I yelled at Wayne as he plunged the wooden oar into choppy water. Spray hit our faces as the boat cut through growing waves. I hadn’t quite got used to the fact that this journey was not all on two feet, with boat crossings forming an integral part of the trail. Thanks to his sterling rowing efforts, coupled with my attempt at navigation, we were now about halfway across Lake Teusajaure, heading for the jetty in the distance. It was late, but the wood bred sauna at Teusajaure Mountain Hut was all the motivation we needed to get us across the last 500m. Well, that and a tin of Swedish meatballs. Never underestimate the powers of a hot meal at the end of a day of hiking.
Having already crossed into the Arctic Circle, we were beginning our third week on the Kungsleden (The King’s Trail), Sweden’s premier long distance trail that winds its way between the country’s highest peaks and through its most dramatic landscapes in the far north.
Our aim was to complete the entire 270 mile trail in 21 days, which hikers we met coming in the opposite direction seemed to think was quite ambitious. No wonder we had developed a penchant for taking time out and relaxing our muscles in a hot sauna at the end of a long day’s walk (or row). The cornerstone of Swedish culture, and a completely new experience for us on the trail, we were soon well versed with sauna etiquette, adding them into our itinerary whenever possible. One of the harshest environments on our planet, the Arc tic has always struck us as a place for serious adventurers and experts.
But the King’s Trail is do able for a wide range of walkers, due to the relatively low altitudes, somewhat easy going terrain, and an extensive network of mountain huts and emergency shelters along most of the route. Sleeping in the huts, making use of their cooking facilities and topping up food supplies on the go from the boutique shops, as opposed to carrying a full backpack of camping equipment and rations, means that the trip is accessible to the everyday trail seeker. Despite its wild reputation and remote location, often described as one of the last true wildernesses in Europe, this hike is not about technical skill, but is more a test of stamina and longevity. Even if you plan to wild camp, as we did, an average hiker in moderate shape, with a taste for ad venture and a good set of walking legs, can take on the challenge and go the distance.
Characterised by craggy snow capped peaks towering above perfect u shaped valleys carpeted in light shades of green, the tremendous landscapes of the Kungsleden are reminiscent of western fells back home in the UK, except these glacial valleys are much bigger and on a far grander scale like the Lake District on steroids. Except that in the Lake District you are not woken up by a herd of reindeer foraging around your tent. The tinkling of bells from these timid, camera shy creatures was one of the best wake up calls we have experienced thus far on our hiking endeavours. We quickly discovered that reindeer are the commonest sighting on the trail (but the most difficult to photograph), closely followed by wild blueberries that at the time of our trip were ripe for picking. This meant we could supplement our 21 day diet of dried and tinned food with one nutritious superfood. On days when hiker hunger knew no bounds, those plump balls of juiciness really did keep us going.
Another plant we became familiar with was the dreaded bog cotton. Spotting these fluffy white heads alongside the trail is a sure sign of boggy ground, to be avoided when looking for a camping spot. But boggy ground is also the best place for cloud berries, which we thought tasted a bit like tomatoes. To our dismay this year was a bad harvest for Sweden’s national symbol and prized treasure so, in a forested canopy, we turned our attention to something else growing in abundance. “Shall I pick it?” I asked Wayne, our inherent hunter gatherer skills quite inept at helping us decide whether the giant mushrooms were poisonous or edible. It was a topic of great debate between passing hikers apparently the wild mushrooms that grow along the Kungsleden are delicious added to soup.
But even with some shared local knowledge and a few tips on what to look out for, we were dubious about picking and cooking them. So we gave up on mushrooms, avidly looking for signs of animal tracks from the big three of Swedish fauna instead. We’d had a distinct lack of brown bear sightings during our time in the backcountry in the US, so we were sincerely hoping to catch sight of a bear, lynx or wolverine. But people rarely get to see these elusive creatures. A more likely sighting, although still very difficult, is the iconic, majestic forest dweller the moose (or elk as we call it in the UK). Sweden has the densest population of moose in the world, and it is the country’s largest mammal. Despite having keen eyes and ears, we didn’t glimpse any of the big three. But we did see what we concluded to be a pile of bear scat along the trail, plus a large moose with its calf, albeit from a distance when we stopped for a tea break at the Kaitumjaure Mountain Hut.