Into the Arctic: Snowshoeing the Kungsleden

The first tentative steps. Inching forward on my new plastic accoutrements, I’m not altogether sure I’m ready for a week in these things. The snow’s falling, it’s windy, there’s little shelter and we’ve only just left our mountain station sanctuary. My relationship with my snowshoes I can already tell is going to be love/hate. It doesn’t matter, I tell myself, it’ll end up feeling natural. I find the most concerning thing the fact we’ve only just gone round the block.

After our test walk, with a sense of trepidation hanging heavy, we eat at the comfy Abisko Mountain Station before bedding down early in what seems like bright arctic 10pm daylight. The next morning, our snowy carriages await, taking us to the start of the trail. We put on more and more and more layers of clothing. In the cold there’s a sense of reassurance and excitement from the whole group that we’re underway.

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At first the vistas are staggering. Breathtaking. Almost unfathomable. As we snowmobile through the tundra, the natural environment becomes more bleak and less hospitable. The wind has a sharper jagged edge and the temperature drops. We near the first cabin and the enormity of what lies ahead sinks in. I knew the arctic would feel big, but I wasn’t prepared for just how all-encompassing. Reaching the STF Alesjaure Mountain cabin provides an insight into how different these landscapes are with snow around them. We disappear into snow drifts often waist high, and struggle to imagine an environment where any of this has thawed.

The world has a different feel to it here. Yes, the air is cleaner and quieter, but there’s a different sense of detachment. Sitting on top of the world, once you’re inside the Arctic Circle, it feels a through a threshold has been crossed. The Arctic has no time for the frivolity of the modern world and it invites you to leave any care you have for it behind. There’s no mobile reception here, and the group introduction we get to the GPS and satellite phone on the first day is testament to this.

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Such is the anticipation of leaving for our first full day’s hike that there’s a collective sense of relief as we do. A calm also descends as the daily routine sets in. There’s something reassuring about just having to put one foot in front of the other with no other worldly distractions. We walk through some cold, windy weather on the first day, and reach our second cabin happy for the warmth of a hot lemonade welcome.

In general, the cabins throughout our stay are impeccably kept and looked after. A couple have saunas, and some even have shops kept stocked by hardy snowmobile delivery drivers. There’s a cracking atmosphere, partly a reflection of people’s sense of achievement getting through the day, and partly due to a general euphoria of being here, in the landscape, surrounding by nothing and nothing else. Over hot, warming reindeer stew, the discussions are active and lively. Boosed by ruddy faced exposure and the thawing of limbs. Mercifully, there’s not a phone in sight. Nobody needs to know what's going on anywhere else.

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The weather warms and the sun comes out for the rest of the week. Each day, the same routine, outside in the morning after a healthy breakfast, rising early and getting on the trail. On the second day we cross the Tjaktja pass, one of the highlights of the trip and a fundamental reminder of the size of this landscapea. From an old reindeer hut perched on high, the valley below descends in front of us flanked by mountains. From this elevation, we can almost see our hut for the night. Scale is a different thing altogether, here and although it looks close, we’re reminded that it’s over 10km away. Perspective and distance take on new meanings in the Arctic.

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As the days roll on, we find an established routine as a group. Sharing wood chopping, water collecting and cooking at the end of each day is a reminder that we’re all settling into feeling more comfortable with our environment. Water collection is especially fun - delving down into the water below a thick layer of ice another reminder of the amount the landscape changes throughout the seasons.

It begins to look different, too. After the first couple of days, after the pass, it opens up and there begins to be a sense we’re reaching civilisation. Snowmobiles with local people come and go to nearby villages, and more local tourists and visitors can be seen at each of the cabins we stay in. As we turn towards the Kebenkaise Mountain Station, our final days walk is difficult for the fact we all realise we’re nearly there. The body begins to relax and ache with knowing it’s all about to end, and there’s a sense of sadness that the snowshoes we took our first steps in a few days ago are about to come off for the last time.

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Tying the whole trip together is the feeling amongst us that we’re in a precious land. This landscape doesn’t belong to any of the people who work in the cabins, the people who maintain the trail so well or any of the many visitors that come here each year. It’s old native Sami land, place names and mountain names resonate with a Sami language that sounds like an amalgamation of Arctic Swedish and Finnish. The deep-rooted Sami ancestry here is hard to ignore, and walking through some of it brings a new understanding amongst us of how these lands are threatened.

Feeling the scale and quiet of the Arctic is something I think we should all strive to experience. It brings an otherworldly sensation - a feeling of peace, calm and fulfilment that no exposure to the mayhem of our everyday lives will bring us. 

Consistent physical exercise combined with a sense of detachment from our daily route was made so much more rewarding and enjoyable by the fantastic group I went with. I joined Adventurous Ewe for this trip. Find out more about their Kings Trail Arctic Snowshoe - trips run twice a year.

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