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ACTIVATE Jamtland, Sweden

Follow the exploits of the Active Junky team as they take on a brand new objective. In search of multi-sport adventure, the travelers will explore different destinations—while telling stories, sharing photos and reviewing gear as they go. This time around? The wilderness and rich culture of Jamtland, Sweden.

Jamtland, Sweden: Rethinking your outdoor life – and beyond

The symbol for this county, bordering Norway along its length, is inspiringly savage. With a proud (and rare) silver moose standing against dual attacks to front and rear quarters, it summarizes the intrepid – and rabidly independent – scenario that awaits the visitor. Meaning, up here, the strong will prevail. And the tentative or uncommitted should stay in Stockholm and shop for tidy, ergonomic home accessories.

The Harjedalens Farm Museum, in the Funasdalen area, epitomizes the spirit that underpins all that’s expressed in the food, clothing, industry and sport of the region. In tracing the movements both of Sami peoples and European settlers dating back hundreds of years, one simple phrase summarizes the entire culture. Here, among beautifully curated examples of hand-hewn tools, practical crafts and delicate jewelry, is the key to unlocking a singular place in the world.

Embedded in a map caption are these words, translated into English as follows: “Survive another winter.” Inescapably basic and shockingly direct, Jamtland’s contributions to Swedish culture are welded to this concept that carries harsh consequences in the real world. As would be revealed in going deeper during a fast-paced visit, these three words (herein shorthanded as “S.A.W.”) propelled the lessons learned from first arrival in the regional capital, Ostersund. Insights, in truth, as profound as any found at the foot of Everest or the mouth of the Ganges.

The Fast-Track

At under 50,000 inhabitants, the city is the 24th largest in Sweden and is an easy flight from Stockholm. On the shores of Storsjon, the country’s fifth largest lake, the vast forests and rising mountains in the near distance hint at what’s to come. Founded more as a trading center than producer of fish, crops, livestock or mined metals, it carries profound connections to the S.A.W. mindset.

The modernized, efficient cross-country ski stadium is a natural extension of Jamtland’s past with an Olympic-caliber biathlon range linked to the ski course. Here in the far north, the first skis were mono skis propelled by poles as hunting game and gathering firewood were the challenge. Instead of a podium and medals, the prize was making it to spring, normally arriving in May and June with mean daily temperatures pushing 50 Fahrenheit.

Now, going fast and shooting straight are more about competitive sport than rabbits searing over an open spruce fire. Even among the national teams convening here, each with their own secretive waxing hut outside of the Ostersund Ski Stadium (home of the 2019 World Championships), the memories of trudges through neck-high snow in pursuit of bounding protein still echo. And whisper the first lesson to the observant traveler.

“What matters is worth pursuing – and deserves your full attention.” The 50m rifle course inside the stadium makes target shooting appear easy. Until the skier enters at full speed and needs to calm both lungs and heart before attaining any level of accuracy. Time penalties ensue for misses. Even the small bore, 22-caliber ammunition carries the potential for big mistakes with little grace at the international level of competition.

Science in (Rapid) Motion

A short walk or fast skate ski from the Stadium is Mid Sweden University. Sited in and around the easily navigated town center, nearly 7,000 students gather in pursuit of a wide range of degrees. Here, the second lesson is tucked inside the campus, with understated signs guiding the visitor to the Swedish Winter Sports Research Center (SWSRC). Funded by a wide range of organizations, what’s down the hall – and behind the solid doors to the left – is nothing short of exceptional.

Training at altitude or researching the effects of elevation on health and athletic performance? The chamber tucked inside one room allows physicians, academics and coaches to dial the effective altitude up to Everest level. Biometric measurements deliver continual data even as the emotional toll on skiers, runners, climbers and others is tallied. Access is offered through arrangements with public and private institutions.

A few doors down, the ski lab’s treadmills are scheduled year-round with a Who’s Who of Nordic athletes from Sweden and throughout Scandinavia. Male and female champions across all disciplines, including top competitors in the burgeoning skicross categories, push beyond their previous limits. All while being closely observed and intensely coached. Even team sports such as Curling, seeking higher levels of achievement, put their aspiring Olympians into the high-RPM mix here.

So emerges lesson number two, inextricably linked to the first. “Becoming better is both a disciplined choice and its own reward.” The grimaces on the faces of Swedish National Team skiers in the lab were delivered in equal measure with face-altering grins. “This is truly a privilege, this place and the ability to train in such professional conditions,” was the comment from one breathless junior team member, uttered as her electronic monitors pulsed out terabytes of data.

Finally, the locked door near the end of the hall remained the last to be explored. No amount of wishing, wanting or polite requests would permit entry. “This room is only for the Swedish team. We must have at least one advantage,” the director stated with a knowing smile and steely resolve. “This is where we develop ski waxing technology.”

Braintrust on the Hill

Not far across campus resided another node of innovation, a second convocation of unique personalities focused on the practical. With both academic and commercial outlooks, the Sports Tech Research Centre is an expression of Mid Sweden University’s contributions to the region and well beyond. The Sports Technology program is one impetus for the campus-based Centre.

Harboring one of the largest treadmill-equipped wind tunnels in the world, all manner of textiles, plastics and metals undergo testing in collaboration with outdoor and health companies. Both component materials and finished products are put under the microscope, including wearable technology, orthopedic devices and self-heating garments. As with the nearby SWSRC, the visitor is left wondering. How could I have missed hearing about Jamtland before my visit?

As with collaborations like that between the SWSRC and the University of Colorado in Boulder concerning body movement’s relationship to sports performance, the county’s outdoor equipment and apparel brands have united to tell their story. Bringing retailers and journalists to the region under the JOE initiative (Jamtland Outdoor Experience) showcases the wild places nearby as well as Swedish innovation attached to fully experiencing nature. In all seasons.

Higher Callings

Calling western Jamtland an expansive wilderness is no understatement. Trekking even across marked trails with experienced guides brings home the S.A.W. message. A jumble of bramble guarded free-running streams, verdant wetlands and rock outcrops, there is no substitute for map and compass skills. Weaving between pockets of reindeer moss and alien lichens, the traveler can only marvel at the outdoor acumen of the region’s settlers.

High above two lakes, the next insight emerges through a cloak of clouds as the winds subtly shift. Flanking the small herd of reindeer as a ghostly guardian, a large male strides across the talus, his white coat appearing more albino than fading grey. His sudden appearance and equally abrupt vanishing bring to question his very existence. And beg questions that foment the fourth insight.

“Never fail to celebrate moments of beauty, no matter the circumstances.” Climbing past the rimrock that guided the herd, a barren landscape unfolded for miles in every direction. Yet for the Sami people who own these roaming creatures, there is provision in every crevice, dry tuft of grass and seep of sweet water hidden between the boulders.

Winding, established trails bring sheltered campsites within range, offering daily segments of between five and 12 miles or even longer for backpackers focused on endurance efforts. Yet too much pace here means the temptation to push past the small wonders ringing clear Alpine lakes, squishy stream banks and defiant stands of small trees.

Trekking itineraries such as those employed by the JOE program are commonly available with at least three nights needed to embrace the place. Less adventurous hikers find a series of mountain lodges open the door to flickering fireplaces, robust local beers and the region’s sublime cuisine.

Restoration Through Recreation

Not surprisingly, the residents of Jamtland are not skilled at the fine art of sitting. Even when winter intrudes on the refuges of the beaver, lynx, fox and grouse – and the sunlight grows less glimmering on Storsjon, Kallsjon, Landosjon and other lakes – there is no standing still. Well beyond the Nordic tradition, the downhill prowess of the Are ski area rises above the intense spruce forests at its base.

Even before snow finds it way across the region to delight alpine and Nordic skiers, including national teams training from as far away as Japan, the county’s riches are within arm’s length. As a county with only 3.3 people per square kilometer, there’s room to roam in search of edibles nearly any time of year.

Cloudberries are among the region’s true delights, finding their way into jams and wine – when they’re not consumed straight off the bush. Bilberries and the IKEA-promoted lingonberries are scattered throughout, extending the season while diversifying the edible discoveries. Pickers need take care as nearly 20 orchid varieties speckle woodlands and clearings alike. As in the ghost orchid, calypso orchid, fly orchid, coralroot orchid and heath spotted orchid along with the elegant yellow lady’s slipper.

Nearly every household numbers a mushroom knife among its kitchen essentials. No need for truffle pigs as the seasoned gatherers here know where chanterelles, yellow foot mushrooms and the funnel chanterelle are nestled in the vast woodlands and wetlands spreading across Jamtland. River and still fishing for trout, whitefish, grayling, perch, pike, char and burbot is abundant but requires focus given 250 bird species whirling, diving and chattering at every turn.

A fifth insight is so obvious as to be hidden in plain sight as the county’s inhabitants supplement and enhance their diets with a cornucopia of arms-length provisions. Visitors must slow down, watch and then join the dance rooted in thousands of years of history connected to the Earth. “Time your rhythms to those of the seasons, finding nourishment for body and soul.”

In a region punctuated by world-class mountain bike trails, including long-distance touring routes, access to the backcountry is not limited to hiking. Similarly, canoe and kayak possibilities weave together an uncommon quilt of microclimates, geographical features and habitats with meaningful distinctions worth the explorer’s time.

Hardworking Hands to Grateful Mouths

Skiing in pursuit of prey and podiums, with and without gravity’s grace. Trekking highland regions where piercing sunshine and churning skies share the day. Punching through into the backcountry where attention is focused on the forage. Casting long and strong after a winding hike or paddle in search of glimmering freshwater treasure. In all these, appetites grow even as daylight wanes and cordwood is piled into tiled stoves.

Magnus Nilsson, a chef discovered by the bigger world in an episode of Netflix’ CHEF’S TABLE, is a study in the county’s abundance brought forward in capable hands. Nilsson’s tenure at two French restaurants including Alain Passard’s Michelin-starred L’Arpege honed his skills. Flagged in The Wall Street Journal in 2010 as among the top 10 chefs in Europe, the chef has returned home to the Are area.

Accolades continue to accrue for Faviken, where Nilsson presides over a 16-seat restaurant named by Zagat among the world’s 10 best in 2013. A menu rich in Nordic traditions advances the find, forage, fabricate heritage of Jamtland. As quoted in The Observer, “We say goodbye to fresh ingredients on the first of October, and then we don’t see them again until April.” Using and preserving local ingredients extends into the meticulously-managed garden.

Homestead cooking extends well beyond the curling smoke spirals that float above the sturdy home and cabins of rural Jamtland. The Swedish tradition of “cooking out” transcends the ideal of picnicking to embrace foraging, fire building and fresh preparation of ingredients. Griddle pans, with and without legs, straddle animated flames to cook everything from pancakes to the county’s version of stir fry.

Sami family groups care for 20,000 or more reindeer, like those ethereal animals spotted on rocky heights during hiking outings. Key to their livelihood, the harvesting of meat, hides and horns puts fresh and frozen cuts in local markets for ready use. Along with moose meat, reindeer is the anchor ingredient in sizzling combinations of root vegetables, wild herbs and mushrooms. All generously combined for serving with traditional flatbread. Aromatic with a sense of wild energy, these meals unite family and guests in an unspoken ceremony of reverence for life-giving sustenance.

Insight six? “Provision is at hand for the determined and diligent.” Whether wood for harvesting, an extra set of hands for hauling or mushrooms for the digging, short summers and long winters hold promise. While less obvious to visitor than citizens, the knowledge to survive and thrive is close at hand. And embedded in the hearts and minds across generations.

The Fire Inside

Any guide to Scandinavia finds a way to hint at the cultural norms attached to the Swedish people. While governmental and social policies promote openness, the people of Jamtland are far from exultant or emotive. The region’s only similarity to ebullient Jamaica is the letter “J.” Tempting it is to mistake a more austere public presence for indifference.

Much like the kindling-superheated cooking fires, something blazes inside the women and men, adults and children met when traveling the county. Never lacking for generosity, the measured responses to questions are more about thoughtfulness than suspicion, polite consideration rather than self-interest. No surprise as, here in the land of the silver moose, only the most aware, astute and planful families made it through winter.

With Jamtland’s undeniable distance and extended travel time, it’s not an obvious spontaneous destination or self-assembling vacation scenario. It is something entirely different, perhaps more prized because of the logistical challenges. Finally, after returning back to the United States and months of reflection, the seventh insight emerges as the image of a ghostly reindeer moves from memory to the present moment.

“No matter what your ‘winter’ is, survive it by learning from those who have gone before.”

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