As the light began to dim we struggled up a small rise to find ourselves in the middle of a wooded glade – a perfect camping spot for the night. We took off our packs (I always love that few seconds’ flying sensation when you take off a backpack), and the first task was to flatten down an area of snow for each tent,to ensure the surface was level and comfortable and pack down the snow to prevent sudden disappearances of stray limbs into the depths.
This, like almost everything done in snowshoes, was a comical sight. Five Englishfolk and a Swede tramping round in circles in the gathering dark. I felt absurdly like a Mediterranean grape-treader transported suddenly and inexplicably by Twilight Zone forces to the Arctic. After a few minutes the tent spots were nicely flattened and we had even created little paths to link them. Hilleberg tents, it is generally agreed, are the business – lightweight, easy to erect, and practically indestructible. As our tent seemed almost to put itself up, I found it hard to disagree with this, and before long we were standing about proudly surveying our little camp.
But the work was far from over, at least not if we wanted any dinner – two of us set to with shovels digging out a fire pit while the others went in search of firewood. Being Sweden, there was wood all around us, but it nevertheless took quite a time to amass enough for the evening’s fire. Camp fires are permitted in Vålådalen, but there are strict regulations governing what wood is acceptable to use. It must not be taken from living trees, and tree stumps and larger dead branches are also off limits (dead wood provides an essential habitat for an enormous range of species). The mountain ecosystem is fragile and the trees exceptionally slow-growing – a stumpy pine just a couple of feet high may be 50 years old or more. The only wood permitted for burning is small loose branches and twigs, and these were surprisingly hard to come by, especially under three feet of snow.
At last we had assembled a respectable-looking pile which looked like it should last us through the evening. With the help of some birch bark – the world’s best firelighter – we soon had a crackling camp fire around which to warm our extremities. By this time it was properly dark, with just the odd star peeking through the forest canopy. It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic place to spend an evening, watching the sparks from the fire twist beguilingly up into the sky and waiting (this was to become a common theme throughout the trip) for the kettle to boil.
This being a camping trip, we had resigned ourselves to sturdy but otherwise uninspiring rations, sensibly packed with sugars and carbohydrates but nothing to stir the culinary soul. When Torkel stood up, disappeared into the darkness for a minute or two and returned with six tantalisingly aromatic foil packets, we were both curious and delighted. By the time he’d unwrapped them to reveal six freshly-caught Arctic Char (a luxury elsewhere but comparatively commonplace in the clean waters of Jämtland), we were ecstatic. And by the time the fish had been grilled over the open fire and ladled with cream sauce, we were convinced we had died and gone to heaven. It’s a cliche that food always tastes better at the end of a day’s hike in the woods, but I would not be exaggerating to say that this was the most delicious fish meal I had ever had, ever, or probably ever will have again. This was of course, inevitably, an exception – Torkel’s sled would have needed to be twice the size to sustain such delicacies for the rest of the tour. Nevertheless, the food generally over the next few days was a real highlight, far better than I’d expected, and he even managed dessert for our final evening…
We sat around the fire for a while, contentedly licking sticky fishy fingers and making “Mmmm” noises, until Torkel suggested a night walk to the nearby waterfall. It is important to get your body warmed up from the inside (not just from the fire) before going to bed if you want to stay warm during the night, and so we kitted up and tramped off through the now moonlit forest.
It is a lovely sensation to go snowshoeing through a forest at night – almost other-worldly. We shuffled along, lost in our own thoughtful silences, until we came to the river, the water babbling quietly over the rocks in the darkness. We stopped to soak up the atmosphere and watch the stars for a few minutes, before Torkel announced that we would be doing a “bear walk”. The idea of the bear walk was to give each person in the group some time alone to enjoy the silence of the forest. One person (me, it turned out), would stand alone for 8 minutes while the rest of the group abandoned them in the wilderness and headed off into the woods. When the allotted time was up, I was to follow their tracks and collect people along the way who had themselves been dropped off at various points.
I have to say I was a bit concerned about this. Vålådalen is remote, very remote, and it was hard to shake off a sudden vision of me thrashing about alone in the woods for days before popping out by accident into semi-civilisation crazed and half-starved. Eight minutes sounded like a very long time indeed and plenty of time for the group to stomp a good distance off into the forest. I looked apprehensively at my little torch with its feeble and fast-failing light, but decided that after the car-in-the-snowdrift episode on my first night I wasn’t about to go all chicken now.
So I watched as my fellow adventurers became retreating shadows and the crunch of their snowshoes got ever fainter until there was nothing but silence.
Left fully alone at last, I looked up and almost immediately noticed the first swirls of a Northern Lights display in the sky. Granted, this was a very faint version of the spectacular displays that can sometimes be seen (strong Northern Lights displays are certainly possible in this region but more common further north, and we are also currently in a period of low solar activity which makes sightings less frequent and less intense), but the hypnotic swirls and shifting bands of green making their way across the sky were nevertheless truly magical, all the more so for being appreciated in solitude in the middle of the wilderness.
When my eight minutes was finally up, I was rather sorry that it was time to go, but with a last look over my shoulder at the shimmering sky I headed off in pursuit of the rest of the group. Finding the way, it turned out, was no challenge at all (5 people on snowshoes make a rather obvious set of tracks) and before long I had collected the first person who had been waiting for me quietly in the dark.
Soon we were all together again, standing on the banks of the river. Just beyond our vision, a little too far to be seen but easily heard, were the falls. No matter, we would be back this way tomorrow to have a closer look. For now, it was time to head for home.
“Which way are we going?” I asked.
“Better head back the way we came,” replied Torkel, “we don’t want to push our luck.”
I was profoundly pleased to discover that, even with his superhuman powers and great knowledge of the area, even Torkel would have had trouble getting us home in the dark on a circular route.
It wasn’t long before I was wriggling down inside my two enormous sleeping bags for the night (my little down bag had expanded magically to fill most of the tent, or so it seemed). Far from being cold, I had soon worked up a powerful heat and needed to strip off a layer before settling down to a deep and surprisingly comfortable sleep…
Over the next few days we continued our expedition into the nature reserve, passing out of the birch wood and into pine forests, through an area destroyed by forest fires decades before and only now just recovering, up and over the occasional ridge or hill (at which times I was glad I hadn’t chosen the pulk option – navigating a 45 degree slope with a sled in tow is devilishly hard work), and through a stunning gorge. We honed our knowledge of animal tracks, beginning to be able to identify some of the easier ones ourselves without asking Torkel “What’s this? What’s this?” every ten seconds like children on a school outing. We found pine cones wedged into tree trunks by woodpeckers, examined dung of all shapes and sizes and belonging to a host of creatures, told stories around the camp fire and, perhaps most importantly of all, drank a great deal of tea.
When we finally arrived back at Vålådalen mountain station some days later, there was no doubt about it – we had been on an adventure. A little stiff perhaps, a little tired certainly, but utterly satisfied, we stripped off and settled in to the sauna for a blissful afternoon of reflection on our experience. For myself, my thoughts were filled with how much I had learnt during the tour: not just how to distinguish animal tracks or how to pitch a tent in deep snow, but some very important lessons in winter outdoor toiletry:
– When answering a major call of nature, make sure you’re on a firm footing before getting down to business. Falling bare-buttocks-first into your newly-dug snow hole when it’s -6 is rather a shock, especially since, with snowshoes on, it’s practically impossible to get up again.
– Watch what you drink very carefully in the hours before bedtime, especially as you’ll be sleeping a good 11 hours a night. No matter how desperate you are, nothing is worth the hassle of getting out of the tent before morning. Torkel summarised my own feelings nicely one morning when, on opening his eyes, his first words were, “Ow! My bladder hurts.” It seemed he really was only human after all…
The Nature Travels Team
This is the second part of a description of this season’s Snowshoeing in Wolverine Country tour in February 2008. To find out more about snowshoeing holidays in Sweden, see here. We also have a number of other experiences in the beautiful region of Vålådalen, including dog sledding tours, winter mountaincraft and summer mountaincraft training and guided hiking tours.