It was September, late for a long backcountry journey this far inside the Arctic Circle. Slivers of ice sparkled in the creek as I hiked alone through the cool autumn dawn. The route, marked by painted rocks, climbed upward through mile after mile of golden tundra. I gradually worked up a narrowing valley as it rose toward the top of a rounded ridge. Trudging up the final steep slope, I crested the pass and was stopped in my tracks by the view: the stunning expanse of a huge arctic valley stretching to the horizon. This was Tjaktjavagge, and it sprawled into the distance, majestic in scale, glowing amber in its September colors. There was not a building, nor a human being in sight, just the empty Arctic valley extending southward for more than 30 kilometers. Incredibly, the trail I was on continued much farther than that, for almost 400 kilometers. I felt like I could walk for days and never run out of room.
This is Lappland, the remote northern region of Sweden, a place that harbors the last true wilderness in Europe. Lapplanders, the native Saami people, still live a life of reindeer herding and hunting in this wild land. The Swedes have built a 450-kilometer-long hiking route known as Kungsleden through this big country. This "King of Trails" is just the starting point for hikers in search of a unique experience, as dozens of side valleys off the main trail offer less-traveled routes to even more remote places.
Hiking in Arctic Sweden is about as close as you can get to a backpacker's paradise. The northern sections of Kungsleden are dotted with comfortable huts about a day's walk apart, a fact that makes it easy to go light and fast, or if you have the time, light and slow. But North American hikers will find another sort of appeal, for in this intriguing landscape you can pitch your tent almost anywhere. There just aren't enough people up here to create problems with impact. So go ahead, make camp by the little glacier up the side valley, or down by that tundra pond, or beside the roaring rivers, and no ranger will write you up.
The freedom to do what you want here is enough to make you giddy. You don't need a permit. You can drink the water right out of the creeks and rivers, as giardia is no problem. At a time when geo-political unrest has seen wilderness travelers rethinking trips to even favorite destinations such as Nepal, this enchanting Scandinavian wilderness of wide open spaces, big forests and fast rivers holds irresistible appeal as a safe alternative.
I'd been hearing about northern Sweden for years, including the time Swedish explorer Goran Kropp interrupted my interview with him at the Banff Book Festival to rave about it. Clearly, I had to go and have a look for myself, but finding out where it was and how to do it turned out to be easier said that done. Most of what little information I could find was in Swedish. Fortunately, my research led to the Swedish Touring Federation. This volunteer hiking organization, known in Sweden as the STF, maintains most of Kungsleden, staffs the huts, and operates the more elaborate mountain stations. Through the STF, hikers from other countries can now request information about Kungsleden in Japanese, English and several European languages.
The first stage in planning a hiking trip to northern Sweden is figuring out exactly where to hike. Kungsleden begins at Abisko, in the extreme north, and continues south to Hemavan, more than 450 kilometers away. Hiking the entire length can take a month, or more. But the route lends itself to four roughly week-long sections. Of those the northern section is the most popular: The six-day route from Abisko to Kebnekaise covers about 80 kilometers and some of the best scenery along Kungsleden.
I opted for the northern section because the week-long route crosses the highest point of the entire Kungsleden, Tjaktjapasset, at 1,140 meters (3,750 feet ), and takes in the highest mountain in Sweden, Kebnekaise, 2,113 meters (6,932 feet). This section of Kungsleden has another huge advantage: it is relatively easy to get to through the small city of Kiruna, the northernmost airport in Sweden. Kiruna is home to one of the largest iron ore mines in the world, as well as the tony Ice Hotel. As a result, the city boasts good air connections to Stockholm, and frequent bus transportation to both ends of this hiking route.
The STF operates several "mountain stations" that are bigger and more elaborate than the huts found along the trail, replete with restaurant, showers and other amenities. This northern section of Kungsleden begins at Abisko Mountain Station (Fjallstation is the Swedish word) and goes to the Kebnekaise Mountain Station, at the foot of Sweden's highest mountain. From there, a final day on the trail leads in 20 kilometers to the tiny Saami settlement of Nikkaluokta, at the dead-end of a minor highway. The hike from Abisko to Nikaluokta covers more than 100 kilometers of pristine Arctic backcountry.
With the route settled, I chose to go as late in the season as I dared, both to experience a Swedish autumn and avoid the mosquitoes. From Seattle, an SAS flight took me to Copenhagen and Stockholm, and from there another two hours by air to Kiruna. Arriving on a cool, sunny September day, I found Kiruna to be friendly and pleasant, despite the big mine looming just outside of town. To shake off a serious case of jet lag, I strolled around the winding streets lined with trees of fluttering autumn leaves, and was surprised to feel strangely at home. I caught up on my notes in a neighborhood coffeehouse, where strangers engaged me in congenial conversation, demonstrating that many Swedes speak English well, and enjoy a conversation. Being so far north, and so removed from large metropolitan areas, Kiruna radiates a character not unlike paces in Alaska, where remoteness and Arctic weather engender a friendly hospitality.
Kiruna made a restful interlude before the long hike in the mountains. I left a bag at my hotel, and took the two-hour bus ride to Abisko Mountain Station, the start of Kungsleden and headquarters for Abisko National Park. Here, one of the country's best known landmarks, the mountain ridge called Lapporten, or gateway into Lappland, looms to the south. The deep blue expanse of the Tornetrask, one of Sweden's largest lakes, sprawled north of the station. The setting is wild, but the station casual and comfortable.
Dawn, however, revealed a Tornetrask that was no longer blue, but a dull gray under a light rain. I dug out my pack cover and prepared for a wet day on the trail. First, I plundered the big breakfast buffet, that staple of Swedish life. In a light drizzle I finally passed beneath the heavily timbered Kungsleden gate, and started up a good track along the wild, fast river, the Abiskojakka. I was still in the park here, and encountered day hikers who had ventured out in the weather. The rain was a minor annoyance, and served to highlight the emerging fall color of the birch forest. Beside me, the river flowed fast and clear, and at the first crossing I drank deeply, and filled my hydration system.
I spent the next night in the hut at Abiskojaure, about 15 kilometers south. With the help of a young woman from Stockholm, who joined in as translator, a fit, experienced hiker more than 75 years old showed me the basics of the Swedish hut system. There's the water-getting place, the bathing place (downstream of the water place), the waste water place, and the intricacies of the kitchen, with its gas cookers and wood-fired heating stoves. But this late in the season only a few hardy souls were about. The hut was quiet that night, and I had the kitchen to myself when I awoke at six to make breakfast and coffee. Hoisting my pack, I was on the trail by seven, crossing the serious-looking Kamajakka via the big suspension bridge before moving up toward the high country. Big rivers along the route are so well bridged I encountered no dangerous crossings.
When you climb out of the trees above Abiskojaure, you enter a vast and wonderful Arctic wilderness. The terrain changed as soon as I ascended into the valley flanking the distinctive peak of the Giron, up toward the plateau that holds the long, narrow lake called Alesjaure. Because just a few hundred feet of elevation can make a profound eco-zone difference in the Arctic, the trees gave way abruptly as I climbed higher into a landscape of open tundra. Across the plain, a pair of reindeer trotted along a low ridge.
The distance from Abiskojaure to the hut at Alesjaure is 23 kilometers, and I saw no hikers along the way. That September day in the Arctic I shared the high valley with no one, except a few reindeer. Over a simple lunch, cheese and the ubiquitous Swedish hard-bread laid out on a flat rock by the lake, I relished the wild feeling of this open high country. A raptor I could not identify let loose with a high pitched call as it hunted above the shores of the lake. Solitude amplifies beauty, and the sense of wildness. I felt fortunate to have this place to myself. In the distance, the hut was just visible astride the ridge at the far end of the long lake, still miles away. A cutting wind began to surge down the valley in sudden, fierce bursts, reminding me it was September in the Arctic, and motivating me to dig out my parka.
I reached the newly rebuilt huts at Alesjaure at about 2:30. Hendry, the hut warden, his husky in tow, showed me where to put my gear. Then, with pride, he showed me the ingenious current-driven device that pumped water from the creek far below up to the holding tank, saving everyone the long walk down with a bucket. I headed over to the wooden benches in the sunny public room to catch up on my notes over a can of Lapin Kulta from Hendry's informal store. The beer had been brought up by the local Saamis, along with the propane gas and other supplies, on snow machines the previous winter.
People tell me Kungsleden can get crowded in summer, but that day only a few hikers trickled in from the surrounding countryside. A German party said they hike here every year to escape the crowds and teleferiques of the Alps. A few Swedish hikers and a Swiss couple completed the small population at the hut. The Europeans I encountered were frankly astonished to meet me, so rarely do North Americans come to Kungsleden. There's no hiding the fact that you're "not from here:" the Swedes like to hike in green, knee-high rubber boots, so conventional hiking footwear marks you as a visitor.
I had not much time in the country, so the next day needed to cover two of the normal one-day hiking stages, about 30 kilometers total. The early start to my long walk found me once again alone in the hut's kitchen. After coffee and oatmeal, I shut the hut door quietly and hit the trail with anticipation. The day was likely to be a highlight of the route as it led up toward the Tjaktjapasset, the highest point on the entire Kungsleden. As I walked beside the icy creek up the valley, Alisvagge, I saw a pair of hikers who had pitched a tent on a flat bench far up one of the side valleys, where they had camped in solitary splendor on the open tundra. The opportunity to camp anywhere the impulse strikes in this vast wilderness is one of the great features of Kungsleden. Next time I come, I'll bring a bivvy bag and a stove. That way, you could savor the wild solitude by camping out when weather permits, but enjoy the comfort and sociability of the huts when it doesn't.
The trail started a steady ascent, passing the small Tjaktja hut, the usual stopping place from Alesjaure, perched on its hillside across the river. I had much farther to go, so continued on, stopping only for lunch by the roaring Ceavccanjira as it flowed through its gorge. Munching away at my rapidly diminishing food supply, I looked up at the craggy mountains around me, and the raging river. The silence was broken only by the white noise of the whitewater, and distant birdsong. I marveled at my luck to experience a great European wilderness in perfect solitude. Hoisting my pack, I resumed the march up toward the pass. The valley closed in on all sides, forming a small basin. Only when I got closer did I see the safety shelter, what the Swedes call a rescue hut, at the 1,140-meter pass.
The spectacular view from the top gave me renewed energy for the climb down to the valley floor and the hike southward alongside the swiftly flowing Tjaktjajakke. I saw from the excellent Swedish topo map (a fjallkarta) that the huts at Salka, my destination, lay 12 kilometers farther yet, at the foot of the long, graceful ridge that entered the big valley from the east. I arrived at the rustic structures about 3 p.m., having walked two full stages. For a second day I had seen not a single person on the trail.
Kunglseden huts are the meeting place for wilderness all around it, and a nice foil to the solitude of the trail itself in autumn. Soon after my arrival at Salka, I was joined by Goran, an orthopedic surgeon, and Bengt, a Christmas tree grower, who had hiked down a side valley from Unna Allakas. They, like the other Swedes, expressed amazement to find an American at Salka. These friends, from the Malmo area, spoke excellent English and graciously took me under their care, and fun-loving tutelage. They shared with me a strange Danish liqueur, and I with them my Kentucky sipping whiskey. Bengt, bald, strong, and funny, a real wild man, steamed up some trout he had caught earlier that day with his bare hands.
After dinner we stoked the simple wood-fired sauna out back hot enough to melt steel, and these friends showed me the Swedish ritual of sauna. This consists of pouring big pans of hot water over yourself, then baking your brains for a while in the sauna proper, then repeating the process. It was a wonderful luxury after my days on the trail, but I declined the invitation when Goran and Bengt headed out for a dunk in the nearby river, which I figured was running at a temperature about 1 degree above freezing.
We said our farewells the next day at breakfast as I set out early on another double stage that my new friends reckoned to be "three Swedish miles." (Never talk miles with a Swede, for a Swedish mile is six times as long as an English mile, and great confusion can ensue. When discussing directions here, kilometers are the safer measure.)
This was my last day on the Kunglseden itself. From Salka, I traveled south down the inspiring Tjaktjavagge, turning to the east off the aptly named King of Trails well before the hut at Singi to pick up the short-cut over to Kebnekaise Fjallstation. The marginal side trail, marked only by the occasional cairn, lead steeply up and over the shoulder of a subsidiary ridge with its small lakes. Thick gray clouds descended as I approached the top, putting me in a sudden whiteout. Beside one of the tarns, I waited out the fog with what passed for lunch, the last of my food, and my last meal in the wild part of Lappland. Still in the whiteout, I dug out my GPS receiver, carefully loaded with the Swedish grid system and the country's map datum--RT 90, unique to Sweden. So far, the trail had been sufficiently well marked I had not needed to use the device. Even here where it looked like it might be useful, the clouds lifted enough for me to see where I was going.
I worked steeply downhill, without the benefit of trail, into a narrow valley where I picked up the main route between Singi and Kebnekaise Mountain Station. The hiking distance that day was the longest of the trip, and for the last few kilometers I expected, and hoped, to see at any moment the buildings of the station. Finally, the station's high radio antenna came into view, so I knew I was close.
One final rise before the station loomed when I encountered the first people I had met on the trail in three days. It was Par, a photographer, and his friend. They expressed the inevitable surprise at an American, so we talked at length, introducing ourselves and exchanging impressions of Lappland . Par, who knew Kebnekaise so well he was doing a book on the subject, told me the mountain was not visible from the station. "You have to go up this valley," he said, motioning where. We stood on the slope talking for some time before Par snapped my photograph and we went our separate ways. He and his friend walked up toward Kebnekaise as I hurried toward the station and its welcomed comforts.
Kebnekaise station was pure luxury at the end of more than 80 kilometers on the trail. After a long shower, I ventured into the dining room to catch up on my notes. Dinner would be served soon, an elaborate Swedish buffet, and I was going to take full advantage. Ahead of me was a day hike to Kebnekaise, and then another day on the trail to reach the road at Nikkaluokta. But the really wild part of this unique wilderness excursion was sadly over, and I used the easy days around the station to reflect on it. The expansive backcountry and friendly people of northern Sweden had won me over. The unlikely adventure proved genuine, the experience something to relish.
I had planned a couple of extra days at the end of the hike to allow for weather delays or other unforeseen problems. But since I finished on time, a few days remained to explore Stockholm and live large before the flight home. I wasn't quite ready to immerse myself in a full-on urban setting, so I chose the tranquil Villa Kallhagen, a small hotel on the water opposite Djurgarden, the former royal hunting grounds, and adjacent to the city's largest park. It turned out to be the best of both worlds, a quiet and indulgent place to re-enter after Kungsleden, yet minutes from the heart of the city. One of the great European capitals, cosmopolitan Stockholm made a stimulating contrast to the Arctic. With a substantial caloric deficit from the long walk, I ate my way guilt free through trendy, medieval Gamla Stan, the old quarter, and cruised the inland waterways and the outside "archipelago" of this "Venice of Scandinavia." I even had time to take in unique attractions, such as the incredible Vasa museum, a structure built around a 17th century wooden warship that sunk on its maiden voyage. The ship lay at the bottom of the harbor until it was painstakingly raised in one piece to its present location.
Stockholm put a civilized flourish to the end of an amazing trip. The whole package revealed one surprise after another: from Kiruna, to the pristine backcountry of Lappland, and finally the city. It was a journey that changed the way I think of European wilderness. Now that I know parts of Kungsleden can be skied, and that Kiruna is one of the best places on earth to see the Northern Lights, I'm wondering what Arctic Sweden would be like in winter.
Kungsleden: The Basics
Money: The Swedes do not use Euros, but the venerable Kroner, locally called "crowns." The Kroner now converts to about 7.5 to a U.S dollar, so if the prices seem high at first glance, they are, at least here in 2004, when the dollar is at a low ebb against European currencies. Once out of Stockholm, though, the country is not expensive.. Expect to pay $100-$200 for a decent accommodation in Kiruna (it comes with breakfast), $20 per night in the huts, $40 or so for a nice meal or buffet of hearty Swedish cuisine.
The Trail: The 450-kilometer Kungsleden begins at Abisko, in the north, and continues south to Hemavan. Hiking the entire route takes a month, or more, figuring about 100 kilometers per week. But the route lends itself to four roughly week-long sections: Abisko Mountain Station to Kebnekaise Mountain Station covers about 100 kilometers and some of the best scenery of the entire route, including Sweden's highest mountain. The next section, Kebnekaise to Saltoluokta, traverses broad mountain plateaus, with steeply incised valleys at Teusajaure and Kaitumjaure, as it crosses Stora Sjofallet National Park. Saltoluokta to Kvikkjokk takes four to six days, passing through virgin forest, expansive heaths, and lakes where travel by boat is required. Ammarnas to Hemavan, the southern most section of Kungsleden, crosses open plains dotted with large lakes.
When to Go: The huts on the northern section are open from mid-June to mid-September, when the trail is sufficiently free of snow to be hiked. The midnight sun shines from the end of May to Mid July. Expect a wet track but uncrowded huts until mid-July, when the month-long busy hiking season begins. Any hike in September comes with the risk of early season snow.
Trip Planning: Lappland is relatively remote, but surprisingly easy to reach from Stockholm if you know how. Kiruna makes a laid-back staging city, accessed by air, with convenient bus connections to and from the hike. The STF, the Swedish Touring Federation offers basic information in English and Japanese, and much more in Swedish and European languages. STF volunteers answer email, so if you inquire in English about a travel detail or ask a question about Kungsleden, you usually get a response in English within a week or so. Kungsleden is about as out there as you can get in Europe. It's a place where Swedish civility rules and where the Sammi people add unique cultural interest. Sweden is a big country, so you'll find very different experiences as you travel from rural Kiruna to cosmopolitan Stockholm.
Getting There: Multiple airlines serve Europe from the U.S., including SAS, which departs from four U.S. airports for Copenhagen. Flying SAS internationally puts you in a Scandinavian frame of mind, and makes a lot of sense. You'll be on SAS in Sweden, so keeping the air travel on one airline simplifies this journey. I flew direct from Seattle to Copenhagen and Stockholm, then on to Kiruna. The remote mining town is a rather obscure destination, but SAS has two flights a day. Flying domestically in Sweden is way easier and less stressful than flying in North America. Another option to reach Abisko from Stockholm is to travel by train.