"This is the end of the public road..." With this simple sign confronting us on Friday evening (June 11), we realized we were in for quite an adventure as we arrived in Nikkaluokta, a small settlement that literally lies at the end of a road running west from Kiruna, Sweden's northernmost town. With Krister ensconced in the navigator's seat, regaling us with stories and information and selecting our road music, the journey up from Jokkmokk was thankfully uneventful, save for a couple of moose sightings along the way, and yet another encounter with Swedish pizza (last time, I promise, gang.)
Krister had been asked to attend a confirmation class for 43 Sámi teens, where he was to conduct a joik workshop and encourage the young attendees to embrace their culture as they approached the change in status that confirmation entails. Since I suspect the profundity of these activities may be lost on most readers, let me simply state that for nearly 200 years, Sámi people were taught by the church that joik, their unique vocal music, was sinful. That the state church now encourages a joik workshop, where students learn not only the significance of this musical genre, but also how to perform it, speaks volumes about the change in relationships between the Swedish majority and the indigenous Sámi minority, especially here in the north. But enough of my lecturing--suffice it to say that this arrangement which brought Krister to Nikkaluokta, provided the rest of us with the opportunity to experience a part of the country that remains one of Europe's last untouched wilderness regions.
With a permanent population of about fifty people, Nikkaluokta wouldn't merit a spot on all but the most detailed maps, were it not for the fact that this little settlement serves as the entry to Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest mountain (2104 meters, or 6903 feet). Each year several hundred intrepid souls attempt the ascent that requires a 20km trek from Nikkaluokta just to reach the base of the mountain. Throw in completely unpredictable weather, and the result is that few actually achieve their goal. While we obviously had no such lofty ambitions, I did want the gang to experience as much of the area as possible. First on the agenda, therefore, was finding them a place to stay.
As I trust you all can imagine, Nikkaluokta doesn't exactly cater to tourists whose expectations extend beyond very basic shelter. Initially, it appeared that the group might be housed in a couple of large tents, but thankfully we located a small cabin about five minutes' walk from the field station/café that serves as the last outpost before one begins exploring this vast region on foot. I have to admit feeling a certain amount of trepidation about this, especially after hearing the gasps and strained giggles when it was clear that the accommodations did not include running water (i.e., no bathroom), but I'm a firm believer in humans' abilities to rise to a challenge, and I'm happy to say I wasn't proven wrong in this instance. Once the initial shock had worn off, they figured out how to deal with the situation and made the best of it.
On Saturday morning (June 12), we set off from Nikkaluokta
along one of the many paths comprising a complex national trail system known as
Kungsleden (the King's path). These are maintained year round and
often connect a series of huts/shelters, where hikers can rest briefly, or
settle in for the night. In this
instance, we were heading along the trail that eventually leads to Kebnekaise,
although our goal was considerably less ambitious.
After consulting the map, I had determined that we would head toward Ladtjojaure, a beautiful lake that lay approximately 6km out, figuring that a 12km roundtrip was the perfect activity to work up a hearty appetite for lunch.
Along the way, we found ample evidence of some of the permanent residents of the region, most notably moose. Thankfully our experience with the latter was limited to scat sightings, since these animals are among the most dangerous of all, especially the bulls, who are extremely territorial. At approximately 4km out, we took a smaller trail north and found ourselves in the midst of a large pit-trap grouping. Some of the 75 pits in our immediate vicinity dated back more than 4000 years, yet a number of them were still in use in the early part of the 20th century. Their design is simple, as is their function: dig a pit at least a meter deep; place sharpened stakes in the bottom, facing upward; cover the pit with branches and leaves; drive animals toward the pits; and dispatch them quickly once they've fallen in. Since the contrast is a bit difficult to discern in a photograph, Meghan kindly volunteered to be our "catch"--no need to worry, she survived the experience without any ill effects.
Once back to the main path, we quickly covered the rest of
the way to Ladtjojaure, where there is actually a little restaurant serving
coffee and snacks.
One can also
take a boat across the lake at this point, thereby foreshortening the trek to
Kebnekaise, but I could tell that I had some hungry hikers on my hands, so we
turned around and headed back to Nikkaluokta, where Krister had made advance
arrangements with the café staff to prepare one of northern Sweden's most
celebrated gustatorial contributions, renskav.
As is so often the case with food, attempts to describe the taste of this particular dish fall short of the experience itself, but imagine very thin slices of lean reindeer meat (typically cut from the shoulder or haunch), sautéed quickly in a bit of butter, and then sauced with just a splash of cream to thicken the juices from the meat. This is then served with a generous dollop of freshly mashed potatoes and the ubiquitous Swedish condiment, lingonberry preserves--an extremely simple looking meal, but one that creates fans of reindeer meat among even the most skeptical. Sarah was heard to exclaim on several occasions, "This is the best meal I've ever eaten." Frankly, I'd have to agree with her, and judging from the universally clean plates on our table I think it's fair to say that no one was disappointed.
The combination of a hike and such a rich meal, naturally left everyone a bit woozy, but things perked up considerably when the sun made an unexpected appearance. Suddenly the mountains that surround the valley in which we were standing, emerged from the clouds and the mist, and the results were breath taking. We were still in the wrong area to catch sight of Kebnekaise, but the other mountains in the range certainly were impressive in their own right.
On Sunday, we packed up the van and made our way back to Jokkmokk, but Krister had one more stop planned, this time in Jukkasjärvi, a small town that these days is distinguished by the Ice Hotel that is constructed annually and attracts visitors from all over the world, who pay very large sums for the experience of sleeping in this impressive building made completely from ice harvested from the local river. Naturally, the hotel is "down" for the season, but we were there to see something arguably of much greater significance, a small church at the far end of the village. This region of Sápmi was where the evangelical Lutheran priest, Lars Levi Laestadius held sway in the mid-19th century, bringing many Sámi into the fold of the church, where his predecessors had failed miserably in their own attempts to introduce Christianity. Laestadius' success in large part can be credited to his full understanding of Sámi culture, in particular the pre-Christian belief system, from which he borrowed certain elements, incorporating them into what is now called "Laestadianism", a fully recognized branch of the state Lutheran church. While not limited by any means to Sámi populations, it is within small Sámi communities like Jukkasjärvi where it remains most fervently practiced. As evidence of this, the little community church houses a remarkable triptych, depicting Laestadius in action on the side panels. On the left, you see red-haired Laestadius preaching to a Sámi group, while one man responds by smashing a keg of alcohol (far left); the right panel shows Laestadius again, surrounded by his congregants, one of whom has entered an ecstatic trance, a remnant from the previous belief system. These strikingly modern paintings (completed in the 1970s) provide a stark contrast with the rest of this modest chapel, but there is one other notable element in the interior, the organ. The latter has acquired a new front panel surrounding the mid-sized pipes, one evincing the exceptional traditional handcraft skills of local artisans. The wood (primarily birch burl) has been carved with geometric designs typical to the region, and is further decorated with scarabs of reindeer horn that are engraved and inked. Most striking, however, is the sun in the center, not merely for its execution, but for its symbolic value: a similar sun was the central figure on the drum that the pre-Christian noai∂it (shamans) used in their rituals--yet more evidence of the continuing Laestadian incorporation of elements from the earlier belief system.
Before leaving the churchyard, Krister showed us the monument raised in the memory of Johan Thuri, a man rightfully credited with being the first Sámi author, whose book, Muitalus sámiid birra (A Book About Sámi Lives) came out in 1910, and remains one of the most important historical resources for those interested in Sámi culture. I have to admit to a particular fondness for this gentleman's work, since the English language translation (Turi's Book of Lapland) was certainly among the early inspirations for my own work in this part of the world. His stories are vivid and full of engaging details, providing a view of a world and a lifestyle now largely superseded by the trappings of modernity--highly recommended if you can find a copy!
Arriving back in Jokkmokk yesterday, in mid-afternoon, not surprisingly everyone headed directly for the showers, but I trust the rest of the group agrees with me that this trip provided an unprecedented experience on many levels, ranging from the challenge of an outhouse to unbelievable natural beauty.