Night is mustering in the hills and the first stars begin to wink in the purple grey firmament when a large vixen suddenly appears just a few metres from our tent. She’s totally unperturbed by our presence, eyeing me blatantly as she casually marks her territory. My blood runs cold. I’m convinced that this beast is recceing our camp, intending to return under cover of darkness while we are sound asleep to steal our rations, and will tear through our rucksacks and savage our tent in order to feast on the food we are carrying. We’re still three days away from civilisation and can’t afford to lose any of our provisions or suffer irreparable damage to vital equipment. After all, my fears are not unfounded, as we have previously suffered the ill effects of a fox’s nocturnal visit while we were wild camping …
Martin and I have returned to Northern Sweden, our third consecutive autumn visit to Laponia, a place that we now hold in great affection. This time we are trekking across the mighty Sarek National Park. Lying inside the Arctic Circle, with no roads, signed trails, wardened huts, or motorised access, Sarek was established in 1909 and covers 1.970 square kilometres. This famous park lies at the very heart of the Laponia Area, part of the homeland of the indigenous Sámi people (also known as Laplanders). Laponia was recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996, as it is the largest area in the world (and one of the last) with an ancestral way of life based on the seasonal movement of livestock in the form of semi-domesticated reindeer.
Around Sarek’s eastern edge runs Sweden’s most famous long distance trail, The Kungsleden (King’s way), while its western edge is circled by the 150 km long Padjelantaleden (Higher-land way), both of which are well-serviced with huts and mountain stations. Situated between these well-used trails, Sarek is a roughly circular expanse of genuine wilderness, one of Europe’s last; a daunting, glaciated, inaccessible region of 2,000 metre high mountains, densely vegetated trough valleys, unforgiving high-alpine plateaux and turbulent ice-cold rivers fed by glacial meltwater. The landscape feels decidedly primordial, perhaps because the last remnants of the vast Fennoscandian Ice Sheet only receded from the mountains of eastern Sarek some 9,000 years ago, just after the end of the Pleistocene epoch.
The only trails found here are those created by the migration paths formed over thousands of years by foraging reindeer herds, which the Sámi in turn followed. The routes in and out of Sarek are dictated by the enormous valleys that separate its icy massifs, providing corridors into the heart of the national park. The nearest access points are a day away from any trail head; unpredictable wild animals including enormous moose, and predators such as brown bears, wolverines, lynx, wolves and foxes are found in Sarek. Crossing the park is a serious undertaking.
Day One: The enchanted forest
The autumn air is cool with a tincture of earthiness as we leave our Land Rover Defender parked at the quayside on the shore of Lake Áhkkájávrre (an enormous reservoir) just down the road from the Svenska Turistföreningen (STF) hut at Ritsem where we have spent the night. Here we board the M/S Storlule for the forty minute crossing to the Sámi settlement of Änonjálmme (250 SEK for adult STF members which is payable by cash or card on the boat). Great cords of light from a sallow sun fall through broken flint-grey cloud, flooding the surface of the inky-blue lake which is agitated by a stiff breeze, causing the boat to gently pitch and yaw. The view ahead is dominated by Áhkká, a 2,105 metre peak dubbed the ‘The queen of Lapland’, whose glaciated crown rises regally into cloud which is just touching it.
It’s early September, the height of the short Arctic autumn, a season of silvery mists and mellow fungal fruitfulness. We both smile ear to ear as we clamber ashore at Änonjálmme, haul on our heavy packs and hit the Padjelantaleden which we will follow to the boundary of Sarek National Park. I have yearned to return to Laponia all year, and a ripple of excitement electrifies me as we take our first steps on a new Arctic adventure. For me, trekking through the primordial Swedish wilderness offers an unmissable opportunity for nature to bestow some much-needed revitalising therapy, a chance to hit the reset button. Indeed, a visit to Laponia has been described as the modern European equivalent of a restorative visit to the Pleistocene. This is a place where the ticking of clocks is disregarded and time is counted not in minutes and hours, but in the changing of the seasons. Out here I need only care for things such as the sun’s position in the sky, a crystal clear stream to slake my thirst, a level spot to lay my head for the night…
The Padjelantaleden threads its way through mature mountain birch forest which forms part of the Stora Sjöfallet National Park, set up in 1909, and the air is rich with the fragrance of decaying leaves and loam. It’s damp too. It rained heavily earlier in the week, but even days after the rains have passed the soil remains moist, slowly releasing its heady vapours. Beneath the tree canopy the mossy ground is peppered with scarlet lingonberries, deep-purple bilberries and shaggy lichens in myriad shades of white, grey and green. The reindeer survive on the lichen in the winter, digging down through the snow to raid nature’s treasure chest. The Sámi value it too, having used it as an antibiotic for over a thousand years. For me, the birch forest has an enchanted, fairy-tale atmosphere. The whispering leaves glow golden as the light passes through them and shiver on their silver branches as autumn’s breath of death envelops them. Ahead of me a shower of golden leaves make their final pirouettes to mother earth, her loamy winter welcome mat fecund with fungi.
Around two kilometres from the jetty, we pass the STF Akka hut and make rapid progress towards the Vuojatädno River. We hear it long before we see it. This throbbing, thumping artery links lakes Akkajaure and Kutjaure and its Sámi meaning is ‘The swim river’ as reindeer can’t wade across it. A couple of bridges span the rocky channels with rushing crystalline water which roars like a jet engine as we pass overhead. A short climb brings us onto the sparsely wooded, rocky flank of Áhkká with glorious views of the Vuojatädno Valley, resplendent in its golden autumnal foliage which serves to amplify the topaz braids of its mighty river.
The mist that has been shrouding the top of Áhkká is stealthily creeping ever closer to the valley floor and eventually gives way to light refreshing rain. A herd of reindeer seem animated by it, and dance across the tundra as we pass by. Before we have time to stop and put on our waterproofs it stops, and the landscape is once again bathed in watery sunlight. The trail contours the flanks of Áhkká and its smaller neighbour, Sjnjuvjudis, passing through areas where the forest floor is teeming with conical wood ant nests and across boardwalks above wet ground full of swaying, whispering bog grasses, before dropping down towards the Sjnjuvjudisjåhkå River. From the high ground above this river valley, we have fine views towards cobalt-blue Lake Kutjaure and Treparksmöte (The Threeparks-Meet), where Sarek, Padjelanta, and Stora Sjöfallet National Parks converge. We also pass by numerous unusual depressions in the ground. These are ancient trapping pits that were camouflaged with branches and leaves and used by the Sámi who drove migrating reindeer to their deaths in them.
A metal suspension bridge takes us over the rushing turquoise waters of the Sjnjuvjudisjåhkå River. Here we leave the Padjelantaleden and cross into Sarek National Park, following a faint track above the river bank leading upstream in a south easterly direction. By now we have walked around 15km and decide to look for a camping spot for the night. Not far from the river we find an elevated level area carpeted in pillow-soft moss which is surrounded by birch trees. Judging by the size of the recently used fire ring, it has served as a camp numerous times before. One very good reason for trekking in the Arctic in early September is the virtual absence of mosquitoes, and with our camp swiftly set up, we sit outside our tent enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun as it slides towards a line of smoky-blue hills riding the western horizon.
Once the sun vanishes below these hills, the mercury plummets and we work hard to coax a fire to life with wood that has been left behind on the ground by the previous camp occupants. When it finally generates enough heat, we use it to boil water, thus conserving our gas. Wanting to keep the weight in our packs down as much as possible, we are also carrying a flat pack titanium Honey stove which burns small sticks and twigs, allowing us to carry just one large canister of gas which should last us for the seven days of our trek. When the fire dies to a few glowing embers, the cold sends us shivering into our tent beneath a juniper-purple sky shimmering with stars.
Day Two: Reading reindeer routes
I am woken by a Siberian jay chattering noisily in a tree close by. On opening the tent flaps we are greeted by the sight of great shafts of soft dawn light streaming across a ground glistening with frost. Gazing out shyly from beneath a nearby birch tree is one of this year’s reindeer calves. Moments later its mother arrives and the pair slink off into the trees.
The frost has melted by the time we break camp to climb up a ridge of moraine pincered between the Sjnjuvjudisjåhkå and Sjpietjavjåhkå rivers. Sparsely wooded flat terrain offering good walking soon opens before us, and we encounter several small herds of reindeer. The track we are following has been worn by generations of cloven-hooves traversing the crowberry-carpeted alpine tundra. Crossing highlands and lowlands, through wetlands tangled with dwarf willow and leading to the best points for fording streams, many of these reindeer highways are now used by human feet. Meandering across the landscape, they make the going slightly easier, although they have a tendency to peter out without warning. Over the next few hours we become pretty adept at scanning the tundra to pick up even the faintest trail.
The track gently ascends the broad U-shaped valley bottom crossing numerous small side streams and brooks which have cut down quite deeply into the sandy ground in places, and through great patches of brackish bog and thickets of straggly dwarf willow which are tiresome to traverse. As I push my way through one dense patch of willow, I unwittingly startle two ptarmigans who, squawking loudly, cumbersomely lumber into the air with a great whirr of feathers. I don’t know who’s received the greatest fright, me or them!
The sun is warm on our backs as we progress up the valley between the Áhkká and Gisuris mountains, their now-visible glaciers clutching the crests of their summits like crooked fingers. We stop for a snack, drinking in the majesty of our surroundings while a buzzard performs lazy 8’s overhead, no doubt keeping a keen eye open for lemmings, whose droppings litter the ground hereabouts.
Mid-afternoon we encounter a conical Sámi goathi, a traditional shelter used by reindeer herders, constructed of wooden posts covered with birch bark, atop which layers of turf have been laid. This one at Kisuriskåtan, virtually invisible against the landscape until we are almost on top of it, is quite dilapidated and obviously no longer in use. But steeping inside I can easily imagine how this simple structure would have been a welcome refuge for herders taking shelter from the steady downpour of a summer storm or the biting cold of a snow-bearing Arctic wind.
Upon leaving the goathi, the trail disappears as we pick our way across boggy terrain towards the point where the Sjnjuvjudisjåhkå splits into two smaller branches: the Suottasjjåhkå and the Nijákjågåsj. Behind these rivers, the pyramidal summit of Niják rises majestically. We follow the latter river, heading upstream towards an area marked ‘Renvaktarstuga’ on the map which is just below a col leading into the next valley. We plan to camp there for the night.
A trail of a kind eventually reappears above the bank of the Nijákjågåsj, and after having walked nearly 17km and about one kilometre shy of ‘Renvaktarstuga’, we spy an ideal camping spot. Just off the trail above a sweeping bend in the river, we arrive at a sheltered, level grassy shelf half way up a knoll. A small stream of cellophane-clear water flows nearby, and from our tent we have grandstand views of the glacier-encrusted Áhkká massif.
We eventually manage to coax enough heat from the twigs we have collected around our camp to heat the water on our Honey stove for a hot meal, and as we feast on our freeze-dried food, we witness a large herd of reindeer wander down to the nearby river bank. They are still grazing there as dusk falls softly in a pall of pink and charcoal grey cloud churning above Áhkká, which slowly spreads across the sky, blotting out the watery stars.
Day Three: A river runs through it
During the night the fatigue of yesterday sloughed off my body into my cosy down sleeping bag and I awake, refreshed, to the plaintive cry of a Grey plover. Thin white cloud is spreading in from the west and mist is beginning to form atop the peaks of Áhkká, the glaciers of which are blushing a faint pink in the dawn light. By the time we break camp the sun has been reduced to a wan disc as the cloud has swallowed almost the entire sky. A few minutes from camp we have to cross a broad, unnamed stream. Fortunately the water level is low enough for it to be just fordable without having to remove our boots.
The trail we were following yesterday leads to a rectangular wooden building at the area marked ‘Renvaktarstuga’ on the map. It resembles a garden shed and was built as a reindeer herders’ shelter, but it now appears to be used as an emergency hut. A large oil drum outside is full to the brim with trash, and as we enter the dilapidated doorway we see empty gas canisters, freeze-dried food pouches, tin cans, and plastic carrier bags of rubbish stuffed under a bench. Judging by the state of much of it, it’s been there a long time. It saddens us that the Jokkmokks Mountain Safety Committee who oversee this emergency shelter, have had to leave a polite but pointed notice requesting people not to leave their rubbish behind, miles from anywhere. It seems that some trekkers have no conception of what constitutes ‘leave no trace’.
Exiting the shelter, we begin to descend the bleak, treeless and somewhat barren Ruohtesvagge Valley, skirting first around the western shore of a small lake named Ruohtesjávrásj, a spoonful of gloomy mercury-grey water sitting in the shadow of the glaciated Niják massif to the north. We then spot the interlacing network of channels forming the Smájllájåhkå, one of the main rivers in the park that runs roughly southeast into the heart of Sarek. This river drains the meltwaters of the mighty Ruohtesjiegna glaciers, huge tongues of ice flowing northeast, and we have to cross it to proceed down the valley below the Boajsátjåhkkå glacier.
We approach the river where it has split into three channels. It’s evident that we will have to wade the centre one. The fast-flowing chalky-grey water emits a low rumble as invisible cobbles are turned in the river bed. With my boots slung round my neck, my trousers rolled high above my knees and wearing a pair of plastic Crocs, I tentatively step into the soft grey mud on the shoreline and howl like a wild thing as the ice-cold water slaps hard against my shins.
Once across, not far above the bank of the braided river, we follow inconstant reindeer trials which we keep losing as we traverse boulder fields, moraine, small sandurs and patches of bog. There are numerous streams and rivers to cross, the largest of which is the Boajsájågåsj, but these are safely negotiated without the need to remove our boots. We meet a lone trekker coming up the valley, and in broken English he asks us where the path goes. Inexplicably, he does not seem to be carrying a map…
It’s now late afternoon, and we are unaware that the western sky behind us has become a giant angry bruise until the sun is suddenly swallowed in its creeping blackness. The air is pregnant with rain, and as we have almost covered our 15km target distance for today, we scout the terrain for a suitable camping spot. Almost opposite the enormous Mihkátjåhkkå glacier, part of the Sarek Massif, where one of the channels of the Mihkájåhkå River tumbles into the swiftly flowing Smájllájåhkå, we find a perfectly level grassy area and hastily erect our tent.
We are not long inside it before heavy percussive raindrops begin to drum on the nylon. The shower is intense but short. As the sun emerges from beneath a line of cloud on the western horizon, a shimmering, iridescent rainbow arches over a serrated rocky ridge leading down from the peak of Mahtutjåhkkå. As the cloud passes over, it fades away and the sinking sun sets the mountaintop aflame with intense vermillion light, a sharp line of demarcation separating it from the chalky-cold, shaded area beneath. Then, as the fire creeps slowly downward, the flames subside, the burning peak dims, and the mountain is plunged into ashen grey. Before we retire for the night, the sky clears just long enough for us to witness the Northern Lights billowing across the sky like silk streamers from the direction of The Plough, before cloud once more sweeps in from the west to spoil the celestial light show.
Day Four: The wild heart of Sarek
The morning sunshine almost blinds us as we walk the one kilometre from last night’s camp to the Mikkastugan emergency shelter at Skárjá, the very heart of Sarek. From here, in any direction, it is three days on foot to reach a road. The only emergency telephone to be found in the park is housed in this well-equipped, clean shelter, and a toilet is also provided, making it a popular camping spot.
Just past the shelter, we encounter a ‘summer bridge’ (sommarbro) which is put in each year at midsummer, and which will be removed in only a matter of days’ time. This allows us to cross the raging Smájllájåhkå which roars like a wounded beast as it is squeezed between the walls of a small canyon, descending through it in a series of seething, foaming waterfalls. The naked rock, worn to a marble smoothness, has a forget-me-knot hue and its scalloped patterns were among the phenomena that made a deep impression on Swedish geographer and geologist, Axel Hamberg, who conducted some of the first surveys of Sarek National Park.
Just past the bridge we leave Ruohtesvagge. At the confluence with the Guohperjåhkå River, the Smájllájåhkå becomes the Ráhpajåhkå, fed by ice melt from the mighty glaciers of Sarektjåkkå. These are the head waters of the Rapa River (Rapaätno) which flows down through Rapadalen, the most famous valley in Sarek. We remove our packs and sit awhile to take in the spectacular scenery at our feet. Below us is a fairy-tale scoop of olive willow and russet bog through which a number of chalky turquoise channels meander. In all directions the alpine tundra is flame with the vermillion, crimson and magenta of nature’s autumnal fire, which sweeps up to the feet of numerous ice-crowned giants. It’s so peaceful and quiet here that I can hear the beat of a Golden eagle’s wings as it flies some 50 metres above my head.
Our intended route now heads towards Beilavallda, a high alpine plateau studded with lakes. But before we reach there we have to cross two rivers, the Mahtujågåsj and the Tjågnårisjågåsj. At the former, the water level is low enough for us to be able to pick our way carefully across the tops of some exposed rocks, but the latter proves to be a much more challenging proposition. Flowing down over a series of eye-catching waterfalls from a hidden glacier, the channel is wider, the water is fast-flowing and there are a number of partially submerged rocks to wade round. I am grateful for my walking poles which help me to balance as I inch my way through the shin-deep chalky grey water, and negotiate rocks slick with algae. I’m beginning to enjoy the river crossings though, as the ice-cold water instantly revives weary feet and legs!
Just before we reach Beilavallda, we begin to bear left along faint reindeer trails contouring round the steep slopes of Sarvatjåhkkå. We encounter thickets of dwarf willow, bog and numerous pools, but the scenery towards Låddebákte, which guards the head of Rapadalen like a huge grey sentinel, more than compensates for the rough ground. Far off in the distance I spot a group of matchstick figures and pause to watch them moving slowly across the landscape in the direction of Låddebákte. They must be planning to exit the park via Rapadalen. At my feet is a tiny stream of vodka-clear water trickling downhill to join the Rapa. Instinctively dipping my cupped hands into it, I raise them, and drink. Nearby, a large bull reindeer with a magnificent set of jagged antlers, the points sharp as javelins, battles with a dwarf willow, stripping the leaves from its spindly branches.
We soon bid farewell to the views of Rapadalen, following a series of thin, inconstant reindeer trails in the direction of Bierikbakte, with its distinctive spiky summit, and Bierikjávvre, the large lake which sits below it. En route we pass above the Bielajávrátja lakes, set like turquoise jewels amid the golden swathes of autumnal grasses and shrubs, and looking back, savour the views of a gleaming glacier flowing down the northeast face of the Skårki massif at the head of Basstavágge, a valley that eventually leads to the small Sámi summer settlement of Rinim.
The reindeer trials become increasingly inconsistent as we pass above the shoreline of Bierikjávvre, and it’s time consuming and tedious having to cross large boulder fields, numerous small streams and boggy terrain. After 14km and just before we arrive at the end of the lake, we decide to make camp. We climb to a higher elevation opposite Bierikbakte for better views down onto Bierikjávvre which has something of the Mediterranean about it, bathed as it is in the glorious soft light of early evening which amplifies the colour of the turquoise water and rich autumnal hues of the surrounding vegetation. We find a grassy flat spot near a small crystal-clear stream, and it’s here that we encounter the vixen.
Disaster struck us whilst camping in the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland a few years ago, when a fox dragged a rucksack out of our tent’s porch during the night and chewed through two of its straps with surgical precision. We cannot afford any such mishaps this far from civilisation. So although we have already had dinner, we force down our remaining salami rations which, if uneaten, would be sure to attract it, and manage to burn our used dried-food pouches on the Honey stove. With our boots and rucksacks secured to the tent poles, and the remaining food rations stowed between us inside the tent, we turn in.
Day Five: A watery world
I slept fitfully last night, but fortunately we had no nocturnal visitation! Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I peer out of the tent. An iridescent silver mist shrouds the valley bottom obscuring the river and the lake, above which the icy mountaintops dazzle like jewels. Far aloft in the heavens billow the rose-pink streamers of dawn. It looks set to be a scorcher.
By the time we break camp, the sky is a brilliant baby-blue and the air is so clear that each distant peak seems close enough to touch. We make rapid progress across the flat compacted gravelly outwash plain below the Sarvatjåhkkå glaciers, heading for a col between the twin peaks of Vuojnesvárasj and Vuojnesskájdde, which allows us to avoid the wet and boggy ground near Lake Vuojnesluobbala.
As we round the small summit of Bierikvárásj, Lake Bierikjávvre fades from view but we are rewarded with amazing views of one of the glaciers flowing down from Bierikbákte, part of the Ähpar massif. As we climb higher over ground of bilberry and dwarf birch flaming in its brilliant autumn livery, the myriad turquoise channels of the braided Bierikjåhkå begin to float into view.
At the col we climb to the rocky summit of Vuojnesskájdde and pause in awe at the 360 degree face-slapping scenery of a watery world shaped by the relentless work of ice.
Looking back up the valley, we can see for many kilometres beyond the nearby glaciated peaks, the ice still filling their cauldron-like tops, and the intricately woven turquoise braids of the Bierikjåhkå River, to the smoky-blue ice-topped mountains we had walked below yesterday morning at the very heart of Sarek. In front of us a new panorama reveals itself, one of yet more gleaming topaz lakes, river channels and pools, including the large Lake Liehtjitjávrre, behind which a solitary conical mountain soars up out of the golden alpine tundra where large herds of reindeer are grazing. This is Sluggá (1,279m), looking for all the world like Sweden’s version of Mount Errigal in Ireland's County Donegal. It’s about 12 km away as the crow flies, and tomorrow we will pass almost beneath it. After eating our lunch, we bid farewell to the mind-blowing views of central Sarek and descend through a small rocky gully to the head of the Guhkesvagge Valley where we have to cross the Guhkesvakkjåhkå River via a permanently fixed metal suspension bridge. Before we reach this river, we encounter a tributary of the Vuojnesjågåsj running parallel to it. The chalky, racing river is carrying meltwater down to Lake Liehtjitjávrre from a glacier on Spijkka which fills the field of view to the northwest. We have to wade it, and the ice cold water is a welcome revitalisation for my tired feet and legs on this hot autumn day.
Passing by a series of fences used for herding reindeer, the metal uprights of the suspension bridge loom into view and we hear the guttural roar of the Guhkesvakkjåhkå River which rages down the valley towards Lake Liehtjitjávrre over a series of small, foaming white rapids. The bridge marks the eastern boundary of Sarek National Park and crossing it we pass back into Stora Sjöfallets National Park.
The remainder of the day is spent following a fairly well-defined trail that exits the park at the dam on Lake Suorvajuare near Suorvvá. It threads its way across the boulder-strewn, occasionally wet and willowy higher ground above Lake Ljehtjitjávrre, then contours round the rocky slopes of Niendotjåhkkå.
After walking almost 14km, we set up camp just past an area marked Nienndo on the map. This isn’t far from the end of a series of lakes, and we select a level grassy pitch on the bank of a tributary of the Lulep Niendojågåsj. Bellies full, we lie in our open tent sipping Linie from our hipflasks as the Ähpar massif blushes rose-pink in the settling sun. As the sky darkens, the Milky Way arches triumphantly above our tent and the shimmering luminous green tendrils of the Aurora stream across the sky from the North.
Day Six: Battle through bog and boulders
On breaking camp, we have to wade through the ice-cold tributary of the Lulep Niendojågåsj, the meltwater from a glacier hidden from view. With Sluggá riding the eastern horizon, we continue towards it along the rough trail we were following yesterday. We stick to the higher ground for as long as possible to avoid the worst of the terrain which clearly displays the olive green presence of the dreaded dwarf willow in the broad boggy bowl occupied by Lake Guordesluoppal. The weather is much hazier than yesterday and the humidity is higher, not the best conditions for bushwhacking!
The distant smoky-blue snow-streaked Nieras Massif soon floats into view, but as we are heading for the high ground above Lake Pietsaure, we have to descend into wetter terrain to the south east. The firm ground almost instantly gives way to morass: a squelching, stinking mass of boot-sucking bog interspersed with straggly head-high willow that clutches maniacally at our legs and packs as we struggle to push our way through. To add insult to injury, boulders hidden amid the dense vegetation lie in wait to trap a weary ankle. In this verdant prison, the air is thick and fetid and I can feel the sweat beading on my cheeks and forehead. I’m very glad that we are wearing gaiters which prevent water from soaking our trousers and seeping into our Gore-Tex boots. We slowly thrash our way through, weaving round natural obstacles such as boulders and small lakes, until we meet the Sluggájåhkå River which has cut down deeply into the gravelly terrain. Scrambling down its friable bank, we find that the water level is low enough for us to ford it by boulder hopping, and I am hoping that once we have crossed it, the difficult terrain will begin to ease as we reach higher ground.
I am soon disappointed, as we find ourselves confronting an enormous boulder field. The blocks of rock, some the size of cars, left behind eons ago by a receding glacier are angular and covered in desiccated lichen, and many have to be clambered over which is exhausting. One slip could spell a nasty lower leg injury, or worse, and I am relieved when we eventually pass out of it into trackless boggy ground with shin-high willow and small pools. The monotony of the landscape is lifted by bog cotton, incandescent as candle flame in the glassy sunlight, and some solitary stunted birch trees resplendent in their golden autumn foliage. A few very late cloudberries offer some consolation for my ordeal, and it’s only after we climb much higher that the ground cover eventually turns into more benign mats of dwarf birch and crowberry interspersed with patches of wiry grass. Large herds of reindeer are passing through here, and we sit awhile to rest and watch them dance across the landscape. Each year both male and female reindeer shed their antlers, and I find several fine pieces to add to the collection I have attached to the back of my rucksack. We are now able to make good time as we head towards a small col harbouring a group of tiny lakes between the summits of Gähppo and Vuovres.
After having walked almost 14 km, we scout around for a camping spot and eventually find a flat area comprised of a springy mat of crowberry and dwarf birch in the lee of the high ground. It has a small stream of vodka-clear water nearby and grandstand views down over the long ribbon-shaped Lake Pietsaure. There’s plenty of sun-bleached tinder-dry juniper wood scattered nearby, and we use it as fuel to heat water on our Honey stove. It’s hard not to bruise hundreds of crowberries getting in and out of the tent, and our hands are soon stained purple with their juice!! Gradually the setting sun turns the churning cloud in the west candy-pink, and as the light rapidly fades, the lake below is plunged into mysterious obsidian darkness. The chill wind sends us scurrying into our tent, where I soon fall asleep to the sound of the wind buffeting the nylon.
Day Seven: Rainbow’s end
We wake to a cold, watery dawn which is struggling to tint the cloud above our tent pink. There’s more than a hint of the impending winter in the air as we break camp, and I sense that rain is not far off. We begin the roughly 4km trudge towards a small gully to the right of a rocky knoll named Rumok across trackless rough ground bearing all the hallmarks of glacial upheaval. The gully will take us down to the lower ground surrounding Lake Pietsaure. Every so often we have to ascend or descend banks of moraine, battle through thickets of waist-high dwarf willow and dodge deep patches of sly bog. But the views to the northeast are uplifting, and I spot a wind turbine at the dam near Suorvvá, the first sign of civilisation, which spurs us on!
After crossing two rivers, the Gådojåhkå and the Rumokjågåsj without having to remove our boots, we arrive at the top of the gully. A grand vista which might have been lifted straight from the pages of National Geographic ravishes our eyes. The flame-red cinnabar and vermilion of the alpine tundra gives way to the rich saffron-yellow of the mountain birch forest. A band of shingle lines the shore of the narrow rectangular lake which emits a silver sheen in the feeble sunlight. The beach is bisected by a narrow channel where the Avtsusjjåhkå River flows into it. On the far bank of the river, the buildings of a Sámi settlement can just be seen, beyond which tower the fortress-like steel-grey walls of Lulep Gierkav.
It begins to drizzle as we carefully descend the boulder-choked gully. At the bottom, we pick up a well-defined trail leading towards the lake. We cross two rivers that tumble down over a series of pretty waterfalls from the high ground we have just traversed, one of which requires us to wade, before reaching a group of reindeer fences by the lake. It’s not at all obvious where we should go from here, and we labour across the shingly shore towards the point where the river flows into the lake. I can clearly see the rooftops of houses. Nowadays, the Sámi only come here in the summer for a few days to mark their reindeer calves and the settlement is deserted. A boat on a rope is sometimes placed at this channel in the summer months, but it seems we are too late. The high season is over and the boat is gone. I’m somewhat galled to see a moveable bridge lying on the ground on the other side of this channel. It’s only a few metres wide, but unfortunately far too deep and fast flowing for us to wade. We have to find another way across the Avtsusjjåhkå. We now waste valuable time walking upriver looking for a safe place to cross it. The terrain turns spiteful, full of vile vegetation including willow, small pools and hidden bog, and the sky has darkened to an ominous battleship-grey to match my mood. Finally, after much searching and cursing, we find a wide braided section intersected by a series of sand banks. The channels between them are shallow enough to wade. Once across, we experience one last almighty battle with the wretched willow before we stumble onto a muddy 4x4 track leading away from the Sámi settlement near the lake.
We follow this uphill for a few hundred metres before joining a steep rocky trail leading to the saddle between Lulep Gierkav and Tjeburisvarasj. Spread before us is a Brothers Grimm landscape of gilt-leaved birch forest and indigo-blue lakes, where kaleidoscopic patterns are being traced by huge lances of light falling from gaps in the slowly churning cloud just touching the mountaintops. We head towards the Saltoluokta Fjällstation, now visible above the shoreline of the lake, where we will overnight before catching a bus back to Ritsem. The stony track drops steeply into the fairy-tale forest where the mossy floor is carpeted with millions of jewel-like fruits: bearberries, bilberries, lingonberries and bunchberries. Fungi blooms everywhere – creamy puffballs, scarlet fly agaric, leathery cep mushrooms the size of saucers, and, on the bark of dead trees, countless species of shelf fungi.
Not long after we hit the Kungsleden, Sweden’s most famous long distance trail, I catch the faint whiff of wood smoke heralding our imminent return to civilisation. I’m emotionally conflicted, for the completion of any trek is always greeted with a mixture of elation tinged with regret. We arrive at the Saltoluokta Fjällstation to be welcomed by a magnificent rainbow etched in pin-sharp detail against a steel-grey sky. It’s a magical end to a heavenly trek across Europe’s last great wilderness. Reenergised and restored, we are now satiated. Well almost. The much-anticipated Tjers Bryggeri stout is absolute heaven too!
We stayed overnight in a double room at the STF Saltoluokta, where we enjoyed hot showers and a sumptuous three course Sámi dinner! The next day we got the mid-afternoon boat across Lake Langas to Kebnats where we caught the bus to Ritsem to be reunited with our Land Rover.
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