Hiking at The Arctic Circle
The Arctic Circle. The name alone perhaps conjures up images of intrepid explorers and expeditions rather than holidays. However, a hike along Kungsleden combines the two.
Kungsleden, or The King’s Trail, is a 440km-long hiking trail running south from Abisko in Swedish Lapland, to Hemavan. When it was formed at the beginning of the 20th century, by the then-newly created Swedish Tourism Association (STF), the aim was to construct a royal road with tourist stations along its route, and to allow the Swedish public access to the Lapone Mountains.
Over a hundred years on, the popularity of the trail is at an all-time high with a widespread resurgence in outdoor pursuits permeating popular culture.
Once a well-kept secret of Sweden’s hiking and mountaineering elite, the trail is now enjoyed by ramblers from all over the world. There are currently 20 huts along the trail, each a feasible day’s walk apart, offering basic, affordable accommodation to anyone who doesn’t want to camp – negating therefore the need to carry heavy and expensive camping gear.
Starting in Abisko at the northern trailhead, the first 100km leads gradually uphill, with a day or so of hiking in lower, forested areas before reaching open, alpine tundra. Here, the ground is mostly packed mud and rocks, but damper areas have boardwalks. The entire trail is clearly marked with red paint, on tree trunks at the start, and later on, on prominent rocks. Add to this the fact that the trail follows deep valleys, and you would find it a struggle to lose your way.
Traversing the alpine landscape and passing only a few other hikers each day, staying in dorm rooms often alone or with very few roommates each night, the whole hike has the peaceful feeling of the season winding down.
At Alesjaure, you’ll find a chalet favored by many for its elevated position and 360-degree views over the lakes and tundra that surround it.
Station wardens Mats and Katerina maintain a close seasonal friendship with Roland Enoksson, a Sami reindeer herder who operates the optional boat service that shaves 7km off the trail to the north of Alesjaure. A few days into September he takes down his yellow flags, gets his boat out of the water and heads back to Kiruna.
By this time, he’s been alone for a month in the Sami settlement that lies across the lake from Alesjaure. With the rest of his village having left with the reindeer, he stays behind to run the ferry.
“It isn’t lonely, I have been doing it for so many years now, you get used to it,” Enoksson says.
He has only positive things to say about the increase in popularity of the Kungsleden trail. “We are up here with the reindeer all summer. One day some hikers came across to the village from Alesjaure and asked me to take them across by boat, because they were tired or late. They paid me, and as people kept asking, I eventually made a timetable and stuck it on a notice board. Now I do trips all day long over most of the summer,” Enoksson says.
“Now my children are older I don’t have to panic and rush, because they can brand the reindeer while I run the boat. It means a lot to me to meet people from all over the world,” he adds.
Despite the remoteness of the area, Enoksson isn’t exaggerating about the diversity of the hikers here. The majority are Swedish and Norwegian, but in the sauna every night, sitting in the steam and chatting with other hikers about the conditions of the trail ahead or behind, you are likely to meet Germans, Belgians, Americans and Brits.
Hikers fly up to Abisko – 250km inside the Arctic Circle – and head south. They walk up mountains, over frothing river gorges, across blustery alpine paths and often through horizontal rain, but it’s clear why the trail still appeals to so many.
In an increasingly small world, where everything is available quicker and closer, being out there and alone, with no roads, no phone signal and no selfie sticks, the world feels large again.
In fact, it feels enormous.
With mountains rising up on either side of you and valley floors vanishing below, every time you crest a rise, your world feels epic, and it’s you that feels small.
At the same time, it’s also glorious that the world is so small now, because you can fly to the Arctic within a few hours from any major European city. Hannes, a civil servant from Hamburg drove this point home. “A Swedish friend invited me to come and hike some of the Kungsleden route. I was supposed to finish tomorrow, but my company called a budget meeting, so I will be back in the office this afternoon.”
Proximity to the great outdoors can be both a blessing and a curse. Either way, the Arctic Circle remains close to those keen to enjoy it, and while the trail is popular, it’s still easy to enjoy the walk and the surrounding wildlife in relative solitude.
Text: Nick Warner