Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/February 1877/Nature and Life in Lapland



NONE who have had experience of travel in Swedish Lapland are likely to deny to it the charms of perfect freshness and originality. The almost primitive character and habits of the people, the singular conditions of their life, the unique splendor of the scenery, the bright intoxication of the air, and the glory of the arctic sunsets, are all a constant source of pleasure and surprise. For the angler there is almost unlimited trout and grayling fishing, with possibilities of salmon; and for the sportsman abundance of ptarmigan, willow grouse, hares, and wild-fowl of all descriptions; while the cost of living, not indeed sumptuously, but sufficiently well, may be covered by two or three shillings a day. Unfortunately, these advantages can only be reached by routes so little tempting to the ordinary tourist that it appears from the visitor's book at Quickjock that only three hundred persons in twenty years have braved the discomforts of the approach. Now, however, that Norway is becoming hackneyed ground, and that all its available streams are rented and preserved, it is possible that the attractions of Lapland may yet counterbalance the well-founded objections to the gulf of Bothnia. At the present time the trip cannot be recommended to ladies, unless they are willing to put up with more than the usual inconvenience and discomfort of out-of-the-way travel; but for men, willing to rough it a little, there is no hardship or difficulty greater than those with which most sportsmen must be already familiar.

Stockholm, the starting-point of the expedition, may be reached direct by Hull and Gothenburg; or, if the land-route be preferred, through Calais, Cologne, and Hamburg, and thence, either through Jutland to Friedrickshavn, and across the Cattegat to Gothenburg, or by Kiel and Ivorsoer to Copenhagen, and thence by Malmo to Stockholm. For bad sailors the last route is to be preferred, as in the other cases the traveler must make the acquaintance of either the Skaggerack or the Cattegat, or of both; and he will probably find that their names are not rougher than their waters, and that they are in fact the most diabolical cross-seas on the face of the globe. The captain of the little steamer which plies between Gothenburg and Friedrickshavn, who has spent the greater portion of his life in ocean-ships, informed us that he never dared to go below when the Cattegat was rough, but found his only safety from sickness in the fresh breeze on deck. The distinctive beauty of Stockholm is in its situation. Built partly on islands in Lake Malar, it is intersected in every direction by the waters of the lake and of the Baltic, and, with its busy quays, broad streets, handsome buildings, pleasant gardens, and clear atmosphere, is certainly one of the brightest and most charming capitals in Europe. The streets are still enlivened by the gay costumes of the peasants, especially those of the nearest provinces; it is said, however, that their use is gradually dying out before the advance of railroads and other enemies of the picturesque.

The Swedes are undoubtedly a fine race; many of the men are very tall, and the women are almost universally refined-looking and graceful in their carriage. A crowd of Swedes might at any time be mistaken by an Englishman for a crowd of the better sort in his own country; and in character there is the same resemblance to a high average English standard. The middle and trading classes have great sympathy with the English nation and its institutions, and are ready at all times to express and prove it; the aristocracy and higher ranks of society are more inclined to favor French manners and customs, but this is due to the influence of the court and to the origin of the royal family. Every educated Swede reads and probably speaks English well, and with very slight, if airy, foreign accent. English newspapers and books of all kinds are largely read, and English literature is a prominent branch of study at the high or middle-class schools, of which, as of all other educational institutions, there is an ample supply in Sweden. All along the coast of the gulf of Bothnia, in every little town of a few hundred, or at most of two or three thousand, inhabitants, there is a large school of this description, with a full staff of masters, lektors, and assistants, provided according to a fixed scale, and forming part of the general organization for national instruction. We met several of these teachers, and found them extremely well-informed and intelligent men, speaking English, French, and German, and accepting for the communication of these acquirements salaries which would be deemed totally inadequate in any other and richer country. They were all home-taught, by books and not viva voce, and hence, though well qualified to translate English into Swedish, they found it more difficult to reverse the process and to interpret their thoughts into elegant English. "The weather is deplorable," said one of these gentlemen; "it makes for the melancholy, and influences on the humors."

The fees charged in the schools are moderate, and such as to induce a general acceptance of the educational advantages offered by the class for whom they are intended. Primary education in Sweden is free and compulsory, though it is seldom necessary to recur to the interference of the magistrates. The Swedes cannot be made to understand the beauty of our English system, by which a national service, undertaken on the distinct ground of its importance to the whole community, is made unpopular by a charge extorted from the persons whose ready and voluntary acceptance of the service is the object desired. They argue that the state, as a whole, is bound to secure to all its citizens the opportunity of acquiring at least the elementary knowledge which is requisite for its security and general well-being, and that it is the function of the state to offer this instruction free of charge before it attempts to compel any individual to avail himself of it. They attribute the almost universal prevalence of primary instruction in their country to the existence of these free schools, and point to their wide popularity as sufficient evidence of the fallacy of the proposition, so often taken for granted in England, that the poor do not value education which is paid for out of the general taxation of the community.

Steamers leave Stockholm for Haparanda, at the head of the gulf of Bothnia, two or three times a week, calling on the way at the ports on the west coast. Against a head-wind these boats roll and pitch in an extremely provoking fashion; but, during the summer months, the voyage is generally a smooth one. The boats carry stores to the towns on the route, and bring back tar, which, with wood, and iron from the mines of the great Gellivara Company—now the sole property of an English merchant—constitute the chief trade of the gulf. The coast navigation is extremely intricate and difficult, the steamer winding its way for hours through the fiords and among innumerable rocky islets. On one occasion we bumped over a sunken rock, and, if one may judge by the composure of the captain, this must be no infrequent occurrence, though it smashed all the crockery laid out in the saloon and greatly alarmed the passengers. At night, and on the occasion of a fog, progress is impossible, and the steamer is brought-to and anchored till daylight or clear weather.

Our destination was Luleä, which is reached in about seventy-two hours from Stockholm, and is a town of some 2,000 inhabitants, situated at the mouth of the great river of the same name. The harbor, after the difficulties of the entrance are surmounted, is a fine one, and many English and other ships lie here, loading timber; it is floated down the river from the forests, and cut into planks or made up into frames for doors and windows at the saw-mills in the town and neighborhood.

The houses are almost entirely built of wood, and are in many cases shops and warehouses, as well as dwelling-houses, although there is little display of goods in the windows. There is a large school, attended by the youths from all the surrounding district, as well as by those resident in the town itself. Luleä is the seat of the government of the province of Norbotten, which includes the whole of Lapland, and has a population of 80,000, scattered over 1,932 square miles of country. The governor, who has no sinecure, being required to visit personally his immense district several times a year, is provided with an official residence and a salary of 12,000 Swedish crowns, or about £650 per annum.

On arriving at the inn, which is good and clean, and makes up some forty beds, one is struck with a peculiarity of all similar places in Sweden, namely, the apparent indifference to visitors exhibited by the proprietor. No head-waiter, with attendant circle of porters and chambermaids, awaits the arrival of the guest. The luggage is put down at the entrance, and the traveler must seek for himself his rooms and the information lie requires; while the landlord, with his hands in his pockets, regards his efforts from a window with languid curiosity. There is no intentional incivility, but it appears not to be the custom to welcome the coming guest, although to speed the parting guest there is abundance of hand-shaking and hearty good wishes. The curious custom of the Smörgos prevails at these inns, and indeed everywhere throughout Sweden; it consists in a standing refreshment provided at a side-table free of charge, and comprising bread and butter, cheese, caviare, dried fish and reindeer-flesh, sausages, and other similar delicacies, to be taken immediately before each regular meal, and washed down with branvin and other neat spirits. In connection with this performance the Swedes have an objectionable habit, which may be called the community of forks, as the same implement passes rapidly from mouth to mouth and from dish to dish; the rights of private property are flagrantly disregarded.

From Luleä a succession of three small steamers, each making its passage to the bottom of considerable rapids, carry the traveler some ninety miles up the Luleä, River to its junction with the Little Luleä at Storbachen, and across the frontier of Sweden into Lapland, which commences about ten miles below the confluence. The scenery is extremely striking, especially toward the end of the road. The river is a noble stream, never narrower than the Thames at Westminster, and expanding at intervals into broad stretches of water which, shut in by the windings of the river, present the appearance of considerable lakes. The banks are lined with the pine-forests for many miles, and the dark green of the firs and larches is varied by the brighter foliage and silver bark of the birches, which grow in considerable numbers among the other trees. At intervals, gradually getting longer as the distance from Luleä increases, the villages or settlements of the Swedish farmers break the uniformity of the scene, and the wooden houses and out-buildings, painted bright red, with the windows and doors picked out in white, and surrounded by small clearings with patches of yellow barley and green pasture, stand out brightly against the sombre background of the forests, and give animation and warmth to the landscape. It is difficult to convey the peculiar fascination of this scenery. It is due especially to the sharpness and contrast of color, the bright clear blue of the sky giving definiteness to the outlines of the trees and hills, and bringing into marked relief all the incidents of the view. There is something bracing in the very appearance of the landscape, to which the noble river is an ever-fitting foreground.

At Storbachen the river has to be exchanged for the road, and a country cart holding two persons, and with or without an apology for springs as chance may determine, carries the tourist along the banks of the Little Luleä to Jockmock, a distance of some thirty miles. This drive is in itself a unique experience. The road after wet weather is cut up into deep ruts, in and out of which the cart plunges with a violence most discomforting to its occupants, who are bruised and pounded without the possibility of resistance. It must be admitted that the process detracts from the pleasure of the excursion, which in other respects is extremely interesting. The route lies for the whole day through the almost trackless forests. Hardly a human being is to be met in these immense solitudes, and the silence is only broken occasionally by the note of some strange bird or the movement of the wind through the trees. In many places forest-fires have ravaged the country for great distances, and everywhere there is a vista of blackened stems or falling trunks. In contrast to this desolation, where the fire has not passed, the ground is carpeted with the most luxuriant mosses and lichens in all the tints of green and red and yellow, while an occasional clearing, though at very rare intervals, relieves from time to time a sense of utter loneliness by the evidence it gives of the neighborhood of human beings.

The forests cover nearly one-half of the whole surface of Sweden, and constitute an important part of the wealth of the country and the revenue of the Government. In past times they were very carelessly managed, and in many cases were sold outright and without conditions to merchants, who ruthlessly cut down the timber with sole regard to their immediate interests. The pine is of very slow growth, increasing only one inch in diameter in ten years, and reaching twelve to fourteen inches in a century; and the wholesale destruction of young wood has left large tracts desolate and unprofitable for an indefinite period. The soil is excessively poor, consisting of sand with the thinnest possible coating of vegetable mould, so that no ordinary cultivation is possible.

Now the forests are strictly looked after, and no land is sold; but the right of cutting wood, limited to trees of ten inches and upward in diameter, is let for a term of years and by tender, at so much per tree. In the remote districts the royalty is about 1s. 3d. per tree, and the lessees have in addition to carry out works for deepening the rivers and keeping them clear of all obstructions. Twenty years ago the value of trees on the ground was not more than threepence or four-pence apiece.

From Jockmock to the end of the journey at Quickjock the mode of traveling and the scenery are again changed. The head-waters of the Little Luleä are a series of large lakes, from six to thirty miles long, and varying in breadth from two miles to seven or eight. These in turn are fed by two mountain-rivers, which join their floods at Quickjock, and pour the united stream into the uppermost lake. They are traversed in long, open boats made of very thin wood, and rowed by two or three men, according to the weight of luggage and the length of the journey. These boats are unprovided with seats, and the passengers have to squat at the bottom back to back, or crowded side by side; and, as very little movement would be sufficient to swamp so frail a craft, the limbs get cramped and stiffened, and the journey becomes very fatiguing. With a high wind the broadest lakes become rough and dangerous, and on one occasion we shipped so much water that it seemed doubtful whether our expedition would not come to an untimely end. Each lake is connected with the next by strong rapids, in some cases rising into small waterfalls, and to avoid these it is necessary to disembark, when the luggage is carried on the shoulders of the rowers through the pine-forests to the next lake. Throughout this part of the trip the silence can almost be felt, and becomes at last oppressive. No living thing is seen for hours except occasional flights of wild birds, or a solitary heron disturbed by the passage of the boat. Hills, gradually developing into mountains, and finally covered with snow as the neighborhood of Quickjock is reached, shut in the scene, and the slopes of these are covered almost entirely with stunted pine, the birch having nearly disappeared. There is, however, no lack of color, as the firs in the sunlight present many shades of the darker greens intermingled with a rich brown where some disease appears to have attacked the trees. A large sweep of pine-forest thus spread out in an amphitheatre of hills, and seen from a great distance, might be mistaken for an expanse of heather and fern, browned by the autumn rains and sun, though of course the brighter purples are absent from the Lapland view.

In the summer months there is perpetual daylight in all these regions, and the midnight sun is visible for some time in June. When we were there, in September, it was light till nine or ten o'clock, and never absolutely dark. The sunsets were most gorgeous, dark masses of purple clouds being lit up with the intensest hues of gold and crimson as the sun went down behind them, a glowing ball of fire. On one occasion the effect was heightened by the appearance of the eastern sky, which shaded off from deepest rose at the zenith, through delicate gradations of pinks and purples, into a lovely pale, pure blue, in the midst of which the full autumnal moon shone gloriously.

The fishing in the lakes is exceedingly good, and very large trout, and even salmon, may be caught with the minnow and other spinning bait. For fly-fishing the best places are the rapids between the lakes, through which the boat is screwed in and out in an extremely clever and dexterous way by the boatman, who takes advantage of the shelter of every rock and stone as he passes from one to the other, while the stream shoots by. In favorable weather an angler may easily land a hundred-weight of trout and grayling in a day's sport, the fish running from half a pound to two pounds in weight. The flies sold by the London makers should be supplemented by some of a smaller size for bright weather and clear water; one with a body of yellow silk and grayish-brown wings is said to be very killing.

The distance from Jockmock to Quickjock, the two principal villages on the route, is about ninety miles, and is performed in three days. Each of these places has a church, a school, and a post-office, and Jockmock is said to have a shop, though we could not find it. They are really collections of small wooden huts, vacant during the summer months, but occupied in the long winter by the Lapps, who then come down from the mountains with their reindeer. Quickjock especially is in a delightful situation, facing a beautiful lake, and sheltered by mountains of noble outlines and grand proportions. At Jockmock there are some fine falls, not unlike the Rheinfalls at Schaffhausen, though in a very different setting. The resting-places or stations between these two villages are not inns in the usual sense of the word, but the houses of the Swedish settlers or immigrants into Lapland, one of which at each settlement is destined for the reception of the occasional guests.

These settlements consist of two or perhaps four houses, with the necessary out-buildings, and seem generally inhabited by the several members of the same family. Some of them have existed a considerable time, and are occupied now by the grandchildren or great grandchildren of the original settlers. Originally the Government granted free gifts of land, but they have now ceased to do this, and the number of the settlers does not appear to be receiving many additions from outside. The houses usually consist of two or more large rooms on the ground-floor with lofts above, and vast chimney-hearths in one corner, in which the logs of pine, some two or three feet in length, are piled upright when a fire is wanted; being lit, they burn up in a few minutes into a roaring' fire which gives out an intense heat. The family live chiefly in the kitchen, and this and the guest chamber are about twenty or thirty feet square, and furnished with a kind of sofa-bedstead which pulls out so as to afford a sleeping-accommodation of about five feet six inches by three feet. The kitchen itself is not over-clean, nor are the personal habits of the people without reproach in this respect; yet the guest-chamber, the linen, and the crockery, leave nothing to be desired.

The houses are surrounded by a small clearing, where the settlers cultivate for their own consumption sufficient oats and other grain, hay, and potatoes. They sow their corn in June, and so rapid is the growth under the influence of the lengthened days that they reap the harvest in six or seven weeks afterward, and sometimes get two crops in their short season. The cultivation is restricted to the actual wants of the settlement, as the difficulty of transit precludes the possibility of a market for the surplus. Cattle and ponies, and sometimes sheep and poultry, are kept at each station, but the food of the family is limited to fish—which is dried for winter use—milk, black or rather brown fiat bread, and dried reinflesh, with an occasional change in the shape of game or wild-fowl killed on the hills or lakes. Everywhere, even in the poorest houses, the most excellent coffee is obtainable; the green berries being roasted over the fire and ground whenever a cupful or more is wanted.

In the winter, when the lakes and rivers are all frozen, and the ground is covered three or four feet deep with hard snow, the settlers go long distances on snow-shoes and in sledges, and bring up from Luleä what stores they may require. The money for such purchases is gained by winter labor in the forests, where the trees are felled and dragged to the water's edge, to be thrown in and floated down to Luleä when the ice breaks up. At this work a team of one horse and two men can earn about 40s. a week, which is considered large wages in this part of the world. The legal tariff for a boat in summer is one kronor (1s. 112d. English) for each man for seven miles, with no allowance for back fare; and a small dricks penningar, or pour-boire, added to this will make them supremely grateful, and insure the generous donor many hearty shakes of the hand.

The settlers cannot afford to be ill, as the nearest doctor lives at Luleä, almost a week's journey from Quickjock. In ordinary cases they depend on their own resources, but in any serious illness the Luleä medico is sent for and is obliged to attend, being paid a small salary of £200 a year by the Government on this condition. Midwifery is performed by women. Crimes of any kind seem to be very rare; and though every settler carries a most ugly-looking dagger-knife suspended from his belt, its use appears to be confined to purely pacific purposes. The most common offenses are against the forest regulations, and the observance of these is superintended by an officer who has his headquarters at Jockmock. On fête days, at this latter village, a patrol is selected by the Governor of Luleä from among the steadiest of the settlers, and to him the preservation of order is intrusted.

The men are physically a fine race, and are generally honest and industrious, with an air of independence and straightforwardness. Like the poorer Swedes elsewhere, they are greatly given to the use of tobacco in all forms; and besides smoking and chewing in the usual approved methods, they actually eat large quantities of snuff, helping themselves, as the Highlanders do, with a horn spoon from a box. The women have pleasant faces, with rather refined expression. There is a strong family resemblance among them, and the type consists in large gray eyes, brown hair, rather fair complexions, a free carriage, and not ungraceful figure, though with full waists and large hands and feet. The older women look worn, but never have the haggish and almost brutalized look which is not uncommon in old women in other countries who have led hard, out-door lives. The general expression of countenance is somewhat pathetic, though they seem contented with their strange, solitary, and joyless life; and we could never get any of them to confess that they would care to change it, nor even to complain of what, as it appeared to us, must be the terrible monotony and hardship of the long, dark winter. In looking at these settlements and considering the nature of the life we seemed to understand more clearly the position and circumstances of the immigrants who are gradually pushing farther and farther along the shores of the great rivers of the American Continent, and carrying into the solitudes of the immense forests of the West the proofs of Anglo-Saxon courage, endurance, and pertinacity.

At some of the stations we saw specimens of the original inhabitants of the lands within the arctic circle, in the persons of Lapp men and women of uncertain age, about four feet high, and dressed in skins, with blue conical caps on their heads. In Norway it is said that the Lapps are looked upon and treated as an inferior race, the pariahs of the North; but in Swedish Lapland there is no appearance of such distinctions. The comfort and even safety of the settlers depend so much on their good relations with their neighbors that they have remained on terms of equality and friendship. Intermarriages are not uncommon, and many of the present settlers show signs of the mixture of the races.

The population of Swedish Lapland is said to include 4,000 persons of true Lapp race, and in some districts this number is increasing. The children born in the mountains die fast, but those who remain in the villages are healthy. Provision is made for their instruction, and in common with the children of the Swedes they all learn to read and write, though, judging by the absence of books at the settlements, they reap little advantage from their instruction. The Lapps were converted to Lutheranism some hundred years ago, and are said to be strict religionists. At the present time some kind of revival is going on among them, a faint reflex of the Moody and Sankey movement in this country and America.

They depend for their living entirely upon their reindeer, which they take up into the mountains all the summer, feeding them in the villages during the winter, when the rein-moss, which is their ordinary food, is no longer obtainable in the woods. This migration is rendered necessary by the habits of the reindeer, which must be near snow to keep in health. When on their summer excursions, the Lapps live in tents made of rein-skins, lying at night round a fire in the centre, a hole being left in the roof for the passage of the smoke. Their food consists of rein-flesh, fish, and game, and they keep a pot, like the gypsies, constantly on the fire, into which are thrown all contributions in the way of edibles, which are thus stewed down together into a thick rich soup. In the winter they move about on their snow-shoes, in the management of which they are extremely adroit, shooting down the hills and in and out of the trees with immense swiftness and precision. On these shoes they hunt down both wolves and bears when these animals, which are now getting scarce, cross their path; they kill them with their spears and knives, getting a reward of fifty kronor from the Government for each head killed. The sale of spirits is strictly prohibited in Lapland, as some years ago their immoderate use was decimating the population; but kegs of branvin are still occasionally smuggled across the borders, and produced on the occasion of fêtes and holidays. The Lapps have shrewd, almost cunning faces, and, though small in stature, possess great bodily strength and endurance. Their habits are extremely dirty, and they appear never to change their clothes till they fall to pieces.

  1. From an article entitled "A Visit to Lapland, with Notes on Swedish Licensing," Fortnightly Review, December, 1876.