Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Arctic Adventuring; 9 days in Swedish Lapland

I've always wanted to venture north of the Arctic Circle so, when the possibility of a trek in Lapland, northern Sweden, comes up, I need little persuading. Flying with SAS via Copenhagen and Stockholm, the small passenger jet deposits us on the apron of tiny Kiruna airport, 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We're soon settled in a local hostel prior to our train journey the following day.

Day 1

An hour's ride sees us at the start of the Kungsleden, the King's Trail, outside Abisko and we shoulder packs containing camping gear and enough food for nine days in the wild. They are heavy, prob'ly around 20kg. Oof! They feel ok though as we set our sights on a nine mile route. It's already 1:30 in the afternoon. But it's dry, if overcast.

Walking through low forest of birch and willow we follow the valley of Abiskojakka as it winds its way up to the lake, Abeskojavri. We're aiming to get out of the small Abisko National Park, where camping is restricted to designated sites. Around a mile past the Abiskojaure hut, we find a suitable spot, not far from the trail.

The Kungsleden is likely the most popular route in Sweden and though it forms the basis of our trek we're keen to find more solitude. The Kungsleden is served by huts run by the STF (Swedish Tourist Association) offering hostel-style accommodation and, sometimes, food. They're expensive; around £38 per person per night. We prefer our independence.

Day 2

Bright sunshine awakes us, though, to be fair, darkness comes in short supply here in the summer, with maybe four or five hours of "darkness". We never use torches, even in the middle of the night.

Climbing to the pass of Gardenvaggi we're thrilled by the views over a wide valley with a system of linked lakes spread out in front of us. Appropriate adjectives are hard to find, but spectacular will do.

Passing by a distant Sami settlement the trail winds above the shores of Ahpparjavri, Miesakjavri, Radujavri and Alisjavri. After more than eleven miles we settled for a view across the latter lake, within spitting distance of The Alesjaure huts.

The Sami, indigenous people of Lapland, farm reindeer, coming out into the hills at various times through the year to gather and manage their herds. It's then they inhabit the huts of settlements like the one we passed today. We'll see another, the following day, on t'other side of Alisjavri.

Day 3

Within half an hour we're at the huts of Alesjaure. Peeking into reception, we find self-service coffee, tea and cakes on offer; modestly priced. Be rude not too. Hut wardens are happy for campers to offload rubbish, which is welcome; a tactic to help avoid littering I guess. You can camp by a hut and use their facilities; kitchen, showers etc; but it's not cheap, around £20 per person!

Leaving the hut behind, we cross one of many airy suspension bridges and fork left, away from the Kungsleden, towards the Sami village of  Alisjavri.

The Kungsleden was busy. Now we find peace and quiet, encountering few hikers. The path climbs away from the village, passing hillside tarns towards a pass leading us, eventually, into the Vistasvaggi.

We drop steeply into the valley, nervously cross a raging torrent via a somewhat wobbly bridge, then descend into close vegetation and a twisting path, quite tricky underfoot with heavy packs. Our pitch for the night is in shadow. There's frost overnight. Ice on the tent.

Day 4

We plow through more dense vegetation next morning. Three and a half miles to the Vistas hut takes us nearly 3 hours. This isn't terrain for striding out. Every footfall must be watched. We pause for lunch at the hut, chatting with the warden and her husband. They reassure us our onward route is snow free despite the small glaciers hanging high in the distance. The climb up through Stuor Reaiddavaggi is slow. The pointed peak of Nallu glowers above us. We're heading for the far end of a lake in the pass. Tiring, we check our Viewranger mapping to find we're halfway along it! It doesn't exist. Seemingly, it's a wide river, presumably in the spring, after snow melt. Now it's just a meandering shallow waterway. We're relieved and find a location which must rank as one of the most fabulous wild camps I've ever experienced. By a tiny stream we have a view of the Nallo hut, itself surrounded by glacier clad peaks. We laze about and dine in sunshine for the first time and revel in the mountain splendour.

We're using our fairly new Sony Xperia Z5 Compact phones for most photos, Kindle and digital mapping. Critically, to keep power, we brought a recently purchased Anker PowerCore 20000. It proves well up to the job and still has around half its power left when we get back to Kiruna. Impressive, having kept both phones topped up.

Day 5

Passing the Nallo hut in the morning we chat with two young Swedes camped there. They advise us to take the right side of the lake, Reaiddajavri after climbing to the head of Stuor Readdavaggi. The pass offers a moonscape of boulders and sparse vegetation as we enjoy relatively easy walking. We've reached the halfway point of our trek. At 1066 metres it's the highest point too. The wide valley is quite breathtaking. Our packs are lighter. We feel fit and buoyed with enthusiasm as we lose altitude again, approaching the Salkas hut in the valley of Tjaktavagge below. Jettisoning litter, we sample the hut's coffee before carrying on our journey.

We're back on the Kungsleden again, for a few miles. It's busy still, but we find a quiet spot by the river to spend the night. We're well into rhythm of pitching our Terra Nova Polar Lite 3. A 3 person shelter, it's huge by backpacking standards. But carrying half each we have less weight than we usually carry when we backpack independently with a dog. Half this tent weighing less than the 2 person tent we usually use.

The outer of the tunnel goes up with three poles. I hang the inner and empty sacks while Chrissie filters water using our MSR Guardian purifier. It takes about 30 seconds to purify one litre.

Day 6

Heading further south down Tjaktavagge we're looking for a fork in the trail. Here we leave the Kungsleden again to climb over a pass on the shoulder of Sinnjicohkka. It's a tactical short day. We're on the home straight now and have to tie in with another night booked at the hostel in Kiruna. Hence, after only 6 miles, we settle near the top of the pass by a small lake at 980 metres. Rain has set in; the first on our trek. We enjoy the comfort and space in the Polar Lite 3 as we weather a brief storm.

Day 7

It's damp again in the morning. We leave, swaddled in waterproofs. But it soon clears...and warms. We join the trail between the Singi and Kebnekaise huts. At 2106 metres Kebnekaise itself is the highest peak in Sweden and a big draw. It's pleasant walking by lakes through Laddjuvaggi but as we near the hut it becomes exceptionally busy. It's the weekend. Kebnekaise pulls crowds much like Snowdon. The massive hut here is more akin to a hotel. It's almost 20 miles from the road but you can easily buy a helicopter ride out to here...and many do. However, we enter into the spirit. Leaving sacks and boots in the lobby we enjoy a delicious lunch in the restaurant which is very John Lewis. Chrissie drools over semi-naked Swedish guys outside the shower as she visits the loo. I avert my gaze every time a blonde Swedish girl catches my eye. We have WiFi here too and spend a happy half hour catching up on Twitter.

Leaving the hedonism behind we march off to our next night's camp, around a mile down the trail. Despite so many fellow hikers we still find a peaceful pitch.

Day 8

On another sunny morning we perform a practiced de-camp and are soon away into the distance again over rolling terrain. We're much lower now and it's warmer and dry. Our target today is the Sami village of Ladtjoldspelatan. Here, we find a slick cafe and a camping pitch in the village for £8. We have access to a tap, earth closet and rubbish bins and we spend a quiet evening relishing our journey and our final night camping. I cook and make lots of tea and coffee, courtesy of my travelling kitchen; the Jetboil Minimo.

Day 9

We're up early for our last morning hiking. There's a bus from Nikkaluotka at 11.10am, which we'd like to catch. The trail's easy and wide. We're blase about the last couple of high, swingy, bouncy bridges and we chat about plans to drive up through Norway to the far north at Nordkapp in our motorhome. We'll return via Finland and Sweden. We want to bring the dogs here and backpack with them. It's a long trip and...when we finally get around to it...we plan to take three months. We talk...and dream...and savour the final few miles.

Arriving in Nikkaluotka in good time, we tuck into a fine Swedish breakfast buffet in the cafe there. It's not quite sunk in, just what we've achieved. Almost 70 miles through Arctic Lapland, carrying everything we needed for 9 days on the trail; the longest uninterrupted backpack we've ever undertaken. AND we've had barely a cross word, save for Chrissie taking umbrage at my superior ability in the game of I spy.

Our return journey's fuss free. We bus back to Kiruna and our hostel. Next day an easier route home sees us flying to Stockholm and back to Manchester with just over an hour in between. Leaving Kiruna at 1.30pm we're walking through our door in the Peak District just after 7.

A fine trip by any standard. If anyone out there needs any more detail just ask here, or via Twitter to @GeoffCrowther1 or @Chrissiedixie2

And if you don't like wot I wrote try Chrissie's account here, assuming she's finished writing it.

Thanks to Mark Waring for advice and translation assistance. Mark's married to a Swede and has more experience of Arctic travel than anyone else we know. Cheers Mark: we'll be bending your ears again I'm sure.

Finally, a big thank you to our friend James who sowed the seed for this adventure last year when he accompanied Chrissie to Sarek. We nicked the route here from James, who followed it around four years back. Many will know that, as I write, James himself is part way through a mega trip following the Colorado Trail in the good ol' US of A. I wish him well.

Smile! Happy adventuring.