Friday, November 30, 2018

Day 26: Stuor Reaiddávággi Valley

September 10: Once again, Karolina has taken over my blog to write about our next off-Kungsleden detour down the beautiful Stuor Reaiddávággi Valley! =)

Except... she starts her blog post from when we wake up in the morning. So before we get to her post, I will write a bit about our nighttime adventures...

The northern lights started relatively muted and--despite the photo--it looked grey.

It was near midnight and as was becoming the norm on clear nights, we often checked the sky for the northern lights whenever we woke up. Karolina woke up and woke me, saying that she could see the northern lights. Looking out from under my tarp, I didn't see anything and asked where she saw them. She pointed to a direction, and I looked under the side of my tarp and there was, in fact, a light glow coming from that direction--but I didn't think too much of it. I had seen the same glow the previous night from the same direction. It was probably just light pollution from some distant city and said as much.

But to satisfy Karolina that it wasn't very interesting, I took a long-exposure photo and was actually surprised when some of the light in the photo was a distinctive shade of aurora green! Holy cow! It was the northern lights! I took a few more photos, but it was cold and the sight wasn't particularly impressive so declared that I was going back to sleep.

The tiny glimmer of lights we saw turned off. It was like the sky knew it had lost its audience.

They turned off for several seconds, then absolutely exploded in brilliance! A bright green curtain of light spread across the sky, dancing and shimmering and our jaws dropped open with astonishment. It looked just like the amazing photographs we had seen all our lives!

Needless to say, I didn't go back to bed. I tried taking some more photos, but the 30-second exposures I took were becoming over-exposed. The northern lights were so bright they were over exposing my photos! I shortened the exposure, experimenting with shutter speeds between 10 to 20 seconds. The northern lights now streaked across the entire sky, from horizon to horizon, the curtains of light dancing. My head was about to explode. It was magic!

But then it turned into a magical show of brilliant, dancing curtain of light! WOW!!!!

The light show performed for about 15 minutes before it started to fade back to its muted, barely discernible grey. We did a happy dance around camp about the incredible experience, but we were both cold and as it appeared that the show was over, we both went back to our sleeping bags. Sleep didn't come quickly, though. I couldn't help but peak out at the sky from under my tarp hoping for another unexpectedly brilliant show and remember the amazing sight. I hoped there would be more of that in the future.

Eventually I faded off to sleep, and presumably Karolina did the same. We didn't see anymore grand light shows during the night, but I like to think it put on a show or two while we were sleeping to help with good dreams. =)

So with that out of the way.... on to Karolina's blog post which picks up when we wake up in the morning to get ready for our day's hiking....

********** Karolina's blog post *******************

The strong wind did not stop by the morning. At least it kept our gear dry—even though we camped right next to the river, condensation was not a problem.

Our first break for the day we took after hiking a mere couple of kilometers. We stopped at the a wind shelter which had an outhouse next to it. Our goal was obvious: dump the unnecessary load from our intestines!

We took turns using the outhouse (of course!), with me going first and Ryan second. I was waiting for Ryan inside the shelter, browsing the maps and my notes about the Kungsleden and possible side-trips and detours along the trail when I made a discovery: just a few kilometers ahead an alternative route started, connecting the STF huts Sälka and Alesjaure. The alternative route skipped the official high point of the Kungsleden—Tjäktja Pass at 1,150 m (3,370 ft)—but lead through what my notes referred to as “two of the most beautiful valleys in Swedish Lapland, worth visiting if the weather is good and time permits.” These were the Stuor Reaiddávággi Valley and the Vistas Valley. We definitely had enough time to follow the alternative route, which was slightly longer than the main Kungsleden between Sälka and Alesjaure huts. The weather… could be questionable. It was hard to say how it would turn out. Right now, the wind was still blowing hard and even though the morning was rather sunny, angry-looking clouds were hanging above the horizon and moving our way.

When Ryan returned from the outhouse, I updated him on the possibility that lay ahead. We agreed to think about it and make the final decision at the Sälka hut where the two routes split.

At the Sälka hut, we took a lunch break, sitting on a bench outside and enjoying sunshine while it lasted. After lunch, we decided to venture into Stuor Reaiddávággi and Vistas valleys—both of us were lured by the promise of spectacular views. And the views were spectacular indeed! We walked along the valley bottom, surrounded by tall, rocky mountains with pointed tops. I felt like I was walking through a giant cathedral of nature!

All round us was rocky. We walked on boulders of various sized and sometimes needed to jump from one onto another. There were several glacial torrents to cross too—not quite deep but rather wide. No distinct path was visible which meant we had to hike cross-country in the direction we knew our route was heading, every now and then aided by cairns. The valley felt vast and desolated—there seemed to be nobody else there.

Suddenly, we saw two people in black heading our way. To our surprise, the couple turned out to be Magda and Kamil, our friends from Poland. The surprise was mutual—they definitely hadn’t expected to cross paths with us right there off of the Kungsleden!

It turned out the day before Magda and Kamil hiked into the Stuor Reaiddávággi Valley and further to Una Räitastugan—an unmanned hut situated, as they said, “ in the absolute middle of nowhere”, where they spent the night. Right now, they were on their way back to the Sälka hut. They reported it was rather difficult and exhausting reach Una Räitastugan as they often had to jump from boulder to boulder. Having known about our plans to summit Kebnekaise they were curious to hear our stories and impressions of that side-trip, which we gladly shared. After this exchange of war stories, we said goodbyes and maybe-see-you-laters, and continued our separate ways.

After three hours of hiking through the Stuor Reaiddávággi Valley—which was a very good time!—Ryan and I arrived at the Nallo hut. I had expected it to be unmanned—this is what I understood from my notes. However, as we approached the hut, a warden came out and greeted us. He offered us some warm saft (Swedish lemonade, or rather fruit-flavored syrup mixed with water) and asked the usual questions—where we came from and what we planned to do next—stay at Nallo or continue further.

The latter still we had to figure out. As I mentioned, our initial plan was to spend the night at the Nallo hut. However, we managed to reach the hut quicker than expected and it was still relatively early in the afternoon (around 3 pm). The weather was rather good—overcast but it wasn’t raining. Rain was in forecast for the night and the next morning, so we were sure we wanted to sleep indoors but the question was whether to stay at Nallo or continue for another 10 km (6 miles) to the Vistas hut. The Vistas hut had one big advantage over the Nallo hut—it had a sauna! That, in combination with not-too-bad weather and none of the two of us feeling too tired tipped the balance in favor of continuing to Vistas. We rested some more on a bench outside of the Nallo Hut, drank some more saft, ate snacks… and off we went!

The hike to the Vistas hut was rather uneventful—except maybe for the moment when I started feeling a little funny. Funny as in the I-might-faint way. I told Ryan about that and he asked whether I needed to sit down and take a break. If I was to faint, he preferred to have me already on the ground and without a large pack attached to my back. I said no, I didn’t need a break, but I’d love to snack on something and I could do that while continuing to hike. I was too lazy to take my pack off, though, so I asked Ryan to dig into the outer pocket where I kept my daily snacks and fish out the last Clif bar I took on this trip. Of course, the Clif bar had fallen all the way to the bottom of my snack pocket and Ryan had to take out practically the entire content of it before he finally got hold of the bar. I ate it and felt a little better. Maybe I had been too low on sugar?

The views on our way to the Vistas hut were spectacular. I couldn’t take my eyes off mountains and glaciers. We hiked along a creek that turned into a waterfall right before the hut.

By the time we reached the hut, the skies got visibly darker. First drops of rain reached the ground just as we were entering the hut where a warden greeted us with a cup of warm saft. We paid for bunk beds (500 SEK or about $50 per person!) and entered the large room where we were going to spend the night. The room was a combination of a sleeping area with maybe 12 bunkbeds and kitchen with a gas stove and a wood-burning furnace to keep the room warm. No electricity. From the windows, we could see the mountains and glaciers—at least until clouds and fog rolled in and obscured the view. We could also see a little building where sauna was located—a place I intended to visit later that evening. But first, I wanted to eat dinner and rest a bit, making sure I regain energy and avoid passing out in the sauna again.

To make dinner Ryan and I combined forces—I provided a package of Mexican soup, which Ryan enriched with his dehydrated ground beef. As we were sitting at the table and eating, through the window we could see people in nude leaving the sauna building and heading towards the river to take a dip and cool down, before returning to the sauna.

An hour later, I was doing the same. By the time I went to the sauna all the other people had left it, so I had it all to myself. The little wooden building was heated up by a wood-burning cast iron furnace. While enjoying the sauna I needed to add new pieces of wood every now and then in order to keep the fire going. Otherwise, I stretched on a wooden bench and relaxed. There was a window in the sauna, so I could enjoy the picturesque mountain views. The whole experience was very nice and put a large smile on my face.

After I had gotten too hot and sweaty, I decided to go to the creek to cool down. Actually, it would probably be enough to just go outside and stand in the wind for a while, but I wanted to do it the Swedish way and take a dip in ice-cold glacial water. I knew it was going to be a challenge and felt a little nervous, but nothing was going to stop me!

I dipped my entire body (except for my head) in the creek for maybe a second before jumping out. The water was freezing COLD! As soon as I was out of it, though, I felt warmth spread all over my body—and that was the most refreshing moment of the entire sauna experience!

In the evening Ryan played an episode of a show he downloaded to his smartphone from Netflix which we watched by the light of a hut-provided candle. In the hiker’s box in the kitchen, I found popcorn, so we even had a treat to munch on while watching. After that, we brushed our teeth and retired to our beds. The last thing I remember of the evening was laying my head on the pillow and thinking how soft and comfy my bed was… I felt happy. =)

What a beautiful glacier!

Sälka hut, where we stopped for a short lunch break. From here, we veer off the Kungsleden again for a detour through the Stuor Reaiddávággi Valley.

This section of of the route was largely trail-less and rocky! Although we didn't always have a trail to follow, we knew the route was up this valley so as long as we followed the valley bottom, we wouldn't get lost.

You call this a trail?!

You can tell this is a glacier-fed lake because of the water's turquoise color. It's caused by glacial flour in the water.

Notice the glacier on the left coming out from the mountains?

That's the Nallo hut ahead, where we'd stop for a short snack break.
The warden stands outside, ready to welcome in tired hikers!

We can't see much of this glacier except its terminus, but it still looks impressive!

As we approached this bump, I picked up a rock while Karolina's back was turned then told her I'd been carrying it the entire trail to throw on the pile of rocks and make a wish. "It's tradition!" I told her. "Where's your rock?" =) It was a joke--I made it all up. There is such a tradition on the Camino Frances which I knew she'd be familiar with, but she didn't buy into my joke. "I know you'd never carry an unnecessary rock the entire trail!" she told me. "That part just isn't believable."

Our home for the night--the Vista hut! This would be the first and only time on the trail we'd spend the night IN a hut. It was supposed to rain all night and the next morning and the wind was quite strong. It would have been a miserable night in a tent or a tarp and we figured we deserved a full "hut experience" at least once on the trail. The weather forecast made us decide that tonight would be the night!
The kitchen in the hut
From outside our window at the kitchen, we'd see naked people running from the sauna to the cold river for a quick dip. This is actually Karolina in the photo. Before you accuse me of being a pervert--I asked if she wanted me to try taking a photo of her running between the two before she went to sauna. And in the fading light (the sun had already set) and being so far away, there wouldn't really be any detail in the photo. Tantalizing, perhaps, but not pornographic! (At least I didn't think so.) So she gave me permission to take and share this photo.
Karolina cooks in the kitchen.
With no electricity, light in the huts were provided by your own headlamps for by candles provided by the hut.
Watching a Netflix show on my smartphone by candlelight with a pot of popcorn. Life was good! =)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Day 25: Back to the Kungsleden!

September 10: Karolina and woke up to another beautiful morning! I could get used to weather like this. *nodding*

But we lingered in camp fairly late because Karolina was still sore and tired from our summit of Kebnekaise the day before. She slept in late and we didn't leave camp until nearly 10:00 in the morning--among our latest start time of the trail. I didn't mind so much, though. Our goal for today was merely to get back on the Kungsleden less than 10 miles away and the weather forecast called for nice weather the whole day. We were in no rush!

I eat breakfast in camp in the morning. What a beautiful day!

The day was relatively uneventful. The trail was mostly flat, following the valley bottom back to the trail. I jokingly called it the "Valley of Shade" because surrounded by tall mountains on both sides, almost the entire canyon bottom was cast in shade. I didn't realize it was such a problem on the way to Kebnekaise because it was mostly cloudy and overcast, but a clear day like today, I definitely noticed it!

At one location, from the Kungsleden, we spotted what we felt certain was the tippy-top of Kebnekaise through a break in the mountains. "Yep," I pointed to it, "that's where we were about 24 hours ago."

The main side trail (is that possible? A main side trail?) led to the Singi hut where it would reconnect perpendicularly with the Kungsleden Trail. There was nothing at the hut that we wanted or needed, however, and we decided to veer off on a shortcut that connected with the Kungsleden further north and missing the Singi hut. We figured it would cut off a kilometer or two of walking overall. The shortcut also included the one hump of the day, climbing up and over a small ridge that we hoped would provide us some wonderful views--which it did!

It was an easy, pleasant day. Once we made it back to the Kungsleden, we started keeping an eye open for a good place to camp. The wind was fairly strong, though, and with no trees or large rocks, there wasn't much protection against it from anywhere. We kept hiking hoping for something better, but Karolina was lagging--still tired and recovering from Kebnekaise.

We finally reached a point where there was a river bottom exposed due to the low water level and Karolina liked the idea of camping on it. I was a bit more ambivalent of the idea. It was a pretty location, but the pebbly ground wouldn't hold the stakes for my tarp very well and given the condensation we'd been getting overnight at a dry campsite, I expected a lot of condensation here. I wanted my tarp up! That was my main concern--the tarp. If I were cowboy camping, the site was wonderful. Very leave-no-trace as well. No plants or grasses to crush. No ugly scar in the dirt of countless other hikers who've camped there before. And even if somehow we did manage to leave a trace, the next winter and spring when water levels were higher would completely obliterate any evidence of earlier hikers. We were camped closer to water than is usually advised, but we weren't going to wash dishes or clothes in the water and we could walk away from the river if we needed the restroom.

Karolina had another issue, although I'm not sure if she recognized it at the time. Camping next to a cold river would be a lot colder that camping well away from it at a slightly elevated location. Not only would the cold water chill the air around it, but cold air sinks so there's an invisible second river of cold air following the river downstream for the same reason the river is there. Karolina tends to sleep cold, and I wondered if she recognized that the location she wanted might be very cold after the sun sets.

But she was tired and wanted to stop so I agreed. I'd live!

I started setting up my tarp and as I expected, the stakes wouldn't stick in the ground on their own. I wound up "mining" large, heavy rocks from a nearby creek bed that I placed on top of the stakes to hold them in the ground. I set up the tarp low as well--the wind was fierce and a smaller profile caused less stress on it.

And... eventually, I got it up and somewhat stable. I still worried the wind might pull out a stake during the night, but I'd deal with that problem if I had to.

I cooked dinner on the downwind side of my tarp using my tarp as a giant windbreak for my stove--in additional to my regular windbreak for the stove.

Shortly after sunset, I dived under my tarp and curled up in my sleep bag. It was the end of the another day!

This is another photo of me eating breakfast from camp in the morning, although this photo is more on the campsite than me eating breakfast. =)
Some sort of memorial on the trail, but it wasn't in English (and I don't think it's even in Swedish), so we had no idea what it was memorializing.
This is the group of students that caused us so much trouble at the last boat crossing a few days earlier, but more interesting... you can see the trail up Kebnekaise in the background of the photo, heading toward that gap in the distance. The trail would climb to the very top of the mountain on the left, then descend hundreds of feet into the gap to the right of it before resuming its climb to the summit of Kebnekaise which is the mountain in the distance on the right. The very tippy-top of the mountain, however, was not visible from this point. But you can probably see about 95% of the trail we did yesterday in this one photo!

Now there's a muddy section!

Karolina admires the view and has an idea... maybe we can camp on that dry riverbed down below?
So that's what we did! Notice the wind pushing the tarp in? The wind was quite strong!