owners, let me in. Udden backs onto a quiet lake that looks best either lit by the sun, or in early morning with mist rolling up from surface. As it was light, Eva suggested that I walk around the edge of the lake. She gave me a map- “Here, there used to be a beaver lodge, and here, there is a nice viewpoint.”

I headed off. The forest looked enticing, and very green. The sky was grey, the lake was still, and I only saw a few chirping dots. The black-throated loons that I hoped to see eluded me.

On the walk back, I took my first step into the forest. There, I stuck to the path, very aware that I didn’t want to get lost, and before long I saw a crested tit. I pulled out the binoculars and craned my neck. Happy to get my first new species, I wandered back to the lodge, and found something even better perched in a tree- it was medium-sized, pale grey with a white face and long black tail. I’m convinced that it was a great grey shrike, though I would have liked a more knowledgeable birdwatcher to confirm that.

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The back lawn of Pensionat Udden

Returning to the lodge, I met the other guests; Tim, a young man my age, his mother Gill and their friend Melissa, from the Australian Alps. They were noisy and friendly, and said that everything was beautiful.

We talked over dinner (mutton stew from the guesthouse owners’ own flocks, with potatoes and salad, followed by apple crumble), and they asked Allan, Eva’s husband, to sit and talk with us. “What would you like to know?” he asked, slightly uncomfortable. We talked about wildlife, and about how they protect sheep from wolves, and the Australians were convinced that the elusive wolves and bears make the Swedish countryside as dangerous as the outback.

“Where we live” Gill said “we’ve got tin different types of snaike, and they’re all vinomous- let’s see, there’s the tiger snakes, the browns, the yellow-bellied blacks, the red-bellied blacks…”

“Oah, it’s too much” said Allan. I wondered if he meant the venomous snakes, or having to make conversation with Australians.

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Who’d go to Sweden, eh?

Day 2

The next day, the first excursion wasn’t planned until late afternoon, so Allan and Eva arranged for their friend Andreas to show the Australians and me the woods. He was a quietly-spoken man of around sixty.

“What do you want to see?” he asked us. “Plants, mushrooms, birds?”

“Birds” I said, sure that the forest was bristling with capercaillies and pygmy owls. He looked surprised.

“They’ve all gone” he said. I wasn’t impressed, especially when he added that in June there had been over a hundred breeding cranes on the edge of another nearby lake.

That morning was our first trek into the woods, and Andreas’ knowledge was stunning. He showed us where foxes, badgers and wild boar had disturbed the ground, found moose tracks on the lawn of his summerhouse, told us that the metallic, wheezing clang that we heard was a raven, and told us where he had put boxes up for owls. He showed us bark that you can chew, lingonberries, blueberries, wild raspberries and the slender yellow chanterelle mushrooms, which he would pick and put in a bag. The stillness to the forests is incredible; in four hours, we saw nobody. On our return, Allan delayed lunch to a chanterelle omelette. It was delicious, buttery and fragrant.

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To call the house something from a fairy tale would be a cliche, but…

In the afternoon, the Wild Sweden minibuses arrived and we met Jan, Bo and Kurt, the guides, who took us to a lake. Jan led us around the edge, pointing out a beaver lodge and showing us the trees that they had been eating.

The felled trees are incredible; both that a rodent can level them, and the angular yet round shape of the toothmarks, like slices of rock. The stumps look as though they have been planed into a smooth tetrahedron, rising to a chaotic break where the trunk has come down.

It started to rain, and we headed to the hut for dinner. The boats were flat-bottomed inflatable things, which idled at the end of the jetty, filling with rainwater. After Bo finished scooping it out with a bucket, we set off. Jan alternately turned the motor on for speed, and off for silence. It was at once relaxing to be in the middle of the silent lake, and atmospheric to have only the boat between us and the water as dusk came in. Bats flew past, and Bo and Jan brought out powerful torches, scanning the bank. The rain became heavy, and we could see less and less.

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An hour into the journey, a bend came into view and we were steered through the narrowest part into another open area of the lake. It was dark, and I felt increasingly like Beatrix Potter’s Jeremy Fisher. Eventually, coming to the opposite end of the lake, we turned back, and as we edged along the bank, Melissa shouted “Look!” and there, once the light got settled, was a beaver, swimming with its head up. It vanished almost as soon as we caught sight of it.

As we continued back, the rain eased; and it was then that we heard the THWACK of a beaver hitting the water with its tail in warning. I thought it had been scared away, but instead it let us approach and didn’t want to leave. It would swim, get out of the water, get back in, then stand on a rock nibbling a branch in front of us, close enough to hear the sound of its teeth on the wood. A couple of times we lost it, but it was always back. Beavers look a lot like rats, and aren’t the most enigmatic of wild animals, but being united in a boat full of people in the rain in the search for one is a pretty special experience. “That was one of the best beaver experiences I’ve ever had” said Jan at the end, a Viz-style remark if I ever heard one.

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Day 3

The next day we went to see Eva and Allan’s sheep. There were about a hundred of them, protected from the wolves by  deep and powerful electric fences, and one breed, the smoky blue Gottland sheep, were the friendliest animals I’ve ever encountered, one of them letting me stroke its greasy coat and nudging me with its head when I stopped.

On the drive back we saw raised platforms, big enough for a few people to stand on, peaking through the trees. We found out these were one of the ways that hunters shoot moose, staying out of reach while someone else drives them towards the platform. There were subtle differences between the types of forest that we passed, and Gill almost died of excitement when Allan referred to one area, full of grey lichen on the thin trees, as the “troll forest”. Even better, Melissa found us three roe deer, almost orange, which ran back into the woods.

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A sheep, behaving like an extremely friendly dog

After lunch, Wild Sweden arrived to go moose spotting. We assembled at another lake, and Jan took us into the woods to look for signs of moose. The ground was springy, twisty and unpredictable, the branches ready to whip back at us. We saw where the moose had leaned on trees to bring the more tender shoots down, snapping the branches. Seeing how dense the forest is, it’s easy to imagine how moose could go for days without seeing one another. As ever, Jan pointed out their droppings, and a dark blue stain on the road that was made by a bear.

After dinner we got in the minivans. “I’m going to call the moose, and hopefully we will see them” said Jan. He added that moose were very shy and usually retreat into the forest if they think they’re being watched, but that he would do his best to get them to approach. “It’s mating season, so we have a very good chance.” After driving slowly for a few minutes, Jan hissed “there!” and rolled the car back past the edge of a field.

A bull moose was standing in the field, with spindly white legs that barely looked able to hold him up. As Kurt shone the torch on it, Jan got out of the driving seat, with us on tenterhooks in case he scared it away.

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Troll Territory: FAKE

Jan’s moose call was a mixture of muffled raven and sad pigeon, but he must have done a good job, because the moose started to walk towards us, then changed its mind and went back into the woods. In fairness to Jan, making female moose sounds at a bull in mating season isn’t something I would do, and I wondered how quickly we could get back in the vehicle if the moose approached and put him at risk of a fate worse than death.

We drove on, spotting a hare, and when we came back to the same field we saw two more moose; a cow and her six-month old calf.  They didn’t respond so well to Jan, moving swiftly away.

Once we had seen the moose, everything became easier to find. Another field brought three roe deer and another female moose with a calf, and noticing that her attention was fixed on something, Jan moved the beam across and found a fox, sitting upright in the field. As we came to the end, we met Bo’s van again. We had stayed out later than intended, they said, but they were happy to do so as we had seen the moose. I was happy to be drier than on the beaver trip.

Day 4

The next day was wolf day. After breakfast I went for a brief walk with Tim and Gill. In the afternoon, Jan and Kurt arrived with two young Swedish visitors, Wild Sweden founder Marcus, and Peter, a serious wolf researcher.

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Not pictured: A moose

What I found out surprised me; that all the wolves in Sweden have arrived since the 1970s (after being wiped out). Most Swedish packs are single families; when an adult dies, the next generation is the offspring of one of the pair with one its own mature cubs. Because of the in-breeding, many male wolves in Sweden have retracted testicles. Peter in particular had some crazy stories; he was once almost knocked over by a bleeding moose that ran past then jumped into a frozen lake to shake off a wolf. Afterwards, we drove into the forest and pitched tents. It was pretty in the late sunlight, and Marcus braked sharply to avoid hitting a red squirrel.

After pitching our tents in the hard, stony ground of a forest clearing, I set off on a walk with Marcus, the Australians and Karen, a woman from London who was visiting for the fifth time. The walk took us into another part of the forest, to the edge of a lake. It was a difficult walk through squelchy ground, down to the shore then up into the woods. He told us to keep quiet as possible, but it was a hopeless task; wherever I put my feet, I would snap a twig or make something rustle.

Not far away, one winter, Marcus told us how he had joined Peter to tag a wolf pair, and as Peter had arrived, firing half-doses of tranquilisers into them from a helicopter and replacing the female wolf’s tag, he had told Marcus: “Don’t let the male get away!”, leaving him hanging onto a very dopey wolf that was trying to walk off. Fortunately, he said, another wolf researcher soon arrived- on a snowmobile- to help out.

We met the others at the campsite and compared notes- nobody had heard wolves howl yet. Dinner was Allan’s sweet, peppery fish soup and crispbread, and the conversation about Australian wildlife flowed.

Shortly before midnight we drove to the hill near the wolf den. We climbed the hill, almost hitting rocks and trees, until we reached the top, where Kurt brought out foam mats.

“Now we wait” said Marcus, or something along those lines, and twelve people sat in perfect silence.

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Berries: eaten by bears and wolf cubs

We didn’t wait, though; as soon as the feeling of silence and stillness had settled, the first cub howled. The others joined- Marcus said it was four or five wolves, but it sounded like twice that to me. There’s no harmony to the joint howling, and it’s not as deep or clean-sounding as the dog howls I’ve heard in films; it was a high-pitched, eerie noise, interspersed with the adult barking. It lasted all of forty seconds, maybe less. And then we sat in silence for over an hour, waiting. I found the still darkness relaxing despite the wet, uneven ground.

Afterwards, Marcus brought out something that looked like a satellite dish and howled. The cubs responded for a few seconds. We walked down the hill, stumbling on rocks and rabbit holes, to another place across the river from the den, and he howled again. There was no reply, so we got in the minivans and headed down the track. We headed to another spot by the river, where Marcus disappeared up a hill once again; this time, the cubs howled back, and the adults barked for them to stop.

We returned to the campsite and I tried to find a berryless bush to pee on. Having heard the wolves, I wished I had insisted on sharing a tent with Tim.

Day 5

I had forgotten what a pleasure it is to wake up outdoors. The sun was shining and Kurt was starting a fire. A raven flew past, followed by a green woodpecker, looking slightly eccentric with the black ring around its eye and white face.

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A slight change from getting a cappuccino from a machine

After breakfast, we split up; Jan, Kurt and the Swedish visitors went to check the cameras, while we went with Marcus.

“We’re going to go somewhere new” he said. “Be careful- this is very thick forest and swamp.”

He was right; the ground became marshy and three or four times, branches that Gill held back hit me, comedy style. We would stop, and Marcus would show us a sign; the way the grass lay flattened, or part of a paw print, showing that a wolf had passed. As we came closer to where the wolves were, we saw a sign nobody could mistake; a long white moose bone.

The ground became flatter and the trickling of a river came into earshot. Marcus told us to go slowly. I was very aware of the noise that I made, lifting my feet off dry grasses and putting a hand on slim tree trunks for balance. We reached the river, stood in a rough line, and I tried to see through the reeds on the other side. I kept looking to my left for movement aside from the wind in the swishing reeds; I was sure I could feel eyes on me.

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I just about avoided screaming Oh my God and scaring the wolves

Marcus only took a few steps from us before cupping his hands in front of his mouth and howling. Seconds after, eerier this time because it came from just across the narrow brook, we heard the ghostly whine. This time, it only sounded like a few wolves; the slightly off-key, awkward sound did seem like the howl of cubs.

I did my best not to move. There where whispers from the others, silently pointing fingers. I know they saw the cubs moving on the other bank, perhaps away from us; all that I made out was a brief movement of a patch of brownish flank, no distinctive pointy ears, muzzle, teeth nor yellow eyes or anything that was recognisably young wolf. After that we stood for several more minutes, waiting to see if they would come back. Marcus howled once more but the reply was quieter.

Not quite relaxed, and certain that the adults were following, we walked back to the road. “I’m very happy” said Marcus. “Jan got in there first saying he wanted to check the cameras. But I thought we might see them if we came down here.”

Back at the Pension, I dashed upstairs to shower and put on dry socks. Feeling content in a way that’s only possible after being cold and wet, I came downstairs again for another disgracefully good buffet meal of bread, cheese, cold cuts, eggs, potatoes, meatballs and lingonberry jam (I still think about the food at Udden). The rest of the group left soon afterwards, leaving me in the Pension.

I wished I didn’t have to leave. I had only got there a few days before; surely it didn’t count as a proper holiday until I’d seen five species of owl and a bear, and grown a huge beard. The hours slunk past until it was time to go to the bus stop.

I looked out for wildlife on the bus, trying to take in every strand of moss, until my change at Köping.

 

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I sat outside to wait for my taxi

I won’t disclose which part of Stockholm I stayed in, or who with, because it was in someone’s home, which I found on AirBnB, but know this; he was out, so he sent me the code to get into his building, and left a key for me behind a painting. Inside the flat, to get to the spare bedroom, I had to go through his studio. This was full of more paintings, one on an easel, part-finished, all in the same hallucinatory style, featuring minotaurs or bovine humanoids; in many, the paint was brushed on so thickly that the picture was three-dimensional. Most were reddish in colour. The room where I was staying had a choice of two narrow beds; on the wall above me was another painting, of a naked woman with prominent breasts and a cow’s head. Tired, I read more of The Buried Giant and went to bed early.

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The view from the campsite

Day 6

The next day I joined a free walking tour led by a gorgeous Ukrainian girl. She showed us some of the main sights of Central Stockholm, though in hindsight, some of her patter was quite awkward, with facts and opinions presented in a somehow incomplete way that made me uncertain whether it was her own insight she was presenting, or someone else’s suggestion. (The high rate of depression in Sweden correlates to the high tax rate, apparently). Afterwards, I watched the changing of the guard at the palace, and left before the end.

In the afternoon, I made my way to Skansen Stockholm’s open air museum of traditional Swedish life/ zoo of native animals (this was via a diversion to the Museum Island, and another to have a look at Stockholm synagogue, earning me a suspicious warning from a security guard). It was a nice day, and Skansen had good views over the city, but I found being in a zoo existentially draining after my few days in the wilderness.

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The view over Stockholm from Skansen

Having travelled to the middle of nowhere and slept in a tent in a silent Swedish forest for a glimpse of a wolf cub, it felt wrong to be able to see Sweden’s four large predators within two minutes of each other; the björn lying on its back, a family of lodjur coming down from a tree and trooping a few at a time to the opposite side of their field, a family of järv actually looking quite sweet until the young ones started play-fighting and snarling, the varg circling the walls, hard to spot even in the limited space. It made me quite proud of the otters, which determinedly hid from me, proving that even in a zoo you can’t guarantee to see everything.

In the evening I headed back and cooked some pasta and beans in tomato sauce, and met my very hungover host. I didn’t bring up the subject of his painting, and went to bed fairly early and read.

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Traditional houses reconstructed in Skansen

Day 7

The next day I crossed the islands again to Gamla Stan, trying to find the best viewpoints, and generally getting lost. I noticed several streets with names like “Valhallagatan” and “Åsgardgatan”, which made me smile. Soon enough I had to pick up my bag, have a final cinnamon roll, and buy a bus ticket for the airport.

Looking back almost a year later, what sticks in my mind more than the wildlife was the almost melancholy stillness of the forests, which I haven’t experienced elsewhere. That said, as I landed in Köln, I realised there were more of the archetypal dark pines that been imagining in Germany than in the Swedish countryside.

 

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