For more than two decades, Canadian adventurer, expeditioner and filmmaker Frank Wolf has trekked, kayaked, canoed, camped and cycled in some of the world’s coolest places — from the tundra in Canada to the tropics in Java, across alpine snow and churning whitewater, including as part of Team Outpost in the jungles of Borneo.
In this excerpt from his 2018 book, Lines on a Map: Unparalleled Adventures in Modern Exploration, Wolf follows an old Viking route across the wilds of Scandinavia, carrying his canoe through the mountains like it’s a badge of honour.
Book Excerpt by Frank Wolf, Photos by Frank Wolf, Todd McGowan, Todd Macfie and courtesy of Lines on a Map.
Thousand-metre-high granite walls dwarfed the shepherd as he counted his flock of sheep in a forest opening along the edge of Norway’s Tys Fjord. Todd and I landed our canoe on the shoreline to say hello and ask the man a few questions. After we all exchanged pleasantries and Todd and I explained why we were there, he flashed his bright blue, inquisitive eyes down at our heavily loaded craft and asked, “You’re going to carry all of that over the mountains?” We nodded. He then stated, matter-of-factly, “It will be hard.”
It was June 27, and we were nearing the end of our second day of who-knew-how-many in our attempt to canoe across Scandinavia from the Norwegian coast to Finland. The 800-kilometre journey had begun the day before, in the tiny village of Bognes, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian Sea. Our plan was to go up Tys Fjord, over the border mountains into Sweden, then down the Lule River system to the northern terminus of the Gulf of Bothnia. Once in the gulf, we would paddle around into Finland, ultimately finishing in Oulu, the largest town in Finland’s north.
The shepherd’s name was Egil. He was an Indigenous Sami man, short and stocky with brown, wispy hair that fell in a line just above his eyes. His ancestors had been the first people to populate Scandinavia, 10,000 years earlier. Our route followed one of the dozens of trade routes that the Sami, and later Vikings, once utilized to transport goods by foot and by boat across the North. When the Vikings came to the region in approximately AD 900, they subjugated the Sami in Tys Fjord and in the Lule Valley, forcing them to pay a tax of fur, fish and reindeer. As Egil eloquently described to us, the Vikings gave his people a simple choice in this regard: “Pay the tax, or die.”
Egil spoke perfect English and worked at the Sami cultural centre in Drag, the largest village in the 70-kilometre-long fjord. I wondered why his flock was so far away from the village, which was located ten kilometres across the water, on the opposite side of the fjord. “Well,” he replied, “there are many bobcats by the town, and they attack the sheep; there are no bobcats on this side.” For millennia the Samis have been travelling back and forth with reindeer along the rough trail that goes through the pass to the Lule River. Bobcats followed the herds over from Sweden and have populated the southern shores of Tys Fjord ever since.
The pass through the Scandinavian Mountains loomed above us as we set off from the end of the fjord in search of Sweden and the Lule River system. I’d been told of this pass several years earlier by a travelling Swede I’d met in Vancouver. The existence of the trail awoke in me the possibility of actually canoeing west to east across Scandinavia. Joining Todd and I for the first week of the trip was Kevin Shepit, a cameraman who would help us film the initial portion of the trip. Each of us carried almost 45 kilograms of gear. Todd was loaded down with a jam-packed 115-litre pack he wore on his back, in addition to a 35-litre gallon pack on his front. I shouldered our canoe, a 65-litre pack and a video camera. Kevin lugged his camera bag and a folding kayak.
We spent 12 hours that day hauling our gear for 15 kilometres while gaining 700 metres of elevation along a root-strewn, rocky trail. The track took us up through a pine forest surrounded by granite spires that spewed thousands of tonnes of water from the dozens of thundering waterfalls cascading down their sides from the peaks. We eventually reached the treeless alpine, where we travelled over grey slab around stunning Avzi Canyon, which cuts a jagged 300-metre-deep, five-kilometre-long scar into the otherwise unbroken massif. As midnight approached in a land where the sun never sets, a low point between two round-topped mountains represented our goal for the day: Sweden.
We put our boats into one end of a small tarn and paddled a half mile across to the other side. From there, a short 50-metre portage brought us into another lake and the farthest source of the Lule River. We had crossed the divide. Everything behind us flowed into the Norwegian Sea while everything in front of us now flowed to the Baltic. A GPS reading told us we had arrived at the border. Todd sat in the bow of the canoe, happy to be in Sweden, while I languished in the stern seat a dozen feet behind him, still in Norway.
A thousand mosquitoes hovered in a cloud under the canoe as I sloshed through soggy, knee-high sphagnum moss in a rainstorm. The canoe over my head kept me dry but also doubled as a party tent for the skitters as they drew a pint or two of my blood. We were on our second five-kilometre-long bush portage in as many days.
The previous morning, we’d started out on the Valldajahka River, which drains from the lakes at the divide. The river was gentle at first, meandering for eight kilometres through fields of tundra along banks of snow. It slowly evolved however, giving us bony Grade 2 and 3 rapids that forced us to scout and plan out precise lines. One wrong move and our folding canoe would be wrapped around a boulder or at least severely damaged. Days from any sort of village, this was not a prospect we relished.
The Valldajahka spit us out into the Lule River system, which is in essence a series of dam-created lakes that run for 400 kilometres from the Swedish side of the Scandinavian Mountains, through the foothills and then flatlands, ultimately terminating in the city of Luleå on the Gulf of Bothnia. A total of nine dams have been built since the 1920s to provide hydro power for the region—a once-raging river tamed by the Swedes to satisfy their power needs.
It’s a shame for certain, but the subsequent lake system that was created allowed us to attempt our canoe trip where back in the early 1900s it would have been impossible. The river had at one time been similar to the drainage that lay 60 miles to the south, the Pite River. The Pite still flows free but requires portaging at least 120 kilometres of Grade 6 to 7 water, 80 kilometres of which have never been run, even in a whitewater kayak.
Dam-created lakes always seem to be rather angry at being all bottled up. Instead of developing slowly through thousands of years of melting, erosion, etc., dammed lakes are created instantly and react to weather in violent, unpredictable ways. The first lake of the system, Akkajaure, kicked up steep waves and headwinds so strong that we literally couldn’t move an inch forward one afternoon and had to wait until the evening came before we could paddle onward. Akka means “mother” in the Sami language, and it was one angry mother indeed. The area from the Norwegian border to the end of Akkajaure is part of Stora Sjöfallet National Park, which forms part of Laponia, a 9,400-square-kilometre area that was placed on the World Heritage List in 1996. It is the heartland of the Swedish Sami, who still herd reindeer there, though now they do the herding in ATVs and snowmobiles instead of by traditional means.
Following our sunny day of portaging through the mountains in Norway, it stormed and rained continuously for a week. After crossing Akkajaure, we found ourselves dumbstruck on Langas Jaure (Long Lake) as we sat in dead-calm waters, watching a wall of solid white whip across the lake toward us. We’d been hit off and on by small squalls all day, but this was a big one and it was coming right at us, and coming fast. It was perhaps three kilometres away when we realized what it was. Because it obscured the trees on both shores of the lake, we estimated the squall to be approximately seven kilometres wide. Shortly after seeing it, we heard it: a loud hissing sound—like a million cats baring their fangs in unison.
I felt a puff of wind introduce the squall as it neared us, only 100 metres away. Within seconds it hit us like a sledgehammer, battering us with so much rain it felt like we’d paddled into a giant waterfall. The lake around us turned into a frothy mess, and the force of the wind spun our canoe broadside and began pushing us back to where we’d come from. We powered hard with all we had through the building whitecaps, hit shore, dragged the boat up and ducked into the knotty pine forest for shelter.
Looking around, we spotted a cabin through the trees and walked up to it to see if anyone was around. To that point we’d seen a few cabins, but they were unoccupied. This one was the same—no one home, and all locked up. We did, however, find their smokehouse…and it was open. The pyramid-like, shed-sized structure was perfect for us to hole up in during the storm and have a dry spot to eat our lunch of Wasa bread, sweet cheese and corned beef. The style of shelter was a traditional Sami design called a kota. The original kota was similar to a teepee, built of birch poles and reindeer hides. As little as 50 years ago, the Sami were still a nomadic people and the traditional kotas could be quickly rolled up and loaded when it came time to move the community.
It seems our timing for the trip was less than impeccable: we chose to undertake it during Sweden’s coldest, wettest summer in 80 years.
There is an old law in Sweden known as “Everyman’s Rule” that says you can camp anywhere you like on public land as long as your tent is a minimum of 50 metres away from any structure or road.
Using the public access law to our benefit, we arrived on the outskirts of the village of Porjus and set up our tent on a soggy pebble beach between two cabins. I walked over to two women and a girl who were fishing in front of their cabin to ask if I could plug my rechargeable camera battery into one of their outlets. At that moment, the girl caught a fish and all hell broke loose. The women screamed and shouted that this was the first fish the girl had ever caught. One of them, a gregarious grandmother with fire in her pale blue eyes, unhooked the two-foot-long pike, exclaiming, “Her first fish! Her first fish!” after which she proceeded to smash its skull on a rock while carrying on a completely unrelated conversation with me about where I might plug in the battery. The grandmother’s name was Harriet; the other woman was her daughter, and the girl her granddaughter.
The following morning, Harriet invited us in for breakfast. Over a meal of bread, cheese and pike she told us about her life growing up in the rough northern woods above the Arctic Circle. As she spoke, it became apparent that she had a particularly strong affinity for coffee. The elixir kept her warm and happy during dark winter ski trips and long summer days of fishing. At one point, she looked at me with wild eyes and exclaimed, “I couldn’t live without drinking at least ten cups of coffee per day!”
Harriet had a young grandson there named Rasmus, only 18 months old but live as a firecracker. He drank voraciously from a little baby cup, which Harriet kept refilling with coffee. Within minutes, he was running around the room madly, eventually bumping his head, crying and soiling his diapers all at the same time. I asked Harriet how long Rasmus had been drinking coffee. She piped up excitedly, “Oh, he started when he was eight months old. It’s good for him!” Sweden is known to have the highest per capita coffee consumption in the world, and after meeting Harriet and Rasmus, neither Todd nor I can dispute this claim.
The Gulf of Bothnia
The final leg of our trip began in the town of Luleå, where the Lule River terminates into the Gulf of Bothnia. Despite its large size and connection to the Atlantic, the gulf is mostly freshwater and only slightly brackish to taste, due to the numerous large rivers that drain into it. It also has no tide whatsoever, so when you paddle it, it seems more like one of the Great Lakes than part of the ocean.
The 120-kilometre stretch on the Swedish side of the gulf consists of an archipelago of pebble beach and pine-dotted islands. The wildlife is rich through the islands; aggressive terns continuously dive-bombed us when we came too close to their territory, and one evening a moose swam in front of our canoe as we paddled through a narrow channel.
Like any large body of water, the Gulf of Bothnia has its own particular challenges. Chief among them is a consistent south wind that creates a swell that is tricky and at times treacherous. The northern gulf is also home to several large bays and long distances between islands. A typical day would see us doing three or four crossings of up to six kilometres, with one-metre choppy swell coming at us from the side. No matter what trim we set the boat at, it always wanted to weathervane to the south as we headed east across the top of the gulf. Waves continuously came over the side of the canoe, washed over the spray deck by the wind.
Some of the islands were sprinkled with summer cabins. Due to the brackish water, most island residents drew their water from wells, which we sought out and utilized for our own water supply.
To our surprise, people we met along the way actually knew about us in advance. Before we left Luleå, we’d befriended some reporters who worked for the northern Swedish Kuriren newspaper. They did a story on our journey that ended up on the cover of their paper. During our three-day paddle to the Finnish border, we were met warmly, with some folks even bringing out a copy of the paper for us to see. Gladly answering their queries, we basked in our 15 minutes of Swedish fame.