Where the Heck Are the Åland Islands?

The Åland archipelago truly is a magical place...
The Åland archipelago truly is a magical place…

It’s governed by Finland but its people speak Swedish.

It has its own flag, stamps, and parliament, and special trading arrangements with the E.U.

And it’s halfway between Finland and Sweden, smack in the middle of where the Baltic meets the Gulf of Bothnia. But it isn’t really a part of either country.

Some 90% of residents live on its large main island, which is the site of the capitol town of Mariehamn. But this strange little territory consists of around 300 habitable islands, and some 6,500 rocks and skerries. There’s plenty of room for adventure here, because only around 80 of them are inhabited.

Welcome to the Åland islands.

The sun barely sets in summer this far north. The sky glows soft luminous pearl until well after eleven o’clock. And it only bows its head for a moment before setting the sky alight again at around 3am.

Dropped off at 4:20am... The forlorn sight of my comfortable bed sliding away...
Dropped off at 4:20am… The forlorn sight of my comfortable bed sliding away…

Tomoko and I arrived by overnight boat from Helsinki at 4:20am. No one else got off, and the big Viking Line ferry turned around and immediately sailed away.

Everything was locked up for the night, but I had arranged for a rental car to be left at the harbour.

I stopped by the shipping agent’s desk to ask for the keys. I found them in an envelope, with a cheerful handwritten welcome on post-it notes. There was a blank contract all filled out, with a space for my signature, and a note that said, “Just pay for the car when you drop it off.” The islands are that kind of place.

Midway between Finland and Sweden, but not really part of either...
Midway between Finland and Sweden, but not really part of either…

We spent the long day wandering around by car on the main island, and on all the others we could reach by bridge.

This strange little territory is made up of around 300 habitable islands...
This strange little territory is made up of around 300 habitable islands…

I tried on chain mail armour at Kastelholm, former seat of power in the independent Åland islands, and later a summer hunting lodge of the Swedish king. And we paced the walls of the ruined sea fortress of Bomarsund, which spoke to another 1800’s phase of this archipelago’s history, when it was briefly controlled by Russia.

I never thought "freelance" would involve actual lances...
I never thought “freelance” would involve actual lances…
Exploring the ruins of the Russian fortress of Bomarsund...
Exploring the ruins of the Russian fortress of Bomarsund…

And then we climbed the hill to the highest point above the crumbling walls. Tomoko wandered around taking photos, while I found a quiet rock to sit and look out over a vast stretch of this forgotten island chain, and so much calm open water.

I wondered what it would be like to spend a winter here, in snow and icebound isolation. Or to spend a summer in a cottage or on a boat, just exploring different islands, wandering at will, maybe writing a book.

Views across some of Åland's many islands and inland waterways...
Views across some of Åland’s many islands and inland waterways…

The small granite islands with their trees and summer homes reminded me of the St. Lawrence River, and the Thousand Islands where I grew up. The sound of water slapping the side of a boat. And the gentle breeze in the trees: first distant, then here, then past.

Stallhagen — Åland’s only brewery...
Stallhagen — Åland’s only brewery…
I sampled a Stallhagen brew made from roasted pumpkin, and a lovely Russian Ale...
I sampled a Stallhagen brew made from roasted pumpkin, and a lovely Russian Ale…

We finished our day of wandering at Stallhagen, Åland’s only brewery. I sipped a craft beer made from roasted pumpkin, while Tomoko drank a honey ale, and we chatted with the girl behind the bar.

“What brings you to Åland?” she asked.

“We were in Helsinki,” I replied. “We came on the Viking Line, on our way to Stockholm.”

“But how did you know it?” she said. “No one knows about Åland. Sometimes people who sail from Finland to Sweden are even surprised to find it here.”

“It’s a beautiful place,” I said. “We don’t want to leave.”

“I was born and raised here,” she said. “And I haven’t got tired of it yet.”

She wasn’t the only young person who would voice this sentiment to me.

Views of the Åland islands, from the Viking Line ferry top deck...
Views of the Åland islands, from the Viking Line ferry top deck…

The life of Åland is linked to the sea, whether that meant tall ship sailors and 18th century trade, or today’s cottage owners with their blissful isolation. And so I decided to rent a 14-foot boat the next day, to feel the sea spray on my face, and just to get lost in its channels and bays.

As I opened up the throttle and pointed the bow in the direction of the main channel, I realized it’s been just over 25 years since I’ve felt that outboard vibration through my arm.

Exploring the islands at sea level...
Exploring the islands at sea level…

I learned to drive a boat on an annual fishing trip to Dalhousie Lake, Ontario with my father when I was about 12 years old. And over the years I learned many other things there too — how to take a fish off a hook, how to play euchre, and what happens when you drink a whole bottle of wine.

My dad’s been gone 10 years now, but those Dalhousie memories flashed before me all day, even as the soft Åland light glinted off the waves I was cutting with my prow.

We cruised the islands and channels amidst sailboats and small fishing trawlers. And then I hugged close to shore and explored small bays and coves until we found a deserted stretch where the tree line made a widow’s peak against gently sloping granite.

We found the perfect empty island for a quiet afternoon...
We found the perfect empty island for a quiet afternoon…

I nudged the boat up to some rocks and tied it fast. And we ate a picnic lunch of fresh bread and island cheese before sunning naked like lizards on the rock, and sliding into the cool Baltic sea.

The entire day passed like that: water splashed gently against the shore; boats droned by far out in the channel; and the occasional ant tried to crawl up my leg. But the sun eventually sank low enough that I knew it was time to head back.

Deserted island picnic, and a very pleasant swim...
Deserted island picnic, and a very pleasant swim…

We gathered our things and lowered them into the boat. And I pushed away from shore and gripped the handle to pull the motor into life.

“What the hell…?” I said, as my arm stopped short with a yank.

“What’s wrong,” Tomoko asked, looking up from her camera.

“It’s totally jammed,” I said, pulling up the motor and unlatching the cover. “The flywheel’s jammed up. It won’t turn at all.”

The cord had pulled out part way but wouldn’t retract. I tried working it back into the right groove with my thumb and a pen — judging that the pen is mightier than the cord — but the only result was a sliced up hand and blood all over the boat.

“There’s no way that’s gonna start…” I said. “And it’s too far to row back. At least if we want to get there tonight…”

“Should we call the rental company?” she said. “They have to come help us.”

“Absolutely not!” I said, sliding the oars into the locks and taking my position in the middle seat. “I just need some tools…”

Asking for help — or even worse, a “rescue” — was a humiliation not to be endured. There are some problems you just have to solve for yourself.

I spotted a cluster of cottages in the distance, and rowed in their direction. Many had the boarded-up absence of weekend dwellings, but luck was with us. We saw a couple working outside.

They looked up when they heard us approach.

“We need help!” Tomoko shouted.

The couple regarded us with some alarm, obviously suspecting a medical emergency.

“No we don’t,” I muttered. I turned to the man and said, “Can I borrow a screwdriver?”

That was something he could deal with. I saw his shoulders square as he switched into handyman mode.

“Sure, what kind?”

“Flat please.”

“Are you sure you want to do that…?” he said as I prepared to remove bits of the engine. “Maybe you should just call the company, it’s their responsibility.”

“No, no… I think I can fix it,” I said. “I’ll just try one thing…”

We tied up to his dock, and after trying a handful of tools, I managed to get the flywheel section off the motor. As I suspected, the cord was completely off the track, and wound up inside in a way that the Johnson company never intended. But even when untangled and coiled properly again, it failed to retract.

“It looks like the spring is broken,” he said. “But you may be able to trick it…”

We found some cord in the bottom of the boat, and tied it to a stick. And then I wrapped it tight around the top of the motor and gave it a pull. The engine roared to life.

We shook hands all around, returned the borrowed tools and headed back out to sea.

I’m pleased to report that we arrived at the harbour right on time. But you should have seen the look on the rental guy’s face when we came in with the top of the motor missing and all the working parts clearly visible.

"These are for you..."
“These are for you…”

Tomoko stood up and handed him the flywheel section and spare parts. “These are for you.”

He looked down at the collection of screws and then at the motor, and said, “Oh dear!”

I said very casually, “Yeah, the flywheel jammed up and we were stranded. But I took off the top and started it with this string.” I held up the string and stick and shrugged. “Thought I’d save you the trip out.”

“Oh!” he said. “Oh, well that’s alright then! I’ll let the mechanic know. I hope you enjoyed your time in Åland.”

I think he was amazed that we just took it all in stride. But worse things have happened to me in Land Rovers.

I'd like to spend a summer here, with a cottage and a boat...
I’d like to spend a summer here, with a cottage and a boat…

If come to Åland, I urge you to make the journey by sea from Stockholm rather than Helsinki, so you can approach these low granite islands as they were meant to be seen. There are several regular voyages a day on Viking Line or the Tallink Silja Line, with options for cabins, suites and deck class.

But don’t expect to get any sleep. The journey through the Stockholm archipelago is a geographical wonder.

Fetch yourself a cold beer from the bar, or a coffee if that’s your preference. And pull up a chair at a window seat — or spring for a peaceful cabin like we did.

I guarantee you’ll be glued to the window for the entire 6 hour journey. And when Åland rises over the horizon, you’ll know you’ve reached a magical place that few people outside the Baltic region have ever heard of.

Harder! Come on! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! That doesn't hurt at all!
Harder! Come on! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! That doesn’t hurt at all!
Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2015
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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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