Kungsleden Trek Part 1 - Abisko to Singi, August 2-8 2016

From Saint Petersburg we flew to Stockholm for an overnight and stashing of luggage we wouldn't carry on our trek, then another flight brought us to an overnight in the tiny town of Abisko, far above the Arctic Circle. Abisko is immensely popular in the winter as one of the best places worldwide to see the northern lights. In the summer many visitors, like us, are setting off to hike some or all of the 440 kilometer Kungsleden trail, starting from its northern terminus.

Some details of the Kungsleden haven't been quite what we expected. We chose it partly so Emily could run every day, as she did last summer when we hiked England's Coast to Coast route. Although much of the trail isn't especially steep, it turns out the vast majority is rocky, muddy, or on narrow boardwalks across bogs. That was our first surprise. Second, perhaps because of the challenging trail conditions, many of the legs between the mountain huts are surprisingly short, especially given the mild elevation gains and losses. So we've ended up combining some legs (making for some rather long days), and we plan to complete in seven days what we intended originally to do in eleven. We've been hiking the most popular and perhaps most spectacular section, but with the extra four days we'll just keep walking. We'll exit the trail further south than planned; if all goes well, we should still be able to get public transportation to Kiruna for our flight back to Stockholm.

Despite Emily opting not to run given the trail conditions, we discovered that our hike coincided with the Fjallraven Classic, an annual pilgrimage-type event on the northernmost section that leads off with ultra-runners who complete the 110 kilometers in about 12 hours (second-to-last photo). The runners are followed by 2500 hikers of all ages, shapes, and nationalities, some of whom take a week or more to finish the route. (Trail gossip has it that Fjallraven tours from South Korea sell out in ten minutes.) Fortunately we crossed paths with the crowds only briefly (last photo).

The hut stops (e.g., photo 1) have varied significantly, from modern affairs with our own room to (more commonly) rustic buildings sharing a bunk-room with other hikers. All have a communal kitchen that's also used by tent-campers, some have a small shop to buy supplies, there's no electricity or running water, yet most have the one amenity that apparently tops the list in importance: The Sauna. Even in the more primitive huts, there's a separate sauna building comprised of a changing room, a washing room, then the sauna itself, all strategically located by a lake or stream for the obligatory post-sauna cold-water dunk. Hours are uniform and strict: 5:00-6:30 PM women, 6:30-8:00 PM men, 8:00-9:00 PM mixed. Clothing isn't optional; it just isn't!

The scenery has been stunning, with huge sweeping valleys and stark mountains (photos 2-5). Wildlife hasn't been a big feature, although one day we spotted a few small herds of caribou (a.k.a. reindeer, photo 6). The most difficult and dramatic day was a side trip to hike up Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest mountain. Unfortunately, like many days, the top of the mountain was socked in (photo 7, atop the small summit glacier), but we still enjoyed the hike and got some nice views lower down (photo 8). At the foot of the mountain is Kebnekaise Mountain Station, where we appreciated some real meals and a bit of wifi. (Otherwise our meals have been exclusively what we can buy in the occasional helicopter-supplied tiny shops -- pasta for every dinner, and crackers with Swedish cheese-in-a-tube for every lunch; photo 9.) The Mountain Station was fully booked months in advance, but the Swedish Tourist Association, which we joined, guarantees a roof overhead for every member. We spent the first night with other hikers on the floor of the "women's relaxation room" reached via The Sauna; the second night we lucked into real beds.

Next: Five more days of hiking to our revised exit point of Kvikkjokk, then back to Stockholm for a short visit before heading home.

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