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Sarek National Park—Day One August 13, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, camping, hiking, travel.
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Western side of Ahkka massif.   The cables in the foreground are part of a bridge.

Western side of Ahkka massif. The cables in the foreground are part of a bridge.

In the days before my trip, I spent much time studying the equipment list sent to me by Nature Travels, the UK-based company through whom I booked the trip. Like most Americans, I am metrically impaired and had to convert all their kilograms to pounds. For a backpacking trip of eight nights and nine days—far longer than my previous longest of five days in the California Sierra—they said, “The backpack does not need to weigh more than 18-20kg including tent and food.” 40 to 44 pounds! I certainly hoped not!

We would divide into two-person teams to share tent and stove. I wondered how that would work—whether for instance I would share with someone who snored, or bother my partner by snoring myself. And would I disturb that person unduly if I had to get up to pee in the night—under an eternal Arctic sun, above treeline, no place to hide? (In fact, I was so pleasantly tired every night, I never had to get up in the middle of the night.)

As tents, food, stove, and fuel were to be provided at the starting point (adding 6-8kg, or 13-17lbs.), I set 25lbs. as my maximum weight for the pack at home. I had a lot of the gear already, but needed to acquire some items, such as a mosquito face net and a rain cover for my pack. Would it be rainy and buggy the whole time?  I re-read Internet information. “Sarek is one of the rainiest areas of Sweden.” I hadn’t noticed that detail before!

My trip featured logistical challenges. For instance: I would arrive at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport at 7:50 a.m. July 24. My hotel had a check-in time of 3:00 p.m. Could I leave my luggage at the hotel that day? Should I find a luggage locker at the train station? For the air travel, I had a giant red duffle with roller wheels, the backpack encased inside it together with clothes suitable for the couple of days I’d spend in the city. I was packing for two identities, my “wilderness” self and my “urban” self, one nested inside the other.

The real challenge was that I had to emerge from the 19-hour train/bus trip from Stockholm to Lapland with only what I would carry on my back for nine days.

My stay in the city worked out well. My hotel, the Central Hotel on Vasagatan a few blocks from the train station, gave me a room when I arrived at reception six hours ahead of check-in time. Soon I set off to explore around town. The only negative: Stockholm was experiencing a heat wave of 28-29 degrees C (in the mid-80s F). The sun blazed down from a metallic-looking blue sky, and I found myself searching for shady spots. My hotel was not air-conditioned.

I will share pictures of Stockholm and describe my experience in a separate post when I complete my account of Sarek.

On the 25th, my train was scheduled to depart 5:17 p.m. It left the station nearly an hour late, and I had a connection to make at Hudiksvall with a 27-minute layover. This was the start of a journey that proved stressful. I had little room for error at the destination: it all depended on catching a certain bus that would be met by our group leader at a little place called Ritsem, just north of the Arctic Circle.

It happened that Sweden’s SJ rail system experienced a major electrical problem that evening affecting all  northbound traffic.  I made my connection (the train I connected with was even later than the one I started with), but by the time I arrived at Gallivare for the transfer to bus, the train was three hours behind schedule.

To make a long story short, I arrived at Ritsem thinking I was on my own and too late to join the trip. I asked other bus passengers if they were in fact with the “Nature Travels” group, but they all said no. I didn’t realize that they were going on the same trip, but they had booked it through STF, the Swedish outdoor adventure organization.  To compound the problem, I’d gotten off the bus one stop too early, at Ritsem’s boat dock rather than the buildings up the hill.

The handful of other passengers who disembarked at the dock quickly dispersed, moving off purposefully.  I decided that all the Nature Travels people must have somehow arrived earlier and already taken the boat across the Ahkkajaure lake to the start point of the hike. It looked as though I’d have to return to Stockholm—my trip an utter failure. I sat down in the bus shelter to wait two hours for the next bus—after 22 nearly sleepless hours of travel from Stockholm. I’d have to talk the bus driver in letting me on without the appropriate ticket, and the same for the train ride back. I stared across the lake toward cloud-shrouded mountains with white splotches of glaciers. I took a picture, but my hands were shaking and it came out blurry.

Then our trip leader, Christian Heimroth, pulled up in his truck. I was rescued!  One of the bus passengers had noticed that an English-speaking woman with a backpack had gotten off at the dock—Christian was missing one person from his list—maybe I was that person.  What a relief!

Members of the group organize gear at Ritsem.

Members of the group organize gear at Ritsem.

We drove up the hill, and I discovered a beehive of activity as members of the group organized their gear and enjoyed a hot meal. I was introduced to everybody, and received my food bag, stove, and fuel. I was to partner with a man, a very nice fellow named Jarl. Somehow, pairing with someone of the opposite sex—potentially awkward—never became a problem.  We quickly established routines around our tent, and Jarl proved to be an interesting person to talk to and a good partner.

My food bag seemed extremely heavy. I got everything into my pack and, with some difficulty, hoisted it onto my back to test it out. Had I added only the stated 6-8kg, or was it more? I will never know. I can only say that I have never done a trip before with a pack I could barely manage to get onto my back. And I wasn’t satisfied with my arrangement for putting things in the pack or strapping them on—this was partly because it was a new pack of a different style than my old one, and my old system didn’t work.


Christian's truck loaded with our packs.

Christian’s truck loaded with our packs.

So we walked back down to the dock while Christian drove our gear down. I wish I could tell you what time it was. Between my own travel fatigue/disorientation and the very different angles of sun at that latitude, I  can’t tell you. What I came to learn about the sun angles: somewhere between 11:00 p.m. and midnight, the sun dropped below the horizon, but it wasn’t dark. It was an eternal, beautiful dusk that lasted until about 6:00 in the morning. I quickly adapted to sun below horizon/ sun above horizon instead of my usual sunset/ sunrise times.

We collected our gear from the truck and climbed onto the boat. I had not yet adjusted to my heavy pack and felt very clumsy. I was embarrassed that I needed to take a helping hand getting on the boat. This theme would continue for quite a while.

Boat departure point on Ahkkajaure.

Boat departure point on Ahkkajaure.

We crossed the giant lake that is like a scar across Lapland, somewhat like the Great Glen in Scotland. Unfortunately the detailed map I purchased in  Stockholm depicts an area just a tad too far to the south to show the lake. It shows the landing point on the southwest shore of Ahkkajare, marked with an  “X”. You will see two blue “X”es on the map, our starting point and where we camped, after a surrealistic journey through stunted, twisted birches and across bridges over angry, ranting rivers.

Sorry, the best I can do. The "X" further to the north shows where we landed after crossing Ahkkajaure.  The other "X" shows the approximate location of our first campsite.

Sorry, the best I can do. The “X” further to the north shows where we landed after crossing Ahkkajaure. The other “X” shows the approximate location of our first campsite.  Click for zoom.

We would soon leave all trees behind, but this dreamlike twisted birch forest and lush groundcover were beautiful.

The angle of light made it even stranger for a mid-latitude  person.

The angle of light made it even stranger for a mid-latitude person.

We soon started crossing the Vuajatadno river and its many side streams and tributaries. Glaciers generally send their water down in complicated paths.


We climb the approach to the first major bridge.

I felt very top-heavy with my pack, but this section was all in Padjelanta National Park which, unlike Sarek, has level, maintained paths and bridges. By the time we got to Sarek, I had become more accustomed to my high center of gravity.

It was a good thing a bridge existed here.

Look at that foaming water!

Look at that foaming water!

The theme for the next section was the raging water and how we were able to negotiate it with the civilized bridges of Padjelanta. Eventually we would have no bridges.

You may think it is beautiful---and indeed it is---but I always think in terms of how difficult it would be to cross.

You may think it is beautiful—and indeed it is—but I always think in terms of how difficult it would be to cross.

We climbed above the Vuotadjano valley and looked at the river from a more forgiving perspective.

I love the shapes and the colors, the sandbars and the different strands.

I love the shapes and the colors, the sandbars and the different strands.

Finally we reached our first campsite. I had long since lost all sense of time, so I can’t tell you what time it was. We set up camp and had a dinner of reindeer meat fried in butter. I coordinated with my new partner. The butter was in my food bag, not in his, and we used about 1/16th of it for this dinner. I contemplated the total 1/2 lb. or more that I had in my bag. I must say, the folks who prepared the food bags leaned toward heavy supplies, but I adjusted. Still, we never used even a small portion of that butter.

First campsite.

First campsite.