Two planks and a passion

Ski in Swedish Lapland

Photo: Jaanus Ree

Text: Håkan Stenlund

Skiing is as much part of the Arctic lifestyle as northern lights, thermal underwear, and coarsely-ground coffee. The oldest ever pair of skis were found in a marsh in Kalvträsk. In Swedish Lapland people have skied since long before pyramids were built in Egypt. This is the story of two planks and a passion.

Somewhere past the Kanonmyren marsh at Pagla, almost in Vittjärv, it starts sloping downhill again. This is welcome. The track is solid, and my skis accelerate down the winding slope. It is April, and the tracks are frozen after the cold night. It is the time of year when skiing is at its easiest, when you get the longest glide per effort. The Sami, who have several hundred words for snow and skiing conditions, call the snow crust ‘tjarvva’. More than a crust, it is a solid layer stable enough to carry an elk. Tjarvva is excellent when you are moving reindeer. But the night-old cold here on Pagla has turned the ski track into a railway track as well. In the past more than today, the snow and frozen landscape were the highway of the times. People transported themselves and their belongings in winter. The hill down from Kanonmyren is a kind of roller coaster powered by me. It makes my stomach tickle on bends and over crests, but it is not always like this. Skiing is a sport and a pastime very much associated with weather. Sometimes the weather is nicer than other times, and this shapes the conditions. When the Swedish skiing championships were held here at Pagla in 1933, it was freezing cold. At the start it was minus 37 degrees Celsius. When the winner, John Lindgren, finished, it was minus 25. The times were different back then, perhaps harsher. At least conditions are harsh at minus 37.

Skiing is a sport and a pastime very much associated with weather and the conditions of the snow. Photo: Ted Logart.
In April the tracks are often frozen after the cold nights, and it's this time of year when you get the longest glide per effort. Photo: Michael Nordh.
The Sami, who have several hundred words for snow and skiing conditions, call the snow crust ‘tjarvva’. Photo: Ted Logart.

The mythology

Night outside Jokkmokk. The sky extends above the trail for the Nordenskiöld race and the Milky Way just hangs there, in the heavens. Among the Ostyaks in Siberia there is a myth about the god Tunk-Pox, who once went out hunting. The hunt raged across the sky, and the chased animal jumped down to Earth. When Tunk-Pox followed, it so happened that he broke one of his skis and had to finish the hunt on just the one ski. The moral here is that even for a divine skier, things can go wrong. If you study the Milky Way, you can see how it begins as two ski tracks across the sky, then they merge into a single one. Skis have featured in written history for a long time, and in myths even longer than that. The first skiers are found in cave paintings in the Altai mountains, in Inner Mongolia; then they show up on rock carvings and rune paintings in Scandinavia. The Finnish marshlands have been good at preserving skis, but even older than those skis are the ones found at Vis, in Russia. But the oldest and best were actually found outside of Skellefteå, in Kalvträsk. Three old men – our Josef, our Hugo and our Tyko – were digging ditches in a swamp when they found this pair of skis. They thought it was a bit funny, so they were extra careful as they dug out the skis and brought them home to a barn in Fäbodtjälen. They were left there until forest manager Högdahl from Robertsfors made sure they ended up at Västerbottens Museum, as inventory number B 1377.

Skiers delight

The Kalvträsk ski

Pollen analysis was first used to show that the skis from Kalvträsk were around 4,000 years old. But as the carbon dating method was developed it turned out that these skis, made of the finest reaction wood, were actually 5,200 years old. This means we skied in these areas 500 years before the Pharaohs built their first pyramid. Skis also featured in the Kalevala and the Old Norse tales. The god of winter and skiing, Ullr, had a female counterpart in Skadi. The pursuit of equality was classically Scandinavian, and during winter we all had to manage the art of skiing. On a map from 1539, drawn by the exiled archbishop Olaus Magnus – the so-called Carta Marina – three people are depicted out hunting in the northernmost part of Europe. What is a bit special is that one of them is a woman. The effect this had was that the bishop had to make a later addition just in order to clarify that there were indeed women in the north who stayed at home by the stove too, not all women were out skiing.

The oldest ski in the world

In 1923 three men, while digging a ditch in a bog, stumbled upon what turned out to be the oldest pair of skis in the world – 5200 years.  This happened in the village of Kalvträsk, inhabiting some 30 people, and in some way now known as the cradle of cross-country skiing and the original Scandinavian design.

Check out White mountain lodge

In the small village Kalvträsk, inhabiting no more than 30 people, some enthusiasts still use replicas of the Kalvträsk ski. Photo: Ted Logart.

Back in the days

The good archbishop Olaus Magnus had ended up in Trentino in Italy after Sweden left the Catholic church as a result of Gustaf Vasa and his Reformation. The illustrious Gustav has actually played his own part in Swedish skiing history: the 90-kilometre Vasaloppet (Vasa Race) turns 100 years very soon and is held in his honour. But anyway, Olaus Magnus was sat in Trentino reminiscing of his former homeland. In 1555 he wrote the masterpiece Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus – An Account of the Northern People. The 800-page volume immediately became a bestseller and was translated from Latin to Italian. Olaus Magnus’s image of the north was far from the usual story about the wild people, or the wilderness. Olaus was a well-travelled man. He was one of the first to point out the wonders and beauty of the cold season, when the entire landscape suddenly became accessible. He remembered the frost forming on cold surfaces and how people in the northern regions often used these patterns for their Sunday best, and for knitting patterns. Olaus Magnus was careful to point out – perhaps even idolize – the way these northern people lived their lives connected to nature. He was also the first to write about the love of competing on skis. Something we will come back to. Olaus Magnus was followed by others. Catholic priest Francesco Negri might have found his inspiration in Olaus Magnus’s stories, and the fact that Queen Christina became a Catholic and abdicated had given the pope’s spies a little hope. Francesco Negri travelled all the way to the Torne Valley, where the Sami taught him how to ski. Negri was actually the first person outside the skiing culture to write about how he learnt to ski. This esteemed priest was in other words the world’s first documented ski school participant, learning how to ski in the Torne Valley. Francesco Negri was the one to introduce the word for skis in Italian.

Getting competitive

Competing, sizing up our strengths against others, seems to be part of our human DNA, and doing so on skis is no exception. As mentioned, myths and travelogues from the north have described this. But it did not become a formalised sport until the 18th century, and it happened during a military exercise. General Carl Schack Rantzau commanded the Norwegian army, and as you might have guessed, skis were something that the Norwegian military mastered best of all. But Rantzau wanted them to become even better, and to succeed in his mission he resorted to the usual old trick: prize money. In July 1767 he announced the rules the Norwegian military competition, and divided it into four classes: ski and shoot; ski as fast as possible downhill through a sparse forest; ski as fast as possible down a bare mountain and, lastly, ski as fast as possible for a distance of two and a half kilometres. We might go as far as to say that Rantzau in July 1767 more or less set the rules for today’s winter sports biathlon, slalom, downhill and sprint. For civilian skiers, however, it would take a while longer for skiing to become a winter sport. In March 1843 an ad appeared in the local newspaper Tromsö-Tidene. A ski competition was announced from the town square to the well on farmer Ebeltoft’s homestead – which was on the other side of the island – and then back. It was the world’s first civilian ski competition. The event was created by priest and newspaper editor Otto Theodor Krogh. Otto Theodor was commonly known as Little Theodor, simply because he was such a large man. A bit like Greenland being covered in ice, if you know what I mean.

The first Swedish ski competition took place on April 3, 1884 in Jokkmokk. These days it is known as Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet... Photo: Magnus Östh.
... and known for being the world’s longest race on skis. Photo: Adam Klingeteg/Redbull.
The race is 220 kilometers long and takes place above the Arctic Circle. Photo: Magnus Östh.


The first Swedish ski competition took place on April 3, 1884 in Jokkmokk. These days it is known as Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet, and it is still the world’s longest ski race: 220 km. From Purkijaur to Kvikkjokk and back. That first race came about because Baron Nordenskiöld needed his honour kept intact. He had written in his journals from the Swedish Greenland Expedition in 1883 that the two Sami men Pavva Lars Nilsson Tuorda and Anders Pavasson Rassa from Jokkmokk had travelled 460 km in 57 hours during Nordenskiöld’s Greenland Expedition. To the public, this had sounded a bit too good to be true and the Sami as well as Nordenskiöld were made out to be liars. To prove his honour, a ski competition was arranged. 220 km long, joint start and with real prize money in the pot. The race turned out to be a competition between three men: one of them the already mentioned Tuorda, and the other two were Per Olof Länta and Apmut Andersson Ahrman. Those three were in front of the others for more than half the race. A few kilometres from the end, Apmut Andersson Ahrman, who is described as a poor settler in great need of money, decided to go for some liquid encouragement in the form of some akvavit he had brought. But the alcohol had a less-than-ideal effect on him and his legs: he fell asleep. Thankfully he woke up before anyone caught up with him, so he was able to finish the race some ten minutes after the winner, Tuorda. Pavva Lars Nilsson Tuorda had won the first ski race in Sweden, which is now the longest in the world. He won it after a sprint duel, which is still often the case. Only seconds before Länta. Andersson Ahrman ended up with the prize money for his third place, and then he had to ski for 90 kilometres to get back home. When he returned, his wife scolded him for having left in the first place; while he was away a bear had torn their fence down and killed their cow. Apmut Andersson Ahrman put his skis back on, tracked the bear for 50 km, and shot it. They say that the bounty, plus the money for his third place in the race, was enough for Ahrman and his family to start a new life, and that he and his wife got a good life because of it. So at least he had something to show for those 500 km on skis, which includes transfer, competition, and a bear hunt, all during just a couple of days.

A hotel manager on the run

Camp Ripan in Kiruna started as a camping site for the summer. But under the ownership of the Lind family, it has become an award-winning spa hotel with a state of the art kitchen and sustainable thinking. And all of it boils down to the people behind it. This is Frida Lind Oja, a hotel owner on the run.

Nordenskiöldsloppet is one of the most physical things you can do in Swedish Lapland. Photo: Adam Klingeteg.

A means of transportation

Skiing far was hardly something unusual in the north. As stated, the frozen land became a highway compared to the winding paths of summer. When lakes and marshland froze, they turned into shortcuts instead of detours. Elementary school teacher Elin Pikkuniemi from the Torne Valley lived in Vitsaniemi (one of the coolest hotel projects in the Torne Valley – Arthotel – is located here, by the way) and was Sweden’s first skiing queen. When Swedish Championships in cross-country skiing started to be organised after the First World War, Elin won five straight gold medals in the 10-km event, between 1918 and 1922. She had a sister who lived on the island Seskarö in the archipelago, 40 km one way, and Elin used to go by ski to visit her. The two sisters would meet and chat for a couple of hours, drinking coffee, before Elin donned her skis to glide back home. When the Swedish Championships were held in Boden in 1921, Elin was very happy about not having to buy expensive tickets to get there. Instead, she travelled the 100 km on skis. After she had won the competition, she went home and went about her life. Elin was our first skiing queen. Women on skis have always stood out, ever since that map Olaus Magnus drew back in the day. When the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and the Swedish Sports Confederation celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1953 a vote was arranged where more than 5,000 people voted for various athletes. Elementary school teacher Elin Pikkuniemi from the Torne Valley was the only woman who made it onto the list.

For centuries skiing has been a trusted way to get around in this parts of the world. Photo: Håkan Stenlund.

Excellents skiers of the north

In almost every village and every community there is a story about someone who was an excellent skier. Kiruna has its Kiruna-Lasse, Jukkasjärvi had Christer Majbäck. Charlotte Kalla is of course always associated with Tärendö, and Sven-Åke Lundbäck – the one who has a hill in Vasaloppet named after him – with Luleå. Gällivare with its Hellner Stadium is associated with a ski high school which year after year gives young talents the opportunity to become world stars. In Arjeplog there was Johan Abram Persson, winner of Vasaloppet in 1929. A reporter from the newspaper Stockholms-Tidningen was absolutely star struck when he met Johan Abram.

“In front of me is the hero of the day… Persson stands there as if he were transported straight from the big forest. He looks like a wolf, but a kind, open and sympathetic wolf… If only I could imitate his song, because his speech is a song. He tells me he was more or less sent off to Mora. He did not want to, had never dreamed of participating in a big race such as this. ‘Never would I have thought that prize could be mine’, he sang, and his rough, callused hands wiped a glistening tear of joy from his wolf-like eyes.” Johan Abram Persson had first skied from his home in Arjeplog to Jörn, just over 200 km, then took the train to the start of Vasaloppet, which he won in passing before taking the train back to Jörn, where he strapped on his skis and went home, 200 km through a forest without tracks. No wonder his hands were calloused.

Wheater it's a 220 kilometers endurance race or a gentle wind in your hair during a effortless glide, skiing is a part of our DNA. Photo: Adam Klingeteg

A skiing destination

Today it is a bit easier. Skiing 200 km without a track is no longer necessary. In Swedish Lapland there are perfect ski trails – illuminated municipal tracks in the name of public health, or private initiatives – in almost every village that has electricity. An illuminated track to educate the skiers of the future and keep the population in good spirits. Here in Boden, at Pagla, is where Sven Utterström used to train. He was known as ‘Uttern’ – the otter. He won Vasaloppet in 1925, which was in fact the first to be broadcast live on radio. But when Sven Jerring, the Swedish iconic radio voice, tried to ask Uttern what it felt like to win, the Boden native replied kindly, but firmly, that he was there to ski, not to chit chat on radio. Sven interviewed the runner-up of the race instead, John Lindgren, about what it felt like not to win. I am thinking about Uttern now at Pagla. I wonder if he would have been happy with this miserable ski wax that is making me go backwards, or if he would have gone home, cooked up a batch of new wax and then sold it under his own trademark ‘Sven Utterström’s Wax’. Perhaps he, or his trademark, could have benefited from a radio interview? But Uttern, or any of the other skiing heroes of the times, were not interested in having that kind of presence. The skier who finished second and got the radio interview was John Teofron Lindgren. He made ski wax under the trademark Ex-elit, which still exists today, and he was not an incompetent skier either. He won a gold medal in the World Championships in 1927. It was the 50-km event, and John Lindgren won it by 18 minutes – the largest ever victory margin in a World Championship race. After that, he was known as ‘the Eagle of the Alps’ even though he was from Västerbotten. He actually gave the Olympics in Chamonix in 1924 a miss, because he “had to prepare for the District Championships”. Sometimes it is as simple as that: the ski tracks at home are made for skiing. Not to participate in the Olympics, or anything else. Well, unless the entire landscape freezes and provides a surface that can carry an elk – then skiing is meant for new discoveries.

Footnote: The title is borrowed from Ronald Huntford’s book “Two Planks and a Passion – the Dramatic Story of Skiing”. A truly amazing book for those interested in history. 

Extreme races in winter in Swedish Lapland

Lapland Arctic Ultra

The Montane Lapland Arctic Ultra takes place on snowmobile trails in Swedish Lapland. Start and finish is in the small town of Överkalix, in the Swedish province of Norrbotten.

The 185 km racers will go in a loop from Överkalix to the north and then back again to Överkalix, crossing the Arctic Circle twice. The 500 km racers will then go on a second and different loop of 315 km, again, heading north and then coming back to Överkalix. On both race distances the athletes will travel on rivers, lakes and through forests.

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Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet takes place in Jokkmokk, Swedish Lapland. With its 220km’s long track the race takes the spot of the world’s longest classical ski race. With history dating back from 1884 it is also one of the oldest organized races in the world.

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