Two weeks on Sweden’s Kungsleden: trading the city for an Arctic wander

This July I defended my PhD, entitled Urban Climate Governance: The Role of Local Authorities. Afterwards, a Danish friend (also a recent PhD graduate) and I took a spontaneous 2-week hike in Lappland, Northern Sweden, on Kungsleden (The Kings Trail) to celebrate the occasion and achievement. Below is a selection of my journey entries and our photos from the trip…

25 July- 9 August 2015

IMG_9085Two backpacks, 2 friends, a cook stove, a tent, and just the right clothing to stay warm, dry and (somewhat) mosquito-proof as we trek circa 250 km from Kvikkjokk to Saltoluokta to Kebnekaise – Sweden’s highest point at 2106 meters. My back hurts from lugging my 2-week existence hoisted on my 2 shoulders; but I become stronger – especially as our foodstuffs diminish and when I learn (thanks to my friend) to adjust my backpack straps correctly. Jokingly, we keep reminding ourselves, “This is summer” as we pull on another layer for warmth or to hold back the wind or rain. (Note: most of our photos were taken on the few days of sunshine to capture the area’s full magic…) Still, trekking Kungsleden in July (in the rain or shine) has benefits: long daylight hours make setting up camp easier, while providing a break from the snows that blanket the region for over half the year.

IMG_9087Wide-open spaces stretch endlessly, invoking imagination, reflection, awe and humility. And with no phone service or electricity available, we are completely free from e-distractions to allow our thoughts to wander. Magnificent rolling mountains stand tall to kiss the sky; while clouds race through their wetland valleys. Some of these mountains hold fast to their lingering snows – perhaps an omen of their harsh and lengthy winters, approaching in only a few months.

We pass waterfalls, over 500 meters, with IMG_5653water thrusting itself downward at incredible speeds. We tent in a valley below one of these waterfalls, staring at it unceasingly while cooking a three-course meal of powdered dried foods. Every meal, despite its simplicity, tastes amazing. After dinner we walk to the foot of this waterfall. Standing at its base, we watch the water bounce, dance and fall, using gravity to do its magic. These waterfalls, with their perfect square stones, transfix me. God must have invented geometry or certainly beauty.

IMG_9093The vast landscapes conjure up folklore and fables. I imagine Viking gods, trolls or other magic creatures roaming this Earth. The absolute beauty and harsh realities of this place invoke a sense of mystery and mysticism. God or the gods’ presence can be felt – that is if you are looking. I take a backpack-free wander over sponge-like earth to seek them out, playfully climbing on steep loose stones in my search. I’m nearly certain I see the Norse god Odin on the face of a giant rock. Humbly, I decide to turn back as the winds pick up and the skies become black from an approaching storm. Wise choice he seems to murmur… Back on solid ground, a herd of reindeer suddenly appears – the first of many. Perhaps a sign of Odin’s approval?

IMG_9089The path winds, sometimes up, then down, over stones, through streams and across mosquito-infested valleys. We avoid the mud and muck as much as possible, until it’s not possible. The Earth is leaking everywhere: these landscapes are frozen for most of the year, and when they do melt they turn into enchanted wetlands, holding secrets in their pools of cool clean water. In these tiny transparent water pools, I hear the footsteps of small fairies, fluttering in the wind. Squinting, I see them dance on the swimming flowers and grasses P1050302below, swaying in the currents – their submerged presence the result of a recent downpour. My Gore-Tex waterproof boots are soaking wet (since the first day) as we trump through streams marked as the trail. I’m envious of my friend’s dry feet; but after 10+ years, I guess my old boots have met their match. Still, a side benefit of this leaking Earth: we don’t have to carry water. And we are surprisingly clean, bathing in snowmelt streams and lakes along the way.

IMG_9091The weather and temperatures fluctuate dramatically: one day we are sitting naked on a private dock in a Sami village, basking in the endless sun after a frozen plunge. That night the temperatures in this wild tundra dip to zero (Celsius). We wake to rain. For 3 days straight we cannot see the sky, pitching our tent in clouds and puddled earth. The winds pick up as well; but this is ok – it dries our tent and keeps the mosquitos at bay. I’m amazed at how everything can be so wet, and then so dry. The sun and the wind appear just long enough to dry our clothes and lift our spirits. And when the sun finally shows, it demonstrates its full Arctic intensity. There are days when the sun beats so strongly our wet garments dry almost instantaneously. Other days we are swallowed by clouds, cautiously scanning for the next trail marker.

IMG_9086Each night sounds a little different: sometimes of pounding waterfalls racing down steep mountain cliffs; sometimes of icy rivers jumping over giant boulders, or lazy babbling brooks; sometimes of wind whipping through the highlands; sometimes of pattering raindrops – justifying going to bed a bit early or staying tucked in the sleeping bag a bit longer. Sometimes (although thankfully not too often) it sounds of buzzing mosquitos or small rodents eager to investigate our food stocks.

IMG_8974Along the way we meet other hikers; a few head north like us, the rest south. Some have tents; others stay in the rustic cabins that dot the trail every 15 kilometers or so. These cabins, run by Svenska Turistföreningen, offer refuge from the rain or mosquitos and a fire to dry wet boots or damp spirits. And as we found out, they sometimes offer leftover packets of unopened camping food or gear, diversifying our simple diet. As we march along at our own pace we realize that there is no Kungsleden hiker archetype. We pass: families with small children or grown children, couples – sometimes in matching jackets, often hiking at a distance from each other in a silent quarrel, lone travelers, friends, young athletic types in the finest gear, and old bearded men with round bellies. Sometimes we chat; sometimes we smile and nod; sometimes we share a drink or a story. Kungsleden is a story worth sharing…

These are the sounds, sights and landscapes of Kungsleden as I remember it, until I return to explore another portion of this magic trail.


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