The original plan
I was researching hiking trails one day at lunch because that’s a thing I do sometimes. When I read about this one trail in Sweden, it quickly became a small obsession. Do a solo thru hike. A walkabout. Do it somewhere far away. Hike the King’s Trail. Hike Kungsleden.
300 miles, 10 miles a day. One month without a warm shower, without a real bed, without WiFi, without shampoo. With frequent rain and shin-deep mud, with mosquito swarms, with sore legs and blisters. With sweeping vistas, snow-capped blue mountains, crystal clear lakes, endless valleys of wildflowers, and the rare treat of a cloudberry. With myself, myself, myself, my mind and my self. It scared me. So I had to do it.
Kungsleden in Sweden sounded to me like an ideal first thru hike: clean, accessible STA mountain huts along the trail, drinking water readily available straight from glacial streams – no filter needed, wandering reindeer and moose, the high likelihood of not seeing another human for days – real solitude, a well-marked and well-maintained trail. A fairly easy hike in all, as far as 300 mile hikes go, and then the best part: hiking with the concept of Allemansrätt, or Right of Public Access, in place all over Scandinavia.
Allemansrätt means you can hike and camp anywhere in the country, with the exceptions of not in private gardens, not too near a dwelling and not on land being cultivated. (Don’t pitch your tent in the barley field.) This Scandinavian concept of freedom to roam is deeply appealing to me. Imagine throwing up your tent on the side of the trail without having to find a designated camping spot, or right on the edge of a cliff, or next to a mirror-like cerulean lake in dense green grass, wherever you want to sleep, free. This privilege comes with the Leave No Trace responsibility, AKA the Don’t be an Asshole rule of thumb: pack your trash out with you – all of it, yes even that; don’t disturb the wildlife; take with you only photos and memories.
I studied maps, read blogs and books on what to expect, how to pack for the hike, when to go, what to watch out for, budgeting, which trail sections had what, if there were bears near the trail (short answer: no), how to get there. I studied train timetables and bus schedules and regional precipitation averages. I hungrily eyed Osprey backpacks on Amazon. I researched the most effective mosquito repellents and read conflicting reports on how to cross lakes as a solo hiker. One word kept popping up: Abisko. You gotta see Abisko. Make a side trip off-trail to Abisko National Park, you won’t regret it.
Abisko enters the equation
What is this Abisko place? Abisko National Park is an incredibly beautiful area in northern Sweden and is also the northern terminus of the Kungsleden trail, or King’s Trail. I mean it, it’s gorgeous. Ancient forests, waterfalls, valleys and gorges, huge rock formations, mountains, abundant and truly wild wildlife. Wild like the Black Forest, wild like parts of rural Romania. Wolverines, wolves, golden eagles and lynx live here.
That time I booked a cottage in the wrong country
Two days ago, I got on AirBnB and searched “Abisko” for stays, skeptical there’d be anything. But a little cottage popped up, a tiny house really, on the edge of a fjord in this little bitty picturesque port town. Affordable and only a 1 hr drive from Abisko National Park or 1 hour by the train. I grabbed it immediately without reading the fine print. (This sometimes-impulsive nature of mine helps keep my trips interesting – you’ll see.) It is an adorable cottage, yes…
… but it’s actually in Norway.
Happily, the Swedish border is only a 30 minute drive away from the cottage. Norway is very narrow that far north next to Sweden, like Chile is next to Argentina near Antarctica. After some panicked Googling, I learned that the border control between Sweden and Norway is lax, random, efficient and friendly. Often on the train, the only way you’ll know you crossed the border is an announcement. So, OK. All good. Going to Norway I guess.
Lemme back up
Some backstory might be helpful here. I went to Czechia and Munich over Christmas and while I am so glad I went and had incredible experiences, it was anything but relaxing. Lost luggage, sickness, bad weather and some ill planning on my part combined to make it one of the most stressful trips I’ve ever taken. I was tired and stretched thin both emotionally and financially when I got back. A 300-mile hike in July sounded like the opposite of what I needed. It sounded like a death march through paradise.
If I ever do hike Kungsleden and write a book about it, it will be entitled Death March Through Paradise.
Talking myself out of a thru hike: the new plan
Why hike all the way up to Abisko for a month when I can take the night train and be there in 18 hours? I can still experience Abisko without all the death-marching, and I can still get some hiking in.
My new goal with this Scandinavian trip – after I got back exhausted from Central Europe a few weeks ago and ditched the thru hike idea – was to simply relax. I was going to Sweden no matter what. What I was going to do in Sweden was the change: rent a house next to some water in a way-far-off location, somewhere random and tiny and impossibly beautiful in Sweden above the arctic circle, and write. (Except, you know, I rented a house in Norway.) Do nothing but write, sleep, and maybe some low-key wandering. Just be in Scandinavia for a while. Roam the primeval woods. Be far, far away. See what’s what in that part of the universe.
So much for relaxing
However, I am me, and I cannot Do Nothing, even on vacation. So I am starting to plan. These plans will inevitably morph into new plans and some other plans will get ditched entirely to make room for spontaneity. I will miss a train at some point. A flight will be delayed and I will have to run through an airport, cussing. I will get lost many times. I will be stressed and not know how things work. I will have a hard time getting basic needs met every day. I will try to be a considerate and polite guest with my broken Swedish and Norwegian and many apologies while also feeling irritated, tired, hungry and in desperate, desperate need of good coffee.
Love for Scandinavia
My experience in Iceland taught me that Scandinavians are some of the most polite, genuinely kind and helpful people on earth. (This was not always the case in Czechia.) I am privileged in that I look like a local.
On two separate occasions, an Icelander came up to me chattering away in Icelandic in Reykjavik, mistaking me for a local. When I opened my mouth and started speaking English with an American accent back to them, to a one their faces immediately changed from eager to disappointed. They switched to perfect English but their tones became overly formal and all business in a British sort of manner, and where there was once an openness about them, they were now closed to me. A subtle shift, and there was nothing I could do about it. They were still polite and helpful, but not friendly like they were before.
The tourist experience
I will encounter some hostility surely again because I am 1) American and 2) a tourist, and I will not be offended – I get it. But it will still make me sad. This will then reignite my resolve to be kinder and more patient with the tourists that visit my own tourist destination hometown when I get back. And I will be, for a while. Until the travel sheen wears off and the scope of my world shrinks back to the size of daily life. Then I will know it is time to start planning the next trip in earnest.
Surfers, plus Chile enters the scene as a possibility
I hope to make new friends and meet fellow travelers along the way. Narvik is near the northernmost surfing spot in the world. Maybe I’ll meet some surfers. Always did have a thing for surfers. The fun part for me is not knowing what will happen. Planning – and then watching those plans crumble in real time – is also part of the adventure.
That said, I still plan to hike, but instead of a 30 day grueling thru hike, I will take day and half-day hikes around Abisko and other areas, and I’ll do some kayaking and exploring around the Lofoten beaches. No walkabout this time. I’m thinking South America might be a better place for that.
Staying in touch and the book
I plan to update this blog daily with photos and written content, but I’ll be pretty remote and so may not have reliable WiFi every day. I’ll update when possible; keeping these pages is an important part of the trip. Please feel free to comment and message me as much as you like. It would be great to hear from friends while I’m in the remote north. My hope is this blog will serve as the basis for a book eventually. We’ll see.
My temporary Norway home situation
My cottage home base is in Narvik, Norway, run by a couple named Rosa and Rune. (Rune!) It is a half day’s drive (and oh, what a drive!) from the Lofoten Islands and about 4 hours due south via plane from Svalbard (where there are definitely bears).
Skipping Hammerparty and the ice bear warriors – this time
Sadly, it’s too far south to visit Hammerfest, Norway — a town I keep wanting to call Hammerparty — a town that might have the most metal name ever. I’m not planning on Svalbard either, due to time constraints and the difficulty getting there. Only a few flights a week go to Svalbard from a town 2 hrs north of Narvik, little 8-seater Cessnas like I took over northern Iceland. Odin help you if you miss your plane back.
Jag är inte isbjörnmat!
I am not polar bear food!
Narvik in broad strokes
Narvik is an old Viking settlement that dates back to the Bronze Age. It sits 140 miles inside the arctic circle. It has an ice-free port and exported iron from Sweden during WWII. It is home to roughly 18,000 souls. What is it like to live in Narvik, Norway? I hope to find out, at least a little.
Tentative travel agenda
My agenda is shaping up to look like this:
- Days 1-2: Fly to Stockholm
- I might have a layover in Reykjavik, but not sure yet.
- Day 2: Spend the night in Stockholm underneath bed covers sleeping, eating overpriced room service food and watching Swedish TV, recovering from that long-ass flight
- Day 3-4: Take night train 18 hrs north to Narvik, the end of the rail line, more or less the entire length of Sweden, seeing the sights along the way. I will be renting myself a whole 3-person sleeper car w/ key access so I don’t have to drag my luggage everywhere I go on the train.
- Days 4-14: Pick up the rental SUV and stay in or near Narvik a total of 10 days
- 2 of those 10 days, stay in Lofoten Islands: one night in Flakstad, one night in Moskenes
- Day 15-16: Drop off the SUV and take the night train all the way back to Stockholm
- Day 16: Spend one night in Stockholm in a hotel near the airport probably
- Day 17-18: Come home.
The more I look at this timeline, the more tired I feel. I think I’ll add a day or two on either end and see some of southern Sweden to break up the travel.
Logistics and money
I’ve got the car reserved, two “hotel” rooms in Lofoten (one is a room in a B&B right on the beach and one is a rorbu, an old fisherman’s cabin), and the tiny house in Narvik. I still need to buy the plane ticket and train ticket and the hotel rooms in Stockholm. I have 5 months left to grab those and stack up some spending cash.
More research and defining the trip scope
I do plan on visiting the Viking Museum (how could I not?), which has the largest Viking structure ever found in Scandinavia. Unfortunately I will not be there for the Viking Festival in August, which looks absolutely epic. I do want to visit and photograph A, the town with the shortest name in the world (shared by other towns named A). Polar Park, the northernmost animal park in the world, is something I will see. Gotta meet Bor the Wolverine. I’m learning Swedish on Duolingo. It’s going okay. Better than trying to learn Czech. Czech is beautiful but very difficult for me to learn.
Sami people and stabbings by the fire
I plan to do a lot of driving. I want to see Lappland and learn about the reindeer-herding Sami people, perhaps on a day trip guided cultural tour. Right now I’m reading about their history and also their legends and fairy tales. I think reading a people’s fairy tales is an interesting way to begin to know them. What scares you? What do you worship? What do you seek to overcome? What makes you feel safe? What is home? I started reading By the Fire last night and I have to say, there’s a lot of stabbing going on so far, stabbing and the devil and the hidden people and giants and reindeer. I like it.
Weather, sleep and midnight sun
Lofoten is warmer than other areas on the same latitude (68th – 69th parallels), like 40 degrees warmer, thanks to the Gulf Stream. I’m expecting temps of mid to high 50s during the day in mid-July and low 40s at night in Narvik and vicinity. And of course, I will have the midnight sun. Great for packing a lot of adventure in, not so great for sleeping or remembering to eat.
Luckily I have experience with this already from my Iceland trip last summer and I know what to expect (and I already have all the gear). A good sleeping mask is mandatory, as well as ear plugs/ear buds for music and the ever-indispensable melatonin 12 mgs, or a higher dose if you can find it. The birds started chirping to herald the rising sun at 3AM every night I was in Iceland last year. I love birds, but damn.
In Czechia, I never got over my jet lag and was awake at 3-4AM every morning. Nothing was open until 8 or 9AM in the winter, not even cafes or diners. The sun didn’t come up til 8:30AM. My melatonin was in my lost luggage. Like I said, stressful. Melatonin goes in the carry-on from now on.
Retro blogging is happening
I wish I’d kept a blog like this in Iceland last summer and in Bohemia over Christmas. C’est la vie. I will continue to update the layout and functionality of this site so that it’s easy to use. WordPress is drastically different now. Still getting used to the block editor. Some posts may not nest correctly. You can read about my past adventures in the meantime if you like, as soon as I start posting them. Thanks for being patient with the process. A blog worth reading is a lot of work.
I love Scandinavia. They do everything better than us in the US except for food. The food is not the best, but everything else is pretty much perfect, I think. This is my love letter to Scandinavia.