Archive for September 2nd, 2012

September 2, 2012

Above the Arctic Circle – trekking in Swedish Lapland pt1

by backpackingbongos

The journey from Stockholm Arlanda airport to my hotel in the city was remarkably easy.  A lift (I liked the fact that the sign read ‘hiss’) from the terminal building took me down to the railway platform where the Arlanda Express was waiting.  The immaculately clean space age train then whisked me at 205 kpm almost to my hotel door.  In the UK turning up on a Friday night at 11pm in a strange city can be a hair-raising experience, drunken chaos sadly being the norm.  Stockholm at that time of night was remarkably calm and ordered and I spent half an hour wandering around after checking into my room.

I had booked a sleeper train for the following evening to take me to Abisko, north of the Arctic circle.  This meant that I had a day to spend in Stockholm.  I have to admit that I am not a big city fan, for me they are something to escape from.  Therefore after a late breakfast I found myself walking rather aimlessly around the city centre killing time.  I managed to locate the street with several outdoor shops and had a good old browse.  Stockholm is not the place to head to if you want to pick up some bargain outdoor kit!  I purchased some gas for my Jetboil and some mozzie spray and then spent a few hours walking in a large circle, returning to the train station rather hot and footsore.  I had not expected the city to be so warm and sunny.

I was relieved to finally board my overnight train later that evening.  Being of a slightly misanthropic persuasion I had paid a few extra pounds and had a cabin all to myself.  I was glad that I had as it would have been a tight squeeze to fit three adults in that rather narrow box.  I enjoyed being able to spread out on the bottom bunk whilst watching the Swedish countryside drift past the window.  There are rather a lot of trees in Sweden. It was early to bed in an attempt to make the 18 hour journey go a little bit quicker.

I woke to find that we were stationary in the middle of nowhere, enclosed by a wall of trees.  I felt rather sick and my stomach was making some very unhappy noises.  The morning was spent making several emergency dashes to the loo and I have to admit that the idea of shouldering my pack and hiking into the wilds was becoming very unappealing.  A series of lengthy announcements came over the tannoy in Swedish.  Chatting to the occupants in the cabin next door it turned out that due to signaling failures in the night we were running over four hours late.  As we pulled into Boden station I set off  down the train in search of the buffet car on a mission to purchase strong coffee.  Unfortunately the buffet car had been removed and connected to another train.  For some unfathomable reason we then sat motionless in Boden for nearly two hours waiting to connect with another train, compounding the late running.  It is good to know that the UK does not hold a monopoly on having an unreliable rail network!

Day 1 – 14 kilometres

It was 4.00pm by the time I got off at Abisko tourist railway station, twenty two hours after boarding the train.  After such a long journey and having spent most of the day on the loo I was feeling a bit sorry for myself.  It did not help that I was four hours behind schedule and had fourteen kilometres to hike by evening.  In Sweden you are pretty much free to pitch a tent wherever you want, but there is an exception to this rule within Abisko national park.  This meant that I had a bit of a route march ahead of me to get my tent pitched in a designated place that evening.

Passing under the gates to the Kungsleden trail I followed the wide track through the birch forest.  It was at this point that it really sank in where I was.  I kept muttering to myself, “I’m in the Arctic, I’m in the Arctic, I’m in the Arctic” over and over again.  Soon I was grinning from ear to ear.  My Arctic trek had finally began.

The Abiskojakka river would be my companion for most of the afternoon.  At the beginning of the trail it thunders through an impressive rocky canyon, the water crystal clear.

Wooden boardwalks would soon become a familiar sight on my trek as I passed through areas of bog and delicate vegetation.  You have to concentrate when walking across them as it would be easy to misplace your feet and twist an ankle.  Also in the less frequented areas they are not always well maintained and have a habit of acting like a see-saw when you walk on one end.  I soon got used to them and could quickly see the benefits to the ground and vegetation.  They also keep your feet dry across the boggy bits, which is nice.

I have to admit that at the first meditation spot on the Kungsleden I managed to take a wrong turn.  Maybe it was because I was trying not to disturb the woman sitting with her eyes closed high above the river.  I noticed after a few minutes that the sound of the river had disappeared and that the path was now only a few inches wide.  I retraced my steps back to the Kungsleden which is as wide as a motorway in this early stage.  I wondered how I could make such a navigational error.

I passed a constant stream of day walkers who were heading back to Abisko for the evening.  Backpackers however were thin on the ground due to my late start.

A few kilometres after setting off I passed a designated camp site.  I was tempted to stay as I was tired, but I was aware that it would add at least ten kilometres onto the twenty two I already had planned for the following day.  I also felt that it was a rather dark and gloomy spot, the tent pitches being damp and muddy.

I crossed the first suspension bridge of the trip, it was great fun as it bounced and swayed high above the river.

It was a shame that I had to rush the first day of the trip and I found that I was constantly looking at my watch and then the map to gauge my progress.  It was a lovely warm and sunny afternoon and it would have been good to spend time lingering, the landscape slowly unfolding as I passed through.  From riverside to open moorland to lakeside.

At the north eastern end of Abeskojavri there was a Sami settlement next to the lake.  It looked like an excellent place to camp with plentiful patches of flat grass.  However I was aware of the no camping rule in the national park and was also unsure of the protocol of camping near a Sami settlement.  I thought that the traditional huts were impressive though.

A few hundred metres along the lake I passed a small stream and decided that I would collect water and have a stealth camp out of sight of the path.  I was simply too tired to continue and I found myself getting rather grumpy.  I headed to a flat looking terrace above but was dismayed to find that what looked like grass from a distance was actually inches high shrubs and trees.  There was absolutely no chance of being able to pitch a tent.  I ditched the water and continued along the lake towards the huts at Abiskojaure.

An hour or so later I was greeted by a rather stern warden who informed me that the hut was full and that he hoped I was carrying a tent.  Not being a member of the STF I was charged a ridiculous 240 SEK (£24) to camp on a muddy patch round the back of the hut.  I tried to join so that I could get discounted rates during the rest of my trip, but they had run out of membership cards.  I was rather peeved that I therefore still had to pay the non-members price.  I was then forbidden from entering the main hut and forbidden from cooking in my tent, instead shown to a campers kitchen.  I have to say that the whole STF experience was rather off-putting and I vowed to wild camp as much as possible during the rest of the trip.

Day 2 – 15 kilometres

I woke at 5.00am and got up to use the loo.  I have not seen air so clear and sky so blue since trekking high in the Himalaya many years ago.  The clarity of the air was amazing, the sun just lifting above the horizon and shining through the birch trees, the precipitous slopes of Giron towering above and casting its shadow.  It was a breathtaking moment but I could not linger as the temperature was close to freezing and I was dressed in my sleeping clothes.

I managed to get another couple of hours sleep, waiting for the warming rays of the sun to reach my tent before getting up.  I was glad to leave the rather regimented vibe of the Abiskojuare hut, the suspension bridge across the river promising real adventure.

I could not believe my luck with the weather as I slowly ascended though the birch forests.  The going was easy and with every step I was moving into ever more remote country.

A suspension bridge crosses the tumbling Siellajohka river, boulders providing plentiful places to sit in the sun.  I removed my boots for a while and dipped my feet in the fast flowing water.  That lasted only a few seconds as the water was painfully cold.

Across the river the path starts climbing steeply until you are high above the river.  There is a feeling that you are now entering the high mountains, the forest spread out below my feet.

An engraved boulder marked another meditation spot, one of many between Abisko and Nikkaluokta.  I did not feel the need to meditate but it did provide a nice handy seat to rest for a few minutes.

The scenery was now outstanding and I could have been in the Scottish Highlands, although the landscape was on a much bigger scale.

It was a long hot and steady climb around the shoulder of Garddenvarri, the mosquitos becoming very active and annoying.  As I came around the corner the scenery became much more alpine with the jagged peaks and ridges ahead rising to nearly two thousand metres.  Unfortunately the position of the sun made it difficult to capture just how impressive they really were.

It was whilst standing around taking photos that I heard the commotion behind.  One of my pet hates in the outdoors was quickly approaching, the outdoor mega hiking group, their members stretching out in a long crocodile line.  I continued on my way, hoping to put some distance in front of them.  I passed a large hairy man of the mountains, all beard and suntan who looked like he had been in the hills for weeks.  He returned my greeting and then his eyes widened in horror when he saw the group behind.  He said that he was going to find a boulder to hide behind whilst he waited for them to pass.  I left him muttering, “Too busy, too busy”.

The climbing was done and I found myself on a plateau on the eight hundred metre contour.  The view to the west was stunning with a mountain in Norway looking all rugged and pointy above a large glacier.  I think that there are endless possibilities for exploration in this area.

Two lakes came into view with a Sami settlement spread out between then.  My pace had become relaxed and the mega group had caught up.  Feeling in a bit of a huff I decided to go off path and found a boulder to perch for a while whilst I waited for them to disappear over the horizon.  I was happy to hang around, the view being exactly how I imagined the Arctic tundra to look.

The mega group decided to have a faff and it was evident that they were being guided.  I have seen companies that offer guided walks on the Kungsleden on the internet and cannot fathom out why someone would want to pay large sums to be herded along what is a very well-defined trail.

I managed to get ahead of mega group and came to another, “Oh wow” spot, the large lake of Ahpparjavri nestling amongst high mountains.  Once again a photo cannot do the scale of the place justice.  I stood and gawped for a while before deciding that it would be a good place to sit and do some further gawping whilst I had my lunch.  It was a very happy man who removed his boots and sat against a boulder drinking coffee and eating couscous.

I had photocopied some pages from the Kungsleden guidebook and I sat reading them in the sun, no real hurry to get moving again.  The following caught my eye, ‘Look out between Radujavri and Mieskajavri for a spot where it is possible to wade across so as to continue along a path on the east side of the lakes towards Visstasvaggi.  But be cautious, wading is difficult unless the water level is very low’.

It sounded like a challenge and with mega group appearing once again on the horizon I decided to change my route.  I followed the Kungsleden a little bit further until a rickety faded signpost pointed towards the lakes, no visible sign of a path in the boggy tundra.  My heart fluttered a little in my mouth as I took the plunge and headed into a much more deserted Swedish Lapland.

I actually managed to find a few vestiges of a path on the boggy walk towards where the two lakes met.  There were even a few sections of boardwalk which had not been eaten up by the bog and vegetation.  The path frequently disappeared and it was a bit if a game trying to work out where it would reappear.

At the crossing point I met a couple who had been sitting there for half an hour trying to decide whether they should cross or not.  They said that another couple had successfully managed to get across earlier.  I have to admit that I was rather nervous, I had never crossed such a large body of water before, it was probably at least two hundred metres to the other side.  Although there were plenty of boulders where I could rest, it was difficult to gauge how deep the water in-between was.  Also the water towards the far bank appeared to be fast flowing.

When I declared that I was going to go for it the couple decided they would try as well.  I removed my boots and changed into my inov8 recolites and made a tentative step into the water.  It was cold enough to make me gasp and my feet quickly went numb.  To start with the water was knee-deep and I slowly made my way to the first boulders where I could rest in safety.  In places I could see that the water was over waist deep and I spent a while backtracking to find a safer way across, the boulders underfoot being rather slippery.  At times the water came to mid thigh.  Finally I came to the fast flowing section which thankfully was only knee-deep, more water would have caused difficulty.  Twenty minutes after first starting the crossing I reached the far bank.

The couple was only half way across and whilst stopping to put my socks and boots back on I paused to photograph them.  Hopefully it shows the scale of the crossing.  I felt rather pleased with myself and I was happy that there was now a large barrier between me and the Kungsleden.

After the wide and often eroded Kungsleden the narrow trod on the other side of the lake was a pleasure to walk.  It was just a feint groove marked by the occasional cairn as it twisted and turned through boulders and thickets of vegetation.  All alone and with the mountains towering above I felt that I was now properly exploring the stunning scenery.

The path climbed to cross a finger of land sticking out into the lake, the height giving a better view of the huge bulk of Njuikkostakbakti, its black cliffs an impressive sight.

A small amount of ascent meant that the vegetation was much shorter and there was evidence of grazing by reindeer.  I decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss in terms of a wild camp spot.  With excellent conditions underfoot, fantastic views and water a few minutes walk away I decided to pitch the Scarp.  It was rather windy but it was doing a good job at keeping the mosquitos away.  In fact the location was perfect, probably the best of the trip and perhaps one of the best I have ever had.

With my tent pitched, gear sorted and my 4ltr platypus full of water I wandered across the small rocky outcrop overlooking the lake.  Once again the view was superb and I could not believe how good the weather was.  I drank it all in aware that by the end of the following day rain could be falling, according to a woman on the train.

With the sun slowly sinking behind the mountains the temperature quickly dropped and I got cosy in my tent.  A perfect wild camping moment.