Winter is coming, they say. I’m not bothered by winter – in a lot of ways I can’t wait – but this is Sweden, and they’re probably right. Every sunny day, every bright weekend, we have to make the most of it. We aren’t going to get so many more.
That’s what I thought about last week as the weekend drew nearer. We didn’t even have homework yet, how lucky was that? Before the dark and rain and busy schedules came, we needed to get away. So I mentioned the idea of heading to an island in the Baltic, which was accepted by my classmates, and then went about the task of selecting which island. The Stockholm archipelago has between 30,000 and 35,000 islands, islets, and reefs. Many of the larger islands are served by ferries and have hostels, and each and every one looked like a wonderful place to spend a three-day weekend. After waffling for a long time, I arbitrarily picked the island of Arholma, because it was one of the northernmost choices, almost exactly due east of Uppsala. I made reservations for ten at the whimsically-named Bull August hostel, and as soon as we got out of class on Friday at lunchtime, we were all giddy with delight.
Of the seven MEME students here in Uppsala, six were coming, plus our classmate Inga, a Latvian who is on exchange in our Evolutionary Processes class, and Paul, a MEME from the first cohort, who was bringing his friend Sophia, also starting her masters here in Uppsala. We split into teams to shop for groceries and alcohol before heading to the station and getting on a bus for Norrtalje.
Since my camera was buried under sliced cheese and lunchmeat, I borrowed Min Ya’s camera to take this photo. It was beautigul in the late afternoon light! This part of Sweden is quite rollingly flat, and reminded me of home a little bit: lots of fields, some forests, big red barns. Of course, a lot of things didn’t look like home either. But it was nice to chat as we watched the landscape pass by on the other side of the window. After transferring buses in Norrtalje, we went on to Simpnas, a little town on the coast. We tumbled out of the bus and onto a ferry and were literally laughing and smiling like little children: that’s how happy we were. We were at the sea! On a boat! On vacation with no obligations! It’s hard to explain exactly how deeply happy I was at that moment, but I think it’s a feeling that we all shared. A photo I stole from Min Ya (L-R: Andrés, Romain, Daniel, Paul, Katie, Inga, me):
When we got off the ferry, we were surrounded by people going home: there were happy hugs, and an ecstatic black lab who was reunited with its owner. The island’s residents hopped on their bikes, which were parked in a big collection on the other side of the harbor, and cycled off down the main dirt road. I had no information about where the hostel was other than that it was an 800 meter walk from the ferry. After looking at a map posted on a signboard to get the general idea that we needed to go south, we began lugging our backpacks and grocery bags down the road. It was quiet, except for us – as always, boisterous, loud, probably pretty obnoxious to anyone who is not a MEME themself…
I got to explain the phrase “cow marshmallows.”
The first view of Bull August was just as lovely as I had expected from the website. That night, we cooked up some pasta and ate it outside on the lawn before retiring to the kitchen to play cards and enjoy some of the dearly expensive wine we had brought with us. Freedom!
There was an Ornithological Expedition, led by Inga, scheduled for 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, but it didn’t leave on time, a casualty of the evening’s activities. Around 8:45, I quietly crept out of the girls’ bunkroom, slipped on my running shoes, and began jogging south to the other end of the islands. After a few more hayfields, I entered an almost completely wooded area that I assumed was part of the nature reserve that covers a large portion of the island. 15 minutes later, I made it to Granö, a ferry dock on the southeastern edge of the island. With a grand total of six square kilometers, there wasn’t too far for me to run.
I turned around and when I was almost back to Bull August, I met the Ornitholodical Expedition, consisting of just three people: Inga, Daniel, and Romain. Although I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and it was much too chilly to be dressed so lightly (this is Sweden, after all) when you weren’t moving, I turned on my heel and joined them. As we walked along the road, Inga pointed out birds to us, but we also tried to identify some flowers, and, in Daniel’s case, eat them.
We turned on a side road that ended up just being the driveway to a farm (there aren’t really any roads other than the main one…) but continued our birdwatching nonetheless – and also saw a bevy of tiny frogs in the moss on the side of the road. They were really cute. Taking advantage of the right to roam laws and mentality in this great country, we cut across a hayfield and through the woods before ending up on the dock facing a small, calm, perfectly flat channel and another small island. We lay down on the wood planks and soaked up the sun (I was cold). It was perfectly quiet – something we encountered over and over again but never ceased to be amazing.
After heading back to the hostel to eat breakfast and collect our later-sleeping companions, we packed sandwiches and embarked on an expedition. The goal: swimming. Other than that, we didn’t have much direction. We wanted to go to the eastern coast of the island so we could look out into the sea, not at the mainland, so we walked towards Österhamn, the eastern village of the island. Then we turned north. A driveway petered out into a dirt track through the woods. We kept going.
There were mushrooms for Daniel to inquire about, and lingonberries and blueberries for the rest of us to eat. The heather was deep and cushioning whenever we stepped into the trees.
The track wound back and forth, albeit gently. Still, we had no idea where on the island we were going to end up, and we began wondering if we were heading straight north instead of to the shore. Romain ventured off into the woods to try to cut over to the water and returned saying that we were close. Around just a few more corners, we found it: the sea.
To backtrack all the way to Simpnas, the atmosphere here wasn’t what I was expecting. The air didn’t have that salty tang that I associate with the ocean, be it Atlantic or Pacific – and that’s what I wanted. But the Baltic, my classmates pointed out, is not an ocean. It’s a sea. And so it’s not even that salty. In my head, I had forgotten how separate the Baltic is from the Atlantic proper – Denmark really rears its little head in there and cuts off the connection. Instead, it felt more like I was at one of the Great Lakes. I wondered if the water would be as cold.
Well, it wasn’t as cold as Superior, but it was pretty chilly. Daniel was the only one who was enthusiastic enough about swimming to actually backstroke his way around in our little bay. After jumping in and then wading a bit, I retreated back to the rocks to absorb the sun and warm up. We wrapped ourselves in towels and ate our lunch looking out at the water and the inevitable small island across from us. The wind came up and I began to get cold, so I put my clothes back on and explored the rocks a little bit; Romain went all the way around the next point to see what he could see.
Eventually it began to look like rain so we walked back through the forest to the hostel, and dug out the kubb set. Kubb is a Swedish lawn game that I learned back in Eugene from my friends Brian and Andrea; at the time, I thought, “this is great! I’m going to get to Sweden and already be an expert!” Anyone who knows me will laugh at that assertion, because the game involved throwing wooden sticks and we all know that hand-eye coordination has never been one of my strong points. But after taking a long time to attempt to explain the rules – you have five blocks and so does the other team, and you take turns throwing your six round sticks to try to knock over the other team’s blocks – we decided that it would be easier to just play.
We had a blast.
I think the woman who ran the hostel was laughing at how bad we were.
But that was okay.
While I was initially the expert, everyone else quickly caught up. Mainly, we were wildly inconsistent in our throwing abilities. After three round-robin tournaments we decided to challenge the German children who were also staying at the hostel, and did manage to beat them, thank goodness. Even with a language barrier, we’re better than six-year-olds! As the game ended it began hailing so we scurried inside.
That evening, we grilled sausages and played more card games. Talk eventually turned to philosophical questions that kept a few gentlemen up until five; I went to bed much before that. Ever since that “Sartre at 100” class I took my freshman year at Dartmouth, talk about philosophy kind of turns me off.
On our last morning, I woke up just a little bit earlier and tried to go for a real run. First I headed back to the port to see what time we needed to be on the ferry. Then I followed the dirt road north. Having been to the dock at the southern end of the island, I wanted to see the other end. Plus, the woman that ran the hostel said that the northern end was her favorite: the south, she said, was boring.
Can you believe how blue the sky is on Arholma?
“Arholma Nord” is another lodge/guest house that was a little out of our price range, but that’s where I was headed. They had tacked signs onto the trees along the road: 1000 meters. 800 meters. 400 meters. 200 meters. Like the previous morning, this wasn’t going to be a long run. I tried to blend in as I jogged through the compound and towards the water. The buildings were situated around a little inlet, so I didn’t get the wide-open sea view I wanted. Undeterred, I decided that I would just climb over the rocks until I got to a suitable place along the shore. So, as some tourists’ children watched before resuming their games, I headed off-piste and scrambled across the smooth boulders than sloped down into the water.
Up and down, avoiding big drops, looking for the best route: it reminded me of Grant Brook in my backyard in Lyme, where I had grown up hopping from rock to rock up and down the stream to keep myself busy. Only children have to develop a bit of ingenuity. But more than that, the rocks reminded me of Acadia, which has got to be one of my favorite places in the U.S… well, okay, I have a lot of favorites, but it’s really nice.
I found a spot on a point looking out into the sea, blocked by only a few small rocky islets. I sat in the wind and watched a boat go by; I watched huge birds pull fish from the water; I lay down and closed me eyes. Then I sat up, not wanting to waste the scenery. Five minutes. Ten minutes. I couldn’t see any people, only a single boat dock sticking out from behind a wooded outcropping around the corner. In a few hours, I’d be leaving the island. It seemed unbelievable.
Rather than cut back across the rocks, I decided to try a route through the woods. I cut over to where I had seen the dock, and found a house, but no driveway. Instead I followed the trace of a trail – more than a deer trail, less than anything else.
At times, I would lose the trail completely – poof, it was gone. But I could feel where it was, which direction I needed to go. It’s not a feeling I have really experienced before. But I’d keep going, and then the trail would magically re-appear again. Sometimes I was jogging over mossy rocks, others dodging the small trees and picking up caked mud on my calves. Eventually I was dumped out into the parking lot (if you can call it that – after all, there aren’t cars on the island) of Arholma Nord. I waved goodbye to the north side of the island and ran back down the dirt road, all the way back to Bull August, dragging my feet at the idea of leaving. The sheep in the fields stared at me; can I stay here with you? I thought.
When I arrived back at the hostel, Inga was out on a birding expedition and a few people were still asleep. I drank coffee with Paul and made myself an improvised breakfast based on the few things we had left: bread and nutella, an apple sliced and sprinkled with this amazing chili-salt-lime spice powder that Daniel had brought to Mexico. I don’t know how to describe it, but I also don’t know how I have lived without it up until this point in my life.
Everyone eventually stirred to life, and after packing up our bags and cleaning the rooms and the kitchen we waved goodbye to our hostess (I’m quite sure she was glad to see us go) and walked off down the road, with a few hours to kill before we had to be on a boat. Our first objective was to find the large tower that we had seen peeking through the trees, and hopefully climb it. We took a path around the east side of the island, but the tower hid itself from view. The boys got ahead of us but we resourceful girls noticed a trail with a sign, and guessed that it must lead to the tower. Leaving out backpacks at the bottom – there is no crime on Arholma – we climbed up the hill. I was wearing clogs, and Katie flats. It wasn’t ideal. But it also wasn’t long. At the top, we found the tower, although it was locked.
We sat, taking in the view and the last bit of quiet we’d have for a while.
Romain came climbing up out of the woods; from the road below, he could hear our voices. So there were five of us, in no hurry to get up and leave. After having known each other for just two and a half weeks, we have become remarkably close friends. We are very lucky that our group is as open and wonderful as it is; it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to land in this program without these connections.
(Romain took the picture of us girls, on Min Ya’s camera.)
Eventually, we made our way down the hill and over to the ferry. And then we left – back on a bus, then an hour at the bus station in Norrtalje, where we ate greasy, cheap gyros, and finally back to Uppsala. I was exhausted – but so happy.
“How was your weekend?” Our other friends and classmates asked. But I didn’t know where to start.
“It was great,” I’d say. “Incredible.”
They would nod.