Living in Sweden’s Alaska

Working in the mountains is unlike most other workplaces. Anybody who ever spent a season in the Alps or in the Scandinavian mountains will probably agree with me. 

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This summer I got the chance to spend three months in Ritsem. Ritsem is a very small village at the end of a 150 km long road, called the ”way out west”. Along the whole 150 km there are no permanent settlements, no supermarkets, no gas stations. Ritsem is where the road ends. Sometimes visitors don’t study the map quite enough and assume that the road will go all the way through the mountains and eventually come out in Norway, which is not true. Once you drove all the way to Ritsem the only way is to drive back on the narrow road, full of pottholes.

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Ritsem is a Sámi village with a number of small huts and a little harbour. Most Sámi don’t spend the whole year here – only during spring and summer there are signs of life in the surroundings. Between March and May people drive around on their snowscooters and go ice-fishing, in late June the first tourists arrive and in July the Sámi mark the reindeer calves. August is one of the nicest months to be in the mountains and in September the first snow will fall. Between October and February it must be incredibly silent and dark up here and even most Sámi prefer to live in a town.

Being located so far from the next city and being such a small village, gives Ritsem a really special vibe. Besides the Sámi huts, the village consists in the hostel, where I work, a caravan camping, a police station for mountain rescue (which rarely sees a police officer) and a hydraulic power plant. The power plant does of course need a lot of maintainance, which is why there are several buildings for workers of the power company Vattenfall, owned by the Swedish government.

There are no restaurants or bars, no shops and no gas stations. The only option to buy food is the little shop inside our hostel. It’s not exactly cheap and the offer is not very big but we have all basics you could possibly need.

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Ritsem mountain station and mount Áhkká in the background

Since alcohol is only sold in liquor stores owned by the Swedish government, we can only sell beer with 3,5% alcohol. For everything else, be it wine or fresh food, you need to drive to the towns of Gällivare or Jokkmokk, which are about two and a half hours of driving away.

The winding road to Ritsem starts in the east with a beautiful forest landscape. This forest is not in private ownership and above the cultivation limit. The cultivation limit separates the habitated parts of northern Sweden’s inland from the unmodified mountain areas, where it is not allowed to build houses or to cultivate the ground. The whole western half of northern Sweden is inside the cultivation limit, which is pretty amazing to me. It’s an enormous area where you won’t find traces of logging, fields or farms. Nature here looks like it does in it’s natural state. In other areas of Europe, no matter which country, it is often even hard to imagine how nature would have looked before human settlement.

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As you drive towards Ritsem through the forest, the landscape becomes more and more hilly and soon you can see the first snow covered peaks in the west. You are inside the Laponia World Heritage Site. It includes four national parks (Sarek, Padjelanta, Muddus, Stora Sjöfallet) and two nature reserves (Sjaunja and Stubba) and is 9,400 square kilometers big. (I´m not good with numbers so I looked for comparable countries and Laponia is approximately similar to Puerto Rico or Jamaica).

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Directly north of the road is the Stora Sjöfallet Nationalpark. It is one of the national parks in Sweden I feel a bit critical about – it has been basically destroyed by the hydroelectric development of the area. The waterfalls, that gave the name to the national park have now disappeared and gave way to several enormous water power plants, power lines and gravel banks. The result on the western side of the dam is the artificial reservoir Akkajaure, 60 km long.

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I wish, I could see the landscape around Ritsem prior to the construction of this damn. Where now a ferry crosses 10 km over to Sarek and Padjelanta Nationalpark used to be several smaller lakes and a valley with birch forest. It’s a destruction of enormous dimensions, almost unbelivable when standing by the shore. It makes me sad that I will never be able to look over the valley and see the rivers, lakes and forests that once have been there.

Fortunately the other national parks of the area have not been subject to such a destruction and have remained in their natural state. Sarek is undoubtly the most popular wilderness area of Sweden and attracts a lot of tourists. Many of the our guests in Ritsem have Sarek as their destination so I don’t know if I would define Sarek as the most deserted and isolated area of Sweden. Padjelanta is Sweden´s biggest national park and here you can find the most remote point of the country. Remote is in this sense defined by the longest distance from any road, which is 47 km.

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I like that there are so many curious facts and unusual things about the whole area. It’s nothing like living in one of the towns im used to, be it Hamburg, Porto or Gothenburg. So I’m grateful I get to spend so much time in this remote part of Scandinavia and I want to continue and discover many more parts of Lapland and the Laponia Wold Heritage Site.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Really pretty! Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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