Blog posts/essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, hiking, mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends
Lapland is a place I love very much. It’s a great, empty land where human activity has left relatively little trace; a rarity in cluttered Europe. It’s also a place where you’re free; the liberal access laws of the Scandinavian nations enshrine the right to walk and to camp where you will, meaning you can head off through tundra and forest just as the notion takes you, without the requirement to follow marked routes or adhere to park limits.
Summer last, I headed off there for a trip, looking for three things; a taste of the wilderness, a little of the culture of the Sami people who inhabit the place, and an encounter with one of the more striking outgrowths of the history of my own country. This piece is a quick photo-tour of the first part, an excursion across one of the less-traveled portions of the region to the northernmost pine forest on the planet. It was a fine corner of the earth, well worth a visit.
The route I followed is marked on the map above in purple. I flew in to Alta, in the southwestern corner. It’s also possible to access the area by air from Lakselv in the southeast, but doing so involves an uphill route all the way. To spare my legs, I hopped on a bus up the E6 from Alta, and disembarked in the interior plateau. From there, it’s an descent all the way, if an undulating one.
The interior plateau of Sennalandet is, to say the least, bleak. Reindeer graze here in the summer, but for much of the rest of the year it lies buried under snow. The thaw had come late this year, and the tundra was waterlogged. The rivers were running high, in spate conditions; the first hint of some difficulties that were swiftly to emerge.
The first portion of the route involved crossing the river Bastinjohka at a ford a kilometre east of the road. Upon arrival at the ford, however, it was immediately apparent that the depth of the water had grown sufficient to swallow my entire height twice over. Rather than a shallow crossing point, I was instead confronted by a black torrent of swift-flowing snow-melt. A detour of a kilometre or so upstream brought me to a point where the river divided into three tributary streams, the reduced depth of each of which only sufficient came up to my waist, and I was able to tramp my way through – sodden and cold, but comfortably alive!
After the crossing, the route heads east up to a ridge overlooking the twin plateaus of Sennalandet and Skaiddeduottar. The region is a great plain of checkered tundra and birchwood, interspersed with lakes and swampland. A few reindeer-herders trails traverse the plan, sticking to the high ground; in between the ground is waterlogged and often impassable.
Little piles of stones mark the route, stacked high enough to protrude from the snow where necessary. This is not a place to erect little ornamental cairns; they could easily confuse people, and lead to the loss of a route.
In a great many places, the landscape is more rock than soil. You can only admire the hardiness of the birch trees that manage to claw their routes into cracks in the rock, and eke some measure of nourishment from the fragments of Arctic soil.
After a night’s camp out on the tundra, I reached the watershed between the Bastinjohka and the Stabburselva river. From here, you look out over the plateaus to the west, and into the valley-land that forms Stabbursdalen National Park to the east. It’s a grand old vista.
Dropping into denser woodland, I reached the only wilderness hut along the route. A shelter for herders and hikers alike, the place was very well kitted-out. Inside there was a slender version of a bothy-book, a record of the people who had passed. It dated back to the 1980s, and in all that time there had only been four other visitors from the United Kingdom – a couple from Scotland the sole representatives of my nation. I was quite pleased to find myself in such select company.
Outside, neatly stacked in the woods, was a pile of the evidence of the passage of herders; the remains of a barbecue, perhaps, from the previous summer.
After a night in the hut, the next day brought a rainy walk along the valley, picking through thick birchwoods and clambering over occasional patches of higher, rocky ground.
To the south, the Stabburselva slowly cut deeper and deeper into the valley floor, starting to form a ravine.
Towards evening, the first pine trees started to appear amongst the scrubby birch. These were the outliers of the pinewood that occupies the northern fringe of Stabbursdalen National Park, and island of dense woodland amidst a sea of tundra and scrub. It’s the northernmost patch of such forest on the planet, permitted to grow here by the relatively warm air swept north by the Gulf Stream. Without this ocean current, this land would be a frigid waste; at the equivalent latitudes in North America, glaciers, rock and windswept tundra are the sole environments to be found.
The forest shelters in the lower reaches of the valley carved out by the Stabburselva, sheltered from the driving blasts of the Arctic wind by the surrounding hills and mountains.
The forest is large and dense enough to shelter a diverse range of animals; elk, lynx, wolverine and capercaillie are all found here. It is also home to the northernmost population of red squirrel on the planet.
I was keen to camp in amongst the trees for the night, and so set off up a creek where the soil and vegetation looked thicker.
I thought I had located a good spot close to a water-course, and was about to put up my tent when a large elk hove into view (for the benefit of any transatlantic readers, elk is the European species of moose). It was enjoying a good wallow in the little lake the creek had formed, and did not look overly pleased to be disturbed by my presence. After a brief spell being glared at by an animal substantially larger than I was, I decided it would be better to leave it to enjoy its bath unmolested, and set off to find a campsite a little more removed from its residence. There was no shortage of good ones available…
I ended up camped on a ridge of moraine, high enough above the tree-tops to afford a panorama of the surrounding hills. Despite the soggy weather, it was a fine place to enjoy the view.
The next morning, I set out across the final stretch of the forest. Here the river slows and starts to meander across a broad floodplain leading down to the sea. The pines cluster on the upper slopes, while the lower regions, more frequently inundated, are home to dense birch scrub.
At length, the path resolved itself into a vehicle track, heading out of the park and into a coastal region that was once again home to scattered human habitation.
The final exit point lay across the river Stabburselva, to the south. A rickety bridge traversed the river, which seethed away full of meltwater below. It was a nice way to end the journey, suspended above such a rushing torrent of energy. From there, it was just a short walk to the road, and for a connection point to the bus routes heading down the eastern coast. I found a cafe in the little hamlet that lies scattered by the roadside, and whiled away an hour or two waiting for the bus. From there, it was on to the south, and to the centre of Norwegian Lapland…
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