Visit Västerbotten

On the hunt for elk

This is the entrance to what is commonly called Europe's last wilderness. From a slow start with coffee and cinnamon buns and a visit to a wilderness exhibition to a freezing-cold swim in the middle of nowhere.

The drinking-vessels are all hand-made. They are unique and Catrin makes her selection with care. Finally she settles for one with bone inlays and intricate engraving. She holds it out and Thorbjörn pours her coffee. And hands her a cinnamon bun.
    "Freshly baked", he assures her and tosses another log onto the fire.
Catrin is from Germany. Southern Germany to be exact. From Cologne. She is one of the group of ten Germans who have never been further north than where they are now. In the forests around Svansele and what is sometimes called Europe's last wilderness.

A gradually intensifying wilderness experience

Despite it being the middle of winter, thanks to the Norrland Wilderness exhibition you can immediately get a feeling of the sub-Arctic fauna. All animals are represented and displayed in season rooms - spring, summer, autumn and winter - from the tiny willow warbler to the golden eagle, wolverine and wolf.
As so many times before, Thorbjörn is in his best story-telling mood.
With great feeling he intertwines anecdotes from his eventful life in the forests around Svansele with hard facts about the animals and their behaviour.
    "What are they doing"? someone wonders, pointing at a montage of three bears that seem to be launching an old rowing boat.
    "Makes you wonder, doesn't it?", says Thorbjörn. "And it's perhaps my favourite montage. It makes you begin to think".
Catrin nods her agreement, a little absently. Without looking away from the bears.

Out into the wilderness on a snowmobile

Overalls, strong shoes, gloves and helmet. And a snowmobile of your own. Catrin gives the thumbs-up and sits back onto the snowmobile's seat. Her face is one big grin. She has never been on a snowmobile before. And now it's finally time for that elk safari.
Someone wonders what the chances are of actually seeing an elk. After all, they are wild animals.
Thorbjörn laughs.
    "This is probably the best you can get", he says.
Thorbjörn makes a final check that everyone's snowmobile is ready. And then we're off. Catrin and her companions are not used to driving snowmobiles through a winter landscape in Norrland. But they're fast learners, even if Thorbjörn has to help get one back onto the track every now and again.

The safari finds elk tracks and droppings

Thorbjörn holds up his hand and all the people behind stop their snowmobiles. He has found some tracks. Elk tracks. The group gather around. Thorbjörn points to some round black pellets in the snow.
    "Elk droppings", he observes.
At the same time as a light snow begins to fall, Thorbjörn tells us about how elks in the north live their lives, how the cow rejects her calves when it's time for them to make it on their own and that their favourite food is spruce shoots.
Someone wonders if it's not time to see the real thing.
    "Yes, this snow's perfect for tracks", says Thorbjörn and starts his snowmobile again.
Any genuine nature experience based on wild animals contains an element of uncertainty but Thorbjörn is not worried. Not in the least, in fact. And it shows.

Elks finally in sight

Suddenly they're there. The elks. Catrin, who is on the first snowmobile, is also one of the first to see Thorbjörn's outstretched hand.
The sound of the snowmobiles dies away in an instant. They're just over there. There are two of them, a cow and a calf.
    "A calf doesn't weigh more than about 15 kilos at birth", Thorbjörn tells us, "but it can grow to weigh almost 150 kilos the same autumn".
    "Fantastic, a mother and her daughter", says Catrin quietly.
The elks don't appear to be the least bit disturbed at being the centre of attraction. Everyone in the group has plenty of time to catch a glimpse of these majestic animals among the trees.
    "Elks are generally a little larger in Norrland than further south", Thorbjörn goes on, "and a really big bull can weigh a good bit over 500 kilos".

Different challenges with no electricity

At the Vildmarkskampen adventure centre, there is no electricity, no running water or any other modern comforts. The only light is from the flickering torches. It's already dark even though it's only a little past four in the afternoon. The adventure centre really is in the middle of nowhere. There are solid timbered Lapp tents, a few chalets, a hot sauna and steaming outdoor hot tubs.
In the main tent, Thorbjörn is busy with three barbecues. Fish on one, meat on another and vegetables and potatoes on the third.
    "Just salt", he says, putting down the shaker. No other spices. They're not necessary. The meat and fish have a lot of natural taste.
The atmosphere in the tent is subdued. The fire is crackling and people are chatting but not loudly.
Catrin is sitting quietly, gazing hypnotised into the flames.
Soon it will be time for here to return to the world outside. Back to the big city pulse of Cologne. To all the thousands of people who surround her every day without her even thinking about it. In the forests around Svansele there are no unfamiliar faces. Most things are different here. And not necessarily for the better. But it's undeniably different.
    "Now let's have a sauna", someone says, slowly getting up.
And the others follow unhurriedly.
    "Yes, that's right", says Thorbjörn, screwing up his eyes. "There's a slide from the sauna down into the lake. I've made a hole and put a ladder in it. If anyone dares, so to speak".  
Catrin smiles at him to say that she accepts the challenge.
A few minutes later she's taking her first tentative steps down into the ice-cold water. Because if you're in the Norrland wilderness for the first time and have been gradually introduced into it, you have no other option than to go all the way.