I’m slowly catching up both with my backlog of photos from before I went on vacation. Post-dated posts will be appearing gradually over the next week or so, so do scroll down, or go to the “Daily” category to catch them all.
I can’t think of anything specific for this month, so I’ll describe our evening routine.
Eric and I put the kids to bed on alternate evenings – I do it for Adrian when he does it for Ingrid, and vice versa.
Evening starts at about 7 o’clock. An alarm goes off just after 7 to remind Adrian that it’s time to start finishing off whatever he is doing and getting ready to go to bed. Sometimes we’re still finishing off dinner when this happens.
We go to the upstairs bathroom and I brush his teeth. I do the “aah” sides (the inside and the biting surfaces) and he does the “iih” sides (the outside) although I sometimes do a bit extra on the outside as well. Meanwhile he is bored and tries to look around, or to poke my hair, or something equally incompatible with teeth-brushing.
Then he pees while I go to the bedroom and draw the curtains. He has his own bed but it’s in our bedroom. This works well for everybody.
He comes in and puts on his pyjamas. Now that it’s spring and warm outside, he likes to wear pyjama shorts only. Until recently I then applied a fat salve on the dry scaly skin on the backs of his hands, and a slightly lighter salve on slightly less dry parts, but I think we can cut down on this now.
Sometimes he takes a plush animal to cuddle with, but mostly those don’t seem to be particularly important to him.
Next, I sit in a little armchair next to his bed and read for him. We take turns picking books. When it’s my turn, I pick something in Estonian. When it’s his turn, he often picks some old favourite. Currently we are re-reading Sharks by Sarah Sheppard. Apparently bloody stories about scary predators are just right for bedtime.
When I think it’s getting late, I stop reading. Then I sing for him. The songs I sing have varied a lot over time – sometimes he wants the same songs every night, sometimes he prefers variety. Currently it’s the former. I sing Trollkarlen från Indialand, Kalle Teodor and Kes elab metsa sees, in this order, every night. The last one is accompanied by a gentle back rub, because of kolm hästi pikka paid.
Ideally he wants to fall asleep in my bed but we’ve had a bit of trouble with bed-wetting, so that’s not happening. Instead he gets to lie in my bed during the songs. Then he goes back to his own bed, gives me exactly three kisses (left cheek, right cheek, forehead) and we say good-night.
I then sit at the top of the stairs outside the bedroom door, reading, with the door slightly ajar. He talks to himself, occasionally checks that I’m still there, and reminds me to not go down until he’s asleep. After a while I realize he hasn’t said anything for a while and I go down.
At 22:30, no later, either Eric or I go up and carry him to the toilet again. We’ve carefully calibrated the timing: 5 minutes later is probably OK, but 15 minutes would really be taking a chance. Adrian is only very barely awake – enough to co-operate as much as needed, but not enough to remember anything in the morning.
This month’s big thing: Ingrid has bought herself an iPhone. Yes, she had an iPad, but you can’t take a tablet to school, and besides, “all her friends have a smartphone”. Since she has both a fully functioning phone already, in addition to the already mentioned iPad (which is hers de facto if not de jure) we had no intention of buying yet another gadget for her. So she decided to buy it herself.
She researched the prices of second hand iPhones on Tradera (Sweden’s eBay), counted the money she had, did some maths and realized that it could take months to save enough. Therefore she asked if she could do any extra chores for extra money. We agreed on 10 kr for emptying the dishwasher and 20 kr for hanging up one load of laundry. She did both a few times, enough to double her weekly allowance, and soon had enough to start bidding on Tradera. Yesterday she proudly won an iPhone 4S for 465 kr.
One of the first apps in her new phone will be Snapchat. “Everybody is using it.”
We’ve been watching “Sweden’s Master Chef” together in the evenings, on Ingrid’s request. She doesn’t enjoy it quite as much as “Sweden’s Youngest Master Chef” but still.
At school they have been working on learning their multiplication tables all the way up to 100. I’ve been drilling her when we’re waiting for something (such as waiting for Adrian to eat up so the kids can have dessert).
She was more bothered by me being away for a week than I would have expected, and more so than Adrian was. She craves predictability and routine in certain key parts of her life. There must be activity and novelty, but of a predictable kind: a new movie for each Friday night, for example. She called or SMS:ed me good night every night while I was away.
Kebnekajse mountain station to Nikkaluokta (19 km).
Scrubby birch forest, initially slightly downhill and then flat across lake Laddjujavri and the marshes around it.
This was an optional day of skiing; we had the option to be transported to Nikkaluokta by snowmobile. About half the group chose the option to ski, while the other half lounged around the mountain station for half the day and the motored down to Nikkaluokta in (probably) about half an hour.
The extra skiing must have seemed like an unnecessary hardship for the stayers (primarily the two beginners among us, and the guy with the worst blisters). But to me it was the easiest, most effortless skiing I had done all week. For two reasons.
One: minimal pack. Since the others were going by snowmobile, we could empty out almost everything from our packs except what we would or might need during the day (water, snacks, down jackets, extra mittens). I had already gotten a taste of what it feels like to ski with a light pack yesterday: the “blister guy” skipped skiing and paid for a snowmobile trip, and I gave him some of my heaviest stuff. It definitely made a difference – I found it easier to keep up with the group. An extra incentive to keep my pack light next time!
Two: better skis. At Kebnekajse in the morning some stranger had mistakenly grabbed my skis and left another pair behind. I could guess which ones, but I didn’t want to just take them because I could well be wrong. Instead I borrowed a pair of skis from another member of our group, who in turn borrowed from one of the snowmobilers, so both of us got skis of almost-correct length, just slightly too long. But the skis I got were of a different brand and felt very different.
The rental skis were a pair of Åsnes Amundsen. Not a bad model, according to a review I read afterwards, but totally unsuited to me. They have a stiffer span than most skis, and that just did not work for me at all. I don’t know if it was because of my technique or my weight or a combination of the two. In any case, I really, really struggled with getting a grip on them: I just glided back with each step, especially when when going gently uphill, and especially when the snow was cold and hard. Thursday’s trek from Vistas to Nallo and the rise just after Nallo was no fun at all: part of the way I was literally swearing at my skis with every single step, because it was either that, or give up and cry.
The skis I borrowed today were a pair of Fischer 78. And what a difference! Better grip, better glide, better stability – a pure joy. I felt like I was flying along on them. No longer at the back of the group, struggling to catch up – now I was easily keeping pace with the others and even getting ahead at times. If I ever do this again, I will absolutely buy my own skis, fit for my weight and skill level, rather than make do with a standard “fits everybody and hence nobody” model.
And all of a sudden we were at Nikkaluokta. Pack up the skis to post them back to Abisko; have lunch; wait for bus back to Kiruna. It was a shock to take in noise and diesel fumes from the bus. And then back to everyday life.
Sälka hut to Kebnekajse mountain station, almost but not quite via Singi hut (26 km).
We are now back on the main Kungsleden trail, with red crosses to mark the trail, occasional snowmobile traffic etc. Just before Singi we left the main trail for a short while to cut off a corner, skipping the descent to the huts, and then rejoined the Kungsleden again slightly further to the east.
From Sälka to Singi things were still relatively quiet, but after Singi we were clearly approaching civilization again. The trail was wide and numerous skiers and snowmobiles had left their tracks. It was slightly downhill, and many sections looked like scaled-up corrugated cardboard: down and then slightly up again, repeated over and over. We pitied the few groups who were skiing the same section in the opposite direction, going up all those downhill sections.
My camera ran out of juice in the morning so the only photos I have are from the afternoon when we had reached Kebnekajse mountain station and its electrical outlets.
A mountain station is a hybrid between a hut and a hotel, which meant all kinds of luxuries: electricity, running water (showers!), a restaurant, fresh food, rooms with real beds and so on.
But getting back to this spot of civilization also meant that our trip was almost over. We were about to leave the peace and quiet behind and go back to crowds, noise, smells, stress, and all that. I felt sorry that it was coming to an end.
People go on hikes for different kinds of reasons. I tried to untangle my reasons and figure out what I actually get out of this kind of trip.
There are of course the general benefits of a well-planned and well-organized all-inclusive group vacation. I am not responsible for anything or anybody other than myself. I do not need to plan, prepare, manage, schedule or prioritize anything at all. This is a welcome change from my everyday life where I manage something almost all day long: a team at work and a household at home.
When it comes to hiking in particular, I like the physical challenge: exerting myself just enough, feeling my body do what it is supposed to do, and do it well.
I like the beauty of nature. I particularly like mountainous landscapes, and especially if there is also water of some kind. There is something special about mountains, about being above the world.
But above all I like the serenity, the peaceful silence, the lack of people and noise. I need this kind retreat into nature at regular intervals. Even just a few hours in a forest near home works, but this was of course many miles better. The snowy emptiness here was a bit extreme when it comes to serenity, but at times I wished that it could have been even more so: I wished I could have done this alone, to truly be away from people and not see a soul around me.
With these points in mind, this was a good hike but not the best one ever. An ideal hike would have had:
- More beautiful weather, with some blue skies.
- Slightly slower pace. Both in general, so I could relax more and not have to think about keeping up with the group, but also because it would give me more opportunities to take photos, perhaps even leave the path for better angles and views.
This is of course a very personal preference and difficult to achieve when hiking with a group – if the whole group had to wait each time someone wants to take a photo, it would get annoying fast for the others. The group cannot spread out too far either, especially in winter when getting lost can be life-threatening.
Vistas hut to Sälka hut via Nallo (19 km).
From Vistas to Nallo we followed a broad valley. According to the map there was a river or stream at the bottom of it, as I think is the case for all valleys here. I saw no signs of it, but we stayed on slightly higher ground nevertheless. After Nallo hut there was a steep rise into Stuor Reaiddavaggi. Then we passed through the valley and crossed another invisible frozen lake.
There was something in this valley that encouraged us to spread out a bit, rather than skiing in each others’ tracks. Perhaps it was the broad even lower slopes, or maybe the snow conditions made it easier to ski on fresh snow. (We had a cold night and this morning started out colder than the previous days, so the snow was icier.) In any case, I found myself skiing in fresh snow with nobody else immediately near me.
It was so quiet. All I heard was the swish of the skis against the snow, and the creak of the poles as their angle against the snow changed with my forward movement.
Swish/creak. Swish/creak. Swish/creak.
Up in the pass, the world was even more empty and monochrome. I fell behind the others, and at times neither saw nor heard anybody or anything else. This high up there were no signs of life, no trees or ptarmigan tracks. The mountains on both sides of the valley rose gently so they were blanketed by snow, with rocks only peeking through here and there. The sky was equally white, and clouds hid the rest of the world from view.
At times the whole thing seemed unreal. There was nothing for the eye to hold on to. Everything around me was so white, so empty and quiet that it was hard to believe it existed. I felt like I was outside the world, in a dream.
At the other end of the pass we descended into a broad valley with Sälka hut in the middle of it, like tiny specks of coal in an endless expanse of snow. The light was very flat so it was hard to see where we were going. Everything looked the same, but wasn’t: several of us fell when we were taken by surprise by a shallow snowdrift or depression that just could not be distinguished from the rest of the whiteness.
Alesjaure hut to Vistas hut (18 km). We left the main Kungsleden trail for a detour to Vistas, along Visttasvaggi valley and Visttasjohka river.
I wouldn’t exactly describe the Kungsleden as crowded, not while we were there. The opportunities for meeting people on the trail are relatively limited – this route is usually done north-to-south so you don’t normally meet people going in the other direction. You’d have to leave the hut at the same time, or take a lunch break at the same time (because most sections of the trail have exactly one obviously suitable resting place) – or be overtaken if they are going significantly faster than yourself (or vice versa).
Nevertheless we saw a few people yesterday: two skiers who were just leaving the shelter as we stopped there for our snack break, and a group of three whom we passed on the way up to the pass.
Today it was just us and the snow and the mountains. No people. No snowmobile tracks. No trail to follow. No trail markers, even.
We had no shelter for our lunch break either, so it was lucky for us that we had better weather today: sunshine and not much wind.
Skiing is sweaty work, so you don’t wear much: even though temperatures were below zero all week, I just wore a thin wicking top and a Goretex jacket, with no middle layer. But as soon as you stop, you start to cool down. When its windy, nobody wants to stand still for any more than a moment, just enough to do whatever made you stop (most likely: drinking, or taking a photo, or adjusting/putting on/taking off your goggles/sunglasses/mittens/hat/scarf). If you stop for more than a few minutes, you need to put on an extra layer, or more conveniently a down jacket.
The slope down into Visttasvaggi was the steepest downhill section of the path, not only today but of the whole week. It was nowhere near as steep as even a blue piste for alpine skiing, but much more challenging. It was uneven and unpredictable, with powdery snow and icy snow, bumps and hollows, all mixed up, and you couldn’t really see any of these in advance before hitting them with your skis. It took our group a fair amount of time to get down, and a fair few falls.
This was the most fun I had skiing all week. I am bragging only slightly when I say that I got down with no falls and even some style.
The valley after the pass was a bit stony and with a sparse birch forest. We crossed and re-crossed the icy river in places that seemed solid and luckily were solid. We saw lots of tracks of some animal that we at first couldn’t identify, but later realized must have been not an animal but a bird (ptarmigans).
Today’s hut, like today’s skiing, was beautiful and simple and clearly off the beaten path. No solar panels and antennas here! Just Bosse, our friendly host. The huts and the rooms were much smaller than the previous ones, with one room small for everything – bunk beds, table, stove, and barely any room between them.
Since the Vistas hut had no electricity, Bosse also had no contact with the outside world. Nevertheless he had heard (from some unknown source at some unknown time) that there might be another large group coming for the night, and for a while it looked like we might need to double up in some of the wider bunk beds. The huts never turn anyone away – they make sure everybody gets a roof over their heads for the night, sleeping on the floors or wherever. In the end the other group never materialized and each of us got a separate bed after all.
Unlike the huts on the main Kungsleden trail, which were supplied by snowmobile throughout the season, the Vistas hut was stocked once at the beginning of the season (late February) and those supplies had to last until the end of April. We bought the last tins of mackerel in tomato sauce that Bosse had and counted ourselves lucky.
The Vistas hut also had the smallest and most low-tech sauna yet: no separate washing room and no drains. The sauna simply had an uninsulated floor with slight gaps between the floor boards, and any water you poured over yourself just drained out through the floor. Despite its simplicity, the sauna was very pleasant, but it was also blazing hot and I didn’t stay for long.
Abiskojaure hut to Alesjaure hut (20 km).
Up from Abiskojaure lake into Garddenvaggi valley, then on alongside lake Alesjaure. At the time I didn’t even realize there was a lake there; I only discovered it on a map afterwards. Sparse birch forest to begin with, endless expanses of softly undulating snowy hills later in the day.
After a full day out in the snow, tired and hungry, the hut is a welcome sight. The STF (Swedish Tourist Association) huts are comfortable in a homey, rustic way. Most huts are actually a multiple huts: one for the host and a few for the guests. Plus a few other important buildings: a shop/reception, a sauna, a woodshed, and loos.
The guest huts have dorms of various sizes. Our group of 9 fit nicely into the 10-bed rooms which seemed to be standard. Each hut also had a kitchen, and often a drying room for clothes and boots.
Much of hut life is rustic and low-tech. There is no electricity. Huts have wood-burning stoves for heating and gas stoves for cooking. Water is fetched in large plastic jerry cans from an ice hole in the river or lake.
But there are small islands of surprising modernity. The shop/reception hut has a solar panel. This, together with a parabolic antenna, is used for two important purposes: (a) the host can communicate with the outside world, and (b) the host can accept credit card payments in the shop. No kidding.
There is a strong environmental awareness. Garbage is recycled even more religiously than I do at home. Whatever garbage has to be taken back to civilization goes down on snowmobiles only, and only on the return leg of restocking journeys, so there are no wasted trips.
The loos always seemed to be at the top or bottom of an icy hill, which made night-time loo trips extra exciting. An unexpected luxury in the loos was styrofoam loo seats. What an improvement over sitting on an ice cold wooden seat!
Train from Kiruna to Abisko tourist station. Rent skis. Ski from Abisko to Abiskojaure hut (15 km).
Leaving behind yesterday’s red planks, today we equipped ourselves with proper skis from the ski rental at Abisko tourist station (except those of us who brought their own). By the time we were done, it was already time for lunch. (Abisko tourist station serves great lunch, even for vegetarians, especially considering the remote location.) After lunch we packed away the last loose things, tightened the last straps, crossed the road and then we were off.
The skiing was initially as wobbly as I had expected, especially going downhill. I was quite focused on the skiing, busy trying to remember how it was supposed to feel and how my body was supposed to move, and didn’t pay much attention to my surroundings.
Snowmobiles are allowed on this part of Kungsleden, and they had been using it a lot. Especially the first half of the track was mushy and slushy and churned up – not the best to ski on. The best I could achieve was a kind of a plodding shuffle, or perhaps a shuffling plod, rather than any kind of gliding motion.
At first the trail passed through a sparse birch forest, with small hills and a frozen river. There were mountains in the distance, but nothing spectacular to look at, especially since the weather was dull and cloudy.
The last part of the trail went across the frozen lake of Abiskojaure: flat, featureless, somewhat icy – and windy. Not exciting, but (unlike most of our group) I actually liked the lake better than the preceding part of the track because I could finally put on some speed. At the far end of the lake was the Abiskojaure hut where we would stay the night.
Outside the tourist station where we started, there’s a large wooden tripod with a scale for weighing your packs. We all weighed ours. Mine came in at just a smidgen over 10 kg. It was the second lightest pack in our group, which was a very good thing since I was the weakest skier. And it was the smallest one too: I got it all into my 35+8 litre rucksack.
I could have lightened the pack some more, but not by much, if I had been a more experienced hiker/packer. The heaviest two things in my bag were my thermos flask and my shoes, and there was no leaving those behind. But I could have left behind some other things:
- Soap. Outside I was wearing gloves or mittens all the time and had no opportunity to get my hands dirty. Indoors in the kitchen there was water and kitchen paper rolls. There was even hand sanitizer in the loos.
- Extra meals. I brought two freeze-dried meals in case any of the huts didn’t have vegetarian food. That was not a problem, but I ate the meals anyway because some days I was just too hungry to wait for dinner. But I need not have brought my own; I could have managed with something tinned or a packet of noodles from the hut shops instead.
- Extra tops. The wicking tops didn’t get too smelly even after several days of use; I could have managed with just two (one for skiing, and a clean dry one for evenings).
- The thick fleece top. A thinner, lighter one would have been enough.
Beyond that, I’d be cutting into things like shampoo and toothpaste, clean underwear and fresh socks, which I could have survived without but would really have missed. I want my hiking vacations to feel like vacations, not a week of deprivation. For this reason, there was some heavyish stuff in my pack that I will not leave behind next time either.
- Raw Bite or other trail snacks. They are rather heavy, but I see no good alternative. All the manned huts did have shops with tinned food and pasta and such. They also stocked potato chips and peanuts, chocolate, sweets, soda and beer – but nothing that I would describe as a healthy snack. A Snickers bar is not a snack.
- A Kindle. There is nothing to do in the huts in the afternoons. Most huts had some books, but it was all boring Swedish detective stories. Some people played solitaire for hours each afternoon. I got through two whole books on the Kindle I borrowed from Eric, plus one paper book in one of the huts. I would have been bored out of my mind without it.
There was only a single thing that I didn’t bring but wish I had.
- Extra camera battery. Normally the battery lasts a long time, but in the cold up there it ran out unexpectedly fast. It didn’t even last me half the usual time.
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