Alone in the Wild

Trekking in Sweden | by Anna Blackwell

If you ask a recent graduate what they plan on doing with their final summer before joining the working world, “five weeks trekking alone through Arctic wilderness” is not the answer most people would expect. It didn’t, however, come as much of a surprise to my friends and family. Over the last few years, I’ve dedicated most of my university holidays to various adventures and exploits, such as walking 1000 miles across France and Spain and hitch-hiking to Morocco. This year I was determined to set out on my most challenging expedition to date, and where better to find such a journey than within the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland?

 

A flight to Stockholm and 20-hour train journey later and I found myself in the village of Abisko, situated on the edge of the Swedish wilderness and start point of the Kungsleden. The Kungsleden, or “King’s Trail”, is a 275-mile hiking route that winds its way across the most northern section of Sweden, beginning 155 miles inside the Arctic Circle and passing through impressive national parks which together make up Europe’s largest wilderness area. Despite there being basic huts along a lot of the route, furnished simply with a few bunks, wood burner and a gas stove, I decided to forgo their comfort and warmth. Instead, I opted to live out of a tent and embraced all that that entailed. Carrying the resulting extra weight of a tent, thicker sleeping bag and cooking equipment was more than worth it. Each morning as soon as I woke up, I would unzip my tent and watch the landscape in front of me change as the light of the rising sun dispersed across it – all from the comfort of my sleeping bag and with my head still resting on my pillow. It was like a daily gift from the trail and constant reminder of how beautiful our earth is when you strip away all of the commodities surrounding “normal” life.

While “the Arctic” almost always conjures up images of white, snowy expanses and dwindling populations of polar bears, this was not the Arctic that I was destined for. The Lapland and Norrbotten provinces of Sweden may be snow-covered wonderlands for eight months of the year, but over the summer months the only white patches visible are found high on the mountains. I became very familiar with vast, barren plateaux and fells, landscapes that looked like photographs with the saturation turned down. There were countless wide valleys with steep, intimidating mountains walling them and broad rivers coursing determinedly through the middle. Carpets of deep green pine trees reaching as far as the eye could see were interrupted only briefly by lakes and mountains, and, as the weeks passed, I watched as the leaves on the birches turned from a delicate, light green to a bright, almost luminescent golden.

"I seemed to spend my days either climbing up through forests to cross exposed mountainsides, before picking my way back down through steep woods on the other side, or winding alongside the broad rivers running through enclosed valleys."

 

Though not snowing, it certainly wasn’t warm; I set off in the middle of August but the temperature dropped rapidly as autumn announced its arrival. On the coldest nights, I was thoroughly wrapped up in thermals, socks, hat and gloves… All in addition to a down sleeping bag that enveloped me like a warm, fluffy cloud. Despite these low temperatures, I was very lucky with the weather on the whole. My timings meant I walked between two distinct seasons; when I started in August, it was still very much summer. T-shirt weather, fell flowers lining the path, long breaks leaning against a sun-warmed rock in the sunshine, plenty of other people walking during the day, and nights which never quite reached full darkness as the midnight sun reluctantly relinquished its reign over Lapland. Over the weeks however, this all changed. In the mornings I started to wake up to a frost-covered tent. Even on the sunniest days I was dressed in all my layers (including gloves and woolly hat), darkness was settling in increasingly earlier in the evenings, and the number of other hikers tapered off until I was going several days without seeing another person.

Any lack of two-legged companions was made up for by the presence of multitudes of four-legged companions in the form of reindeer. On an average day, I would see anywhere between two and over a hundred of these entertaining creatures. They appear so regal and majestic from a distance – I remember the first time I saw one swim across a lake, it’s antlers suspended gracefully above the water – but as soon as they start moving, it’s more a case of uncoordinated legs flailing in every direction!

I came to realise that nature has a way of eradicating memories of pain and discomfort. Days upon days of walking through flooded, boggy ground meant I had permanently wet socks and boots which never got an opportunity to dry out properly, such is the nature of wild camping in the Arctic. Regardless of the unpleasantness of the soggy sock saga (and trust me, it was not fun), I didn’t need many reminders of why I love going on these adventures so much. It could be cresting a mountain pass and seeing a new horizon of mountains for the first time; sitting in my tent and watching the sun rise over a valley, while wolfing down a bowlful of lumpy porridge and a mug of instant coffee; or spending a few hours sitting around a campfire with four kind and generous Swedish men in their 60s, talking, laughing and sharing in a unique experience. When you’re in the wild, so frequently alone and miles from civilisation, it doesn’t take long before you start appreciating the beauty in things otherwise overlooked. If you ever have the opportunity to go on a journey like this, go.