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Lapping up the Swedish wilderness

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12:38 CEST+02:00
Snowbound and frigidly cold for most of the year, the brief arrival of summer transforms the mountains of Northern Sweden into a trekker's paradise. Overlooked by most foreign tourists in favour of mountain playgrounds further south, such as the Alps, this isolated corner of Europe offers a wilderness experience par excellence.

Huge rucksacks crammed full with a week's provisions jockey for space in the crowded compartment of the overnight train heading north out of Stockholm. It will take nearly twenty hours to reach our destination. Tall tales of thumb-sized mosquitoes, bear encounters and treacherous river crossings are excitedly exchanged. Meanwhile, progressing ever further north, communities become few and far between, separated by vast swathes of seemingly impenetrable forest. The horizon ahead glows orange in the land of the midnight sun.

The next day we alight at Abisko – the starting-point of the Kungsleden, Sweden's premier trekking trail that threads its way south for 450 kilometres. Blankets of stunted birch forest cloak the lower slopes of the mountains while their rounded summits, still snow-clad, glimmer brightly. The air feels cool and fresh, the rustle of leaves and the sound of gushing water replace the clamour of the city, and the immense space knows no bounds. We have arrived in a different land.

The completion of the railway at the beginning of the 20th century heralded the opening-up of this far-flung corner of the country. In the 1930s hiking boomed in the far north and till today continues to be a popular activity for many Swedes. By comparison, three centuries ago it had taken the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, on his famed Lapland expedition, weeks of arduous travelling to reach these same mountains, which then lay on the furthest edge of known Europe, traversed only by the Sami reindeer herders.

The week-long hike along the Kungsleden from Abisko past Sweden's highest mountain Kebnekaise is the most popular section of the trail. Thousands of hikers trammel its well-beaten path each summer. Huts line the route at the end of each day's walk providing basic accommodation. Some even have saunas. Seeking greater seclusion, however, I divert off the path and encounter no one for two days. I pitch my tent in narrow, twisting valleys framed by the jagged walls of soaring peaks rising over a kilometre above my head. Glaciers are glimpsed through the mist, while streams tumble down unhindered. Refilling my water bottle, I gasp as the icy pureness of the water hits my stomach.

To the south of Kebnekaise lies the jewel of the Swedish mountains: Sarek National Park is often billed as Europe's last wilderness – there are no maintained trails or huts – with over 200 peaks rising above 1800 metres. The silt-stained green-grey-blue channels of the Rapadalen river delta constitute the main artery of the park, above which rises the precipitous cliff of Skierfe. Standing atop, the view must rank among Europe's most spectacular sights. Together with the adjoining national parks of Padjelanta and Stora Sjöfallet, the area is justifiably designated a World Heritage Site.

The days of exploration à la Linnaeus may be over, but the powerful feeling of remoteness lingers here above the Arctic Circle. You can still be two or three days walk away from the nearest road. From more demanding off-trail hikes to well-staked out routes providing overnight lodgings, Sweden's mountain wilderness caters to both walkers and seasoned trekkers alike looking for adventure and solitude, the latter a precious resource in much of overcrowded Europe.

Getting there

Abisko is the main gateway to the northern section of the Kungsleden. There are regular trains from Stockholm. The trail is also accessible (a popular 2-day hike) via Kebnekaise mountain station from the village of Nikkaluokta. Take the bus from Kiruna. Kvikkjokk, situated roughly half-way along the Kungsleden, is reached by bus from the town of Jokkmokk. It is also a good starting-point for excursions into Sarek and Padjelanta National Parks. The latter has a 150km trail running through it called the Padjelantaleden, which is also accessible from Ritsem at its northern terminus. Take the bus from Gällivare. Ammarnäs and Hemaven are the main jumping-off points for the southern part of the Kungsleden.

Note

You should always be properly equipped before going into the Swedish mountains. Mid-June to mid-September is the best time for trekking. Good boots, waterproof clothing and adequate provisions are essential. The huts can be full in peak season so always carry a tent and sleeping bag. The weather can change very quickly and snowfall, even in summer, is not uncommon. Plan your route carefully, always letting someone know about your intentions. It is better to hike as part of a group. Off-trail hiking is only advisable for the more experienced as pathless terrain and unbridged rivers can make the going arduous and potentially dangerous.

For more information on Sweden's national parks, see the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency's homepage:

www.naturvardsverket.se

For information on the Laponia World Heritage Site, see:

www.laponia.nu

The Svenska Turistföreningen maintains the huts along the Kungsleden, see:

www.svenskaturistforeningen.se

There is also some useful information on the mountains on the Norrbotten County Administration's website, see:

www.fjallen.nu

Alec Forss

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