About a fortnight ago, just like last year, someone flicked a switch and summer started. The trees budded and flowered; the following week they were green with leaves. The frosts stopped and suddenly it wouldn’t fall below twenty degrees centigrade during the night. The seemingly endless nights are now seemingly endless days. Wherever the sun shines, people are worshipping it. It’s as if no one has a job anymore. The parks are filled with bikini and shorts clad locals all day long. All the talk at work is of the upcoming vacation period. Trying to plan field work any time in June, July or August is a nightmare as nearly everyone will be on leave, many for the entire three months! So we thought we would warm ourselves up to a summer of fun ourselves, make the most of the weather, celebrate the one year anniversary and bugger off too.

Well, the timing was more luck than anything as the tickets had been booked months ago. Tina and Ana were off to Germany, and although the draw of Hotel Bayer was as ever strong, I booked myself a ticket north, in anticipation of a week hiking my way through Lapland, recharging the brain and body, and escaping the city life for some much needed sanity.

Abisko is located near the very top of Sweden at latitude 68.35. To put that in perspective it’s closer to the North Pole than the top of Iceland is, and about the same distance north from the very top of Scotland, as the very top of Scotland is to the very bottom of Spain. It’s a long way north. A very busy month at work saw preparations a little rushed and panicked. A few phone calls on the Monday had me worried. They had had a lot of snow this year; the season been between winter and summer meant all the huts were closed and I was unlikely to see anyone else; snow shoes were a must. On Thursday I picked up Ana from dagis (Kindergarden) and we went shopping. The outdoor shops were empty of winter gear. The retailers looked at me if I was a little mad. It was thirty degrees outside, buy a canoe or something! Ylva, a colleague at work came to rescue, rang around a few shops and Friday lunchtime saw me in the possession of a pair of snow shoes that had been confined to the store room of a city outlet for the summer. A rushed food shop that night, taxi to the airport, kiss the family adieu as they got on their plane and headed south, and I was heading a long way north.

The plane landed in Kiruna. I was eager to camp in the wild on day one and by the late afternoon I had managed to transport myself to Abisko, buy some fuel for my stove and hit the trail for a couple of hours to a beautiful camping spot by the side of a raging river on the Kungsleden (Sweden’s national hiking trail). It was good to be sleeping under the stars again. Except there were no stars. The sun dipped below the horizon just after midnight and then popped back up a few minutes later, the sunset and sunrise merging into one. At 5am I gave up trying to sleep – it felt like midday, packed my things and headed on my way.

IMG_6906The river raged its way down the valley and I headed towards its source, the frozen Lake Abesko. Great mounds of soft snow littered the track sporadically which made the going slow and awkward and it was very tempting to simply go and walk on the frozen lake. However it was hot, the world around me was melting like mad and I wasn’t an idiot, I stuck to the path for the time being.

It wasn’t long until I bumped into a German guy – the only other person I was to see during the near week long trip. The timing was impeccable; we were going the same way, and we were similarly equipped, so we talked as we started to climb up into the whiteness ahead and although we walked largely independently and spent the nights in different locations, we spent much of the next three days walking together.

Up to now the snow shoes had been on and off as required. A reasonably annoying process and we joked that we could have left them behind and saved the hassle. However as we ascended into the Alis Valley it was soon to become apparent that the snow shoes were to be fitted and not taken off for many days.

IMG_6911I’m not particularly experienced in snow shoeing I have to admit, well not up to that point anyway. Therefore I was surprised how much hard work it was, about a quarter the pace of a brisk walk would be my guess, or maybe that’s just to do with me not being used to having feet ten times the size of my normal footprint. It didn’t help overly that by mid-afternoon the metre deep snow was as soft as butter and we sank up to our knees anyway. It probably would have been our waist without the snowshoes! To make things even more interesting, the track (of which was buried and not visible) snaked its way through significant swathes of swamp and crossed many small streams along the way. Of course the swamps and streams were buried and invisible, but we found them alright and it wasn’t long until the water permeated into our boots. We soon started to develop a sixth sense of how strong the snow pack was likely to be by the hue of blues and whites on the top.

I was pretty pleased to find a shelter to kip in that second night, vowing to avoid the afternoons in the future and hopefully walk on more solid ice for the rest of the trip. The weather was improving markedly (not that it had ever been bad) and the clouds of the morning had long disappeared and were never to reappear until I was back in civilisation.

IMG_6917The next day I made it to a group of huts on the south shore of Lake Alis. A collection of 5 or 6 large huts housed a sauna, shop, reception and quite a few beds. Of course, it was off season and they were locked. However my German friend had got wind of the emergency shelters. The backcountry hut complexes all had them and they were open when the main huts were closed out of season. I was expecting something pretty basic from my experience in New Zealand and was imagining a barren wooden hut with a bench, maybe a chair and a couple of worn out mattresses in a bunk bed. Still, they would be a welcome respite from the elements if needed. However I was pretty surprised to find real mattresses and pillows, gas on tap, a plentiful supply of firewood, emergency phone, pots, pans and even cutlery. It was early in the morning but already the ice was softening so together with my new German acquaintance we hatched a plan to rest for the remainder of the day in the hut, seeking shelter not from the cold wild weather but rather the pounding sun and soft snow, and to then head onwards after midnight.

IMG_6923We awoke just after midnight. I had failed to take any source of light with me on the trip and was glad I hadn’t as it was as light as day. We packed and by 1 am we were on our way. In the twilight, the ice was hard and in conditions that would make the most experienced mountaineer smile we headed up steeply onto a snow encrusted plateau up above, the snow shoes skimming off the hard surface in what were near perfect walking conditions.


Near the top of the pass we spotted the only reindeer of the trip, seemingly heading from one valley to the other in search of better grazing grounds. From the top we could judge by the different shades of the ice the pathways of the rivers and swamps and plotted a route to avoid them. We spent a glorious morning plotting our route down into the heads of the Abisko River Valley. Further down below the icy plateau, crossing the rivers high with snow melt was interesting. Valleys and chutes were metres deep in snow, corniced at the edges and often housed snow bridges tempting us with easy passage. However by mid morning the snow bridges looked dodgy and although they looked solid enough to cross we figured the risk wasn’t worth it. Instead we were forced either up or down the valley’s to find more appropriate (and safer) crossing points.

IMG_6932The comparison to New Zealand was marked. Where visible, the alpine vegetation was dominated by a low growing snow berry looking plant and the other alpine plants all seemed to be very closely related to the ones I was used to seeing in the alpine environment back home. There was even a hawk which sounded remarkably like a kea and species of wren, finch and something that looked and sounded very much like a pipit were in abundance. But my favourite was a strange hen type bird with red toggles above its eyes that sounded like someone trying to jump-start a model-T Ford. The main give away that it was not New Zealand though was the broad wide snow encrusted valleys with the still leafless birch as apposed to the narrow green valleys of New Zealand.

IMG_6949IMG_6937By eight we had descended to the valley itself and were in need of a rest. We had already been walking seven hours yet it was only just breakfast time. Usually, I would have rested and kept going. However I was in no rush, the weather was stunning and I was keen to avoid the soft snow of the afternoon. So I snoozed, set up camp and spent the rest of the afternoon reading on the Kindle – the most amazing invention for back country travel I have come across in a while.

The next day was supposedly a pretty straightforward walk down the valley back towards the Kungsleden and the main thoroughfare. The track meandered through the naked birch forest, which was still not even showing any signs of its spring growth. However with deep soft snow everywhere, the going was painfully slow and the track, where followable, was pretty much a waste of time. I ended up ignoring it completely and navigated my way between the side of the river and the high naked ridges in an attempt to avoid the worst of the deep snow. It took me all morning to travel what realistically should have taken a few hours.

The following day I was back in Abisko. and then the day after that I caught the train back to Kiruna where I spent a night waiting for my flight south to Stockholm. Kiruna was an odd sort of place. It’s a mining town with huge towering waste rock dumps looming over the city centre like it’s about to swallow the whole town. Well, that is exactly was is happening. The iron ore under the town is worth so much they are actually moving the entire town over the next thirty years so they can mine it out. It is probably one of the most uninspiring places I have been to in Sweden.

Overall it was stunning trip into the mountains and a beautiful part of the world. It is easy to forget that there is still a lot of wilderness in Europe if you look hard enough. I hope it is a place we will return to as a family in the summer when the foot travel is a little less rigorous.

We have been in Sweden a little over a year now. It’s gone fast. The mountains cleared my head and at the same time reminded me of one of the things I always miss when away from home; being close to places like that.

(First published http://swedishroaming.blogspot.se – 2014)