The Scandinavian Arctic is a pristine region. Snow covers the land for more than half the year, and the short summer season is eagerly greeted by local nature lovers and abundant wild flowers. A few hours inland from the Luleå Archipelago are the Lapland lakes, a vast area that has been scored by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago.
In winter the landscape is covered in snow and the lakes are frozen. Reindeer wander the edge of the forest, scratching at the soft snow to uncover remnants of edible grasses. By the middle of April each year the spring thaw turns the sheets of ice into pristine lakes. Migratory birds invade the blue skies and rich green of the Lapland forests, adding a soundtrack of squawks to the lakes. When Autumn arrives the birds head south and the water is left in silence, so still that the sound of a single gull calling overhead can be heard for miles in any direction.
Getting outdoors is not just a way of life in the north of Sweden, it's a given right. The Swedish even have a word for it, "Allemansratt", which is their way of expressing the freedom to hike through a wooded valley, pick blueberries from the forest floor or paddle across a glacial lake in search of solitude.
My local guide for exploring the Lapland lakes is Love Rynbäck, a gentle giant who is equally at home charging down the rapids in a raft as he is gliding across flat waters with his kayak. Aside from his detailed knowledge of the lakes, connecting rivers and nearby cabins Rynbäck also knows how to fire up a sauna cabin. What more would you want from a Lapland adventure guide?
Kayaks come in many shapes and sizes. For beginners the broader bottom boats offer a more stable platform while you get the hang of paddling. More advanced kayakers like a narrow hull that allows them to go faster. When hitting the glacial lakes the goal is serenity not speed. Just four hours of easy kayaking is enough to traverse 15kms of Lapland wilderness, which means lots of scenery to accompany your serenity.
Our journey takes us from the southern shores of Stora Lappsträk, up the Livas River and into Grundträsk - The Grand Laplander Lake. These water bodies are just a couple of hundreds that dot the Lapland landscape. Paddling up stream from one lake to another is gentle exercise. The current flows at a snails pace, fed only by the trickle of water from melting ice on distant mountains.
The lakes themselves are like mirrors of blue, broken only by a few puffy clouds in the distance. The water is cold when it gets to Autumn, but there are still a few water lilies growing in the shallows. They look out of place, like a tropical visitor set against a background of pine trees and reindeer. Aside from the occasional hoofed mammal camouflaged in the woods the shores are empty. A couple of log cabins are visible from the lake, painted in the same copper-red colour that all Lapland cabins are painted.
In centuries past there were copper mines here, which used the mineral and oil to coat their timber and preserve the wood against the elements. The mines have gone but the tradition remains.
With each stroke across the water you head further into wilderness. The landscape is typical of Scandinavia, a vast landscape that is tamed only by the Arctic seasons. There are no dramatic cliffs, dangerous tides or predatory animals to keep an eye for - just the plink of oars as they enter the water and push the kayaks forward. Every pine tree, cloud and ripple around the lake echos of the glacial speed with which these waters were created.
In the centre of Grundträsk is a small island with a modest stand of trees and elevated views of the surrounding geography. In summer it's skirted by a wall of aquatic reeds, so paddling through to the shore looks like trying to kayak through a jungle. The reeds yield themselves with little effort however, and we nose the kayaks firmly onto the shoreline.
Once on dry land we discover another of Rynbäck's talents, heating a frying pan and kettle over a wood fire. One of the advantages of kayaking with a local is the ability to stack an entire kitchen in the hull.
Aside from the abundant supply of reindeer meat in these parts the other favourite food of Laplanders is fresh fish. In the fast flowing sections of river they need nothing more than a net to trawl the eddies for salmon as the fish take a break from swimming against the current. Out here in the glacier lakes the preferred technique is to wait until winter, when you can walk out onto the lake and fish through a hole in the ice.
In summer the midnight sun never quite sets this close to the Arctic Circle, and on the edge of the season you still only endure a few hours of serious darkness. At the end of a day in kayaks you'll want too things. Somewhere really cosy sleep at night and a steamy hot sauna to relax the muscles.
The tradition is borrowed from the Laplandic people of Finland, and Swedish call it "Bastu". Most northerners have a log cabin in the woods that is used for weekend retreats to the outdoors, but few are built without a separate "Bastu Stuga", or sauna cabin. The requirements are basic: lots of pine timber to deck the interior, a wood fired stove to heat the hot rocks and a bucket of water to add the desired humidity when in use.
Bastu Stuga is the most fun indoors you can have in the outdoors. As you ladle the water onto hot rocks they hiss and sizzle with steam, and the relative temperature of the air rises dramatically. In many ways the sauna is more demanding on your body then paddling 15kms worth of lake.
If you're not used to spending a whole day kayaking the sauna effect is intensely rewarding. The steam and heat works into the muscles, gently warming you to the core. When you've soaked up as much warmth as the body can take the local custom is to shock your system with sudden cold. In winter you can go outside and roll about in the snow, while in summer the best option is usually a dip in the river. Some parts of Lapland even have "Bastu Flota", a floating sauna that drift out in the sea so you can jump in the salty water before returning to the steam.
"It's good for the skin, the muscles and it invigorates your whole body", Rynbäck tells me as he shakes off the ice-cold river water and immerses himself once more in the sauna cabin. This is a daily event for the locals, an occasion that doesn't require getting dressed up or even getting dressed at all. Modesty bathers are acceptable in the Bastu Stuga, but don't expect your host to wear more than a towel.
Sitting in the dim light of twilight, miles from the nearest road or town, we can peek out through a window of the Bastu Stuga and see the forest going dark. Our cabin is on the edge of a river and the cold night air is starting to bite. Steam is drifting off the water, still warm from a day basking in sunshine. Inside our sauna the steam is even more seductive, and we're looking forward to the next day of kayaks and cabins in Scandinavia.