Frankly, I do not feel cold. I feel only the enormous power of the earth pulling me into her lap. Above me the polar sky, gray above the black water. Across the river the rest of the group is waiting for me.
As if in slow motion, I felt my foot slip. Somewhere between the second and the third boulder. I tumbled backwards. Immediately I tried to compensate my misstep by leaning forward, but I had forgotten about the treacherous weight on my back. Fifteen kilo backpack. Attached to me like a shell to a turtle.
And there I lie and feel how the bottom of the river is pulling at me. Don’t get me wrong. I am not in a panic, there is no need to. The river is wide but shallow. The backpack gurgles beneath me as if it rinses its mouth.
“I think I could use a hand,” I say to the Sami photographer, the only one still standing in the river. Possibly he expects me to arise as an arctic nymph. And actually I should have if it weren’t for the strap of my backpack around my waist. I had forgotten to open it during the crossing.
Because I am ignorant as far as subarctic survival goes. And even now lying in the water, it does not occur to me to unstrap my shell.
Outdoor Academy of Sweden
“You are registered for the Outdoor Academy of Sweden”, the confirmation in the mail is in bold. Underneath a picture of three women happily running through sunny Sweden, followed by the conclusion: “We look forward to seeing you!” The exclamation mark making it a bit of a threat, as if to remind me I can not escape my fate.
My fate is the great outdoors, in this case the outdoor is the wilderness of Swedish Lapland. I don’t care for outdoor. That’s Nomad’s department. The photographer gets a kicks out of fly fishing, camping in blizzards and ascending slippery glaciers. Not me.
Outdoor in Norway
The last time I undertook something outdoors-ish – a lousy ride in a sled up a mountain in Norway – I ended up being launched to a glacier. At such a hopeless place that the lynx were already licking their lips and freezing to death seemed the only decent thing left.
I tried to convince Nomad this was really her thing. But the photographer protested. She had gone into surgery the week before and she was just recovering from being stitched up. To me that sounded like the ultimate challenge to an outdoor fanatic, but she declined.
Kiruna Swedish Lapland
So a week later I fly to Kiruna, in the heart of Swedish Lapland where survival is a daily challenge. At least for the Sami it is, the people that live for a part of herding reindeer. Although living is a big word, now climate change causes the reindeer to starve.
It starts out quite good. I am housed in an apartment in Björkliden, some 250 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. I own a dining table, a seating area, aterrace and even a real sauna.
Manufactures of outdoor
Not that I have time to enjoy it, because I am summoned to meet the manufacturers who will wrap me in glacier gear: boots, woolen underwear, a windproof jacket and pants with some fortifications on the behinds to prevent me from ending up in my woolen string in case of sliding down the rocks.
And if I do happen to roll of a glacier or get stuck between oncoming reindeer, all I need to do is swing my bright pink lunchbox or chop them to pieces with my fluorescent hunting knife. Piece of cake!
Björkliden en Abisko
I look at my knife with the special flint function which will enable me to cook. Cook? Fortunately heating up some water will do for these wilderness gourmets, I discover soon.
I am given a cooking set, a tent and a backpack of 65 liters and I begin to understand that the apartment with sauna is not something I should get emotionally attached to. We are off to the wilderness. A trail of 32 kilometers over several mountain passes between Abisko and Björkliden to be conquered in three days.
In the morning when I look at my reflection in the mirror, an unknown woman in Arctic gear stares back. I seem to have lost myself already.
“Are we ready?” The guide asks excited when our international group has gathered outside the hotel. I am just about to say “Yes”, when I feel something warm running down my pants. It’s my thermos filled with boiling water, which protrudes from a side pocket of the backpack. It is leaking. I sprint back inside to buy a new one.
Vadvetjåkka and Abisko National Park
Back outside, I reach down to my backpack and succumb under its weight. Less than a minute on the road and there’s already a dent in my brand new thermos. The journey for the day heads towards the Norwegian border. A route wedged between the northernmost national park Vadvetjåkka and Abisko National Park.
The latter park is known as the King’s trail, a historical trail of over 400 kilometers, starting here. Or ending here. The route goes up to the plains of Rákkasláhku, some 800 meters higher.
The ‘Field of lovers’ the Sami call it. Today it is a dramatic love. Fierce clouds of impending rain are driven rapidly past by the wind.
Every time I jump on a stone, I can feel how the weight works against me. The shoulder straps do not fit well , despite my constant worry and pulling the straps. The result is that it rattles on my back like a sunscreen in the wind.
The green mossy plain gradually gives way to much grayer surroundings, intersected by waterfalls and small streams. Below us lies the 70 kilometers long lake Torneträsk. The granite surroundings remind me of the Dolomites where I was last year with the shepherds bringing down the sheep from the summer summit to the valley.
We stop at noon. Time for lunch. Our first freeze-dried meal brought to life with water from the thermos. From the orange bag full of flakes that I tear open soon a spaghetti bolognese will well up .
The guide, in the meantime, has cast a glance at my backpack. “No wonder it is not comfortable,” he says. “The thing is set at 1.76 meters and you’re a lot shorter.” The straps are re-adjusted and indeed, the backpack now fits perfectly.
Time for some Italian cuisine! Unfortunately I did not check the bag when I tore open it in my haste, so what I thought would be a bolognese turns out to a soaked chocolate muesli. Which means I will be having the bolognese tomorrow for breakfast.
After lunch, the landscape becomes void, dominated by the colour gray. And the sky acts accordingly: it starts snowing. The view is spectacular until snowflakes block my sight, whilst crossing a snowy plain.
My international group largely consists of people who run triathlons for fun. And because everyone knows that triathlons don’t tire you out, they alternate by doing long distance running distances of 130 kilometers. Apparently only suckers run a marathon.
Since we have left I am in a permanent state of jogging. Peeing, photographing or taking notes? I have since long given up for fear of losing sight of the group.
At the end of the day a mountain lodge suddenly materialises from the snow. Låktatjåkka, a lodge about 1200 meters altitude, making it the highest mountain refuge in Sweden. Equipped with several bedrooms, a lovely sitting room, a sauna and a restaurant. Did I say restaurant?
Not for us of course. We are hardcore outdoor people, so we cook outside where it is cold and the snow does its utmost best to kill our cooking fire. It gets even colder. The next morning we walk through a white moon landscape. We pass the Harpasset, a rocky plateau with glacial lakes full of bright blue edges. “Mordor”, I hear a number of men referring to this Tolkien landscape.
Vanished in the snow
The photographer who accompanies us, tells a story about a Dane who vanished in this area. I try to rule out the story. I need all my attention for my feet. If I tumble down these snowy slopes and end up in the ice water, I expect little help from of my pink lunchbox.
We go higher up on the dark rock. An open plain, then some wooden houses by a lake and then we arrive at the river.
The photographer holds out his hand, but with the backpack I’m overweight and he eventually needs both hands to get me up. “Sami would say that you’ve experienced Cahcce Ravga, the water monster,” he says.
Water pours of me. Now I have been in the river from head to toe, I don’t need to bother about keeping dry no longer, so I walk through the water across the river.
Soaking wet through Lapland
Desperately I realise how, for the next couple of hours, I will have to march in soaking wet clothes through Lapland.
Across the river I notice to my surprise that apart from my feet, I stayed completely dry. And the backpack that I had put in its rain jacket is not too wet either. I put on dry socks, put plastic bags over my socks and slip back in the soaking wet boots.
Sopping in my boots, I reach the reef. And then the sun breaks through. Over the reef the landscape is a deep green. Below me a rainbow shoots up from Lake Kårsavagge. Near a waterfall I fill my dented thermos. Down at the water, we will set up our tents. While the group is on their way to triathlon down, I’m enjoying the warmth.
As evening falls I lie in my tent, while the Northern Lights paints the sky and a fire dries my shoes, I think of the reindeer and the Sami whose land this is. And the arrogance of man to constantly wanting to submit nature. “Never underestimate nature”, a Sami had told me. She is the boss, stay humble.”
“How humble can you be lying on the bottom of a river?”, I wonder while I hide deep in my mummy sleeping bag thinking that I’m almost start liking this överleva, this surviving the wilderness.
Text: Anneke de Bundel – Images: Carl-Johan Utsi