It is 11pm in Finnish Lapland and among the long grass and wildflowers beside the Torne river, a game of tug-of-war is taking place; Finns against Swedes. The battle is short; the Finns are pulled to the ground within seconds and a small team from England steps up to take on the winners.
“No chance,” I think, as they take their places opposite the victorious Swedes, but Marianne – the Swedish director of the evening’s events – mentions recent events in football, and this steels their resolve. After a struggle, the English heave the Swedes to their defeat and a good-natured cheer fills the night air.
The Nordic sun dips further, the late evening shadows lengthen and the wild delphiniums glow 100 shades of blue in the fading light. Here, just north of the Arctic Circle, the sun will only set for a short time and it won’t get dark. In just over an hour, we’ll plunge into the river and swim the 1.9 miles (3km) back to Sweden.
We’re here for the Arctic Circle swim from the Finnish village of Juoksenki to the Swedish village of Juoksengi on the opposite bank. Once a single village, the two sides separated only by the fast-flowing Torne were divided in 1809 when Finland was ceded by Sweden to Russia and the border was drawn down the centre of the river. In winter, the villages are joined by an “ice road” across the frozen water, but now it is a 40-minute drive via one of the bridges.
The race briefing begins and Marianne does a sterling job of conveying safety information in two languages. “It has been a hot summer,” she announces in slightly stilted English. “The water is 71F (22C): swimsuits are optional.” The swimmers chuckle as someone taps her on the shoulder and tells her he thinks she might in fact mean “wetsuits”.
The starting horn sounds and 100 swimmers begin their journey across the midnight river. At some point we cross “the world’s most peaceful border” and it doesn’t get more tranquil than this. I’m carried south on the warm current, and as I turn to breathe I catch sight of the support boats silhouetted against the briefly setting sun.
Parts of the river are deep and dark without the rays of the afternoon sun shafting below the surface. Others are shallow after the dry weather and my fingers occasionally catch the smooth stones on the riverbed. I spot the finish – the mäl – at the southern end of Juoksengi and as I make my way out of the water, I’m rushed up to the clock on the riverbank for a photograph. It is 11.45pm.
Not only have we crossed the country border and the Arctic Circle, but we’ve also crossed the time zone and are back before we started. The sky is glowing orange; it won’t be long until sunrise.