Beyond the gear, the terrain or resupply logistics, there are memories not so straightforward to talk about which are yet a good part of the experience.
Expectations vs. Reality
Having never hiked in the arctic before, one of the issues I faced on this trip was not knowing what to expect. I like to know what I’m getting into and it didn’t feel well to walk into the unknown. The adventurous characters out there will laugh at my apprehension… after all, this was a tiny little trip in a kind of controlled environment but that’s the way I am. Too many “what ifs” for the wimp in me.
The questions were answered on the go and most answers were positive. Nordkalottleden is a real route, not only a line drawn on a map and there’s indeed people who hike it (but not many who thru-hike it). Route finding is usually easy and there’s no technical mountaineering terrain. No worries.
My big expectation from this hike was finding real wilderness. Did that exist at all anywhere in Europe? If it did, it had to be somewhere this far. Even though Lapland is not as barren or isolated as its latitude might indicate, it’s pretty wild up there. I could actually enjoy that feeling of knowing there’s nothing human anywhere in sight and there’s nothing I could call civilisation anywhere around. Even at 35 km/day, it was taking me several days to get to a road. There’s not many people out there and even sticking to the marked route I could meet only a handful of hikers every few days. Other than the weather, there was no visible danger. Few places I’ve been to offered this feeling of absolute freedom.
I travelled late in the season trying to avoid the bugs. Bugs can be a huge issue in the arctic. I almost missed them. I still had to go through bug hell during the very first days in the tundra section but as soon as I climbed up the mountains they were gone. I never saw them again and I was a happy hiker. Bugs can drive you crazy but it’s almost as much a psychological issue as it is physical..
Another problem source that depends a lot on how you take it is the weather. The ever deteriorating weather I went through. Once I was getting almost used to the constant instability, low temperatures, everyday rains, the weather gods pushed the next button and left me wondering where was summer gone. I needed some further mental readjustment and, well… some hut stays so I could still enjoy those last few days on the trail. It was tough but beautiful.
About hiking in Lapland
There’s definitely something special about hiking in the high latitudes. It’s not only the arctic lights but some feeling of being in a different kind of place. Even if the environment in the mountain areas of the temperate regions may resemble that of the arctic, there’s always a limit to it and that limit is usually within view: down in the valleys. There’s no valley to go down to in the arctic. You know everything around you for virtually ever is moorland wonder.
Not too many people out there; at least, for european standards. I’d walk alone the whole time and only meet a handful of people a day, sometimes just a party of one or two but I’d always meet somebody. It was very different in the most popular sections (Kungsleden and Padjelanta in Sweden and the whole of the finnish section) where meeting people was common but never to the point of being annoying. An important factor here is most of Nordkalottleden is too far from trailheads for dayhikers so most hikers on the trail are multi-day backpackers. Nothing against dayhikers (I day-hike too) but when you know the people you meet have got there quite like you have there’s a certain sense of connection. Meeting some other hiker on the trail was hardly ever just saying “hello”. I’d stop and chat and it’d always be nice. Even more, hiking alone in the apparently endless bad weather was a bit of a psychological challenge and meeting someone to share that with was always welcome and uplifting. Bad weather with a smile doesn’t look so bad anymore.
I was warned before starting south on the Kungsleden section it’d be like a crowded highway. It was certainly well travelled but never to the point of being annoying. Not for me at least. But I wouldn’t stop to talk to everybody.
Most hikers I met were either scandinavian or german. It’s outstanding how many germans hike in this region. I was told they appreciate the wilderness and isolation because that’s something they can’t have at home which is something I empatize with: it’s actually one the main reasons why I was there. Other than that, just a few dannish, dutch and british plus one tzeck and one from the USA and I think that was all. Not many.
It was interesting to see how the hikers on the trail were different depending on the area and also on the country. In Finland, most were recreational backpackers (quite like me), that is, urban people on their holidays. They’d most probably come from quite a distance to visit the only mountain region in an otherwise flat land. In Norway, most hikers were locals (mainly Tromso or Narvik residents) who were there for a weekend or a few days and whose plan was usually beyond hiking: they’d stablish base camp either in their tents or in a hut and go fishing the local waterways. In Sweden, it was more like in Finland: recreational backpackers come from far away to spend some holidays. I guess the difference is because in both Sweden and Finland population centres are far from the mountains, not so in Norway.
One of the most positive aspects of any trip is the people you meet on the way. Even (and maybe particularly so) in wilderness oriented trips and Nordkalottleden was no different. It was actually particularly nice to meet so many friendly and nice people in such an often times harsh environment. You all made my trip enjoyable so thank you for the good vibes. I needed them so often.
A somewhat tight schedule forced me to hike long distances (long for me, at least). I averaged around 35 km. per day in the 23 days the trip lasted. I wouldn’t rush, just walk long days and take advantage of the long daylight hours (around 19 hours in mid august, down to 17 in early-mid september). This put a bit of pressure, as much psychological as it was physical, more so in the beginning, when I didn’t know how hard it’d be to cover such distances. Once I got used to the terrain and knew what I could expect, it’d be easier.
Would I do it again? Would I change anything?
It’s easy to say so now I’m confortably sitting at home. Our mind tends to forget about the hardships and concentrate on the good parts, which is good but it’s also a good idea to think back and remember all those times while on the trail that I answered “no”, those times when I was repeating myself I wasn’t having any fun and asking myself what the hell I was doing there. It’s good to remember this, see why this was happening and evaluate if it was still worth it.
Most of my problems came from the weather. There’s nothing we can do (fortunately) about the weather but there’s a lot we can do to face it and keep a positive attitude. Attitude and motivation are everything and sometimes those might have failed on me somewhat. This is an always needed and welcome repeat of the same lesson we already know but tend to forget so often.
Having quite a tight schedule also put some pressure on me. I could go the distance and I knew it but facing the task became a bit overwhelming sometimes. At the end, I made it 2 to 3 days before strictly needed and saw I could have used those days to take it easier but that was the trade-off for the maximum flexibility approach I took to travelling back from the trail. I’m aware the thru-hike would have probably been quite more pleasant with some more time.
Of course, I’d do it again. It was a fantastic experience in a beautiful environment and I met pretty much everything I was looking for. Who knows, maybe I come back sometime. Watch out for the guy in trail runners.