An idea spawned long ago in the mist wreathed past. Autumn 2009 to be precise. Meet up, experience the wilderness. Create a collective. Form a fellowship. Map out a future.
Suddenly the past was the present. I found myself sat on a bench at Stockholm airport, to meet someone I'd never met before. Flying into Stockholm, from almost exactly the opposite direction, at almost exactly the same time came the instigator, Hendrik. After a hot, wi-fi-less, protracted bus ride into the city we became three when Roger met us at the bus station. The fourth protagonist was met at 'The Ring'. We had no description to go on but used our UL profiling techniques to single out an individual wearing Inov8 shoes and a Granite Gear pack. Martin. We were four. Off to the ubiquitous Irish bar for refreshments we were soon five when Gustav joined us, laden with test gear. Last but not least Jörgen joined our band of by now slightly merry men and we headed off to Track 10 to join the 12 hour sleeper train to the Jämtland region of Sweden.
It's odd to go to sleep in a beautiful, buzzing capital city and wake up in the very quiet countryside. It took a moment to adjust. Our taxi took us to a campsite where we stowed travelling clothes and unwanted gear and drove a little further to the trail head. We allowed three traditional, heavyweight backpackers a head start and after the requisite group photos we fell into line and followed the Swedes. Grey clouds formed an impenetrable layer above us.
The Swedes moved fast through the forest. I swear they were all over 6'4" with legs and effortless strides to match. Soon we reached the first ford and kissed any hope of dry shoes on this trip goodbye. It was wide and cold but thankfully shallow. The first lunch stop was a chance to size up the opposition's stoves and a feeling of inadequacy crept over me as my teeny tiny wood burner spluttered and smoked on the damp twigs until orange flame eventually filled the firebox. By which time my compatriots were already tucking into their hot lunch...
It was hard to get lost despite stepping completely off the trail. We simply followed either Jörgen, Gustav or Martin. And if we did find ourselves on our own, surrounded by the muffling wet undergrowth, it was simply a case of keeping the river on your right. We followed faint game trails where possible or ducked out onto the river bank where the falling levels revealed the stony river bed. We played musical backpacks at times, trying out the different brands and models. The grey clouds slowly started to change from vapour to liquid.
Camp 1. We spread out our shelters on a band of dry ground between some falls on the river and a bog. Pyramid up, I unrolled my bivy, inserted my quilt and pulled out my... damn it, where was my NeoAir? 10 minutes of frantic searching revealed that I had left it in my duffel. Thankfully Gustav could lend me a torso length foamie and my back was saved. We built a fire and warmed our food and feet. We passed around some Mintuu and warmed our souls. The drizzle continued.
I awoke basking under yellow silnylon. I pretended it was sunny outside. It wasn't. Packing up took a little longer than planned but soon we were back on the river bank, 'whacking the bush' and slowly gaining altitude. After a brush with a couple of reindeer we hit the snow fields as we swung up and away from the river. Hendrik was soon nicknamed 'Legolas' as he seemingly floated over the snow while the rest of us were postholing. The drizzle turned to rain.
We broke for lunch at a mountain hut, an excuse to escape the constant rain. Again any attempt at drying socks was more of an exercise in just warming them up. Refuelled we hit to trail again. Moving fast to generate some heat we struck out towards the higher land. The trees thinned and an eerie, beautiful bleakness took over. Although underfoot the trail was starting to dry out we suddenly hit the coldest and fastest ford. Taking it in turns to feel our way across the slippery rocks we couldn't see. The wind picked up and the rain fell.
Past the pyramids and down past the King's hunting lodge we discussed where to camp. Up here the dry floor but cold wind. Down there the damp forest but plenty of fire wood. We went down. Down into the forest, picking up speed so we arrived in camp with some warmth in our bodies. We retraced out steps when we came across flooding and found sheltered pitches in the old growth spruce forest. Camp 2. More food. More fire. More marshmallows. More whiskey. More drizzle.
Last day. Something was wrong with the sky. Parts of it were turning blue. A part of us was filled with joy. Joy soon diminished when we realised we had to cross the flooded area. The path turned literally into a river for a while but soon climbed into a forested track. Duckboards kept us above the mire in between. All manner of bird life filled the skies and trees with flight and song. More blue sky. Less drizzle.
Last lunch stop. Food bags raided for all remaining calories. Finally the ball of burning gas in the sky broke through. It's called 'the Sun' apparently. Hendrik pulled on his sunglasses for two minutes so at last he could erase them from the 'redundant item' column on his spreadsheet. Smiles broadened. The drizzle had stopped.
At the end of trail we took more pictures. Throwing backpacks. Hooking them on one finger. You know the drill. The happiness of accomplishment was tinged with the sadness of going home. Friendships would have to be put back on hold it seemed, just as they had been kindled. But the banter, the memories and the laughter would see us through. Back at the camp ground our hosts looked after us in fine style. A bucket of beer, soda, chocolate and nuts. Showers and sauna. They even laid on some warm sunshine as we peeled off layers, like snakes shedding skins. Everything was laid out to dry. A lot more laughing. Plans made, discussions raised. A way forward formed.
Time to catch the train home. The sun went down over Sweden, or as far at it goes at this latitude. We refuelled in style and the conversation became more lubricated. The restaurant car slowly emptied. Lights were turned out and the staff left. Time to go to bed. In a few unconscious hours we would be back in Stockholm.
In the station we bade farewells, ate final breakfasts and drank coffee. Slowly everyone drifted back to the real world leaving myself and Hendrik to kill time around the city before our flights left for either side of the Nordic. So many fine, beautiful things to see in the sunshine. So much to reflect on. Later, as I sat at the airport, waiting for five hours for my plane to leave, I looked through the photos I had taken, reliving the weekend and smiling at the memories. When it was finally time to board I clicked off the camera, stared at my feet and noticed something else. My feet were dry...