My adventure began in the Ryanair boarding queue at Stansted Airport.
I stood up on my tiptoes, alert as a meerkat, trying to identify a mysterious 'Jacob' in a snaking throng bound for Stockholm. Jacob was the photographer set to accompany me on an adventure travel assignment for Suitcase magazine. We'd not yet met, but for the next five days, we'd be sharing a tent and a kayak, sole companions on a self-guided expedition around the St Anna archipelago.
I hoped he was nice. I hoped I was nice.
As a writer specialising in adventure travel, I've been spoiled with blockbuster, blow-the-budget trips: gorilla-tracking in Uganda; driving ice roads in the Canadian Arctic; learning to kite-surf in Mauritius. My travel book, Departures, was a guide to letting go, one adventure at a time. But I'd never been on one as stripped-back as this.
I'd also left my iPhone behind. Standing in the queue with the tiniest of backpacks (a meagre allowance designed to fit the bulkhead of a kayak), I realised the adventure had already begun. My pulse had quickened. I'd been stripped of my usual props, crutches and comforts. It was up to me to make a go of things.
Eventually Jacob and I clocked each other, and joined together in the queue, doing our best impersonations of nice normal people that anyone would love to spend five days and five nights alone with. Our trip was organised by Swedish outfit Do The North, run by Thomas and Helena. Thomas, an impossibly wholesome-looking sporty Swede, picked us up from Norrköping (the nearest town to Skavsta Airport) and drove the one-hour journey to the jetty.
"In Sweden, we have something called the 'allemansrätten' ('everyman's right')," Thomas explained, "a right of access that allows walking, biking or camping except in the immediate vicinity of a building. This means you can moor on any island you like in the archipelago and camp there."
As we passed medieval Swedish villages, stopping once at a local supermarket to pick up groceries we'd ordered online, I pulled out a pen and paper and asked him to recommend his favourite islands, determined not to miss a belter. "Well, there are 6,000 of them," he sighed. I quietly put my notebook away. Plainly, I was meant to let go of any FOMO, any fixed plans, any agenda, and just take each passing hour, and island, as it came.
Before we set off, Thomas made sure we knew one end of a kayak from the other, and showed us how to use our camping equipment, including an €800 Hilleberg tent that has ruined other tents for me forever. We'd be living the simple life, but in swish, Scandinavian style - a far cry from the damp 1980s tents I spent much of my family holidays in as a child on the shores of Lough Erne. Jacob and I loaded our groceries, and tried to get to grips with our map and compass. Thomas handed us a Nokia 'burner' phone, so we could check in with our co-ordinates daily, and in case of emergencies, and pushed us into the water.
"See you in five days," he shouted, cheerfully.
I didn't know it then, but this would be the trip that changed how I saw adventure, that convinced me it didn't necessarily require thousands of euros, long-haul flights, weeks of training, exotic wildlife encounters or high-tech equipment. Somehow, this €689 paddling and camping expedition would sink deeper into my psyche than other trips, and I've been drawing on the memories now, during these strange days of lockdowns, travel bans, grounded planes, shuttered hotels and social distancing.
At Stansted, Jacob and I had waved goodbye to the distractions of city life, digital technology, other people, pubs, restaurants and music, things I thought I relied on for happiness. But we were presented with a week in the wilderness, new companionship, campfires, swimming, cooking and exploring. Five days paddling the St Anna archipelago would teach me that sometimes the most rewarding adventures rely on the simplest of pleasures, and involve doing a lot with a little.
Thrilling as it was to know we were going solo - socially-distanced travel in action, I suppose - our excitement never gave way to fear. The 70km stretch of Baltic coast comprising the St Anna archipelago is ideal for sea paddling, with those 6,000 islands closely clustered together to offer plenty of shelter and a varied landscape. We felt perfectly safe - which was lucky, as we really were having to figure stuff out as we went.
During our first hour at sea, we spotted an island signposted 'Kabel' and scoured the map in vain. Then I noticed a few other 'Kabel' islands, and it hit me that 'Kabel' is the warning sign for underwater power cables. It's not a real adventure without a few face-palm moments.
The St Anna archipelago was created almost two billion years ago, when a thick ice layer of the last Ice Age melted, revealing a dramatic glacial landscape of smooth granite rock formations and tiny gneiss islands in the Baltic Sea. Its inner islands are large and forested, and we paddled down straits and narrow passages between them, watching this beautiful scenery slide past. By contrast, the outer archipelago is the preserve of grey seals and coastal birds, a smattering of small, barren rocky skerries in the open sea.
Thomas had bemoaned the fact that most young Stockholm dwellers flock to islands in Thailand and other exotic locations, overlooking these treasures in their backyard, dismissing them as the preserve of retirees and fishermen. What this meant, though, is that Jacob and I felt like we had the entire archipelago to ourselves, the freedom to choose an island on a whim and make it our home for the night, or simply a place to bask in the sunshine and sip stovetop coffee for a few hours.
On our first night, we couldn't quite believe we were permitted to choose an island at random and make it our own. Pulling our kayak onto the rocks of a homely-looking little island, the silence, solitude and sheer beauty of the sunset - at a languorous 10pm - worked its magic on our souls. I'd never call myself a domestic goddess, but I learned that I love cooking… provided my kitchen is outdoors. I even got a kick out of the washing up, because it involved scouring plates with a fistful of kelp at the water's edge. I make quite a good cavewoman.
Though I'd left my smartphone at home, Jacob had his - and was rarely without a 4G signal. We made a pact just to flick it on, over breakfast, for 'one Google a day'.
Every morning, I asked the oracle big questions that had bothered me the day before. Q: Is my Aeropress coffee filter made by the same people who make Aerobie frisbees? (A: Yes.) Q: Did Ireland vote to repeal the 8th? (A: YES.) Q: What's with the rust-red hues of virtually all Swedish houses? (A: So-called Falu red was originally used to mimic European redbrick architecture, was discovered to have weatherproofing qualities, became ubiquitous, and now, mainly, it's a pain to paint over.) Our system worked: these slivers of information felt welcome, satisfying and nourishing, never overwhelming.
As the days drifted by, we sank further into our simple, streamlined and slo-mo regime of basic tasks and simple pleasures like cooking, building shelter, splashing around in the water, basking in the sun, and drinking Schnapps as the sun went down. The brackish water was the perfect temperature for swimming, and St Anna is blessed by Sweden's highest numbers of sunny days. It felt like the archipelago was designed specifically with our pleasure and comfort in mind.
Without clutter, we cherished what we had: delicious, if simple, food, comfortable sleeping bags, and each other. It turns out Jacob was nice (and I think I was too). A plucky, upbeat travel companion is a precious thing indeed.
By our final night, I felt like I could live this way forever. And the feeling is one I draw on today, with travel looking dramatically different for the foreseeable future. Because in Sweden I learned that adventure can be about slowing down, rediscovering what we have in our own backyards, embracing the small freedoms we do have, escaping into pockets of wilderness, and cherishing the family and friends we have close by.
How to do it
A five-day, self-guided sea-kayaking trip on the Swedish archipelago with Do The North starts from €689 per person, including transfers and all equipment, but excluding groceries and flights to Sweden. dothenorth.com
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A sole bagpiper played a lament on the lighthouse rock. What else would you expect at the end of the world? At his feet was a tapestry of Celtic nation flags… Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Breton, and his native Galician.