On the third day of our six-day hike in Swedish Lapland, time stopped. We had crossed the 3,700-foot Tjäktja Pass and were making our way down the Tjäktjavagge, a vast, high valley worn smooth by the creep of ancient glaciers. Although it was summer, low clouds hid the peaks, and a biting headwind made us tuck our chins inside our jackets.
If ordinary wilderness can make you feel small, the Tjäktjavagge shrinks you into nonexistence. Though my husband, Nick, and I had been hiking for hours, we were no deeper into the valley, which continued to open before us in an endless grassy chute. Even a small waterfall that we’d judged from the pass to be perhaps an hour’s hike away, remained stubbornly distant—like a virtual reality simulation that had frozen at some point while we walked. The effect was so disconcerting that I began checking my watch every few minutes, just to reassure myself that the hands were actually moving.
I’d hiked the mountains of Colorado, British Columbia, and New Zealand, but this hike on the Kungsleden, a 275-mile trail that starts above the Arctic Circle, seemed to promise something more rare: an ancient wilderness that is still a working home for its earliest inhabitants. The Sami people had first come to Lapland (or Samiland, as it’s now officially called) 7,000 years ago, a small band of tough-minded nomads who migrated each season along with the reindeer across a swath of what is now northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia—outlasting both the endless arctic winters and several centuries of colonial invasion. Even now, when many Sami own guesthouses or lead snowmobile tours, they can strike the outsider as uncannily tough. One local cheerfully mentioned that he had once run in a single day the entire route of our six-day, 54-mile hike.
Our plan was to start at the Kungsleden Trail’s northern end—the tiny town of Abisko, 155 miles north of the Arctic Circle—and hike south along a chain of river valleys, turning west to finish at the base of Mount Kebne, Sweden’s highest peak. Along the way, we’d pass through a surreal array of landscapes: stunted birch forests, mile-long bogs bridged by planks, broad highlands whose folds hid bears, lynx, and wolverines. Streams in the area are so numerous and pure that some hikers don’t even bother to carry a water bottle, bringing just a cup to dip as they walk.
Happily, the route is also quite civilized. The Kungsleden is Sweden’s answer to the Appalachian Trail, with several thousand hikers a year on the most popular sections, and a pleasant set of accompanying amenities. Although the country’s rule of allemansrätten allows hikers to pitch a tent anywhere along the trail (there are no campgrounds), the route also has dormitory-style huts every six to 12 miles, with outhouses and propane stoves (though no electricity or running water). Some of the huts even have wood-fired saunas and small stores selling beer and canned food.
Unlike many places in the Arctic, the Kungsleden is relatively easy to get to—a quick commercial flight from Stockholm to the town of Kiruna, followed by a one-hour ride to Abisko on the Arctic Circle Train. From our home in Oakland, we marveled that in just hours we would be hiking the ends of the earth.
We arrived in Kiruna during a weeklong heat wave that had everyone talking. As we loaded up on cold bottled water in town, the cheerful grocery store clerk gestured to his heavy polyester uniform and matching hat and grinned. “When we see 30 degrees Celsius here, it usually has a minus sign in front,” he laughed. “This?”—he raised his eyebrows—“It’s crazy!”
Chugging water, I hurried off to meet up with Matti Berg, a Sami from the nearby village of Puoltsa. A burly man in tight black jeans and a fitted T-shirt, Berg grew up in a family of reindeer herders, but like many Sami he now runs his own ecotourism business (Ofelas, which leads horseback tours in the mountains). For the last four years, since being elected to the Sami Parliament—a government agency made up of Sami representatives elected by Sweden’s Sami population—he has also begun a campaign against the 10 active mines digging for ore in Lapland. Northern Sweden is rich in minerals, and Berg and others worry that additional excavation being proposed could threaten the area’s wilderness. “It’s very short-term thinking,” Berg said worriedly, as he fiddled with his iPhone. “You can take minerals from the ground for maybe 15 years, but then the area is destroyed forever.” Related:Article
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Still, he acknowledged, some things have gotten better. The Sami Parliament has given them more visibility, and there is a growing appreciation in Sweden for the value of wilderness. There are also some signs that the Sami culture, which has dwindled after centuries of repression, may be slowly reviving. Sami-language schools have opened in five towns, and an ancient form of Sami song known as yoik is on the rise. In the town of Jokkmokk, a local Sami chef holds seasonal bear-meat dinners, with the promise of “initiating diners into the mystery that surrounds bears.”
Though the appeal of an all-bear-meat dinner seemed to perplex Berg (“I ate bear once. My grandfather slaughtered it and boiled it. It was awful.”), he saw it as evidence of a promising trend. If people were willing to pay good money to eat bear meat, after all, the reindeer-meat market was sure to rebound. (“Reindeer is very healthy meat. Very low-fat!”) Even the fact that a growing number of Sami were choosing to live in the city didn’t seem to worry him. “There are other careers besides reindeer herding that let you stay in touch with your cultural values,” he said. Gesturing toward a large mine in the distance, he gave me a dry smile. “We need a lot of good lawyers, for example.”
After a fitful sleep, we caught the morning train to Abisko and started our hike. At first, the trail was easy and flat, unfurling through a forest of stunted white birch. While I had expected the landscape to be tundra-barren, it was improbably lush: full of shady glades and mossy pools. At this latitude, the trees were small and curiously twisted; some trunks had grown sideways in sprawling corkscrews, or upward in tight, vertical loops, as though pruned by a dizzy Cirque du Soleil arborist. Overhead, the sun wandered around the sky like a lost hiker, never quite managing to find the horizon.
As we hiked, we steadily stripped off layers. Though some online posts had warned about summertime crowds, after 10 miles we had passed just three other couples, plus a lone Swedish woman in her 60s who exclaimed over the good weather. We reached our overnight hut just in time to see a double rainbow arc brightly over the receding trail, and spent the afternoon swimming in a placid lake nearby and foraging in the hut’s tiny store.
With what seemed to be gentle malice, the hut warden assigned us to the bunks closest to the kitchen, where, for the next six hours, pots clanked and the door opened and slammed shut as 30-odd hikers went through their evening routines. Our bunk mate, a huge, hairy man who arrived carrying a six-pack of beer, began the night by stripping down, then proceeded to fry up pan after pan of canned sausages in nothing but his briefs. With only a foot between bunks, I regularly looked up from my book into a tight-angle shot of Captain Underpants’ junk as he bent over to root for something in his pack. Not long after finishing dinner, he passed out flat on his back and snored deafeningly through the night. At 3 a.m., unable to sleep, we decided to pack up and get back on the trail.
If we were tempted, that morning, to feel sorry for ourselves, we couldn’t keep it up. Besides the epic scenery, there were all the small reminders that these wild mountains, which we were crossing with the help of well-maintained trails, huts, and wood-fired saunas, had been home to the Sami for thousands of years before the arrival of these niceties. And plenty of locals have vivid stories of what those days were like. Anna Sarri, a third-generation Sami local who runs a guesthouse, told me a few days later that she grew up hearing tales from her grandfather about tracking his reindeer through the snow and dark of the arctic winter, sleeping wherever the herd chose to linger. “In the old time, the reindeer gave us food, protection, transportation, everything,” Anna said. “It was part of our identity.” She brought out a black-and-white photo of her grandfather from 1910, showing a scrappy, weathered man with a tall shepherd’s staff, surrounded by mountains. “Every day, life was like this,” she said, shaking her head. “We couldn’t cope today. We couldn’t survive what they did.”
The soreness of our feet became the only way to tell whether we’d been walking for an hour or a day.
Over the next few days, we fell into a rhythm, rising early—often around 4 a.m.—and reaching each hut just as most other hikers were leaving. (A Canadian couple later admitted they had started calling us “the mysterious Americans” for our tendency to vanish while everyone else was still asleep.)
Though the arctic sun was always up—in July, it set for just a single twilit hour each night—the mornings were quiet. As we picked our way across the stony ground, we regularly startled ptarmigan, chicken-like birds that would burst out of the bushes, haplessly trailed by their fluffy chicks. Higher up, the ptarmigan vanished, replaced by lean, white arctic terns, long-distance flyers so sleek and angular they seemed to have been cut from a fresh sheet of paper.
At times, the emptiness could be disorienting. The valleys we crossed were wide and so straight that, with binoculars, we could often see our entire day’s journey from our morning start. In the unvarying daylight, the soreness of our feet became the only way to tell whether we’d been walking for an hour or a day. It felt as though we were hiking through the world as it was 10 million years ago.
The few signs of humanity we did pass mostly belonged to the Sami. The fjälls are reindeer country, and our route occasionally led past tightly constructed wood cabins and beehive-shaped goahti, turf huts that Sami herders use as shelters when the reindeer migrate to new grazing grounds.
One day, we shaved six miles off a 19-mile hike by catching a ride with a Sami herder who runs a boat shuttle for hikers. The pilot of the boat, Roland Enoksson, was affable if taciturn; with his weathered face and cool gaze, he reminded me of a Sami Harrison Ford.
As we crossed Alesjaure Lake, Enoksson explained that he spends much of his year in the mountains, caring for his herds as they migrate; he started the boat shuttle in 1999 as a way to make some extra money. He pointed to a cluster of tidy wood houses, painted a dark red, where local families stay during the early summer calf-marking. “When I was young, there were no houses in the mountainous area—only goahtis and tipis,” Enoksson said wistfully. “And most didn’t use snowmobiles—we had our legs and very good dogs.”
When I asked Enoksson whether he spoke Sami (few locals still do), he nodded: “To work with reindeer, you must.” Sami has a specialized vocabulary for herding, one that allows a herder to quickly describe one individual reindeer from among a running herd of thousands. “If the animal is a darker color, with a small amount of white on face, and the horns a particular shape—we can say all that in one word,” he explained.
Though Enoksson was polite enough, I got the impression he does not delight in the hikers who tramp through his family grazing land, despite the visitors’ outlandish willingness to pay $50 just to avoid walking another six miles. After dropping us at the hut, he mentioned pointedly that he planned to spend the rest of the afternoon chopping wood in preparation for winter. Then he stood expectantly as we dug out our wallets. “This is my favorite part,” he said with a grin.
We crossed the highest point of our hike, the Tjäktja Pass, the following day. Most hikers opt to skip the Tjäktja hut, because it has no store or sauna and the distance to it is comparatively short, but it turned out to be our favorite. In the kitchen, tiny birch-bark vases had been filled with dried spring flowers, and the walls were covered in blurry photos of the wolverines and lemmings that roam the pass. Related:List
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The hut warden, Lena Lopate, poured us cups of bright red lingonberry juice, then left us chatting with a Slovakian father and his three teenage sons, who had come in from the rain for lunch. Though the boys had spent much of their lunch break taping up blisters, the family seemed happy to be having an adventure. After packing a heavy thermos of boiled coffee, the eldest son shook my hand and earnestly wished us a good trip, then merrily followed his brothers back out into the drizzle.
We changed into dry clothes and climbed a high ridge behind the hut under a freshly blue sky. With no trail to follow, our trajectory was steep and occasionally treacherous, shot through with slick summer snowbanks. The climb took almost an hour, but when we finally crested the ridge, the view opened as though we’d stepped through a celestial door. To the west, we could see all the way to Norway, where a panorama of towering mountains sprawled, pillowy with snow, above a vast floodplain trailed through by a sinuous pale blue river. Looking out, I felt an inexplicable urge to kneel, as though before an immense and ancient presence. For the first time, I understood why the Sami once believed their mountains to be inhabited by gods.
The next day, by contrast, was a slog. After a long hike over a rocky trail, we reached our penultimate hut, Sälka, a little after noon. Since that first sleepless night with Captain Underpants, I’d become as territorial as a badger: We would arrive early to secure the room with the fewest bunks (usually four) and anxiously shut the door to deflect would-be roommates. That strategy had paid off. For two nights running, we’d had a room to ourselves. In the process, though, we had remained stubbornly outside the huts’ cheery United Nations culture, a chatty fraternity where strangers shared stories over instant pasta dinners. We had become the North Korea of hikers.
But now, with the bulk of the route behind us, I felt bolder. Lingering in the kitchen, we chatted with a Canadian TV producer and his Swedish wife, then were joined by Johan and Cathleen, a young couple from the Swedish coastal city of Gothenburg. Cathleen seemed cheerful and earnest, Johan entertainingly gruff and dour. When I mentioned how delightful it was to be able to drink water straight from the streams without filtering it, Johan replied flatly, “Unless a reindeer has died upstream.” Gradually, though, he warmed up. After Cathleen remarked that Thursday is the traditional day for Swedish families to eat pea soup and pancakes together, Johan added that he spends Friday evenings with his family, as most Swedes do. “We call it Fredagsmys, Friday Cozy Time,” he explained bashfully.
I joined Cathleen and the other women in the wood-fired sauna. Though Nick later reported that the men’s session had been packed and rowdy, all the men drinking beer and making barefoot runs to the icy river, where they would splash each other with bearlike grunts, the women’s session was pleasantly convivial. A mother teased her daughter for not remembering her towel, and a French woman confessed, with a blush, that she was “not so familiar” with this kind of collective nudity.
One roundly built woman returned from her dunk in the stream, sat down next to me, and pressed an icy palm to my chest with a happy laugh. After a week of solitude and smallness—of vanishing into the vastness of the Kungsleden—the gesture was so warm, so welcoming, that I felt I suddenly understood both the purpose of the hut sauna, and the deeper question of why human beings banded together in the first place.
Although the crowded life of our modern cities and neighborhoods often obscures it, the truth is that the world was once a vast and alien territory, and our place in it vanishingly small. Thousands of years ago, when the Sami first walked these mountains, that awareness would have been unavoidable, inescapable. But even now it was possible to experience it: to return to humanity’s early days, when we were isolated tribes wandering a wild and indifferent earth.
Though the feeling wouldn’t last—in just days, we’d be on a plane, bound for California—that night, at least, I was grateful for the heat and press of bodies, for the company and good cheer. The world may be wide, but it was a relief to know that we weren’t alone in it.
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Jennifer Kahn Jennifer Kahn is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and has been a regular feature writer for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and Wired, among others. Her work has been selected for the Best American Science Writing series four times, and has explored subjects ranging from the “rational self-help” movement in Silicon valley, to the challenge of identifying and treating child psychopaths. Since 2009, she has taught in the Magazine Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and was a visiting Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton in 2015. Her 2016 TED talk on CRISPR and gene drives has been viewed more than 1.4 million times, and was named one of the top TED talks of 2016 by conference organizers.