Beyond the Arctic circle

The polar region: an endless remote landscape speaks about the history of the world in an ancient language to the visitor, who can discover a gentle wildlife behind the harsh cover. Scandinavia opened a portal to this mystic place when the regular trains started between the iron mine of Kiruna in Sweden and the port of Narvik in Norway. We stepped into this world beyond the polar circle and it captivated us.

We got out from the plane at the airport of Kiruna in the same clothes we wore in the summer warmth of Stockholm. We didn’t feel it cold at first, but soon we changed the short to trouser, the shirt to long-sleeved and so on. A few minutes later we were standing there in coat and scarf waiting for the train to Abisko. The national park lies just on the Swedish side of the border between Kiruna and Narvik far from populated areas and close to the nature. The national park is the hall through one can enter the polar area. A short tutorial that introduces the wilderness without wildness and let you decide how deep you dare to wonder. Our plan was a moderately ambitious, 24 hour-long, U-shaped curve in the valleys around a large, uncrossable block of mountains that started at one train station and ended at the other. The train stopped just at the entrance of the national park. We spotted a wooden house a few steps away. Its pillars grew from the ground and the beams were like branches and covered the top with their large leaves. The walls were translucent but held the warmth inside the spacious rooms full of adventurers. An elven woman greeted us in entrance of the hut. Her skin was white, her hair was green and she was dressed in grey. Standing in front of us like a slender birch tree she offered food, shelter, equipment and maps for our trip. We stepped inside the buildings. Ropes, carabiners, tents, raincoats and dishes were hanging from the walls all around between the pictures of the landscape and the people exploring it. We needed nothing more than a cartridge of gas to cook our meal, but we gladly spent an hour in that welcoming place. The adventurers in that house looked being great many, but later in the wilderness with hardly met any. They were hikers and climbers mostly heading south or recovering after just returning from there. It was the early afternoon and we had much to walk, so we started on the road to the national park. It was a very friendly place giving an insight to the polar wilderness without the challenges meant by the wild landscape, so even families with children could visit it without any risk. The rivers were crossed by bridges, planks were laid on the rocky and muddy terrain, so we could enjoy a nice walk paying all our attention to the beauties of the area.

The first few hours passed quickly, we progressed along a wild river running south between the large rock formations. The earth was muddy, covered with grass and moss that climbed up also on the trees. The river was fed by small streams crossing our way. The valley was bordered by tall mountains in all directions, mostly they were brown and grey and some of them had white caps. We tried to let in the sight, the scent and the noises of the rich flora and fauna around us. We saw butterflies and various birds and  spotted some reindeer in the distance. We walked by large fields of mushroom, lichen and moss between the pine and birch groves. At the end of the park we reached a hut providing water, food and shelters. We stopped for a soup and rested a bit after the 4 hours of walk. It was 5pm and there was still a long route ahead of us, but the summer days were long, the sun was up till almost midnight, so we didn’t worry about the schedule yet. We continued our joyful trip with the same carefree steps as we did in the park following a track that ended at a kind sign telling us ‘entering at your own risk’. So without much options we entered at our own risk without much worry and within a quarter-hour we found ourselves in the middle of a swamp jumping from one tussock to the other without a clue about where the route is.  The thin earth over the hard granite grew high light-green grass hiding well the ankle-high water. So we stepped and squelched and swore and jumped, while the frogs sang their love songs, and we decided to go higher because it was no fun any more. The wilderness was not wild yet, but I felt its smiling on us and heard the tinkling laugh of the fairies buzzing around us, the two packed up human dreaming about exploring their world. We climbed up on the hillside and continued our trip on a small track we found there. ‘Level 2’ we could say if it were a game, and it was. Although, we had no network and no one in hearing distance, we didn’t feel ourselves in any danger. In fact it was rather liberating being alone in the nature making things very simple. We only had to walk. And we walked, through birch groves and grassy clearings, over wild rivers and up and down on the wavy landscape under the mountains. The backpacks were getting heavy so we slowed our pace not to get tired early. We didn’t plan to stop any time soon.

The navigation was simple though even without GPS the steep rocky walls on the two sides gave no doubt about the direction to west. The tracks were a bit trickier though leading up and down the slope, splitting and joining, threatening with getting us back to the swamps again. My girlfriend took the lead as her intuition comes handy in these situations. We zigzagged between birches, climbed up rocks and crossed some creeks. The sun was still up pushing us further one the road, but after two hours of this and we were both completely exhausted. Although, our aim was to reach Unna Alakas – a hut half-way of our trip – before the sun sets, we had to realize that the hillside route was longer and our pace was slower than we planned. So we started to look for a good tenting spot with some clean water source, and there was a little pond  at the leg of the hill surrounded by grass and little higher a dry clearing on the hillside. We stopped and dropped the heavy bags on the grassy ground. I pitched the tent while she cooked the dinner from the adventure food packs we brought with ourselves. These feather-light packages held a full portion of warm dinner if boiling water was added and there was nothing we wished more at that moment than warm food. We don’t eat much during the day when we are on a hike, but the breakfast and dinner are paramount. I zipped the sleeping backs together and we jumped into the large warm hole before we started eating our little feast in the dusk at almost midnight. We were alone, we saw no men in hours of walk distance, the nature was silent and calm, the weather still cool but pleasant. Full of experiences we chatted for a while but the tiredness was strong and though it was still day-light we shortly fell asleep.

The morning waked us early with its light, I looked out of the tent door. I saw the green-grey grassy pitch bordered with rigid bushes over the clean pond in the long swampy valley guarded by the white-capped mountains under the clear sky without any sign of man except us, and I had to strongly consider the possibility of I am steel dreaming. We were really there, beyond the polar circle, in the middle of the wilderness between the mountains, on the shore of a sparkling pond. I boiled a soup without leaving the warm sleeping bag increasing my chances of convincing my girlfriend to get out of the bed. We had our breakfast with some Wasa bread, a dry toast rich in flavor. It was given us by elves for our journey to give us strength. They call it ‘lembas’, it is light as feather and smells like spring and you can never get bored with it. A few slices of it is enough for a meal, so the two packs we brought took almost no place. We packed and started walking in the windless sunrise. Soon the track left the hillside and descended back to the valley, but it was not swampy any more, we could walk with dry-feet on the large meadows spotted with dark boulders. A sign told us that the land is part of the Lapp’s reservoir, so we walked gently on the track waiting for something to happen. Not as we expected, but something really happened, a rainbow appeared in the sky, a complete colorful arc meeting the ground on a small hill with a tree. ‘There the treasure is’ we thought in the same time and started to run. We climbed the little hill with a tree and digged deep in the ground. And there the treasure was a chest full of books, telling tales of adventures from the past.

We reached the area of Unna Alakas around noon, but we didn’t want to stop. We still believed that we can cross the mountains in time and reach our train to Narvik, where we planned another hike. So we turned north and started climbing the 1000m (3300ft) elevation up to the mountain. There was no track any more, the route was indicated by poles with crosses on their top. My partner in hiking and life took over the lead again and we zigzagged through the rocky-bushy area until we reached a track again. This was the first time we saw another man since we left Abisko, although he was behind us below. We could only wave and shout, and he answered likewise, and we didn’t see him and no one others for quite a time again. But we saw something else as we approached the top of the mountain slope. A  group of reindeer wondering along the ridge. We spotted them and they spotted us, they were a complete family. Our ways were crossing each other and none of us really wanted to go first. We all were standing there staring at each other, until someone we couldn’t see shouted ‘gee’ and the reindeer started to run. Then we spotted the sleigh behind them with a little man inside. A large bag layed behind him in the back of the small sleigh and he disappeared to the north waiving us cheerly. Even though it is said that reindeer are peaceful, half of respect half of fear we didn’t dare to start until they got far away. We were the guests in their land anyway.

The weather and the landscape changed quickly as we arrived to the top. It got cold and rainy and the rich green vegetation gave its place to grey rocks with some moss. It was the ‘Level 3’ on the scale of initiation to this land, and it was not as welcoming as back int the valley. We walked on the large rocks carefully not to step between them, because it could have been quite tricky to get help up there in case of one of us injured. Balancing with the large bags took most of our energy, so it was a silent walk across the ridge. On the other side we descended into a dark valley. The wind was blowing, the icy rain was knocking on our hoods. We were walking for about 6 hours already and we didn’t stop much because it felt cold while we were standing. The moral decreased quite a bit so we had to take measures. The mountain told us: ‘you are not tough enough, get out of this wild land’. Get back to your house inside your town you’ll find nothing good here. But when his rumble silenced we could hear the simmering tea water and with a mouth full of Toblerone we replied: ‘thank for your concern, but we enjoy very much this hike over your land’. We continued the walk over the rocky land cheerfully chatting about some nonsense of how neither of us wanted to get married ever and unnoticeably we crossed the dark valley and reached a high land spotted with large lakes. Looking back and forth we realized how small we were in that landscape and how unbelievable it was that we could cross this rough terrain. But it was true, we progressed, however not as quick as planned. We already understood that there is no chance we can reach any train that day. But seeing the grandiose adventure we fell into, we didn’t mind it at all. We spotted the first patch of snow and we started snowballing, then we arrived to the ice-cold lake and played stone-skipping. Two of us alone in that freezing rocky land with a tent and some food we were light-hearted like never before.

The lake was fed by a wide river flowing down from the mountains. No matter how hard we were looking for a way through, there was no way crossing it with dry feet. The best we found was a wide and shallow ford, where we could cross on the top of rocks. The river was wild and cold and the rocks were under the flow, and below the ford the water disappeared in the depth.  We found some long branches that we could use as long supporters to stabilize our jumps. We didn’t take off our shoes because slipping on one of those wet rocks would ended much worse than a few wet socks. We stepped cautiously from one rock to another taking our time at each movement in spite of the fact that we stood in the freezing water up to our ankles. We grabbed each other to keep our  balance and we still had to shout over the rumble. It was doubtlessly the ‘Level 4’ and it was close to our limits on that day. We crossed the river successfully and took off our shoes and socks to squeeze the water out of them as we discussed laughing about the crossing, our new tale of adventure. We needed the morale very much as our shoes were still wet, so we decided to take the wet socks back too. It was not pleasant, but they got warmer soon enough after we started walking, at least until we stepped in another puddle of ice-cold water. We met a small group of hikers coming in the opposite. It was five hours after we met that other guy in the valley and it seemed like an eternity, so we were glad that we could exchange some words with other people. We were through the hardest part though, the rest of the day we walked through the high land covered with rocks. And at the end we climbed over a last high ridge before arriving to our tent spot. It was on a shore of a huge mountain lake. It had a plain pebbly shore and a view of green-white polar landscape. The sky was clear, it was early dusk, some fog floated over the water. We pitched and cooked and ate warm food, while we took pleasure in the view of the sunset. In the tent is was dry and warm, and we were much tired , so it didn’t take long to get asleep.

The sun was shining ‘good morning’ through the thin roof of the tent. I got out into the freezing dawn and looked around our camp: pebbles wet of dew, calm water surface with mist floating over, reflecting the blue sky with clouds pink of the light of the rising sun. I started to boil our morning tea and waked my dear up and we got dressed up warm. Since we missed all trains to Narvik and we got still a day to spend before our flight we didn’t hurry much any more. We ate the breakfast and packed our stuff all without hurry. Then we started along the lake walking silently. The terrain was more gentle on the rest of our route.  It led gently by the river flowing down to the valley. The last section was a simple walk on a gravel road. Back to Level 1. We talked and enjoyed the sun and the easy walk. The wilderness said good-bye to us, and we waved back to the mountains. I wouldn’t think we got friends so quick, but we had our first meeting, and the introduction proposed tha there will be a second too. For now we left the swampy valley and the rocky ridge, the elven house, the Lapp reindeer and the laughing fairies. When we arrived to the train station next to the main road, my girlfriend figured out that we could try to hitch hike to Narvik before we go back to Kiruna. She has these strange ideas and somehow they mostly come true. The second, literally the second car stopped for us and took us directly to Narvik. It was a truck driver going back to his city by car after a job. He told us a lot of stories about the area: how it looks like in the winter, what are those boulders on the top of the ridges (solution below), how often he sees arctic light. He was really like a tourist guide.

We had a short walk inside Narvik. It is a very exciting city with an interesting history especially during the Second World War. We were too tired to go far from the train station, so we rather stayed there for the rest of the hours till the train started. We washed our face  and ate some food. We even met some Hungarian mountaineers who were on a round trip in Norway. And then we slept on the train all the way back to Kiruna. There we went to a restaurant and ate real reindeer steak, which sounds controversial after meeting reindeer in the mountains, but since the Lapps keep domesticated reindeers in herds like we keep the cows it didn’t raise much ethical issues. At end of the day we walked out to the airport to spend the night there waiting for our morning flight. Just at the end of the trip we had another opportunity to pitch our tent in the heavy rain and sleep outdoors as the airport closed for the night. But a little bit of discomfort did not take our good mood away. We dreamed about the dream we were in for the past three days. The place where we would like to return any time. In fact this was really the mother of all hikes we did so far. All the hike we did after had to be compared to, and they stood not much chance against it.

Take care and don’t forget your sweater home.

P.S. The boulders on the top of the ridges are the heritage of the ice age, they were carried by the wandering ice and left there after it melted.

[Photo gallery] [GPS track]

One thought on “Beyond the Arctic circle

  1. Pingback: Walking pace | GABOR|GEREB

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