Looking back from Norway, Staloluokta to Sulitjelma
Everything comes to an end. Either you leave it, or it leaves you. This is the reality of life and it is not such a bad thing.
It happened quickly. It always does. I can almost point to the actual step that took me from our own world, a couple travelling alone in the mountains, united in our shared company and isolation, back to where the all-consuming, unimportant things in life resume control of time.
It came with my first sight of the drained hydroelectric storage dam whose thirty-metredeep, barren muddy banks we would follow for three hours on our last day. In the Pyrenees we became immune to this side-effect of hydro power generation. It was common but much less imposing. But here, until that step, every lake after our crossing from Ritsem had been a pristine one.
Our last camp was on the grey silt and gravel bank of a partially frozen lake. It was the first time in the entire journey that we did not pitch our small tent on a carpet of arctic ground cover, plants that cushion sleep, clean your feet and soak up tea leaves thrown through an open tent flap, no trace remaining.
Let me take you there.
We camped here because it is high, yes, but really because, two hundred metres across the lake from our tent, stacked and fractured towers of corroding blue ice tweeter at the snout of the Sulitjelmaisen glacier, Salajiegna in Sami, before crashing into the water. An arc of peaks with sheer rock faces and summits close to two thousand metres form the backdrop to this and the neighbouring Sulitjelma glacier just out of sight across the ridge to our right, to the east. This is a dramatic place.
The small end of our tent is almost in Norway, pointed towards threatening black skies thickening across the border this evening. As a precaution I have put out all the tent guys and, because the pegs hardly hold in this soft ground not yet completely dried from recent snowmelt, I have placed heavy rocks over them, and on the fabric valances, flaps sewn to the edge of this expedition version tent whose design I developed almost forty years ago. Whatever weather sails up the valley from Norway to assault us here, we will be secure.
Now I can relax. We have come to terms with our decision to make this place our last camp, taken the steps to ensure our comfort and security and it is time to look around.
The lake between us and the glacier is extraordinary and I have not found an explanation for the ice pattern on its surface. There are six or so alternate bands of ice and calm water, each about ten or twenty metres wide and parallel to the glacier face.
The bands of calm water hold slices of a perfect reflection of the ice wall and the peaks above, exactly as if I am looking through a Venetian blind. I walk around on the grey dirt and descend the slope to the soft, silty lake shore to change the way these bands dissect the scene, to place the reflection of Knekten's summit just where I want it. A small bird, chirping noisily, follows me rock to rock, sampling the airborne mosquito life present even in this desolate place. We have seen this bird, of size and habit identical to our wagtails, throughout these mountains. They have just the same non-stop nervous energy but it is probably not related.
I have been taking photos for some time. The black sky in Norway has now drifted off north, something of a relief, looking for other mountains to run aground on. The evening sun in its low trajectory has replaced it, coming and going with the cumulus clouds following in the wake of the storm. The light on the lake and in the sky has recovered that brilliant arctic quality. Despite the greyness surrounding us this is an extraordinarily beautiful place. It is not the blue ice across the water that plays the lead role in that perception, it is everything that has seeped into our combined consciousness during our eighteen days walking here.
We started out from Staloluokta on the second part of our journey. After our rest day there it took only a few steps before we were back in stride, heads back in navigation mode, every rock of the terrain, every root or patch of mud slipping behind under our footfalls individually assessed in an instant for steadiness, angle and grip, or in the case of the mud, for depth. Whether walking along reindeer pads, on this well-worn Padjelantaleden path or on spruce boardwalk planks, a good look up at the scenery usually results in some type of stumble, for me anyway. It is best to stop first and having my camera has helped me with that.
Others had set out in our direction before us. No one told us when to run. They got going while we found grateful recipients for the unwanted drybags from our food drop and climbed to look at the Sami church on the hillside above the settlement. It is built in the style of their traditional turf-covered, birch branch dwellings, the goahti, conical in shape and with a vent at the apex for smoke. The floor each side of a centre aisle is covered with reindeer skins. The top opening is covered by climbing the wooden ladder resting against the outside of the building.
Our day off must have done us good. We overtook most of the early starters at the bridge, a little under halfway along the nineteen kilometres to the next STF accommodation, Duottar. It was mostly uphill and our days in Sarek must have improved our fitness.
When we reached the high plateau the path became a series of ups and downs and twists and turns around small lakes and hills, the work of ice in erratic retreat. You lose track of progress in this micro terrain. The afternoon seemed twice as long as the morning. Eventually Duottar came into view, a cluster of small buildings on the hillside beyond a wide, stoney river crossing. We would find out that this was not another cluster of Sami summer huts as I had been thinking but a different, more agreeable accommodation format to the single building kitchen-living room-bunkrooms lodge arrangement. All the individual cabins had their own gas cooking facilities and solar PV gear.
We pulled up short to pitch the tent on the flat shoulder of a rocky rise a few metres above an icy lake, leaving the boots-off creek crossings for the morning. The second crossing was out-of-sight from our tent and came as a surprise after we had got across the first one.
After the crossings and while climbing up through the cluster of cabins we saw just how nice this stopover was. And then we were gone, off around more lakes and hillocks to a lunch stop on the crest of the descent down to a long valley. The Pajelantaleden follows this south-easterly descending valley over another four or five days to its end at Kvikkjokk. Not long after we arrived at its floor the path cuts across a small corner of Sarek National Park, for less than a few hundred metres, not that one would know. As humans we are fond of drawing lines on maps, just as we are fond of making ill-informed decisions in air-conditioned offices. I think we generally fail to acknowledge and care for the continuity in country.
We camped in the late afternoon a few kilometres beyond the next cluster of cabins, Darreluoppal, having paused there to restock with dried reindeer meat. I would struggle to describe that exquisite, smokey flavour so I won't attempt to. I fear it might put me into the same category, the same class of bullshit artists that dream up fanciful descriptions for the back label on wine bottles, especially those brews more suited to the plastic-coated aluminium bag. You will just have to wait your turn to try it.
Our camp was on a small flat amongst rocky ground high above the track. We had our own little waterfall and a view down to the river. To settle for less on any day would have been to give in prematurely to impatience or aching shoulders.
Not long into the following day we found ourselves looking down on a small lake. The sun was shining, the lake looked perfect and our skin was screaming at us to get into the water, whatever the temperature, and scrub off days of slime: the accumulation of sweat, two types of insect repellent, sunscreen, dust, blood and other body fluids from slapped-down mosquitoes. This sort of contaminated skin, especially on a warm night or overheated in the sac, makes getting to sleep very hard. That the sun spends so little time below the horizon means that temperatures built up during the day do not fall quickly, or far at all over ‘night’.
We washed our clothes as well and then lay in the warmth of the sunshine until the newfound freshness of our bodies called us back to action. As I have said before, I know of no more effective remedy to tired and sore muscles than immersion in cold water.
Just get in and stay there, as long as you can.
The river was widening and, visible in the valley below, was increasingly dense birch forest. Its little, winged inhabitants would be lying in wait to ambush us. A climb out, back to high ground couldn’t come soon enough.
At Sammarlahpa the warden, busy transferring high stacks of metre-long birch to the winter woodshed, paused to chat and throw a spanner into our works. We explained our route, to continue down valley another ten kilometres then turn west and climb out up the Guravagge on our final run towards Norway. We would follow the much-less-travelled Nordkalottleden for a while. He suggested instead that we cross the river right where we stood, using the boat on a continuous rope loop strung across the river there, then climb back away from the river on the opposite bank. He pointed to the black mountainside cliff high up there, overlooking the opening of the Fierrovagge. We saw this valley as without doubt a very tempting high-level, trackless shortcut to where we would be in a few days. It looked challenging and interesting, much more so than our next ten kilometres.
The problem was that it would have probably cut a day off our journey and only added to the time we would not need to be travelling in each of the days ahead. We had already spent more time in the tent than we would like. That was a particular problem for me who forgot to pack a book. What was I thinking? In place of that I have been studying the map and have almost memorised both its sides, while Peta has sunk deep into her e-reader French books the instant an empty moment has presented itself. The most frustrating thing for me, with my brain being flooded with all sorts of thoughts in these many idle hours, is that I now depend on a ‘word processor’ to write and my phone battery lasts only about ten hours under this use. There is a limit to how long one can comfortably sustain being propped on an elbow, scribbling on the blank back of our home-printed back-up maps.
We said goodbye to the warden and continued down through the birch, kilometre after kilometre, adding layers of repellent every half-hour or so. There was no place to camp, no remission in the soggy riverside forest. It looked hopeless. We were not being bitten but the clouds of mozzies before our eyeballs blocked the view up the path ahead.
Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, we broke out of the forest onto a big area of open rocky ground, of smooth ridges, narrow, intervening fens and a small cluster of birch here and there. After some hunting around we eventually found a flat rock surface and made what turned out to be a beautiful, elevated camp. Miraculously, it was comparatively mosquito-free. The stream in which we could collect water was some way ahead down the track but that was the small price we had to pay here. We only need one trip to get enough water for the evening meal and breakfast. There were open views in all directions and the high mountain ridge to the east meant we would not be cooked out of the tent before seven in the morning, probably a little later.
It was not long the next day before we reached the mapped suspension bridge across the river. Here the river is conveniently pinched down between two large rock outcrops on opposite banks. Across the bridge we climbed some three hundred metres swiftly up to a glorious, high view over the lake down the valley. We were now well above the tree line and it was time for lunch.
Beyond here the valley gradient became more gentle. Rounding the mountainside we had climbed up over we continued sidling for another kilometre to converge on the valley's boisterous watercourse. This we then followed for several hours, our eyes often lifting to review the darkening thunderstorm in the sky ahead. It was building up around Staika, a dramatic, isolated peak on the south side of our valley, just under eighteen
hundred metres in height and one of Sweden’s notables. Thunder would boom out from across the ridge and behind the clouds. Soon the storm was overhead and we were still a few kilometres short of our objective, a lake in the upper valley. There was still some climbing to be done.
It is foolish to keep travelling in the mountains when electric fields have built to discharge intensity. I remember an incident years ago in the Snowy Mountains, under a heavy black sky over the Toolong Plains, when one of our ski-touring party held his stock up to wave goodbye as he and three others peeled off to head home. He told us later that he had felt a tingle in his palm then looked and saw sparks jumping from the pole grip to his skin.
It was this, not the beginning of the steady, heavily-splashing raindrops that saw us step off the track, quickly set up the tent and lay low for the rest of the day. The storm carried on overhead for nearly three hours. I slept through most of it. The next I knew was Peta's watch sounding the dinner alarm, our precaution to make sure we don't drop off for the night. That sort of thing happens more easily as the years pile up, especially
after a big day. That alarm is my signal to zip away the front wall of the inner tent, unclip and pull back the floor at my front corner, rise up on an elbow and fire up the stove.
Over the next two days we travelled on a high level route with fabulous, distant views past curtains of rain and overlapping mountainsides. For some of it we threaded our way through glacial rubble, a barren landscape, of fields of rock dropped from the ice. Our lunch shelter from the rain on the day after the thunderstorm was a huge boulder the size of a garden shed balanced on three rocks the size of footballs, clear breezy space between the boulder and the ground. That doesn't happen to a rock that tumbles from the cliff above, coming to rest like a piece of public art in the town square. It was lowered there by melting ice.
And now I must confess to a wobble in our strict observance of using our tent. We arrived at Lake Vaimok, with its wonderfully situated STF cabin. It was raining. There was a long, steep climb ahead, beside a beautiful waterfall, one best viewed from below. The light breaking through the clouds was brightening the hillside across the lake and turning wind-ruffled patches on the lake's far reaches silver, with brushes of rain sweeping across, here and there, just for effect. Perfect conditions for some patient photography I was thinking. I also just happened to have two-and-a-half grand in Swedish crowns in my possession and the cabin was empty. We would almost certainly have it to ourselves. Besides, how could I give a faithful account of travelling these lands if I had deliberately avoided experiencing what most others here rely on? The thing that clinched it though, besides Peta's resistance-free rolling over, was that my sleeping mat had developed a slow leak which I could not detect without either detergent or a bath. Here was a cabin by the lake with washing up detergent to spare.
For the past few nights my self-deflating mat had settled my bones quickly down to ground level, a sleeping condition that forty years ago strangely didn't used to bother me. Now it does. In retrospect, though, the best reason for spending that night in Vaimokstugorna was the long conversation I had with the wardens, a retired couple from Kiruna and keen nature lovers. This is where we picked up a few flower names and identified several birds.
Now, the problem with twenty-four-hour daylight is that the undisciplined lose track of time. They sleep in because they didn't sleep well. They have no idea of the time because, these days, they don't wear a watch, rarely look up at the sun and, in constantly checking, hoping that a mobile signal has now somehow miraculously wound its way up into the hills when there had been no sign of one elsewhere, their phone batteries go flat. They start late, they drift along knowing darkness can not overtake them, and then they turn up at places long after the tables have been wiped, the floors swept and the blinds drawn down. And that is exactly what happened.
And then, contributing further to what was my worst night's sleep in the mountains, was the impossibility of adjusting the bedding, the supplied blanket and our sleeping sheets, to a level of cool insulation where sound sleep might be possible. It was for us, as it was for the reindeers earlier, just too darn hot. I haven't finished.
The toilet in these places is a remote affair, a trip for which you would normally shift up to a more deliberate breathing pattern, sit down and calmly put on your boots before heading outside. In other words, a door too far away. With the constant, bright twilight you just can't step out onto the landing, place one hand on the railing and listen to the sounds of water cascading down everywhere to the lake, swaying ever so slightly back and forth for a minute or so. And certainly not when others are in residence and when, who knows, they could be setting off on their walk at any time. At least, during one of my urgent night sorties rushing out barefoot to get down amongst the high grass towards the lake I ran into a gibbous moon rising, perfectly balanced on the shoulder of Staika. I will show you that photograph later.
After Vaimok it was a camp a few kilometres before Pieskehaure. We had had a long afternoon high up, frequently walking in cold rain and the fogs that condensed over snow patches and drifted across our route. That can also be fascinating. Nevertheless, at the end of our day, we found the energy to scramble about for another half an hour, to find a perfect tent spot where none were obvious, one with a view down over the lake ( the ‘haure'), with a stream a few metres below and a few biggish loose rocks away from water courses. So, now you know it all, about this life out amongst the hills.
The following morning we paused on our way through at the Pieskehaurestugorna warden’s cabin. He was sitting on his steps, coffee pot and dog alongside. These two extras are the last essential ingredients of a long, blissful life, things we have done without now for many a kilometre. The part border collie ran out its lead to welcome Peta and was an absolute delight to play with, me, unable to help myself, down on hands and knees. It seemed that the warden also needed company because he offered us coffee and we chatted about life, in the mountains and elsewhere, for more than an hour. As I said, although we are on a route that is the oldest one into Norway from Sweden, it is little travelled.
Without exception, the characters one meets in the mountains have interesting stories and, invariably, are gentle people. On the track everyone says hello as they pass by as if to say, we understand, we are all in this together. You don't get that in town. As on the sea, complete strangers in the mountains are joined by an unwritten code, to give all assistance possible to those in difficulty. The coffee was very welcome.
The climb up from Pieskehaurestugona to our glacier camp was a long steady one for which we required the afternoon. As we passed each side stream in the ascent its flow was subtracted from the main current down the valley, a stream we knew we had to cross eventually. Once across that, having stepped into its waters from an ice bank, we ascended further, dismayed at the several subsequent ridges that lurked beyond the one we had just crested, each where we had expected to see the lake and glacier. It is always like that, further than you believe, excitement obscuring reality, something that the optimist handles but will never overcome.
Our night under the glacier at ice lake proved to be uneventful, windless. There can be a little disappointment in that, something a bit deflating, in getting all dressed up ready for a tussle only to find your opponent has walked away. Soon into the evening my hip was on the rocky ground, my mat gone flat. That kept me occupied at frequent intervals during the night when otherwise, in a storm, I would have probably headed outside
every few hours to check that the tent pegs were secure and guys were not being chaffed in the violence, against rocks I placed to secure them.
We woke as on most previous mornings, as the sun struck the tent. There has been a trend for this trip and, if I think back, for most mornings in my memory. After a night ‘under canvas' days have tended to dawn with a rain-free hour. If you are moving on it is best not to delay. Get up and pack up. The tent is the driest it will be.
The last day of expeditions like this one, far into nature, are always ones filled with complicated emotions. Over the course of the day the elation that so successfully suppresses the pain of the physical effort involved in these journeys gets slowly diluted by increasingly mundane thoughts. One also finds oneself wondering, at our age, how long we can keep up this wonderful life. Just to think of the situations of some of our older friends is to feel the true weight of the loads in our backpacks.
As we worked along above our unnamed icy lake we soon crossed the border into Norway. Large cairns on prominent ridges north and south, ones with unmistakable vertical sides and flat tops, mark the line. What followed was a slow, delightful ramble along descending ridges and through narrow gullies amongst tiers of small lakes, many with their own scalloped, north-side snowbanks making a slow summer transformation to water. In the distance, the drained hydro water storage lake was coming closer into view.
When, in the early afternoon we eventually reached this lake's far end, where once had stood a lakeside collection of picturesque summer cottages with boat sheds on the shoreline, a place called Lomi, there was now a collection of abandoned, derelict buildings in various states of twisted collapse. Saddest of all was my discovery of what would once have been a gorgeous wooden clinker-built skiff now split apart at the transom and splayed, bottom up, flat on the ground as if a bird fallen dead from the skies. This, my first image of Norway was so far from that of picturesque, beautifully painted cottages caught in shafts of sunshine on fjord shorelines that it left me in despair.
Amongst all this destruction stood a pump-house building from the school of modern Scandinavian architecture. I have no difficulty accepting the change that clean hydroelectric generation brings to landscapes here and there but, in this wealthy country, the presence of these derelict, mangled, walked-away-from cottages and boat sheds made me feel like we had stepped out into a struggling, third world place where the rubbish
For one hundred years Sulitjelma was a copper mining town. It was our objective, far in the valley below. As an Australian, one naturally has an image of the defunct mining town that includes red dirt, bleached timber and rusty corrugated iron flapping in a hot wind. A serious green-shift, far away from red on that colour-space axis is required to properly picture this Norwegian example.
Our footpath deteriorated into a rocky vehicle track winding up to a concreted-over mine shaft and we soon began the long descent down the unsealed, switchback road that followed, to the houses several hours below. The road was rock hard. Fresh from the hills, always choosing our own course, we are naturally tuned-in to weighing up shortcuts. Here that would have been madness, a plunge towards cliffs and waterfalls, but if there is one thing that amplifies every twinge, every aching joint and muscle, it is a hard road with a steep downhill gradient and little to immediately look forward to.
Best to simply grit the teeth, tense those gluteus maxima, tighten the grip on the walking poles and get on with the job. Sulitjelma is pretty, the abandoned works located towards the flats at the upstream end of the lake, away from its residential slopes. But, as we had been warned, there are no facilities in town, zero. No hotel, no bed-and-breakfasts, no camping (that is off the map, six kilometres up another valley, in the wrong direction), nothing but a co-op store and one bus a day. I enquired of a local I saw from the churchyard bench we had collapsed on. She was just getting into her car but where could she be going? I somehow made sense of her mixed language offer to drive us to the campground. Did we look that exhausted? Probably. Anyway, I thanked her but declined and we trudged off down the shoulder of the main road in the direction I believed she had indicated to the co-op. I wasn’t sure. It was well over a kilometre before we glimpsed a car park and some activity. It would have been much more than two if we had been heading in the wrong direction. There were no signs.
Our adventure did not end with an attempt at a clandestine overnight camp in broad twilight, settled in between fibro workshops in an abandoned mining works yard, through a hole in a rusting chain mesh fence, me again passing the hours hip on the ground and bookless, conjuring the ghost of the night watchman moving silently across weed-fractured bitumen, all this sacrifice made in expectation of a bus timetabled to make a thirty second stop at nine the next morning. No, none of that. It ends with a phone call made by the co-op manager during the Wednesday evening seven-thirty lull in trade, for a taxi to come as soon as possible from Fauske, pick us up and return there.
During our patient wait in the co-op entrance we witnessed a surprising stream of locals arriving with huge bin bags full of empty PET bottles, for recycling. The bottles are placed one-by-one into a purpose-built shredding machine which records the total weight of material and issues a credit against store purchases. I guess I must adjust my first impression of Norway, my disillusionment at the sight of all those wasted, derelict cottages and boat sheds back up there at Lomi. Everything goes in circles.
Fauske is a regular Norwegian town halfway to Bodo on the coast and about forty minutes’ drive at ninety, from Sulitjelma. In a brand-new Merc with its white upholstery and metre-wide, full-colour touch screen, name of the softly-playing Australian popular hit from the eighties displayed there beside the current tyre pressures, it was a shockingly expensive escape route, one requiring us to make use of four dark tunnels and to use the journey to comes to terms, as best as possible, with our re-entry into everyday life.
Something along the way reminded me of the mud still on my boots, and the certain smell of our bodies and clothing, an odour that one loses sensitivity too after a while in the mountains. I was sitting in the front seat and it would be impossible that our driver could be beyond my olfactory halo. The thought drove me to an apology. In giving it, I might also have hoped to restore any collateral damage our state may have inflicted on the European image of an Australian. Who knows? Anyway, from our man’s understanding, ‘no worries’ response it seemed that the fare may have already factored in our state of decay.
It ended well, it always has, with a comfortable hotel, a shower, a talkative, tattooed, not-quite-on-the-ball Irish waiter and eventually - once our order did find the kitchen - dinner. A glass or two of champagne could not be helped, or was it a top-flight rioja, Marques de something, Riscal or Murietta? I really don’t recall.