The imagined lake: Storsjön, Sweden

To the south of the city of Borås in Sweden, there is a lake. It used to be three lakes, back before the 20th century brought with it the ever-increasing demands of a thirsty textile industry. The lake was imagined into existence. Someone stood and looked and saw and the possibility. They looked over a landscape of woodland and fields, three lakes surrounded by farms and crofts, and they imagined the tunnels and the dam, the water rising by ten metres. Imagination became reality. The three lakes slowly but surely met each other in the middle. Lake Storsjön was born.

Not that it is easy to tell this is an artificial lake, 107 year’s old, when you stand at the sandy beach close to the parking places and the clubhouse of the local cross-country skiing and running club that has trails leading out from here through the forests and around the lakeshore. At first you think you have found what it is you were looking for. A place hidden away from the modern world. Still wild. Forgotten. Timeless.

It isn’t, of course. And it wasn’t in 1910, when the lake was created. This landscape has been molded and shaped by human hands for thousands of years, and the traces remain.

We walk, following the trail closest to the lake in an anticlockwise direction. The end will be the beginning. We pass the remains of 19th century crofts, now used as overnight shelters in this nature reserve where the normal Swedish wild camping rules don’t apply. A wooden sign tells us that here, where a shallow stream passes over smooth, glistening pebbles, there was once a saw mill. Close by, the site of an 18th century copper smithy. Glacial erratics, which predate everything, have long been given religious names suggesting a significance otherwise forgotten as they stand between the tall pine trees close to the mossed-over ruins of charcoal kilns and a burner’s hut.

Some of the traces in the landscape are as old as they come. A map – sun-faded in its plastic box at the car park – suggests that here, on the shore of Lake Storsjön, remnants of ironworks have been found that date back to 570 BC, some of the earliest dated sites of human activity anywhere in Sweden.

We are halfway around the lake, and we haven’t encountered another soul.

And then, of course – and as soon as the thought first enters the head – we do. People at the lookout points. People at the ecologically respectful picnic and barbecue spots. People on the path. Cheerful hellos as we pass on the footpath. Why shouldn’t we all smile at this moment? The sun emerges, shining in shafts through the streets and reflecting from the tiny, wind-blown waves on the lake. Alongside the beauty are the stories, and although the original wish might have for something wild, forgotten and timeless, the history of Lake Storsjön cannot help but add to the experience.

Near the end of the walk, a cave. The hideaway of a thief called Busa-Jan, born in 1710 as Johan Andersson in the Varnum Parish. He lived a wandering, roving life, chased by the 18th century Wallanders determined that he should pay for his many thefts and petty crimes. For a while he was a soldier in the Swedish Royal Guard, where he was given another name. So many identities. So many stories. Can we trust any of them? In 1758 it all caught up with him, in Jönköping and a long way from his cave south of Borås. Found guilty of his crimes, Busa-Jan was executed in the town square.

Ironworkers and charcoal-burners. Crofters and fishermen. Farmers and petty thieves. Hikers, joggers and orienteers. The many people of Lake Storsjön. Back where we started, we go for a swim. There is a family down by the water, and another couple getting ready to bathe, but otherwise it is quiet. The runners and the orienteers have left their cars in the car park and have long disappeared into the woods. We sit on the shore and look out across the water to where we have just walked, our gaze passing islands that were once gentle rises in cultivated fields, to where crofts had occupied clearings in the forest and the smoke from the charcoal-burner’s reached up towards the sky.

I type the name of the lake into my phone. Google translates.

Storsjön.

Great lake.

Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig

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