“Seriously, you should be careful,” says L, who had a near-miss with an elk on her way back home at dusk a few months ago. Her partner M warns us bluntly: “Elks are more dangerous than other animals. They’re tall, so if you hit them their legs go under the car while the body goes straight into your windscreen; that’s two tonnes of animal landing right on you.”
The elk conversation started casually over a glass of wine at L and M’s cottage outside Mellerud, a small town about 100km north-east of Göteborg in western Sweden’s Dalsland province. We were merely commenting on the large number of warning signs on the road.
Having scared us into attention, M now feeds us a host of elk-related information. A lot of the roads in high-risk areas – such as the ones we’ve just driven on – are fenced up for miles. This, says M, makes things worse: the elks get on the road at the junction with minor roads, where the fence temporarily stops, they panic when they can’t find their way back into the woods and cause more accidents that way.
There are about 3,000 road accidents involving elks in Sweden every year, M goes on as he pours himself a glass of local berry wine. On further research, that’s a lot less than deer, which account for around 24,000. Unlike deer, however, elk feels much more of a unique Scandinavian problem. What’s more, we’re just on the edge of the region with the highest rate of elk accidents.
Thankfully we made it safely to Mellerud and we’re now sitting comfortably on L and M’s terrace, looking out to the lake below. The house, in traditional falun red, is one of a small settlement in a clearing in the forest that stretches along the shores of the lake. We can just about hear the ripple of the waves in the soft late afternoon sun.
Canoes on trailers
The drive from Göteborg is nothing spectacular but it’s a taste of remote Scandinavia. The immediate outskirts of Sweden’s second largest town are still quite industrial. For a few miles plants and factories follow us upstream of the Göta valley, the last remains of the region’s not-so-distant past as a thriving industrial centre.
Then, gradually, the countryside takes over: fields and birch forests brightened by pink foxgloves and dark-blue lupins. Other cars on the road are mainly rugged models. Many are fitted with extra headlights. Several have canoes on trailers. We overtake one pulling a hot tub.
L and M’s cottage is at the end of a coarsely gritted farm track – officially a B road. The setting is idyllic and, on a mild summer afternoon, you couldn’t tell that the region, which is not far from the border with Norway, is still one of the poorest in the country. It’s still very rural but L says a number of artists and former urban types like them are now coming to the area. For us, it’s a magical stopover allowing us to catch up with friends and spend an all-too-short evening with them.
The next day we’re off to Örebro, our third and last overnight stop in Sweden before we take the ferry for Helsinki the following day.
Örebro, L has warned us, is a quiet place. We find a pleasant enough town with a buzzy feel, especially for a Sunday. It’s perhaps helped by the fact that there’s just been an international rowing competition on the nearby lake – the fourth largest in Sweden.
The town’s biennial art festival, OpenART 2015, also started about ten days earlier, with installations dotted around town, including one by Ai Wei Wei. His ‘Think Different (How To Hang Workers’ Uniforms)‘ involves 375 uniforms from the Foxconn factory – which makes components for Apple, among others – hung over Köpmangatan, one of the main shopping streets in the pedestrianised centre.
People are sitting on the grass by the river; children are playing on some installations on the townhall square; families are taking a leisurely passagiatto down the main street.
And there are enough buildings to keep Dr K happy during a relaxed afternoon stroll: the simple but elegant castle originally from the 13th century, a few turn-of-the-century buildings, and some 18th century townhouses.
There is even a 19th century natural history museum which, according to Dr K’s guidebook, opens “around midday” and has “an appealing elk”. This, perhaps, could have been the closest we could have got to an elk. But the next morning, we must off to Stockholm, 300km further east, to catch our ferry to Finland.