On the third day of our six-day hike in Swedish Lapland, time stopped. We had crossed the 3,700-foot Tjäktja Pass and were making our way down the Tjäktjavagge, a vast, high valley worn smooth by the creep of ancient glaciers. Although it was summer, low clouds hid the peaks, and a biting headwind made us tuck our chins inside our jackets.
If ordinary wilderness can make you feel small, the Tjäktjavagge shrinks you into nonexistence. Though my husband, Nick, and I had been hiking for hours, we were no deeper into the valley, which continued to open before us in an endless grassy chute. Even a small waterfall that we’d judged from the pass to be perhaps an hour’s hike away, remained stubbornly distant—like a virtual reality simulation that had frozen at some point while we walked. The effect was so disconcerting that I began checking my watch every few minutes, just to reassure myself that the hands were actually moving.
I’d hiked the mountains of Colorado, British Columbia, and New Zealand, but this hike on the Kungsleden, a 275-mile trail that starts above the Arctic Circle, seemed to promise something more rare: an ancient wilderness that is still a working home for its earliest inhabitants. The Sami people had first come to Lapland (or Samiland, as it’s now officially called) 7,000 years ago, a small band of tough-minded nomads who migrated each season along with the reindeer across a swath of what is now northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia—outlasting both the endless arctic winters and several centuries of colonial invasion. Even now, when many Sami own guesthouses or lead snowmobile tours, they can strike the outsider as uncannily tough. One local cheerfully mentioned that he had once run in a single day the entire route of our six-day, 54-mile hike.
We arrived in Kiruna during a weeklong heat wave that had everyone talking. As we loaded up on cold bottled water in town, the cheerful grocery store clerk gestured to his heavy polyester uniform and matching hat and grinned. “When we see 30 degrees Celsius here, it usually has a minus sign in front,” he laughed. “This?”—he raised his eyebrows—“It’s crazy!”
Chugging water, I hurried off to meet up with Matti Berg, a Sami from the nearby village of Puoltsa. A burly man in tight black jeans and a fitted T-shirt, Berg grew up in a family of reindeer herders, but like many Sami he now runs his own ecotourism business (Ofelas, which leads horseback tours in the mountains). For the last four years, since being elected to the Sami Parliament—a government agency made up of Sami representatives elected by Sweden’s Sami population—he has also begun a campaign against the 10 active mines digging for ore in Lapland. Northern Sweden is rich in minerals, and Berg and others worry that additional excavation being proposed could threaten the area’s wilderness. “It’s very short-term thinking,” Berg said worriedly, as he fiddled with his iPhone. “You can take minerals from the ground for maybe 15 years, but then the area is destroyed forever.”
Still, he acknowledged, some things have gotten better. The Sami Parliament has given them more visibility, and there is a growing appreciation in Sweden for the value of wilderness. There are also some signs that the Sami culture, which has dwindled after centuries of repression, may be slowly reviving. Sami-language schools have opened in five towns, and an ancient form of Sami song known as yoik is on the rise. In the town of Jokkmokk, a local Sami chef holds seasonal bear-meat dinners, with the promise of “initiating diners into the mystery that surrounds bears.”
Though the appeal of an all-bear-meat dinner seemed to perplex Berg (“I ate bear once. My grandfather slaughtered it and boiled it. It was awful.”), he saw it as evidence of a promising trend. If people were willing to pay good money to eat bear meat, after all, the reindeer-meat market was sure to rebound. (“Reindeer is very healthy meat. Very low-fat!”) Even the fact that a growing number of Sami were choosing to live in the city didn’t seem to worry him. “There are other careers besides reindeer herding that let you stay in touch with your cultural values,” he said. Gesturing toward a large mine in the distance, he gave me a dry smile. “We need a lot of good lawyers, for example.”
After a fitful sleep, we caught the morning train to Abisko and started our hike. At first, the trail was easy and flat, unfurling through a forest of stunted white birch. While I had expected the landscape to be tundra-barren, it was improbably lush: full of shady glades and mossy pools. At this latitude, the trees were small and curiously twisted; some trunks had grown sideways in sprawling corkscrews, or upward in tight, vertical loops, as though pruned by a dizzy Cirque du Soleil arborist. Overhead, the sun wandered around the sky like a lost hiker, never quite managing to find the horizon.
As we hiked, we steadily stripped off layers. Though some online posts had warned about summertime crowds, after 10 miles we had passed just three other couples, plus a lone Swedish woman in her 60s who exclaimed over the good weather. We reached our overnight hut just in time to see a double rainbow arc brightly over the receding trail, and spent the afternoon swimming in a placid lake nearby and foraging in the hut’s tiny store.
Over the next few days, we fell into a rhythm, rising early—often around 4 a.m.—and reaching each hut just as most other hikers were leaving. (A Canadian couple later admitted they had started calling us “the mysterious Americans” for our tendency to vanish while everyone else was still asleep.)
Though the arctic sun was always up—in July, it set for just a single twilit hour each night—the mornings were quiet. As we picked our way across the stony ground, we regularly startled ptarmigan, chicken-like birds that would burst out of the bushes, haplessly trailed by their fluffy chicks. Higher up, the ptarmigan vanished, replaced by lean, white arctic terns, long-distance flyers so sleek and angular they seemed to have been cut from a fresh sheet of paper.
At times, the emptiness could be disorienting. The valleys we crossed were wide and so straight that, with binoculars, we could often see our entire day’s journey from our morning start. In the unvarying daylight, the soreness of our feet became the only way to tell whether we’d been walking for an hour or a day. It felt as though we were hiking through the world as it was 10 million years ago.
One day, we shaved six miles off a 19-mile hike by catching a ride with a Sami herder who runs a boat shuttle for hikers. The pilot of the boat, Roland Enoksson, was affable if taciturn; with his weathered face and cool gaze, he reminded me of a Sami Harrison Ford.
As we crossed Alesjaure Lake, Enoksson explained that he spends much of his year in the mountains, caring for his herds as they migrate; he started the boat shuttle in 1999 as a way to make some extra money. He pointed to a cluster of tidy wood houses, painted a dark red, where local families stay during the early summer calf-marking. “When I was young, there were no houses in the mountainous area—only goahtis and tipis,” Enoksson said wistfully. “And most didn’t use snowmobiles—we had our legs and very good dogs.”
When I asked Enoksson whether he spoke Sami (few locals still do), he nodded: “To work with reindeer, you must.” Sami has a specialized vocabulary for herding, one that allows a herder to quickly describe one individual reindeer from among a running herd of thousands. “If the animal is a darker color, with a small amount of white on face, and the horns a particular shape—we can say all that in one word,” he explained.
Though Enoksson was polite enough, I got the impression he does not delight in the hikers who tramp through his family grazing land, despite the visitors’ outlandish willingness to pay $50 just to avoid walking another six miles. After dropping us at the hut, he mentioned pointedly that he planned to spend the rest of the afternoon chopping wood in preparation for winter. Then he stood expectantly as we dug out our wallets. “This is my favorite part,” he said with a grin.
We crossed the highest point of our hike, the Tjäktja Pass, the following day. Most hikers opt to skip the Tjäktja hut, because it has no store or sauna and the distance to it is comparatively short, but it turned out to be our favorite. In the kitchen, tiny birch-bark vases had been filled with dried spring flowers, and the walls were covered in blurry photos of the wolverines and lemmings that roam the pass.
The hut warden, Lena Lopate, poured us cups of bright red lingonberry juice, then left us chatting with a Slovakian father and his three teenage sons, who had come in from the rain for lunch. Though the boys had spent much of their lunch break taping up blisters, the family seemed happy to be having an adventure. After packing a heavy thermos of boiled coffee, the eldest son shook my hand and earnestly wished us a good trip, then merrily followed his brothers back out into the drizzle.
We changed into dry clothes and climbed a high ridge behind the hut under a freshly blue sky. With no trail to follow, our trajectory was steep and occasionally treacherous, shot through with slick summer snowbanks. The climb took almost an hour, but when we finally crested the ridge, the view opened as though we’d stepped through a celestial door. To the west, we could see all the way to Norway, where a panorama of towering mountains sprawled, pillowy with snow, above a vast floodplain trailed through by a sinuous pale blue river. Looking out, I felt an inexplicable urge to kneel, as though before an immense and ancient presence. For the first time, I understood why the Sami once believed their mountains to be inhabited by gods.
The next day, by contrast, was a slog. After a long hike over a rocky trail, we reached our penultimate hut, Sälka, a little after noon. Since that first sleepless night with Captain Underpants, I’d become as territorial as a badger: We would arrive early to secure the room with the fewest bunks (usually four) and anxiously shut the door to deflect would-be roommates. That strategy had paid off. For two nights running, we’d had a room to ourselves. In the process, though, we had remained stubbornly outside the huts’ cheery United Nations culture, a chatty fraternity where strangers shared stories over instant pasta dinners. We had become the North Korea of hikers.
But now, with the bulk of the route behind us, I felt bolder. Lingering in the kitchen, we chatted with a Canadian TV producer and his Swedish wife, then were joined by Johan and Cathleen, a young couple from the Swedish coastal city of Gothenburg. Cathleen seemed cheerful and earnest, Johan entertainingly gruff and dour. When I mentioned how delightful it was to be able to drink water straight from the streams without filtering it, Johan replied flatly, “Unless a reindeer has died upstream.” Gradually, though, he warmed up. After Cathleen remarked that Thursday is the traditional day for Swedish families to eat pea soup and pancakes together, Johan added that he spends Friday evenings with his family, as most Swedes do. “We call it Fredagsmys, Friday Cozy Time,” he explained bashfully.
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