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Tracing ancestry on a wild trip in Sweden leads to rewards — and a dapper souvenir

I came all this way not only to purge myself from the trappings of cellphones, social media, work, and city noise, but also to embark on a spiritual journey to try to discover who I am at my core.

Mikael Vinka shares ancestral knowledge of the Swedish forest passed down by his indigenous Sami relatives.
Mikael Vinka shares ancestral knowledge of the Swedish forest passed down by his indigenous Sami relatives.Read moreMark Johanson / Chicago Tribune

Smoke billowed out of a hole at the center of a grass-covered tepee as I passed plates of cured moose sausage, flat bread, cheese, and cloudberry jam to the seven other strangers gathered in this traditional Sami home in Sweden’s northernmost Lapland region.

This was a complete digital detox: no electricity or cell signal. Or running water, for that matter. Outside the conical, traditional dwelling (goathie in the indigenous Sami language), the air threatened to dip below freezing. Yet, with my toes curled into a reindeer pelt and the central fire invoking another round of storytelling, none of those sacrifices seemed to matter.

Owner Mikael Vinka regaled us with stories of herding his reindeer across the snow-dusted forests that blanket Sweden’s Arctic frontier — a region the Sami call Sapmi. Over the next three days, he led us hiking into the birch-topped Vindel Mountains. We dared our bodies to enter a frigid lake before defrosting them in a fire-heated sauna. At night, we chased the faint chartreuse glow of the Northern Lights across an untainted sky.

When, on the final day, Mikael urged us to sit on a mossy mound and feel the energy of the Earth, the cynic in me wanted to crack. But I couldn’t.

Mikael had spoken of Lapland with doe-eyed sincerity. He connected so deeply with his environment that he could disappear into it for days. I wanted that kind of unburdened freedom. I needed to feel what he felt, too.

Reaching the Vinka family’s Sami Ecolodge, roughly 600 miles mostly north of Stockholm, meant a four-hour drive west across the country from the regional airport in Lulea to the hamlet of Ammarnas — it’s a 10-hour drive from Stockholm — followed by a 45-minute boat ride into the vast wilderness of Vindelfjallen Nature Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in Europe.

I came all this way not only to purge myself from the trappings of cell phones, social media, work, and city noise, but also to embark on a spiritual journey to try to discover who I am at my core.

Like an increasing number of Americans, I’ve become curious about my heritage. How (if at all) has it molded me into the person I’ve become?

Results from one of those ubiquitous DNA kits suggest the highest percentage of my genetic code is from Sweden, so that country felt like as good a place as any to begin.

I split my journey into three parts, each with a distinct objective.

First I’d explore the geography — Sweden’s famous wildlands — with those who maintain the deepest connection to them in the 21st century: the Sami.

Then I’d head south (750 miles) to uncover the history of my great-grandfather’s journey to America in the seaport of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city.

Finally, I’d connect with the people — specifically, a few distant relatives — to see what of the national character I could find lingering in myself.

My stay in the far north taught me that woodlands and rivers and overgrown ravines are not just feral spots on an ever-busier map; they’re our link to sanity, a global necessity, and a Swedish birthright given to those lucky enough to live in a nation where 69% of the land is forested.

For the next stage of my journey — the history leg — I had to leave the musky dew of Lapland behind for the salty air of southerly Gothenburg. It was from this industrial seaport along the rocky Bohuslan Coast that most of the 1.3 million Swedes — nearly 25% of the population — departed for America between 1850 and 1930. The majority settled in Chicago, Minneapolis, and the greater Midwest, where the landscape and climate resembled home.

In Gothenburg, a small museum called the House of Emigrants looks at the reasons Swedes traveled to America, the ship lines that transported them, and what they left behind. In my great-grandfather Carl Johansson’s case, it was a shot at a better life, the White Star Line (1911), and everything he knew and loved (including the second “s” in his surname, discarded for simplicity’s sake in his adopted homeland).

So important was this mass emigration to Sweden’s history that one of its most popular reality TV shows, The Great Swedish Adventure (Allt for Sverige), invites Americans with Swedish ancestry to come back and discover their roots. Like any good show, however, there’s a catch: Along the way, participants are kicked off for losing cultural and physical challenges. Only the winner meets their Swedish relatives for a family reunion.

I saved time and humiliation by directly contacting the descendants of Carl’s sister, Gerda.

Gerda’s great-granddaughter, Camilla Sandell, lives in a lovingly restored falu red cottage in the countryside just outside Gothenburg. When she heard I’d be in town, she bought loads of crustaceans from a local fisherman, set a table with white wine and nutty Vasterbotten cheese, and invited the extended family for a crayfish party — a feast typical of Sweden’s West Coast.

It’s a strange thing to meet a family who shares some of your bloodlines but grew up in a different land, speaks a different language, and has different customs. Yet it’s equally bizarre how little that seems to matter by the second glass of wine.

(My parents had visited some of these relatives a decade before. They put together a genealogy-inspired DVD for me and my siblings and gave it to us for Christmas. To say I was mildly intrigued would be generous.)

I’ve spent most of my adult life traveling the globe for work, but never once put Sweden on the agenda. I can’t say why. As a kid, merely having the most popular last name in Sweden was enough for me to cheer for their soccer team in the World Cup and study the country for geography projects. It was always the most tangible connection I had to somewhere else.

But to visit? Perhaps it wasn’t exotic enough. I’ve always been attracted to everything wholly foreign, so it was quite a surprise to find that during my two weeks in Sweden something startlingly familiar, something in my DNA, could shock my senses even more.

When all the crayfish were decapitated and wine bottles emptied, Camilla reached into her closet for a box. Inside was a black top hat, the kind you might see in period movies, from a shared relative named Axel Johansson. The newspapers protecting it were from the 1940s. Despite my protests, she wanted me to have it.

There’s an old Swedish fable about a hat that takes on a new life with each person who wears it. If I brought my long-passed relative’s hat back home with me, Camilla said, I would not only have something to remember them by, but the hat could have a new story.