Mon Sep 4th, 2006 at 06:22:13 AM EST
Imagine. It is a Saturday, early dawn. You are stumbling out of the coach that had you cooped up for the past 16 hours, including a shredded night with far too little chair space allowing anything but comfortable sleep. The over-sensitive heating was alternately too hot or too frigid. And hence, you feel much similarity to a squashed tuna sandwich in a plastic bag being sat on by a flatulent elephant for a minimum of 24 hours, or in short: not all too keen. Surrounded by your fellow yawning companions, all squinting somnambulant at virginal sunlight, you are welcomed by three slightly sloppily dressed young men, bearing flaring orange T-shirts, who then guide you to a wooden table hosting jugs of steaming tea and coffee. You dislodge your backpack and help yourself to a cup of tea, with a halcyon vista of straight pines and sun sparking dazzlingly on the water of Rådasjon - or such is the name of the lake that you've been told - and await what comes...
Except, that wasn't my holiday. Probably, I painted the start of a holiday of scores of people we would welcome at Rådastrand in our orange shirts. For 5 weeks of my summer, I worked for Cirkel holidays as travel guide in Sweden together with my 2 colleagues and we were there to make it a comfortable week for everyone. So it was mostly work: low-pay, sleep-depriving work with its own responsibilities and quirks, and only a bit of a holiday. But also, it was a terrific experience and a cannon blast of fun. My impressions in the heavily loaded diary below.
So, the guests are there after a coach journey which easily could be chalked up as an offence of the Geneva Conventions of Human Treatment. What do you do next? Easy. You allow them some 60 minutes of refreshment (sometimes a little more), then stow them into vans and bring them to the start of their first hike. And into the woods they go for an easy hike of some 9 kilometres. Shiny happy people.
Yet when the first daze wears off, fundamental questions slowly coalesce in the minds of people, such as: Where are we? What is the purpose of all this? Why didn't I bring anti-mosquito spray? Will I get food tonight?
It's then crucially important to have an omniscient walking guide around for general appeasement. We are situated in Värmland, a county almost half the size of the Netherlands but with a little more than 250.000 inhabitants, hence it is so quiet and the forests harbour moose. As this is the first day, we will only walk to our first cabin where we will stay for the rest of the day to relax and hope for sun. For dinner, we serve a traditional Swedish recipe: Pyttipanna and if we're in luck, there will be enough raspberries to pick for dessert.
The fun really starts on Day 2. We take ourselves some 200 km up north, into Dalarna, a province with its rich tapestry of history and culture and where the Swedish landscape begins to transform from woods into tundra. Here, below the famous ski-resort of Sälen, we start the actual route of 90 km which is steeped into Swedish history: the Vasaloppet. Except, we did the version for hikers: the Vasaloppsleden.
The story so far. In 1520, a young nobleman named Gustav Wasa was on the run for soldiers of the oppressing Danish king Christian II who wished to server Wasa's head from his neck aka: kill him. Wasa, arriving in the settlement of Mora, attempted to start a rebellion against Christian II but was unable to rouse the farmers of Mora and had to flee again, heading west for Norway. Later, the story goes, the men of Mora learned how Christian II had treacherously massacred nobility in what has became known as the Stockholm Bloodbath. They changed their mind about Wasa's plans, and sending their best skiers behind him, caught up with Gustav Wasa nearby what is now Sälen. Wasa returned to Mora, a rebellion was started, and Wasa was crowned king of Sweden in 1523 and went on to carve out Sweden as one of the dominant nations of the 16th century and invent crackers.
For practical reasons, people put the start of the Vasaloppet at the very end where Wasa was re-united with the men of Mora. So, that's what we did also and Mora was to be our finish. In between: nothing but Swedish forest and country side.
Especially that first day, you pass through mosquito rich bogs and woods of dreamy pine with slanting shafts of sunlight, and the silence is absolute. For those who look closer, there is more beauty, or snacks: there were at least 5 kinds of fruit to pick along the way.
Sundew (Drosera Intermedia(?))
The first hut, after 17 km, comes as a reward for many. We predominantly used Allemans cabins, which slot perfectly with the great principle of Allemansrätten, or Right of Public Access. But: exactly because we relied on cabins which are freely available for everyone, we brought enough tents to offer an alternative in case other hikers would arrive without tents.
It's remarkable how little one really needs for hiking in the bush. Good shoes and a proper backpack are half the enjoyment. A good bed-bunk and a hot meal at the end of the day: also important. Practical tools: a hat, a pocketknife, a compass. But the one thing everyone, bar none, craves for after 2 days of hiking: a hot shower. I can only conclude that showering (or bathing) has become part of who we are. We can no longer go without.
But on the Vasaloppet, you've to make-do with what nature offers. A good place to shave, too.
Above: Mangsbodarna, one of the official check-posts for the ski race. This was an easy stroll of some 8 km after the first hut, and where a brief intermission began. Instead of walking, a relaxing canoe route followed across Swedish lakes and a tortuous stream to Venjan lake, where we ended up at Venjan camping.
For the guides, Venjan camping was a much, much needed oasis of rest. Elisabeth, our hostess, cooked dinner and took care breakfast was served at a luxurious nine o'clock the next morning. There were comfortable beds for everyone (no sleeping on the floor for us!) and no less than 4 piping hot showers in the compound. Without exception, I was walking by the skin on my teeth on those Mondays and slept for 10 hours straight. It was pure bliss.
Of course, after Venjan, there would be no showers until Friday...
On Tuesday, we'd first pass through what I was apt to call "Troll forest". Criss-crossed by moraines, the light forest is impressively littered with sandstone boulders and curiously festooned by reindeer mosses and other. Personally, I found it one of the highlights of the hiking trail.
Troll forest was the perfect opportunity to harass the guests with sedimentary structures and inject basic geology terminology. In the end, I could talk some 45 minutes and was pleasantly surprised how much enthusiasm it generated amongst the people. Geology wise, Sweden is both extremely exciting and extremely vexing. Exciting: Sweden practically has everything and it's all terribly old. Vexing: because the rocks are in one big hodgepodge because of the glacial times. All rocks are disconnected and nothing makes sense. Above: stream ripples easily some 1.500.000.000 (1.5 billion) years old.
We would end the day in Sundetkojorna, two cabins sitting at the end of a peninsula sticking into another one of these spell-binding lakes. With the sun just right and clouds dissolving in a cobalt sky, it was an ideal location for Swedish zen, probably my favourite. And although the sun would not set before eleven and it wouldn't get really dark (certainly the last weeks of July), a campfire and its subsequent campfire stories -including marshmallows- were essential parts of our stay there. A geology hammer is a perfect tool for roasting marshmallows, BTW.
Day 5 and 6
Wednesday and Thursdays were alternately light and heavy walking, with some 15 and 24 km, respectively. In Evertsberg, we would pass the halfway point, eat delicious apple-pie with vanilla sauce and peek into the Lutheran church for a flavouring of Swedish culture.
The endpoint for the Wednesday: Axikojan, a monumental watermill beside an icy, burbling stream. The Thursday, although long, took us through a variety of landscapes and small, colourful villages. By then, we had left the bogs and had come to sandy terrain with the occasional gnarly hill, while closing in on Mora.
Oxberg with the used Maypole
Vistapoint towards Mora.
By now, the chance for spotting wildlife was getting rather slim. Although many commented on the relative silence present in the Swedish forest, wildlife is teeming. The longer I was around, the more I would notice - but of course never real-life moose. I did find lots of fresh droppings and spoor: moose, deer, fox, even wolf. In the last week, we heard that nearby Venjan a bear had to be shot after a traffic accident. While driving my colleague and I had to break hard to allow a bushy-tailed fox another day. Only the last group - which of course I didn't accompany - saw moose in the wild.
The last homely hut: Eldris, 9 km from Mora.
The following morning, we'd return to civilisation, first crossing through sandy hills around Mora that generally swarmed with stunningly healthy Swedes, all jogging and sinewy. Even after less than a week in the woods, the business of Mora was somewhat discomforting. Mora has some 20.000 inhabitants, but is one of the tourist hubs of Dalarna and peaks in both summer and winter. Because Swedes probably have much too much time on their hands during the long winters, the streets are full with the most ludicrous American cars - from the sixties, or modern sport cars - to show off. There is a modest shopping street and what should not be missed: the Anders Zorn museum, Zorn being one of the best painters of the world. Of course I did miss it because of my obligations... Zorn, however, also had significance for the Vasaloppet. At the very finish, with its traditional arc, there is a sculpture of Gustav Wasa on a small hill, and it was good sport to crowd around Wasa's feet as an act of triumph. And thus we completed the journey.
And then.... relaxation. And showers.
Except for the guides of course. We would have a quick shower, undo the vans of the muck and yuck gathered within one week, go shopping for the next group, make a reservation for a restaurant and if we're lucky had some 2 hours for ourselves. In the evening, we had dinner in a Swedish Italian restaurant to officially wrap things up. By eleven o'clock we would make our goodbyes and leave the guests to their disco and Abba karaoke. I was often literally tolling on my feet, but the least enjoyable part was still ahead for the guides: driving some 2.5 hours back to Rådastrand through the Swedish night. Why? So we could be there at six, seven o'clock in the morning when the next busload of people would stumble out of the coach, blinking into the sunlight. Transfer day was a logistical nightmare and a completely irresponsible weekly ritual. I shall spare you the details, but you can bet the music was very loud during those nightly drives. We also discovered that nibbling carrots is a great way to avoid nodding off. And driving in Sweden in the night means: roaming moose. What a nightmare. And yet: what an experience.
(Pictures from Annemiek, Marijn, Daan, Rob, Valeer and Saskia. And thanks to Mark Knopfler, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Jim Croce and Supertramp for keeping me alive and relatively sane.)