Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Kingdom of Cod: Winter in Norway’s Lofoten Islands

The coccyx-shaped Lofoten archipelago defiantly juts out into the frigid waters of the Norwegian Sea. Situated north of the Arctic Circle, winter in this chain of mountainous islands rising straight out of the roiling ocean like an impenetrable wall of rock, is utterly spellbinding, an otherworldly wonderland of frosted glass etched against constantly changing skies that range from steel-grey to candy-pink.

Scenic view of Reine on the island of Moskenesøya

Comprised of a multitude of various sized islands, according to Norse legend the Lofoten archipelago was created by the hammer-wielding god Thor, who flung fistfuls of rocks into the sea. The population of 24,500 is concentrated on four main islands running from Austvågøy in the north through Vestvågøy and Flakstadøya to Moskenesøya in the south. The E10 highway now links these four islands via a series of bridges and sea tunnels.

We fly into Kiruna in neighbouring Sweden where a 4X4 vehicle hire is half the price of that in Norway, and where we are able to avail of much cheaper food and alcohol for our week’s self-catering stay in Lofoten. A six hour drive brings us to our first accommodation at Lyngværet in Austvågøy, a cosy and beautifully furnished wooden cabin above the island’s rocky shoreline. After a three night stay we drive south to Moskenesøya and the fishing village of Å (pronounced ‘aw’ which means ‘rivulet’ in Old Norse), a cluster of rust-red and ochre-yellow houses overlooked by a formidable range of snow-frosted mountains, a film-maker’s dream. Here we settle into a rustically furnished traditional fisherman’s cabin jutting right out over the cellophane-clear water in the harbour.

Rorbuer in the fishing village of Å. Ours is the second from the left 
Everywhere the raw salt-laden air is pungent with the unmistakable stench of fish which constantly assaults the nostrils. Lofoten is the world’s largest cod fishery. For centuries fishermen from near and far have converged on these islands in midwinter, chasing great shoals of skrei (Arctic cod in their prime) that have migrated south from the Barents Sea to spawn. Cod has long been the lifeblood of this archipelago, and the ubiquitous rust-red rorbuer - wooden huts on spindly stilts projecting over the sea and connected by wooden walkways that were once the temporary homes of the migrant fishermen - are among the islands' most characteristic sights. Formerly painted with a mixture of fish blood and cod-liver oil and sporting grass roofs, many, including those we stayed in, have now been converted into tourist accommodation. For the fishing industry has witnessed a drastic decline from its zenith at the turn of the twentieth century. In those days something like 25,000 fishermen would descend on the Lofotens from late-January for the three month cod-fishing season.

The Stockfish Museum in the village of Å

However, despite this decline, the islanders remain firmly wedded to the fishing industry and as ubiquitous as the rorbuer are the enormous wooden drying frames (hjell) that seem to occupy every windswept rock. These are used to produce stockfish, cod that have been decapitated, gutted, split along the spine and hung over poles by their tails to dry in the salty Arctic air from February to May, when cold weather conditions protect the fish from insects and prevents uncontrolled bacterial growth. After this, it is removed from the hjell to be matured for another two to three months indoors in a dry and airy environment until it is around a fifth of its original weight. Losing none of its nutritional value in the drying process, the Lent-friendly stockfish is much prized, particularly in the Catholic countries of southern Europe, and also in Nigeria where demand has risen sharply and in 2014 eclipsed exports to Italy.

Stockfish fillets drying on hjell in the cold Arctic air
A more macabre sight are the racks of severed cod heads bound for the West African market. Their mouths wide open as if gasping for their last breath reveal grisly rows of razor sharp teeth but no tongues - these are a local delicacy and have been cut out. Strung together in snow-dusted bundles, their swim-bladders hang down like limp balloons from beneath blackened gills, while overhead cawing crows and wailing seagulls wheel in the wind, awaiting their chance to swoop down to peck out their glazed and lifeless eyes.

Racks of fish heads drying near Myrland

Cod fish heads being dried for export to West Africa
An aerial view of fish heads drying on racks on the island of Vestvågøy  
The Lofoten archipelago is also the centre of the country’s whaling industry. Norway is one of just three nations, along with Japan and Iceland, that continue to hunt whales against the tide of public opinion. Setting aside the opprobrium of those who wish to see whaling banned, we dine out at the upmarket Paleo Arctic restaurant in Svolvær which draws inspiration from a time when we lived as hunters and gatherers. Here we feast upon smoked fin whale with a soft poached egg, organic sour cream and Norwegian crisp bread. This is followed by a succulent grilled fillet of wild reindeer with mushrooms, mountain cranberry, pickled raisins and seasonal root vegetables, rounded off with a divinely spiced panna cotta and washed down with a hearty Rioja. The food didn’t stick in my croup, but the bill most certainly did!

The weather at this latitude is mercurial and unpredictable and can change in an instance; our mid-February photography trip unhappily coincides with a period of bitterly cold unsettled weather. For days on end a cruel Arctic wind howls through the narrow streets of the fiskevær (fishing villages) and lifts great columns of whirling spindrift that tear malevolently across the frigid landscape. The mercury plummets to sub-zero temperatures draining every last vestige of warmth from our bodies, the blinding spindrift blasts our faces which sting with the eviscerating cold and our fingers are too numb and frozen to operate a camera. On such days a shot of Linie, the famous Norwegian aquavit matured at sea in oak sherry casks, is a very welcome antidote against the deep-freezer climate.

The sun momentarily breaks through the cloud during a sudden storm
Martin attempting timelapse photography on a wild and windy Haukland Beach
The grey-green sea seethes, the pounding surf slams onto ice encrusted shorelines and waves lash against the stilted rorbuer that are somehow anchored firmly enough to shelves of rock to resist the relentless onslaught of the ocean. As I watch a brightly lit fishing boat making for shore near Reine at dusk, I think of the fishermen of yore heading back through storm-tossed waters to land their catch, drawn ashore by the welcoming warm glow of candlelight from the windows of these rorbuer in the fiskevær dotting the coast. Many did not make it, and every fishing community has its share of tragic stories of men pitched to a watery grave by the merciless sea.

The view from Flakstad towards Hustingen 
A lone rorbu stands at the entrance to an inlet at Tind 
Indeed, American novelist Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, A Descent into the Maelström, tells the story of a man who survived his ship being drawn into and swallowed by the Moskstraumen, a system of tidal eddies and whirlpools between Lofoten Point on Moskenesøya and the islet of Mosken. The words of William Whiting’s hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, could have been written for the folk of Lofoten who, for centuries cut off from the mainland and surrounded by the sea, were forced by necessity to place their fate in the hands of the elements:

‘Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!’

For hours at a time heavy falls of snow blow by the windows of our hut in a horizontal blur. The thick flakes quickly bank up against the door and gather in the corners of the window frames, shrouding the surrounding landscape in an even blanket of pillow-soft whiteness. There is something mesmerising and deeply relaxing about watching the falling snow from the comfort of a cabin warmed by a wood burning stove, and time appears to stand still.

The lacerating and whining winds eventually blow themselves out, leaving a profound but temporary stillness until the next weather front sweeps in. The great cloak of whey-white snow seems to muffle most sound save the constant shrieking of the seabirds. As we sally forth into this white wonderland, the crunch and squeal of the freshly fallen powdery flakes beneath my boots is deeply gratifying and the creation of pristine boot prints seems to bring out the inner child in me!

An abandoned ice blasted farmhouse near Yttersand 
Between these squally weather fronts the sun appears fleetingly, at times a match-head blazing white hot and amber, splitting the flint-grey sky into patches of speedwell-blue interrupted by billowing cloud in shades of pale-apricot, smoke-yellow and chalky-mauve; minutes later it is a wan disc floating in an immense misty greyness like a Chinese lantern. And all the while the monochrome landscape exudes a pearly-grey opalescence and seems to gleam with surreal lucidity against these extraordinary kaleidoscopic skies.

View from Austvågøy across to Vestvågøy

A watery, snow flurried dawn taken from the balcony of our rorbu in Å 
In the feeble sunlight the reflections of the rorbuer and the mountains appear to float and shimmer with a mirage-like quality in the becalmed waters of numerous inlets; the snow glitters in the low sun angle as if it was pulverised diamond dust and glistening icicles drip like candle wax from the eaves of the huts. The blackened naked boughs of the birch groan under the weight of their newly acquired white finery, while conifers look as if they have been lifted straight from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy story. Then there are truly enchanting evenings when the sky is tinged with a candy pink blush which announces the settling sun.

Nusfjord is one of the oldest and best preserved fiskevær (fishing villages) in Norway
Rorbuer near Reine

Icicles ooze from the eaves of a rorbu in the village of Nusfjord

Candy pink dusk near Nusfjord
Even on the dullest day, the near-shore has an aquamarine hue which fades into bottle-green which then gives way to the petrol-blue yonder of the deep sea speckled with white horses, all of which serve to enhance the deep gold of picture-postcard perfect sandy beaches.

Ramberg Beach panorama

Cabin at Ramberg Beach
Huakland Beach between the storms
In the blue hour, the chilled lavender-blue landscape contrasts with the warm amber rectangles of light emanating from the windows of the rorbuer, and the settlements hemmed in between mountain and sea resemble a string of fairy lights which are reflected in the inky-blue water.

Another weather front sweeping in off the Norwegian Sea towards the fishing village of Reine

Blue hour at the fishing village of  Hamnøy on Moskenes island
Sakrisøy Rorbuer
The wizard's hat-shaped mountain at Reine
View looking down on Sakrisøy from the nearby hill of Olenilsøya

These brief interludes between the storms are rewarded with dramatic views of mountains of the kind only young children draw – spiky, sky-piercing, majestic - and attract scores of other photographers all jostling for space, as eager as we are to commit these breathtaking vistas to film. Unfortunately, the constantly cloudy skies mean that we are not treated to the celestial light show of the Aurora Borealis which is undoubtedly the main draw to this northern region in winter for many photographers.

Rorbuer in Reine beneath steel grey skies

View over Ramberg Beach
Our stay in Lofoten has been a mere prelude, the place has permeated my very soul. As we drive away from our final photo stop in the heritage-listed Nusfjord fishing village, we are already imagining an autumn return, when the mountains will have cast off their snowy apparel opening up a whole new world of walking, trekking and photo opportunities amid the unparalleled beauty and splendour of this, The Kingdom of Cod.

View of Bjørntinden and Møntinden from Yttersand Beach
Panoramic view from Yttersand Beach

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

An Autumn Trek in Arctic Sweden: The Kungsleden Trail from Saltoloukta to Kvikkjokk

In the far reaches of Northern Europe there is a land of cold rushing rivers, vast forests and snow-capped mountains. A wild and timeless land where huge herds of reindeer roam and the Northern Lights electrify star-studded skies. This land is called Sápmi, ancient homeland of the People of the Sun and Wind, the indigenous Sámi Nation, who are also known as Laplanders. We are planning to trek along part of the Kungsleden (King’s) Trail in Sweden’s Arctic. This runs from Abisko in the north to Hemavan in the south, crossing 425 km of Europe’s last remaining wilderness, including the Laponia World Heritage Site, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996.

View from the Saltoluokta Fjällstation
The middle section we are going to to traverse, from Saltoluokta to Kvikkjokk is about 85 km, and includes three lake crossings which should take us around five days. We have chosen early-September for three main reasons: firstly, the colours of the Arctic autumn are fantastic; secondly, the route will be less crowded with other trekkers; thirdly and most importantly, there will be few, if any, mosquitoes and midges which plague the Arctic summer, as we discovered to our cost last year in Greenland!

Getting to our start point: the Saltoluokta Fjällstation
We begin our journey in Kiruna, a sprawling mining settlement cheek by jowl with the iron ore workings that gave rise to it. There are regular SAS flights from here to Stockholm and daily connecting flights to Dublin, and, as we got a good deal on the flights and wanted to visit the world’s deepest iron ore mine, we flew to Kiruna rather than Gällivare which is much closer to the start point of our trek. The Svenska Turistföreningen’s (Swedish Tourist Board or STF) Malmfältens Folkhögskola on the outskirts of town offers excellent double rooms in small, self contained units, with the option of a hearty buffet breakfast. It’s a good idea to become STF members while here (about 45 euro for a family per annum), as you will get a decent discount on your stay, and also at other mountain stations, huts, hostels and on boats operated by the STF, which we plan to use during our trip.

Downtown Kiruna is a ten minute walk away where there are a number of good eateries and bars, and a fabulous wooden church in the form of a Sámi house, voted Sweden’s most beautiful public building. Particular mention must be made to the Bishop’s Arms, an English-style pub which was hosting a beer promotion which happily coincided with our visit! This town also has several excellent outdoors shops where you can buy everything from a pair of woollen pants or socks, to a survival knife or rifle. Here you can stock up on camping gas or liquid fuel and packets of freeze-dried expedition food.

This is a different kind of trip for us, as we will be totally dependent on public transport and have travelled here with the bare minimum needed, contained in our rucksacks and a small bag each. We have left these small bags containing our travelling clothes at the hostel. Everything we need for the next five days, including food, tent, sleeping bags and mats, stove, cooking utensils, spare clothing, and a fair amount of photography equipment, are in our rucksacks which are pretty heavy.

We board an early morning bus to Gällivare which departs from Kiruna Bus Station opposite the Town Hall with its bizarre iron clock tower. The bus doubles as a post van, which, with typical Scandinavian efficiency, leaves bang on time. The bus is warm and comfortable and I doze for most of the journey. We have a couple of hours wait at Gällivare for the next bus that will take us to the quay at Kebnats where we will catch the STF boat to Saltoloukta, the start point of our Kungsleden trek. We make ourselves comfortable inside the nearby railway station listening to the deep rumble of the cars of iron ore pellets from the nearby mines passing by.

Again, the bus leaves smack on time and our journey takes us through open, sparsely populated countryside of rolling forests which is flooded with golden autumnal light and studded with deep blue lakes. I am delighted to spot my first reindeer by the roadside. As we draw closer to Kebnats, hills and mountains float into view, some still snow streaked. The STF ferry has just arrived as our bus sweeps into the unmade car park, and is disgorging its passengers which are mostly smiling, grungy backpackers who look like they’re having the time of their lives.

I notice that the boat is flying an eye catching yet unfamiliar flag of red, green, yellow and blue vertical stripes, intersected by a circle which is half red and half blue. I guess correctly that this is the flag of the Sámi nation, Europe’s only recognised indigenous minority. I later learn that the vertical colour stripes are commonly used on gáktis - the traditional Sámi dress - and the circular motif is inspired by the sun/moon symbol which appeared on the Sámi shamans’ ancient drums. The blue half represents the moon and the red half, the sun. During the course of our stay we will learn much more about the fascinating life of the Sámi people as we pass through part of Sápmi, which stretches across areas of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia.

Sámi flag on SKF boat
We walk up the sun-bleached wooden decking to the boat and clamber aboard (SKF members get a discount). There’s only a handful of other passengers heading to Saltoluokta as it’s the fag-end of the season and many of the mountain stations and huts will close within the next week or fortnight. As the boat glides across the inky blue lake, from the sun-drenched bow we feast our eyes on the majesty of the surrounding valley sweeping up to snow-dappled mountains. The wind blowing over the surface of the lake lifts the water into little white crested waves. I zip my jacket all the way up to my chin as there’s a definite autumnal chill in the air. Indeed, the snow glistening on the nearby mountaintops is a reminder that winter never quite released its icy grip on the uplands this far north.

About ten minutes later we are disembarking at the wooden jetty at Saltoluokta and begin the short walk up a wooded track leading to the STF Saltoluokta Fjällstation. Yellow birch leaves are strewn on the path like confetti after a wedding, and the ground nearby is flecked with blood red lingonberries, deep purple bilberries and scarlet fly agaric mushrooms. The air is pleasantly pregnant with the heady, musty smell of the woodland, and a great wave of excitement for our forthcoming adventure washes 
over me.

Jetty at Saltoluokta
Psychedelic autumn colours
The STF Saltoluokta Fjällstation nestled amid the woods of a small Sámi settlement is unlike any mountain hut I’ve ever stayed at. An historic wooden building dating from the early twentieth century, it’s more like a high end lodge offering fine dining, comfortable accommodation, a sauna, laundry facilities and a well-stocked shop selling a range of incredibly useful items. Here you can buy various essentials (all in sensibly sized quantities), from food and toiletries, to camping fuel and maps. In addition, there is a wide range of outdoor clothing, footwear and equipment, all of which are recognised brands.

Saltoluokta Fjällstation
After settling into our comfy two-bed dorm, we take lunch in the elegant Scandinavian inspired dining room with its rustic wooden tables and chairs. The food is distinctively Sámi and we ravenously demolish bowls of sorrel soup with boiled eggs and rye bread. I’m delighted to see that the bar has a respectable range of wines and spirits, and best of all, craft beer, brewed by the Tjers Bryggeri from the Swedish Arctic. I am pleasantly surprised to see their range includes a stout which turns out to be mouth wateringly good!

As we are leaving the building, a man approaches us and says he recognises us from our YouTube videos. We instantly recognise him too! He is Irishman, Paul Sheils from Navan, whose films of his adventurous journeys across Sarek National Park have drawn us here in the first place. I have no idea what the odds might be for three people from Ireland meeting accidentally like this in a hut in the middle of the Swedish Arctic, but it was a real pleasure to chat to such an inspirational person in the flesh!

Dinner is a very grand affair indeed. We are called forward by name and take our places at a candlelit table with four middle-aged Finnish trekkers who speak impeccable English. They are also going to trek to Kvikkjokk and have done so on numerous occasions, as the beauty and the splendour of the landscape keeps calling them back. Opposite us is a group of young Swedish friends who are celebrating the end of their trek in style with several bottles of (very expensive) wine.

Fine dining at the Saltoluokta Fjällstation
With candles twinkling on the wooden tables bathed in the dying rays of the autumn sun streaming in through its windows, the atmosphere in this historic building is enchanting. In addition, our table companions are charming and the food, simply magnificent. Each course is announced by the chef with a dramatic flourish and is a veritable feast. We leisurely polish off plates of crisp seasonal salad; deep bowls of rich reindeer soup with a dressing of magenta lingonberries and hunks of freshly baked rye bread; lightly smoked Arctic char with roasted root vegetables, and a creamy white chocolate mousse with a red berry coulis, followed by strong coffee. After dinner we sip fiery local schnapps next to a roaring fire, which rounds off a truly memorable evening. I can only imagine the sheer pleasure of arriving at this magnificent mountain station after trekking the Kungsleden for days on end to find a clean and comfortable bed, a hot shower, and gourmet food and drink! Belly full and feeling comfortably numb from the schnapps, I fall asleep at once and sleep like a log.

Hitting the trail: Saltoluokta to Sitojaure, 20km
After a hearty breakfast and having completed our house-keeping duties as all guests are expected to do in STF accommodation, we hit the well-signposted Kungsleden Trail which leads up through the birch woods past the back of our dormitory. The day does not seem to hold much promise weather-wise, but the overcast skies fail to dampen our spirits as we climb steadily out of the woods to gain a vast and barren plateau across the alpine tundra which offers good walking. The landscape is moody and brooding; the lakes shine like burnished steel, low cloud skirts the top of Sjäksjo mountain and the cinnabar-red bilberry leaves seem to set the ground ablaze. In places where the ground is boggy or rocky, we encounter wooden boardwalks, some of which are in a poor state of repair. The bridges over leaping vodka clear streams are worse, and some are quite dangerous. I traverse them with great trepidation, as one slip could lead to a lower leg injury, or an unwelcome dunk in ice cold water.

View towards Saltoluokta
Crossing the alpine tundra
Bad bridges!
Patches of Arctic bog cotton which have refused to give up the ghost of summer past, trail their wind-ravaged ragged heads in the russet bog, and the spindly branches of dwarf willow have encroached on the boardwalk in places and snatch at our ankles like demonic fingers as we pass. After a few hours walking we see a triangular building looming in the distance, the emergency shelter at Autsutjvagge above the river valley of the same name, where we stop for lunch. We share the space with a trio of elderly Swedes who are hiking to Saltoluokta from Sitojaure. Everyone we meet up here is open, pleasant and friendly, eager to hear your stories and tell you theirs, and all speak excellent English.

Shelter at Autsutjvagge
Refreshed, we push on towards Sitojaure. The wind has picked up and squally showers pulsate in great curtains across the barren alpine tundra. Small groups of reindeer seem etched in monochrome, lost in the enormity of the great undulating plateau. We trudge along for miles across this great windswept wilderness, our packs feeling heavier with every step, before beginning a steady descent back into woodland surrounding Lake Sitojaure. Walking into the wind all day has been tiring and we are both quite wet from the persistent light rain, so we’re mightily glad to see the STF hut loom into view amid a stand of birch trees above the lake’s edge. We announce our arrival and the warden, a very jovial, chatty middle aged female, immediately offers us a cosy two bed dorm for the night which Martin eagerly accepts!

The hut at Sitojaure
There is no shop at this hut, so he takes a 15 minute walk to a nearby Sámi homestead which sells beer, dried fish and reindeer meat. Anna, the lady who runs this informal 'shop', will be taking us the 4 km across the lake by boat tomorrow as there is no STF service here. Because she and her family are herding reindeer, regular boat transfers across the lake have now stopped, meaning it’s necessary to pre-arrange transfers or you will be rowing yourself, not something to be relished in ageing, poorly maintained boats. We have instructions not to be late!

The hut, which we have to ourselves, has an excellent drying room and as paying guests we are free to use the gas rings in the kitchen, meaning you could get away with just carrying a small wood burning stove for camping nights (we brought along our titanium Honey stove). In guttering candlelight and warmed by the heat of a birch wood fire, I greedily wolf down a packet of Expedition Foods Chicken Tikka Masala (we always use this brand when trekking as their freeze-dried food is simply excellent). Darkness falls like a shroud over the silvery lake and it’s monastery silent as I wander across to the toilet block. Overhead, a few watery stars are struggling to put on a performance, and I hope for better weather tomorrow.

Sitojaure to Aktse, 14 km
The morning dawns deadly still and only the peaks of the nearest mountaintops are poking out above a dense layer of white mist which lies many metres thick above the lake. It has barely a ripple on it as we hurry along the rough and muddy track leading to the small jetty by Anna’s blue weatherboard homestead amid the trees. She is hopping about impatiently waiting our arrival and we can see she’s not best pleased that we are about 5 minutes late! As we power our way across the lake, she warms to us as we ask her questions about her family’s way of life as reindeer herders. Round faced with glasses, she’s quite a character, chatty and amiable, and drives the motor boat round submerged obstacles like a racing car! She has to be tough up here in the Arctic, where women must shoulder all manner of chores. Her family have about 4,000 head of reindeer (I cheekily asked her this, which is about the same as her asking me how much money I have in the bank!), and in the autumn they are rounded up to mark new calves and to select those for sale. This is an arduous task undertaken on foot with the aid of a lasso. The people of her commune own upwards of 15,000 reindeer, and each family knows their animals by special cuts made on their ears. She and her family will spend until late-November by the lake, then they will move down to Jokkmukk for the winter, returning to the lake again in spring. Her children have a Swiss au pair who helps with the family chores and takes her eldest son to and from school in Tjåhke.

Anna drops us at the jetty on the other side of the lake where a party of four trekkers plead with her to take them across to Sitojaure. She hesitates, then agrees, as the prospect of earning 800 krona (just over 80 euro) to add to the 400 we have just paid her, is too temping, even for a busy reindeer herder! We set off up the gently rising terrain through a birch forest interspersed with mountain ash for around 3 km before emerging into the rugged alpine tundra. By now we have entered the cloud that has filled the whole valley and the views of the mountains of Sarek National Park remain hidden from us.

The ground gets progressively steeper and we catch fleeting glimpses of herds of reindeer moving about in the grey mist. Gaining the top of a plateau at about 950 m high, we pause for lunch. Every so often the cloud lifts and thins, revealing a watery sun that casts thin lances of light onto the vast expanse of forest below. These beams trace kaleidoscopic patterns in dazzling autumnal shades from vermilion through flame orange to canary yellow.

With the mist billowing like smoke around us, we cross the plateau passing great herds of reindeer that dance across the landscape out of our way. Along the way we encounter a homemade sign for Anna’s boat service – the only spot where it’s possible to get a mobile phone signal to book your boat ride to Sitojaure! I certainly wouldn’t fancy rowing the 4 km across the lake in an ageing wooden boat! Moreover, if there is only one boat there, you have to row back again towing another to replace the one you have taken, and then return to Sitojaure, which would probably near kill anyone not used to rowing 12 km! We have our mobile phones as well as a satellite phone with us for any emergency calls, and we are also carrying a DeLorme InReach satellite device which we can use to send an emergency distress signal, and to check the daily weather forecast.

Vast birch forests in their autumnal splendour
Reindeer flee into the mist
Our DeLorme InReach satellite device
We learn to our disappointment that the weather for tomorrow is absolutely vile, so we ditch our plans to climb to the summit of Skierfe (1179m) where we had planned to camp out overnight. Skierfe has spectacular views of Rapadalen (Rapa Valley) with its braided river which leads into Sarek National Park. Suppressing our disappointment, we begin to descend steeply from the plateau towards the Aktse hut, past rutting reindeer. As we emerge from the cloud, we are greeted by a stunning panorama of chalky turquoise lakes set amid vast expanses of golden birch forest studded with the emerald green spikes of conifer. Flowing from Rapadalen is a tangle of gleaming little rivers wriggling their way through olive green and russet bog that sweeps majestically up to the imposing battleship grey walls of Tjahkelij mountain, atop which a line of white cloud is moving like a slow tsunami. I catch my breath. Even on a dull and overcast day, this landscape literally oozes magic.

One of many reindeer on this part of the route
The magic of Rapadalen is undiminished even on a dull day
The descent to the hut through the forest is very steep over slippery rocks and I’m glad to see a thin column of blue wood smoke rising from the warden’s hut. We pay the 100 krona camping fee which gives us access to the drying room, kitchen and communal areas, and select a sheltered level spot that has grandstand views down into Rapadalen. As we are erecting the tent, Martin spots a rodent of some description dashing between some shrubbery just metres away. He tries to reassure me that it wasn’t a rat!

Aktse Hut
Being one of the main entry points into Sarek, this hut is far busier than the last and only offers 5 bed dorms, so I’m glad we have our tent. We wander over to the warden’s hut to ask about the boat to cross Lake Laitaure tomorrow and are told the STF one leaves at 9.00 am and will cost 100 krona. There is a shop here, but being late in the season, it has sold out of things like crisps, beer and chocolate bars! I notice that someone has collected a large bag of fine looking mushrooms for their dinner, permissible under the law of Allemansrätten (the everyman’s right), which gives people the right to walk, cycle, ride, ski, and camp on any non-private property, or land that is not restricted in any way, and to forage for mushrooms, berries and wood for a camp fire.

Dusk arrives and by degrees the camp falls silent, the glowing shapes of the other trekkers’ tents fade and we clamber into our sleeping bags. Inside the tent, I manage to dispatch the few resilient midges who obviously haven’t yet cottoned on that it’s autumn, along with one of only two mosquitoes I saw during the trek. We have insect repellent with us, and have taken the precaution of treating all our trekking clothes with Permethrin, but one pesky midge still managed to take a chunk out of my little finger!

We couldn’t have been dozing for very long when I am suddenly awoken by a scratching noise. Martin heard it too, but on looking out we can see nothing; everything is in the porch as we left it, and our packets of freeze-dried food are well secured in bags inside the tent with us. Having recently had my empty rucksack stolen from the porch of our tent by a cunning fox early one morning in the Mourne Mountains, and seeing the destruction meted out to it by its razor sharp teeth, I am now super-sensitive to nocturnal noises!

Aktse to Pårte, 21km
I poke my head out of the tent to see a cloud inversion in Rapadalen. The autumn trees are aflame with colour against the background of cotton-soft whiteness. Only the grey top of Tjahkelij mountain is clear, rising from the cloud like the great prow of a sinking battleship, but even this is soon enveloped. The air is pregnant with rain as a low front stealthily approaches. As we pack away the tent, Martin notices three rips in the groundsheet, made by the claws of some unknown critter who was obviously after our food in the night!

Cloud inversion in Rapadalen
We set off down through the campsite toward the lake where we will catch the boat at 9.00 am. I shriek as a ball of black fur suddenly darts across my path; it’s a miracle I didn’t step on it! It was a vole of some description, undoubtedly the same species of rodent as Martin saw yesterday, and whose destructive little claws are probably responsible for our damaged groundsheet! We come to a fork in the track with a wooden signpost that points out two different routes to the lake and the boats, which we find confusing. We decide to take the more well-trodden pathway through a meadow past a Sámi hut and along a board walk through a flat boggy area.

It’s gone nine when we arrive at a jetty to find the place deserted and a motor boat still moored at the end of it. Wraith-like fingers of mist hover above the lake’s mercury grey surface and the little waves lapping at the shore only serve to heighten my unease. Expletives fill the air as the awful realisation sinks in that we might be at the wrong jetty! Miss the boat and we’ll either have to row the 3 km across the lake, or be stuck here another day. Moreover, the forecast for tomorrow is for very high winds, meaning it’s unlikely the boats will be able to operate. We could be delayed another day and will not get back to Kiruna in time for our flight to Stockholm. With my temper rising, I leave Martin unsuccessfully trying to get through to another boat operator on our satellite phone, and begin to march back to the fork in the track to make for the other jetty.

STF jetty and motor boat in the early morning mist
I am thundering along the boardwalk when I meet the STF warden who apologies for being late. To say I am relieved to see him is an understatement! Minutes later we are donning lifejackets and heading out across the misty lake. At the other side we see a white flag flying which means that there are people ready to make the journey across to Aktse. As we disembark, two middle-aged female trekkers take our place on the boat. Today will be a long one, the first section passing through dense forests with few views which leads onto another alpine tundra plateau. Rain is forecast by late-morning and we want to cover as many kilometres as we can while it’s still dry.

Bridge over boggy water
We pass through a gateway in a deer fence and begin a long climb up through mixed forest. We cross bridges where ice cold streams foam and dance over small rapids, and others where deep, dark and mysterious rivers flow silently through the russet bog. Although the day is overcast and damp, curiously the colour of everything seems to be amplified: the deep cushions of dewy sphagnum moss give off a viridescent sheen; the fallen yellow birch leaves littering the pathway are like tiny specks of mottled sunlight; the claret-red leaves of bilberry resemble millions of drops of spilled wine; the crimson foliage of the mountain ash sets the forest canopy ablaze. Rain-pearled berries, the fruits of the forest, shine with surreal lucidity, each droplet a dazzling jewel, and the gleaming leathery white flecked scarlet fly agaric mushrooms look as if they have been lifted straight from the pages of a fairy story. The forest air is loamy, pregnant with the sweet odour of decay.

Boardwalk floating in the bog!
Enchanting autumn colours
Ripe juicy bilberries
Having covered around 5 km, it begins to rain and the remainder of the day is spent in full waterproofs. As we emerge from the forest onto the alpine tundra plateau the visibility is down to around 20 metres. The eerie forms of reindeer shift in and out of the mist as we plod along, heads bent forward against the rain. The terrain offers good walking and at least we have the wind at our backs. After several kilometres we drop down into a wooded glade, startling several reindeer who melt away into the mist close to the distinctive triangular form of an emergency shelter.

Reindeer slink away into the mist
It’s a relief to get inside, dump our heavy packs and get out of our wet waterproofs. We decide to fire up our stove for a hot lunch, having on previous days just eaten a high calorie flapjack to save time. I’m feeling cold and clammy and a slug of Talisker whiskey, brought earlier in the year on our visit to Skye, immediately raises my spirits! After a spicy chicken korma washed down with hot ginger tea, we’re ready for the off. 

A brief reprieve from the rain
The rain is falling steadily from a graphite grey sky as we climb out of the glade and battle our way over an exposed stretch of the route which takes us across a huge metal bridge spanning a small gorge through which a fast flowing foaming river is roaring. The metal frame of the bridge looming up suddenly in the mist looks like something from a sci-fi film. The wind has changed direction and is now lashing us side on with horizontal buckshot rain as we weave our way through a boulder field, picking our way carefully over and around the slippery angular rocks. 

Bridge over a raging Arctic river
Just when you think it can't get any worse, you hit a boulder field!
After what seems like an eternity, we begin to drop steeply off the plateau back into dense forest. The pathway is rocky, muddy, waterlogged and horrid, progress seems interminably slow, and I begin to count down the number of kilometres left until we reach the Pårte Hut.

Finally we emerge from the forest which has mutated into a malevolent, dank and shadowy twilight world where leaden raindrops fall with percussive regularity on the hood of my Gore-Tex jacket. We now enter a stretch of bogland at the head of Lake Sjábttjakjávrre, one final unwelcome obstacle. The wooden boards soon peter out, rotted and drowned in the brackish water, and it’s safer to walk on the bog than attempt to cross them. It’s sheer unbridled joy to see the soft welcoming glow of a candle illuminating the window of the warden’s hut. So far we are the only guests, and we commandeer a dorm to ourselves, just before a couple of Swedish men arrive from Kvikkjokk soaked to the gussets to claim the other. We rally round helping each other; I light candles in the communal area and the wood burning stove in the drying room, Martin tackles the one in the kitchen and the Swedes fetch water and boil it to make hot drinks for everyone. It’s a relief to don dry clothing and climb into a warm and welcoming bunk, where I sleep like a baby.

Pårte to Stuor Dáhtá, 5 km
Sunlight creeping in under the window blind casts a line of golden light on the wooden floorboards of our dorm. I peek out behind the blind to see a shower of gilded leaves fluttering past the window like confetti. The wind is high, sending the nearby birch trees into a frenzy, tearing the golden leaves from their silver boughs and scattering them in all directions. In the not too distant future, these trees will stand on the bank of the ice covered lake, naked in the frozen air, bereft of their autumnal gaiety. 

Maybe this is why Sweden's flag is blue and yellow?
What a difference a day makes! There isn’t a cloud in the cerulean blue sky, and after the gift of a sound night’s sleep I’m feeling good! All of our clothes and our boots have dried out overnight, and, since we did not climb Skierfe as planned and have a spare day, we’re in no rush to get to Kvikkjokk, taking a leisurely breakfast of porridge and numerous mugs of coffee. Our Swedish hut-mates are in no rush either and we enjoy chatting to them and the hut warden, a young willowy woman, who with her partner, has just one more week to spend at Pårte before their 5 weeks of duty as wardens is complete, and the hut closes for the season. Our hut chores complete, we set off mid-morning towards Kvikkjokk past the lake. The wind creates a swell that makes the reeds fringing its shore sway and back and forth as if in a trance.
It's a new dawn, it's a new day, and I'm feelin' good!
Lavatorial humour at the Pårte Hut!
Pårte Hut
Lake Sjábttjakjárre
We’re less than half an hour away from the hut when Martin, who is a couple of metres in front of me, suddenly slips on one of the partially rotted boardwalks and keels sideways into a pool of brackish water. Weighed down by his 25 kilo pack, he finds it difficult to pull himself back up onto the boardwalk. The warden bemoaned the fact that this section of the trail is particularly badly maintained and in need of repair, and Martin is now soaked down one side and has a sodden boot!

Walking the plank!
The route is rocky and most of the small bridges over rushing streams are rickety and broken down. We pass a small lake, the reflections of the autumn trees shine like burnished bronze in its indigo-blue still and shallow sheltered reaches. A huge conical pile catches our attention and we discover it to be an anthill made of dry pine needles. The wind is so strong it is blowing the ants off as they go about their work! Past a deer fence onto a broad russet-coloured plain, we spy the snow streaked mountains of Vállevárre in the distance. We now encounter Stuor Dáhtá, a large inky-blue lake surrounded by dense green and yellow forest overlooked by Tjoallta, a rocky knoll. The wind has agitated the surface of the water into a series of white crested waves that crash onto boulders ringing the shoreline in showers of spray. With a day to spare, we immediately decide to find a camping spot to spend the night.

We select a lovely level site just above the lake. Judging by the size of the fire ring, it has served as a camp for numerous other people. We pitch the tent and begin to forage for some wind dried wood for our evening campfire. Everything on the ground is absolutely sodden from yesterday’s rain, and we range far and wide to select various sized pieces that have caught in tree branches.

Tent with a view
We sit in the warm autumn sun listening to the crash of the waves on the rocky shore, taking in the majesty of the surroundings. Set against the deep blue of the lake, the autumn leaves of the fireweed look remarkably like flames leaping into the air. Much altered in appearance from its summer incarnation, I can finally see why this plant has got its name. The nearby shrubs are peppered with the red and purple of bilberry, lingonberry and juniper, and the low afternoon sun causes the forest leaves to burn with a golden and flame orange intensity.

Flame coloured Fireweed
By early evening the wind has fallen just as the weather forecast predicted, and tonight will be dry and clear. Martin checks for Northern Lights activity and we are delighted to learn that the auroral oval should be over the Swedish Arctic. The sun is setting over the lake in a line of burnished gold, the sky gradually darkens and one by one the stars peep out of the firmament. Macaroni cheese, my favourite freeze-dried meal, is on the menu tonight, and before it gets totally dark, I gather up a handful of birch bark shavings and use my fire-steel to ignite these and a cotton wool pad smeared with Vaseline. Orange flames lick up through the pen sized twigs and larger pieces of wood that let out a low hiss as the remaining moisture is driven from them. After some gentle coaxing due to the dampness of the wood, we finally have a campfire warm enough to sit around. An after dinner drink of whiskey is enjoyed before the fire dies down and the chill stealthily emanating from the lake drives us into our tent.

Campfire's burning
Martin goes out at around 11.00 pm to check for Northern Lights activity. We’re in luck! I poke my head out of the tent to see the thin vapour-like tendrils of light playing in the sky over the hill behind our tent. Martin sets up the camera to capture our illuminated tent set against this shimmering ethereal backdrop for a timelapse sequence. The results are fantastic. We have committed to film a sight that will forever remain seared into our memory.

The Northern Lights electrify the skies over our tent

Stuor Dáhtá to Kvikkjokk, 11 km
A grey dawn breaks. The lake is still and mirror flat. The mountains with their piebald snow patches and the broken cloudy sky are reflected in its mercury cool surface which is disturbed every so often by the faint concentric circles of raindrops. We break camp, walking in the direction of the risen sun along a rugged track that weaves its way along the lakeside until it climbs steeply into a forest strewn with carpets of gold and crimson leaves. The track meanders its way up and down over small hills and crosses several streams via rustic wooden bridges and across boggy boardwalks.

The cloud gradually breaks up and blue sky peeks from between flour white cloud. A Siberian jay seems as uplifted by the weather’s change in mood as we do, and puts on quite a performance in the tree canopy. We pass though many greenish glades of conifer and birch where the shrubs are laden with berries and the sun beams shining through the moisture laden air look misty and enchanted. The trail is fairly quiet, but we do bump into few hikers going to the the Pårte Hut, including a lone Swedish hiker who is walking the complete 425 km of the Kungsleden Trail with his Siberian husky, which is carrying 7 kg of dried food in ‘Ruffwear’ packs on her back!

The trail is well marked all the way
After a fork in the track which leads into Sarek National Park, the path begins a gradual descent towards Kvikkjokk and gets progressively rougher and stonier. We reach the Kvikkjokk Mountain Station in the early afternoon and have to wait for the reception to open at 16:00. Meanwhile, we check out the rapids on the Gamajåhkå River which provide a spectacular backdrop to the hut which is perched high on the bank above. The roaring, foaming white rapids look as if they’ve been lifted straight from the pages of National Geographic.

Kvikkjokk Fjällstation
The rapids on Gamajåhkå River
The mountain station serves hot snacks to order, craft beers and offers an al a carte evening menu in the restaurant. We chose the traditional and truly delicious Sámi dish of souvas as a starter (salted and lightly smoked reindeer meat which is thinly sliced and served with a creamy horseradish sauce on toast) followed by elk (moose) patties with root vegetables. A hot shower and comfortable beds make for a pleasant night’s sleep.

Souvas, salted and lightly smoked reindeer meat

The following day we are up at stupid o’clock to catch the 5:30 am bus to Jokkmokk which leaves opposite the church. The morning is vault still and pitch black as we board the bus, joining a few other backpackers. By degrees the sky begins to lighten and we are treated to one of the most magnificent dawns I have ever experienced. For ages the sky seems to be literally on fire, glowing crimson red, through magenta to rose pink and mauve before the sun erupts above the horizon bathing everything in soft golden light. The bus suddenly slows and I am fortunate to spot a wolverine fleeing into the dark forest nearby.

At Jokkmukk, we find a small café to have breakfast and to kill some time before the Ájtte museum opens at 10.00 am. Devoted to the history, culture and heritage of the Sámi nation, the museum is excellent and is worth a few hours of anyone’s time. It certainly helped to put into context all we had learned about the Sámi on our passage along the Kungsleden. After a hearty lunch, we catch onward busses to Gällivare and Kiruna. After greatly enjoying a dinner of creamy elk stew in Landströms Kök & Bar, we retire to the Bishop’s Arms to toast our amazing adventure over a glass of pitch black porter. We spend our last night back at the STF accommodation in Kiruna before our early afternoon flight to Stockholm.

As I sit on the plane back to Dublin, I reflect on our trip. We have traversed windswept rocky plateaus lashed by buckshot rain; glided over mirror still lakes in little motor boats; stood over crystal clear rushing rivers; stumbled upon silent valleys filled with cotton-soft cloud, and walked through sun-drenched forests of birch ablaze with the colours of autumn. The landscape is utterly beguiling, I have totally fallen under its spell and, like an addict, I know that I simply must return again to this place where the sun, rain and wind reign supreme and it feels simply good to be alive. Above all, I appreciate that to wander through this majestic landscape is to understand, as the Sámi people do, that the Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth. 

A truly regal route
For a video trailer of our journey see: