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Eco-tourism and Scandinavia

Finding earth-friendly vacation spots and activities in Scandinavia is not rocket science. Scandinavians love to travel and are constantly chasing sunny beaches in far away places, but there are amazing adventures waiting to be had right in their own backyards

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You'll find specifics on eco-travel in the Swedish mountains under this introductory text.

Eco-tourism and Scandinavia

Everyone is going eco. Finding earth-friendly vacation spots and activities in Scandinavia is not rocket science. Scandinavians love to travel and are constantly chasing sunny beaches in far away places, but there are amazing adventures waiting to be had right in their own backyards! Whether kayaking along one of the many coast lines of Scandinavia, biking, hiking, skiing, or searching out more adventurous experiences, the Nordic countries offer a smörgåsbord of opportunities on land or water, in warm weather or cold for the eco-aware traveler.
Although still a new phenomenon, ecotourism — travel that preserves the environment and promotes the welfare of local people — continues to gain momentum throughout the world. According to the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism, ecotourism “embraces the principles of sustainable tourism… and the following principles which distinguish it from the wider concept of sustainable tourism: [It] contributes actively to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage; includes local and indigenous communities in its planning, development, and operation, contributing to their well-being; interprets the natural and cultural heritage of the destination to the visitor; and lends itself better to independent travelers, as well as to organized tours for small size groups.” (www.peopleandplanet.net)
The photography of the preceding pages — developed after writer/photographer Emil Sergel’s two trips in Sweden — shows vignettes of experiences which can be destinations in themselves or enjoyed as side trips during a longer tour in any of the countries’ rich cultures.
Kayaking is an eco-friendly activity, and the Swedish west coast has plenty of beautiful and varied options. What’s so special about kayaking is the closeness to nature, and the fact that you use nothing but your own muscle strength to navigate. It’s up to the individual to decide whether to paddle amongst rocks and skerries or venture out among the bigger waves in the open sea. Sergel’s archipelago trip took off from Marstrand, an hour by car from Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. If you stay at a hotel in Gothenburg, there’ll be easy access to the southern archipelago and kayak rentals in Styrsö. Then an hour or so north of the city, there’s Marstrand and several hotels to choose from. There are also kayaks for rent in Orust, and if you don’t want to paddle back the same way you came, ask to be picked up along the coast.
The cross country winter experience originated at Storulvån mountain station, which is reached by night train from either Gothenburg or Stockholm. Go to bed in metropolis and wake up in a mountain paradise in central Sweden. Storulvån mountain station has become a certified ecotourism site by the Swedish organization Naturens Bästa (see below). You can hit the mountain tops, fill up on adrenaline, and sleep overnight in the snow, or go for a casual day tour. Kitesurfing (a small kite pulls the skier through the mountain terrain) is the current ‘in’ thing, but Sergel came to ski in the stillness and quiet of the mountains. Under bright sunshine and no wind at their backs, Sergel’s party heads for the highest peak, Storsnasen, close to 5,000 feet above the ocean. Ascending the deep untouched snow in a steadfast rhythm, the slow and winding dance of skis and poles brings them to the top. They take off most of their clothes to bask in the sun and take in the view of the entire region in silence. 

The development towards a more sustainable society in the Nordic countries is comprehensive and not only the domain of a few eco-village activists. The world’s oldest ecotourism organization is in the U.S. The International Ecotourism Society, TIES (www.ecotourism.org), based in Washington D.C., was founded in 1990. Most North American-based operators work with adventure programs which organize experience- and activity-tours to Greenland, Iceland, and more remote areas of the Nordic region.
Finland is eco-friendly simply because 70% of the country is covered by forest. It also offers bicycle tours, brown bear watching in the summer, and fun family oriented trips in the winter, including dog sledding or visits to the alleged Finnish home of Santa. (www.responsibletravel.com)
It’s a well-known fact that Denmark has some of the best produce in the world. But ecology and sustainability are much more than food to the Danes. The country has had a long love affair with renewable energy — and has gained the position as one of the world’s leading wind turbine nations. Solar energy technologies are gaining popularity, even in private homes. The island of Ærø, south of Funen, is creating the world’s largest solar panel system. Plan your trip with “Green Key” hotels at Visit Denmark (www.visitdenmark.dk).
Norway has its own Ecotourism Norway organization (www.grip.no/okoturisme), but for general travel information and ideas, see www.visitnorway.com.
Sweden launched Nature’s Best (www.naturensbasta.se)— the first national quality label for ecotourism in the northern hemisphere — during 2002’s UN International Year of Ecotourism. Nature’s Best certifies and promotes the best Swedish tour operators and their products. To pass inspection for this one must respect the limitations of the destination, support the local economy, and create as sustainable an organization as possible. It is primarily backed by three organizations: The Ecotourism Society of Sweden (www.ekoturism.org – website in Swedish only), The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (www.snf.se/english.cfm), and Visit Sweden (www.visitsweden.com).

Mountain Freedom
—Complete freedom in the mountains

An hour away from central Sweden’s alpine skiing center (and Alpine World Championship location 2007), is the silence beyond Åre’s eternal partying. Storulvån is the home of hushed mountain ranges and amazing experiences on the slopes and among nature. One can be very alone with the mountains.
Many seek the draw of Åre’s big lift and various ski trips during wintertime.
But the popularity also means long drives and expensive prices. Instead, travel just a stone’s throw from there to the peace and solitude of Storulvån.
I don’t know if it is cloudy or foggy beyond the curtains at home, a few miles to the south in Ostersund, the absolute center of Sweden. It is early morning and the sun is crawling into the sky. A smile spreads across my lips when I see that it’s just foggy. Above, the sky is clear blue, and the snow is sparkling white below. It is time to set forth. We have 15 miles to drive before we pick up my good friend, Jesper Oskarsson. He has worked for two seasons in Storulvån and I have bribed him with a little free lunch if he’ll drag me with him.
Traffic is non-existent and expectations are high, and we have bought chocolate and fruit for the road. We turn off the expressway and hit the dirt road. It’s the last, bouncy part of our journey. The peaks look majestic, and we make a few stops just to photograph them. At last we’re on the winding road leading up to Storulvån’s mountain lodge, drifts of snow line the way.
We inspect our backpacks one last time - thermos, extra gloves, sunglasses, everything is there. Stoppers are applied on the gliding surface of our skis to avoid constantly sliding backwards. I have Alpine bindings, which fix my ski boots to the skis at both toe and heel but allow the boots to release in case of a fall, but my friend uses heavy-duty Telemark bindings where the heel is always loose. We make our way uphill, our skis cutting the pristine snow. There’s not much to talk about, and we enter a mental state of quiet contemplation. All we hear is the swishing of the skis and the sound of the ski poles tugging at the snow. The wind is picking up, and toward the top it’s quite blustery; our ski skins really come in handy. Then we spot the peak, the goal for the day – Södra Tväråklumpen. Our skis leave a zigzag pattern behind. It gets increasingly steeper and we finally reach the top. We’re exhausted, but the freedom we feel when we turn around and slide downward, making S-shaped tracks as we go, is complete. We’re all alone in the calm of the valley, where we lunch on blueberry soup and flatbread.
“It’s very cold!”
Our German friend from the sauna has just jumped into the Gaaltijen, a cold pool with water straight from Storulvån. The newly built sauna has a panoramic window, from where we can see the snowy mountains. I try not to scream as I jump into the cold pool. It’s cold - terribly cold. The thermometer shows 39° Fahrenheit. But there’s nothing like sweating in the hot sauna, and after a day in the mountains, it’s amazing! We talk about things like the snow conditions and discuss the best ski trip for tomorrow.
Later, I meet with Simon Jaktlund - he’s been working as a guide at Storulvån since the summer of 2001. Simon says that the mountains offer a variety of activities, anything from a tour to the top, which should get your adrenaline pumping, to bivouacking, or enjoying a day of cross country skiing. There are different courses in snowkiting available here, and Simon is also a snowkiting instructor. Snowkiting, an outdoor boardsport combining the airfoil and techniques used in kitesurfing with the footgear and gliding surface used in snowboarding, is the latest craze. You need good wind for that, though.
“I’ve gone up the highest peak here in ten minutes by snowkiting, and it usually takes an hour and a half if you walk up using ski skins,” says Simon.
Then it’s dinnertime. And what a dinner! We work our way through a buffet of salads, freshly baked walnut bread and salmon, and sit back, bloated – our eyes on the ice cream and cloudberry jam. But we manage to down that, too, with some coffee. A game of cards and some planning of tomorrow’s activities follow the meal. We crawl into our beds and fall asleep exhausted.
The ecological aspect of the mountain lodge is important. The food here is eco-friendly, produced in the area. In fact, because of its eco-tourism, this place is certified by the organization Nature’s Best, a quality label available only to Swedish companies in Sweden. In order to be qualified, one must respect the limitations of the destination, support the local economy, and create as environmentally sustainable an organization as possible. No snow groomers or ski lifts here – just untouched snow.

I still have some questions about Storulvån. I ask Mattias Grapenfelt, our host:
When is the snow the best? What do you do in case of an avalanche?
“We want people to be able to come here and have an undisturbed, relaxed vacation,” says Grapenfelt. “During the winter breaks, the focus is very much on families with children; other times we pay attention to guests without children. There’s a sporty, relaxed atmosphere here.

And what about the snow?
“The snow is best early in the season, in February. But that’s also when it’s very cold. If you want to play around in the snow, the best bet is to come a bit later than that.”

What else can you do around here?
“The most popular activity right now is snowkiting. And we have good conditions for snowkiting. But people come here mostly to spend time in unspoiled nature. We also have a restaurant with eco-friendly food. It’s fancy but at the same time healthy.”

And avalanches?
“If you ski in the nearby regions, you’re pretty safe. But of course it all depends on how much snow there is and what kind of weather it is. If you are worried, you can always hire a mountain guide for a day.”

It’s our second day. There’s plenty of snow but it’s thawing. Our legs are tired after having climbed Getryggen, the peak closest to the hotel. There’s no sun and my feet are chafed. We zigzag among the dwarf birches. Sauna, some quiet reading, another gigantic dinner buffet, and the day is over.

On our last day everything is perfect. “Today we’ll take Storsnasen,” says Jesper, gazing upwards. The sun’s shining, the skies are blue, and there’s no wind. We have our minds set on the tallest peak, Storsnasen, 1462 meters above the ocean. The view is a rolling sea of snow, ravines, and valleys. In our backpacks we have pre-packed breakfasts of dried fruit, sandwiches, and hot chocolate. We also have most of our clothes in our backpacks since the sun is broiling hot. We ascend energetically, but the snow takes the life out of us and we need frequent water breaks. At the top we gaze over Västjämtland. The stillness is total, interrupted only by our enthusiasm as we sing and play in the snow, take photographs, and eat. And then the descent: At first we just make a few careful turns, but then it’s all downhill and we ski with a wonderful sense of abandon. The adrenaline is pumping and I feel a smile spreading on my face. We glide slowly through the valley. With the sunlight hitting the snow, life seems perfect.

We have packed everything into the trunk of the car and are on our way home. After a few miles we reach Åre, and traffic is getting heavier. Suddenly there are hotel complexes everywhere. There are long lines to the ski lifts, and the slopes are full of skiers, struggling to make their way down among other skiers and slushy pistes. It seems worlds apart from the peaceful weekend we’ve just enjoyed. Eventually the traffic thins out. We continue eastward and sing to keep the fatigue at bay.

Written and photographed by Emil Sergel

How to get there:
The easiest way to reach Storulvån is by train. Take the night train from Göteborg or Stockholm and wake up in the mountains! The trip takes about 15 hours.

If you don’t feel like camping or bivouacking, there’s not much to choose from but the Mountain Lodge. The main building sleeps 118 in two and four bedrooms with bunk beds and toilet/shower in the rooms, and there are six lodges, each containing four beds. Shower and toilets are in the hall. The old Storulvån building has 30 beds in two dormitories, and one four-bedroom, as well as a cabin containing another four-bedroom. The standard is very simple here, with an outside toilet.

Things to do:
This is a natural starting and finishing point for both long and short expeditions in the Jämtland mountains. There’s cross country skiing as well as mountain climbing and downhill skiing. There are mountain guides for hire – the perfect alternative if you’d like to get familiar with the surroundings.

Eco-friendly food for everyone! And it tastes good, too! The restaurant serves delicious and nourishing food. The breakfast buffet is magnificent.

For families with children:
The mountain lodge gets a bit more child-friendly during winter breaks. There are popular family rooms with private baths, and children stay for free.

There are no guarantees against avalanches. If you’re hesitant, hire a mountain guide, or tag along with someone more experienced. Ask which areas are safe.

Web page:
www.storulvan.se (the homepage of the mountain lodge)
www.sj.se - domestic train travel
www.flysas.com - direct flights to Stockholm or Gothenburg

Cell phones: unreliable
Multi-tools: Bring tools if you plan to go out on your own.
Sun screen and sun glasses are a must; the reflections from sea and snow make the sun extremely strong.
Plan several layers of clothing
Drink plenty of water
No engines, no machines, just you and the sea or mountain range (Storulvån was “Eco” even before the invention of the word).

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