An unorthodox route - The Middle of Sweden - CycleBlaze

July 22, 2017

An unorthodox route

Gota canal to Karlskoga

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With my exhaustion and consumption the previous day, I did not make an early start. But the weather remained fine: cloudless skies, still and warm - and following a further breakfast of halloumi I felt remarkably good, and resolved to complete the transit of the great lakes today. Whether I planned to go West and head into Norway, or continue North into central Sweden, I needed to reach the Northern edge of Vänern. If I did intend to head North, then there was significant ground to cover: lake Siljan was another two days of full peddling North of Vänern. My aim was to get somewhere beyond Karlskoga, the last large town on this side of the lake.

By my estimates I made this solid 70 miles, so was prepared for another long day. Studying the map I realised I had another problem, though. At this point, the bridge of land separating Vänern and Vättern narrows to about 30km, and is punctuated with large lakes. Because of this, North-South traffic is concentrated on a handful of major roads: the 26 running up the East shore of Vänern, and the E20 running North-East towards Stockholm. The remainder of the spit of land is occupied by the huge forested national park of Tiveden. If I wanted to avoid cycling on a major road - and following my experience the previous day I did - I would need to make my way through the a good 15K of forest trails.

There is always a boat called "hakuna matata"
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The Gota canal connects the two great lakes Vänern and Vättern
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I found the road out of the campsite, and headed North on the minor road to Töreboda. After my highly agreeable forest-road experiences of the evening before I was almost too keen to jump back into the forest, and took a shortcut off a perfectly quiet road. It turned out to be rather sandy and loose - deep in the woods someone had attempted to drive a car down there, overturned it, and left it in the forest.

That's going to buff right out
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In this way I bypassed Töreboda, cutting through a series of forest lanes to the East. My aim was to set off into Tiveden from the small village of Älgarås: according to my map, I could work my way East into the forest from there, and then cut North all the way to Gårdsjö, where I could rejoin a quiet road to take me North. I had to take care: if I accidentally continued to the East, the trail continued for a good 10km deep into the park and an area untroubled by roads.

Amazing old wooden house
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The Swedes are rather good at public art - this was in the little village of Älgarås, I think
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I passed the distinctive landmarks of Älgarås, and after blindly pushing to the East through the houses skirting the village, I found the road leading out to the forest with remarkable ease. There wasn't any signage to speak of (at least not to places I recognised on my map), but the direction looked good and I was ready for more forest trails.

Entering Tivedens - I wasn't to emerge for a good hour...
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Very soon the village road petered out, and I found myself on ideal compacted mud forest trails. I merrily worked my way East over the next half an hour, enjoying the sun in the trees and not seeing a soul. But navigation soon became a problem: it was clear that my map, good as it was, couldn't capture the constantly branching and rejoining tracks. I had some success with tricky decision by taking bearings with my compass, and this got me round the North side of the two small lakes that I could identify on the map; but nevertheless I found myself being drawn to the South, closer to the bank of the large lake Unden and the depths of the national park.

The surface became rougher and narrower - I could continue cycling, but had to take care where it was very uneven. In general I was very pleasantly surprised by the handling of the LHT on uneven surfaces when fully loaded: as others have observed, the bike actually seems to be become more stable when it is weighed down front and back, and with the right tyres there weren't many surfaces (ok, sand was a problem) which I couldn't make some progress on.

Disconcertingly, even remote and hidden dirt roads through the forest have street names
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I spent the next hour cutting through increasingly tiny forest tracks. I wasn't particularly concerned: I could always stop any place I chose - but I still had a long way to go. It was with some relief that I popped out onto a metalled road: I was heading North, but had no real idea where I was. After a minute or so, I spotted an older couple out on bikes stopped by a small nature reserve: I jumped so quickly off mine to greet them, I was almost afraid I would unnerve them, but they were very friendly and told me to my great relief that, yes, this would lead direct to Gårdsjö. They took a real interest - and let me know a good campsite near Karlskoga that looked like a tempting target.

Navigation became much easier again from this point. I pushed out into the one-horse-town of Gårdsjö, basically a railway station and not much else, and from here it was easy to reach Finnerödja. As I cruised down an uncharacteristically long descent, I saw an uncharacteristically open little tea room set around the church, maypole and historical buildings (a lace museum, I think). I parked up my bike and rather awkwardly in my sweaty and out-of-breath state bought an ice-cream from the older women running the place. I cooled off with that, and since I'd already had a hard morning (albeit not covering many miles) decided it was time for lunch. I could also refill my water: the day was getting hot.

The charming cafe/museum where I bought ice-cream and had lunch. Those other bikes belonged to a very active Swedish family. Features typical dried-out maypole.
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Across the road was this strange enclosure, apparently a "Frisbeegolf" course. A set of rules for this, which seem to involve shooting your frisbee around the poles, was posted nearby. I didn't see anyone playing...
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I am easily amused (#2)
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Finnerödja would be my crossing point of the E20 Göteborg- Stockholm highway I had been avoiding all morning: from there, easy backroads would take me North along the remaining eastern shore of Vänern. 

Another milestone: crossing the main Stockholm-Göteborg road
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I set off and was soon travelling alongside the shore of the huge and beautiful lake of Skagern. This is (actually not quite - it's joined by another canal) an Eastern lobe of the huge Vänern - and so was my first sight of the other great lake system I had been working my way towards the last 2 days. Skagern is about 15km long, and I could just barely seen to its northern shore - this gives a sense of scale it appears tiny next to the Vänern it is connected to. 

I had merry riding all the way to Åtorp, a crossing point on the Letälven river which flows down into Skagen, from the Möckeln lake fronting Karlskoga. To save time, rather than take back roads I decided to cut through the the Orange 243 road which would take me directly to Degerfors. I pulled myself out up a surprisingly stiff climb to join the road - the terrain was definitely getting hillier - and with some trepidation joined the "main" road with 12km to Degerfors. There was a more traffic (read "some") and it was a little faster, but was actually quite pleasant and I cut through the kilometers rapidly, putting in a lot of effort to keep spinning along at a good rate with the traffic. The road followed the Letälven, and soon I came to Degerfors.

Looking out over Skagern, a sublake of Vänern
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Pretty village overlooking the Letälven river
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Entering Degerfors. At first I assumed it had something to do with Volvo - but it seems that lots of towns just have their own, distinctive, symbols.
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Karlskoga was only a 12km or so away now. My intention was to skirt the the centre of town - which is a large supply station for the forestry industry - before heading up into the hinterland to find a place to camp. Degerfors would be my last stop before camping, then, so I headed into the town and hit the local ICA and SystemB up for more cheese, bread and beer.

As I was loading up my groceries, I had the opportunity to make another cultural observation. There was a guy with a cup in front of the ICA, begging for change in a slightly sozzled way. Back home, people would probably give him a wide birth: but here, every other person seemed to say hello to him.

Feeling my last exertion now, I wove my way through Degerfors. I had quite a job finding a way to cross the Letälven (to reach the east shore of the Möckeln): the town is surprisingly hilly, and I couldn't find my way to the East. I ended up down by the stadium on the other side of the river, where a local football match had drawn a huge crowd (there were even children milling around outside watching the game). The place seems quite football-mad: I found there was even a museum of football next to the stadium.

Especially in my exhausted state, I would have liked to sit and watch some of the game, but I knew I needed to pass Karlskoga before I could call it a day. Doubling back I found the bridge over the broad Letälven, past huge waterwheels and old industrial works: where in a surprising flash I passed another fully-loaded tourer going the other way: I gave him a quick wave, and he was gone.

Local match in Degerfors draws the whole town out
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Museum of Swedish football, Degerfors
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Old industrial works crossing the now broad Letälven
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It was a pleasant ride, skirting the smaller Möckeln in the afternoon light, but I made heavy work of it: the previous day, and my hacking through the woods, was catching up with me. There were a few nice bathing spots, but nowhere I'd consider good to camp, being in such clear view of Degerfors on the south side of the lake and Karlskoga on the north.

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I soon skirted the lake and entered an area of enormous timber yards surrounding Karlskoga. The town seems to be a major loading station for lumber where the dense forests to the north meet the northern expanse of the Vänern great lake system. I saw huge amounts of logs floating and being loaded for transport, presumably back the way I had come, via Skagern and out into the great lake.

Despite my tiredness, I was cheered to cross another major highway and to see my first sign for Oslo: the main E18 motorway linking Oslo and Stockholm. It really hit me how much latitude I had gained in the last two days: I had completely traversed the great lakes from top to bottom, and was now parallel with the top of the great lakes at Karlstad, which opens the route west to Norway, and at the same latitude as Stockholm. 

I often remember crossing major highways, even on short trips, as significant. They almost act like impassable natural barriers to the touring cyclist: you certainly don't want to ride on them, and need to find the best crossing points to get past them. Looking at the map to plan my route, it's rivers followed by major highways which I look to first as the barriers to overcome. Really I should be considering mountains - but more of that later.

The first sign indicating Oslo! Crossing the E18 Oslo-Stockholm highway at Karlskoga
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I quickly left Karlskoga and found the back road continuing to the North. It was a long, hard pull out of the basin of lake Möckeln and up into the forested hinterland. My original plan had been to put a good 15km behind me before I camped, but my fatigue suggested that wasn't a good idea. Instead, there seemed to be an admirably huge expanse of forest crossed only by tracks to the North-East of Karlskoga: the Kilsbergen, stretching to the Garphyttans national park. This I aimed for.

It was an idyllic evening again: still and warm. The tiny villages I passed were very quiet, though there were a couple of people in the fields, apparently diligently brushing down individual sheep. At Sibberboda a promising track headed East into the forest, so I took it and was soon plunged into very deep and dark pine forest.

I still wanted to find somewhere picturesque to camp: it's amazing how much this drove me on even when exhausted - and kept plugging to the east, looking for the largish lake that the map indicated. The rather foreboding forest was not particularly inviting, and became less so, when on one side of the road "no photograph" signs started to appear. What could this mean?

In the loneliness of the woods my tiredness soon got the better of me, and I simply pulled into the next little path. To my surprise this lead to a mysterious wooden structure, and what I can only describe as a hut-on-wheels. I was too exhausted to care, and set about making some coffee and consuming some crisps, while picking a campsite.

Twenty minutes later I was much revived, and decided to take a closer look and see if there was a better (or at least less eerie) place to camp. I unloaded the bike, went half a kilometre further downhill, and found a relatively open meadow floored with moss and blueberries. I left my fleece flying from a branch as a marker, and collected my stuff.

Mystery wooden structure
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Hut on wheels - for hunters? I peered in the window, and they had quite a few creature comforts in there...
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Dragging my bike off the dirt track and into the clearing, I had a bit of a challenge pitching the tent on the resilient moss (the pegs just slid right out!), but realised it would be a very well cushioned and drained surface to sleep on. I lit the mosquito coils - they were biting again now - and cooked a very simple meal again of Halloumi. With a little olive oil from the tiny drum I was carrying and some chilli flakes it made a pretty tasty and fool-proof meal.

As I ate and the light slowly dimmed, I studied the map, and the silence of the dense forest settled around. It really was the quietest place I have ever slept: usually in the woods back at home, there are always little sounds of twigs falling, birds or critters scurrying around in the undergrowth. In the pine forest of Karlskoga, not an animal stirred, and the softly padded floor of moss and pine needles seemed to absorb any sound. I could hear my own heartbeat, and that was all. On more than one occasion, I jumped at a tiny sounds that I had made - breaking a stick - thinking a bear was just to emerge from the trees.

Studying the map didn't help this eerie impression. There was a rather subtle dotted red line near where I was - on consulting the key, it seemed to indicate the edge of a gigantic military area spreading NE of Karlskoga. This must have explained the signs forbidding photography: fortunately I had turned off to the North, and so seemed to be out of it. I could however see a gigantic mast, away to the east and quite away from civilization, which I presume had something to do with it. I didn't photograph that!

My final camp site in the quiestest clearing I have ever slept in.
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Today's ride: 75 miles (121 km)
Total: 445 miles (716 km)

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