Cold Silence and Solitude – Hiking in the Sarek National Park

In the summer of 1967, a guy halts his steps in a field in Wiltshire, retraces his steps the way he came for a few yards – then turns back. He repeats this toing and froing for a while. At some point, he steps aside and photographs the line which has become visible in the flattened turf as a record of his walking.

July 2017: I halt in the middle of a large snowfield in Laponia, turn around to see that our feet have worn a brown line into the surface and press the button of the GoPro to film Tom struggling towards me across the ice.

The guy in Wiltshire is Richard Long, English sculptor and land artist. His photograph is in Tate Modern and bears the title ‘A Line Made by Walking’. There are many things that are different in these two scenes, but one thing they definitely have in common: Both protagonists are interested in the meaning of paths and leaving traces.

At some point, he steps aside and photographs the line which has become visible in the flattened turf as a record of his walking”.

Stunning lansdcape

big rock

camp-0001

With repetition, small interactions like ‘walking’ become well-worn marks in the landscape. By and large, the traces that we register as human interaction with the landscape are – toilet paper, mostly. Sometimes footprints in the mud where someone has found an easier way to cross difficult ground.

As my friend and I were stuck in an endless field of grass tussocks surrounded by knee-deep mud, miles from any path, trail or road and following only the advice that three pipe-smoking old Scots had written down in a small booklet titled ‘The Cape Wrath Trail’ – in this situation, the find of a tossed-away backpack strap was as significant to us as an archaeological discovery. Someone had been here before us – struggled through this field as we did. Maybe we weren’t as lost as we’d thought.

Crossing the border

Broken hiking accessories are a clear sign that someone has walked before us. It’s a clear disruption of the landscape. It doesn’t belong there. But the path itself, the cairns built alongside the way, are, in fact, disruptions. The difference is that they seem to us as natural as the hills and streams.

Is it winter yet?

I started thinking more about paths and their significance – what it means to follow one.

To the objective we have in mind next, paths, marked trails and the absence of them take on great meaning. In any case, the idea of getting away as far as possible from signs of civilization has always been intriguing to me. Progressing further and further with each trip. Now, in a hut in the northern edges of Sweden, I’m poised on the threshold of a time-old dream. Getting away from it all. To do this we have taken three flights North, a 3-hour train, 4-hour bus and ferry to the end of the world. Now we are congregated around an unfolded map of the Sarek National Park in Northern Sweden, Laponia, spread across the table in the STF hut that we sought shelter in for the first night of our expedition.

Around the eastern edges of the national park runs the fat blue line of the Kungsleden with its STF mountain huts, hostels and cabins. The western edges are framed by the Padjelantaleden trail. Between these two lies an expanse of sweet empty nothingness, daunting, snowy, inaccessible Sami country, filled with glacier-laden mountains and big streams.  The only trails here are the thousand-year-old migration paths of the native reindeer herds, which the animals follow in search of forage grounds, and in turn the Sami people followed as they depended on the reindeer for food and livelihood.

We’ve come here in search for a truly remote place. One without marked trails and people and accommodation. We took along rations, tents and maps. The rest – Cold silence and solitude – was already there.

The routes in and out of the mountain area are dictated by the large glacial troughs that separate Sarek’s massifs and provide corridors into the heart of the national park.We’ve chosen the Sjnjuvtjudisjahka river as an entry point and will be coming out through the Rapadalen valley delta at the other side after seven days. The only escape route is back the way we came or onwards, as high glaciated peaks block any other exits.We also knew that the deeps valley systems up there acted as a weather channel, driving through the bad weather and clouds from the Atlantic.

News of old snow and new travel far as we get warned in turn by Finnish travelers and Swiss that the valleys are filled knee-deep with snow. We decide to go anyway.

High snowbanks

We’d already tested the effectiveness of the Laponian road, transport and communication systems: through some communication between the captain of the small tin ferry, which carried 5 passengers across the lake to Sarek, his friend and two bus drivers, we were lucky to hold in our hands the next morning the vital knee support that Tom had left on the bus the day before and which had conquered the seeming edge of the world between Ritsem at the end of the road and Gullivaure, through an unexpected surge of human benevolence.  That’s the beauty of such networks when they work, which we really appreciated for that purpose, but were keen to get away from in the next few days.

Now, a tidy definition of trails and paths would put humans on paths and animals on trails. However, this distinction become confounded as traveling humankind fused paths and trails in its search for passable ways and good surfaces leading to water, food, salt and wildlife. Most animal trails are local and circling and often converge and diverge at a spring, riverbank or water hole, but select trails, such as we were on, stake out lengthy seasonal and regional routes of migration.

The tracks we’re on are worn by generations of furry feet stamping on the bilberry carpeted tundra. We are convinced that finding any discarded belt buckle or even the sight of another footprint in the mud down in this valley would be very upsetting.  As it happened, the only other sign we saw of other people, was a tiny red speck on the side of a mountain far away, which, by some freak of nature, caught my eye and we identified it as a Hilleberg tent through Tom’s binoculars.

The thought that the reindeer trail proves to be the most efficient way (even by caloric measure) to ascend or descend a hill, or provides the best way to cross a terrain, furnishing routes through high and low lands, swaps and wetlands and identifying fords for river crossing, was a shining beacon as we battled through muds, snowfields and dwarf-willows (which, unfortunately, are still head-high). As we repeatedly lost the trail when it disappeared under snow and mud – the art of spotting it, trying to find it again in the contours of the landscape, maybe catching an elusive glimpse of a darker line running up the eroded front of a hillside, became our main occupation.

beatingthebush

The path connects the Sami who work and live on the land to the landscape and the reindeer – it is a working path rather than a pleasure path.

And a pleasure path it sure isn’t.

The long days of 10 hours walking take their toll on us. At nights in the tent I am aching and can barely shift myself from one position to the other. Two painkillers and one sleeping tablet later I manage to get into at least a dozing state. The light of the midnight sun doesn’t help our sleep. With the sun persistent in the sky there’s no real sense of time, only weather.

Snow is slowly collapsing into the river around us, the sides of the snowfields are breaking off in huge chunks and slowly melting pools of water sit on top of blue icy sheets that still cling onto the rocks and ground beneath. We found new permutations of snow – we’re used to the white and blue snow of the Arctic winter, but now in the summer it is a different thing altogether. The snowfields are charred on the edges, dirty with the turf and mud underneath. The mountains are in continuous cloud cover.

Awesome shot

We’re walking precariously over rivers on top of snow bridges with the water gurgling in the cavities beneath. Hollow caves line the edges of the snowfields and the first step onto the ice sheet is always tentative as we expect the ice to break away under the added weight.

The next morning there’s a new powder coating of snow reaching further down into the valley but it doesn’t quite reach the tents yet. Snow settles firmly on the peaks as we walk further into Sarek’s heart where we reach the central point, the bridge at Mihka crossing the roaring Mihkajohka, tumbling from the central massif, and the hut which houses only an emergency radio telephone.

There, at the point farthest away from everything, we found it: Cold silence and solitude.

We’ve reached the point of no return – the only way is on.

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