Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2009-02-02
Östersund is famous amongst the Swedish for its lake, its lake monster protected by the King and its Moose Garden – a moose farm where you can sample milkshakes made from moose milk and admire the environmentally-friendly paper notices made from moose droppings...
Östersund is a large market town of 60,000 inhabitants situated to the north-west of Stockholm, in the heart of Sweden, somewhat, it has to be said, in the middle of nowhere.
Its ecological Moose farm is renowned throughout the Kingdom, as is the Storsjön, its immense lake (456km² and 75m depth), and its lake monster, Storsjöodjuret, the probable cousin of the Loch Ness monster (they say that both of them communicate below the earth and the oceans...).
A long inoffensive serpent
Margaretha Hallenborg is the captain of SS Thomée, a 27 metre long steamship in service since 1875. She has spent her whole career on Lake Storsjön, which she knows by heart. She can't swear that she's seen Storsjöodjuret, but several times she has detected an unusual movement in the water, an inexplicable wake, waves that moved counter to the wind, a shadow, something like an eye that watched her or something that shone in the sun like reptilian scales. Margaretha Hallenborg shares her life with this monster: "He knows us," she explains, "he recognises the boat, he knows we don't wish him any harm." She indicates a surprising and unexpected sign on the sonar which zigzags between the depths and the surface. The sonar never lies!
The lake has been explored by specialists from all over the world, but the lake monster is far too intelligent and has carefully hidden itself each time. Experiments and reconstructions have been carried out: it isn't a big fish, nor a shoal of little fish or a tree trunk... The descriptions don't fit and it moves too quickly.
Storsjöodjuret has been seen several times by fishermen, on the banks or in the water, by campers or walkers and even by a vicar (in 1635), by two Swedish military airmen on holiday (1972), or by a grammar teacher (in July 1863). Witnesses describe it as being a serpent-like creature of 3 to 14 metres long but Margaretha Hallenborg thinks they are way out: he measures 3 or 4 metres, no more. And yes there are photos, drawings and also engravings: those who have been fortunate enough to see it have wanted to leave a testimony of what they have seen.
The tourist office distributes a map indicating the zones where the monster most often appears. Seven official observation sites give curious visitors the chance to scan the lake's calm waters: it can be a long wait, but the countryside is magnificent, so one just finds an excuse. Some do a bit of pike fishing, others have picnics, the bravest go bathing (on the best of days the water temperature is barely above zero.)
The Frösö Tornet, the hill of Frösö, situated on the highest point of the region (468 metres above sea level) offers a superb view over the lake and the surrounding mountains thanks to its wooden platform raised 14 metres above the ground. This tower stands a few hundred metres above Frösö's church which is made of wood yet dates back to the 12th century.
Storsjöodjuret however has the job of looking out for Birger, his mischievous son who enchants the people of Storsjönbygden by playing pranks on them. A tree blocking a road? A small boat overturning? A roast chicken disappearing at a picnic on the beach? It can only be Birger whose greedy and cheeky nature is legendary. Birger has become the town's official mascot with his irresistibly cheerful face on the smiling cuddly toys.
The first big question that tourists ask when arriving in Östersund is: does this monster exist or is it just a joke, a great commercial gimmick, a legend that nobody really believes in? But be careful: Storsjöodjuret and Birger are not to be trifled with. The locals are very attached to their monster and are very touchy about it. Even the King firmly believes in it: article 14 of the Kingdom of Sweden's law for the protection of nature of January 22nd 1986 mentions it among the list of endangered species to be protected and any hunting of it is forbidden. So this must prove its existence, mustn't it?
King Carl XVI Gustaf personally endeavoured by means of a Royal Foundation to grant him the protection he should have as a Swedish citizen. The monster and its son do not hurt anyone, they are happy enough just eating the lake's abundant fish. It is a peaceful and natural cohabitation. The Swedes are known for being peaceable, pragmatic and particularly keen in their respect for nature and the protection of the environment.
The Jamtli Museum, situated in the park of the same name is the principal source of information on the Storsjöodjuret monster. It is an eco-museum that tells the history of the Jamtland province of which Östersund is the capital. It offers its visitors a walk through its twenty hectares of landscaped fields to discover traditional settlements that reflect the Swedish ways of life throughout the ages. The route is adorned with children's games, historical carousels, a driving school for pedal cars, an educational farmyard and a very respectable restaurant.
The bottle feeding hunter
Another unusual feature of Östersund is the Moose Garden, a moose farm established twelve years ago by the Häggmark family: the husband, Sune, director of social initiatives for the town of Östersund, picked up two young, abandoned moose during a shooting expedition for guess what...moose!
Moose hunting is a national sport in Sweden. Nearly 100,000 of them are killed every year between September and December. They have a rapidly reproducing population that totals just over a half a million. The animal is very common in the gigantic Scandinavian forests, and its meat is particularly tasty and intense with little fat, and is highly appreciated fresh or smoked, grilled, cured, as meatballs and in stews.
The two moose rescued by Sune, Ludde and Ronja died. But their first calf, Elvira, born 2 years after they came to the farm, is still there. She is now the senior member of the group. Today Moose Garden accommodates approximately ten moose in fifteen hectares of meadow with adjoining forest for them alone. Whenever Sune calls them they come running because he never arrives empty handed. Visitors from the whole Kingdom and even further afield now flock to Moose Garden all year round to see the moose.
The calves who are born in the Moose Garden are sometimes bottle-fed in a crèche enclosure where, one day a shivering roe deer found refuge. Once there he obstinately refused to leave Moose Garden and his new-found friends.
The moose is Europe's biggest animal: they have long ballet dancer legs and lower their big heads to scornfully eye everyone. Their big soft noses, comparable to those of a camel make the visitors roar with laughter. Food-loving and good-natured, they let you stroke them on condition that you give them potatoes, their favourite snack. The males have antlers from the age of two, that fall off then grow back every year.
The moose thank the visitors, who enter the meadow with Sune, by giving them an amicable lick with their rough tongues and are quick to encourage and jostle those who keep the potatoes in their pockets, to hand them out with all speed. Nice, but sturdily built, they are very imposing when they stare at you with their big eyes.
The moose is a very endearing animal, perhaps a little disdainful, but ever curious and always willing to be caressed. Funnily it is also very sporty. It can jump to a height of almost 3 metres and dive down into water at a depth of 4 metres to eat the water weeds it adores. It is an excellent swimmer that has no fear of frozen waters, and when it gallops it reaches 70 kilometres an hour. It can walk for days without stopping. Its Canadian cousin, the caribou, also migrate distances of 1600 kilometres every year.
Moose Garden has two specialities. Firstly it is one of the rare places in the world where moose milk is produced. Low in calories and rich in protein, moose milk resembles reindeer or camel milk.
Thicker than cows' milk and slightly less white like the colour of fresh butter it has a very strong taste. Sune lets the visitors sample it by the spoonful or in the form of home-made cheese. The bar also serves an astonishing whisky and moose milk based Swedish coffee and an excellent moose milkshake.
The other speciality is even more surprising: 100% natural paper made from moose droppings, a completely environmentally friendly raw material. The moose is a herbivore: it only eats leaves and grass and its stomach is particularly strong so there is absolutely no bacteria in its droppings. You couldn't dream of finding paper that is more recyclable and biodegradable! Sune makes the paper in his little workshop with a simple mixer and upon it he prints replica bank notes and makes business cards, postcards, diplomas or menus. An original way to make paper!
The Häggmark family farm, situated on the shores of Lake Storsjön, dates from the 19th century. Sune and his wife have transformed it into a holiday home which houses a very nice café that serves home made cakes, a boutique of moose related products and even an observation tower to look out for Storsjöodjuret. The Häggmark's have just started renting small wooden chalets where you can observe the moose and Storsjön from the moment you get out of bed.
As night falls on the Storsjön, the moose go to lie down in their forest. Sune Häggmark gives Emil and Anna their last bottle; the Moose Garden goes to sleep.
The lights from the towns of Östersund and Frösön appear in the distance. One can shop all day long there and the night-life is lively too. As soon as the weather permits the café terraces are taken by storm; friends meet up and the beer flows freely.
The grey sky turns rapidly menacing, the water becomes sombre and the wind gets up. The lake which was so welcoming when the sun was shining now threatens its last visitors: "It's time to go back," says Captain Hallenborg, "Storsjöodjuret wants to be alone, lets leave him be." She sighs, disappointed: "You won't see him today, sorry, he doesn't come out when it's cold."
The Steam Ship Thomée turns around to get back to the port. At the bottom of the lake, Storsjöodjuret tucks Birger in and wishes him goodnight. God natt, Birger. God natt, papa.
The Moose Farm
Orrviken 145 (in the suburbs of Östersund),
Tel. : +46 70 363 60 61
Entry 100 SEK*, 40 SEK for 8-15 years, free for toddlers.
Tourist Information about Östersund and its region
Brochures (in English) can be downloaded on-line.
Tourist Information on the Jamtland region.
The Lake Monsters personal site
Östersund town's site
There are lots of cafés and restaurants in Östersund where you can get something to eat at any time of the day or evening. For example Simon & Victor (where the main road starts), a typical and
reputed brasserie serves copious traditional dishes with good beer.
On the main road there is also a local specialities shop, Ost & Vilt (literally Cheese & Wild) where you will find ewe's milk Camembert or smoked reindeer's heart. Directly opposite is a liquor store called Systembollaget. In Sweden the sale of alcohol is a state affair and the uninviting shops resemble banks with their double entrance security doors, numbers, counters and payment desks. This doesn't fill you with enthusiasm but there's a great choice: vodka, aquavit, exorbitant French wines, Californian, Chilean, Argentinian wines, aperitifs... You're bound to find something you like in these aisles where only the civil servant-salesmen are allowed to tread.
*1 SEK = approximately 0,092 €