In the summer of 1967 a guy halts his steps in a field in Wiltshire, retraces his steps the way he came for a few yards – then turns back. He repeats this to-ing and fro-ing for a while. At some point he steps aside and photographs the line which has become visible in the flattened turf as a record of his walking.
July 2017: I halt in the middle of a large snowfield in Laponia, turn around to see that our feet have worn a brown line into the surface and press the button of the GoPro to film Tom struggling towards me across the ice.
The guy in Wiltshire is Richard Long, English sculptor and land artist. His photograph is in the Tate Modern and bears the title ‘A Line Made by Walking’.
Long and I have this in common: We are both fascinated by the meaning of paths and leaving traces.
With repetition, small interactions like ‘walking’ become well-worn marks in the landscape. But by and large, the only traces we register as human interaction with the landscape are toilet paper, mostly, and other rubbish. They are annoying disruptions of the landscape – they don’t belong there. Long shows us that the path itself, the cairns built alongside the way, are, in fact, disruptions. But they seem to us as natural as the hills and streams.
To the objective we have in mind next, paths, marked trails and the absence of them take on great meaning. In any case, the idea of getting away as far as possible from signs of civilisation has always been intriguing to me, progressing further and further with each trip. Now, in a hut in the northern edges of Sweden, I’m poised on the threshold of an age-old dream. Getting away from it all. To do this we have taken three flights north, a three-hour train, four-hour bus and ferry to the end of the world.
Now we are congregated around an unfolded map of the Sarek National Park in northern Sweden, Laponia. We’ve come here in search for a truly remote place. One without marked trails and people and accommodation. We took along rations, tents and maps. The rest – cold silence and solitude – was already there.
Around the eastern edges of the national park runs the fat blue line of the Kungsleden with its STF mountain huts, hostels and cabins. The western edges are framed by the Padjelantaleden trail. Between these two lies an expanse of sweet empty nothingness, daunting, snowy, inaccessible Sami country, filled with glacier-laden mountains and big streams. The only trails here are the 1,000-year-old migration paths of the native reindeer herds, which the animals follow in search of forage grounds, and in turn the Sami people followed as they depended on the reindeer for food and livelihood.
The routes in and out of the mountain area are dictated by the large glacial troughs that separate Sarek’s massifs and provide corridors into the heart of the national park. We’ve chosen the Sjnjuvtjudisjåhkå river as an entry point and will be coming out through the Rapadalen valley delta at the other side after seven days. The only escape route is back the way we came or onwards, as high glaciated peaks block any other exits. We also knew that the deep valley systems up there acted as a weather channel, driving through the bad weather and clouds from the Atlantic.
News of old snow and new travel far as we are warned both by Finnish travellers and Swiss that the valleys are filled knee-deep with snow. We decide to go anyway.
We’d already tested the effectiveness of the Laponian road, transport and communication systems: through some form of communication between the captain of the small tin ferry, which carried five passengers across the lake to Sarek, his friend and two bus drivers, we were lucky to hold in our hands the next morning the vital knee support that Tom had left on the bus the day before and which had conquered the seeming edge of the world between Ritsem at the end of the road and Gällivare. That’s the beauty of such networks when they work, which we really appreciated for that purpose, but were keen to get away from in the next few days.
We are convinced that finding any discarded belt buckle or even the sight of another footprint in the mud down in this valley would be very upsetting. As it happened, the only sign we saw of other people was a tiny red speck on the side of a mountain far away, which, by some freak of nature, caught my eye and we identified it as a Hilleberg tent through Tom’s binoculars.
Snow is slowly collapsing into the river around us, the sides of the snowfields are breaking off in huge chunks, and slowly melting pools of water sit on top of blue icy sheets that still cling onto the rocks and ground beneath. We have found new permutations of snow – we’re used to the white and blue snow of the Arctic winter, but now in the summer the snowfields are charred on the edges, dirty with the turf and mud underneath.
The tracks we’re on are worn by generations of furry feet stamping on the bilberry-carpeted tundra. As J. Amato writes in his On Foot: A History of Walking (New York University Press), “a tidy definition of trails and paths would put humans on paths and animals on trails. However, this distinction becomes confounded as travelling humankind fused paths and trails in its search for passable ways and good surfaces leading to water, food, salt and wildlife”. Most animal trails are local and circling and often converge and diverge at a spring, riverbank or waterhole, but select trails, such as we are on, stake out lengthy seasonal and regional routes of migration.
The thought that the reindeer trail proves to be the most efficient way (even by caloric measure) to ascend or descend a hill, or provides the best way to cross a terrain, furnishing routes through high and low lands, swaps and wetlands and identifying fords for river crossing, is a shining beacon as we battle through mud, snowfields and dwarf willows (which, unfortunately, are still head-high).
We repeatedly lose the trail when it disappears under snow and mud, the art of spotting it, trying to find it again in the contours of the landscape, maybe catching an elusive glimpse of a darker line running up the eroded front of a hillside, becomes our main occupation. The path connects the Sami who work and live on the land to the landscape and the reindeer – it is a working path rather than a pleasure path.
And a pleasure path it sure isn’t.
The long days of ten hours walking take their toll on us. At night, I’m in the tent aching and can barely shift myself from one position to the other. Two painkillers and one sleeping tablet later I manage to get into at least a dozing state. The light of the midnight sun doesn’t help our sleep. With the sun persistent in the sky there’s no real sense of time, only weather.
We’re walking precariously over rivers on top of snow bridges with the water gurgling in the cavities beneath. Hollow caves line the edges of the snowfields and the first step onto the ice sheet is always tentative as we expect the ice to break away under the added weight.
The next morning there’s a new powder coating of snow reaching further down into the valley but it doesn’t quite reach the tents. Snow settles firmly on the peaks as we walk further into Sarek’s heart where we reach the central point, the bridge at Mihka crossing the roaring Mihkajohka, tumbling from the central massif, and the hut which houses only an emergency radio telephone.
We’ve reached the point of no return – the only way is on.
Exped Adventure runs this expedition in August 2018. For more information visit expedadventure.com. Any questions or enquiries email email@example.com or call Jamie on 07854197584 (01539 822967).