Last September (2016) we visited Arctic Sweden for the first time, trekking part of the 425 kilometre Kungsleden Trail. We were so impressed by the raw beauty and tranquillity of this unspoilt region that we made a decision to return the following autumn. Twelve months later we are back in Kiruna, gateway to the Swedish Arctic, waiting for a local bus to take us to Nikkaluokta to begin a trek along the Dag Hammarskjöldleden (The Dag Hammarskjöld Way), albeit in reverse ending, rather than starting, at the small settlement of Abisko.
The bus glides past the outskirts of Kiruna, the sprawling iron ore mining town which is being moved block by block to a new location due to subsidence, and passes into the alpine tundra resplendent in its autumnal shades of russet, yellow and gold. An hour later carrying my 17 kilo backpack, I’m passing beneath the wooden structure resembling a Sámi tent just outside the small settlement of Nikkaluokta which marks the Dag Hammarskjöldleden.
The day is still and somewhat overcast and the air cool with a tincture of earthiness as we set out along the trail through scrubland and birch forest. I feel a sense of relief mingled with exhilaration to be escaping into the Swedish wilderness for the next week. Off-grid. There will be no mobile phone signal. No electricity. No Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. No traffic. No neighbours’ dogs barking at ungodly hours, young children screaming over the garden wall...
Out here in the Arctic wilderness the extraneous white noise of life – the ceaseless cacophony of banal urbanity - is filtered out. In its place, the great symphony of nature - the faint buzz of an insect’s wing, the light whoosh of feathers, the wind whispering through the grass, the roar of a distant river – brings an inner calm, a rare opportunity to readjust the vertical hold in one’s life, to take stock of what is truly important, what really matters. This trek was to be particularly cathartic for me as I had just suffered the loss of my father to cancer, and the void he had left in my life seemed too vast to contemplate. That we are trekking the Dag Hammarskjöldleden (Dag Hammarskjöld Way), a ‘pilgrimsleden’ named after a Swedish diplomat who died before his time, is somehow very fitting.
Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from April 1953 until his sudden death in a plane crash in September 1961. Described by President Kennedy as 'the greatest statesman of our century', following his death a series of religious, spiritual and philosophical musings were discovered in his New York apartment which were published posthumously as a collection named Vägmärken (Markings). Famous for quotes such as ‘the longest journey is the journey inwards’, in 2004 a 105 kilometre-long hiking trail between Abisko (where Hammarskjöld lived) and Nikkaluokta, was inaugurated to honour his memory. Along the trail which is intended to be a pilgrimage (‘a journey inwards’ perhaps?), are seven meditation sites with selected texts taken from Markings that are inscribed in stone in both Swedish and Sámi.
We are walking in the direction of a line of distant snow-covered peaks etched against a steel-grey sky which offer a stunning contrast to the rich tapestry of autumnal colours woven by the trees and shrubs – saffron-yellow, burnt-orange, cinnabar-red – which skirt the naked grey rock of the nearby hillsides. Our pace is brisk as we are en route to the shore of Lake Láddjujávri where we must arrive in time to catch the 1.30 pm boat that will take us across the lake, saving us about 6km of walking through boggy terrain. The trail which runs above the Láddjujohka River is surfaced with gravel for much of this section making walking easy and provides a great warm up for the days of trekking that lie ahead. A couple of kilometres from Nikkaluokta we encounter the first of many metal bridges that enable trekkers to safely cross the scores of ice cold rushing rivers in this region. The blue-green water framed by saffron-coloured trees is especially pleasing to the eye.
We arrive at the lake fifteen minutes or so before the boat leaves, and at a small wooden kiosk pay the 350 kroner each (35 euro) for the 20-30 minute trip. Unfortunately, being the very fag end of the season means we are to be denied the experience of a juicy ‘Lap Dånalds’ reindeer burger, the booth for which is now closed for the winter!
The boat cuts through the still surface of the chalky turquoise water like a knife through butter, bringing us closer to the mountains wreathed in cloud beneath leaden skies at the far end of the valley. As if on cue, the cloud lifts a little permitting views of Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain. Its name is derived from the Sámi Giebmegáisi which means ‘Cauldron Crest’. This mountain has two main peaks, of which the southern, glaciated one is highest at 2,097.5 metres above sea level (as of August 2014). The northern peak is 2,096.8 metres and free of ice. Due to the shrinkage of the glacier surrounding the southern peak, it is possible the northern peak will assume the title of the highest point in Sweden; as of summer 2016 the difference in altitude was just one foot. However, it’s the conical shape of Doulbagorni that really steals the show, resembling a hard-boiled egg with its top loped off; in the gaping glacial crater at its summit lies a yolk of pristine white snow.
At the far end of the lake, glacial sediment deposits have resulted in a maze of shallow channels and the boat carefully meanders its way around partially submerged sand banks colonised by dwarf willow, and up into the main river before coming to a halt at a small jetty.
The trail becomes far more rugged and stony hereafter as it weaves its way below the imposing fortress-like rock walls of Darfaloalagis and passes by the seventh and last meditation point along the Dag Hammarskjöldleden (if you were approaching from Abisko). The route then climbs gently towards the canyon cut by the Darfáljohka River which flows through the landscape like a thumping, throbbing artery.
Once past the suspension bridge over the canyon, the birch trees begin to thin out and are replaced by scrub. Here and there, patches of harebells cling on as memories of summer past, surrounded by ember-red leaves of bilberry and crowberry.
Late-afternoon, a wooden boardwalk brings us to the Kebnekaise Fjällstation, base camp for those climbing the mountain which bears its name, but which ironically cannot be seen from here. It is teeming with people, which strikes us as unusual for the time of year as there is less than a week to go before the station closes for the season.
The facilities here are excellent, with the usual well-stocked shop, climbing gear hire, sauna, bar area with an open fire, and a restaurant serving three course evening meals; craft beer aficionados will appreciate the wide range of Swedish and other beers on offer! Our buffet dinner includes a starter of reindeer soup with zingy lingonberry relish and/or cured meats, pickled herring, cheeses and a variety of salads, followed by poached salmon with seasonal root vegetables, and rounded off with a desert of raspberry and dark chocolate mousse. After a night cap in the bar in the gammalstugan (old cottage), we settle into our private two person dorm where, after the last shower we will have for a week, we sleep like logs.
In the Shadow of Behemoths: Kebnekaise to Singi (14km)
The next day does not appear to hold much promise weather-wise, and from our dorm window I can see that the nearby mountains, beribboned with snow, are partially shrouded in cloud. After a hearty breakfast, and hut chores complete, we hit the trail heading towards Singi and into the wilderness where our mobile signals soon die. Around here the birch and dwarf willow lie lower to the ground than those in the denser birch woodlands we passed through yesterday. Hunkered down to give a lower profile to the wind which in this northern corner of Europe often howls without mercy day and night, they are stunted and twisted. Eventually they thin out to nothing, and the raw beauty of the alpine tundra is laid out like an inviting blanket before us.
We cross a metal bridge over a roaring river that leaps joyously down the hillside from a distant glacier in a series of small waterfalls. The trail leads on over great grey slabs of exposed rock, past boulders as big as houses, before entering the narrow Láddjuvággi Valley where it follows the bank of a river and becomes progressively rockier.
The mountains, Siŋŋičohkka, Liddubákti and Skarttoaivi with their huge, near-vertical walls of naked rock, rear upwards as if to challenge the sky itself, and from their craggy flanks waterfalls drift downwards like skeins of white silk. Passing below these 1,000 metre high rocky behemoths, I feel very small indeed.
All day the fine mist hanging in the air has threatened to give way to light rain, and finally it delivers. Cloud flows down from the mountaintops like liquid nitrogen, flooding the valley bottom with a ghostly-grey haze. Out here the sensation of soft rain on my face does not feel like an inconvenience, and I'm energised by its refreshing caress. We stop briefly to don our waterproof jackets and press on along the stony trail past pools and lakes of burnished silver, the still surfaces of which are blurred by the concentric rings of raindrops.
The ground rises gradually to the Singi Pass which provides the watershed for the valley. The rain has now stopped, the mist has dissipated somewhat and the sun is making an effort to peer through the cloud, enabling us to finally catch a glimpse of the wide Tjäktjavagge Valley. As we begin the descent towards Singi the landscape is less rugged and more undulating, and passes close to the shore of the ribbon-shaped Lake Liddubákti. Looking back, the jagged west ridge of Liddubákti now resembles an enormous pyramid, its ice-streaked slopes gleaming in the feeble autumn sunlight.
With this mountain riding the horizon, we decide to search for a place to camp in order to enjoy the view. About a kilometre above the Singi Hut we settle for a spot on a small plateau on the cushion-soft mossy tundra which has a small stream close by for water. In the broad valley bottom, I can see the wooden STF Singi Huts and several Sámi settlements which these days only hum with life at the annual round-up and marking of the reindeer calves in early summer.
Sunset is a dull affair, the sun swallowed in a bank of thick grey cloud which spreads slowly across the sky with malevolent intent. There is to be no celestial light-show tonight and before long the percussive pattering of rain on canvas signals it’s time to crawl into our sleeping bags for the night.
Traipsing Through Tjäktjavagge: Singi to Sälka (12 km)
It rained on and off throughout the night and the morning dawns grey and overcast; mist is swirling in the valley below and the atmosphere is pregnant with rain. I feel somewhat reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag.
A steepish descent down off the plateau over a track of friable calcareous ground brings us to the Singi Hut. This is the point where the Dag Hammarskjöldleden meets the Kungsleden (King’s Way), a very popular 425 kilometre route running from Hemavan in the south to Abisko in the north. The hut is quite quiet with only a few days to go before it will close for the season. We hear the sound of someone chopping wood, the warden, and exchange a few words with him before availing of the toilets and hitting the trail which runs north through the broad bottom of the Tjäktjavagge Valley.
As we gain height, skirting the slopes of Siŋŋičohkka, the view back down the valley towards Kaitumjaure is epic. The Tjäktjavagge River and numerous chilled-mercury lakes gleam fiercely under battleship-grey cloud which seems to bear down on the Singi Hut and the Sámi settlements which look diminutive set against the enormity of the landscape. Yet even on such a dull day the tundra is bursting with colour, and I marvel at a capillary of blood-red bilberry leaves fanned out against a steel-grey boulder mottled with pale green lichen.
The trail sweeps round towards the emergency shelter at Kuopperjåkka above the Tjäktjavagge River which has braided into myriad channels which wriggle through the russet bog in the broad valley floor like scores of silver eels. It begins to rain lightly just as we approach the triangle-shaped wooden shelter which is equipped with a small wood burning stove, table and benches. We stop here for lunch. The rain has passed over by the time we hit the trail again, and after about a kilometre we cross the foaming, seething Guobirjohka River via a metal suspension bridge. The river, fed by meltwater from the Rabots Glacier on Kebnekaise, has carved quite a canyon here and the roar of its water as it squeezes through the narrow cleft of rock is exhilarating.
Cloud rests softly on the nearby mountain peaks like a cloth draped over pillows, smothering the views we would have had of the Rabots Glacier on Kebnekaise to the east. A cruel wind whistles down through the Čuhčavággi Valley to our west, sending us hurrying along towards one of the meditation points. Shortly after, we pass through a reindeer fence marking the boundary between two Sámi villages. One of the most rewarding sights in the Arctic is seeing the reindeer skipping across the open tundra. But today there is no sign of them and we trudge on, crossing a couple of new bridges over the Gaskkasjohka River which has split into two channels.
Eventually we spot the chocolate-brown huts at Sälka, built on a slight knoll above a brook flowing down from Stuor Reaiddavaggi and off the slopes of nearby Gaskkasnjunni which lies opposite Sälka Mountain, reflected in the still waters of a nearby lake fringed with orange reeds. Its glacier however, is lost in the cloud.
We pick a camping spot about 500 metres away from the huts close to a bend in the brook where we can source water for cooking. Again, the low cloud banishes any hope we have of seeing the northern lights, or indeed the Milky Way, and we retire to our tent before nightfall.
The High Point of the Trail: Sälka to Tjäktja (12 km)
As we break camp the sun is rising behind the mountains, bulldozing great warm avenues through the billowing clouds in a forget-me-not blue sky. The weather is hopefully about to change for the better. Sälka Hut has a small shop and we stop by for some supplies: drinking chocolate, sachets of coffee, a few extra packets of dried food and some salted liquorice (it’s impossible to visit Scandinavia without trying this!), before hitting the trial towards the Tjäktja Pass, which at 1,150 metres is the highest point along the Kungsleden.
The sun is warming our backs as we pass along a snaking boardwalk through whispering bog grass. With the improving weather, a multitude of spiders seems to have flooded the tundra. Clutching their snare strings tightly which shimmer and tremble as we pass by on the wooden boardwalk, they flee ahead of our footfall.
The trail begins to climb gradually bringing us to a sweeping plateau studded with lakes. Great mats of lemming droppings are strewn across the bare patches of ground where we stop for lunch in the shelter of a bank of moraine, but they do not make an appearance. We watch cloud gambolling over the bald mountaintops and huge shafts of light radiating down through the breaks in the churning cloud. The pewter-grey lakes glare lividly in the autumn light. Far off in the direction of Sälka great curtains of rain are falling, an ethereal sight backlit by the sunlight.
The trail continues to rise gently weaving its way alongside the Tjäktjavagge River which in places forms pretty deep blue lakes. As the valley narrows towards the pass, the cold air sinking down from the Tjäktjatjåkka Glacier condenses as it meets the warmer air in the valley, causing cloud to pour downslope like a fluid. A shimmering rainbow hanging in a majestic arch is reflected in the still surface of one of the lakes, adding a touch of sheer magic.
The trail now climbs steeply up to the pass. Near the top we stop at the fourth mediation spot which offers grandstand views down over the valley we have just traversed. The panorama hits me square between the eyes as if an invisible fist has punched me. My world is abruptly catapulted into wide angle, my eyeballs stretched around vast spaces. The landscape is very much like the Highlands of Scotland. The mountains share the same geology, the land has undergone the same glacial transformations and the flora and fauna bears similarities. But here in Arctic Sweden everything is amplified; the mountains are bigger, the corries still hold ice – remnants of the last glacial age - and the sense of isolation and solitude is profound. I close my eyes, stretch out my arms, and exhale. Sheer bliss.
Twenty minutes later we arrive at the Tjäktja Pass. A hut and an outhouse are perched on an exposed rocky shelf above a small pool. We go inside out of the wind to celebrate gaining the highest point on our 105 kilometre trek with a nip of Norwegian Linie from our hip-flasks.
The terrain on the other side of the pass is completely different: a barren lunar landscape of shattered grey rock interspersed with wiry grass, now weary and desiccated in the approach to winter. Here and there amid the chaotic tumble of glacial debris we spot Glacier crowfoot (Ranunculus glacialis), a white buttercup-like flower, quivering on delicate stalks. Long stretches of boardwalk relieve the monotony of walking over angular boulders and before long we spot the Tjäktja Huts.
A metal suspension bridge over a small river canyon containing a spectacular waterfall brings us to the warden’s hut. We decide to camp and find a level spot some 200 metres away with grandstand views down over the Alisvággi Valley. This is the highest hut on the Kungsleden and with the sky now virtually clear, it’s decidedly chilly up here. Large crescents of dirty snow still cling to the river canyon walls below our camping spot, and as the sun slips behind the imposing sheer cliffs of Lulip Muorahisčohkka above our camp site, the wind picks up and the mercury plummets.
I flee into our tent as the first stars begin to wink in the purple firmament. Sipping a hot chocolate and nursing a Nalgene bottle of hot water to keep me warm, I lie in my sleeping bag with the tent flaps open as the Milky Way soars overhead and ethereal and eerie faint green luminous light begins to shimmer across the heavens. Billowing and swaying, stretching and undulating, the Northern Lights rise and fall in mesmerising intensity for almost two hours before, as suddenly as they had arrived, they vanish. With the sight of this celestial light show which is on every traveller’s bucket list indelibly seared onto my eyeballs, I fall fast asleep in smug contentment.
Over the Mountain Moors: Tjäktja to Alesjaure (13 km)
I’m woken by the cold tent skin touching my face. The canvas is hard and heavy. As I raise myself up on my elbows I hear the tinkle of ice breaking and sliding off. I am thankful for my four season sleeping bag and down booties which shielded me from the savage cold of last night. Although the wind has subsided, our tent is thickly silvered with frost and our boots are frozen stiff in the porch as winter’s frigid fist has begun to tighten its grip across the land which is steel hard and hoary with frost. But the sun saves the day for now. It finally swans up over the ridge opposite our tent, flooding the autumn landscape with gorgeous golden light, bringing instant warmth which sends Jack Frost fleeing.
As we hit the trail that descends fairly steeply at first into the Alisvággi Valley, we tread carefully to avoid areas of black ice, betrayed only by hypnotic patterns of water flowing slowly underneath. Trekking the Dag Hammarskjöldleden the opposite way around means that we avoid the harder, steeper slog up to the Tjäktja Pass from the Abisko direction which would be tough carrying a heavy pack. It also means you are not walking into the sun each day.
After about 3 kilometres, the ground levels a little near a reindeer guard cabin sitting forlornly out in the tundra. The view up a side valley to the west which boasts a series of lakes strung out like a dazzling sapphire necklace is delightful.
Heading towards the distinctive brown hulk of Bossosváráš, we cross several shallow rivers, some without bridges or boardwalks, then peer up the lonely Bossosjohka Valley where mountains upon mountains line up in icy splendour, before coming to the large metal suspension bridge over the Bossosjohka River. The deep bellow from this milky-green river full of suspended glacial silt belies the deep canyon it has bitten down into the rocky plateau.
Just past this we climb up to the third mediation spot on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden, located on a rocky promontory giving sweeping views down over the braided Aliseatnu River and its extensive russet wetlands studded with scores of blue lakes. While the lower mountain slopes wear a rich cloak of tawny-brown, the grey peaks away to the northeast are each crowned with a headdress of gleaming ice. Little wonder these are known as the Abisko Alps. Far off in the distance I can see the Alesjaure Hut perched high on a rocky shelf.
Hereafter, the walking across flat brushwood moorland is very easy. But in the clear arctic air it can be difficult to judge distances accurately and the hut is deceptively farther away than it appears. A large metal suspension bridge over the narrow channel where the Aliseatnu River leaves the wetland delta system to flow into Lake Alisjávri eventually brings us to the pathway leading up to the hut. This is surely one of STF’s most spectacularly placed on the whole Kungsleden. Perched high on a promontory between Lake Alisjávri and the Alisvággi Valley, the views in all directions are just jaw-dropping.
Looking back up through the valley, the rounded mountains on the west are not as high as those on the east – Unna Visttasčohkka, Påssutjåkka and Gaskačohkka - which line up behind each other. To the north is Lake Alisjávri, an indigo-blue ribbon of water which stretches for many kilometres, and to its northeast are the gleaming crushed diamond-dust of glaciers clutching at Njuikkostak which seem to scrape at the azure blue sky. Almost opposite the hut and hugging the shoreline beneath Visttasvárri is the Sámi settlement of Alisjávri, its windows glinting in the low sun angle of late afternoon. It’s ghostly quiet there now, but the place comes to life once a year at the annual round-up and marking of the reindeer calves in early summer.
Tonight we decide to stay in the hut with half a dozen other trekkers, mainly Scandinavian. We raid the well-stocked shop and our haul includes fresh eggs, salami sticks and chilled beer which are greedily consumed after days of freeze-dried food!
Across the lake, long shadows encroach over the deserted settlement of Alisjávri, and as dusk falls I spy two rough-legged buzzards in a nearby valley circling in rose-tinted columns of cloud that are slowly churning in the setting sun. After dinner we are sitting around the wood burning stove in the candlelit mess sipping hot chocolate when from a window we spy tell-tale luminous green trails streaking across the sky from the north. We rush outside to witness an amazing aurora display which flashes across the star-strewn sky and floods the surface of Lake Alisjávri with an eerie green hue. After only about 20 minutes it suddenly disappears, which is just as well as the deep-freezer cold has seeped into my very bones and I cannot feel my feet!
The Sound of Waves: Alesjaure to Rádujávri (8 km)
As I make my way to the toilet block, my shadow falls long across the frozen ground bathed in the soft amber glow of the newly risen sun. The air is clear, cool and refreshing and it promises to be another gorgeous day for trekking. Right now I can think of nowhere I’d rather be.
Having made the decision not to trek the 21km to the next hut at Abiskojaure, opting instead to wild camp somewhere near the emergency shelter at Rádujávri, we’re in no hurry to hit the trail this morning.
The first part of the route offers easy walking close to the shore of Lake Alisjávri and passes several small inviting beaches. We simply can’t resist walking along the shoreline enjoying the gratifying crunch of our boots on the smooth pebbles and the sound of the tiny crystalline waves lapping ashore.
A little farther on across the lake we spot the impressive Fantomen Falls, a silver tear-track on the wrinkled face of Visttasvárri. Sections of the trail hereabouts are muddy, and dwarf willow festooned with soft fluffy down as incandescent as candle flame in the strong sunlight, encroaches on sections of boardwalk. Next year’s precious seed is sent on its way in the gentlest of breezes as we brush by.
We soon encounter the sun-bleached upright timbers of a conical Sámi lavvu constructed close to a small wooden jetty. From 1 July to 31 August, scheduled boat tours leave here for the Alesjaure Hut at a price of 350 knoner per person (35 euro), which saves trekkers six kilometres of walking.
Just past here the trail takes us close to a small series of rapids, a loom of liquid silver, that form the boundary between the lakes of Alisjávri and Rádujávri. Crimson-red bearberries, deep-purple crowberries and midnight-blue bilberries pepper the shrubbery near the trail and we pause to help ourselves to nature’s bounty. A handful of stunted birch trees struggle to thrive at this altitude. Their golden leaves set against the cerulean-blue sky seem to honour the colours of the Swedish flag.
Eventually we spot the emergency shelter above Lake Rádujávri. We decide not to search for a camping spot near here, preferring a site with slightly more elevation for photography, and we leave the trail to bushwhack uphill though dwarf willow. On a shelf of rock with pillow-soft mosses and lichens, we find the perfect spot offering grandstand views down over Rádujávri. Opposite are the three peaks of Miesákčohkkas, great knuckles of grey rock thrusting skywards, with the conical peak of Kåtotjåkka gleaming pearl-white behind and the Godu Glacier just visible through the cloud.
Close by is a small crystal-clear brook of the sweetest glacial water imaginable and in our search for a level spot to pitch our tent, we discover scores of juicy pale-apricot cloudberries. With our tent erected, we raid nature’s larder enjoying the zingy, tangy berries before our freeze-dried dinner.
By degrees the sun sinks in the western sky and the cloud racing up over the nearest peak of Miesákčohkkas changes from warm-apricot to pomegranate-pink as the water of Lake Rádujávri turns from inky-blue to the colour of obsidian.
Sipping Linie from our hip-flasks to keep warm, we wait expectantly for another magnificent aurora display as the first pin pricks of stars begin to shimmer in the indigo sky. But patchy cloud is creeping stealthily from the west, eventually obscuring our views of the Milky Way. Tonight aurora activity is low with only a faint green smudge gracing the northern sky, and with a cruel wind blowing down from the nearby mountains, I’m happy to retire to my sleeping bag.
A Chill Wind Blows: Rádujávri to Abiskojaure (13 km)
I reluctantly emerge from my sleeping bag this morning to find our tent yet again bespeckled with flecks of ice. Freezing fog has pooled in the valley bottom and the wind bears an icy chill, signalling its intent to carry snow. By the time we break camp, it’s sleeting. A gaggle of geese fly overhead straight as an arrow. I watch them recede from view over the nearby mountaintops heading south to warmer climes, knowing that winter’s cruel embrace is fast approaching. When the first snowfall visits this riotously colourful landscape, which is now only a matter of a few weeks away, the pyrotechnic show will cease and it will be smothered, mummified in a powdery silence.
Great columns of steel-grey mist churn above lakes of chilled mercury periodically illuminated by bright lances of sunlight as we once more join the trail where patches of sly ice lie in wait on the sections of boardwalk, and we must take care not to slip.
Passing through a section of elevated wind-blasted alpine tundra we spot a grouse feather snagged amid the stunted bilberry. We have seen very little fauna on this visit and are lamenting the lack of reindeer when, as if by magic, a herd of around a dozen makes an appearance close to the lake’s edge below us. Safely downwind from them, we watch them skipping across the tundra, moving ever closer to where we lie out of sight close to the ground. They pass by blissfully unaware of our presence until they are only some 50 metres from us. A beautiful brown and white bull reindeer with a magnificent set of antlers senses our presence, stops and stares intently at us, before bounding away briskly with a horde of females in his wake.
Not long after our sighting, we cross the reindeer fence between the Sámi settlements of Gabna and Laevas by way of a wooden stile. The trail then traverses a bleak wind-blasted brushwood moor comprised of crowberry shrubs, dwarf birch and osiers before it begins to descend towards Lake Ábeskojávri. The birch trees resplendent in their autumn gaiety gradually reappear. Close to the second meditation spot on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden we spy the silver glint of a river in the broad valley bottom, and the mirror-like flash of Lake Ábeskojávri.
After a steep decent to the valley floor, we cross over the seething, foaming Šiellajohka River by a metal suspension bridge and then encounter a sign delineating the Abisko National Park. Established in 1909, camping is not permitted inside the park away from specially designated areas, and crossing a wide tract of marshland via a boardwalk, we make for the Abiskojaure Hut on the shore of Lake Ábeskojávri.
We soon reach the channel where the Kamajåkka River flows into Lake Ábeskojávri, and crossing another metal suspension bridge we arrive on a small rocky knoll. It’s not immediately clear to us where the trial goes, so we follow our noses. The sweet perfume of wood smoke hangs in the air like incense emanating from a temple, guiding us to the Abiskojaure Hut where we seek out the warden.
Our stay coincides with the last night that this hut is open, and we share the facilities with a mere handful of very convivial trekkers from across Europe. This hut, like the previous one at Alesjaure, is well-provisioned (by helicopter) and we feast on cheese-filled tortellini, salami and beer!
There is also a sauna here, and as I’m demolishing my dinner I spy four naked Finns emerge from it, their flushed pink flesh glowing in the early evening sunshine as they gingerly run down to the lake to plunge themselves into the cold water. A chill runs down my spine at the mere thought! After lighting the wood burning stove in our dorm, I retire to my bunk bed to read. But woozy from a few cans of beer, I fall asleep almost at once.
A River Runs Through it: Abiskojaure to Abisko (14 km)
As I step outside the hut, the cold hits me like a sledgehammer and my breath is white in the still and frigid dawn air. Last night was surely the coldest yet and the faint trail leading to the lakeshore is frozen solid and white with hoar frost. There is barely a ripple on the pan flat surface of the water, above which a thin layer of translucent-white mist is slowly forming. The reflection of snow-crested Kåtotjåkka wedged between the surrounding peaks of Giron and Gárdenvárri and glowing sugar-pink in the dawn light, shimmers in the inky stillness like a mirage.
We hit the trail through the beautiful riparian splendour of the Abisko National Park while it is still in shadow. The pale brown path that was rutted by scores of footprints in the soggy summer is now frozen and hard enough to twist an ankle. In each depression is a small frozen puddle. By the side of the path the vegetation is silvered, the ice-kissed crimson bearberries picked out against the deep cool-blueness of frosted heath. But on the opposite side of the valley the sun has made an appearance and the reflections of the birch forests glowing amber and gold shine lie like sheets of burnished brass on the inky-blue surface of the lake.
The sun eventually erupts over the shoulder of nearby Giron and we immediately feel the warmth of its rays. After several kilometres the lake ends and we follow the deep blue Abiskojåkka River through glorious birch forests interspersed with scattered stands of pine. Ahead of me, a single golden leaf pirouettes down an invisible spiral of breeze as if making its final dance to the soft loamy bosom of Mother Earth rendered damp by last night’s melted frost. I scent the coming winter in the air.
A rest area with a toilet and lean-to is soon encountered near the outwash plain of the Nissonjohka River which has left an enormous cone of melt-water debris. A new metal suspension bridge takes us over one of the now virtually dry main channels of this river.
Soon after we encounter the junction of the Abiskojåkka with the Kårsajåkka, and the river instantly assumes a bolder persona, throbbing and pulsating through the forest with a strident roar. The first, or in our case, final, mediation point on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden is dramatically sited on a small knoll of dolomite marble which was quarried nearby in the early twentieth century.
The pièce de résistance along this section of the trail must surely be the stunning canyon carved by the Abiskojåkka River. Warm bands of honey-coloured rock contrast with the aquamarine body of rushing water as it funnels its way between the narrow cliffs of the canyon with a deafening roar. We sit glued to the spot for ages, drinking in the majesty of the scene.
But all too soon we are walking towards the wooden entrance portal that marks the beginning (or end) of both the Kunglsleden and the Dag Hammarskjöldleden. As always, the completion of a trek is greeted with a mixture of elation tinged with regret. Elation at having successfully completed what you had set out to achieve; regret that such a wonderful, life affirming experience has come to an end.
To get to the Abisko Fjällstation we must cross the E10, an arterial route between Sweden and Norway. As we approach the road, the sound of an oncoming vehicle assaults my ears. The Volvo estate is the first car we have seen or heard for over a week, and I am stunned by the amount of noise it makes as it thunders its way past us on the highway. The insidious white noise of modern life begins to creep back in. I can’t say I’m impressed.
It was Scottish-American naturalist and author, John Muir, who stated, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity…”. This holds as true today as it did when he uttered those words well over a century ago. If you don’t believe me, go and walk the Dag Hammarskjöldleden and find out…
Watch the video of our trek in HD on Vimeo:
We flew to Kiruna with SAS via Stockholm from Dublin and used the highly efficient local buses to get from Kiruna to Nikkaluokta and from Abisko back to Kiruna. We stayed at the STF Kiruna Hostel which is a ten minute walk from the town centre. As STF members, we received a discount at all STF huts.
We carried a 2-person Terra Nova Voyager Lite tent with ground sheet, 4 season Rab sleeping bags, Thermarest sleeping mats, small light-weight stools, stove and camping gas (and a back-up titanium Honey wood-burning stove), Light my Fire kit, kettle, titanium spoons and mugs, water bladders, small lamp, head-torches, personal hygiene items, loo roll and trowel, first aid kit, Expedition Foods freeze dried meals x12, snack bars, sachets of coffee/drinking chocolate, a hip-flask of spirit (each!!!), plus woollen base layers for sleeping in, down booties, spare underwear/socks/clothing, waterproof trousers and jacket, two pairs of gloves and hat, in 65 and 70 litre Osprey Packs.
A map, compass, camera equipment and batteries were carried separately, as was a GPS and DeLorme Satellite communicator in case of emergency. Our packs weighed roughly 17 and 22 kilos respectively. The huts at Kebnekaise, Sälke, Alesjaure and Abiskojaure have shops where supplies can be replenished.