For our second-to-last installment of season 4, we head to the Stockholm Skärgården.  The Skärgården is an archipelago of somewhere between 20,000 and 35,000 islands, depending on who you ask and how you define “island.”  The first estimate that I heard was 20,000, and the count kept getting higher and higher as time went by. Anders’ statement that there were “35,000 islands” was the highest one I heard of all.  A ferry captain on one of our vessels said there 25,000, and I tend to think that his answer is probably most accurate since he works there for a living.  But what do I know?

When we arrived at our first ferry in Stockholm, I was excited because I grew up traveling on ferries to get around the Puget Sound.  They are an integral element to the transportation system in western Washington, linking the west sound to the east sound and several islands in between.  The mile-long span that is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, near my hometown of Gig Harbor, is the only bridge that connects the east and west.  Before the bridge was built the only way to get from one side to the other was by boat.  Back when my ancestors first arrived here they took the vessels of the “mosquito fleet” to cross from Tacoma to Gig Harbor.  So ferries are connected with me and my family’s history, and they remind me of home.

Similarly, Washington State has its own archipelago, the San Juan Islands.  There aren’t nearly as many islands as in Stockholm’s Skärgården, but I spent time in the San Juans almost every summer as a kid.  My parents build small rowing and sailing boats for a living, and used to trade one of their yacht tenders for a charter of the customer’s yacht.  The boat would serve as “home away from home” for a couple weeks.  We’d anchor out and explore the bays and beaches of the islands, sometimes staying in the little towns that dot the islands but much of our time was spent out on the water, fishing, crabbing, or just taking a leisurely row.

Friday Harbor, San Juan Island.  One of my favorite vacation stops from my childhood.  We caught shrimp right off the dock!

Friday Harbor, San Juan Island – one of my favorite vacation stops of my childhood. We caught shrimp right from that dock!

Needless to say, I was instantly in love with the Skärgården.  Riding the ferry and watching the islands go by, pointing out our favorites of the Swedish houses as they passed was very familiar to me.  Even as it clouded over and got chilly I still had fun – I was wearing four layers that day and even with all that I was still cold! We could have just gone inside but it was a lot nicer up top where we could look around at the scenery on all sides. But we were thankful when we arrived at Grinda and found a place for fika – we all enjoyed holding our cups of tea and coffee to try to keep our hands warm.  We also saw a deer as we headed up from the ferry dock!  I didn’t see a moose when we were up north (though Jennette did) so it was fun to see some wildlife.  Courtney and I saw a huge black bird when we were in Småland but up until then that was the largest animal we’d seen.  The deer in the San Juans are tiny little things so I for some reason thought all island-dwelling deer must be like that.  I guess not!

The boat competition

Because we had three people, the yellow team had to choose someone to row and only row.  We chose John since he’s the strongest rower, and since I’d also grown up rowing I’d be his coxswain.  As we were strategizing he asked me to use the words “inside” (toward shore) and “outside” (away from shore) instead of right/left or port/starboard (I think so we wouldn’t get confused about which was was which, since we were facing different directions).  Good idea in theory, but in practice it ended up being more of a hindrance than a help to me.  It took us a long time to make it the last few feet up to the dock because we stopped with it just out of my arm’s reach.  I kept saying “further in” (as in, we’re almost to the dock, keep going straight) but he understandably interpreted that as “further inside” (meaning further to port).  So we missed the dock the first time and that cost us a bit of time.  Once I got on to the dock, I had never tied off to one of those round rings before – I’m used to cleats – and my knot turned out really awful.  I was so embarrassed by my horrible knotwork – sorry Dad!

Fortunately we made up the time with the net.  Courtney did a great job of putting the net in the box in such a way that we would be able to get it out  quickly without it tangling.  I’ve used locking carabiners a lot since I am a rock climber, so I was able to show Courtney how to open them to remove the fish from the net.  It was tough to unscrew them with our hands being cold and wet but we undid them pretty quickly.  That one fish was really stubborn.  Courtney felt bad because she thought that she turned it the wrong way and jammed it, but I don’t think that’s what happened.  I think it was just too tight to grip with our wet and cold hands.  Fortunately our quick decision to leave it and take the penalty was a good one, and that’s what saved us in the end.  Like the shopping challenge that John did in Uppsala, it was a calculated risk and and we’re lucky that it paid off.  George and Jennette were a great team, and I think that was the closest margin of all the team competitions.

Exploring the Norrskär

The next ferry was my favorite:

Still powered by steam

Powered by steam and awesomeness for 105 years

Built in 1910, the Norrskär is of the same vintage as those mosquito fleet vessels that used to roam the Puget Sound!  It is still steam-powered by an oil-fueled boiler and had a beautiful teak interior – they just don’t build ferries like that anymore!  Courtney and I had a great time exploring the ship, and were lucky enough to be invited up to the bridge to meet the captain!

No, not *that* bridge.

No, not *that* bridge.

We got to go past the “crew only beyond this point” sign and take the ladder up to the highest desk on the ship.  The captain welcomed us in and answered a lot of questions for us.  It was him who told us there were 25,000 islands in the archipelago – and he said the Swedish word Skärgården literally means “garden of islands.”  When we were up there we came to a scheduled stop at a tiny island to deliver the daily newspaper.  We got to see how he communicated with the deckhand who threw the line to the dock.  The captain actually had to open the window and poke his head out as he guided the boat in to dock.  Some of the people who live on the island were there at the dock waiting for their newspapers, and they waved up to us.

Now that's old school.

Now that’s old school.

The bridge had some cool features – that brass tube you see next to the captain’s hat is an acoustic “telephone.”  The captain can use it to speak to the engineer down in the engine room.  I put my ear up to it and I could hear the noise of the engine.

Courtney got to blow the ship’s whistle as we pulled in to the dock!  It was operated by a pull chain hanging from the ceiling.  She took two hands on it and pulled it hard, grinning ear to ear.  That girl couldn’t resist ringing the church bell in Kiruna when she saw the rope just hanging there, either.  She pulled both the bell and the whistle once more for good measure. Love her!


I love camping!  Tents, campfires, sleeping outside… I think you could probably pick up on that as we were setting up the tents…

"I don't mind you looking to the ladies for advice, George.  Just don't let them know." - John Olson

“I don’t mind you looking to the ladies for advice, George.  Just don’t let them know.” – John Olson

I especially love sleeping outside – I sleep like a rock when I have stars overhead, or can hear the white noise of rain on the tent or wind in the trees.  So I was a little torn between wanting to sleep out in the fresh air and wanting to stay with the others. But since John had gone to all that trouble of getting the cabins, I decided to sleep in it of course.  I kind of regretted it when I couldn’t get back to sleep at 2:00 AM so I almost went back out to the tent, but I couldn’t find my flashlight.  C’est la vie.

Breakfast the next morning was pretty epic, in my opinion.  We were all in a groove as a group by that point, and having a relaxing picnic breakfast and discovering new Swedish foods together was a lot of fun. I think that morning is one of my best memories of the trip, simply because we were all comfortable being ourselves and enjoying that beautiful place.  I wasn’t big on the Räkost, and the Kaviar I can take or leave.  But I did like the Jordgubbs Kräm – which is totally different than anything we have in the states so we had no idea what to expect.  It’s a thicker consistency than anything that we would buy in a carton, so we were all surprised by what came out of it.  I found it too sweet to eat on its own, so I spooned it on bread like jam.

When I did that Swedish camera crew could barely contain their laughter. They told me that the traditional way to eat it was in a bowl with milk.  (It’s something that kids grow up eating, like they do applesauce in the USA.)  That way of eating it sounded really good, but I can’t have milk and it was tasty on the bread anyway.  So if Sweden was amused by our Jordgubbs Kräm sandwiches, then so much the better.  Pleased to be of service!  *bows*


Strawberry goop in a bowl = win

The bike ride the next day… well, that wasn’t so much my thing.  I enjoyed spending time with my girls of course, but I’ve always had mountain bikes with  hand brakes so those pedal-backward-to-stop bikes and I did not get along well. After all the encouragement that Jennette and I gave Courtney to get her comfortable with the bike, it turned out I was the one who ended up taking a pretty nasty spill.  I had a major bruise on my shin for a couple of weeks.  Meh.

Mr. Olson gets his family treasure

When John got back from his special day, we could hardly even talk about it.  It says something when a guy as talkative and articulate as John is rendered speechless.  The only thing I remember him saying is, “My family’s house… is a museum.”  Followed soon after by, “I come from a long line of bastards. Literal and figurative bastards.”

My first impression of John, as I wrote in my journal the first day, was that he was, “Handsome and articulate, and he knows it.”  He sometimes comes across at first blush like he’s a little full of himself, maybe a bit of a player or a ladies man.  But the more we got to know him we saw how genuine his heart is.  I think as much as he feels like he has a restless spirit, it’s his heart that really drives him.

I have that same love of exploration, that adventurous restlessness myself, so I can relate to that aspect of him and I think that’s one reason we get along so well.  But as men and women we experience that differently in some ways.  He took it to heart when he learned about his ancestor Olof and this life he led, with this trail of broken hearts along the way.  I think it speaks volumes that he recognized that pattern in his family and will use it to inform the decisions he makes in his own life.

And about that watch John was wearing that Anders Lundin pointed to as being totally uncool… John seriously loves that watch.  It has exactly ONE feature – a pushbutton five minute timer.  Push it once = 5 minutes.  Twice = ten minutes. Six times = half an hour.  (You get the idea.) John thinks it’s the awesomest thing ever and shares this opinion with anyone who will listen.  He gets a wee bit defensive if anyone disses the watch.

Those are fighting words, Anders.

Thems fightin’ words, Anders.

Time to say goodbye

Jennette and George were both really impressive in this competition.  But the moment I heard what the challenge was, I said, “George has got it.”  He’s a composer, he knows how to keep excellent meter. He actually had 30 minutes nailed almost exactly, but decided to wait another ten seconds so that in case he was early, he would step in on the latter half of 30 instead of the former half.  Super smart.  But it’s one thing to have a good strategy and another to have the focus and guts to actually pull it off.  Major props, George.

Of course the inevitable downside of this episode was saying goodbye to someone, and Jennette got the short straw. I didn’t get to know her very well at the beginning because she wasn’t my roommate or on my team until episode 5. My first impression of her was that she seemed a bit outspoken but was also concerned about being portrayed as a bitch on TV, so that was a good indicator that she was not actually one.  And that really turned out to be true.  She is open and frank with her opinions but that also means she has a very open heart, and you always know exactly where you stand with her.  In an environment of stoic Swedes I found that refreshing.

I remember after that math challenge in Kiruna, when she came around the corner a few minutes after I did.  We were both still shaking from the adrenaline and reacting the exact same way, and that was when I really saw how much we had in common.  But she has that maternal instinct that I lack – she was sad to leave Sweden but at the same time she could hardly wait to go home and see her kids.  I’m so lucky to have met her.


That’s one smart, sassy mama.

 More behind the scenes photos are up on my Facebook page