One trail, ten stories. Here’s mine.
A short time ago, in a hiking country far, far away . . .
I limped the last three miles into Blood Peninsula, grimacing with each step. For no good reason, the swelling in my knee had hit a harsher level and I was trying to figure out a new stride and pace that wouldn’t hurt as much. A cloud of mosquitoes had followed me for some time as I approached the shore and emergency hut located by the row boats. The quantity of flying insects doubled, tripled, factor-of-ten-ed, who knows. It was bad. I looked at the sky and readied myself for another barrage of rain. Storms had rolled over us for the last several days, robbing us of views, soaking our clothing, and dampening more than just our moods. The warmth and beer of Kvikkjokk already seemed many light years away. I entered the hut quickly to avoid letting in more than the obligatory two dozen mosquitoes. Long faces looked up at me – or away from me. The room was silent. The atmosphere reflected a group close to a breaking point. We hadn’t had anything even close to resembling a low moment or wrinkle in the group dynamic up to this point, day ten. All I knew was that we had a four kilometer row ahead of us, which might end up being twelve total kilometers if we had to row the boats back and forth per the requirement. What would happen next, I wondered?
Episode IV: A New Trail
The U.S. hiking invasion began in Stockholm Airport. Smiles, hugs, and beer sprinkled the reunion and introductions. We worked out our mostly final logistics for our mail-ahead supplies, checked into our flight to Hemavan, and eagerly awaited our trail. Smooth logistics made our travel day about as good as it gets. The Hemavan Mountain Station opened up just for us, sending a car to the airport, staying late to make us pizzas and fetch beer, and ensuring that we were cozy and comfortable in our rooms for the night – the last many of us would have for sixteen days. It wasn’t all fun and joy, however. The news came in with the last internet connectivity we’d have for days: we already lost one of our own. Max, our most experienced and wise backpacker, had been thwarted by Air Canada and already knew he would miss his onward flight to Hemavan, stranding him in Stockholm until he could find another way up to the trail head after a couple days. If anyone could catch up, it would be him. But we didn’t know the next time we’d see the sad Yeti.
Glory emerged around us the next three days as perfect weather and outstanding vistas made every moment pure bliss. Herds of reindeer wandered past, epic glacial valleys surrounded us, and the world seemed new, perfect, and endless. We met a few travelers, including our new Dutch friend Stefan, who labored past us in a backpack that might have been outdated in 1975. Otherwise, the trail was all ours. Naps, swims, and jaw-dropping views for every break made the trail about as good as it gets. We rolled into our first mountain station in Ammarnas and the good times kept coming – this time with reindeer and elk dishes and more tasty Swedish beer.
The next stage of our journey produced the best surprise yet – the return of the Yeti (Max), who not surprisingly ended up [i]ahead [/i]of us on the trail after starting out two days behind us. A mere 35-mile day helped him accomplish this easy feat. The group was complete, the sun was shining, and the glory of the trail continued. Max treated us that first night to one of his secret hiking superpowers: finding the perfect campsite. Thanks to this special skill, we would be ensured great evening sites for the remainder of the trip, which is practically a miracle for a group of ten hikers with nine total tents! We even hiked out the first day with extra beer in our packs (well worth the wait/weight). We settled in for a sunny night on the high plateau and in addition to the views enjoyed such great activities as the new hit game “Whose knife is it?”
Episode V: The Kungsleden Strikes Back
Halfway through the next day something wasn’t adding up. We woke that morning late and doddled along in order to avoid finishing our alleged fifteen-mile day too early. Several folks had a two-hour nap on the ridge; others came off the moraine to search for a beach and a swim. But around two p.m. we realized that we had a lot more than fifteen miles that day. Eventually, Max used his superpowers to find us a nifty campsite next to a roaring river but even the forest views couldn’t overcome our newest challenge: mosquitoes. For the first time in our trip, we were being plagued enough to pull out the head nets en masse and use an extra gallon of DEET. Little did we know this was just the beginning of our bug woes in the lowland area. The rain started the next day. We had a respite in Jackvik and Kvikkjokk but the next several days were challenging. Rain, mosquitoes, and wind sapped away our ability to even stop at times and turned the middle section of the trip into a more unfortunate slog than many of us wanted. The human brain did what it does: take a present reality and extend it into perpetuity. While we actually stated to each other during the sunny beginning of the trip that we made a mistake bringing so much rain gear (because of course we presumed it would be nothing but sunshine and happiness for the duration) we now muttered to ourselves that it would rain until the end. And then we ended up at Blood Peninsula. After an extended discussion that dreary evening in the emergency hut, we attempted to begin rowing only to realize it was a bad idea after all. We hastily set up camp by the shore, endured the biblical plague of mosquitoes, and tried to start the next morning with more hope.
Episode VI: Return of the Joy
In the afternoon the clouds parted and the landscape opened up into its greatest vista yet. The mosquitoes weren’t gone for good but they retreated sufficiently for us to ignore them for the rest of the trip (likewise, the rest of us will probably ignore any future mosquito count under twenty). And that’s when it really changed: we rolled into the Saltoluokta Mountain Station to a reserved table for ten, caviar at each plate, and a multiple-course food and wine pairing. Was this really happening? Our faces hurt from smiling. It was going to not only be okay. The trip was going to be perfect after all. The challenge of the rain and mosquitoes just added to our tale. Even at its worst out there during the bad stretch, everyone did a fantastic job selecting and using their gear on the trail. We went to bed dry and bug-free in our shelter sanctuaries each and every night.
The group would split, with five folks aiming to traverse the Kebnekaise side trail and summit Sweden’s highest peak while the other five decided to stay on the trail and even drop some mileage for the last several days in order to arrive together in Abisko on June 30. I’ll let the others fill in the adventures from Kebnekaise. My knee was acting up enough to keep me from making the attempt. For me, this made the end of the trip blissful and perfect. We hiked our fifteen mile days, enjoyed the stunning scenery of the final section, and even frequented a couple huts during the day along the way to buy some beer. In the end, like clockwork or magic, we rolled into town within hours of each other. All ten had made it.
After leaving the trail, I smile and nod with infinite satisfaction thinking back on it. It was amazing to go to bed each night to the sound of roaring water, bird song, and joking friends. I loved the straightforward existence of staying fifteen nights in a row in a tent, with the only challenge for the day being our mileage. I didn’t even bring a watch. This is a seductive and deeply enriching hobby that we have, and not surprisingly it only gets better the longer you stay out.