It was late, and there had been some drinking. As I trudged over frost at the edge of the taiga forest, the sharp cold was blunted by the lingering warmth of several shots of akvavit, the fiery Swedish vodka.
The lights of the hotel illuminated the front rank of trees. Beyond them, the forest was a deep knot of shadows, simultaneously enticing and ominous. I wondered how many European folktales had been born on cold nights such as this, sparked by the heady combination of alcohol and the dark mysteries of the forest.
What was that? I stopped and listened. An owl? A deer? I walked on but stopped abruptly when I heard it again. It was distant yet unmistakable. An instinctive, primal fear eddied within me. Somewhere in the forest darkness, a wolf was howling.
I had come to Furudal, a village in the Dalarna region of central Sweden. This is the country’s folkloric heartland, and for me it was a homecoming to the land of my ancestors.
My Swedish great-grandfather passed down through the family not only his DNA and a few heirlooms but also some advice for survival in the northern wilderness. “If you are ever attacked by a wolf,” he told my grandfather, who told my father, who told me, “reach down its throat, grab its tail and pull the animal inside out.”
I had no wish to test this defensive technique. I retreated to my room in Furudal’s Bruk, an 18th-century ironworks that has been converted into a uniquely atmospheric hotel.
From the safety of my bed as I listened to the wolf’s mournful call, I wrestled with my fears about tomorrow night, when there would be no hotel room for sanctuary.
Sweden does wilderness by degrees. Here in Dalarna, you can spend the days hiking through the forest and along lakeshores in the comfortable knowledge that there will be a great meal and a warm bed at the end of the trail.
This easy wilderness experience is taken to extremes around Stockholm. The cosmopolitan attractions of the capital city can be interspersed with half-day or full-day hikes in the surrounding countryside.
Thanks to Sweden’s right of public access, hikers have the freedom to roam with few restrictions, and much of the open land around the city is suitable for improvised walks. In addition, there are formal trails that reach out in all directions from Stockholm, connecting to a comprehensive countrywide network.
One such trail is the Sörmlandsleden, which starts across the road from the Björkhagen Metro Station in southeast Stockholm, just a 10-minute ride from the heart of downtown. Five minutes after stepping off the train, you can be walking through birch forest into an unspoiled landscape speckled with idyllic lakes.
On completion of the initial five-mile section of the Sörmlandsleden, you can catch a bus back to the city. Or you can walk on. And on. The full route meanders for more than 600 miles down the frayed coastline and inland to the town of Eskilstuna. It is an epic walk, and yet in this populated part of Sweden, the sense of remoteness on the trail is an illusion. You are never far from the benefits of civilization.
Remoteness is no illusion in Sarek National Park, located in Swedish Lapland, above the Arctic Circle. The park contains more than 200 mountains (including six of the country’s 13 highest peaks) and 100 glaciers. The only thing it lacks is visitor facilities. Here you are at the mercy of your own preparation. You must bring everything you will need for your own survival.
There are no official trails; you must forge your own, following the footprints laid down by elk, wolverines, lynx and bears. From high vantages within the park you are rewarded with timeless panoramas devoid of the slightest trace of human intervention. This is wilderness distilled to its essence: truly remote, truly wild.
If Sarek is too extreme for you, there is a spectacular alternative that offers the full North Country experience with the advantages of a formal trail. The Kungsleden, or King’s Trail, was established in the 1930s and has become the premier hiking and cross-country skiing route in Sweden.
The traditional starting point for the Kungsleden is at Abisko National Park, close to the border with Norway. From here, hikers head steadily south, with 270 miles of breathtaking scenery between them and the finish point at Hemaven. The entire route takes five to six weeks of hard trekking, or you can opt to tackle the five designated sections one at a time in successive visits.
Although the Kungsleden passes through the southeastern corner of Sarek National Park, it provides an adventure that is much more structured than the free-range hardships of the park’s interior. The trail is clearly marked and well used; you will often be within sight or sound of other walkers. Most important, there is an extensive network of mountain huts and youth hostels along the way, providing warm and dry refuge from the changeable alpine weather.
In summer, the Kungsleden is bathed in round-the-clock daylight. In winter, when the trail is only accessible to skiers, the sun barely rises. For the average hiker, the best time of year is July and August, when it is possible to make a detour to scale the temporarily snow-free flanks of Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain. The 7,000-foot ascent is technically undemanding, though it can push you to your physical limits. At the top, Lapland is spread beneath you like a map.
My own trek provides little in the way of great views. Mostly, with Anders, my Swedish guide, I am walking through the dim vault of the taiga forest, weaving through coniferous columns. This is the world’s largest land habitat. From here in central Sweden the forest stretches unbroken through Finland and across the entire width of Russia to the Bering Sea. We are not going that far.
As soon as we are out of sight of the road, I am lost. There are no landmarks, no easy points of reference. I must trust Anders, who has known this forest all his life. He leads the way with reassuring purpose.
We are looking for the wolf pack I heard last night. “It is easier to track wolves in winter,” says Anders. “All you have to do then is follow the tracks in the snow.”
There is no snow today. The ground is a spongy riot of color, a patchwork of lichen, pine needles and moss. It is like slogging across a vast, saggy mattress. Soon my thighs are throbbing with the effort.
We camp beside a small lake which, miraculously, Anders is able to find without the aid of a map or GPS. He appears to be able to read our bearings from the underlying contours of the land.
The night is chilled by the breath of autumn. Within the flimsy cocoon of a tent, the nocturnal sounds seem to be amplified. Every hoot, every bark, every snapping twig reverberates. But there is no sound of wolves.
We walk on in daylight, doubling back. At last we break out of the forest onto a muddy logging track. Anders soon halts me. He crouches down over a set of tracks: “A male wolf. Very fresh.”
Anders detours into the trees, listening. I follow the spoor. After a short distance, I look back and read the story that has been etched into the mud. Me and a wolf, side by side.
Info To Go
The Sörmlandsleden website provides hiking information and detailed route maps. The usual staging post for the Kungsleden is Kiruna Airport (KRN), served by regular flights from Stockholm and bus service to the trailhead at Abisko. Visit www.visitsweden.com.
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