Pite Älv: The Second Chapter
Updated: Jan 11
With the quarantine in full force, I thought to revisit my second solo tour along the Pite Älv. In the summer of 2018, I returned to northern Sweden, intending to explore some rivers in the Scandinavian Mountains. It all turned out a little different. The trip was planned for three weeks, and I intended to run three rivers during that time, however, right from the start, my plan got cut short. It turned out that I already would miss the first week of my vacation for some urgent work-related reasons. The second week I planned fell victim to an unexpected closure of the Munich airport. Until flight schedules normalised and I finally reached basecamp at Älvsbyn, I had just one week left. If this trip did not seem ill-fated enough by now, it took only the drive from the airport to the guesthouse I was staying at for me to notice another problem: The water level in the rivers. A record dry summer was to blame for this, and I was at a loss.
Since my planned descents each would have started close to the rivers' springs, I intended to explore; I now had a new challenge to face. My original plan had called for a hike through the mountains from the Norwegian side, crossing the border into Sweden, and starting my descent at first sight of a river. It is the same way I used for the upper section of the Pite Älv. The simple reason for this plan is, that for most of the rivers, hiking in from the Norwegian side is actually the shortest, but not necessarily the most comfortable, way. But with the low water levels, I could expect the hike to lengthen considerably before reaching my destination. Luckily Michael from Arctic-Mountain-Team had a different suggestion. He recommended running the middle section of the Pite Älv, drop in at the same location I finished my first tour on the river and paddle all the way to Älvsbyn. What resulted was, to this day, probably one of my most daring and challenging trips. In fact, when I started to recall the thoughts of this adventure yesterday, it induced an uneasiness that kept me up most of the night. So before I tell the tale, I want to preface it with a word of warning: The Pite Älv is an extremely volatile river, changing its apparent friendly face to devilish grimaces within seconds and without notice. Unless you are a very experienced Kayaker, I do not recommend to run either section of the river without a local guide. And I absolutely advise you against solo expeditions. Going alone into the wild is one of the most dangerous activities possible and doubly so If you plan to run a river.
Also, I have a sad confession: I took almost no pictures during the trip. However, I practised my filming skills and the result you can see in the, not chronological, video right here.
My first day on the river stared with a rather lengthy drive. It would have taken us four hours to reach the tiny village of Stenudden in a straight drive, but we had to include a short detour to the Skelefteälven for we had to drop some other paddlers of there. The Skelefteälven is my home run in the region more or less, so I could give some advice and tips during the drive and did not focus too much on my own plans. Finally, on location, I first had to assemble my craft. In memory of the unpleasantness, I experienced in the upper section with the big and bulky Touringkayak, I decided on a different kind of boat. I had rented a Packraft from a rental service in Germany, with the express purpose of testing its feasibility as an expedition craft. A Packraft has several advantages: It is incredibly lightweight, can be folded down to about the size of a Lifejacket and inflated has about the same properties as a Whitewaterkayak. It can also be inflated using straightforward tools pretty much everywhere. I did just that, and not as enthusiastically as you would expect someone starting on his vacation, for it had started to rain.
As I set out from the shores of my first lake, leaving civilisation behind me, the rain slowly subsided. However, the clouds persisted, creeping lower and lower over the trees until they appeared as smoke, streaming froth between black and green timbers wet with dew. The lake's surface was flat and perfect, acting a mirror to the landscape and only disturbed by small ripples, caused by the rhythmic movement of my paddles. Some giant rocks broke the water's surface, at places appearing in the fog as towering black shadows, suggesting to me the feeling of a mouse between apartment blocks as I passed them. As I passed them for the first time, I became aware of the tiny ripples caused by flowing water along the janky rocks. And there, I realised that even this tranquil appearing lake was part of a river. And a mighty one at that for below my tiny craft moved many times over the volume of the wild, untamed, alpine rivers I regularly paddle on. The water picked up in speed but remained smooth on its surface until half a days journey had passed. On a small beach made out of pebbles, I took a short lunch break just atop the first rapid. Strengthened and in good spirits, I continued down the section of whitewater, as it appeared neither big nor menacing from the shore. However, from my tiny craft, the waves appeared as towering mountains before me, and I was quite short of breath as I reached the next calm section. A few hundred meters long, this part concluded in a Horizon line with thunderous noise and wet mist rising skyward behind the drop. Also, the shore had changed.
The thick forest took a back step to giant naked granite slabs lining the shores. If there is one piece of advice I can give for this river, it is this: Beware of Granite. Many times the Pite Älv is wide and open in its bed. In many small and plentiful channels, it cuts through forests meadows and swamps, dividing the amount of water into many smaller portions that result in fun, manageable whitewater. But in some places, the river happens to come upon the raw granite bedrock left behind during the ice age. And granite is not as quickly cut in different channels. So instead all the rivers channels join up and thunder down the granite slabs with deadly might.
I already knew this from my run along the upper section, so I carefully advanced along the shore. As close as I dared, I paddled towards the horizon until just meters away I stepped out of my Packraft and started the portage. Down I went over the naked granite, a single piece of rock, comparable in size maybe to a small shopping mall, but sloping gently down and easy to walk, while the river, turned to a boiling white kettle of death and destruction, was crashing down the same slabs a stone's throw to my right. After the falls the river widened again, now gently decreasing in elevation over fun to paddle rapids never exceeding the third degree. After a ninety-degree bend in the river, I ended up in the next lake. The weather improved, seemed even in my favour. A strong wind rose behind me, the clouds started to part, and the wind began to push me fast forward over the lake. I took little breaks now, paddling what I was worth and being hell-bent on using the backwind to my advantage. The waves got higher around me, and I remembered my tour on the upper section. There, in only one day, I had made a two days journey, aided by an equally strong wind. I passed three more mammoth lakes, as well as short river sections between them and only decided to call it quits for the day when I could barely move my arms anymore. Not only fatigue caused this, but also the ice-cold wind chill in my neck. I landed on a small island, equipped with a fireplace and some benches. But I could use neither. The wind was so strong that each and all attempts to get my trusty little gas burner up to enough heat, for some dinner, were in vain. It only got something warm to eat after I leaned my Packraft against two trees in an attempt to create a small wind shelter. It was not exactly calm air, but the winds right behind the raft got tranquil enough for me to cook some dinner. With my tummy filled, but the rest of my body still freezing cold, I built up my Biwak and settled in for a very uncomfortable night.
The next day started equally as windy and equally as cold. I was not feeling well at all. Sweating in my Biwak, shivering as soon as I left it. A light fever, as well as an ungodly migraine, made the morning, not at all a pleasant one. Despite this, I forced down a small breakfast and packed up my gear. While uncomfortable, the winds were also in my favour, and I intended to get every last mile possible out of this advantage. Paddling was a pain, and I did not really notice how the shores flew by left and right. I was still on a lake, but I was making to good a distance to stop, with all the help from wind and paddle. But that speed soon started to fade. Again and again, I stopped paddling while the pain in my body mounted, now steering only while wind and waves pushed me further. After two hours, I was so cold and shaking so violently that I had to take a break. Behind some house-sized rocks along the shore, I found the air calm enough to actually light a fire and enough dry wood for the same purpose. I sat there a while, but I decided to continue onwards after I warmed up a little. Still, the winds were in my favour. The next two hours became an even more gruelling slog. As soon as I had left the protected harbour behind the rocks, the shivers had started again. Paddling felt even worse than before and was very slow. My head started to fall forward, my eyes felt heavy, all while I was out on a broiling lake, whipped into a frenzy by gale-force winds and meter high waves all around me. And amid these conditions, out there on the lake, I fell asleep. It was only a short second, not far removed from waking. This part where you first chang from dozing to sleep and can not really tell whether it is either, while all the sounds around you become somewhat far removed. But the realisation of what was happening pumped enough adrenaline through my veins, for me to make a mad dash for the next island. There I found a small depression, sheltered from the wind and assembled my Biwak. It was barely ten in the morning when I tucked in for the night. If you would ask me now whether it was hypothermia or sickness, I could present no answer. But I can tell that after having slept for almost twenty-four hours I awoke, rejuvenated, reborn, feeling like nothing had ever happened.
The wind had died down and the clouds wholly removed to present a clear blue sky over the equally blue lake. I took my time with a relaxed breakfast, packed my stuff and went out again on the water. The weather was perfect, and even the river seemed to be in on an apology for the previous days so perfect was everything. Small rapid followed after small rapid, the water diversifying in hundreds of different channels, that flowed into each other and diverged again forming a structure like a web. It was an incredibly entertaining task to search my way through this maze and behind every bend there seemed to be one even more enjoyable piece of whitewater. Had I not been constrained by my flight back home occurring just a day after my planned arrival in Älvsbyn, I had set up camp and stayed at this place for some days, to explore all the small hidden channels to find all the routes possible down this section. In fact, even to this day, I wish to return just for the fun of rerunning this section. However, I would much rather take a propper Whitewaterkayak for the next time, to improve upon the experience, as it turned out that the Packraft required quite a lot of energy for all the small eddies and rapids I traversed. However, all good things need to come to a close and so did this section of the river. The plenty of different channels joined up to a few bigger ones, and the first few paddle strokes on these parts served as a pretty good reminder about the real force of the water. Now the character of the river changed once more. For the rest of the day, short lakes got connected by even shorter stretches of whitewater, that do not lose much in height and are therefore very manageable. This is even though now the river just forms a single channel. I got another treat at the end of my day. I found a small wind shelter. These buildings consisting of three walls, a roof and a fireplace can be frequently found in the more accessible parts of Lapplands wilderness. Their sight is always a welcome one, as they signal a sheltered rest, with tables and chairs and a big stock of pre-cut firewood. Even more, this shelter had a small beach, as the river had deposited some sand here on the shore. I set up a little clothesline to dry my gear, wet from all the rapids of the day, produced a marvellously good dinner from my stock of freeze-dried goods and went to bask in the sun for some more hours before going to sleep.
On the fourth day, I took things a little bit slower, scouted more and got careful. The wind shelter I had spent the night at was an excellent first warning that I now got closer to the more touristy parts of the Pite Älv. And this was reasonable cause for caution, as the primary visitor attractions along the river are its two biggest rapids: the Trollfrosen and the Storforsen. I was now closing in on the first of the two. From my maps, I already knew the geography of the Trollforsen and had made my plans. After a series of small lakes, the last lake's right shore would give way, at first almost as wide as the lake itself, to the Trollforsen rapids. Those continued about one kilometre downstream, getting progressively narrower and narrower until it would break through a narrow granite gorge.
However, you could discover another useful fact from the map. On the lake's left shore, a small side channel would open and continue as a level lake for half the rapids distance before turning into the much smaller version of the Trollforsen. So for the first few hours of my day, I spent paddling through plenty of lakes, with some short stretches of whitewater separating them. Only one difference this time: Since I wanted to be sure to not end up in the Trollforsen, I started hogging the left shores of each lake and carefully scouted each rapid to insure it actually terminated in another pond. A measure unnecessary as it turned out, for I quickly recognised the last lake before Trollforsen for what it was. The first sign was a conspicuously missing shore on the right-hand side, and my second clue was in the lake's surface itself. The whole thing appeared to be slightly angeled towards the exit on the right. And even at the left shore where I was moving, at least five-hundred meters away from the horizon on the other side, I could feel the currents pulling my boat towards the large exit. It cost considerable strength to fight against the current and reach the left channel I had planned on. But it was not enough. I passed smaller cuts in the right-hand shore two or three times, where the water had broken the bank and forced itself down towards the main channel. I finally reached a Horizon marked by naked pillars of granite on either side and began my portage. It was the longest during this trip I took with my raft still inflated. Let me tell you that while very light, the Packraft is in its inflated condition definitely not the most comfortable thing to carry. Despite this, I completed the hike down in a relatively short time. My path was on the island, separating the two channels.
To my left I had a series of waterfalls and slides, that actually looked quite runnable with a true Whitewaterkayak, to my right I only had a gently downward sloping forest, through which the thunderous noise of far away rapids echoed. I never saw the Trollforsen, as the island was too broad, but I heard it all the way down. After arriving at the next lake, I paddled across it to find another piece of whitewater lined by granite slabs. However, this rapid was, I decided, manageable. A small misjudgment, as I ended up capsizing and swimming down the lower half of the rapid. I was washed out with my gear to the next lake and had quite some time to think about my life's decisions while I had to bring my boat and paddle to shore while swimming next to them. After sorting everything back together and Insuring nothing had gotten through the waterproof packaging of my provisions, I crossed this last lake for the day. Luckily it was a kind and sunny afternoon, so I could dry all my clothes that had gotten wet and enjoy my afternoon lying on a soft bed of dry moss in the sun.
The next day I carried down a very short rapid and then put my craft into a moving river. Due to my success with the previous day, I again choose the smaller channel of two options, and like the last day, this one terminated again to some garden of granite slabs. Only this time the pools between the drops became more extensive and more stretched out, so I could paddle these distances and only had to carry down each short piece of waterfalls. Finally, the two rivers reunited again in a larger pool, and I could awe at the other channel. Where mine had descended over multiple smaller slides and falls, this one was tumbling down from way up over giant rocks and boulders. The same collection of blocks was strewn about the river below me and separated it in much smaller but interconnected channels. I was actually able to navigate down one of the smaller ones directly next to the mainline that, again was a boiling white kettle you would absolutely not want to end up in. Only with every other rock, I could pass either left or right. I had one more chance to choose wrong and end up precisely in the mainline. After I left the rock garden, the Pite Älv change face once more. Suddenly the rocks gave way to smaller pebbles, the river picked up speed, and the difficulty decreased. For the next sixty kilometres, not one single lake was stopping the flow and riding down this stretch of river was superb. I never made this long a distance in so short a time on any river or stream, but it all had to come to an end. And the ending was violent. My first signal was that the rapid I was on started to get steeper between the pebbly shores and my second sing was a Bridge suddenly popping over the horizon. I knew I was in something big, but already the river was to fast to halt. So with all energy, I could muster I crashed my craft into the pebbles on the shore, which stopped me completely and kept me in place long enough for me to jump out of my Packraft, grab it by its straps and pulled us both up the shore. The next portage was nightmarish. I had to climb over a field of large boulders, completely overgrown with moss. And the same moss had also grown over the holes between the stones.
Time and time again, the surface gave way under my, and I stumbled or had my leg stuck up to the hip in a narrow shaft. I finally reached the bridge I had seen before and saw the river tumbling through a narrow granite canyon beneath me. I carried down to the next launching point and started again on the river. Now pebbles slowly got replaced by high walled sandy shores, with light forest atop the banks and I know I was closing in on Storeforsen. Storeforsen can best be described as Europes Niagra, but longer and deadlier and higher. The closer I got, the more carefully I proceeded, for I wanted to avoid at all costs to get to close. Finally, a wind shelter located on the shores about me signalled to me the Storeforsen Nature Reserve's beginning, and I took this shelter for a welcome resting spot for the night.
The last day of my journey, I started with a three-kilometre long portage. I set out on the walk directly from the wind shelter I had rested at. I passed down on the well-maintained walkway straight next to the rapid. So close it is that you get a shower by the number of droplets flung to the air with the force of the river and so loud it is, that seldom you will witness a noise of equal power and equally frightening. Of the river below the Storeforsen, not much needs to be said. It flows exceptionally slowly through a deep vale with towering banks left and right. Only once more I had to carry around a small Waterfall, and after a long fight against a substantial headwind, I finally got to Älvsbyn. I had to carry up the steep bank and walk through the village's streets, getting quite a few funny glances, with my Packraft and all my gear until I reached the Arctic Mountain Team's Guesthouse and got to settle in for my last night in Sweden.
As I write this now, a desire has been awakened in me to go back north and explore more of its beauty. So as soon as this quarantine finishes, I hope to bring you more of Lapplands beauty.