Why I quit my job to visit Europe's last wilderness
A story on the Kings path (Kungsleden), in Swedish Lapland.
One social media post with the heading - “Europe's last wilderness” along with a picture, an article about walking the Kungsleden’s 440km path making its way through some of northern Europe’s most spectacular landscapes
A 6 hour stop off in Stockholm was where I gathered some information about where I was heading, it’s here when I realised that the season for the Kungsleden had finished 2 weeks prior to my departure and things didn’t get much better on the plane either. Talking to a retired English teacher from Kiruna he hadn’t seen the Northern lights in the past month and unless I was prepared to “chase down the lights” chances are I’d see nothing.
6 hours sleep in 24 hours was all I got before hooking up with a local dog kennel owner and battling with his sled dogs, taking them on a 15km ride down what was supposed to be a frozen path but due to some unexpected warm weather we were driving our dogs along with quad bikes through some unforgiving knee-deep mud.
These relentless runs went on for 6 hours with a short one-hour break for some chicken and rice. A dog trainer’s day starts before the sun rises and ends when all the work is done; this is usually anything between 10-16 hours. Pay is average and free time is kept to a minimum.
Talking to the workers and seeing the tight relationships they build with each and every one of the 175 dogs, it doesn’t surprise me that they go back season after season. The train journey of almost 100km makes its way through the breath-taking Nordic landscape. With lakes, birch trees, snow-capped mountains in the distance, and only a scattering of houses to remind you of the busy streets at home, you really do feel like you’re heading somewhere far away from civilisation.
Every 10-25km there are a few huts filled with bunk beds and a fire burner. In the summer these are open to tourists, along with small shops offering gas canister and rations. Passing these I saw great potential for a campfire, beer and some of those “good life” vibes, but not in the offseason, in fact, the majority of huts still open, were toilets. Abiskojaure was where I first set up my tent, in the hope of finding the northern lights mirrored in the lake, instead, high winds, clouds with additional rains were on the menu. After breakfast and repacking my bag I set off down this amazing trail; step by step I was falling in love with my surroundings and soon I was walking in the picture I saw on social media a few weeks prior to my arrival.
Two wooden planks saved my feet from sinking trough the saturated ground, I was overlooking the glistening dry grass stretching past the short stumpy birch trees, down the spinney valley. It was a very surreal experience. The other end of the lake had a few built-up houses along with a wood store and a couple of toilets, it’s here where I came across an emergency hut. With little faith, I turned the handle and to my surprise, the door opened, equipped with only the very basics, an emergency phone, first aid kit, bunk bed and a very small wood burner, the kitchen was made of two cupboards and a tap.
Focused on the flickering spot of light shining from my torch I almost missed the faint green smudge in the sky. Fickle as the northern light, is I immediately scrambled back to the hut to gather my camera gear in the hope of capturing the northern lights for the first time. With no tripod, I was forced to use a fence pole along with the only object in my pocket, my passport, which did the job at keeping my camera facing up twenty minutes of nervously shifting my body from left to right hoping for the northern lights to fire up the sky again. The green haze falling from the stars. turned into a swerving S line, making its way across lake Abiskojaure, past the snowcapped mountains and off into the distance. Having only my camera to share this astounding moment with, I got to work and shot the first pictures.
Watching the images pop up on my screen filled me with joy and so I spent the next twenty-five minutes trying out different angles and compositions until once again the lights died down and left the night to the stars.
From there I could look into the valley where Ice had long stopped plants and water from moving, with no emails needing attention, no calls wanting an answer and no people to distract one from the pure beauty of this planet, I got the time to appreciate fully my surroundings: the steep valleys, the fresh air coming from the mountaintops and the frozen ground crackling under my feet.
Reflecting on my trip, I realised that once you put money first, it is the beginning of a downward spiralling slope. “If I only scrape a living, at least it’s a living worth scraping”
With only two nights to go I had very little time to relish in my own thoughts, and so was forced to head back down the sandy rock, back over the rivers and streams.
Since I didn’t have to worry about meeting any people my thoughts went back to the bears, tucking into my bag, like a snack bar. Nonetheless, I had to follow my head torch to find my bags, just as I left them.
A young bearded hipster looking fellow in the row in front woke me, pointing out of the narrow plane window. Not only was I witnessing the northern lights but I was practically flying through them. I wasted no time to give the old man next to me the “told you so” look but he replied with a vague glance at the green shimmering lights and a shrug of the shoulders before sticking his head back into his book. 6 hours sleep in 24 hours was all I got before hooking up with a local dog kennel owner and battling with his sled dogs, taking them on a 15km ride down what was supposed to be a frozen path but due to some unexpected warm weather we were driving our dogs along with quad bikes through some unforgiving knee-deep mud.
The word train station is an over-exaggeration for the deserted wooden hut where I was dropped off. A short wave from the conductor was all the advice he had to give and so I buckled up in the quest to lose myself in this wilderness. The term “offseason” shies tourists away leaving you with only your mind to talk to and the howling wind scraping past trees to listen to.
Decision to upgrade from my tent to this “luxury apartment” was a quick one and with the weather playing along my hopes for the sky to light up where up once again. Cooking, cleaning and drying my soaking wet clothes took up the rest of the day. With every muscle relaxing in the warmth of the fire and my thoughts taken away by the crackling of the wood slowly burning away, the picture I had sought after for weeks was long forgotten. As the fire slowly died, the cold started creeping back into the room, which meant I was forced to head back out into the freezing night to fetch some wood.
With the cell towers no longer reaching my phone there was no way of telling the weather. Other from what I had gathered in the days leading up to the trip. A 30km hike over a mountain pass stood between me and my next safe camping spot. Before Staring my adventure, in Kiruna locals warned me of uncertain weather patterns and that 30cm of snow in the hills was not uncommon.
Getting stuck in the mountains wasn’t on my wish list for this trip. So, I ditched my bag and took only the necessities, camera, water and some snacks. The walk slowly turned from the mellow wooden planks to steep grooves carved into the brittle sandstone, crossing over wild rivers and streams my feet took me on to what felt like the top of the world until I was greeted by a hazy sunset overlooking a frozen mountain lake.
Further, I went leaving nothing behind but my footsteps. back over the wooden planks that brought me here, into the camp where I was reunited with my DIY shower facilities and make-do bedroom.
The following morning was a rush as I had very little time to catch the only train that would get me back to the airport in Kiruna on time.
With 15min spare I made it on the train and got myself back to Kiruna for my flight home.