A New Symbol
Day 1 St. Olav’s, July 16th, 24km, Sundsvall > Matfors
We cooked a breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee, then hard-boiled some eggs for snacking on the trail later. Then we packed up all our gear along with food for a couple of days, and headed out. We started walking from Sundsvall but Selånger is 10 kilometers away and is considered the actual starting point.
The morning was cool and drizzly, so we put on our pack covers. Knowing that we wouldn’t have warm, dry albergues to dry out gear at night made us feel a bit more vigilant about keeping our gear dry.
We visited the Selånger Pilgrims center and were shocked at how few pilgrims there were. It was not at all the swarming masses we had seen on the Camino. We signed the guestbook, enjoyed some hot coffee and cinnamon rolls, and selected our pilgrim symbols.
On the Camino, the pilgrim symbol is a scallop shell. Pilgrims hang the shell on their packs and it goes on to be a treasured keepsake. On St. Olav’s, the pilgrim symbol is a cross-section of wood with a St. Olav’s cross burned into it. We hung our Olav’s crosses on the opposite side of our packs from our Camino shells.
Then, we decided we were as ready as we would ever be. So we left the pilgrim center and hit the trail.
The trail markers on St. Olav’s are not as large or highly visible as the yellow shells or arrows, but the way is well marked and includes distances.
Only a few miles into our journey we saw a sign by the road welcoming pilgrims to stop for tea or coffee. We were going to just keep walking until a man came out of the house beckoning us to stop and come inside.
We obliged and he welcomed us onto his porch. He asks where we are from and we say Oklahoma, in the United States. He then placed an American flag in the stand on the table, next to the Swedish flag. His wife prepared coffee, cheese, and bread for us.
The man, Tommy, asked us for our stats—where we were from, where we were headed and if we were tent camping. We were caught off guard by the onslaught of questions and warm hospitality.
After he took down our information, Tommy showed the stats on every pilgrim that came by his place for the last 5 years. He had collected and compiled it all himself. He also has pictures of every pilgrim, holding their country’s flag in front of his house.
He told us that he only had one other American come through that season, and the numbers were always very low. What a treat for us to be in such a minority! We asked him if he had ever completed St. Olav’s and he said yes, 4 times by bike.
He showed us his map on which he had made notes and let us take pictures on our phones. Camping spots, swimming beaches, grocery stores, and any other thing a pilgrim traveling on foot might need.
We had stumbled upon the fount of St. Olav’s knowledge. What luck. Even better, the pictures we took weighed nothing.
We took a picture with the American flag for the scrapbook and then we took one of Tommy holding the Swedish flag. He gave us a pen with his name and address on it and I promised to send him a postcard from Oklahoma when we get back.
We thanked him and his wife profusely for their kindness and went on our way.
As excited as we were for this pilgrimage, we really had no expectations of the hospitality of the people here. Americans tend to think of Scandinavians as cold and standoffish, not open and friendly. We certainly weren’t expecting to be welcomed into people’s homes on the first day but it was so very generous.
First night of camping in Sweden
Thanks to Tommy’s insights, we found the first of many freshwater springs along the trail. One of the legends about St. Olav is that he created these freshwater springs to provide fresh water to his followers as he traveled to Norway. Supposedly, he would touch the ground with his staff and water would emerge at the spot. It was our first time drinking water straight from the ground like that. It felt risky, and then it felt extravagant.
The next tip from Tommy led us to our first tent camping location on Olav’s. It was in a small clearing that resembled something between a small summer camp and a movie set. We couldn’t believe that we were the only ones around. What even was this place?
The ground was level and the grass was soft, so we set up our camp and felt like campsite royalty.
Since we started our walk in Sundsvall, we covered right around 15 miles for our first day. It felt like a respectable amount, especially since we would have to reserve enough energy in the evenings for setting up our tent and sleeping gear and cooking dinner.
I pulled on my wool onesie and we huddled down in our sleeping bags, cozy against the late summer chill in the air. Here we were, wild camping in Sweden. I knew there was a chance we would be sleeping in the tent for the next 30 days, but I couldn’t imagine ever getting tired of it.
In the Land of the Midnight Sun
Day 2 St Olav’s, July 17th, 15km, Matfors > Nedansjö
Our first valuable lesson from the first night in the tent: this far north, the sun doesn’t “set” it just kinda takes a power nap.
This was even more apparent in our tent, which is lighter in color. The waning rays of light seemed to illuminate the tent, even though it was after 10 p.m.
As tired as we were from walking 15 miles, the light was enough to keep my brain from powering down. Andy was already asleep and I didn’t want to wake him up rustling around in my pack for my sleeping mask. So I did some journaling until I felt like I could sleep, around 1 a.m.
Around 3:30 a.m., I was wide awake. It looked like it was full daylight outside, but my brain told me I hadn’t been asleep for long enough. Andy was awake, too. We realized that this was just what the sun did this time of year. We hadn’t noticed it because all the places we had stayed so far in Sweden had heavy curtains on the windows.
All of a sudden, it felt like I short-circuited and I succumbed to the zoomies. I felt delirious and giggly and like I needed to run a few laps around the campsite.
Luckily, Andy coaxed me into digging out and putting on my sleep mask. I was able to go to sleep for several more hours before waking up for “second morning.” What a wild and confusing night.
Right to Roam
After we broke camp the next morning, we headed toward the town of Matfors for some groceries. We read in our guidebook that the town name Matfors means “food rapids” due to the large number of salmon that were caught nearby in the 1800s. The reputation held that morning as we gathered provisions for the next couple of days.
Our breakfast consisted of donuts and orange juice, which we scarfed down while sitting on a park bench right outside the grocery store. The sudden rush of sugar stoked our fires and we bounded down the trail.
The walk was beautiful and quiet, with no other pilgrims on the trail. We couldn’t believe how empty it was. We had this all to ourselves, at least for the time being.
Back at the pilgrim center in Selånger, one of the employees recommended that we stop to rest for a bit at her parent’s place, a nice little cottage on a lake. We weren’t ready to set up camp yet but we sat on the dock and soaked our feet in the cold water. The owners filled up our water bottles for us and wished us a good trip, then we were on our way again.
Our guidebook gave a vague description of a clearing near the lake to set up camp. We tried to find it but didn’t have a lot to go off of, so when we found a clearing just off the road, we decided that was close enough.
There was a house nearby, so Andy knocked on the door to ask for permission to camp there. According to the “Right to Roam” laws in Scandinavia, as long as you are a certain distance from a house and not disturbing livestock, you have a right to camp anywhere and it’s free.
But being from the US, we didn’t feel right not asking the nearest home for permission. The older woman who answered the door didn’t speak English but motioned for us to wait a second. She disappeared inside and returned with her granddaughter, who appeared to be college-aged. She was happy to learn that we were Americans and told us she planned to move to Boston to become a nanny.
She said we could camp nearby and seemed surprised that we were asking. We thanked her and wished her luck with her endeavors in America.
We set up camp and cooked dinner. I learned my lesson the night before and donned my eye mask and earplugs. And then I slept for ten and a half hours.