I forgot to check up when the polar night starts! I remembered it shortly after we left Abisko and were making our way through the national park towards the lake, Abiskojaure. It could not be long now. The sun rose at 10.22 and set at 12.48. Six days? Maybe seven? In any case we would not see it anymore. We had our final sunshine when we crossed the mountains from Innset to Torneträsk.
This whole section was, and would remain, a headache to plan. When we realised in Dividalen that there was not enough snow to pull a pulka we knew that it would not be possible to continue all the way to Sulitjelma. It takes at least 17 days from Abisko without calculating in any bad weather days, on which we surely have to count. Twenty days is probably more of a realistic estimate, twenty-three even more. There was no way we could carry 23 days of food, snow shoes and a winter tent on our backs. We had to pull.
The reason this stretch is complicated is the same as the one we don’t want to skip it: the trail follows the mountains through a long, remote sequence of national parks forming a cluster around the Swedish-Norwegian border. We could have kept going and walk around all of it on the E6, but that would have been a shame. We did not want that. We wanted to go through this thing, one of Europe’s wildest areas, it’s just that we chose a slightly complicated time to do it.
In Norway it’s possible to exit the mountains after a few days by following a construction road down into the valley. After that the only way to get out is by a privately chartered boat, as the roads run more towards the coast, far from the deep ends of the fjords. In Sweden you can leave the King’s Trail at Nikkaluokta, the wrong direction for us, or at Ritsem. But the busses to and from Ritsem only run during high season, which is not now, and since it’s not remotely close to anywhere there is no other way out.
In March and in summer we could get food at the staffed Swedish cabins, in the Sámi villages in Padjelanta, or by taking that bus. To complicate matters more most of the lakes in the area are dammed, making the ice on many unsafe and hence impossible to cross. The biggest obstacle there lies at Ritsem again: Akkajaure. It’s an unsightly creation, a hydropower basin expanding a natural lake during the damming activities of the 60’s.
The sad thing about damming in this area is that it much influenced and destroyed pristine ecosystems left in the north. Akkajaure for one flooded one of Europe’s most beautiful river valleys, cut off the King’s trail, destroyed Sámi land and heritage, drowned untouched old-growth woods and obliterated the reason of existence for Sweden’s first national park: Stora Sjöfallet. The mighty waterfall that once was the reason for the protection of the area no longer exists, but for one day of the year when they let enough water flow outside of the turbines for the fall to appear. Much of the original national park is now below the waterline. And beyond the dam the river is no more, only the rocks on the riverbed are left, as Sweden has no rules on a minimal waterflow and everything is redirected towards the power station.
There’s a boat running over Akkajaure in summer. In the end of February a safe route is marked over the ice. Without the route it’s too dangerous to cross, so we would need to go around, which adds four days to the trip and takes away the advantage of following Kungsleden over going through Narviksfjell. All of this is why we have to go through in a single push with no feasible exit, no resupply, no break. It’s slightly complicated, but it will be worth it.
While walking out from Dividalen we looked into options and routes, over and over and over again, to see how we could make it work. We came to a dead end every time. We even contacted a helicopter company to fly us over the lake but it was too expensive in winter. PJ thought we should leave it at Abisko for now.
But then one idea crossed my mind: we could go to Sitas cabin and still follow the construction road down from there. That would take 6-7 days from Abisko. Then, in January, we could charter a boat to Sørfjorden, going around another doubtful lake crossing at Pauro, and continue straight towards Padjelanta, bypassing Ritsem and the problem of Akkajaure. The first boat we tried to charter replied as following: “We don’t go to Sørfjorden. Regards, the Captain.” The second one said yes. So now we were on our way out from Abisko for the final six days before taking a Christmas pause, trying to break a way through the logistical maze.
The woods were eerily silent. The only proof of other living things in there were tracks in the fresh snow, which had fallen in grand quantities during the night. That was great, since we could now take the little pulka with us and pull the food and the tent rather than carry it. The snow came too late to readjust the plan again, but that’s ok. At least our packs became a lot lighter now.
It was once again a nice day for a start. Finally it was cold outside and there was snow on the ground. It felt good. But not everything has transformed into winter yet. About 6km away from the lake PJ broke through the ice on a swamp. It got him until the middle of his calves, resulting in wet boots and cold feet. We did not talk much during those final kilometres. We both knew that we had to get to the cabin, start a fire and dry his boots, his socks and his feet. He was palpably miserable during those final kilometres.
Going was slow with all the fresh powder and we knew we would not make it from Abiskojaure to Unna Allakas in one day. Unable to see the trail heading out into the woods we started following the winter trail, which soon followed a river. I did not feel comfortable about it. It had been really warm around Abisko and I was not sure that the river could be trusted. After a good 2 km the trail crossed the river. When I stopped to say “we should not cross” I went through, resulting in wet boots again. Neither of us felt entirely safe after that.
We retreated back into the woods, trying to follow the summer track instead. It was hard to find and harder to follow, as the Swedes only put markings on the ground (even though there were so many trees…). It was difficult to go through the woods with the sled, too. After a while we gave up and tried following the winter track again. It led us to a channel of open water flowing between thin ice. When we saw the river flowing we realised we were at a dead end. Frustrated and slightly scared we retraced our steps, back to the cabin to dry my boots and socks and feet, and then back to Abisko.
Then the looking into routes started all over again, planning and replanning depending on conditions and weather forecasts. First we decided to go over the mountains at Kattegat to end up at Fjellbu. Then we thought about going the other way around, since we already booked the cabin and to have the wind in our backs. Though the motivation was low. Temperature had gone up again, the snow was melting, wet and rotten, and a lot of wind, too strong a wind, was predicted in the mountains. It would be a miserable five days and we both knew it.
We took turns in being the motivated and stubborn versus realistic and worried one. It went on all day: one wanted to stop and one wanted to go up and try. Then we would switch positions, never coming to an agreement, and it drove both of us mad. At last we asked ourselves why we wanted to go on. Both answered that we felt that we should.
But no one is telling us that we should. We don’t have to continue. We came to walk the length of Norway because we wanted to do that, because we wanted to talk about the forests, but most of all because we wanted to enjoy it.
Walking or skiing in December on dry snow and thick ice is one thing. Ploughing through wet snow and worrying about thin ice in the dark is quite another. So in the end we stopped. We spent the weekend at the cabin and went back to Narvik afterwards. It’s been tough, yes, but it’s been a blast. Being out there under the dramatic autumn skies, just us, the reindeer and the Sámi. Now we just wait for conditions to improve and we’ll pick up the thread again after Christmas, where we left it at Katterat, to go through Narviksfjella and Padjelanta to Sulitjelma.
There’s a Norwegian mountain saying that reads: “Det er ingen skam å snu” (there is no shame in turning). Yet the decision to turn, or to stop, always feels like it needs a lot more justification, and is a lot harder to accept, than the decision to go on. And yet it is the decision to stop that is often the crucial one. At first, I was really disappointed. But why? We came, we tried, we stopped because the conditions were not right. We’ve learned a lot and when we come back we’ll be a lot wiser. When we come back, we’ll make it to Sulitjelma.