Jutting up from the waters of the Baltic, off the coast of Stockholm, are more than 30,000 islands, rocks, and skerries. Collectively these two-billion-old rock formations make up the archipelago, a favorite holiday retreat of Swedes. Only a few hearty, independent, and ultimately extremely flexible souls live on these islands year-round—many populations number in the tens, populations that reach into the hundreds are rare—but in the summer, mainland residents flock to the archipelago to bathe in the always cold waters of the Baltic, take a dip in slightly warmer inland lakes, sail from isle to isle, and generally just relax in a place where the pace of life is slow and all the extraneous details of modern life are eliminated.
We missed summer by a few weeks (though we’ve heard summer was a bit disappointing this year), so we arrived to islands that were transitioning toward the sleepy time of year, when the sea freezes over with ice thick enough to ski and skate across and darkness hangs like a veil. That summer was ending was undeniable. The bright blue seas and skies that appear in brochure photos were already a memory. Instead periwinkle painted over the landscape—the sky, the sea, and the granite rocks were all a shade of purplish-gray. The sun was tucked away under thick clouds. And for two of the three days, a steady mist fell, crescendoing into heavy rain for brief stretches before lapsing back into a sprinkle.
It was enough to make the other guests at our hostel stay inside. But us? Well we’re not sweet enough to melt.
And we had some hiking to do.
Apparently the 400+ miles we hiked this summer didn’t satiate us. When we read about something called boat hiking we knew that’s what we’d be doing in the archipelago. For 340 SEK (under $60), we got a pass that was good for 5 days (though we only used it for 3) that allowed us to hop whichever boats we liked between various islands. It also came with a map and suggested itineraries that laid out how one could arrive at an island, hike across or around it, then leave the island either via row boat or ferry to continue on to another island. Three major routes were outlined—northern, middle, and southern. We chose the middle because not only did it seem most interesting to us, but it also minimized the amount of time we would spend on the ferry. The route itself is rather extensive, so we picked and chose from it, deciding on four islands: Moja, Ingmarso, Finnhamn, and Gallno.
On Ingmarso and Finnhamn, which we visited on day two, we experienced the truest form of boat hiking. Around 2 p.m., our ferry pulled into the jetty of South Ingmarso, and we disembarked. Our goal for the afternoon was to walk just over three kilometers along the southern part of Ingmarso, row ourselves across the sea from Ingmarso to nearby Finnhamn, and then continue hiking a few more kilometers across Finnhamn to a hostel perched above the sea.
But first we needed a map, so we popped in the restaurant at the jetty (one of the few places in the archipelago open on a Sunday afternoon in the low season), where a kind waitress photocopied one for us and sent us on our way. We began by walking through a predominantly pine forest, where mushrooms sprung from the ground and were hunted like treasure by multiple mushroom pickers we passed. I kept half expecting a tomte (a mythical creature from Scandinavian folklore that strongly resembles the Travelocity gnome) to pop out and greet us, but alas that didn’t happen.
As we continued along the boat hiker’s trail, I took to calling it the “Jesus path” because of the small signs marking the way that seemed to show a person walking on water.
After a bit of forest hiking, we emerged alongside a field where two horses grazed idly.
We then entered into a field, following a trampled path through a meadow full of rams. In Sweden, allemansratten—the right of public access—entitles you to cross privately owned land so long as you are respectful (and don’t let the rams out). Apparently, the rams here not only are unfazed by strangers entering their grazing grounds but also rather enjoy it. It seems other hikers must feed the rams as they pass through, because instead of scattering away from us, they flocked to us sniffing at our pockets and our bags. Being not much of an animal person, I have to say I didn’t like it much, as I was just waiting for one of them to rear up and show us what those horns are for.
Nearing the end of Ingmarso, we took a break at a nature preserve, where a small boat house was painted the typical burgundy-red of most every building in the archipelago.
Upon reaching the tip of Ingmarso, we loaded our gear into a small row boat, and Jeff rowed us across to Finnhamn. While I sat with the gear, he then rowed back to Ingmarso, towing the row boat that had been on the other side, so that each island has one boat and people are able to cross regardless of which direction they’re coming from. It’s a remarkable system that impressed both of us, not simply because of how well it worked but because of how it is possible to just leave a boat tied up under no one’s guard and know that it will not be stolen or vandalized. I’m not sure that would happen in the U.S.
Once Jeff made it back to Ingmarso, we set off hiking again, through a mixed forest of pine and aspen.