The Nittälven River Restoration Project: Balancing Environmental Progression with Adventure
By Michael O'Dwyer
Ahead stretches a meandering ribbon of cold, slow-moving water. For the last 6 hours my wife and I have lugged our packrafts, laden with bikes and camping gear, over dozens of trees that lie across the banks of the river, blocking easy passing and forcing us out of boats to haul ourselves over, under and through the dense web of branches.
The meandering water of the Nittälven River in Sweden
In the spring of 2021, my wife and I bikerafted the river of Nittälven in the county of Örebro in central Sweden. For those who are unfamiliar, bikerafting is the combination of cycling and paddling a small inflatable boat (packraft). On bikerafting adventures, one typically cycles to the sea, river or lake with your raft attached to your bike. Then, unpack and inflate the raft, strap your bike to the front of your raft, and start paddling. It's not always as easy as it sounds, and that was to be the case of this bikerafting trip.
The Nittälven is a gentle river, graded 1+ which means it’s slow-moving with only a few short, easy rapids. It’s a few hours’ drive from our home in Stockholm, so it was the ideal choice for my wife’s first multi-day bikerafting tour. Despite the river’s remote feel, a number of gravel roads pass close by, meaning that escape is straightforward if required. We spent two days and two nights paddling the river in early spring, enjoying the scenery and being out in nature.
Michael and his wife enjoy the beauty of the Nittälven River from their packrafts
It’s a popular river in Swedish bikerafting circles as it’s an easy paddle during the spring floods and there are free online maps to help you navigate. From the standard put-in just inside the border of the county of Dalarna, the river winds its way south for 40km through pristine forest and a number of nature reserves until it meets the Ljusnaren Lake, outside of the small town of Kopparberg.
A Brief History Lesson of the River
To understand the river today it’s necessary to look back into its past. From the late 1800s until 1950, the river was used to transport timber downstream from its heavily wooded upper reaches to a sawmill in Skäret. To help the logs flow more freely the tradesmen straightened bends, built up the banks to contain the flood waters and removed boulders and small islands. However, by 1950, the loggers had moved out of the area and the river was abandoned in this altered state.
The steepened banks of the river were man-made in order ease the process of transporting timber during the 1950s
These changes that were made years ago began to cause wider issues. The high river banks prevented the spring floods, which are essential to life in the grasslands and swamps; and with the boulders removed there was nowhere for small fish to shelter from the current or lay their eggs. These alterations, along with many others, took their toll on the river system and the wider region’s biodiversity.
Ironically, the river’s logging activity has had one positive impact. Due in part to the logging, there were never any hydroelectric dams built on the Nittälven, making it one of the few major unregulated rivers in the Örebro län, and a logical candidate for restoration.
The Restoration Project
In 2018 the county board, Örebro Länsstyrelsens, in collaboration with the EU LIFE program, began working to reverse the damage that had been inflicted over the previous two centuries. As such, a number of sections through which the river flows have been designated Nature Reserves. In Sweden, these wilderness areas are governed by strict rules prohibiting interference with the wildlife, open fires in unprotected areas, etc. If you’re planning a trip to the Nittälven River or another nature reserve, Visit Sweden provides valuable information about tourism, travel and restrictions.
One of the biggest changes made was creating rock gardens consisting of large boulders in some of the rapid areas. These boulders offer shelter for the dwindling fish population, as well as a place to spawn. As we made our way down the river, we frequently had to walk our boats through these shallow sections. The brief interruptions added to the challenge, but thanks to our lightweight packrafts and paddles they were no great hardship.
Walking their bikerafts through the shallow and rocky sections of the Nittälven River
However, the added obstacles are something to consider when paddling heavier watercrafts. Canoes and heftier kayaks may be difficult to portage through these new features. It is worth noting that when water levels are high, typically in early April, the rapids are navigable for heavier boats.
As we moved down the river, the gradient became gentler in the lower sections and the river began to meander again. Its sandy banks are constantly eroded, creating dozens of winding twists and turns. This erosion causes trees near the undermined banks to topple over, spanning across the entire width of the river. These trees offer shelter for small fish, food for mites and building materials for beaver’s dams which slow the current and flood the surrounding marshes, helping the biodiversity of the region.
In the past, after the spring floods, any trees that blocked the river were removed by local activists who enjoyed the use of the river, to allow easier travel by boat. Nowadays, in accordance with the rules of the nature reserves, they are left where they fall. On the lower river we faced numerous blockages that forced us to portage our boats time and time again. Occasionally we could limbo under the tree trunks or haul our boats over the branches, but most of the time we had to divert onto the banks. While these conditions and regulations may not be the easiest on paddlers, the wilderness in this region is crucial to sustain species of all kinds.
Paddling through and under fallen trees on the Nittälven River
While the preservation efforts have been invaluable for the river’s biodiversity, perhaps the most beneficial aspect is that nature has been allowed to take its course. The added rock gardens provide incredible fish shelter, and yet, so too do the fallen trees. Sometimes it’s not what you do, but what you don’t do that matters. Nature has the beautiful ability to find equilibrium.
Michael steers his packraft through what is left of the boulder-filled rapids
Though the paddling has gotten more difficult with the return to a protected wilderness, the experience provides a challenge that draws paddlers in. The beauty and excitement of wild adventure pulls us into this river ecosystem that is as difficult as it is rewarding. The human desire to explore is satisfied by the uncertainty and unpredictability of each bend in the river – a true labor of love.
The story doesn't end here! Head over to Old Man Mountain to read Michael's full gear breakdown for the trip. Then hop over to Revelate Designs for Michael's full trip report.
- Bikerafting the Nittälven River: Adventure Gear
- Nittälven Adventure Trip Report: Somewhere Between Type 1 & Type 2 Fun