The Wild Waters of Skåne


A SNAKING RIVER, A GLITTERING LAKE, AND THE MIGHTY SEA. KAREN HENSEL, JEAN-LUC GROSSMANN, AND JUSTIN HESSION SET OUT ON A WATER TRIATHLON THROUGH SKÅNE, SWEDEN TO DISCOVER THE REGION’S PRIMEVAL WILDERNESS.

★ Photography : PlanetVisible

★ Words : Karen Hensel

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A mammoth skeleton blocks our path around the next bend. As we paddle a few cautious strokes closer, the bony frame of the primitive beast constantly tumbling around in the burbling water reveals itself to be the remnants of a huge spruce that has fallen across the Holjeån River.
This river, in the north-east of the southern Swedish province of Skåne, also known as Scania, flows in broad loops from Östafors Bruk, through lush meadows and pristine nature before finally disgorging its waters into the lake of Ivösjön. With its wild riverbanks and huge tree trunks, it feels as though we are exploring a prehistoric land. The river is the first of three disciplines in our personal triathlon on the waters of Skåne. Jean-Luc, Justin and I have set ourselves the goal of paddling across the region from east to west on three waterways: the Holjeån River, the lake of Ivösjön and around the imposing peninsula of Kullaberg that juts out into the ocean channel known as the Kattegat. Our aim is to discover the original wilderness of Skåne and understand how this was shaped by natural forces, evolution and traditions.

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A tricky maze

While Jean-Luc masterfully steers around the lively horizontal spruce, Justin and I, sharing a canoe, remain caught in an overhanging branch. The next bend turns out to be another tricky navigational exercise where we must maneuver our boats around various rocks. We struggle while the impartial beech trees above placidly consider their reflections in the water whose surface we stir gently with the strokes of our paddles. Moss-covered rocks fringe the riverbank. The Holjeån doggedly meanders onward, revealing a magical, fairy-tale world with new challenges to be faced at every curve.

Traces of the past

Lurking behind the next bend in the river is glittering Ivösjön, the largest lake in Skåne, and where the second part of our voyage of discovery by paddle begins. At the mouth of the river, an imposing tree root looms above us, reminiscent of the shield of a triceratops. Traces of dinosaurs have in fact been found on the nose between the lakes of Oppmannasjön and Ivösjön, and the area around Ivösjön is one of the most fossil-rich in the world. Researchers unearthed an 85-million-year-old flower here, and Sweden’s oldest woman, the Barumskvinna, was 9,000 years old when her remains were discovered at Ivösjön in the 1930s by a farmer improving a trail for his cows. In Barumskvinna’s lifetime, Ivösjön was still part of the sea. Since then, the slow uplift of Scandinavia has changed the region forever. We glide across the shimmering surface of the lake rich in history. Ospreys circle in the sky, on the look-out for a rewarding catch. White clouds are reflected on dark waters. With every paddle stroke, we move further out into the silent distance.

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Off to our own island

Forty islands of varying size are scattered across Ivösjön. This evening we will camp for the night on one of them. We approach the first rocky island and glimpse a bathing beach and a place for a campfire. Justin and I have already disembarked and are heading for the hill. “Come on, let’s look a bit further,” says Jean-Luc. “We can finally have an island all to ourselves today. Let’s find the prettiest place in the whole lake.” He convinces us to paddle a little further and look around. On some islands there are tables and benches and even huts to spend the night in. We pass some more small collections of rocks, some so tiny there is space for only one person. Then we spot an island with a wide sandy beach to the west and an enchanted forest to the east. The three of us agree immediately to spend the night here.

Our tents perch right at the water’s edge. We devour our sandwiches and enjoy the golden sunset over a surreal backdrop that conveys calming solitude. The moon displays its crescent, and slowly night descends. Equipped with headlamps, we go for a short ramble through our tiny island forest. Gnarled roots and moss-covered boulders tower ahead, and we are enveloped by the scent of fir needles and sweet resin. Later, we sit outside on the shore, gazing up at the clear, starlit sky.

We are unable to tear ourselves away from the delightful freedom of the darkly undulating lake. We philosophize for a long time on the meaning of life before it’s time to crawl into our cosy sleeping bags. In the morning, I am wrenched from dreams by the cry of birds. Ivösjön lies enveloped in mist before us. Jean-Luc and Justin still seem to be asleep, and I dive into the water and swim a wide circle in the refreshingly cool lake. As the day wakes we paddle off in the direction of Axeltorp. When we go ashore two hours later at the north-eastern tip of the lake with tousled hair and tanned by the weather, it feels as though we have not just spent a night but the whole of our lives out there.

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A battle on a rough sea

For the last stretch of our water triathlon we move on to a third discipline on the Kattegat. The dramatic outline of Kullaberg can be made out ahead of us when we finally arrive in Mölle, on Sweden’s south-west coast. From this small fishing village, which lies at the foot of the imposing mountain ridge, we intend to paddle around the peninsula, past the Kullaberg lighthouse as far as the caves of Josefinelust on the north side. A glance at the choppy waters of the sea shows, however, that this expedition might not be a light undertaking.

The Kattegat before us, linking the Baltic Sea with the North Sea via the Skagerrak, was long-feared by mariners due its narrowness and shallows. On the way down to the jetty, I briefly consider whether a paddling biathlon might not have been sufficient. A stiff breeze blows in our faces, and small white breakers are rearing further out to sea. “When you get close to the lighthouse the sea will be very rough again, but in the north-east it’ll be better,” says Matt, our contact from Kulla Kajak.

When we leave the protection of the harbour of Mölle, the waves become ever higher. With the impending hundred-year-old lighthouse Kullens Fyr in my sights, I paddle onward with maximum concentration and try not to notice that the situation is a bit scary. Jean-Luc, on the other hand, who has been sea kayaking several times off the coast of Greenland, is relaxed. Justin too seems to be only mildly irritated by the billowing waves and is busy telling me about his latest paddling excursion on the Yukon River, squealing with delight every time his kayak is shaken by the walls of water.

We ride up the crests of the waves and drop down into the troughs. At the lighthouse the waves crash into us from both sides. We struggle slowly onward. Suddenly all is calm. Before we know it, the battle is won. We reach the sheltered north side of the peninsula. Here, the sea laps gently – and all previous dangers are forgotten.

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Coast of stories

The impressive coast with its artistic rock formations was created by nature and shaped by erosion. We follow the shore and chance a series of detours through the narrow rocky inlets, which require skillful maneuvers. Cormorants have settled on the boulders and watch with delight while drying their wings in the warming sun.

We take a break at the stony beach of Josefinelust. There are a total of 20 caves on Kullaberg. The two caves of Josefinelust are reachable after a brief climb along the shore. Flint tools and needles made of bone have been found in these caverns that provide shelter from the sea. We find nothing tangible, but are struck once again by a feeling of being on our way into another, distant time.

The Skåneleden trail also reaches Josefinelust through beech forests and wind-lashed moorland. A short distance up along a path lining the steep cliffs and spectacular vistas of the Kattegat open up before us. Though harbour porpoises are commonly seen frolicking in this area, today we search in vain for a glimpse of their fins. For our evening bath, we dive off the rocks into the crystal-clear sea. It’s difficult to tear ourselves away from this gorgeous wild bay.

The water is mirror-smooth when we set out again to sea. “Look, seals!” Jean-Luc suddenly shouts, pointing to three bald heads breaking the surface of the water a few meters away. They swim close by, keeping our kayaks company for a while, providing a powerful link to the still-humbling sea.

In the past few days we have travelled through Skåne from the river to the lake to the sea and have witnessed landscapes shaped by the ice ages and erosion and in which our ancestors left their traces behind. We will never experience what it was really like in those days. But as we completed our triathalon through Skåne’s magical waterways, separated from each other by just a paddle stroke, each has shared with us their own stories to give a glimpse into history.

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