Sweden, Off the Beaten Path
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Cruising down smooth, broad singletrack alongside a churning Arctic river, I fall into stride with Fred Marmsater and Luke Nelson, my two blond, bearded friends, mimicking their footfalls like an old habit. The sun shines just enough to keep us warm in shorts, but the wind counters, requiring a long-sleeve shirt. It’s our last day running Sweden’s ancient King’s Trail, and also our shortest, at only 12 miles.
We could be running our fastest split of the trip, but instead we stop for photos, wander off-route and sit on a rocky ledge overlooking a small waterfall. I soak in the vast ridgeline views, and the ancient, gnarled birch trees that line the river’s edge and pour up the slopes, their leaves seeming to change, before our eyes, from the greens of summer to the golden yellows and deep oranges of fall.
We have spent seven days on the King’s Trail, known locally as the “Kungsleden.” We have danced over rocks, forded a frigid thigh-high river, hiked over passes and laughed about inside jokes that only the three of us could appreciate. Now, before continuing, we take a moment to snack and savor the quiet, before plunging back into the schedules and screens of our daily lives.
Fred’s phone chimes, making a sound we have not heard in four days. Our host is ready for our arrival. We pack up our running vests and cruise the final two miles into Abisko, a small town in Swedish Lapland where the Kungsleden Gate marks the northern terminus of our adventure. Under the bold white letters carved into the old wooden structure, we dawdle, adjusting our packs, taking photos of fellow travelers and sharing stories, reluctant to leave the simplicity of life on the trail.
Fred, 39, a longtime competitive mountain biker, has a muscular build, and his Nordic features, typically set in a serious expression, easily melt into a pearly white smile. He was raised in Stockholm, where he found his love for the outdoors, sailing the fiords and skiing the local hills, and still carries his Swedish passport. After 20 years in the United States, Fred still considers Sweden home, though he now lives in Boulder, Colorado.
For Fred, the Kungsleden had been a longtime physical and creative goal. He was intrigued by the idea of traveling to the north of Sweden, where he had never been, and photographing the adventure. The 125 miles of the 265-mile trail we’d cover would also be farther than he had ever run before.
Luke, 34, who also sports a scruffy beard and dirty-blond hair, could be mistaken for Fred’s younger brother. Luke’s build is leaner, though with disproportionately large calves. Based in Pocatello, Idaho, he runs in the summer, testing himself regularly at ultra-distance races, and skis in the winter. Driven and punctual, a multi-tasker extraodinaire, by day Luke is a physician’s assistant and father; by night he accomplishes feats of endurance a superhero might envy.
United by a common love of running, exploring wild places and capturing their essences in beautiful imagery, Fred, Luke and I have worked well together on past projects. Since meeting in 2010, we have teamed up for numerous photo shoots for sponsors and media outlets. In 2011, Fred photographed Luke and me during our efforts to set new fastest known times (FKTs) for men and women on Utah’s Zion Traverse (see “Lions in Zion,” Issue 82, September 2012). Over the course of these adventures, we’ve developed a sibling-like relationship.
Always up for adventure and long runs, Luke and I happily cleared our calendars when Fred proposed the trip in late winter 2014. After months of planning, fundraising and exchanging emails, a succession of flights connecting Denver to Kiruna, in northern Sweden, and a night of sorting gear, we arrived at the unassuming Vakkotavare hut, the start of our journey, on September 1. Vakkotavare, near the midpoint of the King’s Trail, encompasses a simple main hut with a welcoming deck, a few out-buildings for toilets and a small store where hikers can resupply.
The next morning, we left our laptops and extra gear with our kind Swedish host, who would shuttle it to the northern end of the trail. It felt surreal to finally be standing at the trailhead in our super-light packs, taking in the “Kungsleden” sign pointing north.
The Kungsleden is a human highway, a rocky path pounded into the earth by thousands of hikers, with simple huts as well as established “stations”—fully equipped lodges and resupply points—along its length. Our plan was to use the Kungsleden as a thoroughfare, from which we would weave loops and horseshoes through the less-traveled backcountry before rejoining the main trail near a hut for dinner, a bed and a wood-fired sauna.
Roughly nine miles in, we were halted by the grand sight of Teusajaure, a long lake stretching east and west to mountainous views on either end. Our northbound trajectory required the added adventure of paddling aluminum boats across the lake. Luke, a former river guide, jumped behind the oars. He would have powered us the 150 yards across, but I insisted on a rowing lesson. The extra time allowed Fred to snap photos from his own boat, and was good for a few laughs as I figured out how to “put my back into it.” The open beach encouraged us to break for lunch, so we sat by the lake, skipping rocks across the water and reviewing the map. The rest of that day, we held the reins taut, conserving our energy. We still had seven days and almost 125 miles to go before Abisko.
That first day, and the next, the temperamental weather put our light kits to the test. Reindeer blocked our path, munching on small arctic plants, and Fred stopped our progress multiple times to make use of the several extra pounds of photo equipment he was carrying. We ended our second day, Tuesday, at Kebnekaise Station, a beautiful lodge with private sleeping quarters, Wi-Fi, saunas, a drying room for wet clothing and a full-service restaurant. We took advantage of the chance to connect with friends and family back home, then curled up on cushioned chairs around low wood tables, watching flames lick the rocks in the fireplace.
The next morning, we spread our map on the table to prepare for our day’s objective: running to the top of Sweden’s highest peak, 10,000-foot Kebnekaise Mountain. The clouds hung low over the mountains, yet we clung to the hope of a “sucker hole,” a break in the weather that would allow us to summit the rocky, jagged peak. We climbed as quickly as we could, but still shivered as the winds whipped us. Just before the final 1,000-foot summit push, we realized we did not have enough layers for the stormy conditions; if anyone turned an ankle or worse, we would be in a dire situation. After five miles and 5,000 feet of climbing, we turned around and, defeated, returned to the comfort of “Keb” station.
That afternoon, Luke caught wind of a local guides’ challenge, a time trial to a massive boulder perched 1,500 feet up the hill behind the station. The guides use this kilometer-long uphill run to test themselves and their clients before starting their trips into the mountains. Outside the guide hut there is an 8” x 10” sheet of paper recording the fastest times; Luke wanted to add his name and “Pocatello, Idaho” to the list. Getting a head start, Fred and I hiked up to the high point and watched Luke’s bright blue jersey weave through the birch trees and up the grassy hillside to the rock. Between his gasps, we grilled him for his time: 10 minutes 30 seconds, a full minute under the previous record and a nice redemption for our team’s earlier failure to summit Keb.
We rolled out of Kebnekaise on Thursday morning, refreshed by a good night’s sleep and a warm sauna the night before. We again ventured off the main trail, heading northeast through the Laddjubahta Valley toward Tarfala Station, a sporadically manned scientific outpost in a vast high-alpine boulderfield. The cold, rainy weather again forced us to wear most of our clothing. We spent most of the day route finding and weaving through rocky high-alpine terrain. At Tarfala Station, we regrouped to dry our clothes, warm up and consume calories, then stepped back out into the storm, and moved toward 5,500-foot Darfaljvri Pass, our high point for the day. When I lifted my head to peer out from under the brim of my dripping hood, I could see Luke and Fred ahead of me, sliding through snowfields and tackling terrain that called for a mix of climbing and traversing. Near the pass, we ran alongside a massive glacier, peering into its deep, blue crevasses.
Fred tried to capture a few photos of the scramble to the top, but the rain and bone-chilling cold forced the camera back into his pack: we needed to keep moving to retain body heat. The fierce wind blew my hood off my head as we reached the ridgeline of Darfaljvri. We could make out the glacier behind us, but the rest of the view was enveloped in clouds. We huddled under a rock pile near the top to decipher our map and pick out upcoming landmarks. I was wearing a down jacket, a windshell, a rain jacket, a long-sleeved wool shirt, a Buff around my ears, double gloves, tights and windpants, but was still cold. It was time to get moving.
We dipped below the clouds on the other side of the pass, and were treated to a view of a long valley dotted with turquoise lakes that stood in stark contrast to the dull gray boulderfields. After descending, we began picking our way through the torturously technical, rock-strewn valley floor. We waded through the creeks connecting the lakes, and rejoined the King’s Trail just south of the Sälka hut, our stop for the night.
We arrived cold and tired after our longest day yet: 21 miles and 5,000 feet of gain in eight hours. At Sälka, the stugvard—a volunteer host who spends his summers tending to the cabins—offered our weary bodies a warm seat by the fire and a sweet strawberry drink to start the recovery process. I had dark circles under my eyes and my hands had turned puffy and red, but I wore a hard-earned smile.
For the remainder of the trip, we stayed on the main trail, running alongside the established hiking culture. In contrast to the slippery snowfields, boulder fields and route-finding challenges that had characterized our off-trail adventures, the well-worn, often multi-lane Kungsleden provided an easy, navigable route for our final three days.
Along the way, we chatted with fellow hikers carrying 60-pound packs. “How can you travel so far with so little?” they would ask us.
“We travel farther because we carry so little,” was our reply.
Trailhead / King’s Trail
The King’s Trail is 264 miles from Hemavan in the south to Abisko in the north. To get to Abisko, fly to Kiruna via Stockholm or another European hub with SAS or Norweigan Air, or take the train from Stockholm (www.sj.se). From Kiruna airport, take the train or bus to Abisko.
June-September is the best time to run and camp along the trail. Always prepare for extreme conditions, even in summer—this is the Artic Circle.
Tourist Info: Information on trail logistics, huts, distances and more can be found on the Swedish Tourism website
The Abisko Mountain Station has an excellent restaurant, bar and hotel, along with hostel accommodations, and is within walking distance of the train station and King’s Trail trailhead
For a logistically easy 70-mile stretch, run from Abisko to Nikkaluokta via Kebnekaise, as both Nikkaluokta and Abisko have public transit connections to Kiruna.
This article originally appeared in our April 2015/DIRT issue.