Wolf pup (Jan Nordstrom, Wild Sweden)
Article Words : Phoebe Smith | 11 February

Into the wild: Wolf-watching in Sweden

A wealth of wildlife lies on the doorstep of Sweden's capital, with wolf-howling trips and a stay in the 'planet's most primitive hotel' revealing a hidden natural world...

Silence – so quiet I could hear the rise and fall of the person’s shoulders next to me as they took in slow and steady breaths. As we waited we looked at each other’s faces expectantly – watching, hoping – and then it came.

“Arh-Wooooh! Arh-Wooooh!” The howl of a Eurasian wolf filled the air and echoed between our enchanted smiles. It repeated its cry four bewitching times, and then all was silent once more.

“So…” I said, breaking the stillness, “what are the chances that we might actually hear a real one on our visit?” I directed my question to wolf-watching guide Marcus Eldh as he switched off the recording we’d been listening to and picked up his coffee.

It was a strange start to a Thursday evening. Taking a two-hour flight to Stockholm, followed by a two-hour drive into the woods near the little-talked-of town of Skinnskatteberg, only to sit indoors listening to recordings of canis lupus calling out to the night. It wasn’t quite the wild experience I expected, but then this was just the start.

Sweden is synonymous with many things: mouthwatering cinnamon buns (aka kanelbullar), the coffee, cake and chat ritual otherwise known as fika, Ikea… to name a few. Wolves, and indeed wildlife in general, are not yet one of them, but Marcus was hoping that he could change all that, starting with our little group of seven.

I’d been lured here – as my fellow travellers had – with the promise of a wilder side to Scandinavia that wasn’t the far north. I knew about the reindeer up in Lapland already, and the Sami tribes who herd them, but the idea that I could expect encounters with not one but three key species – wolf, moose and beaver – within an easy drive from Stockholm was too tantalising a prospect to resist, and so I left the airport and pointed my car resolutely west to an area known as Vastmanland.

Kolarbyn Eco-lodge (Phoebe Smith)

Kolarbyn Eco-lodge (Phoebe Smith)

A cabin in the woods

Spindly Scots pine trees pointed up to the slightly overcast sky, funnelling me along the die-straight highway as I left the outskirts of the city behind. Every few yards I’d spy a pretty pocket of water surrounded by woodland. More than half of the country is made up of forests, and there’s close to 100,000 lakes pockmarking its landscape – a fact I had to remind myself as I pulled over for the umpteenth time to get a photograph of yet another ‘trees reflected in the water’ scene. Not that I didn’t have good reason to be closely regarding the tree trunks: very soon I would be making my bed for the next couple of nights somewhere in between them. I was to stay at Kolarbyn, Sweden’s ‘most primitive hotel’ and the perfect place for wildlife encounters.

“There are no showers but feel free to bathe in the lake. There’s no electric but you will have candles, and you can build a fire inside your hut to keep it toasty, though you will need to cut and collect your own firewood,” said owner Malin Bruce as she showed me to ‘Kristina’, the name carved into the door of my little two-bed wooden shelter. Built out of wood cut from the surrounding trees and coated with a layer of moss, the 12 small cabins here are all designed to make you feel close to the woodland – a concept made clear as I wandered to the nearby well to collect water and startled a pair of roe deer, who, rather than running off, stopped to watch me.

As dusk fell and, I noted, the Kolarbyn staff strategically ‘discarded’ handily cut sizes of kindling, I headed into the woods with our guide in search of the first of my three species: moose. Arriving at a lake, he took out an antler and passed it around. I ran my fingers over the paddle – it was longer than my forearm and felt cool against my skin.

Tracing the path of wildlife with a moose guide in Sweden (Phoebe Smith)

Tracing the path of wildlife with a moose guide in Sweden (Phoebe Smith)

“They grow up to an inch per day,” he explained, “and they develop extra points around the edges depending on their age. Right now, they will be starting to shed some of the velvet that coats the antlers as they grow, it gets really itchy, so look on the trees for scratch marks.”

We spent a happy hour meandering through the woodland, watching lines of worker ants transporting food to nests and listening to the owls hoot as the sun sank lower, but the reality is that it’s much harder to see moose on foot.

“But we can certainly see the signs of them,” explained our guide. He gestured at some droppings – a cluster of small brown pellets stacked in a pleasing pile – then pointed at a tree where an indentation had been cleaved into the bark by an irritated moose.

Brimming with excitement, we headed to our little people-mover, also known as ‘the moving hide’. Binoculars were dished out and eyes kept peeled as we wound our way through the woodland roads. There were a few false sightings at first (guilty as charged) but, shortly after, we found one.

On the edge of a newly planted copse of pines, the unmistakably long snout of a female protruded from the fir needles, sniffing and snorting. We watched while she nonchalantly mooched her way around, unperturbed by the sound of cameras being clicked every time she did. Over the next hour we saw two more females, a bull with a small but nevertheless impressive set of antlers and, to everyone’s delight – by the light of our headlights – a mother and calf who stared right back at us.

That night, at Kolarbyn, I may have only managed to build a modest fire to heat the hut but the memories of locking eyes with a moose kept me warm until sunrise.

Moose bull (Jan Nordstrom, Wild Sweden)

Moose bull (Jan Nordstrom, Wild Sweden)

Dammed if you do…

By mid-morning, while picking some chanterelle mushrooms that had sprouted behind my hut, I mused at how easy it was to adapt to the hunter-gatherer life at Kolarbyn. Things were slower, of course. From the moment I decided I wanted a cup of tea to actually drinking it, I would have to source and cut the firewood, collect some water, build the fire, light the fire, tend the fire, then boil the water. It could take around 40 minutes, but I can honestly say that no other place has forced me to really slow down in quite the same way. So, by the time my guide came to pick me up to go on an unhurried beaver safari, I was already well in step with the pace.

To spot these little furry forest fellers, we headed to Karmansbo, a tiny village about 20 minutes to the west, which handily sits on a river – the beaver’s natural habitat owing to the lack of waterbased predators. Over some wild boar wraps (another animal whose numbers are booming in the country), organic vegetables and hot chocolate, we learned how the beaver in these parts were once hunted to near extinction for both its fur and its glands, with the scent of the latter believed (up until the 19th century) to have medicinal properties. However, since a handful of Norwegian beavers were reintroduced here in the 1920s and ’30s, the population has boomed and is estimated to stand at around 150,000 today.

“You never guarantee sightings on any trip,” said our guide as he took out a beaver skull to show just how razor-like its two woodgrinding teeth were, “but with this one, we pretty much can.”

The best way to see the booming population of beavers is by electric motor boat (Phoebe Smith)

The best way to see the booming population of beavers is by electric motor boat (Phoebe Smith)

We set off slowly on boats ingeniously powered by electric motors, so as not to scare the wildlife. Gliding through the water in near silence, we waved to a local kayaker as she paddled past – she was actually making a little more noise than we were – and watched the sky turn crimson. As with all wildlife tours here, dusk is the only time to go out if you want to maximise your chances of spotting these nocturnal residents.

Under the dimming light, between the gentle vibration of the motor and the sound of the water lapping the boat, I found my eyes growing heavy. I think I would have dozed off if it weren’t for a sudden commotion on the riverbank. A huge beaver had emerged from the clearing, slunk into the water and, with an almighty splash, slapped its tail on the still surface, causing it to erupt into a fountain of froth and waves. And that was only the beginning.

Eyes wide open now, I saw another swimming alongside our boat, keeping one eye on us as she made for the other side of the river. A second alerted us to his presence by trying to divert our attention- with a tail slap then changing course, while a third was too busy collecting leaves for his lodge to even look in our direction.

The evening’s sightings got even better on the way back, with a pair pushing sticks through the water, another on the shore cleaning its fur while heron swooped overhead. As we glided back to the mooring, and with the stars beginning to shine, it was hard to think wildlife sightings could get much better than this. But then I still had one very special creature left to find: the wolf. For that I would be leaving Kolarbyn and swapping my hut for canvas for a night out on the prowl.

A beaver swims in the water (Phoebe Smith)

A beaver swims in the water (Phoebe Smith)

A wolf on the doorstep

We headed into the woods during the day first, to get a sense of the habitat, and piled once more into the back of the people-mover.

“Oh wow – look!” shouted Marcus as he slammed his foot on the brakes and we all jolted forwards.

“What?” I asked excitedly, peering out of the car window expecting to see at least one, if not a whole pack of wolves. There was nothing there.

“Look,” he gestured emphatically and ran over to what looked like dog poo in the middle of the road.

“Poo?” I asked, unimpressed.

“Exactly,” he beamed, “they are here…”

By ‘they’, he meant the Eurasian wolf we had hoped to hear. I learnt quickly that when it comes to these canines – from which every single dog breed is related, including the chihuahua – hearing is far more likely than seeing. With 200 million scent cells (humans have just 5 million), they know we’re in their territory long before we do – and we were very much on their patch.

Marcus leads the way into prime wolf territory (Phoebe Smith)

Marcus leads the way into prime wolf territory (Phoebe Smith)

The trees were a mix of pine, birch, spruce and aspen, and the ground was coated by a green blanket of moss that, in areas, had dried out to become skeletal-like silver webs that crunched like snow beneath our feet. When we’d been walking for about half an hour, Marcus said, “Think about the woods and how it makes you feel. Now, how different does it make you feel when I tell you that we have been walking no more than 200m from a wolf den, in the heart of wolf territory?”

Though it wasn’t fear, I felt my body involuntarily shudder. As beautiful as they are, wolves are indisputably the creatures of our childhood nightmares. They kill, they deceive, they lurk in the dark and howl at the moon – the archetypal baddie in fairytale.

“And that’s the problem,” explained wolf expert Per Ahlqvist later that evening. “They are not popular and their presence here is often a battle between landowners and conservationists.”

The current number of canidae in Sweden is estimated at around 340. It’s not massive, but it is impressive given that prior to the 1980s that number was zero. Then, for reasons no one really knows, a trio of Russian- Finnish wolves migrated to the central region I was now in, and thus the Scandinavian wolf returned. After listening to Marcus’ collection of recorded howls indoors, we headed outside, rather fittingly under a near-full moon (a fact that Per was quick to point out had no bearing on whether or not we’d hear wolves).

Walking in the woods after dark is like venturing into a place from a dream. It seems familiar, but at the same time inexplicably changed. Guided only by the moonlight, we carefully picked our way through the forest, weaving between trees and occasionally spotting the illuminated tails of glow-worms, lighting the way like fluorescent breadcrumbs. After about half an hour Marcus gestured for us to stop. We sat and waited.

Listening out for wolves from a house in Skinnskatteberg (Phoebe Smith)

Listening out for wolves from a house in Skinnskatteberg (Phoebe Smith)

At first the entire forest seemed still and silent, but soon it was as if the landscape began to come to life. Every sound was amplified – a leaf falling, the creak of a tree trunk resting, the squawk of a bird or rustle of a squirrel – but… no wolf howl.

On the way back to our camp, Marcus looked concerned. “I think if people hear the howls, they connect with the wolves better – I want more people to come here, to show the locals that the wolves are not an enemy who kill cattle and need to be hunted, but a great natural resource that brings money and opportunities.”

I nodded in agreement, and just as I was about to tell him it didn’t matter that we didn’t actually hear a wolf, he slammed his foot on the brakes again.

“What?” I asked – now instinctively checking the ground for droppings.

“I just have a feeling…” he said. We got out of the car and followed him into the trees and up a small hillock.

We waited once more. Then, breaking the silence with a piercing cry, it happened. A single howl permeated through the darkness. But it didn’t stop with one; another joined in, then another, then another. Per had said before that no one definitively knows why they howl, but zoologists believe it’s simply a social thing – like being part of a choir. Then the excited little yelps of wolf pups joined in, too, and something inside me seemed to sing with them. My stomach leapt, my eyes lit up and every single sense was instantly heightened.

If you’d have asked me before if I would have gladly spent several hours sitting and listening for an eerie sound that may or may not come, in a cold, dark forest in the middle-of-nowhere, Sweden, I’d have cackled in a kind of horror-movie style befitting such a scene and shaken my head. But, now I’ve had the good fortune to hear a wolf – and indeed a whole pack – howling, I am forever changed. When it comes to nightlife, give me a wild night out in Sweden any day of the week – even on a Thursday.

A juvenile gull in Karmansbo (Phoebe Smith)

A juvenile gull in Karmansbo (Phoebe Smith)

The Trip

The author travelled with Discover the World (discover-the-world.co.uk; 01737 214291) on their three-night Kolarbyn Eco-lodge Wildlife Adventure, which included return flights to Stockholm from Gatwick Airport, car hire for four days, three nights at Kolarbyn Eco-lodge, self-service meals with ingredients provided, two guided wildlife safaris with outdoor meals and a self-guided canoe trip.

The Wolf Howling Tour is available as an added extra from July to September, and includes overnight tent camping in wolf territory, a wolf expert guide for walks both daytime and nighttime (to hopefully hear the howling), a wolf talk, outdoor meals and an extra day’s car rental.

Getting there and around

Skinnskatteberg is a two-hour drive from Stockholm or can be reached by public transport. Regular Arlanda Express (arlandaexpress.se) trains run to Stockholm Central from the airport (20 minutes), where you can pick up connecting SJ trains (sj.se/en/home.html) to Koping (80 minutes); then the No 550 public bus (vl.se in Swedish) will take you to Skinnskatteberg (50 minutes).

Accommodation

The ultimate way to experience the forests of this little visited area of Sweden is at Kolarbyn Eco-lodge (kolarbyn.se/en), which proudly calls itself the country’s ‘most primitive hotel’. Essentially, it’s a collection of 12 charcoal huts made from the spruce forests in which they sit. There’s no electricity (candles are provided), no heating (there’s a fireplace in the hut and outside for cooking – you cut your own wood), no running water (you collect it from a spring) and no showers (you either bathe in the lake or in the sauna).

You’re given the raw ingredients for your meals but cook and prepare everything from scratch. But it is simply wonderful – you forage berries in the wild, have no phone signal or wifi, and fall asleep on reindeer skins to complete silence. Prices include a night in a hut, sleeping bag hire, meal ingredients and sauna use.

Kolarbyn's floating sauna (Phoebe Smith)

Kolarbyn's floating sauna (Phoebe Smith)

Sweden highlights

1: Stockholm

The perfect place to spend a night, either before or after heading into the wilds a couple of hours’ drive away. Stop for a spot of fika (coffee and cake) and a wander around the old town.

2: Lake Skarsjon

Whether walking around it, canoeing across it or even taking a sauna while floating on top of it (at Kolarbyn Ecolodge), it’s the perfect place to explore the woods not too far from civilisation.

3: Wolf howling

The chance of you actually spotting any wolves is slim, but hearing them is a whole other matter. Take a guide and go for a walk in the woods for an unforgettable, wild night out.

4: Beaver watching

Watch these busy little creatures building dams and swimming through the water around the town of Karmansbo from a near-silent electric motor boat.

5: Doing nothing at all

Which is what this part of Sweden is perfect for; and because of allemansratt (freedom to roam), you have the right to walk, cycle, ride, ski and camp on any land and enjoy it in peace and quiet. Don’t mind if we do...