When I was a kid we lived in a white house by the Firth of Forth, an estuary just north of Edinburgh. The house was so close to the sea that waves would splash into the garden when it was rough. Inside one of the garden sheds was an old kayak made of thin fibre glass but I never knew who it belonged to, how it had got there and as far as I remember I was the only one whoever went kayaking.
What I didn't realise back then was the strikingly obvious fact that a kayak is a mode of transport and I could have paddled for miles along the Scottish coast, sailed under the phantasmagorical Forth Rail Bridge, instead of just messing around within sight of the house. It was only recently that I found out that some kayaks have storage capacity and people go on sea treks with them, camping on empty beaches and deserted islands.
What shocks me now is that the rest of my life could pass by without ever going in a kayak again. There are so many sports and outdoor activities to do that why would one squeeze into a kayak, wobble about on the water and risk getting plunged into freezing water when you could go sailing or cruising in a motorboat? It doesn't look like a particularly appealing sport and those big rubber suits they wear look ridiculous.
When I went to Sweden to promote the rehab clinic I work for, the last thing I expected to do was spend a Saturday afternoon kayaking around a bunch of small islands with a 16 year old called Gustav. What I also didn't know was that Stockholm is incredibly expensive: the hostel I spent my first night in cost about 50 Euro, way more than I paid in other European capitals (my next stop was Belgrade where I spent 14 Euro to spend a night in the beautiful "Hedonist Hostel").
"Come and stay on my island" said Anna Sjostrom, my host and fixer. "It's only an hour from Stockholm and you can stay at the old army base where accommodation is cheap." I imagined grim concrete buildings, a rusting metal fence and an air of abandonment - and was surprised to find a spacious park-like layout with elegant nineteenth century buildings (the old barracks) converted into flats, a busy little port and mature trees everywhere. No sign of a fence, concrete tank traps, rusty warning signs or any other accouterments of old military sites. The whole area has been bought by a property developer and is being gentrified.
My quarters were on the top floor of an old building that is being converted into elegant office spaces (solid wood floors, big old windows, spotlights). It has been turned into a minimalistic, but extremely comfortable B&B by an energetic retired policeman called Kalle Wallin. I slept like a log and the following day was served a delicious breakfast by Kalle, whose name is the same as Sweden's most popular food: Kalle's caviar in a toothpaste tube (it's salty, delicious and you can get apparently get it in any branch of IKEA).
At the back of Kalle's breakfast-room-cum-cafe is a shop selling camping gear and kayaks. His kayak-hire company is called Brygghus, which Google tells me means "brewhouse", and he tells me that he set up the B&B in order to provide accommodation for his clients who come from all over Europe to go kayaking. I asked where people go and he pointed outside to the archipelago (30,000 islands) and said "you can paddle round those islands for up to four hours". Hmmm, childhood memories are coming back...this could be interesting...
After a week in Stockholm meeting inspiring people in the addiction treatment field I had a free Saturday to indulge my childhood memories, hire a kayak and see if I could still do it. My main concern was that I was too weak, having spent far too long in front of computers and my arms would give out after an hour of paddling.
But as soon as I got over the awkward task of getting on board the wafer-thin kayak I felt like a duck in water, and I remembered other incidents from my childhood when being on rowing boats and sailing dinghies felt completely natural: I can roll in rhythm with the constant movement of the craft and am not afraid of tipping over and going under (having beaten this fear by swimming underwater in pools).
My fear of running out of puff were unfounded. Paddling is a completely natural exercise; you use your whole upper body to angle and tip the paddle into the water, pull a little and then out and over to the other side. It is as effortless as walking and I kept it up for about three hours.
I was kayaking with a strapping 16 year old Swedish lad called Gustav, the son of my fixer. We passed many small islands and stopped at one for a delicious lunch of freeze-dried game stew which Gustav prepared on his camping stove. Then we explored the small, uninhabited island with a commanding view of the main sea-route into Stockholm and a series of empty bunkers. Gustav thinks it was a mistake to reduce Sweden's army by 90% after the cold war and hopes they build it up again. I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes a soldier.
We paddled on, passing a series of lovely wooden houses, gardens, children playing and all kinds of boats tied up to little piers. The islands are rocky, covered in trees and grass and the shoreline is often fringed with reeds. We cruised through all this at a good pace, never feeling tired.
Our final stop was on a tiny island, the size of a small garden. It was covered in trees, bushes and birds. Gustav got off to explore (which took about 3 minutes) and take some photos. There were two small geese standing on a rock watching us indifferently. "They are Canada Geese," yelled Gustav, "they came to Sweden only recently, in huge numbers. When lots of them land on a small island like this they kill all the vegetation as their poo is toxic to the plants here."
Gustav waved his paddle at them, then splashed them but their expression of indifference didn't change and they didn't even move. "That's the problem," he said, "they have no fear and we can't frighten them away. They just stand there when the hunters shoot them and the hunters end up feeling guilty as it's not a sport anymore."
The sea had been remarkably calm for most of the 4 hour journey but during the last 20 minutes the wind whipped up the waves and we rode them into our landing beach feeling like surfers. When we got out of the kayaks we were laughing but also staggering about the beach as if drunk; it takes a while to recover your balance. For a while you feel like an old man who can hardly walk, but you also feel euphoric and lightheaded.
I hope to go back to Sweden, with a tent and my kids, to continue my exploration of the islands. Thank you Anna, my fixer-extraordinaire, Gustav, and Kalle the enthusiastic-ex-policeman-kayaking-guru. See you all soon.
This article was also published on my new travel blog.