"There's only one speed up here and it's very slow"

Toby Cowern, survival instructor
Toby Cowern, survival instructor

Some of Skellefteå’s most noteworthy newcomers are not strictly newcomers at all. Toby Cowern, for instance, business owner, wilderness survival instructor, and all-round Bear Grylls of northern Sweden, has lived in Norrland since 2007, when he moved from the UK. But the gentle pace of life he craved here is having another, not so beneficial, side effect.

Engelska 13 juni 2023 16:35

For much of his time here, Toby's been introducing tourists and locals to the wonders of exploring the forests, rivers, and lakes of northern Sweden, as well as arming them with the skills to survive in the wild. More recently he's noticed that the recent surge of newcomers to the area has necessitated a change in his approach for his wilderness survival courses.  

PC: Why have you changed tack?

TC: I've moved away from a lot of the multi-day courses, the sort of deep-dive, hardcore courses I used to run, to more short introduction courses because that's what people want now. These people have been attracted to the north by the work-life balance up and are really excited to go outdoors. But they have no idea what they're doing, so need an intro rather than a comprehensive guide. But it's great being surrounded by people who are wide-eyed and enthusiastic about nature. I've been here 16 years now, and it's easy to get a little jaded and cynical. But when you see these new people out in the forest and out on the lakes, it reminds you that this is a really amazing place to live.

Toby Cowern, survival instructor, outside his house

PC: How did you become so interested in survival skills?

TC: I was fascinated by the Iranian Embassy siege, a 1980 crisis in London which was ended by a British military outfit, the SAS, who stormed the building and saved most of the hostages. I became obsessed with the SAS and when a book, the SAS Survival Handbook, was published, I saved my pocket money and bought it. I was amazed that these survival skills existed. I went on my first formal survival course when I was 11, and by the age of 14 had finished every course on offer in the UK. Then I read about courses in northern Sweden, asked my dad to come with me, and went. Absolutely loved it. I was useless of course, being only a kid, but I loved it. So I kept coming back to do more courses. And then when I was 18, I brought my mum with me. She was just getting into nature photography at that time. She arrived, fell in love with the place, spent three weeks here, went home, divorced my dad, and moved here full-time!

How did you end up moving to Norrland? You had a very good job in the UK.

TC: I was head of health, safety and security for a chain of pubs, nightclubs, and restaurants. We had 305 units all over the UK and 10,000 members of staff. Sadly, at the age of 27 I assumed everybody had heart palpitations and pins and needles in their arms. It was pretty obvious to me, I was never going to live to an old age. I was soon going to die asleep at the wheel in a car accident on the motorway because of the intensity of the job. 

Also, my kids were four and two, and I wanted them to have a childhood like I did - a carefree one. That just wasn't possible in the UK. It was not safe to let your kids wander around. I sat down with my wife and said, 'We have to try something different. This just isn't working for any of us.'  I took redundancy, got a nice payout, and we then moved here on the understanding that we’d move back in two years if we didn’t like it. After six weeks, I’d made up my mind that I'd never go back to the UK. Even when my wife and I split up, we all stayed here, including the kids - why would we move back?

Toby Cowern, survival instructor, starting a fire.

PC: What were the positives about moving here?

TC: It was financial first and foremost. Here I own my house. I have no debt, unlike in the UK where I was buried in debt. The social safety net is also a big attraction, even if the system has its wobbles. It functions better than in most countries. So we can complain about healthcare and such, but in comparison to other countries, we are still doing massively better in healthcare, education and the welfare society. Finally, I know a lot of people say it's very difficult to make friends in the north of Sweden, but I like living here because I want to be left on my own. If I want to socialize, and want to meet people, I can. But that lack of expectation I had in the UK to go to the pub on a Friday night is a huge relief!

PC: And the negatives?

TC: The pace of personal and business life here in the north is what I call a glacial grind. Everything takes so long. The slow pace of life is nice at times, but you have to have a gearbox and shift gears up to get things moving faster. And the green transition needs a higher gear right now. Sweden operates on 12 terawatt hours of electricity annually. By 2030 that needs to increase to 50. That's a 400% increase in overall energy production required. At the glacial speed we currently have, that's not going to happen. We will not have enough power. In fact, I've been saying for months that residential houses will have rolling brownouts this decade because industry has been promised enough power, so it will be the citizens who will suffer. A lot of industries and many key players need to work a lot quicker now. But there's one speed up here and it's very slow. It can be incredibly frustrating.

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