The Pite Älv: Free Solo
Updated: Nov 15
It is Monday morning, around five o’clock, and I must force myself awake. Inside my small apartment, it is warm, but outside I can see the rime on the grass. Comfortable tucked beneath the blankets, I begin do doubt myself. Out in the wilderness? Or turn around and go to sleep again? A difficult decision.
Of course, it is not truly one. Everything is planned and accounted for, and about thirty minutes and a coffee later, Michael from Arctic Mountain Team turns into my driveway. It will be about six hours of driving until we get to Sulitjielma in Norway. We will pass the Polar Circle as well as two mountain passes on the way, so there is more than enough time to recount my planning with Michael one more time. He is the expert for the river, and for Northern Sweden in general. Originally from Germany, he lives in Älvsbyn for about twenty years together with his wife. Together they own and run Arctic Mountain Team, a small company guiding multiday hiking and canoeing trips through the Swedish wilderness. I had spent the entire summer as an intern for their company and now, in late September, shortly before returning home to Germany I wanted to do something special. The Pite Älv had been in our minds for the entire summer. Due to plenty snow, the put-in was only reachable from late August, unusually late, so we had to take plenty people that had booked this creek to the equally beautiful but much more comfortable to reach Lais Älv.
Now with one week to spare I decided to go for it. Completely alone on a river, I had never paddled before. Well, not entirely. I had Michaels maps to show me all the different rapids. And we talked about his plenty of experiences on the river. As we spoke, the weather changed. First, it started to rain then, as the car climbed higher and higher on unpaved roads towards the put in, it changed to snow and finally as we reached the shores of the Loamejavree Lake it turned into an ice-cold fog.
At noon I am finally in my kayak. About forty kilos of weight I have to move, as it is stuffed full of my tent, sleeping bag and food. I am still far from the Pite Älv. As I am starting from the Norwegian side, I first must paddle over two lakes, portaging upstream along a short river between the two. No road gets closer to the Pieskehaure, so it is the easiest way. Still, unfortunately, even this easy way includes a three-kilometre-long portage over a small mountain pass and the border between Norway and Sweden. Thanks to the EU, at least the border itself is easy to pass, but I wish I could say the same for the pass.
Since the Fjäll in this area is mostly moss and rocks and swamp, I am at least able to drag my kayak along over the moss. However, in the last part close to the lake, I get greedy for the finish. I move away from the marked trail directly for the lake below, only to end up atop a steep granite slab that would be a challenging climb down, even without the kayak. I also have no need to hike back towards the trail, but luckily the plate is not very high. So I slide my kayak down and use it, still leaned against the wall, like a ladder. After this little climbing adventure, I set up camp directly on the shores of the Pieskehaure and after a short meal turn into my tent and sleeping bag. It would have been an excellent nights rest but not for the storm winds that arrived at the shores around midnight. Since on the stony floor, no tent hooks can offer much in the way of resistance I had to go out, barefoot and in underwear to lay heavy stones on the cloth of my tent. After that, I went back to sleep.
The next morning the storm persists. High winds turned the Pieskehaure in a boiling kettle of a lake. But this is in my favour as the wind happens to be a backwind for me. After a short breakfast, I load my kayak and head out to sea. The wind pushes me ahead so even without paddling I would make good speed, but with paddling I every now and then I get to surf down one of the storm waves. Going over an open lake in this condition is not without risk. At the furthest point, I am about four kilometres from any shore but even if it was only one kilometre and despite the fact I am in full gear, a swim in this condition would be deadly. Not only is it incredibly hard to swim in this condition, but the lake springs directly from the mound of a glacier is only a few degrees away from freezing. I am confident in my roll, but not very optimistic in my spray deck. A flimsy piece of cloth, sitting not very tight over the seat. As someone used to white water gear, this was not satisfactory to me, but it was the only one I could get hold of.
Further down the lake, the shores start to close in. The thing is almost formed like an upside-down water drop. Starting wide and round, then getting progressively narrower and narrower. The towering walls on both sides act as a funnel, allowing winds and waves to get gradually more potent, but now the shore is rather close, so my confidence rises, and I paddle even faster. It is barely noon as I reach the rapids at the end of the lake. The fair winds pushed me ahead to complete a distance planned for two days in half of one, so I am happy to set up my camp just beneath the first rapid. Warming myself on a small fire, I see the only sing of other humans during the trip: A helicopter passes over my head, then noticing the orange cloth of my tent returns. After it circles over my head and hovers a little lower, I sing him the international signal for “I am OK” the helicopter turns and leaves. It is something difficult to understand for people from the southern regions but up here nature, while beautiful, astonishing, awe-inspiring is also an unfriendly and hostile place. Something as simple as a hitch with the car could turn into life-threatening circumstances. So, the people that live here are aware of that and help each other. If you stop on one of the unpaved roads for sure most cars passing by will at least slow down to enquire if you are alright, knowing full well they might be your only chance for help during the next few hours. Something similar probably went through that pilot’s head, and it is one of the reasons why I love this region of Sweden so much.
Day three would start with a six-kilometre portage, but despite Michaels advice, I plan to stay on the river for as long as possible. My gear is heavy to carry after all. I know downstream somewhere will be an unrunnable waterfall, so I proceed carefully down the following rapids, using every possible eddy. This is standard kayaking procedure, but with a three-meter-long touring kayak infinitely harder than a designated creeker. The dam thing just does not turn very well. About four kilometres in, on a small lake, I finally see the horizon line of something bigger approaching and stop to go ashore. It is only a tiny drop, probably even runnable for me and behind it, after a small lake, the same natural WW I – III continues around a corner.
Still, at this point, I decide that I have pushed my luck enough for today and start the portage. It was just the right feeling in my gut as only two bends after the big waterfall is located, without any further eddies big enough to stop a kayak of my kind. The portage around is rather unfortunate. After the waterfall follows a gorge with multiple additional waterfalls so I must hike far higher on mountain paths. And there is no water. Since the water of the river is drinkable, I have a cup with me but no container for water. If I am thirsty, I just dip the bowl in the water wherever I am. So due to the sun shining and the hard work I am quite dehydrated as I reach the lake below the gorge. Dehydration for me manifests in an ungodly migraine so my mood is not a very good one as I set out on the lake. Despite the headache, I continue over the second portage of the day, only about five hundred meters next to another waterfall and without thinking continue in the small gorge below. It is a small gorge so the drop, in the end, is tiny as well. Despite that, the force of the impact is strong enough to pop the spray deck and flood my kayak. My gear is packed waterproof, so I only must endure the humiliation as I slowly paddle the kayak turned bathtub to the shore. The first possibility to go ashore seems as good as any, on big slabs of granite only to add insult to injury a sharp edge on one of the tiles cuts the sole clean off my shoe. For weight reasons it was my only pair on this trip, so for the remaining part, I must move the left foot only in some neoprene socks. For comfort, I wear both on my left foot. I paddle the last rapid of the day and then quickly go to sleep.
The last day awaits with two further portages. One short and easy, one longer over a part of the Kungsleden. This rather popular hiking trail leads to my first direct encounter with other humans on this trip, as well as wherever plenty of mosquitos. One stings me directly in the lip upon which it immediately swells to the double size but so short before my goal, nothing can really darken my mood. After the portage, I set out on the last leg of the journey, pushing now against a strong headwind towards Örnviken. Where I have to wait another night until Michael arrives to pick me up. Luckily I had to wait because during this night I get to visit the first polar lights of the season.