Northern Kungsleden Trail, Sweden
Berlin to Kiruna
Beep, Beep, BEEEEEEPPPP! WAKE UP!!! My imaginary mental alarm wakes to the 4 a.m. darkness of Berlin. My real alarm wasn’t too far behind; my head likes to give me a bit of a warning so I have a moment of brief calm before the day begins. Showered (would be the last one for a week) and packed, we head out the hostel door into the mild morning air barely 12 hours after we’d arrived in Berlin the previous afternoon. Hopping on the U-bahn, we rode with the early morning commuters, most looking like they wouldn’t have minded a few more hours in bed. But despite our tired faces our backpacks gave us away. Just passing through…
At 7 a.m. we were in the air heading north to Stockholm. A few hours later, we were landing north of the Arctic Circle, under the grey, misty skies of Kiruna, Sweden. Though it doesn’t really ever appear on any schedule, or at least not the two times I’ve flown to Kiruna, there seems to be a bus that appears from somewhere mysterious and takes you to the city center. The last guy to get on the bus asked if there would be another one later that night, as his girlfriend would be arriving on another flight. ‘Nope,’ the driver replied. ‘Only one bus today.’ That seems to be how things work in the north, and I’m always wondering if the info I read, especially if found online, is accurate. Does the bus actually come when the schedule says it will? Or do they just go by their own rule? Luckily, the bus taking us to Nikkaluokta did show up at the bus station in Kiruna and by late afternoon we were deposited at the trail head. The next 120km would be by foot.
Nikkaluokta to Kebnekaise Fjällstation: 19km
The clouds hung low in the valley, concealing the peaks around us. A light drizzle fell from the grey sky. One of those rains that tempts you not to put on rain gear, but then ends up getting you unexpectedly wet somehow. After taking shelter to change into full waterproofs, we took to the trail for several hours of uneventful hiking into the fading afternoon light. At the estimated halfway point, I found a nice flat spot amongst the autumn birches and set up camp. I did put a little effort into trying to find someplace slightly scenic, trying to remain optimistic that I could put my camera to work at sunrise. As morning came, heavy drops pelted the tent, a bit more sleep seemed the best idea.
The only thing worse than setting up a tent in the rain is taking down a tent in the rain. And the rain was falling, and falling as the morning hours passed. Finally tired of waiting to see if the storm would relent, we packed up camp and continued along the trail. In my best SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess) of an estimate, we’d reach Kebnekaise Fjällstation in about 3 hours, around noon or so.
The rain was relentless as we continued down the sloppy trail and through forests of golden birch trees. We passed the ghostly silhouettes of hikers, hoods up and heads down, more closely resembling waterfalls than men. My (supposedly) waterproof shoes soon began to show their submission to the weather, and my thin fleece gloves left my hands wet and cold. We continued in silence towards the dream of warmth and of fire, of a place to dry off and relax, of an expensive bunk at Kebnekaise Fjällstation.
And then, out of nowhere, the clouds parted and a brilliant blue filled the sky! My first thoughts where that we should have waited in the tent longer. My next thought was that it probably would have rained for a week straight had we waited. I think the North sometimes likes me to suffer a bit before she offers me any rewards. As we neared the surrounds of hut, my thoughts drifted to finding a nice place to camp and maybe a few nice camping photos. And then reality reminded me that the tent was completely soaked, sleeping bags were damp, clothes were wet, and most importantly, if I set up my tent, it would rain again. And so I forked out the 500 SEK for a bunk bed and went even more extreme and bought myself a beer or two. And since I was carrying a laptop for no other reason than I had no place to leave it, I even made use of some internet. Luxury in the mountains.
Kebnekaise Fjällstation turned out to be a busy place, or at least much more so than I imagined, being it so late in the season. And entering the guest kitchen I was presented with the dilemma I always seem to find myself in: yummy free food to eat or the beginnings of a lighter backpack. A mix of both would do on this night. And so our heads hit the pillow that night, full, dry and warm. Luxury in the mountains…
Kebnekaise Fjällstation to Singi: 14km
As morning came to Kebnekaise Fjällstation and we prepared for our third day on the trail, I had already seen more sun than during my entire 10-day journey in 2009. With an easy 14km to Singi hut, we lazed around for a bit, not taking to the trail until mid morning. This goes slightly against my normal advice to take advantage of good weather when you have it. It is never a question ‘will it rain’, but rather, when. And so in tempting fate, we hiked west into the Ladtjovagge while surrounded by some of Sweden’s highest peaks which already carried a dusting of the season’s first snows.
About an hour into the day we came across a group heading our way. “You have three options – wet, wet, or wet.” The warning from a Swedish woman who had just passed through the particularly flooded and boggy section along the trail, which we now faced. Another couple from their group sat on the side of the trail putting their boots back on, having given up any attempts at keeping their feet dry and preferring a barefoot crossing of the river.
So there I stood in my light trail runners, still fairly dry at that point, looking for any sort of weakness in the in 100+ meters of Swedish super bog interlaced with series of small rivers that needed fording. The following few minutes weren’t particularly elegant: a quick hop onto a slightly submerged rock, almost slipping into knee deep and ice cold water. Another long step saw me onto a broken bush, the bog creeping up around my shoes with every second my foot remained still. Moving fast I found another, more secure bush with which I could use to scout out my next few moves. More steps and more cursing as the mud crept up around my feet, the first hints of moisture beginning to penetrate through. Another small stream to hop across and then I came to the final section with no way around. I put my trekking poles as far forward as possible and did a sort of a flying leap into another clump of small bushes. My poles flexed and sank as I used them like crutches in a desperate attempt to keep from sinking past my ankles. Finally across, I surveyed the damage: left foot somewhat wet from taking the worst of the bog, right foot muddy, but overall pretty dry. Success. Or at least success for my preferred use of trail runners in a country where people often hike in wells. My partner was not so successful (or skilled) and her boots soaked through.
The next hours passed uneventfully as the valley narrowed and we hiked in the shadows of mountains and along crystal clear rivers and waterfalls, everywhere. We passed another large group of school age kids taking a break on the side of the trail. My thoughts immediately diverted from the scenic terrain to one of dread; that we might encounter another such a group at Singi, where they would literally take over the whole place. While I don’t go to the Kungsleden expecting some isolated wilderness experience, I also don’t expect to share a small mountain hut with 19 (yes, I counted) teenagers. It’s good to give kids an outdoor experience, but I feel such large groups have too much impact on their surrounds in an isolated mountain area and the small huts that shelter us. So it came to my relief as we arrived at Singi just prior to the rain that we would have the place almost totally to ourselves, just an elderly Swedish couple across the hall in a separate room.
Singi to Sälka: 12km
Morning arrived to clear skies once more, but a fresh, to put it nicely, wind was coming from the south and I knew it wouldn’t be long before some not-so-nice hiking weather would arrive. So before 8 a.m. we were back on the trail, this time heading almost perfectly north, towards the Sälka hut, 12km away. This part of the journey was now familiar to me, as Singi had been my southernmost point while on the Kungsleden in 2009 when I hiked from Abisko to Singi, and back to Abisko again after I learned there were no more buses running from Nikkaluokta for the season.
With the wind at our backs, I wasn’t paying much attention to the weather behind us until I stopped for some quick photos and saw a wall of snow quickly heading our way. Having taken chances in the morning and not wearing rain gear, we were both in for a rather chilling change of clothes on the side of the trail. Minutes after our backpacks were back on, a terrible mix of snow, sleet, and icy rain hit us with a fury.
A couple more hours of hiking saw us arriving to a warm fire at Sälka. It is here that I learned some wisdom from the hut warden: wood warms you twice. Once while preparing it for the fire, and once while in the fire. It was also at Sälka that I learned that I was somewhat known in this part of the world, as a nice young Australian couple at the hut had read my blog about my 2009 journey. Cool!
I knew Sälka to be a nice place. I knew there to be some good potential for photos in the area, but once again, like 2009, the weather chose otherwise. This is a frustration that I, and we, as landscape photographers often face I think; that I’ve hiked several days to get to an isolated place, only to be shut down by the weather. I made the most of the light and conditions that I could, but already put a note in my mind that I’ll have to come back once again, not that I would complain!
And so our 4th night on the Kungsleden arrived as we sat warm and dry from the heat of a glowing birch wood fire.
Sälka to Tjäktja: 12km
I woke in the morning with a sore throat and a bit of a headache, which for me typically means one thing. I’m about to get a cold. I probably picked something up in Germany, most likely from my coughing neighbor at the festival, who also happened to sit behind us on the train, constantly coughing until we had to change trains.
It was another blustery day as we left Sälka, heading north towards Tjäktja pass, the highest point on the Kungsleden. And unfortunately this day, the wind was heading directly into our faces. It was also on this section in 2009 that the wind was so strong, it blew my rain cover right off my pack, which unfortunately I didn’t notice for a few minutes, and then had to go chase it down.
At 1,140 meters in elevation Tjäktja pass is not especially high. But as it sits at the northern end of the long Tjäktjavagge, the views south are some of the most spectacular along the trail. Unfortunately for my camera, I didn’t choose the most scenic day to head over the pass. I gave some thought about spending the night in the shelter at the top, but eventually decided to continue to Tjäktja hut. Arriving at the hut, we were now a little more than half way through the 120 km distance of the trail.
After a cold windy day hiking, my cold had worsened, and in fact we were both now sick. I loaded up on Ibuprofen and tried to make the best of it. If there is one hut that seems to be most often skipped along the trail, it is Tjäktja. And as it ended up, it was just the two of us there for the night. I actually feel a little bad about staying in an empty hut, as it takes a lot of wood to heat the place up for just two people. The hut warden, an elderly lady that didn’t speak much English, but was always smiling, must have thought of me to be a bit crazy as I was running around and setting up my cameras to shoot time-lapse sequences. I tried to explain what I was doing, but I’m not sure I got the point across, but she did seem amazed at the amount of crap I was carrying!
Tjäktja to Alesjaure: 13km
As the morning light increased, a fresh layer of snow was covering the ground around the hut. And so once again, we headed out into the wind and snow and rain for a relatively easy hike to Alesjaure hut. Luckily the wind was to our backs again, but it turned into a pretty grim day for the most part.
Partly because of our colds, and partly because we were a few days ahead of our schedule, we would spend two nights at Alesjaure hut. I knew the area around the hut to be fairly scenic, so this would also give me a chance to see if the weather might decide to clear up. And as luck would have it, I would have the pleasure of meeting another one of my blog readers here, this time from Austria. I’m always amazed at how small the world can be sometimes.
So some lazy days passed. A few photos here and there, but the light largely remained elusive. We even spoiled ourselves and bought a can of beans, perhaps the most expensive beans I’ll ever eat in my life, and instant mash potatoes to bring some variety to our bland diets of couscous thus far. I think even one of the worlds most expensive apples was bought, though I don’t think I received any. Oh, and a nice warm sauna in the evenings was nothing to complain about!
Alesjaure to Abiskojaure: 21km
Even after a full day of rest at Alesjaure, our colds were still taking a toll on energy and motivation levels. The original plan had been to leave the ‘proper’ Kungsleden trail and head west to Unna Allakas at the Norwegian border, but this would also add another 24km to our journey, something my stuffed up head and runny nose weren’t very excited for at the moment. Even the thought of staying another night at Alesjaure was discussed, but quickly dismissed. Best to get a move on, even if not all the way to Abiskojaure. After a bland breakfast, we were once again on the trail, heading north towards our final destination, which now sat only 35km away.
Overnight rains turned the trail into a boggy, slippery mess, and it was slow going around the lakes. We had heard that the forecast promised clear skies, but as noon neared, heavy clouds still guarded us against any possibility of getting a sunburn. The winds were calm however, giving the day a much more relaxed feeling than what most of the previous week had been.
Sometime around noon, we ended up at the small shelter near lake Radujavri. Taking a slow lunch, I began to notice that the clouds seemed to be quickly clearing. I then mulled the decision, to stay or not to stay. We had not even reached the halfway point to Abiskojaure, but on the other hand, we still had some extra days, and I didn’t mind laziness. Not to mention, I was hiking the trail to enjoy myself and hopefully get some nice photos; I was carrying too much camera gear to miss the possibility of a good photo opportunity just because I was in a hurry. The reason I purposely scheduled a few extra days than necessary for the trail.
I also knew that if the weather did clear, it would be better to remain up in the high country rather then head down into the forests which surround Abiskojaure. I’d also heard some mentions of a moth infestation which had stripped many of the birches barren. And so at that, the decision was made. We would stay at the small hut. And luckily enough, there was even one last log of firewood that had thus far survived the season. Though the saws and axes were in a bit of over-used state and it required a little creativity to get the log into a burnable state – no need to mention that it was also pretty wet.
As as the afternoon hours passed, the sun finally emerged from the clouds. As dusk arrived the sky was now almost completely clear and my excitement grew at the possibilities of something that had thus far eluded us, Northern Lights. The night grew clear and crisp and dark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars! It was a struggle to choose between remaining outside in the cold, or the warmth of the hut.
I soon settled into a restless sleep. No doubt because I set my alarm to go off over 30 minutes so I could check for Auroras. The hours passed and passed but the sky remained quiet. Sometime around 3 a.m. I gave up hope, knowing that if anything were to happen, it likely would’ve by then. I didn’t wake again until the light of dawn was creeping through the tiny window.
The morning arrived with a chill and not a single cloud in the sky. A good decision had been made to stay up in the high country. An added benefit was that the previous day’s boggy trail was now frozen solid, making for much easier going. Or at least most parts of the trail. The wooden plank sections were covered in a layer of ice and slippery as hell, needing much extra caution at times.
We made quick progress towards Abiskojaure and arrived by late morning. The stories of the moth infestation were true and we near suffocated as we had to hike through clouds of them that hung over the trail at times. And indeed, much of the forest was nothing more than brown twigs, the leaves not fallen, but eaten.
Abiskojaure turned out to be a pretty crowded place as it seems many people make just a single overnight trip there from Abisko. A lazy afternoon followed and thoughts of our last night in the wilderness. The morning would see us back to civilisation, at least as much as Abisko can be called as such. We turned in for an early night.
Abiskojaure to Abisko: 15km
The final 15km to Abisko went by quickly and we arrived before noon. We checked into the hostel for a couple nights and then quickly headed to town for something that had been on our minds a lot in the last days, food! I generally know better than to go shopping while hungry. I should have definitely known better than to go shopping in a Swedish supermarket after 10 days in the mountains. To say we overbought for the next two days would be a fairly large understatement.
The hostel in Abisko was a much more popular place than I was expecting and we had the unfortunate benefit of a school group of teenagers from Kiruna who pretty much ran uncontrolled about the place. It took some harsh words by a middle aged German dude before that at least quieted down somewhat. I guess the Swedes are a little more relaxed in their supervision of youngsters, though I don’t think the teachers were much pleased when they heard the sauna had been left littered with empty beer cans. Kids will be kids…
Abisko markets itself as a ‘Northern Lights watching destination,’ and it appeared many of the guests at the hostel where there for this. Our first night passed uneventful, mostly thanks to the clouds. But finally, on the second night some Aurora finally decided to make an appearance, though still mostly hidden by clouds. The photographer in me wished I could have been back at the hut on the shores of lake Radujavri as I don’t actually find Abisko to be that scenic of a place. I don’t quite know why it is such a popular destination, other than perhaps ease of access and the fact that the weather is often better than over in Norway, where there seems to sit a perpetual wall of cloud quite literally at the border to Sweden. Quite funny actually.
In the morning came the train back to Kiruna where our journey had begun 10 days and 106km earlier. All in all, it was a brilliant week in the Sweden’s mountains with some excellent days and a much greater variety of weather than my first trip. No doubt I’ll be back again.