A New Yorker in Swedish Lapland
[Header photo: Alex Kalita]
A New Yorker in Swedish Lapland: The Fjällräven Classic 2014
Alex Kalita, a native New Yorker and aspiring outdoorswoman, is recently returned from her latest adventure, the Fjällräven Classic. The Fjällräven Classic is an 110-km trek along the King’s Trail in Swedish Lapland. Each August, 2,000 trekkers, from approximately different 30 countries, converge upon the Sami village of Nikkaloukta to begin their trek 91 miles above the Arctic Circle, ending in Abisko. The trek is self-guided, but most participants spend an average of 4-5 days on the trail. To make the outdoors accessible and enjoyable to trekkers of all levels, Swedish outdoor supplier Fjällräven arranges for food, cooking gas, outdoor experts, medics and emergency supplies to be available at checkpoints along the route. Online registration for Fjällräven Classic 2015 opens today! See fjallraven.com/classic for more information.
3:00pm EST | Newark International Airport - Newark, NJ, USA
At Newark International Airport, a self-check in attendant does a once-over of my blonde ponytail, rangy frame and hiking duds. Gaze resting on my Asolo TPS 520s, she asks dubiously, “You in the military?” I’m flattered. But no, I’m just on my way to Sweden for a multi-day trek. This, striking her as a legitimate excuse to wear cargo pants, wins me a friend.
I’m nervous about my tight connection from Stockholm to Kiruna, a small mining town in Northern Sweden. (Guide books are quick to tell you it’s slowly sinking into the ground.) An ½ flight from the capital, Kiruna is the closest airport to the start of the Fjällräven Classic. The attendant takes my 75L Fjällräven Abisko in her hands and tells me, “Don’t you worry, sugar. I’ll take care of it. No problem.”
7:10 am CET | Arlanda International Airport – Stockholm, Sweden
When we deplane, customs is just opening up shop. The line snakes slowly. My Swedish friend, Hana, texts from the gate of our Kiruna flight, “Where are you? We board for Kiruna in 20 minutes.”
The stoic (or just sleepy?) customs officer examines my passport and baggage claim. “Your bags are checked to Kiruna.” International travel protocol dictates that I retrieve and re-check my bag at my first point of entry. So I ask the officer for confirmation. He assures me that no, my bag will be waiting for me in Kiruna, my final destination. This is no regular luggage—my pack is the product of 2 months of painstakingly research, cross-referencing the Fjällräven Classic’s recommended pack list with tips posted by Classic veterans on an unofficial Facebook forum devoted to the trek.
8:25 am CET | Arlanda International Airport – Stockholm, Sweden
I dash for my gate. Hana and I hug quickly and board. It’s the first time I’ve been reunited with my Fjällräven Polar teammate since our dog sled adventure in April. If there was any doubt about whether we’d boarded the correct flight, it’s squashed when I observe that there’s hardly a pair of legs on the plane that aren’t swathed in Fjällräven’s G1000.
10:00 am CET | Kiruna Airport – Kiruna, Sweden
We deplane in Kiruna. A doll-sized airport. My heart sinks when I consider the likelihood of a customs presence. But as the baggage carousel starts to turn, I spot an Abisko 75L! And then another. And then another. Ah, right. Everyone here’s got a Fjällräven rucksack. And as the carousel grinds to a halt, emptied, it’s clear not one of them is mine.
A friendly Classic volunteer is on hand to take my claim information. She promises to follow up with Scandinavian Airlines and keep me posted. “This happens”, she assures me. “But there are two other flights from Stockholm today—I’m sure it will arrive tonight.”
Tonight is fine. Tonight we’ll be reuniting with the rest of our team, drinking beers at Camp Ripan—the official rendezvous point for the Classic—and sorting through our packs to reduce duplication of sharable items like blister pads, mosquito repellant and instant coffee. We don’t hit the trail until tomorrow morning.
10:30 am CET | Camp Ripan - Kiruna, Sweden
A short bus ride away, we reach Camp Ripan. Atop an adjacent hill is a Hogalidsskolan, a school gymnasium co-opted by the Fjällräven Classic to serve as registration point and “pop up" Naturkompaniet (Sweden’s version of REI), for purchasing last minute essentials.
Hana and I meet up with the rest of our Fjällräven Classic team—Johan (Sweden), Greg (U.S.A.), Phil (U.K.), Andreas (Norway) and Manon (the Netherlands). We are all Fjällräven Polar participants, strangers a year ago, until a combination of Facebook voters and a Fjällräven jury threw us together and into the arctic wilderness, for a 5-day, 330km dog sled trek. We are giddy to see each other again. Giddy to set out on another 5-day adventure through Swedish Lapland together. Lots of concern and sympathy is expressed over my lost baggage, but we remain confident it will turn up in time for our slated 9am start the next morning.
In the meantime, there’s much to do. We check in at registration and pick up the supplies included in the $350 registration fee. A canister of Primus cooking gas; a bag of bread; enough rations of Real Turmat freeze-dried meals to last us until our next checkpoint; an extendable spook for eating it; a re-usable trash bag for carrying out all refuse (littering is a violation of the Swedish Environmental Code, and infractions are reportable to the police); a neon flag so that helicopters can spot us in the event of emergency; a map of the route and our official Fjällräven Classic hiking pass. The hiking pass is stamped at each checkpoint, where volunteers ensure that you’re carrying the required safety gear. All trekkers are required to carry a sleeping bag, sleeping mattress, cooking stove, first aid kit and tent/waterproof tarp. The latter three can be shared, but you must arrive at each checkpoint within 15 minutes of the person(s) with whom you’re sharing.
6:00 pm CET | Camp Ripan – Kiruna, Sweden
Time flies by amidst preparations and making new friends. We connect with three brothers from Southern Sweden, who have generously offered to share their whiskey and licorice with us. They know already what I will soon learn: alcohol is the social currency of the Fjällräven Classic. It’s only when the last bus arrives from the airport—without my rucksack—that I realize I’m screwed.
7:00 am CET | Camp Ripan – Kiruna, Sweden
It’s morning on the day we are meant to begin our 65-mile journey in Nikkaloukta, a 1 hr bus ride from Hogalidsskolan. Except my team is delayed because of me and my missing bag. To their credit, my team is overwhelming cheerful and supportive. But there’s concern that one member of the team, Andrea, may miss her flight home if we don’t set out that day. We can’t afford to wait longer.
9:00 am CET | Camp Ripan – Kiruna, Sweden
Fjällräven to the rescue! Whether out of pity or impatience with being pestered about the status of my rucksack, I’m lent a Kajka 65L and basic required gear. What I’m not lent, I grit my teeth and purchase at the Naturkompaniet. I silently thank the gods that I decided to wear my hiking boots on the plane.
12:00 pm CET | Camp Ripan – Kiruna, Sweden
Each day has three start groups, to stagger the considerable crowds. We miss our original 9am start, but just make the bus for the 1pm start. Once on the bus is en route, my stress is forgotten. The scenery changes quickly from the gritty mining environs of Kiruna to the marbled green, yellow, brown and blue mountains of Lapland. The adventure is underway.
1:00 pm CET | Nikkaloukta, Sweden
At Nikkaloukta, a Sami woman sings to kick-off the trek. The Samis were a source of significant inspiration to Fjällräven founder Åke Nordin. The company continues to take design queues from Lapland’s native people, introducing in 2011 the Luhkka Cape—inspired by the outwear of choice for Sami reindeer herders. (It translates literally to “bad weather collar.”)
Compression straps tightened and my Kajka adjusted to fit the proportions of my back, we set out on our way. The day is hot and the trail, a flat dirt path, is crowded. Although you start with a couple hundred others, pace serves to naturally stagger the crowd within a couple hours.
2:30 pm CET | Somewhere between Nikkaloukta and Kebnekaise Fjällstation
We stop, along with fellow trekkers, at LåpDonalds, a Fjällräven Classic icon. On the banks of a staggeringly beautiful glacial lake is a reindeer burger shack. A can’t miss culinary opportunity.
Before setting out again, a representative from Bavarian bootmaker HanWag instructs us on how to properly tape our feet with sports tape to prevent blisters and calluses. A rep from Naturkompaniet’s Stockholm headquarters suggests a few adjustments to my Kajka to better distribute the weight of my pack. The Fjällräven Classic is part trek, part outdoor school—aiming to foster more informed and responsible stewards of the environment.
4:00 pm CET | Somewhere between Nikkaloukta and Kebnekaise Fjällstation
It’s only when we stop at a stream to refill our canteens that I reflect on how dreamy Lapland’s hiking conditions are. Consider trail safety. There are no bears. No snakes. Wildlife consists of reindeer, arctic fox, a variety of bird species and the Norwegian lemmings. (The unlucky lemming serves as the primary food source for most of the other native species.)
When you get thirsty, clean, drinkable water is no more than 5 paces away. The rule of thumb is easy for even the most inexperienced of hikers to apply—if it’s running water, you can drink it. Raised on the perils of Oregon Trail, my anxious American heart nearly stops when a Swedish teammate plucks an anonymous berry from the ground and pops it into his mouth. A blueberry, it turns out. Out here, you don’t need to be a horticulturist to safely snack. If you can distinguish blueberries from reindeer droppings, you’re doing just fine.
6:00 pm CET | Somewhere between Nikkaloukta and Kebnekaise Fjällstation
The afternoon’s flat, wooded trail gives way to a more mountainous landscape by early evening. No surprise, given that we’re approaching the foot of Sweden’s highest peak, Mount Kebnekaise. Fjällräven Classic trekkers have the option to summit the mighty mountain, but our team decides against it. It adds a day to your trek and, thanks to my bag fiasco, we are wary of a time crunch. In theory, you can stay as long as you like on the trail, but checkpoints close to relieve volunteer staffers. And then there is the practical consideration of a return flight home.
We begin to encounter the trademark footbridges of the King’s Trail. Much of our path is trod over a pair of wide wooden planks, suspended over marsh and stone. The footbridges, I learn, offer your feet protection from the punishing rocks below.
Although Fjällräven Classic participants start in Nikkaloukta and proceed north to Abisko, most trekkers who walk the King’s Trail do the reverse. Every so often, we meet an unaffiliated hiker coming towards us, and step aside to let him pass with a chipper “hej hej.” Andrea teaches me how to detect the Norwegian hikers, who offer instead a sharp and clipped, “hej.”
7:30 pm CET | Kebnekaise Fjällstätion
We reach the base camp for Kebnekaise, the site of our first checkpoint. Our hiking passes receive their first stamp. Even though there is lodging here, Fjällräven participants are forbidden from staying overnight at the Fjällstation or in any of the STF refuge huts along the trail. It’s tents only for us. We venture a few kilometers past the Fjällstation to find a more secluded site to pitch our camp, in the lush emerald foothills of Kebnekaise.
8:15pm CET | Just past Kebnekaise Fjällstation
Hana and I pitch our Abisko Lightweight 2. We collect water from the nearby stream and heat it in less than a minute on a Primus Eta Express. Then the 7-minute wait for all 700 calories of my freeze-dried Pasta Bolognese to revive itself in hot water.
My headlamp proves unnecessary weight. Above the Arctic Circle in August, the light dims but never darkens. It’s been a very light and easy day. Spirits are high. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the scenery. Tomorrow will bring new wonders.
8:00 am CET | Just past Kebnekaise Fjällstation
And it does. When we wake at a leisurely hour, a rainbow archs above our campsite. The beauty of the Classic is that it’s self-paced. You camp where and when you like over a 7-day period. Savoring this feature, we linger over breakfast and only hit the trail around 10am.
11:00 am CET | Somewhere between Kebnekaise Fjällstation and Singhi
The day is misty and damp. We dig out our rain gear. But somehow the fog enhances the beauty of the mountains. The former Naval captain and designated navigator in our group, Johan, identifies each landmark mountain as we pass it—Kebnekaise, Tolpagorni and Drakryggen (“Dragonback”).
A tangled web of streams bisects our path. Knees exposed for ventilation, and draw cords tightened around our calves, our team is dressed to the man in Fjällräven’s Keb Gaiter Trousers, to keep our legs both dry and cool. A practical uniform for a trail like this one.
But soon, ankle-deep streams are replaced by gushing falls of glacial run-off. To cross them, we walk across wire gyrating suspension bridge. Each bridge bears a warning not to exceed a maximum of 10 people at a time. We play it safe and walk two-at-a-time, matching strides to reduce the bridges’ stomach-churning swing.
1:00 pm CET | Somewhere between Kebnekaise Fjällstation and Singhi
The trail between Kebnekaise and Singhi passes through reindeer-spangled hills. Our first sighting of these majestic beasts in the wild. Initially, they are black specks against the green mountain sides. But soon, we are close enough to count their velvet antlers.
The sky clears and the temperature is ideal for hiking. You feel the sun on your face. But the air is persistently cool. I master a system of layer management, opening up the side ventilation on my Keb Trousers while hiking. As soon as we pause, I zip up my trousers and throw on my Keb Fleece and hat. My team remarks at how quickly we are chilled at rest, the glaze of sweat evaporating instantly in the cool mountain air, even when we stop for a 5-minute water break.
3:00 pm CET | Singhi
We reach Singhi in time for a late lunch. Our second checkpoint. As a surprise treat, Classic volunteers distribute a tasty wrap of smoked reindeer meat on a bed of mashed potatoes.
Singhi is also home to two outhouses. Trekkers are encouraged to use the outhouses periodically staggered on the route, to avoid straining the trail’s ability to accommodate the 2,000 trekkers that will pass through it within the span of a week.
3:20 pm CET | Singhi
Singhi is beautiful, but exposed. The windiest part of the route. For the first time, I pull out my outer layer, a Keb Jacket. We whip out our Eta Express for a quick tea and coffee break to warm us before forging on. Our goal for tonight is to reach and camp at Sälka, the third checkpoint, which sports a wood-burning sauna and provisions shop.
9:30 pm CET | Sälka
Sälka takes our breath away. As sheltered as Singhi is exposed, a pebbled stream runs through a field of amethyst wildflowers. As we pitch our camp, the sun begins to descend, painting the sky the same hue as the flowers around us.
The sauna closes at 10pm, so we rush to slip in under the deadline. We missed single-sex sauna hour. It’s mixed or nothing. Eager to bathe, Andrea and I opt to overcome our shyness. We shed our clothes outside and run into the room temperature bathing room, where the only water left is ice cold—dredged straight from the stream.
I quickly dump it over my head and try to ignore the ice drip down the small of my back as I sprint into the sauna’s sweltering inner chamber. It’s packed. You can barely move. I do—trying to let a fellow trekker in—and feel a stranger’s slick, sweaty rear rub against mine. Okay, I’m outta here.
10:00 pm CET | Sälka
When we return to camp, we run into our friends from Camp Ripan, the Swedish brothers Johannes, Sebastian and Jonathan. We agree to merge teams tomorrow for extra company.
Unlike the relative seclusion of last night’s campsite, Sälka is a party spot. The provisions shop sells beer and Swedish gummy candy. We also have the opportunity to restock on freeze-dried food and cooking gas. After sampling a neighbor’s high-proof Finnish firewater, Johan amuses us with a goofy campsite striptease down to his base layers. A confused ptarmigan, snacking on the buds near our tent, catches the show.
7:00 am CET | Sälka
This morning, we aim for an early start. I wake up in a field of flowers. A buggy one. Anyone who’s camped up north knows that northern mosquitos are a tough and viscous breed.
Insect repellant liberally applied to my body, I head to the banks of the stream to wash my face, brush my teeth and fill my canteen for the day. I’m reflecting on the abundance of pristine water when I make the mistake of glancing upstream, where two rotund and naked Dutchman are bathing just a few meters from where I’m rinsing my toothbrush.
8:30 am CET | Sälka
We finally hit the trail. Today we’ll tackle the Tjäktja Pass, the most strenuous part of the trail. Although the Fjällräven Classic is not an easy trek—the stream crossing requires focus and the rocky terrain is tough on feet and joints—trekkers used to high altitude climbs may find it quite flat. Tjäkta Pass is an exception. The King’s Trail’s highest point reaches 1,140 meters above sea level.
11:00 am CET | Somewhere between Sälka and the Tjäktja Pass
We are glad of the company the Swedish brothers provide. Especially when we learn that eldest brother, Johannes, is a skilled birdwatcher and wildlife photographer. Johannes keeps a sharp eye out for local birdlife. We even get to witness the plight of the lemming first hand, when Johannes captures on camera a long-tailed skua snacking on the intestines of an unlucky lemming.
2:00 pm CET | Somewhere between Sälka and the Tjäktja Pass
Wind whips through the pass. Eager to reach the high point, but hungry, we pause for a quick lunch behind a large boulder, huddled together for warmth. Those in the group prone to feet problems are in considerable pain from balancing on moonscape terrain.
We diligently refill our water bottles before getting back on the trail—the ascent to the high point is one of the few places on the trail where fresh water is not readily available. Our Fjällräven Classic passport warns us of such spots on the route, but hikers ahead also shout back helpfully, instructing us to ‘water up.’ We’re all in this together.
3:30 pm CET | Tjäktja Pass
The climb is considerable. Lactic acid stings my quads and calves. But as far as treks go, it’s mercifully short. We quickly reach the top, which unfolds into a magnificent vista.
A small, rocky scramble above the official high point of the King’s Trail, is patch of snow. Boys being boys, the male contingent of our group declares a snowball fight and makes a b-line for the small swathe of winter in August.
Putting our G1000 reinforcement and Greenland Wax to the test, we slide down the slope on our butts. The first volunteer moves slowly. But as subsequent sliders carve out a track, the speed quickens, the daring rises. I wipe out on my second slide, careening off the track and nearly taking out Jonathan like a bowling ball heading for a pin. Our merry band is very merry—the high point of the trail and of our spirits.
5:00 pm CET | Tjäktja
We descend from the high point into Tjäkta, the fourth checkpoint. The valley is speckled with Eriophorum—white fluffy orbs at the end of a bright green stem. It’s like stumbling into a Dr. Seuss illustration.
8:00 pm CET | Somewhere between Tjäktja and Alesjaure
A fracture forms. We’re approximately 3 kilometers from the Alesjaure, the next checkpoint. Alesjaure is rumored to be the jackpot of checkpoints—not only the usual outhouses, but also a Sami-operated reindeer kebab hut, a provisions shop with fresh baked cinnamon rolls and what’s rumored to be the best wood burning sauna on the King’s Trail. Half our team is eager to reach Alesjaure—it’s cluster of huts already in view.
The other half advocate for making camp where we stand, a picturesque and grassy knoll not far from the Sälka Glacier. The location offers a rare secluded campsite and after a rigorous day of hiking, they are hungry and tired. This is one of the great debates of the Fjällräven Classic—do you camp near the checkpoints, where “amenities” abound? Or do you carve out a private slice of nature for yourself and your team?
The self-pacing element of the Fjällräven Classic is a double-edged sword. It offers trekkers freedom and flexibility. But in a large team, it underscores the need for communication and consensus building.
9:00 pm CET | Somewhere between Tjäktja Pass and Alesjaure
The majority votes in favor of calling it quits for today. As we pitch our tents and begin to bowl water for dinner, the temperature plummets. We kick off our boots and pile on the layers. My grateful toes relish the cold air and freedom, after the strict confines of my boots. For extra insulation from the cold ground, we make a circle of air mattresses around the camp stove and tuck into a well-deserved and happy hot meal.
7:00 am | Somewhere between Tjäktja Pass and Alesjaure
As early as the start in Nikkaloukta, we were warned that today’s forecast threatened nasty weather. But the sky when we wake is bright and clear, our most beautiful morning yet. We fortify ourselves for the day with a hearty and sweet breakfast of chocolate muesli.
9:30 am | Alesjaure
We reach Alesjaure in time for a mid-morning snack of reindeer kebab. A hanging scale also gives a chance to compare weight. My pack clocks in at around 10.5 kilos. Arriving in Kiruna without my painstakingly assembled kit (a month-long endeavor) threw me for a loop. But it forced me to hit the trail with strictly the essentials—my hiking boots, two pairs of socks, one set of wool base layers, an Abisko Cool T-Shirt, my Keb Trousers, my Keb Fleece, a Keb Jacket, a headband for day and a hat for night, a Bäck rain jacket and rain pants, a 2-L water bottle, a tent, a sleeping bag, camp stove and small pot for boiling water. The only items I found myself missing were a pair of gloves and my camp sandals, for relief from my boots in the evening.
10:15 am | Alesjaure
We dilly-dally at Alesjaure. By the time we convene a team meeting to review the map, bad weather is upon us. A steady drip begins to fall, but even more menacing storm clouds crouch behind the mountains.
Our original plan was to hike to Kieron, the final checkpoint before the finish line. We’d camp a night there, savoring the checkpoint’s much anticipated pancakes with whipped cream and lingonberry jam, and finish the last stretch to Abisko early the next morning. But our Fjällräven Classic hiking pass tells us that a mere 35 kilometers stands between us and the finish line in Abisko. The sky tells us that they will be a persistently wet and cold 35 kilometers.
A bold member of the team suggests that perhaps we could, if we set out immediately, reach the finish line by nightfall. It would be a rigorous day, yes. But it might be worth the long, damp slog to fall into a hot shower at Abisko Touristation and toast to our victory at the Trekkers’ Inn.
There is deep skepticism on the faces of many of my teammates. Still, I’m attracted to the idea. When I signed up for the trek the previous October, I had visions of hiking late into the “midnight” sun. The first 4 days of the trek have been beautiful, contemplative and lively. But our pace has been moderate, our days ending languidly. I have felt a small, unnamed pang growing. Nostalgia for the rigors of a steep and scrappy climb. The feeling of collapsing into my sleeping bag, 125-lbs of dead weight—spent, sore and satisfied.
10:45 am CET | Alesjaure
Debate continues for near thirty minutes. There are heightened emotions on both sides. The reality of hiking in a large and varied group bubbles to the surface. Pace is subjective. Pain is individual. It’s a prickly issue that grows pricklier when a faction of the group is tired and physically hurting, the other faction coursing with adrenaline at the prospect of a challenge.
11:00 am CET | Alesjaure
By 11:00am, we’ve split into two teams and divvy-ed up our shared gear accordingly. We agree that we’ll each walk at our own pace to Kieron and re-evaluate there. It’s a punt, a postponement—not a decision. But it buys each of us another 18 kilometers to conduct an assessment of our physical limits.
12:00 CET | Somewhere between Alesjaure and Kieron
The terrain changes on this stretch of the trek. It’s very flat. Footbridges carve out a path through the shrub willow. We pass a sand beach, where a few happy mutts are sprinting in circles and splashing in the water, happy to be off leash for a few moments. Dogs are allowed (encouraged!) on the Classic, but they are required to be on leash on the trail and in camp.
The rain persists. We spot pinpricks of orange glowing alongside the trail. A contingent of South Korean hikers has devised a system where a pair holds a tarp taught above their companion’s heads while they take long deep drags on a cigarette. Then they switch. It’s culture shock to see trekkers as dedicated to their nicotine routine as they are to an outdoor lifestyle—an incongruity here in the US. But certain trekking customs traverse cultural boundaries. The smokers are fastidious about Leave No Trace, catching every speck of ash in a designated receptacle.
2:00 CET | Somewhere between Alesjaure and Kieron
The trail gradually slopes up and opens up onto the land below. We can see the forest where Kieron, our next and final checkpoint before the finish line, lies.
But before we can reach it, we have to navigate a tricky part of trail. The trail is canted down on one side. Your left leg is always a bit higher than your right. It’s also, perhaps, the rockiest part of the trail we’ve encountered so far. The rocks are slick from rain, torqueing our knees with each step.
To keep our spirits up, Johan and Andrea teach me to say obscene things in both Swedish and Norwegian. A family overtakes us on the path at an inopportune moment in my language lessons, the mother pausing to silently scold Johan with a set of disdainful eyes.
3:45 pm CET | Kieron
We arrive into Kieron at the same time a helicopter touches down in a small clearing in the forest. Helicopter is the only functional means of transport out here, besides legs. It’s bearing a fresh delivery of pancakes. Once 4 razor thin pancakes have been folded into whatever receptacle we can find (in my case, a cooking pot), we rush to spoon the sugary carbo-loaded confection into our mouth before the rain turns our snack into whipped cream soup.
4:15 pm CET | Kieron
No sign of our companions. It’s decision time. We can pitch our tents in the rain, strip off our wet clothes inside our tents, attempt to cook dinner in the rainand while away 6 hours of steady rainfall until bedtime.
Kieron has become a mud pit. In contrast to the lighthearted party atmosphere of Sälka, Kieron is somber. People are wet and cold and tired of being wet and cold. Units of two or three cluster antisocially under whatever meager cover they can find.
The alternative is to push on. Splash through puddles another 4-5 hours and end the day in a hot sauna. Andrea and I are raring to march through the storm. We agree that rain is nothing when the body is in motion, but to stand still—damp and chilled to the bone—is misery. Phil is tempted to join us, but his pinched toes urge him to stay and rest. We determine that Phil and Johan will wait at Kieron for the others, while Andrea and I lead an advance party to the finish line. We’ll reunite in Abisko in the morning.
6:00 pm CET | Somewhere between Kieron and Abisko
We’ve entered the national park, where you can only camp at two designated sites. This is somewhat of a rarity in Sweden, where allmansrättan (the “right of public access”) effectively means you can camp wherever you like. Luckily, Andrea and I aren’t looking for a campsite. We’re determined to the finish by nightfall.
7:00 pm CET | Somewhere between Kieron and Abisko
Arching around lake Abiskojaure and running parallel to a formidable river Abiskojåkka, the trail cuts through birch forest. We see few other trekkers out here in the rain, with the notable exception of a Russian couple. The sugar rush from the pancakes long dissipated, Andrea and I contrive a scenario where there’s only one bed left at Abisko Touriststation. It’s us or them. The competition quickens our pace.
8:30 pm CET | Somewhere between Kieron and Abisko
My legs are aching, my hips are aching, my knees are aching, my toes are aching. We ration the remains of our snack food. Pausing to fire up the camp stove and rehydrate a bag of Real Turmat will take too much time, so instead we eat a lone gummy candy here and a raison there. Fantasizing about the hot meal and beer that awaits us some 5km away.
9:00 pm CET | Somewhere between Kieron and Abisko
Slightly delirious with hunger, we can’t stop laughing. About what I couldn’t tell you. I spot 3 tiny frogs frolicking in the sizable puddles that have formed on the muddy trail. I check with Andrea to confirm that they are, in fact, frogs and not a hunger-induced hallucination. She sees them too. Phew.
9:15 pm CET | Somewhere between Kieron and Abisko
As we round a bend, a UN blue tent pops into our view. “10th Anniversary Surprise!” reads a sign. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Fjällräven Classic, two volunteers distribute Lumberjack energy bars to the two most grateful girls they’ve ever met. We wolf them down in seconds.
1km to go. The longest 1km of the trek.
9:30 pm CET | Abisko Touristation
The finish line of the Fjällräven Classic runs parallel to the infamous Trekkers’ Inn, an enormous tepee-style tent with live music, reindeer souvas, Norrlunds Guld, and fellow trekkers celebrating their victory.
Andrea and I stagger to the goal line. Cheers and claps boom. If you happen to be in the vicinity of the finish line, it’s an important tradition to clap whenever a trekker crosses the finish line. Whether you cross at 10am or 2 am, there’s someone there to applaud you and pin a gold medal to your chest. Although from an applause maximization perspective, 9:30pm would seem the ideal time to finish. Countless Norrlund Gulds deep, the crowd at the Trekkers’ Inn approaches its duties with aplomb.
9:45 pm CET | Abisko Touristation
There are no rooms left at the inn. Instead, we pay the campsite fee to pitch our tent on a very sad, sloped and brush-covered patch of empty land. When you arrive in Abisko late on Tuesday night, the pickings are slim. You can reserve a room in advance, but a booking undercuts the freedom to set your pace on the fly.
Happily, hot showers are available to all trekkers, whether you have a hotel room or a campsite. Andrea and I soak our bones under a stream of hot water and use the mirrors opposite the showers to appraise the damage. A catalogue of bumps, bruises and bug bites is assembled. My hip bones have fared the worst, two eggplants tattooed on the tender skin beneath my hip belt.
10:00 pm | Abisko Touristation
When we enter the Trekkers Inn, where the party is well underway. A hundred pairs of arms are in the air, swinging wildly to the music. We try to shovel the contents of smokey reindeer souvas into our mouths, but soon, we’re swirled up into a whirling dervish of strangers, friends and Swedish folk music.
We see familiar faces, people we encountered on the trail or shared beers with on the eve of our adventure at Camp Ripan. “AAALLLLEXXX.” A very familiar face swings into my vision. My friend Emma from New York, who set out on the King’s Trail the day before I arrived in Sweden.
Quick trail notes are exchanged. Emma complains of insufferable heat on the first day, I tell her of unending rain on the last. We share the pros and cons of our respective campsites—only once did her team and mine make camp in the same location: Sälka, home of the spectacular sunset.
It strikes me then why I feel so compelled to return next year. Although every trekker walks the ground, each experience is unique. With so many moving pieces—Lapland’s unpredictable and quick-changing weather patterns, the infinite combination of campsites— the Fjällräven Classic is designed for variety.
It’s the social variety, though, that lures you back. You don’t just pass by your fellow trekkers, sharing perfunctory hellos or trail tips. You camp together, you drink together, you merge teams to trek together. You come to know each other intimately (Perhaps a bit too intimately, in the confines of a crowded sauna.) A new Fjällräven Classic promises a shifting social landscape. A new network of friendships that span geographic and cultural boundaries; forged by a common quest to leave our lives behind for a few days every August and form a new community in the enduring landscape of Swedish Lapland.
Plus, Fjallraven is giving away one Primus ETA Express (Alex's Stove) to one lucky winner. Enter here.