It caught my eye, a dot of black on the ice, at a distance that was hard to judge. Always further away than you think, when I eventually reached the spot I found it was a hat that must have flown off the head of the driver of a passing snow scooter, the owner more concerned with speed than warmth (and common sense).

When I was a child I spent time on a boat with my aunt and uncle. I never really understood my aunt’s obsession with fishing things out of the water. She was eagle-eyed and could spot something floating in the water when it still just looked like a wave to me. By the time I saw something floating she had already worked out whether it was worth picking up. Broken buckets, old bits of rope, plastic bottles – these were a disappointment, but she made sure she knew what they were before tackling the tricky process of persuading the skipper to manoeuvre the boat within reach of them. For it to be worth her while it would have to be something worth having – a piece of waterproof clothing, a hat, a useful plastic container. She was always triumphant fishing it out of the water. The item would from then on would be known as ‘the hat I fished out of the water off Hayling Island’ or ‘the salad bowl I found off the Needles’ and was valued more highly than anything she might have bought.

So I thought of my aunt, as I picked up the hat – henceforth to be known as ‘the hat I picked up on the ice at Tornehamn’. It was a Biggles-style hat for arctic conditions, had earflaps, was fur lined, and there was a sporty eagle logo on the back. It was just my size – what good fortune. It wasn’t the kind of hat I would buy, which made it all the more desirable. It was mine, and I never even chose it. I liked to think it had some of the youthful enthusiasm of its owner invested in it, and after a wash it would pass that aura on to me.

Running a bed and breakfast, things get left behind. If we can locate the owner we return things, but often we can’t. Usually the owner has deemed them of no value and never asked us about them. So we have a (cheap) watch, a scarf, some gloves. We try very hard to use these items and if I’m honest I’m not sure why, but I think it might be something to do with my aunt. The watch is now an egg timer, the gloves (too big) are a useful outer layer to be put on top of other gloves. I know who left the watch – they wrote and said not to bother to return it – so we remember them when we boil eggs. The gloves could have belonged to one of four groups of people here, but in my mind they are always Paul’s gloves. These are ‘flotsam’ – items that have accidentally fallen into the sea and then into others’ (our) hands.

However, the bulk of items we inherit are ‘jetsam’ – items that people have deliberately thrown overboard, ‘to lighten a ship in distress’. The pizza carton from the night before, the plastic packaging from the supermarket, the cans and bottles. The packaging for items of clothing bought in a hurry in town, indicating an urgent need for warm underwear, an extra fleece, or some sheep’s wool inner soles. Discarded tour itineraries, or plans for a journey – the parts already completed now thrown away. I don’t ferret around in people’s rubbish, but often bits of paper are left lying on tables, the floor, or staring at me from the top of the bin. And then sometimes I’m just curious (goodness! did they really pay that price for their flight?).

German visitors always seem to bring a great many copies of ‘Die Zeit’, and are always the ones most concerned about what to do with their rubbish. (I reassure them that we do recycle paper, tin and plastics). People who have arrived on the overnight train from Stockholm always have an excess of food which they donate to us, though I must confess we usually put it straight in the bin. Larger items are usually declared as jetsam by guests on departure – for instance, boots that are broken and aren’t worth bringing home. We’re a staging post in people’s lives, and items are buried here to mark their passing.

Kiruna sits on top of an iron ore mine, and the jetsam from the mine is a landmark in town. In 1900 it was an open cast mine, the iron ore being taken from the mountain. Over the years, as the ore was extracted, less and less of the mountain remained, and, now that they are working far underground. What you see on the top is, as a visitor pointed out to us, just a ‘slag heap’. Jetsam is our history.

Which is why the Swedish army are just about to begin the clearing of a lake in town. The army was stationed here in the ’60s, and, in that careless manner that typified the period, they jettisoned ammunition into a small unused lake in town. Locals haven’t much cared about it. In the winter the ice is still good for skiing and snow scooters. They don’t need to fish in it – there are plenty of other lakes. And swimming isn’t a very popular sport. But the time has finally come to remove this poisonous jetsam. The mining company – the largest producer of jetsam in town – is beginning to mine in the area underground nearby, so the fear is that the poisonous lake will interfere with the mining activity. We should all remember that flotsam may be a gift, but none of us is entirely safe from jetsam.