Stockholm Archipelago, Sweden


Between Stockholm and the open Baltic to the east are over 24,000 beautiful low-lying islands, smoothed by glaciers and covered in trees, known as the Stockholm Archipelago. Having visited in 2006 with some friends I was asked to organise a self-supported trip for Portsmouth Canoe Club. Two members decided to drive to Sweden and take their own boats. The other eight flew from Heathrow. We were a group of generally experienced paddlers ranging from 18 to 52 years old, and 2 to 5 star level.

There were some memorable moments – the trip leader failed to pass Heathrow’s security at the first attempt being escorted away by an official whilst the rest of the party were already airside. Steve’s fist fight (should that read first flight?) and for a short while after catching his first fish, the Anas Acuta kayak was demoted to only the second best boat in the world as he considered buying a second-hand trawler. Read on...

Saturday 8th - Engarn to Bjornholmen, 8km eastwards

Having successfully negotiated the Stockholm public transport system we all met at the Canoe Centre in Engarn, near Vaxholm, the principal town of the archipelago. Christina and Kenneth, the owners, were very helpful allowing us to try any of their extensive range of craft before selecting our preferred kayaks and loading them. Most of us took Swedish designs, however Steve and Richard opted for P&H designs, not trusting some “Johnny foreigner' types. Dave Walters gives an assessment of the equipment below.

(Originally I had asked another member to write this section, but his initial assessment of ‘we had red and white ones, and yellow ones’ forced me to reconsider and reallocate the job.)

After a short paddle and passing an imposing island fortress we arrived at Vaxholm so that raiding parties, clad in their ceremonial neoprene, could pillage the Co-Op supermarket for the week’s supplies. What a treat for the checkout ladies?

A further paddle and we arrived at the small island of Bjornholmen, used by the Canoe Centre for outdoor courses. We took advantage of the permanently erected igloo style huts rather than pitching tents. The habitual activity of lighting a campfire took place every evening. Sitting around the embers we watched the cross-Baltic ferries, ablaze in lights chug their way into port along the nearby shipping lane.

Sunday 9th - Bjornholmen to Grinda, 15.6 km eastwards

We were on the water for 8.30am, under dry but overcast skies. Having passed through the deep-water narrows, fortunately without the company of any shipping our first taste of archipelago navigation beckoned. Although the Baltic has no appreciable tide, in order to find you’re chosen passage through a myriad of islands or make an open crossing it is necessary to pay close attention to compass bearings (and deliberate at length on Swedish map grid magnetic deviation.) It is also necessary to pay close attention to Swedish ferries and boats, they all have two speeds – fast and supersonic and seem to appear from nowhere in seconds.

After a snack break during light drizzle, we arrived at the campsite on Grinda at about 1.30pm as some pleasant afternoon sunshine appeared. Paddling rarely continued beyond 3.00pm, as it wasn’t the intention to make the trip a marathon event. This gave plenty of time to explore the islands by foot. In the case of Grinda this proved the point that the summer season had ended in the islands a week or two before as the café, store and restaurant were all closed.

After filling our bottles from the water hand pump, back at camp the pyromania commenced.

Monday 10th - Grinda to Ekholmen, 23.8 km eastwards

As became the norm we all rose around 7am packed up and were ready to go by 8.30. The weather was overcast and windy as we started our paddle to the post office. We paddled through heavy showers and arrived at Alsvik on the island of Svartso, by 11.30 to find the post office still open. After tying up the boats we spent a short while shopping for mainly cakes and chocolate (and some beer!) and took the opportunity to send some postcards back home.

Tim received an upbeat weather report from the shop assistant and we were regaled by a local for about 5mins before somebody found the heart to tell him we didn't speak Swedish!

We left the island in glorious rain and paddled until 2.30 before looking for a wild campsite. Ingrid and Mark found a nice spot, which was heavily covered in moss. Ingrid suggested this would work as we could use rocks instead of pegs when pitching the tents.

After disembarking and laying claim to our new island Peter found that he had lost some of his water supplies due to a faulty carrier. Mark and Shane fished while the others went for a walk around our new home and Laurent spent a valiant 5mins doing his maths homework! The weather cleared nicely that evening, we finished the day with a briefing by Tim and ate the many and varied fish caught by Mark (this last bit is called artistic licence).

Tuesday 11th - Circular tour from Ekholmen, 23.7 km

Tuesday dawned dry if overcast with a reduction however of the southwesterly wind which had been keeping Peters tent free of midges and condensation overnight. Today was planned to be an exploration of the outer edges of the archipelago or at least the inner parts of it. Tim our intrepid leader obviously wishes to cross it at some point. Finally we left our camp at 9.30 with one member missing as Laurent was reminded about such fundamentals as Maths A-level homework. He was not marooned without some distraction however in the shape of a Travel Guitar (subtly provided by our own no-haired Fuhrer). The morning consisted of a gentle open water paddle out to the Isle of Storo 7km. A group discussion followed and it was decided to proceed no further eastwards in mind of a possible deterioration in the weather and a certain reluctance to be stranded on some inhospitable islet without tents or trees. As it turned out the weather improved, developing into a fine sunny afternoon. The group meandered back to Ekholmen where the majority decided to collect wood for the evenings fire (having discovered a previously stacked pile at the south end of the island). A small group decided that having paddled insufficiently to justify their evening meal went to Finnhamm to locate water (a pump) and the closed cafe for future reference in the event of a return.

On returning it was discovered that an outbreak of madness had occurred within the camp with Steve, Mike, Shane and Laurent swimming and trying to persuade the remainder of us that the water was indeed subtropical and pleasant. The believability of these claims were somewhat spoilt by the swimmers shuddering intakes of breath as they hit the water, swimming rapidly and then turning blue. Further attempts were made to locate fish to no avail. The fire provided the usual evening focus followed by sleep at least for those who had camped on relatively soft Bilberry bushes as opposed to the rock thinly covered with moss.

Wednesday 12th - Ekholmen to Granholmen, 28.8 km southwards

And so it came to pass that the after two days on the island of Ekholmen, we were going stir crazy and so we decided to chance it and make our way despite the odds. Well, it was time to move on. The weather was encouragingly sunny and most were ready for an early start – Dave and Peter anyway. So we struck camp, as they say, and set off, in search of the ‘Passage’ to the New Land, feeling like Hudson and Cabot before us, though hopefully suffering less from scurvy. Signs were not good as we set off – we spotted a flock of cormorants flying uncertainly between two islands not quite knowing where they were. If they didn’t know, what hope for us? Luckily, Steve P was navigating that day, so all would be well, wouldn’t it?! We paddled on between the islands, now too numerous to get too worked up about, across a mixture of tranquil and quite choppy seas. A practice passage which had split a small island in two saw Tim’s priapic flag have a quarrel with a low bridge - which the bridge won. However, it was a very nice spot, and some of us were quite jealous of the owners of the house overlooking the bay. The real ‘passage’ stood between us and our new campsite on the island of Granholmen, a narrow gorge between islands which we had to traverse or else circumnavigate the rest of the world. But first things first – we went shopping. On Möja, a civilised island nearby which offered cakes, coffee and, most importantly beer (though Swedish laws limit this to no more than 3.5% ). Some sentimental types sent postcards to their loved ones, perhaps fearing the worst, others more complacently brewed up on the beach.

More water and then commitment to the chosen route and the passage. Alas, as the water narrowed, we were met by a wall of water rushes, blocking our view. Daunted, no! Shane led the attack, followed by all but the least hardy. Much rustling followed, for at least 20 minutes, whereupon all but Shane emerged backward from whence they had sought to tame the giant weed – and lost. Shane alone emerged paddling in the right direction – it must have been his rudder that helped him describe a circle.

Stuff to talk about surely later that night? Plan B was put in place – we would seek another passage instead – it looked slightly wider on the chart. But it too was blocked, and things began to look black. However, Shane and Peter were made of sterner stuff and through a combination of land based reccie and naval pioneering, a lost channel was re-found. The party formed a crocodile and passed through, grateful that Plan C (there wasn’t one!) wasn’t required. On the other side, Peter, Ingrid, Andy and Steve E were rewarded by meeting a seal, though he/she was a bit Garbo-esque and buggered off sharpish. Onwards to the campsite and it was a race against time considering the darkening sky and what it contained - it hadn’t rained all day, and was about to make up for it. Which it did as soon as we had landed.

Peter sprinted to get his tent up and tea on, but most of us huddled under trees and in the karzis to wait the storm out. It eventually stopped and we trundled across the wet, and frankly sheep turd-strewn, campsite lawn to put our tents up. Dinner followed and then the fishermen had their turn.

Shane and Steve E caught a pike apiece, the former encouraging the latter to throw his back (though not before ceremonial photographs were taken and the fish began to get quite pessimistic about its future). An illicit fire lit by Tim and Steve P just outside the campsite boundary warmed us up, coupled with whiskey and rum. It had been another fine day.

Thursday 13th - Circular tour from Granholmen, 13.5 km

Thursday the designated day of rest (rest from kayaking? whatever next) on the island of Granholmen has a promising start with sunbeams trying to find their way through the trees to our campsite. Our neighbours (Tim & Steve) to the right are already up while our neighbour to the left (Mark) seems to have chosen a lie in, his kayak parked in font of his tent. When he rises a bit later his boat has travelled further down the campsite, most likely moved by the numerous Swedish trolls who according to Swedish legends populate most of the 24000 islands of the archipelago. After breakfast some of us decide to explore the island by foot while others look at surrounding islands by kayak or in the case of Laurent stay put to prepare his maths test the following Monday. Peter has already gone to walk anticlockwise around the island, while Dave, Steve (Earl), Andy and I opt to do the same in opposite direction. We enter the nature reserve on the island to find that the initial footpaths diminish to animal tracks or just undergrowth and after some time of orienteering are quite relieved to hear a human voice of one of the few inhabitants of Granholmen. We ask directions and he sends us on the path to the nearby ferry port, where you can catch a ferry as long as you notify your intention 24 hours in advance. Marching on we pass a deserted holiday village where we can see just one person in the distance who seems to have a striking similarity with Peter. When this person disappears behind a tree we shout ‘Don’t try to hide Peter, we know it’s you’ and as we come closer and realise our mistake we just greet rather sheepishly the elderly lady who is picking some apples.

Back at the campsite we take a seat with Peter and Laurent at the picnic table and while we enviously watch Laurent preparing his mutton stew we make do with bread and cheese and a cup of tea. Dave and Laurent decide to stay on the island to read Lance Armstrong’s biography and improve in maths respectively. Whereas Peter goes off solo again in his kayak to explore several smaller islands nearby and Steve, Andy and I choose to cross to Möja for a shopping spree in the one shop on the island.

As soon as we arrive on Möja we meet Mark and Shane who’ve just come from a bicycle ride and a tasty lunch in a fish restaurant which they have found on their cycling route. They let us know where to hire the bikes for 40 Swedish Krona (about £3) and are quite amused about the fact that there isn’t anybody in this place to charge you, just a note to leave some money in a box and help yourself to a bike.

After we have topped up our resources in the local Coop we see Richard, Tim and Steve P coming round the corner and when they hear our proposal to hire some push bikes they come along with us to the Robacken Hostel. There was a couple on the first floor looking for a room, but no one in sight to ask us for any money. We had a look around the pension, left some money in a box and went off cycling to a fairly modern harbour made mostly from concrete and then to the old harbour made mostly from wood. On the way to the harbour we speak to a lady who has lived here for 5 years all year round and watch two deer jumping through the high grass next to her vegetable garden and wonder how they might have come to this island. We return the bicycles to the still unmanned hostel and swiftly kayak back to Granholmen where the sun still shines on some shores. Feeling slightly overheated from the exercise I feel this is the right moment to have a swim and a bath on the beach at the other end of the campsite. Here I have enough privacy to enjoy sitting on a warm rock after a rather cold bath and watch the sun set. Various people try their luck with fishing again, but to no avail tonight. After tea we sit around the campfire where whiskey and rum take rounds and discuss yet again the advantage/disadvantage of rudders over skegs. All in all a day with lots of varieties and not a drop of rain.

Friday 14th - Granholmen to Gallno, 19.3 km westwards

We set off with a falling barometer, dry but cloudy, wind SW F3-4. The advantage of paddling in the archipelago is that by careful route selection much of the time you can stay in the lee of an island chain only needing to tackle choppy water for the open crossings which are usually less than 2km in length. As we generally had a head wind this was therefore to be the order of the day. Of course if a job is worth doing, it’s worth delegating, so I handed the charts to Steve Pope. He did a splendid job.

At one point the big red ferry Lotte was bearing down on us outbound from Möja, but Steve Earl soon chased her off. On approaching a sheltered bay for lunch we espied a rather protective old lady in her garden – she chased us off. We had lunch on the rocky headland. Having only rough descriptions of the location of the campsites, towards the end of the day we split up to scout it out and after negotiating a narrow reedy channel Dave located the ideal spot. That evening the unofficial fishing competition continued. Laurent tried to break the record, managing to hook a perch; the only thing that Mark could break was his rod. Meanwhile I had spent one and a half hours stalking the reeds and brought a 5lb pike back to camp. The fish looked a little hypothermic so we wrapped it in newspaper and put it on the embers of the fire to warm up. The pike’s spirits didn’t seem to pick up after this act of kindness; ours did however, about 30 minutes later when the forks appeared.

Saturday 15th Gallno to Bjornholmen, 19.5 km westwards

We were on the water for 9.00am facing a cold, stiff NW F3-4 wind. This required pretty much the same tactics as the day before but with more open crossings and courses directly into the wind paddling was a little less pleasurable. Added to this was the wash from fast boats; as we travelled closer to Vaxholm the islands became more populated thereby generating more traffic. Most houses are holiday homes however so we pulled up at the bottom of someone’s deserted garden, using some planks for a makeshift bench and had lunch. At this point Mark and Shane left the main group to head directly back to the Canoe Centre as they had a very long drive ahead of them. The remainder of the group returned to Bjornholmen and the comfort of the igloos. In an effort to minimise excess baggage, a number of bottles and cans were guzzled around the campfire. This gathering witnessed the world premiere of a new song, accompanied by the travel guitar and devoted to lady canoeists. Entitled “Sweet Neoprene” (sung to the tune of Sweet Sixteen by Ringo Starr), the song was originally commissioned by Ingrid and Liz Bissett whilst sitting on the banks of the River Exe on a club trip earlier this year. This was a most appropriate venue as many of Abba’s hits were composed in the islands; however this is as far the comparisons go, there are clearly no Bjorn Again singers in Club.

Sunday 16th - Bjornholmen to Engarn, 7.5 km westwards

Waking early, the group departed at 8.00am and arrived back at the Canoe Centre for 9.15am. After Christina had given the trip leader the traditional homecoming welcome, the kayaks were stowed away. Kenneth and Christina then proceeded to lay out a most generous spread of hot drinks, fruit juice, bread rolls, cheese, ham, fruit and biscuits. We all had a second breakfast – well it would have been rude not to! Kenneth then offered hot showers and saunas in Vaxholm, taking us all there by car. I presumed we would go to the marina to use the visiting yachties facilities. Instead we were ushered into the town’s plush grand hotel with marble floors and all at Kenneth’s expense. What a gentleman. (Of course having raised the bar for trip standards, we would like to see this level of service becomes the norm for Portsmouth CC club outings.) Kenneth and Christina made it very clear that Club members would be welcome back at any time (except mid-winter when the sea freezes.) Thereafter we made our way back to Stockholm to soak up some culture (scoffing burger and chips, buying plastic Viking helmets etc.)

Most people thought the trip was good value, flights £106 return, and kayak hire less than £100/week (2007). All in all great fun was had by everyone, you were a smashing crew. Thanks for making it so.

Kayak Review

We were offered the choice of any boats in Kenneth and Christina’s impressive set up. Their standard range included a series of 3 kayaks from the VKV Seagull range within increasing width and stability (the Elite, Offshore and Ocean). In addition they had a selection of older, though good condition craft, including P&H Orion’s (which two members opted for) and one brand new Seabird Expedition tourer. This clearly had Tim’s name on it as it came complete with a fishing rod stand and was ideal for the Team Ensign bearer.…and his 10 ft rod.

There was also Kenneth’s new range for 2008 and on the basis 'I would trial it for him', he kindly unwrapped one and allowed me to use the 'Seabird Northsea' Kayak. A boat that was Chinese made, fitted out in Norway and finally shipped to Sweden – and apart from leaking through the rudder lines in the rear compartment, it was an excellent craft. Most of the craft made use of inflatable Thermarest seats for back rests, which proved very comfortable, although some found using one as a seat produced a disconcerting rolling feel to the boat. In a way the kayaks were ideally suited to the type of expedition work available in the archipelago insomuch as the sea conditions we encountered were never more challenging that a 'lively chop'.

The large storage hatches on the touring boats made for easy and simple kit stowage – and important issue, as we were stopping and re-packing most nights and the majority proved watertight. The hinged hatch cover design may have proved more problematic in challenging sea conditions, but that’s not what the boats were designed for. Certainly Steve and Richard looked on with admiration at the rest of the group and the ease with which they packed - as they were frenetically stuffing dry sacks through the 7" hatches on their P&H Orions.

As for defects, one or two screws came loose – probably due to the radical test conditions, but all in all, no major problems were encountered with any of the craft. Sadly the same cannot be said for the paddlers, as increasingly rabid arguments about the “rudder versus skeg” debate raged through out the week. This may have been the cause of paddlers pitching camp in isolation, or in one case on the other side of an entire island.

We managed to return most of the boats without significant hull damage however, though this occasionally proved challenging, as the sub-surface rocks proved more difficult to identify as the week progressed. Whether was due to the unfamiliar light conditions or the groups desire to use up duty free allowances before the returning is anyone’s guess!