Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Three national parks and 75 km in five days

(LONG read. Yeah, I don't write that often any more, but when I do, you get a lot for your money)

This summer has been all about the mountains. Less than a month ago, J and I roamed the ones around Hemavan, and a week ago we drove up to Ritsem to hike around mount Akka (also known as the Queen of Lapland). During the 5 days we were there, not a single kilometre was run, but believe me: running was on my mind very often. Keep reading and you'll soon see why.

Day 1: The drive up to Ritsem and looking for a place to camp

It's not easy getting to Ritsem, the little collection of Sami fisherman cabins by the lake Akkajaure. The road there is long (around 430km) and the last part of it is narrow and rough, the asphalt broken up by the harsh winter climate, its side littered by huge stones that have plummeted from the cliffs above. Also, suicidal reindeer hiding in the ditches, waiting until you're almost close enough to hear their racing heartbeat before they throw themselves at your 90 km- per hour speeding ton of metal. Judging by the look it gave me before it trotted back into the bushes, head held high, I was being unreasonable to brake and shout obscenities at it.

I guess reindeer are not known for their smarts. I mean, you don't see many of them graduating from Harvard.

We had to wait for an hour before we could get on the boat that would carry us across the lake and to Änonjalme, the trail head of Padjelanta trail. The boat tour took a little more than half an hour, but it was a pleasant tour: Mount Akka looked very impressive, looming over us, surrounded by other snow-clad tops.

Padjelanta trail is around 140 km long and pretty easy to hike on. It seemed to attract lots of people, all sorts of people, most of whom only went as far as the first cabin (a couple km from Änonjalme). We continued over the shaky suspension bridge that hangs over the raging river Vuojatädno. 

Our goal was to reach the Northern side of Akka and find a place to put up our tent at the foot of the mountain. Then, the following day, we hoped to climb up to the Hamberg glacier. We found what looked more like a reindeer track and less like a trail veering off into a mountain birch jungle, complete with mud, puddles and thick bushes our heavy backpacks got caught into. After fighting nature for one kilometre, we decided to give up on that goal and turn back to Padjelanta trail.

The trail was like a motorway compared to the narrow track we had attempted to follow, complete with fellow travellers having put up tents at strategic locations. After 10 km of hiking with 10 kg on my back (and a long car journey), I was eager to find such a strategic location. But it proved to be harder than we thought. We needed to have access to water and a clearing big enough for our three-man tent. We were also hoping to find such a place a bit further into the woods so that we'd have some privacy, and some protection from the elements in case the weather got bad. We had taken a food break by a stream, and we briefly considered putting up the tent there, but having people walking 2 meters past our tent wouldn't do much for our illusion that we were in the wilderness.

We chose to walk on and get to the next cabin, which was 15 km from the boat. About a kilometre before we got there, we found the perfect camping place: a peninsula of land right where two rivers meet, the rivers that divide the area into three national parks. We had access to glacier water, blue and frothing. We had trees around us that provided shelter and privacy. And the reindeer poo that covered the whole area made for a really soft surface to put the tent on. Not to mention a pleasure to clean the tent afterwards.

Yeah. The last part was maybe not ideal. But we had driven 430 km and walked 16. We just wanted to sleep.

Day 2: Sarek national park

Sarek is pure wilderness. No cabins, no trails. Just hikers and wild animals, which, fascinatingly enough, never collide. The bears, lynx and huge moose that are the natural inhabitants of this area kept well away.

We found a reindeer track and followed that along the river Sjnjuvtjudisjåhkå (someone forgot to put some vowels in there - surprisingly, I suspect that word is easier to pronounce after a bottle of wine. Or maybe when noone is sober enough to correct you). Despite the lack of official trail, it was mostly pretty easy to hike there. We upset some long-tailed jaeger and willow ptarmigan. The plover's mournful cries accompanied us the whole way. We were hoping to get near Nijak, a sharp-looking top 10-12 km from the tent. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse and we could hardly see our noses, let alone a top which by now was surely hidden in the clouds.

We turned back, our clothes slowing getting wet despite the rain gear. After a couple of kilometres, the rain stopped, because of course it did. That's mountain weather for you: unpredictable, always changing, fierce. We took a detour past a hill that offered a great view of lake Vastenjaure and a reindeer sighting. When we finally arrived back at the tent, we had hiked 20 km.

Day 3: Stora Sjöfallet national park

We were aching to put in some altitude kilometres, and since we couldn't get to Akka from where we were, we aimed for the next best thing in the area: the 979-meter tall mountain hill Sjnjuvtjudis (remember that word? How could you forget). It wasn't a steep climb but our thighs still ached pleasantly. The top was marked by a heap of stones littered with reindeer antlers and offered a magnificent view over Akka's Western tops, Akkajaure lake and the mountains Nijak and Kisuris. 

As easy as it was to climb up, getting down was hard. We thought walking around the whole hill would be a great idea, but what we didn't take into consideration was the weather (which turned foggy and rainy) and the thick bushes covering large parts of the hillside. It was slow going, and it was mentally tiresome to not be able to look around and judge how far we'd walked. Thankfully, we had our GPS with us, telling us where we were. We finally got back after 14 km and cooked some delicious couscous on the stove. Well, not so delicious. But when you've spent the whole day hiking, even paper tastes good.

Day 4: Padjelanta national park and the way back

Just as we were finishing our coffee on a cold morning after a dreary rainy night, J exclaimed: ”Look!”. Not 15 meters from us, a young reindeer and its adult companion were walking towards the river shore to drink some water. I hardly had time to produce my camera before they spotted us and ran away.

The sun finally appeared, just in time for our last-day hike into Padjelanta. The plan was to walk for 2-3 hours on the easy trail, saving our strength for the evening hike back to the bridge. Conveniently enough, a Sami village lay 5 km from our tent and we headed for it. The environment was almost surreal at places, barren but for some beautiful mountain birches that struggled to survive. The trail was undulating, taking us over sandy ridges and past cool streams. All I could think of was how cool it would be to run Padjelanta trail, maybe staying at the cabins at night. It wouldn't take more than 6-7 days.

The last part of the hike cut through low marshlands. The elusive cloudberries (also known as Norrland's gold), going for 40 euro/kg in the supermarkets, were abundant here – unfortunately not ripe enough to eat yet. That didn't stop us from tasting a couple.

Back at the tent, we ate some couscous and packed our things. The weather was still beautiful, the air crispy but not cold enough to cool us down, the sky blue among the scattered clouds. Akka and the surrounding mountains were revealed in all their glory, with some fresh snow powdering the tops. We walked in its shadow with our heavy backpacks on our shoulders, stopping to admire the awe-inspiring glaciers slowly gliding down its sides. 

We put up the tent by the suspension bridge. We had to be at Änonjalme at 12 the following day to take the boat back to Ritsem, and we still had 4 km to walk. Some dark clouds seemed to be coming our way from the West, and we re-hydrated our dehydrated dinner in a hurry. We indulged in a couple of home-baked flapjacks for dessert. The dreaded storm turned out to be nothing but a drizzle. We slept badly that night, knowing that the alarm would go off at 6 the next morning.

Day 5: The journey back

We were very efficient with our breakfast and packing routine, and we headed back to the boat at 8.30. We arrived there way too early, and, with nothing else to do, we sat by the beach, cooling our feet in the icy lake. The mosquitoes were almost outnumbered by the seagulls, but they were infinitely more annoying as they buzzed in my ear. Good thing we had hats with mosquito net on them.

The boat took us to the Vaisaluokta cabin first before it turned back towards Ritsem. Our car was, thankfully, still there when we got back. Some rainy weather was waiting for us in Skellefteå, and the temperature had dropped to 8 degrees. It seemed like the mountain weather had followed us all the way home.

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