From the sea shore, the path had been rising steadily up the hillside, twisting and turning through thick forest, when suddenly it opened up on to a vast clearing of cobble-sized stones. I had spent the previous hour sweating up the mountainside, yet it felt as if I were back on the coast, staring across a rocky beach at low tide.
I wasn’t too far wrong: this was in fact an ancient seabed, one of many bizarre features of the Swedish High Coast – in the Gulf of Bothnia, the topmost part of the Baltic Sea, 500km north-east of Stockholm. It’s a wild and largely unsettled landscape of flat-topped mountains, dense evergreen forests, lakes and inlets that is, quite literally, on the rise.
During the most recent ice age, this region was crushed by a 3km-thick layer of ice. But when this began to melt 9,600 years ago, the land began to rise in a process called isostatic rebound. It has been growing at a rate of 8mm a year ever since, leading to an ever-evolving archipelago gradually emerging from the sea. It was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 2000.
At the heart of the High Coast is Skuleskogen national park, a road-less wilderness that I was exploring on foot and by kayak over four days. Leaving the stone field, a few miles from the sea and the park’s entrance, the path continued up to the summit of Slåttdalsberget, a patch of glacier-scoured red granite and a few gnarled trees. The archipelago stretched into the distance – islands from a few metres in size to much larger ones covered in thick forest.
Not far from the top, Slåttdalsskrevan is a dark, forbidding 200-metre-long crevasse that cleaves the mountain in two. Entering it felt like stepping on to a set from Lord of the Rings. Some plants found here are normally associated with alpine regions: they’re remnants from the cold period after the ice age. At the same time, the High Coast is where many species from the south reach their northerly limit, including the rare beard lichen that drapes itself on old spruces.
My route was now following a short but dramatic section of the High Coast Trail, a 127km trek that runs right through the national park. Starting at the dramatic Höga Kusten suspension bridge (modelled partly on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge), it goes over mountain and along coast to finish at Örnsköldsvik, the area’s main city.
Dropping down the mountain, I arrived at Tärnättvattnen, a tranquil freshwater lake, with a small rust-red cabin at one end. This is one of a number of unlocked shelters along the High Coast Trail, open to all on a first-come, first-served basis (they’re free and stacked with firewood for the stove, though there’s no electricity or running water).
Next day, I left the trail and headed down to the shore (paths are signposted, but I was glad of a map, too). All around were signs of the rising land. In the distance what looked like a small island was linked by a sliver of land. Locally born Jerry Engström, who runs the nearby FriluftsByn outdoor centre, later told me he could remember this being two separate islands, just 30 years ago.
Meanwhile, negotiating the rough path across another boulder field, I came across huge piles of stones. Dating from the Bronze Age, these mounds were originally raised over the dead along the shoreline, but are now 30-50m above sea level.
Rather than a cosy cabin, my bed was in a tent just spitting distance from the sea, at a small cove called Kälsviken, one of the park’s designated camping spots. These are basic, and campers must bring tents and food; but each site comes with a fire pit, sturdy wood store, an eco-loo and a water supply (often just a spring). Visitors can stay for up to three nights at each location, but wild camping is permitted outside of the summer season.
To appreciate the High Coast fully, though, it needs to be viewed from the sea. So the next morning I joined a two-day kayak trip run by FriluftsByn (around £60 a day). Sealing our possessions into watertight compartments, we set off from the placid waters of the cove and into the choppy Baltic, hugging the coastline where we could, paddling past cliffs that plunged into the sea, all the while straining to see if we could spot a bear. Now and then we’d stop in a small cove and get the stove going for fika – coffee and cakes.
Baggviken was our campsite for the night, a lagoon-like natural harbour on Mjältön island. As well as the obligatory fire pit, this spot came with the bonus of its own (free) sauna.
For the less intrepid tourist, there are ferries crisscrossing the area during summer, delivering visitors to islands such as Trysunda, voted Sweden’s prettiest, or Ulvön, with its well-preserved fishing villages.
Others come to sample the local food and drink. The High Coast is noted for its gin and whisky, but the real speciality is surströmming – fermented herring. Banned by several airlines on account of it being classed as an explosive, the smell from an open tin feels strong enough to anaesthetise. Prepared and served on tunnbröd (flatbread) – and ideally eaten in the open air – it is surprisingly tasty, as I discovered when one of my fellow kayakers ceremoniously opened a tin. Local restaurants also serve it.
The compact nature of Skuleskogen national park means it’s easy to combine activities, be they diving, fishing or climbing. The next day, after beaching the kayaks at the village of Docksta, it was only a short trek to the base of Skuleberget, the highest peak in the area, at 286 metres.
There’s a path up one side, and a ski-lift on another, but I opted to climb this towering symbol of the High Coast by via ferrata – a series of steel footholds and cables. Via Ferrata Skuleberget offers four routes up the vertical faces, past caves and overhangs, before depositing climbers at the highest recorded shoreline in the area (from £36). It was a scary business, hauling my way up the ladders with nothing but air below, but once I relaxed into the fact I was clipped into all the ironmongery, it felt like the most natural way to climb a mountain.
Nothing could beat the vista from the summit restaurant’s balcony. Standing atop this former island, I marvelled again at the archipelago that’s still rising from the sea.