Hemavan to Kvikkjokk, 9 days
Final approach into Oslo – the first of three flights that would eventually have us arriving in Hemavan. The plane had just descended through a low bank of cloud and we were gazing out of the window, waiting to see us cross the runway threshold. In a second, everything changed. The engines were suddenly back on full throttle, the plane started climbing steeply and after what felt like I’d held my breath for whole minutes, we were back in a holding pattern. Several more minutes later – no doubt after the flight crew had sorted the situation – we were back on final approach again. Apparently, there had been something in the way…… It was about half an hour after we’d finally landed before the amount of adrenaline circulating in my body got back to normal.
Thankfully, the rest of the journey passed without further incident and the next afternoon we landed in Hemavan, the southern terminus of the Kungsleden.
Luggage retrieved, we parcelled up some stuff to post to our destination up in Kiruna, and walked into the tiny town to buy some gas and other bits and pieces.
It only took us about 15 minutes to walk up to the small shopping centre, where we found everyone stood outside. Speaking to a security guy, we discovered that the whole town was in the middle of a power cut, so everything had shut. Our plan was to start walking this afternoon, so we didn’t really want to spend the night here and be buying gas etc the next morning.
Long story short – we wandered up to the STF Fjallstation, who sold us some gas as we had cash and therefore didn’t need the electricity driven credit card machine, and I then went back to the shops and persuaded the security guard to let me in to speak to the Post Office lady. She was kind enough to guess the weight of our package to Kiruna and sell me the necessary stamps – cash rather than the credit card came in useful again!
We could finally start walking.
We’d only planned on going about 3 miles on the first day, just enough to stretch our legs.
There’d been some drizzle on the first afternoon, but the next day dawned cloudy and dry. Sadly though, after a rather disturbed night, Geoff had woken up with the beginnings of a streaming cold. Dosing up on paracetamol (he never normally takes anything like that) he coped as best he could. The four hankies he’d brought on the trip, which should have been plenty, were suddenly being used to saturation point and being washed out several times a day.
We’d brought three days’ worth of food with us from the UK. This turned out to be a Very Good Idea. We discovered early on that relying on the mountain huts to stock up with food, was almost a recipe for disaster. (See what I did there?)
Nevertheless, we called in at the first mountain hut, Viterskalsstugan, both to buy some extra biscuits and – as there was a rather Arctic wind blowing (see what I did again?) – to use the kitchen to sit in for lunch. If you are members of either the STF or Hostelling International (eg the YHA), you are allowed day use of the huts, free of charge.
The first problem was that we discovered the hut shop was shut over lunchtime. The warden did open it up for us, though. The second problem, was that we discovered the shop had virtually no stock in, and certainly no biscuits. This really did come as a surprise to us. The STF do publish online the stock that should be in the hut shops, and obviously some things may well be out of stock at any one time, but we never expected to be greeted with empty shelves. This was to become a theme over the whole of the trip.
The kitchen was warm and welcoming though, and we lingered for an hour, drinking tea and soaking up the atmosphere.
The huts don’t have any electricity or running water, and anyone partaking of their comforts is expected to do their part. Any water you use out of the buckets needs replacing – this may be from a nearby stream or lake – and any waste water you produce must be emptied out. Any mess you make must be cleaned up, and you may even have to chop wood for the stove. The system seems to work well.
We had no particular plans to stay at any of the huts, however, so after lunch we prised ourselves out of the warmth and moved on.
The scenery went up a notch. Sadly, as the afternoon wore on, Geoff’s health and energy dropped down a notch. We eventually managed about 10 miles and were on track, but his nasty virus was taking its toll.
We had a touch more climbing to do the next morning, before dropping lower again. The sun put in an appearance and the temperature warmed up.
Again, the shop at Syterstugan was officially closed by the time we got there. Luckily, the warden once again opened up for us. Still not a lot of stock, but we bought a couple of chocolate bars to supplement our rations. We had our fingers crossed that the hut we were due to pass on the next day, would have plenty of stock in, as we needed to buy enough food there for three days.
The Tarnasjon archipelago is lovely. A total of seven bridges (5 of them wooden suspension bridges) take you across the lake, from one little island to another.
Once again, we managed our planned 9 miles to a lovely spot beside the lake. Geoff was coping well, but still struggling through his snottiness. We had started musing about a rest day for him, but were already feeling the stress of having to keep moving to make sure we finished the trail on time, to pick up our return flights.
Being a touch concerned that we wouldn’t get to the next hut before the shop closed the next morning, we decided to get up at 5:30am and be on our way bright and early. Sod’s Law then, said that this shop didn’t close in the middle of the day! We could have had a sleep in!
We bought what supplies we could, for the next three days. Biscuits, chocolate, Ryvita, squeezy cheese, noodles, porridge…… The shelves were definitely better stocked than the previous two huts, but tortillas would have been better than Ryvita and there was no sugar, honey or even jam to put in the porridge oats!
We continued on, once again climbing up to the fells.
We had another mile or so on a steady climb, before we pitched up for the night. Another 10 mile day, and Geoff thinks he’s feeling a bit better and a bit less snotty, although he did now seem to be starting with a tickly cough.
The thing that was really surprising me over these first few days, was how different this trip was feeling compared to others we’ve done. All our previous trips together have been no longer than 9 days, and as such you’re always aware of the end of the trip even as you set off. This time though, this wasn’t the case. For example, I would find my mind drifting off to plans for the third and fourth weeks, only to find that my brain couldn’t actually quite cope with that. Now we were on the trail, that was all too far in advance for me to contemplate. I was finding it quite hard work at first to force myself to concentrate on one day at a time.
The next morning the weather had changed. Rain and murk were the order of the day.
We already knew that the weather forecast for the next few days was a bit dire, and when we called in at the Servestugan hut for some extra snacks (virtually empty shelves again), the warden was busy telling everyone how awful it would be high on the fell. This didn’t actually bother us, but when we got to a path junction a mile or two later, we had a brief discussion. The route over the top was 25km, but there was also an alternative route to Ammarnas down the valley, which was 20km. We opted for the shorter route in the end, wondering if we might even make it into town that afternoon, instead of taking two days over the tops, as we’d planned. This would give us the chance to have a rest day for Geoff.
No such luck. The lower route was overgrown, tree roots, hidden boulders, greasy wooden planks – extremely slow going. We realised very quickly that continuing over the high fells would have been infinitely better!
By late afternoon we were wondering where we could camp for the night. As if by magic, we suddenly walked past an obviously lived-in dwelling – where we had a short, pleasant exchange with an elderly Sami couple and their dog – and into a carefully tended clearing, which was the site of an old Sami settlement. Bingo! This would do very nicely, thank you!
After a peaceful night, rain showers were still in evidence the next morning. Naively, as the Sami couple we had chatted to yesterday lived here, we thought the path to Ammarnas might improve from here on. Maybe it would even be a track! No such luck. If anything, it was worse than the day before. We soon worked out that both the couple and any visitors to the site, would use the lake as access.
A couple of miles later, we emerged at a road head and a car park. Chatting to a father and son (Jesper and Ludwig) who had camped there for the night, we discovered that they’d also taken the lower route to Ammarnas after speaking to the warden at the last hut. Like us, they also wished they hadn’t bothered!
We already had one night booked at the Wardshus Hostel in the town, but given both the lousy forecast and the fact that Geoff’s cough was now turning quite chesty, we checked in for two nights. This gave us a rest day here, but also meant that we had to forego the rest day that we had planned for the next week, at Jakkvik. Our schedule was beginning to feel a little tight.
We relaxed in the hostel, passed some time with Jesper and Ludwig (who were also staying there) and sorted supplies for the next four days.
The forecast still hadn’t improved at all by the time we set off again the day after, and Geoff’s cough was getting worse. The first few miles were on the flat, but when we started climbing again, he was having to stop every couple of minutes with a coughing fit. He sounded dreadful. Slowly gaining height, the rain also got heavier and heavier, until the path we were walking up had turned into a stream, and it all started to feel a touch overwhelming. I suggested we pitched for the night. We’d managed 8 miles, but were still a couple of miles short of our target.
It was becoming apparent that we needed to think about choices. To start with, for Geoff to continue, he really needed a good few days rest. Secondly, our ‘plan’ of at least 10 or 11 miles every day without fail, was starting to feel unrealistic. A bad day for any reason and stopping short knocked everything out of synch. A better way to have organised a trip of this length would have been to have it open ended, without booking the return flights until we’d finished. As it was though, we were feeling under stress. My suggestion then, was to go back to Ammarnas the next day, and sort buses out to take us further north, to Kvikkjok. Kvikkjok is nominally the half way point of the Kungsleden, so starting out again from there would still give us a good, long section to do and would take us all the way up to Abisko at the northern end, with its mountains, breathtaking scenery and wildness. Also, the town of Kiruna (just an hour’s train ride from Abisko) was where our return flights were booked from.
So that was what we did. Eight miles back to town the next day, another night there and then a bus out the morning after.
It was all very pleasant and relaxing, to be honest. I’d already managed to book us into the STF hostel in Jokkmokk for the night, too (thank goodness for mobiles and the internet, I say…) before we then got a bus out to Kvikkjokk the day after.
By now, once more with the power of the internet, I’d also managed to book us into Kvikkjokk Fjallstation for two nights rather than one, giving us a total of three days of rest before setting off again. Three relaxing days of chilling and good food made a world of difference to how Geoff was feeling.
The shop at Kvikkjokk was very well stocked and put all the others so far, to shame. We spent some time carefully sorting food again for the next three days, and we were ready to continue on our journey north.