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Letters from 68 degrees, Kiruna

Blog at 68 degrees

What's happening here at 68 degrees, a bed and breakfast in Kiruna.

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The one that got away

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Thu, August 20, 2020 13:42:07

His eyes opened wide with excitement. ‘Grayling,’ he said, as if whispering the name of the holy grail. We don’t fish, so it was hard to share his enthusiasm, but we tried.

We’d been trudging along a muddy path hoping to get access to another part of the Rautas river. It’s a sort of personal challenge, to get to see as much of local rivers as we can. Many are hidden and inaccessible, so seeking out obscure paths used by people who go fishing is the only way. This path turned out to be, predictably, not only muddy but swarming with biting insects, which is normal for the time of the year. On the other hand, there are degrees of insect concentration, and this was a particularly dense one.

The man telling us about fish was head to toe in protective gear – protective not against weather, but insects. He also wore glasses like goggles, covered on the sides, because insects often go for the eyes. And he was smoking a cigarette, despite having to carry gear and tread carefully around muddy holes.

He surveyed us like creatures that had emerged from the bog. Rolf’s muddy trainers – no boots – and my pair of shorts. Clearly, we weren’t familiar with this path. Rolf asked him about the fish he caught and he gave us a list, with additions about relative difficulty in catching, and occasional cooking tips. He told us about catches he’d made. It was a variation on ‘the one that got away’ fisherman’s traditional tale. He was just sharing his enthusiasm for fish – fair enough.

We complained about the insects, and he agreed, commenting that in a two hours’ time there would be even more of them – ‘that’s when they really party’. He had a dogged, determined look about him. That’s how you have to be, if you regularly walk this path in the summer. I realised the cigarette smoke was there to keep insects at bay.

He was curious about us of course. Why would we be there, struggling through mud and mosquitos, if it wasn’t to fish? We tried to explain we were interested in the river. His blank expression indicated polite disbelief. He asked if we were looking for berries. Although we said we weren’t, he gave us an update on the state of berries. The much treasured cloudberry, he said, was completely tasteless this year – just water. The warm weather had come at the wrong time, he said. Cloudberries out in the fjäll area might be better though, because they matured a few weeks later.

‘Ah yes,’ joked Rolf, ‘you say that to stop us picking them!’ The warning wasn’t necessary though, because with this number of insects, and the predicted insect rave happening in just a couple of hours, there was no way we were going out now looking for berries.

The man continued along the path towards his beloved grayling, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and we beat a retreat in the opposite direction, heading for the protective shell of the car.

We delayed a berry picking outing for a couple of weeks until we thought the insect count had gone down. As usual when we are here in August, we headed out to the fjäll area to look for cloudberries. We know a place where there are usually quite a few, and we enjoy wandering around – picking, tasting, the thrill of the chase. We wondered if this year we would discover the fisherman had been right, and even these berries were watery.

The cloudberry has a gorgeous pale orange yellow colour, and that’s what your eye is searching for among the mass of early autumn colours spreading over the earth. But wandering around the cloudberry area there were none to be seen. Maybe half a one here or there. Sometimes you know someone has been there before you and swooped them all up, but no-one can be quite this efficient. We deduced that the berries were not watery, as predicted, this year, but absent.

Finding the berries, though, is only part of the pleasure. The carpet of different plants that is spread over the ground is a pleasure in itself. Soft mounds of burnt-orange coloured moss, bright green blueberry plants, pale green grasses, and the occasional spread of tiny red leaves. The smell is even more stunning, a warm sweet smell of autumn. Instead of picking berries I got out my camera. I found a particularly colourful spot and focussed in on a billowing hill of autumn colour.

When I got home I looked at the image. Proud and bold in the middle of the picture, there it was. The one that got away.

The joy of tarmac

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, August 14, 2020 12:23:01

You can’t help noticing animals on roads. It makes you wonder why, because there’s so much land around what’s the attraction to tarmac? A first reaction is to imagine the animals are seeking company. They’re not though.

Reindeer on the road. They can easily hold up the traffic – a herd of reindeer have a tendency to run from side to side so it’s hard to judge when it’s safe to drive by them, and then just as you do they start running ahead of you – they’re herd animals after all and think you’re herding them. But what are they doing there in the first place?

A nice cosy and safe place to feed your young is, apparently, a road or driveway.

And one of the best places to hang out on a warm summer night is, a driveway.

It’s taken us a while to catch up with what they’re doing. It’s the time of year when we can spend ages trying to decide where to go for the day. A walk along the river, perhaps, or a trek through a low birch forest? These seem perfect ideas for a warm summer day, until you reach down your leg to scratch your ankle for the fifth time in the last minute. You remember.

So, where can we go in town? Or where is a good stretch of road, preferably a very wide road – a good distance from the birch scrub on either side – as unused as possible? Then we can bring out the chairs, have some lunch, and relax, for a change. On the tarmac, away from all those pesky mosquitos.

A meditative bird

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, July 31, 2020 21:43:19

We were walking on the easily accessed lower reaches of ‘Kungsleden’, a long distance walking path through the mountains.

We had always feared the numbers of people we might encounter on the path, so had preferred less famous, shorter routes nearby. This year though, thinking that due to the virus there would be less tourists than normal, we thought we’d try a small section of it and see what it was like.

The lower section of the path is designed for tourists rather than long distance walkers, so it’s easy underfoot and follows the river to provide the most scenic views. A little further up it becomes a little rougher, but it’s still a very easy stroll, through low birch forest, with glimpses of the bursting-full river nearby.

Rolf decided to take a break at a viewing spot an hour or so into the walk, and I walked on, curious about what was just round the bend, and the next bend, and the next bend. I have to time myself or I forget to turn back – I said I’d turn after twenty minutes.

The path climbed and fell, with exhilarating views of the river below. I arrived at what is marked on the map as a ‘Meditation Place’. Why this should be a better place to stop and reflect than any other I didn’t know. As I approached it, something moved ahead of me on the path. Too large – I thought – for a bird, but not an identifiable animal. Very dark, and very still. It was a large black raven. It walked across the path and up ahead of me to the meditation stone and inscription, and I followed, meekly.

I’m used to seeing ravens in the sky but I’d never been this close to one before. It’s behaviour seemed odd. I wondered if it had found something to eat there, and I was disturbing its lunch. I looked for a dead animal nearby, but saw none. Then I wondered if it was injured and couldn’t fly away. Possibly, but it could certainly walk away, and, strangely, it didn’t. It just jumped around the meditation place, looking at the stone, at me, at the leaf-strewn ground. I walked towards it, and it stood its ground.

It was me not the bird that felt a bit threatened. It’s a big bird, with a large beak, and this raven in particular – well frankly, it seemed a bit mad. Not that I’d know what a sane raven was like.

But I took it as an omen – a good one – that it had appeared here, so I stopped to meditate, as instructed. It was memorable, because of the raven by my side. After the minutes of meditation I decided to walk back. I took a picture of the raven – to show Rolf – and then turned my back on it.

After walking for a while I began looking for Rolf along the river bank. I couldn’t remember exactly where I’d left him and was concentrating on this when something flew across my vision. At some distance, near the river, I saw raven – no doubt, the raven – fly down to the ground exactly where Rolf sat. He was so engaged with the bird that he didn’t notice my approach.

Had it followed me here?

We watched it together, rooting around on the ground, wondering what it all meant. Then we gathered up our things and set off down the path. The raven came too, walking. Some people approached us along the path and then passed us, so we stepped aside – as did the raven. Then it trundled ahead of us down the path, like a dog.

We were charmed by it but also, to be honest, a little alarmed. I’d no idea what it might do – if, for example, we didn’t invite it home for tea. I’d never thought of having a raven as a pet. It’s a large bird – you wouldn’t want to upset a raven. So we followed it down the path, on our best behaviour, wondering what it, and we, would do next.

I imagined the raven regularly leading small groups of tourists along this path. ‘Come along now,’ it might say, ‘don’t lag behind’. It had a bit of a side to side, lumbering sort of walk, like it had walked this way too many times before, tired of instructing travellers about the route. It was beautiful nonetheless – I noticed its feathers were shining an iridescent blue in the sun.

Further along the path we met some more people coming toward us so we stepped aside again, as did the raven. I wanted to ask them if they wanted a raven, if they might like to take it with them, for company, but I didn’t. This particular madness wasn’t easy to share with passing strangers. But this time, when we stepped back on the path the raven didn’t join us.

We breathed a sigh of relief and walked on as fast as we could. How ridiculous, to be running away from a bird. Then after a few minutes we began to miss it.

Tales of the River Bank

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sun, July 12, 2020 15:59:55

There are two rivers near Kiruna, the Torne and the Kalix. People are less likely to visit the Kalix, meandering far away from roads between the mountains beyond Kiruna and the Baltic. Near Kiruna, though, you can get close to it. Along its banks are occasional buildings and small villages that sprang up in the early 19th century, from early Sami settlements on reindeer migration routes or when settlers came for the rich fishing opportunities there.

The river is wide and shallow in places, with small islands that force the water to flow faster either side. In these narrow channels the water refuses to freeze, even in the depths of winter. Many times this winter we’ve skied along the river’s frozen banks to a fishing hut. The views from there are wide, in one direction to the high mountains, and elsewhere over expanses of snow-covered ice and a few small areas of open flowing water where we could watch migrating birds gather.

Now in summer we’re exploring the river bank in an entirely different way – walking through warm or wet low birch forest down to the bank, stepping along narrow paths, seeing small wildflowers pushing their way through fresh greenery, water rushing at our feet and insects buzzing insistently in our faces.


We’re looking for a new view of the river. Each day is a challenge to find out more about it and where it goes on each of its secretive turns through the forest. We suspect that eventually the path we’re on will lead to another part of the river bank, perhaps another fishing spot, where we hope for open space and a breeze to whisk away the troublesome insects.

It feels a secret world of unexplored richness. It’s not true of course, since we’re on some kind of narrow earth path which must be used by people going fishing, and is also evidently used by moose, who like to defecate as they walk. Moose poo is dry and straw-like and disintegrates under your foot into powder. We can’t see far ahead, but have a sense of where the river might be, beyond the wild growth.

Turning a corner we see a reindeer skull lying on the earth in a small clearing. Then we notice there are other bones, vertebrae, and another skull. Reindeer split from their herd become easy prey if they weaken. At first it seems rather unpleasant, but you get used to the idea – it’s the natural way of things. Corpses contribute to nearby wildlife, both animal and vegetable.

But it didn’t prepare us for the next sighting among rough bracken a distance away – a wooden cross. As we approached we saw there were two graves, and one of them had evidence of someone visiting the grave and leaving keepsakes.

At this point it feels very Scandinoir thriller. Had we stumbled on the scene of a crime? A crime of passion perhaps, a lover buried where he fell? Or maybe someone living off-grid, refusing the usual burial rites, buried and remembered by a friend? Rolf reminded me this is illegal in Sweden, and besides, if you had committed a crime you wouldn’t bury the victim in an area famous for fishing.

So we looked a little closer. Ah yes, just one name – Toscana (1980-1999) – and a small sketch of a horse. The grave was roughly horse-size. You couldn’t have dragged a dead horse here – it must have been buried where it fell. And the grave next to it – Isadora (1992 – 2018) – might have been a beloved dog, buried here to keep the horse company.

These are unexpected finds by the river bank.


Another day, and another exploration of the river bank. We quickly became tired of the insects and hoped the path would turn to the bank soon, exposing us to wind. It soon did and for a while we were stepping perilously close to the edge, clutching sticking-out roots to steady us along the river bank edge. The river here is wide and roaring, and we could see three or four islands, far out midstream, deliciously unreachable.

The path dipped away from the steep bank and down into an insect-ridden swamp before angling up again into more forest. Then the sun hit our faces as we emerged on a bend in the river, a wide clearing, a place for fishing. Firewood is provided by the community-spirited local fishing club, for anyone to use, and there are roughly made wooden benches to sit on round the fire.

The wind does the trick, freeing us from being bitten. We settle onto a bench and feel at peace, slowly taking in these new views of the river. Reaching a newly-discovered place we feel a sense of achievement, especially at it has been a little troublesome to get to it – as it almost always is.

As we’re sitting there my eye is drawn to a rather characterful birch tree, bent and scarred, clinging to the river bank just in front of me. As I look at it something feels rather familiar about it. The jagged tree and an island just beyond it – yes, familiar, somehow. I imagine the picture with snow and ice, change the dimensions of the river, and myself standing on skis on the ice, and I know we’ve been to this spot before.

On our ski trips we’d stop at this bend in the river to catch our breath and prepare ourselves for the cold wind coming round the corner, on the last stretch to the hut. Adjusting my hat and exchanging a few words with Rolf, I might look up at this gnarled old tree, high above us, half buried in snow, and wonder why I could see the exposed edge of a bench there.

I didn’t at all appreciate that that was where we were now. I thought we’d walked to another part of the river, an inlet along the way. But the more I look the more convinced I am.

It’s an unsettling but wonderful experience to discover a new place and then to learn that the new place is somewhere you’ve been many times before. To realise that a place can be so very different in another season, that really, it is a new place.

‘And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’

(from T.S. Eliot’s, ‘Little Gidding’)

In the Desert

You can approach the river bank in a number of ways but unmarked rough paths from the road may lead to a house, where you may not be welcome. One route we discovered provides the closest vehicular access to a number of far-flung properties, whose owners must leave their cars some distance from their homes and tramp further through the birch forest, but we were able to park at the access end of this road and walk in another direction towards the river.

On the way there something about the landscape felt strange. It was very open in places, when one would expect to find low birch trees. Usually this means bog land, which also means insects, and very likely a small river somewhere. The wetness breeds a variety of coloured moss and tiny low flowering shrubs, and the air had a strong smell of rich growth.

After the bog the path turned left and ahead of us was something entirely different. High sand ridges, interspersed with long low barren sandy valleys, the occasional birch growing defiantly every few metres. My informed companion was able to explain to me that these dunes were formed by the retiring ice during the end of the ice age, as rivers flowed under the ice shield and pulled sand into piles along the way. Subsequently this enormous supply of sand was used for building, it would have been a sand quarry. Despite this exploitation there was still something impressive about the large sand hills, and the contrast to everything around them.

It was a hot day, we weren’t expecting sand dunes, and we could have been hallucinating. Perhaps we were dreaming of a hot Mediterranean land, hearing the gentle trill of the cooling sea in the distance. Then we saw a group of reindeer, standing very still in the sand valley, antlers turned towards us. You could feel their heat. Reindeer like it cold, very cold – hot sandy beaches aren’t really their thing, you’d think. But they didn’t budge. In fact they settled in, a family group on the sand, sitting comfortably – as if to say, ‘why not?’ As if they were camels, not reindeer. Bizarre.

It was too hot and dry for us – we headed on to the river bank.

After spending a couple of hours by the river we packed up to walk back to the car. They were still there, the reindeer, on the sand. They looked at us quizzically. I imagined they wanted something, but couldn’t think what. We both wondered if we should find something to put water in, to bring to them, thinking they must be thirsty out there on the hot dry sand. Then we remembered they had legs, they could walk to the river.

It still seemed strange to see reindeer in sand, so when a bluebird swooped overhead it just added to the Disney quality of the scene. Then more dipping and rising birds appeared, flying up the sand valley. Not bluebirds of course, but sand martins, swooping in to the sand walls to their nesting holes and back out over the river to catch insects. The reindeer observed them, serenely, in the desert.

The Man in the Boat

We have a favourite spot on the Kalix River, winter and summer. It’s easy to reach, right by where the river is narrowed by islands, so in winter you get to see a bit of rushing water by the ice. There’s an official ‘resting place’ here, a hut provided for shelter, and a place to make a fire.

We like it because every time we come it looks a bit different. This time the river level was high, and the bank full of new green growth. We heard a roar from an engine and on the river saw a narrow local boat with an engine, hovering. We looked out to see what the matter was. Just a man, in a boat, looking at us. We got a feeling this wasn’t quite right but couldn’t say why. The man continued to hover, then drifted towards us to greet us.

It wasn’t was it? Could it be? Someone we met here five years ago, living nearby? He looked different, but then, it was five years – so did we. It could be the same man. We decided it was. A man we’d pulled out of the fire when he’d tumbled in, a little the worse of drink. He was good company nonetheless, and we remembered it as a happy occasion.

Now, here he was again, five years older, heavier, and, it seemed, still a bit drunk. We had a short exchange, and it was soon clear that this was a man who shouldn’t be out in a boat.

Just as we were wondering where this would all end, he tried to steer the boat to the river bank and in the course of this fell back in the boat and couldn’t sit up. The boat was stuck on a bank of stones, but the water flowed deep and fast between him and us on the river bank.

What to do? There was a brief confusing conversation. I imagined the next half an hour and none of the scenarios looked very good. Every time he tried to sit up the boat lurched precariously from side to site, threatening to tip a very drunk, overweight man into the fast currents.

Rolf can’t swim, so it was down to me to decide that someone (me) would have to go out there and stop him drowning himself. I didn’t want to do it – how would I help him, if I ever reached the boat? He was a big, heavy man and might even pull me down with him. I hesitated. Yet nor did I want to see him tip himself in the river so we then had to watch him float away, to certain drowning.

I began to wade out. When I felt the strength of the current round my thighs I realised I needed a branch for safety and Rolf went to look for one. It arrived, but floated downriver before I could catch it. The man was still on his back in the boat, but then he suddenly sat up, as if it was no problem at all. The prospect of the humiliation of being rescued by a woman might have given him the prompt he needed.

I came back to shore and we watched nervously as he tried to bring the boat in. Despite his inebriation, he was skilled with a boat, and so he got it to the river bank. Much relief. We then all sat together to reflect on life.

This went on for some time. He knew I was English, and used the few words of English he had to initiate a conversation about the secret ‘sense’ of women. Unfortunately we never found out what it was, because his conversation was circular, and he counted other human senses endlessly on his fingers, never getting to the point.

He described his intimate knowledge of this difficult stretch of river, and then had a bright idea. he would show us us how he could travel against the tricky current on the other side of the island, and return to this side without tipping over. Please – no! But before we could stop him he was back in the boat.

Immediately it got stuck on a bank of stones. We waited patiently as he tried to prize himself off. It made us feel anxious to watch, but we’d already witnessed that his past experience could shine through his drunken haze, so we waited hopefully. It took a while, but then he was off, and roared up the river like a man at the wheel on a racing track, playing to the crowds – in this case, just us. He did it twice, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, and then zoomed back down the river and disappeared from sight.

His life always looks in danger when we see him. We hope his luck holds out and we’ll see him in another five years.

When you wait for a bus and then two arrive at the same time

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, July 06, 2020 12:19:07

It’s a quiet sort of life, in a bed and breakfast that’s shut, during a pandemic. We don’t generally meet people, and our days are spent at home, or out in the landscape, alone.

Lots of time to think about things. Lots of time to worry about the drip drip. The roof has been leaking since the snow began to melt at the end of April, and when we stop worrying about our health and the state of the world then we worry about the leak.

A couple of months ago we were waiting for our man, someone who’d said he’d come and look at our leak. He came, although not when we expected – because we know, you always have to wait. He said he’d fixed it, but he hadn’t. In the following weeks neither he, nor any other company, returned our calls. We continued to hear drip drip.

Summer is sacred in Sweden, and from 29th June everyone is on holiday. It’s traditional, not being able to get anything done at this time. Summer closures happen everywhere, including libraries and swimming pools. Just at a time when people have time to use them, the staff take their vacation and close them down. So while up until now it’s been borderline OK to go to the swimming pool, now it’s summer opening times and people can only go there a few hours day, it’s packed out and way too risky to visit. Yes, in Sweden we’re all supposed to be keeping a physical distance – unless we don’t feel like it, for instance if we go to the swimming pool where apparently the usual advice doesn’t apply. I took one look at the crowds in the pool yesterday and came straight home.

But I digress; summer is when things close down and people won’t return your calls. Not much hope of getting our roof fixed then. We had the bucket catching the drips, and had to just hope the next month or so wouldn’t be wet. This morning there was an extra dripping spot on the ceiling, and the stress of it forced Rolf to call the first roof fixers again – the ones who’d failed at it before, and the ones who hadn’t returned his calls since. That’s how desperate he felt. But this time the man answered the phone.

We were so excited at the promise he’d be with us to have a look in half an hour that we forgot that Rolf had booked doctor’s telephone appointment at roughly the same time. He arrived just before the appointment, went up on to the roof, and before we knew it was back in his van and off again. We didn’t know whether he’d gone to collect the right materials to fix a hole, or what.

Then a few minutes later another white van turned up and two workmen appeared – had we sent them an email enquiry about our leak a few days ago?

A hasty phone call to the first roof fixer established that his plan was the same as before, to sell us a new roof ladder, which we weren’t convinced was a solution, so we said we’d be in touch and rushed out to the waiting workmen to invite them on to the roof. Rolf’s phone appointment began around this time, and ten minutes later the workmen knocked on the door to show me images of the suspected cause of the leak, said they’d go and get the materials and come back to fix it. And what’s more, they did.

It seems we’d achieved the impossible. In just one hour, during Sweden’s sacred holiday period, we’d got two lots of workmen to come out and look at our roof, one of them had been on the roof, driven away to pick up materials, and come back and fixed it, and Rolf had had a doctor’s appointment.

So much excitement and interaction in just one hour, after weeks inaction. I’ll need to lie down for a while to recover.

Here comes summer

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sat, July 04, 2020 13:32:16

Summer in Kiruna is like no other. To start with, it comes later than you can imagine. When everywhere else has already become a bit tired of warm sunny days, Kiruna still has snow. Then when it comes, it bursts at you, the rivers overspilling their banks and the greenery growing as you watch it. Twenty four hours of daylight takes some getting used to, and the days have no boundaries. Anything goes.

The weather is unreliable, in terms of a summer. It can be hot, but it’s always changeable. The temperature dropped from 26 degrees to 3 degrees in one day this week. After a blaze of glory a more common summer drizzle is now feeding the greenery and insects. Birds arrived early in anticipation of the richness of growth that comes from constant daylight and now they get their reward. A Kiruna summer has a certain style, a different edge to further south in Sweden. For one thing, we’re not very big on midsummer. For one thing, at that time summer has barely arrived. The national 19th century revival of Swedish folk traditions at midsummer – maypoles and garlands, dancing and folksy regional costumes, and white wine drunk from fine cut glass – aren’t a big feature here. Instead we have more local traditions – like cruising round town in your classic American or vintage car.

I know it doesn’t sound very local, the American car, but Kiruna youth have made it their own. Over the winter months yards all over town conceal a few old cars under a blanket of snow which in the spring emerge, each one like an exotic butterfly from a chrysalis, their brightly coloured paintwork and chrome polished to gleaming before taking to the road. A car full of people is the ideal, and usually driven late in the day, which means all night here. It’s so much a tradition there’s even a local club for it – ‘The Midnight Sun Cruisers’. Going nowhere in particular, just taking the air, windows down, music playing, engine roaring. Up and down. That’s summer.

The view from a car window isn’t pretty. Kiruna is a bit of an ugly duckling at this time of year. Debris and building waste, well hidden over the winter months, is revealed in all its glory (given the few months every year without snow the incentive to tidy them up isn’t great). The local council makes a bit of an effort, cutting some grass and putting out a few flower pots, but it doesn’t really make up for the general feeling of town, which is basically ‘industrial wasteland with mountain views’. Most people don’t care or even notice. We are a colour-deprived people all winter, in a landscape of white and grey, so when the snow goes we are overjoyed by colour, our eye settling on this to the exclusion of all else.

The sound of summer – the roar of the classic car, music fading in the air that’s chasing its blaring exhaust – is also the louder and more persistent roar of ‘triangle’ cars crawling up the hill. A large red triangle means ‘child at the wheel’. Well, maybe not child, but 14 year old anyway. Unbelievably it’s allowed here, on the grounds that teenagers were always allowed to drive farm vehicles, so if they pimp their parents’ old cars – or even their new cars – to a different engine strength and display the triangle, they’re allowed to drive them anywhere. And they do – constantly, up and down. Again, mainly through the night, like the classic car cruising, going nowhere in particular, for no particular purpose.

That’s really the joy of a summer in Kiruna. No particular place to go.

The Tale of the Loka

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, June 26, 2020 12:46:10

It all began in February, when the snowfall was enormous. Our neighbours decided to move their snow up to our end of the street, where, theoretically, there was a bit more space. This wasn’t so popular with us, since the turnround area was becoming unusable, forcing cars to reverse into our driveway.

So one day we asked a neighbour if he would kindly not dump snow there. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I’ve been meaning to speak to you…’, and began to tell The Tale of the Loka.

There had been contractors here using Norwegian soil when they installed a new broadband cable system last year, and a plant had been introduced that way that was now spreading all along the street, a local kind of giant hogweed. He told us we had it in our garden and we needed to do something about it. It’s invasive, rampant, and dangerous to people.

It seemed a useful distraction from the snow dumping crime, and it almost worked. As we weren’t here last summer we wouldn’t have known about this. By the time we arrived back the garden was under a metre of snow. We took it with a pinch of salt.

And yet, as spring came, I found myself eyeing the ground rather nervously and searching on the internet for images of young hogweed. All those plants look the same when they first start to grow, small and green and leafy – who knows what they are? Not me.

My mood was up and down. One day I was convinced he was mistaken and we didn’t have any hogweed kind of plant at all. The next day I saw an army of them marching through the garden.

I intensified my online research, gathering facts and images. The enemy we were looking for was the Tromsöloka, a kind of loka (the family that includes the widespread cow parsley), very like giant hogweed. Originally from Iran, it’s a prized plant for the medicinal and culinary value of its seeds. Introduced to Norway in the early 19th century by – you guessed it – English horticulturalists, it’s particularly widespread in Tromsö, where it was a popular garden plant and a symbol for the town.

Since then its invasive quality and its ability to scar and blind people – if the sap is on the skin and allowed to interact with sunlight – is well known. It’s on the EU’s list of invasive species that should be controlled and ideally eradicated. Now I knew about it, it was on my list too. But first, I had to find it.

Did we, didn’t we? With protective gloves – not wanting to allow skin contact with the beast – I brought in leaf samples from all corners of the garden, finding only harmless loka of various kinds. No – we did not have the dreaded loka, hah!

Then coming back from an outing one day I turned to the street to where our postbox stands and saw a plant I’d never seen before. In fact, I would swear it hadn’t been there when we’d gone out, just three hours earlier. But approaching it I realised that the beast had been staring me in the face for a week, looking harmless and unexceptional among the grasses and buttercups.

A quick cross check on the internet confirmed it was the dreaded loka. I walked down the street and found the same plant outside, and sometimes inside, every single property. It is commonly spread by car tyres, and indeed that’s what it looked like. The plant was right by the position of the front wheel of the post van when it stops to deliver our mail, having skirted by the other places down the street where there are also plants.

If you see this plant, keep your distance

We had to remove that loka before it got any bigger, and definitely before it started producing its thousands of spreading seeds. Death to the loka!

We bought the spade. We put on the protective gear (why can’t you get a hazmat suit when you really need one?). We wished each other luck and began digging. Gosh those roots are big. It’s a giant kind of parsnip underneath, deep down. Eventually releasing it, we manoeuvred it very carefully into a plastic bag for delivery to the dump (burnable waste only). Then we removed all our exposed clothing for the wash, and cleaned the tools.

Next we had to tell the local council that our street had a big problem with a dangerous, invasive plant. We notified them and waited for their response. They eventually replied saying there was just one particular loka that was in the invasive category in Kiruna, and if it was on private land it was the landowner’s responsibility, not the council’s.

We replied that it was mostly on the street – their land – and sent a dozen pictures to support our claim. Then we waited again.

We’re still waiting. We can’t help but feel there are similarities here, between how the authorities deal with giant hogweed in Sweden, and how they deal with coronavirus. The do nothing option seems the one in favour.

Postscript: A week later someone from the local agency responsible came to our street and pulled up all the loka before they could spread their seeds. They’ll be back of course – those particular loka – he didn’t dig up the roots – but we were relieved to feel the support. Now all we have to do is get someone in the country to take responsibility for the virus too….

Where the buffalo roam

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sun, June 14, 2020 21:56:52

Sanctuary – a place of safety, a place out of the reach of the law. I read there were several areas like this in cities until relatively recently. It was a right left over from religious institutions, and after they left the areas kept the right.

A sanctuary in present day Sweden is an odd idea. No-one should be beyond the reach of the law, after all. And yet there does seem to be a need for such a place in the current virus crisis. Actually I’ve found one, and it’s in the north of Sweden.

It’s not so near Kiruna, but a hop skip and a jump away, and a popular holiday destination. Boden, by the sea, is famous not for its beaches so much as for ‘Western Farm’, a re-creation of the Wild West. Here visitors can experience a typical ‘wild west’ settlement of wooden huts and saloon, from the period around 1879, all watched over by a Sheriff. There is entertainment, naturally, and you can even stay there overnight if you want. I’ve never been, but I hear there are the usual things there – animals, rodeo, horses, cowboys, big hats and guns (fake, hopefully).

What ‘Western Farm’ promises is a real wild west experience, and so that it can be safe for people to visit in these difficult times – in Sweden, where the virus is allowed to roam free, like buffalo on the prairies – ‘Western Farm’ has a Coronavirus Sheriff.

Yes sirree! You people get closer than the length of a bison and that Sheriff will be on your back before you can shout ‘howdee!’. The Sheriff tells you what you can and can’t do. You can’t sit close to people anywhere, but you can sit or stand apart. You can’t queue up at the saloon bar, but you can sit down at a table. You can’t run around uncontrollably in any old direction, but you can follow the signs. Offenders will get three days in jail, followed by a get out of jail free card, followed by eviction from the area. The Sheriff will have his eye on you and any loose talk about breaking the law and you’ll be in mighty big trouble.

What a relief, for those of struggling with the uncontrollable hordes at loose all over Sweden. It’s a sanctuary – a safe place from the virus. I’m going there for my holidays and might even hook up my horse and stay.

Whole lotta shakin’

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Tue, May 26, 2020 18:21:37

I know earthquakes are no laughing matter. I know because a few days ago I was woken at three in the morning by a huge roar that sounded like a lorry had driven into the bedroom, and the house shaking so badly that things fell on the floor. I thought it was all going to collapse on top of me and I admit I was scared. I didn’t get much sleep after that.

I was frightened even though I’m used to experiencing smaller quakes, that sometimes make the house shake for a couple of seconds. This was something much much bigger – as it turns out, it was 4.9 on the Richter scale, which makes it a ‘light’, but very nearly ‘moderate’, size quake.

Because of mining activity in Kiruna we’re used to hearing an explosion, and sometimes vibration, after one every night when the mine blasts the iron ore. In addition there are occasional small quakes, when part of the rock in the mine falls. The company apparently can’t say when these falls will happen, but they say they ‘expect’ them, so they’re called ‘expected seismic events’. They are more numerous nowadays, as every year the ground around Kiruna comes closer to collapse. A tremor can come at any time of the day, and some come with a bang as well as a shake, so they are always a bit of a shock, for a second.

But this week’s earthquake was presumably not ‘an expected seismic event’. The mine is still partly closed, almost a week later, and investigations continue. Apparently there was quite a lot of damage there, though thankfully no-one was hurt. We’ve also experienced a few more bangs and shudders in town over the last few days.

The reason the small quakes happen, LKAB explain, is that the iron ore sits in a chunk that is set at an angle to the ground, so as iron ore is removed from beneath there’s a ‘hanging wall’ left above it, and eventually parts of this wall fall. It’s a point of wonder, or even suspicion, that long ago the company’s office was built just the ‘right’ side of where the ore sits, even though at that point mining was above ground and little was known about the position of the ore underground.

Although earthquakes are no laughing matter, there is just the smallest shadow of a smirk on my face as I write this. It turns out that the epicentre of this sizeable, unexpected, earthquake was not under the ‘hanging’ wall but under the relatively stable ‘footwall’ – right beneath LKAB’s office.

Mine on the right, town on the left, collapsing ground in the middle.

Hard to see

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, May 15, 2020 16:48:12

Arctic hares are white all over during winter. That makes them very hard to see on the piles of snow. They sit for long periods, and then leap, and by the time you realise something’s there, it’s gone. We have a regular hare in the garden. We’re used to one another so she’s calm when we’re around.

A few weeks ago she went for a slightly different look, her spring look. She added small chocolate slashes to the white on her back and sides, and then put on a soft brown face mask and thick dark markings on the tips of her long ears. She looked like a doll when her brown nut face turned enquiringly towards us. You’d think nothing could be more beautiful than pure white, but these markings make her look more sculpted, more delicate, and more interesting. She knows it, we think.

Around her the snow is melting in some places, but is thick in others. As layers of snow melt, collections of dirt and grit are revealed in stripes. Buried birch branches, dark brown and gnarled, can be seen poking up in the piles of snow. Small patches of wet yellow and brown appear on the ground, the old grass and growth merging with wet earth. The land around is mostly white, with chocolate coloured slashes, and occasional patches of medium brown. Just like our hare. She’s still very hard to see.

Bringing the sea to Kiruna

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, May 11, 2020 19:33:08

Now Norway has closed its border we can’t reach the west coast, our nearest bit of sea. When we’re in England we live near the sea and a river estuary. This week I read online that we were invited to think about this particular bit of sea and reflect on what it means to us by writing it (the sea) a letter.

It seemed a crazy idea. Thinking of the sea was like thinking of everything that is the opposite of here now. The sea is soft, blue, wet, and moving – the landscape here white, frozen, and still. So I wrote the letter.

Dear Sea,

I miss you. Your blue grey shine, your swelling and swooping up back and forwards. I miss your coldness when I dip myself in and float on your fishy back. I can’t come to see you now – there are no flights, the borders are closed, we’re socially distant. I often think of you, and all your flowing freedom.

I have an idea though. Since I can’t reach you, perhaps you might consider coming to see me? It would be an adventure for sure. I’ve done a bit of research and come up with a plan. Let me know if this is something you might be up for.

First of all, head out of the estuary to the open sea, as you often do. You can turn right or left – it doesn’t matter. I think right would be best. Swim along the coast, heading out of Lyme Bay, and continue along the rocky coast, as far as you can go. Lands End! Hold your breath, it can get choppy, but make sure you catch the right current going north. Keep Ireland to your left as you head up to the Scottish coast.

Somewhere near there you’ll notice a distinct warmth from the west. You can join this, for a warm ride. It’s the Norwegian Atlantic current, and you can swim in a comfortable 10 degrees just above it. Allow it to sweep you out over the North Sea to the Norwegian coast. Then follow the coast northwards. You need to keep a steely resolve because you’ll be tempted by every passing fjord. Don’t give in to temptation! A trip up the fjord could delay you weeks. Keep swimming ahead, north up the coast until finally you’ll see the Lofoten islands spreading out west of you. To the east, a port, and it’s here you have to get off the current.

It’s important to follow the next instructions very closely, as it will be the trickiest part of your journey. Once you’ve got off the current, hang around outside the port. Feel the warm air rising from the sea. Think yourself light, light, airy. If you do this for long enough you’ll find you can float up into the sky, and join a whole throng of humid particles, in a soft white cloud. I think you’ll like this part!

The cloud will float off towards the land – just hang on. There are mountains ahead, high and magnificent, and you’ll float high over them – what a view! It’s really important to remember to hang on though. Plenty of particles will decide to get off here, but don’t!

If you’ve managed to hang on, the cloud will continue over the mountains, dropping some passengers on the way. It will feel cold, but this will help you hang on – you’ll freeze into position. The cloud will float eastwards, inland to Sweden. Eventually in the distance you’ll see a plume of smoke in the sky – the iron ore mine. Many will leave the cloud here, but hang on just a bit longer. Beyond there, past the church, look down – there’s a hill and a row of wooden houses. Mine is the yellow one! Jump as soon as you see it.

You’ll float down in a shower of white flakes, glimmering in the bright light of spring. I’ll be looking out my living room window, and will see you as you fall, settling along the hidden flower bed, and lying along the window sill. I’ll be so pleased to see you!

Let me know what you think.

your swimming friend


Feeling uncertain

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sat, May 02, 2020 19:33:25

Things feel uncertain, the future unknown. It’s the right season for it, spring – here called ‘spring-winter’, or ‘spring’, or ‘spring-summer’, depending on – well, depending on all sorts of things.

Apart from us having three springs to choose from, spring can go as fast backwards as it does forwards. One day, hot sunshine and green plants poking up from under the snow, the next day, snow blizzards, temperature below freezing. This isn’t a stop-start problem with spring, it’s a stop-start-reverse-stop-start-reverse-stop-reverse-start problem.

We’re all confused by it. The body feels spring tiredness from the rush of light, but the brain registers a feeling of winter. You only have to look out the window – there are large piles of snow still to melt.

A few days ago we were having a picnic on the ice on the lake and warming our faces in the sun. We watched melting snow dripping into pools around us. When we looked more closely the snow looked like ice crystals – snow that had melted, then frozen, then melted, then frozen. Crunchy sort of snow. Then we saw something very surprising in the snow – a small insect. We don’t see insects over the winter, which is a very long period, so the eye fixes on something unusual like that. This insect had hatched out in the warm sunshine. Its life would be an hour long, at the most. It had felt the warmth of spring in the air, but once out of its cocoon it would quickly freeze to death in the snow. The uncertainty of spring can be fatal.

Personally, we’ve reached a time of year when we can’t accept the backward movement of spring. We just ignore those snowy cold days. We’re done with snow shovelling. If it snows we’ll wait for it to melt. All winter we’ve kept the car in the garage, protected from extreme temperatures, and we’ve needed to keep our steep driveway free of snow. But now we’ve brought the car up to the road so there’s no driveway to deal with. Just in case.

Spring; it can go forwards or backwards

We had a few blissful days of sunshine, and melting snow this week. That reminded us to check the law on when we have to change from winter to summer tyres. We found that it was the end of April, unless there was still snow on the roads. Now was definitely the time to do it. Rolf headed down to the garage.

While he was down there it began to snow, heavily. Ironic, I thought. But then, I chose to ignore it, see above. It continued to snow.

When Rolf returned to the house he looked glum. He’d changed one tyre and then the lifting machinery had broken. We now had a car with one summer tyre and three winter ones – highly illegal. He’d then tried to drive it back to the road, but the snow was slippery and the one summer tyre useless on snow so he couldn’t get up the driveway. It was the May public holiday and nothing open for three days. Our car was trapped.

It’s a car for uncertain times. Is it fit for winter, or summer? It’s a hybrid, a sort of special, lesser known, three-wheeled Carposaurus. Or a one-wheeled, almost extinct Carplerosis. Neither one thing nor the other.

Spring – it can go backwards or forwards. Our car, neither forwards nor backwards.

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