The closeness to the sea permeates Luleå. The city centre lies on a peninsula and the old crane in the southern harbour reminds us of the city’s shipping history.
The fact that we, here at a latitude of 66 degrees north are a seafaring people might seem strange, considering our short summers. Or is that precisely why we have decided to make the very most of the light summer nights? That is probably the case. However, winter actually makes the sea even more accessible. The hard ice covering the water enables us to drive to some of the islands by car. Quick and safe if you feel like leaving the city for a while for a waffle at Hindersön, well within the comfort zone.
I don’t like cars. I enjoy leaving my comfort zone, preferably on a bike. During the summer months, cycling is my everyday oasis and three years ago the fatbike was introduced, this marvellous bike that turns winter into the real cycling season.
Invented for the Alaskan wilderness with five inch tyres that carry you over the snow. Suddenly, a whole new world appears, along the thousands of snowmobile tracks that span the vistas. My good cycling buddy, Kevin, from England has traded his alpine vacations for coming to Luleå and cycling on the sea ice. Something which is actually unique to the archipelago of the Gulf of Bothnia. After a couple of warm winters which restricted us to the inner archipelago because of weak ice, it was finally time to leave that comfort zone and go on a little adventure. Our goal was to cycle thirty kilometres straight out over the sea, to the island Brändöskär, the final outpost before Finland. Probably something that had never been done before.
Brändöskär is a breathtakingly beautiful island in the outer rim of the archipelago. One of the islands that bustles with life and commotion during the summer. Both leisure boats and tour boats come here. The old boat sheds surround the guest harbour and there are several cottages owned and operated by the local council. What many people do not know is that these cottages can also be rented in winter as well. Our little adventure begins at the Tourist Information Centre where we get the key for the cottage “Harren”, where we are to spend the night. We then head out to Hindersöstallarna, the little small boat harbour on the mainland that is our starting point. We fill our tyres with air as the first leg of the journey out to Hindersön follows the ploughed car road.
Even though I’ve cycled here innumerable times, it is a fantastic feeling. Like an airport landing strip, the road wends its way out across the sea.
About halfway there is a crossroads, with signs and everything. Go right if you want to get to Storbrändön. Kevin is waxing lyrical and says that no one will believe him back home. “Road signs on the ice? This is just nuts”, he exclaims as the camera shutter clicks.
The ice road takes us to Hindersön, where there are still permanent residents. There are farms here, as well as the old Jopikgården with its restaurant and hostel. The car road continues across the island, eventually leading to Björkögärdsviken, the harbour where the tour boat arrives in summer. The sun shines softly through a light cloud cover and we eat lunch on the pier. From here on out we will be going along a snowmobile trail. The last few days have been windy with showers of wet snow and we’re not sure what conditions are going to be like. When we went for a preliminary check a few days earlier there was a wide, cleared track but this has literally blown away and a new, narrow track winds along the trail, marked with red crosses. Once again, we need to adjust tyre pressures. The large air chambers of the bike tyres provide a tremendous stability on softer surfaces and it probably doesn’t get any softer than this. Slowly, we progress. We pass north of the island of Degerön, heading for the strait between Estersön and Uddskär. The sea is a strange place in winter.
Like a salt flat, white vistas extend in all directions. The knowledge of the abyss below, coupled with the complete silence that surrounds us, makes biking on the ice something of a strange mixture between canoeing and touring on skis, but on bikes instead.
After a few breaks to re-energise and take pictures, we are nearing our goal. Snowmobiles are prohibited on Brändöskär, so we travel via the strait towards the outer edge of the island in order to avoid cycling on land as much as possible. After a while, we turn away from the beach and travel through the forest to reach the old fishing camp in the harbour. It is wonderful to see the boat sheds in their winter shrouds.
I have visited this island in summer, many times. Often sailing my family’s archipelago cruiser. Maybe that’s why I enjoy cycling. Getting to places without a motor, carried by the wind or pedalling with only the rattling of the bike chain to break the silence.
We quickly find Harren. The cottage has neither electricity nor running water. There is some chopped up firewood in the firewood basket and in no time, we have a fire crackling in the stove. We have brought a couple of litres of water in our backpacks, however, we quickly begin Operation Snowmelt. The cottages are equipped with gas stoves and we make pork pasta for dinner, by the light of our head torches. Tired after 27 kilometres along soft snowmobile trails, we spend our last energy on chopping wood – we need to keep the stove warm overnight.
Early next morning, my phone buzzes with good luck wishes and comments about the fantastic weather. Apparently, the sun is shining on the mainland. I look outside and I can only see for about 50 metres ahead. We had planned to go to the pack ice outside Brändöskär. In light of the limited visibility we decide not to go there. Kevin, already nervous about being out on the frozen sea, lets out a small sigh of relief. We make coffee and have egg sandwiches for breakfast. The fog clears slightly as we clear up the cottage before departure. The cold during the night has made the snowmobile trail harder. Places where we trod through to some water yesterday are now nicely frozen. Out on the sea, the only things guiding our way are the red crosses along the snowmobile trail. Sometimes, you will experience what is known as whiteout, where everything you see is white and you lose your balance.
The whiteout on the sea is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We travel as though in a vacuum, as if we were surrounded by clouds. The horizon and the ice blend together completely. Sure, I prefer spring sunshine, but this is almost as beautiful. The thermometer shows seven degrees below zero and the moisture in the air makes the spokes look like pipe-cleaners. Covered in ice crystals we roll the last bit towards the mainland. The sun joins us for a few kilometres before we reach the parking lot at the small boat harbour. We’re happy to have done what no one has done before us, cycle to Brändöskär. Two years ago, we were the first to bike around Sandgrynnorna. That time it was summer. When we’re back in the city, we return the key at the Tourist Information Center. I drop Kevin off at his hotel and ten minutes later I arrive at the kindergarten to pick up my kids. The contrast with everyday life is absolute and the fact that I live somewhere where I can have an adventure like this and still be home to pick up my kids, fills me with gratitude.
Ice cycling checklist
- Fatbike, the large tyres make life as a snowmobile trail cyclist so much easier
- A dry change of clothes
- A phone with an extra battery or charger
- Warm footwear and gloves
- A bike pump, tools, a backup inner tube
- A headlamp and a flashlight
- Ice nails, lifeline, ice pick
- Map or nautical chart
- Easily accessible extra energy
- If possible, a guide
- A camera
- Other things to consider
- Check the weather forecast
- Check the ice conditions
- Don’t go alone
- Tell people where you’re going
Text and pictures: Olov Stenlund, blogging bike nerd who lives life year round in Luleå.