If there's one thing I know, it's ski towns. But it took a trip to the other side of the world a decade ago to make me realize why I lived in one, a knowledge reinforced ever since.
To get to Åre, Sweden — Scandinavia's answer to Whistler — you fly to Östersund, a boreal university town hugging the constriction in the middle of a large lake. A Great Lake, actually, as its name — Storsjön — translates. From there it's about an hour to the mountains. The first time I went I took a taxi. As we drove along the lakeshore, the driver — a large man, nice but eccentric, with a suspiciously rubicund nose — talked fishing and hunting and growing up on an island. He also told me there was a giant monster in the lake and that he'd seen it several times. Not one to argue in a foreign country, I nodded, smiled, and stared across the cold, steely waters.
There was a strangely womb-like comfort in those lapping waves, in the sweep of birch and pine forest fringing the lake, and in the hilly landscape that rolled up to the horizon like a carpet bunched in the hall. Yellow signs warning of marauding moose picketed roadsides, and tidy red-and-white cottages in the clean, countrified style peculiar to Scandinavia rose and fell from view. As the leitmotif unspooled, a comfortable familiarity took hold. As we drove into Åre, I distinctly remember thinking, "I could live here."
Nothing I experienced on that first visit did anything to change my mind and everything to reinforce it: skiing soupy May snow on top of Åreskutan and gazing out from the peak at the broad, snowy highlands to the west and north; watching a crazy quarterpipe contest under the molten glow of late-evening sun while winter was chased from the valley by the heat of spring; raccoon-tans and smiles staring from every quarter; outdoor parties, good food, fun people; life as the kind of simple celebration we know so well here in Whistler. I've been to Åre many times since, including only a few weeks ago, and each has made me more certain. I could live there.
I could live in a town where ancient and recent hold hands around every corner. Where culture and tradition have a place in the march of a modern world. Where people aren't shackled by local history, but rather, acknowledge it with every nod, smile and action, as if they're part of something bigger, something great, something that can only get better.
I could live where the sky holds the mountains in its hands. Where storms come in low and black, pressing you to the earth and making you wonder aloud what's going on up above. Where you can tramp through wet autumn woods while a brisk northerly tears clouds from the snow-covered peaks like a present being unwrapped. Where one sunny day can make up for weeks of darkness (sound familiar?), and clean air and fresh water are seen as a right not a privilege.
I could live where people laugh and smile not because they feel they need to, but because they can't help themselves. Where people live a little outside of the world not because they reject it, but because they care so passionately about it. I could live there because I like blueberries and reindeer and even Volvos, but mostly because I like people who might be uncertain about everything else, but very certain about why they live in a place — to be part of a family sharing a to-do list of endless possibility. And the thing is, I realized, I already do live there in a way, because what I see as so appealing in Åre is what also drew me to Whistler. There's a degree of universality and mirror image about mountain towns in which Åre's appeal reverberates.
The week I just spent in Åre and the surrounding region of Jämtland-Härjedallen was organized to test outdoor clothing for Columbia Sportswear, for which there was endless opportunity that kept us all plenty busy. That litany included ice-skating 11km across a frozen lake, fat biking across a windswept alpine plateau, alpine skiing at Åre just as the FIS women's slalom and GS comps got underway, sled-accessed backcountry skiing, a return to telemarking (it had been 12 years for me, but when in Rome...) on a night-lit town hill, tobogganing, Nordic skiing, jumping through holes in the ice, meeting indigenous reindeer herders, and partaking at every turn — dressed to the nines in the ski world's requisite plaid — of an artisan food-and-beverage revolution to rival our own prodigious Pac-Northwest foodie craze. A cuisine likewise based on salmonids (salmon, trout, char), cervids (moose, reindeer), and Vaccinium (blueberries, huckleberries, lingonberries). It doesn't get much more down-home doppelganger than that. In fact, no matter what I do there, it always feels like there's an element of going home. A kind of international cross-pollination, comfort-zone, and collective giv'er mindset that the friends I've made there over the years call "Candinavian" — a high-latitude mountain hug to cross oceans and cultures.
Though I go there for different reasons now, whenever I'm back in Åre, I think of the taxi driver. I know his monster wasn't real, but it has always had meaning for me as fundamentally the same monster folks believe in over here, whether Bigfoot or Ogopogo. I like to think of monsters as an expression of some of humanity's most deeply cherished ideas: the unknown, wilderness, possibility. There's something in those three words we need to believe in. Because if we ever actually found a monster, it would be over — everything known, wilderness un-wilded, no more possibility.
People will continue to invent monsters because they want to believe that anything is possible. The rest of us, to make it simpler, just move to the mountains.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.