Risking a chilling baptism in arctic waters, Doug Lansky pulls on his skates to explore the (mostly) frozen, surreal beauty of the 24,000-island archipelago around Stockholm

A kilometre from the shores of Stockholm, on Baltic ice so thin it was bending around me like a contact lens, I suddenly realised the unwritten rule of open-sea skate touring: don't be the heaviest person in your group. The two wafer-thin Swedes in front of me, Fredrik and Hernan, and their two partners behind me, Tina and Karin, were about a stone lighter. If anyone was going to take an unwanted plunge today, it would be me. Perhaps that's why they seemed so relaxed.

Or maybe it was because, as I later learned, they had previously fallen through the ice and knew how to pull themselves out. Whatever the reason, I wasn't as optimistic. Every time the ice cracked - a seemingly cataclysmic event that happened once every five minutes - or even moaned (yes, the ice actually moans, and it sounds eerily like a whale's cry echoing through the ocean), I closed my eyes and waited to fall through. They say in that first moment when you hit the water, the cold takes your breath away as panic grips your chest like a Sumo wrestler.

I double-checked the mini ice picks dangling around my neck and wondered if these little plastic things would actually grip the ice when I needed to pull myself out. I let Hernan's safety instructions dance on a continuous loop in my head as I skated. As soon as you go through, I told myself, turn around and face the direction you came from; that's the only ice you know will support you.

Once you're in the water you have a few options: place your pole across the ice and use it as leverage; try to crawl out with the ice picks; or throw out your safety rope (everyone in the group has one) and hope that someone can grab it. The big risk is skating fast and crossing too much thin ice before you fall through. Even if you head back the way you came, you'll have to punch through a lot of flimsy ice before you reach any that will hold. If you do manage to get out, you have minutes to change into your emergency dry clothes double-sealed in your backpack before your hands become immobilised by the cold. Then you can only pray that it's the last time you fall in before you reach shore.

The one thing I didn't expect to see while skating in this 24,000-isle archipelago was open water. However, once we passed the first few tree-lined islands, which seemed to sprout up from the ice like tufts of hair as if an army of giant green men on the march had been buried up to their ears, there was remarkably more water than ice. To the east was the wide-open Baltic Sea. Between our group and the sea was a series of open pools, some claimed by white swans, others changed colour as the wind kicked up ripples. Fredrik darted between these pools on narrow bands of ice, some just a few metres wide. It was here that Karin expressed her reluctance to continue and I became aware that the ice I was skating on felt soft, almost like standing on a waterbed. As I pressed forward, I could see a pressure wave moving in front me. I instinctively spread my legs to better distribute my weight and began using my poles instead. I looked up to check my direction and saw Fredrik and Hernan staring back at me in disbelief. When I miraculously reached the thicker ice where they had stopped, Fredrik explained. "I've never seen anyone so close to going through. I would have lost money on that bet," he said.

Because Swedish skate-touring purists pursue newly formed, smooth ice the way skiers go after virgin powder, falling through is chillingly common. This hasn't kept Swedes away from thin ice though. Besides the items I had been mentally clinging to, the essential safety equipment also includes a whistle to attract attention and knee pads in case you hit a rough patch that knocks your legs out from under you while whizzing along. Because the waterproof bags with emergency clothes double as flotation, you need a special strap beneath your nether regions to keep the pack from riding up if you should fall through. The ski pole may look plain enough, but its hefty weight and extra sharp tip make it ideal for testing ice thickness. As a basic rule, if you can poke it through the ice with just one jab, you're in the wrong place.

It was on this one-jab ice that we were skating. In theory, the only thing keeping us dry was the high salt content of the water this far out to sea. The more salt, the more supple the ice. If we had been closer to shore, skating on brittle brackish water, we'd have already broken through the crust.

We had been sent here by a special recommendation on the Stockholm skate touring club's members-only website ( www.sssk.se). Currents and fluctuations in temperature make safe ice difficult to predict, but with hundreds of members checking the ice near them daily and feeding the data to the website, that's as much as you can hope for. The club processes the data like raw spy intelligence and spits out online reports that read rather like quirky wine reviews: "Just north of Tyresö, the ice has an orange-peel consistency." or "Near Nynäshamn's beach, the ice is like elephant skin." You might say that skate touring (långfärdsskridskoåkning, if you care to attempt the local term) is to Sweden what trekking is to Nepal. Although, perhaps that's not a fair comparison since the Nepalese don't trek for sport -- we invented and imported that classic "Nepalese" activity. This is more like a national obsession. There are roughly 300,000 skaters in Sweden, 13,000 registered members in Stockholm's club alone. And about 50,000 new pairs of skates are sold each year.

You might not even recognise these as ice skates if you haven't seen them in use. The blades are about a finger's length longer than the ones used in the Olympics, not nearly as sharp, and taper up on the front to tackle sections of rough ice. The best part is that there are no rock-hard leather lace-ups involved - you can affix soft cross-country ski boots and bindings or simply strap on your favourite hiking boots.

So what's the appeal? Other than the thrill of not knowing when you might be getting an arctic baptism, skating on ice smoother than your bathroom mirror offers an incredible floating sensation. Once I came to terms with the cracking and wailing of the ice and understood it was not signalling the arrival of a massive fissure beneath my feet, it merely added to the charm of a frozen archipelago landscape so surreal I almost expected Mary Poppins to zip by me on a carousel horse.

The gateway to skating nirvana, as far as Stockholmers are concerned, comes after a week or two of bitterly cold temperatures when the ice becomes thick enough to venture out of the inland waterways and into this Baltic archipelago for picnicking or even camping on almost any of the islands. There's a law in Sweden known as allemansrätten (everyman's right) permitting free camping on unfenced private and public land provided it's more than 100m from the nearest dwelling. Courtesy dictates that you try to stay out of view of the landowner's house, not litter, and knock on the door to introduce yourself and let them know where you're camping.

I had made use of this law in the same waters during a summer kayaking tour, but when it's just a picnic, I noticed from our group, there's no need to ask. Or perhaps it was that there was no one to ask. The thousands of archipelago summer homes were almost all deserted. After skating across this frozen wonderland, we had the islands to ourselves.

Doug Lansky, is the author of the 'Rough Guide to Travel Survival', £7.99

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Stockholm-Arlanda is served by SAS (0870 60 727727; www.scandinavian.net) from Birmingham, Manchester and Heathrow and British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Glasgow and Stansted to Stockholm Skavsta and from Luton to Stockholm Vasteras.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Stockholm, in economy class, is £2.50. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

SKATING THERE

If you want to try it but don't have any heavy Swedish friends willing to test the ice for you (for safety, you should never skate with fewer than two other people), guided tours are available.

For safe lake-skating, visit Hellasgården (00 46 8 716 39 61; www.hellasgarden.se) in Nacka (about 10 minutes by bus from central Stockholm), which rents skates and maintains a ploughedthree-kilometre track. There's also a sauna beside a maintained hole in the ice so you can (provided you don't mind the public nudity) try a winter swim.

STAYING & RELAXING THERE

To recover after a long, cold day on the ice, warm up at one of the following spas:

Hasseludden Yasuragi Hotel & Spa, Hamndalsvägen 6, Saltsjö-Boo (00 46 8 747 6400; www.yasuragi.se). Doubles start at SK1,296 (£95), including breakfast and spa admission.

Centralbadet Spa, Drottninggatan 88, Stockholm (00 46 8 545 213 13; www.centralbadet.se).

Sturebadet Spa, Sturegallerian 36, Stockholm (00 46 8 545 015 00; www.sturebadet.se).

MORE INFORMATION

Visit Sweden: 020-7108 6168; www.visit-sweden.com

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