John Savelid is waiting for me at Stockholm airport holding a strange bag that looks like a rucksack with too many straps.
“It’s a day sack for skating,” he tells me, “but also a life jacket in case you go through.”
This is good. We are getting straight to the nub of the issue. I’ve come to skate outdoors in a Swedish winter and one question that has been nagging away in the back of my mind is: “Do people go through the ice?”
It’s an unfortunate truth, but Hollywood has brainwashed me into believing that anyone who ventures on to a frozen lake is going to die, normally by drowning after they get trapped under the ice sheet.
“There’s a 5% chance you’ll go in,” says John with a jovial smile.
He points to what look like two screwdrivers conveniently positioned at chest height on one of the rucksack’s shoulder straps.
“You just pull yourself out with these, change clothes and carry on.”
He demonstrates this for me. Travellers exiting the airport with wheelie bags flow around us. No one pays much attention.
This is Sweden: hauling yourself up on to the ice sheet like a happy seal is a leisure activity.
“As easy as that?” He shrugs. “I won’t lie to you. There is a chance you’ll go in. You need to know what to do.”
We get in the car and head west out of Stockholm.
John explains that where we will skate is a last-minute decision based on conditions.
Since central Sweden has just had a heavy snowfall and all the lakes are covered in several feet of snow, we must get to the west coast north of Gothenburg, where the fjords may still be clear. We are, he tells me, on an ice hunt.
“We’re going to skate out to sea?” “We stay near the coast but we might get a few kilometres out in some bays.”
I look out into the dusk and the vast snow-covered forests. I think it is time to share my news with him. I’m not a skater.
I’ve done precisely five sessions at an ice rink in my entire life and on the last one, three days before, I slammed my right knee down so hard that I almost became the first person to go through the ice sheet at my local ice arena. I wasn’t even wearing a life jacket with screwdrivers.
Now I can’t bend my leg without doing wolf howls to control the pain.
John smiles. “You will be fine. The skates are long and very stable. Plus you will have sticks.”
I wish I could say that his confidence ended my anxiety. That night we are in a basic youth hostel. John stays up late studying ice reports and maps. I’m up late praying, but not on my knees.
It is still dark when we get up and eat breakfast while examining the map. We are about midway between Gothenburg and the Norwegian border, where the coast is heavily indented and scattered with thousands of small islands.
“Where the ice forms is difficult to predict,” says John. “You have currents, winds and ice-breaking ships.”
Our hunt starts in the thin pearly light of dawn and it doesn’t go well. The first couple of spots we visit reveal only dark, forbidding water.
The coast, however, is certainly beautiful, with huge icicles on the rocks and tiny villages buried in snow.
In every window a little lamp casts a small yellow patch of light on the cosy interior. I can’t help thinking I’d like to be in there.
We cross by bridge to the island of Orust and here, in a silent boatyard, we stumble to the shore and see, stretched out before us, a miraculous sheet of white ice covering a huge bay dotted with pine-topped islands. I’m dry-mouthed with happiness.
We kit up and John explains procedure. I will stay behind him. If he goes through, I will throw him the rope that I have on top of my rucksack.
“And if we both go in?” He grins. “I’ll lend you some of my shampoo.”
I clip into my skates and watch as John shimmies away across the sea. I’ve got a pole in each hand so I forgo any shimmying and just drive myself forwards, feet in parallel, with my arms and poles. It works. There’s no one here to sneer.
After about 10 minutes, I start to move my feet and soon develop an effective, if clumsy, style. Push off on left skate with a helpful prod of left pole. Wait a bit. Repeat for opposite foot.
It works. John was right about the skates: they are long and stable. It’s easy to move quickly and survive any wobbles (there are a few). Soon I am skating by pushing off with both feet.
After another hour, I realise that I’m not thinking about it, just enjoying the miracle of passing across the surface of the ocean.
It is a minimalist, tranquil world. When we stop there is total silence. Every drop of water is frozen. The islands are great, smooth-sided granite outcrops buttressed with columnar gulches of waterfalls stopped dead in the act of leaping into the sea.
We call a halt for brunch — thermos flasks of black tea, hard-boiled eggs and cheese rolls — and John explains a little about ice. The only reason we can skate, he tells me, is because water is densest at 4?C and so will sink beneath colder water which forms the ice.
In seawater, the ice forms at -1.9?C and at the same time expels the salt, creating a layer of super-salty water just below the ice which then sinks, creating powerful currents.
(The Arctic thermohaline currents, as they are known, help drive ocean currents globally and this is one reason why shrinking ice caps will cause massive and unpredictable disruption.)
“Sea ice is different from freshwater,” John says. “For a start it is flexible. Sometimes you can feel the movement of waves in it.”
I ask about thickness: I’ve been assuming that we are on several metres of solid, dependable ice. John laughs.
“Here, it is maybe 15cm, enough to drive a car across. But we can skate across six centimetres, and we will.”
There can, he explains, be sudden and unexpected decreases in ice cover.
We pack up and head farther out, passing yet more islands. There are tracks of foxes, otters and other skaters but we see nothing and no one. Nor do we speak much while we skate.
Our world is very simple. It seems to me that it is a long time since I was anywhere quite so simple: no sound but the skates, no smells and no sight but the horizon, itself only a vague calligraphic flicker of dark ink, sometimes no more than a hair’s-breadth wide, sometimes swelling into a dark, flat-bottomed hump of island.
The sky and the ice are a uniform pale grey. The skating becomes a meditation in rhythm. Eventually we reach the ice limit and stop a few metres from the edge.
“Sometimes it is a straight cut and you can go right to the very edge,” explains John. “But not this time.”
We return by a long looping route around the fjord and I get totally disoriented, only realising we are finished when John points to the car.
“Congratulations. You’ve just skated about 25km.”
Once back at the car with a mug of hot tea he digs out a couple of accommodation guides.
In the true spirit of ice-hunting, we will now decide where to stay tonight.
“Let’s go to Lysekil,” he suggests. “I think we’ll find some ice up there tomorrow and it’s a very pretty place. In the summer lots of holidaymakers go there.”
So we drive to Lysekil, around 80km south, and he’s right: it’s a lovely Swedish town with a fine square which we stroll around before buying food to cook back at our lodgings.
Beer, I discover, is not as astronomically expensive here as it is in some Scandinavian countries — provided you buy the supermarket brands, which are, by law, all below 3.5% proof. Our guesthouse is a wonderful clapboard concoction of balconies, stoops and cosy rooms, plus an epic subterranean kitchen which we have all to ourselves for a homemade dinner.
Next morning we are up early and on the hunt again, heading south over the bridge to the island of Tjörn, where we park and get kitted up. There are other skaters out there today, moving at speed without any visible effort.
“It’s easy to cover 20km in an hour when you are experienced,” says John.
After a few wobbles, my legs remember what to do and we are moving out into the fjord, far out.
Soon there is nothing to see but that long black hair that marks the horizon.
And then later two specks appear that grow larger. Two men are sitting on plastic buckets out in the centre of the fjord. When we get closer I can see that they are fishing.
“Twenty years ago, you’d have seen 200 men out here on a day like this,” says one of them, Gerhard. “We hope for a salmon but they are rare these days.” His friend catches a tiddler and drops it back.
We move on. John tells me about the Swedish king, Karl X Gustav, who managed to ride 9,000 cavalrymen across the ice in 1658 and successfully attacked Denmark. He only lost two squadrons through the ice. “Five per cent chance?”
John laughs. “I like to warn people at the beginning, then the shock is not so great if it happens — and it can happen.”
We stop for lunch on an island and I spend an hour exploring the surreal ice park formed by frozen waterfalls and streams. As the light fades with infinite slowness, we head back and I discover, to my surprise, that I don’t want this to be over.
My short sea ice experience has gone far better than I had ever hoped.
If only I hadn’t bothering attempting to learn how to skate beforehand. — © Guardian News & Media 2013
Note: the trip was provided by Visit Sweden (visitsweden.com). The ice-skating season runs from mid-December to the end of March