The Pite Älv: Free Solo
Updated: Jan 10
It is Monday morning, around five o'clock, and I must force myself awake. It is warm inside my small apartment, 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 and 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 now lives in Älvsbyn. In fact, he moved here about twenty years ago together with his Wife, being almost a local now. 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 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 his 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. I must move about fifty kilos of weight, 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 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. 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, 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 can drag my kayak along over the moss. However, I get a little greedy for the finish in the last part close to the lake. I move away from the marked trail directly for the lake below, only to end atop a steep face of naked granite that would have been a challenging climb down even without the kayak. I also have no need to hike back towards the trail, but luckily the slab is not very high. I can slide my kayak down, and use it, still leaned against the wall, like a ladder. After this little climbing tour, I set up camp directly on the shores of the Pieskehaure and after a quick meal falls asleep. It would have been an excellent nights rest, but not for the storm winds that arrived at the shores around midnight. Since no tent hooks can offer much in the way of resistance on the hard floor, I have to go out, barefoot and in underwear to lay heavy stones on my tent's cloth. After that, I can finally go back 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 quick 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 tough to even 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 about 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 gradually get stronger, but now the shore is relatively 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, flies a circle over my head and hovers a little lower until I sing him the international signal for "I am OK".
It is difficult to understand for people from the southern regions. But up here, the nature while beautiful, astonishing, awe-inspiring is also an unfriendly and hostile place. Something as simple as a breakdown with a 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 I love this region of Sweden so much.
Day three would start with a six-kilometre portage, but I plan to stay on the river for as long as possible despite Michaels advice. My gear is heavy to carry after all. I know downstream somewhere will be an unrulable 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 in a designated creeker. The dam thing just does not turn very well. About four kilometres in, now 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 easy WW I – III continues around a corner. But 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 river tumbles down the big waterfall. And between my scouting stop and the giant drop, there would have been no chance to stop my kayak.
The portage around is rather unfortunate. There follows a deep gorge with multiple further drops after the waterfall, so I am confined to my mountain paths high over the canyon. And there is no water. Since the river's water is drinkable, I have a cup with me but no container for water. If I am thirsty, I just dip the cup 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. As you might imagine, my mood is not a very good one as I set out on the lake. Despite the headache, I continue toward the second portage of the day. Only about five hundred meters of hiking next to another waterfall need be completed. I am halfway around the portage when I notice a shortcut.
An easily reachable put in, and the river flowing smoothly into another, very small looking, gorge. Without further thinking, I set my boat on the water and paddle into the small canyon. It is a tiny 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, made out of large slabs of granite. And those slabs, with their sharp edges only ad insult to injury as one cuts the sole clean off my shoe. For weight reasons, it was my only pair on this trip, so I must move the left foot only in some neoprene socks for the remaining part. I must now wear both socks on my left foot for comfort, while my right is barefoot inside the boot. I only paddle one more rapid afterwards, then set up camp and cook some dinner. My mood is not very bright, so I quickly go to sleep, hoping for the next day.
The last day awaits with two additional portages. The first is short and comfortable, while the second one leads me over the Kungsleden. This rather popular hiking trail leads to my first direct encounter with other humans on this trip, and wherever plenty of humans, there are plenty of other things. So it is also my first encounter with mosquitos on tour. 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 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 I get to visit the first polar lights of the season during this night.