At the beginning of its long journey north from Östersund, the Inlandsbanan crosses the Indalsälven RIver, one of Sweden's greatest natural sources of power, the first sure sign that civilization is slowly being left behind and only the wilds of nature lie ahead. Indeed, it’s almost two hours before the train makes the first stop of any significance, at Ulriksfors – the wayside halt for the small waterside town of Strömsund – before continuing on to the appealing little town of Dorotea. Strömsund is the starting point for Route 342, the Wilderness Way (Vildmarksvägen), a circular road looping out towards the Norwegian border; the route passes through stunning scenery more than worthy of its name, rejoining the main road north, the Inlandsvägen, in Vilhelmina.
Built on a narrow isthmus of land between Russfjärden lake and the extensive Ströms Vattudal network of waterways that stretches to the northwest, STRÖMSUND is a shy and retiring sort of place. It consists of no more than a couple of parallel streets sporting the odd shop or two, and is of interest mainly as a centre for canoeing on the surrounding rivers and lakes. The tourist office can rent out canoes (around 200kr/day).
Strömsund’s other claim to fame is its proximity to the impressive Stone Age rock paintings (hällmålningar in Swedish) at Fångsjön, around 10km southeast along Route 345. The paintings, created by hunter-gatherers around 2500BC, were a plea to their gods for plentiful game.
From Strömsund, Route 342, the 360km-long Wilderness Way (Vildmarksvägen), strikes out northwest towards the mountains at Gäddede, before hugging the Norwegian border and crossing the barren Stekenjokk plateau (876m; only open from early June to mid-Oct). It then swings inland again, joining Route 45 at Vilhelmina. The route ranks as one of the most beautiful and dramatic in Sweden, passing through great swathes of virgin forest, tiny forgotten villages and true wilderness. It’s also the part of Sweden with the densest population of bears. If you’re driving, stop wherever you can, turn off the engine and listen to the deep silence, broken only by the calls of the birds and the whisper of the forest.
There are plenty of lakes along the way ideal for nude bathing – you can choose whichever one you want to make your own as there’ll be nobody else there. One of the most beautiful stretches of rocky beach is just south of the tiny village of Alanäs on the beautiful Flåsjön lake, before you get to Gäddede.
If you have your own transport, you should turn left at Bågede and follow the minor, very rocky road along the southern shore of Fågelsjön lake to reach Hällsingsåfallet, an impressive waterfall. Sweden’s answer to Niagara Falls, it has an 800m-long canyon, into which the falls plummet 43m; the canyon’s that’s getting longer every year due to continuing erosion.
The only town along the Wilderness Way is Gäddede, whose name means “the spot where the northern pike can no longer go upstream”. The name may be cute but the place certainly isn’t; give it a miss and instead turn off the main road and follow the road signed “Nordli” for a few kilometres to the long and empty sandy beaches of Murusjöen lake, right on the border with Norway (the beach is in Sweden, the water in Norway). You’ll be hard pushed to find a more idyllic spot: the silence is total, the deep blue water still and calm, and the mountains in the distance dark and brooding.
Stora Blåsjön, a lake 50km to the north of Gäddede, is surrounded by blue mountains; the village of Stora Blåsjon is where the road starts to climb above the tree line to cross the desolate, boulder-strewn Stekenjokk plateau into the province of Lappland. Just outside Stora Blåsjön, look out for the minor road leading to Ankarede, an age-old meeting place for the local Sámi; even today, families from Sweden and Norway get together here at midsummer and again in the autumn. Its old wooden church dates from 1896 and is located by the lake, between the two rivers. In addition there are around twenty circular Sámi wooden huts – kåtor – close by. The Stekenjokk plateau is the temporary summer home of several Sámi families, who tend their reindeer on the surrounding slopes, including those of the magnificent peak of Gervenåkko (1141m) to the east of the road.
After dropping into the minuscule village of Klimpfjäll, the Wilderness Way continues east. Taking the first turn to the left, after about 12km and then following the signs, you’ll reach Fatmomakke, a fascinating Sámi church town made up of eighty kåtor and twenty cottages, gathered neatly around the church, and twenty log cabins lined up by the side of Kultsjön lake. The first church on the site was built in 1790, but the Sámi met together here long before that for special religious celebrations including marriages, christenings and funerals, travelling vast distances on skis, horseback or by boat. The huts are made out of birch wood, with a hole in the roof to let the smoke out, and birch twigs on the floor to sit on. Everything inside is orderly, the fireplace in the middle, the cooking area at the back; there’s a strict code of behaviour as well – you must first wait in the entrance before being invited to enter. Look out for the signposted visningskåta, the “show hut” to the right of the church up on the hill, and have a peek inside.
About 20km further east of Fatmomakke, the lakeside hamlet of SAXNÄS is as good a place as any to break your journey and enjoy some of the magnificent scenery hereabouts. It’s also a good spot for adventure activities, or some pampering at the spa resort.
The #425 bus runs from Strömsund to Gäddede. There’s one daily service and two buses on Fridays (w lanstrafiken-z.se). Travelling on a Friday is best since you can take the first bus, get off wherever you like (just tell the driver to stop), and spend the late afternoon and early evening walking or chilling out by the side of a lake before catching the second bus and continuing on to Gäddede. On weekdays the bus connects in Gäddede with the #472 to Stora Blåsjön and Anakarede, beside the pretty Stora Blåsjön lake.
There’s no bus connection from Stora Blåsjön over the Stekenjokk plateau to Klimpfjäll, but there are three other options: take a taxi from Stora Blåsjön (T 0672 201 53); hitch between the two places – there are a lot of German and Dutch camper vans on this stretch of the road who may be able to help out with a lift over the plateau; or hike from Ankarede towards Raukasjön lake before heading north up over the Norra Borgafjällen mountains for Slipsiken lake and down into Klimpfjäll – a distance of approximately 40km, best covered over two days.
Once at Klimpfjäll, bus #420 runs down to Saxnäs and Vilhelmina (Mon–Fri 2 daily, Sun 1 daily; w tabussen.nu).