Mushing from Abisko to Nikkaluokta

Six days dog sledding from Abisko to Nikkoluokta in Swedish Lapland.

Day 1: Abisko to Abiskojaure

Our trip began in Kiruna, where Kate and I spent a night and meet our companions for the next days, Austrians Cordula and Martin, Belgians Astrid and Gus, and our Swiss guide Menno Huber (www.mondhund.ch).  Day 1 began with an excessive amount of dog faff as the kennels got two trips underway; or team with 30 dogs and a second group with 48. Final underway for the hour long drive to Abisko with a loaded trailer behind us.

   
Space for 16 huskies on this side of the trailer

At the other end chaos ensures. Our team are first to leave.  Menno had carefully loaded the dogs in order but as clients we don’t yet know which are ours, can’t harness a dog, have never packed a sled, never mind taken control of one with for eager beasts up front. A fall on the ice and a banged head.  Dogs in the wrong place. I am dragged of my feet by one. Finally we have an ordered line of sleds restrained by claws and panic lines tied to trees. A brief lesson in breaking follows and we are of with a start in the bright sunshine. 

Menno is clear. No pictures allowed en route today as we will be hanging on and learning how to brake rather than fall off. The views to the mountains ahead are stunning, though, and sledding quickly becomes a familiar motion. Brake downhill, kick to help the dogs up. We go over many small ups and downs – good practice and in amenable snow.  And it is warm!

    

Day 1 sledding

At least, it is warm till we get to a lake, which we cross as the sun sets, and suddenly it id’s very cold… but beautiful views and our cabin for the night at Abiskojaure is just the other side.

    
From Abiskojaure

Menno lines us up outside and more chaos ensues as we learn how to form “the line” –  30 dogs evenly spaced on a neat chain, fixed at either end, tied to sleds to make sure. Then there is sled unpacking, wood chopping, fire lighting, water fetching, cooking an infeasible amount of hot water to melt the dog food (we are carrying 24 x 5kg doggy sausages plus two bags of dry food), cooking dinner, feeding dogs, washing up, preparing breakfast for the dogs… and finally bed.  General confusion and Menno making sure everything gets done.  We have arrived late this first night and bed time is soon after dinner.

    
Bed time

Day 2: Abiskojaure to Alesjaure

Menno has warned us it will take two or three hours to leave; and the dogs need feeding first add they can’t run for two hours after eating. Doggy breakfast first, then, in parallel with hot water for breakfast and flasks, and porridge.  I try to work out what is worst, dog meat or porridge, and decide dog meat by a fraction.  But our line remains outside in neat array and all ready to go.  Breakfast, packing, kit out of

F hut, cleaning, fresh water for the next arrivals. To sleds. Pack, position sleds, harness dogs, dogs to sleds, GO. It is familiar two days later; today is still learning. 

     
Waiting in line on day 2

It is a relief to be off. We start on the flat, but very soon up a pad with some step sections and much kicking and even walking to be done to get the full sleds up those. Care to hang on to the sled when walking so the dogs don’t take off alone at the top of the hill. Some stops to drink and rest on the way up. The pad is wide and beautiful, and beyond the trail flattens out to easy going and great views.

    Pass above Abiskojaure

Lunch is in a wild open spot and after its cold across a lake again. My dogs are slow and leftward leaning and its only later I work out the best order and position for each; and that they are a quick team uphill but not on the flat. 

We park up below the hut and the prices gets more familiar; anyway, seen from the hut above later our line is neat!  

  Two lines below Alesjaure;ours is on the left.

Kate and I on water duty tonight. Water is a hole in the river 30m or so below the hut, under a bridge.  A bucket, a spear to push the bucket under water, a rope, a funnel to get the water in to the two 25 litre containers we have; and a long drag of the containers up slope to the cabin (we can’t carry them). Begin again and sort water for the sauna. There is still a lot of faffing and in the morning a minor exploration when a Spanish guy empties his porridge into the clean water bucket.

A good night’s sleep!

Day 3: Alesjaure to Hukajaure

Fresh snow in the morning to make the going hard work and Astrid gets dumped from her sled first thing. But beautiful…

 
Leaving Alesjaure

The day clouds over and we continue, crossing the second team. Menno decides to take the same pad as them, to the west or to the Norwegian border, rather than the original plan, which would have given us trail to break for much of the day; this way he can asst least share the worth with the other guide. Behind, life is easy! At least till there is a hole in the trail and a couple fall through… and it’s a long day – 35km to Hukajaure and happy to arriv ethat evening, quite cold by the time we get there. A really great day.

  The other team passing us at lunch

The cabin is small. We fit both teams – 13 people – in a room for 12 and Gus sleeps in the wood shed, which is fine till someone locks him in and he doesn’t realise till he needs a pee in the morning.  Cooking is communal and the dogs are parked up quickly tonight… for the first time things are starting to be a sensible routine and the faff makes sense… especially if 3 hours dog faff means covering 35km in 6 hours or so. Life is good.

Day 4: Hukajaure to Salka

A shorter day, but stunning.  Easy morning through a pass in the sunshine and views to Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest peak.

  
Easy sledding on a sunny day

  
Kebnekaise 

Athe far side a step sideways tricky section after which we are back on the valley of the Kungsleden and take a break for lunch.  Easily to our nights accommodation at Salka in the afternoon.

  Near Salka

The sky clouds over by Salka, a cluster of huts on a small hill below which we park the usual line of huskies; and there is bird life, and beer in the hut!

 Salka

  Well camouflaged bird and less week camouflaged dogs

Day 5: Salka to Vistas

Day 5 begins with a loose dog who has learned to untie herself from the chain and a nice sunrise.

  Morning at Salka

This is quickly followed by a lot of hard work for Menno as we head uphill through deep soft snow.  Some bumps; I fall at one but land in soft snow and the claw falls off and catches with no work on my part.  The weather is not so good today; grey and windy with blowing snow – no doubt worse at dog height than human height,but even at human height I can’t always see Menno for sleds ahead.  The view ahead is bleak when it’s clear.

Looking into the pass between Salka and Vistas

Over the other side there are some lengthy sections of sideways and downhill; the latter is just a case of breaking so as not to hit the dogs, but sideways is a more difficult case of weighting the sled on the uphill runner so it dies not slip – there are a few falls on these sections. Finally a steeper section of downhill leads to a hut for lunch.

  Outside the lunchtime hut

The afternoon that follows is difficult. Sideways for much of the way, plenty of overturned sleds, soft snow banking under the brakes and at one point Vorlek, Menno’s lead dog doesn’t quite believe where we are going.  I manage to stay aboard but am not quite sure how. We drop towards a much lower valley with little snow; this will be our exit from the highlands to Nikkoluokta; and just when we can see the hut of Vistas ahead, there is one final obstacle that Menno won’t let me run, somewhat to my relief. He gets my sled down ok but falls once, and Martin manages some more; the rest of us walk. We are hanky fyi reach the valley floor.

 Menno negotiating the steep section above Vistas with Cordula’s dogs, Martin following.

Vistas has nice views; and before we go to bed we find fox prints in the snow and see the northern lights – a great last night in the excellent cabins in this area.

 From Vistas; this is the pass through which we have traveled.

  

Fox prints near Vistas

  Northern lights at Vistas

Day 6: Vistas to Nikkoluokta 

Sadly, our last day. And very different to the others – now down in the valley where freeze thaw cycles have given icy conditions at this time of day. We depart at high speed on icy trails and cover a big distance quickly with much time doesn’t on the brakes – sledding had become an adrenaline support this morning. Beautiful views behind but little time to see them!

    Looking back up valley on the way out to Nikkoluokta 

A brief stop at a small cabin once inhabited by a nurse who choose to send her days in the wilderness.

   Nurse’s cabin below Vistas

Then off again, among the river with the threat of getting wet the consequence of Ann overturned sled in places. Where the ice is blue and hard a fall would be painful but the sledding smooth… I land in a hole but we have no major mishaps and close to Nikkoluokta we also cross slush and water on the lakes over the ice… places here I would not go without the dog teams ahead of me! 

There is little shelter for lunch and a cold wind brewing; we carry on and all too soon reach an uninspiring end in a muddy car park in Nikkoluokta, where the team from the kennels outta waiting for us. The dogs are happy to get into their straw-lined compartments; we are not so chuffed about the prospect of our return to civilisation.

The team

  

 Gus, Cordula, Martin, Kate and Astrid 

 Clockwise: Jane, Draco, River, Meggy (Jomsom) and Bear (Buck)

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An ending in Inchnadamph 

Above Benmore Lodge to Inchnadamph

Up early after a restless night’s sleep, but the rain of the previous evening had stopped earlier in the night and the river was a pleasing inch or so lower.  Couldn’t be arsed with cooking in the tent (rather new too burn) or out of it (grey chilly morning), so promptly of with Danish pastry and no coffee. 

  

The river at camp

Slowly up the valley, rough all the way even on the marked track. Not very happy with my line to the bealach (no name; the one between Breabeg and Conival) and a rough river crossing in the bottom. Happily distracted by the geese, which were flying north today. The first lot attempted the bealach but we’re foiled by cloud and took a holding circuit clock-wise.  Lots of honking. The second lot, right behind, almost made a clear patch but also failed and took a holding circuit anti-clockwise.  Lots more honking.  Both skeins found breaks as their circles took them higher, but both failed again, and the two groups joined then headed for the east, where I lost them from sight in cloud quickly, and from earshot I assume as they headed over the ridge to the east. A third group, only ten minutes later, had clear weather and came straight through the bealach, rather quicker than I was faffing about crossing the river.  Lots more honking.  But I too had clear weather to the top and say in the sun for a while wondering how on earth it had taken so long to cross 5km of ground.

 

Views of Breabeg across another bog

A narrow pass and screwed up geology. A quasar sat just on the south side of the col; I though in a good position till about 50m later when a rumbling above chucked a tv- sized rock more or less on its direction (and happily on the opposite side to me).  The whole side of Conival was active and the next bombardment resulted in a small car trundling down the mountain with a sound like something I’ve not heard since days on Montserrat. With a sigh I abandoned the happy path in the valley bottom and took to the goat track on the west side.  

  

Dark pass with big loose rocks thundering into it

Twisting and narrow through the bealach and still screwed up geology, but nice light and an interesting spot to be.  Snow bridges left from the winter.

  

Snow in the pass

At the fast side a nice sunlit track led out of the pass on a contour, and below a nice safe flattening in the slope above, and grim grey weather to either side.  Foolishly I decided I liked the look of it and ten minutes late it headed over a cliff.

  

This path out of the bealach leads over a cliff…

Awkward rocky descent round the damn cliff and then peat hags and nasty bog and more nasty bog to a nastier river crossing (the sodding thing was tiny as well) and then a bottomless bog with a munroist’s path to ensure and solid ground had been buried long ago.  I blame the Fucoid shale.  Finally to the limestone and some dry ground, then easily out to Inchnadamph.  As hard a day’s 13km as one could wish for.

  

Arriving at Inchnadamph, Canisp on the horizon

Oykel Bridge to Benmore Lodge

Up the River Oykel

Indeed crap weather yesterday, so picked up the car via trains and hitching and the like. Back to Oykel Bridge this morning to find the river somewhat higher than when I first arrived!

Up the track towards Loch Ailsh; open country to start with and very lovely Bu the river. Warm sun, cold wind, heavy showers directly into my face (ski goggles on within ten minutes of seeing off). 

   

 

The Upper River Oykel

Lunch stop in a but by the river with the guy who manages it; he fed me tea and we talked of fish and rivers and flooding and his previous hut blown away in the hurricane earlier this year along with the church roof. 

  

More River Oykel

Eventually to a dull forest path via a sign for the trail – the first I have seen!

  

Trail sign in the Oykel valley

But the views across Loch Ailsh to Ben More Assynt and it’s friends more than made up for it. 

  

Loch Ailsh 

A snack at Ben More Lodge, then pleasantly round into the valley I will ascend tomorrow and a nice camp by the river. Well fed and rain outside now.

  

Camp by the Oykel River

Knockdamph to Oykel Bridge

East not north and some unwelcome news.

  

Leaving Knockdamph in the morning

Oykel Bridges, really, as there are two of them. An easy day, and dull, down the river to Oykel Bridge.  Track all the way and only one river crossing at which to get wet feet.    

 

Descending to Oykel Bridge

But all pretty enough and now a hotel room that feels like a lot of luxury after many nights of shared accommodation.  Arrived, bathed, snoozed, ate cake.

Also lots of thought and planning, as I have learned today that the Cape Wrath range will be active for the next two weeks, other than Sundays, which are hopeless for me given times, the distance I can cover in a day and the need to get back home on time. 

What to do?  The forecast is foul for tomorrow, so picking up the car from Strathcarron is an option that will give me some more flexibility. But sadly I will not be reaching my final destination this trip. 

Inverlael to Knockdamph

Snow and sun and empty moorland

Goodbye to Kate this morning; she left me at the start of the path from Inverlael this morning in the sunshine. Thereafter another day of squalls but thankfully not very windy ones!  Sunny up long gentle zig zags out of the valley at an easy pace with views to Beinn Dearg, the Fannichs and An Teallach, and a feeling of leaving behind the hills of Torridon and Fisherfield.  

 

Looking back to Loch Broom from the forest above Inverlael

  

Fresh snow on the Beinn Dearg group 

Snow from about 500m and a light covering across the very boggy pass odd Allt na Lairige – wet feet but beautiful broad views over the bogs and heather.

   

Crossing Allt na Lairige

 

Seana Bhraigh from Allt na Lairige

Some heavy showers to add interest to the view: 

Round the hill I got the first brief view to the Assynt hills, before dropping down to a lovely meadow at the head of Glen Douchary, the grazing deer scattering into the distance well before I reached the smooth grass. Lunch behind a ruin out of the wind and in a warm sun – till the next snow shower arrived!

  

The end of lunch is near – above Glen Douchary 

Then on down Glen Douchary past peat deposits metres thick with old pine forest roots poking out to see daylight for the first time in centuries.  Glen Douchary holds a beautiful wild river in a small and narrow gorge with rocky sides and many waterfalls and rapids, but hard going along the miles and endless miles of bog on either side, and no path to speak of.  Eventually there was one, but I got to wondering if its sole purpose was to lure more people into the next bog; then I thought maybe this bog is why there is no-one coming the other way on the trail; then I started to look for heads poking out of the bog; but mercifully there were none (or maybe they had just sunk altogether). 

   

  

Glen Douchary 

Pretty waterfalls but I was glad to see the escape valley appear at the end. Even then there was more fun to be had as I clambered down a deep ravine then out, over steep slippery grass covered in hail and debris from previous landslides.  I didn’t want to slip there, and didn’t, emerging with more hail stinging my face into the next (but happily final) bog on the other side. Finally the loch! I was getting a bit to keen to get to the bothy to marvel at the wonderful track along its length; but it gave an easy (and dry) final 3km to “home”. 

 

  

Along the side of Loch an Daimh; I learned later that it is one of the best fishing loch in Scotland. I guess the fishermen don’t approach via Glen Douchary.

Just me in the bothy; clean and bizzarrely warm inside, and quiet apart from the hailstones bouncing down the chimney.

Lochivraon to Inverlael

Snow squalls again


A pleasant evening in the bothy with the Austrians, who had a great love of the highlands and the Scottish wilderness.  And the best bothy fire yet! Went to bed warm and slept well whilst listening to the storm outside – hail or heavy rain battering on the tin roof and pleased not to have camped.  First light showed snow at about 400m on the hill opposite. 

 

From Lochivraon in the morning

Warm water from our friends (petrol faster than methods this time) and mutual photos; and left in sunshine.

  

Leaving the bothy at Lochivraon

  

Seeing out alongside Loch a’ Bhraoin

Hit by the first squall halfway along Loch a’ Bhraoin and the day had been sunshine and showers since.  

  

Approaching storm along Loch a’ Bhraoin

But good views straight after:

 

A’ Chailleach from Loch a’ Bhraoin

And good views back to the Family’s once we hit the road.

  

The Fannichs from the A832

A short cut through the woods to a hydro plant below Corrieshalloch Gorge worked well…  

Descending into Inverlael

… but with a missing bridge, we struggled to find the track down the valley and ford the River Broom to get to Forest Way henhouse – a great place to stay and the end of Kate’s trip.  Cheese toasties for lunch! I then walked down the valley on the track to Inverlael in glorious sunshine. The next squall is not far away… but this time we can watch from the comfort of Kate’s car!

  

Across Fisherfield

(Or the edge of it, at least). 

This evening in Lochivroan bothy with an Austrian couple who also came from Kinlochewe.  Stunning clear morning as we left Kinlochewe but clouds brewing all day and an unhealthy haze: a front will come through overnight. 

Long valley in to start with superb views back to Beinn Eighe.

  

Beinn Eighe on a glorious morning

…then steadily uphill to Lochan Fada  

Approaching Lochan Fada

and great views to Slioch and the Fisherfield hills.  

Slioch looking huge and pointy

A’ Mhaighean

Up to a lochan and then rough going to Bealach a’ Croise. Down to Loch Nid where am old and very large wall helped is across the bog.  Views to an amazing stone slab above us.

  

River crossing above Bealach na Croise

First lizard points today, and skylarks. Hey and windy as we approached the bothy, but still dry and clear.