Thursday, 11 October 2018

Hiking across Europe: Project completed

At the Western terminus 2012
It all started with reading a book way back in 2006. It was called "Clear waters rising" by Nicholas Crane in which the author had hiked from Santiago de Compostella to Istanbul traversing the entire European continent on foot. Back then I was just preparing for a thruhike of the Continental Divide Trail in the US, my second long distance hike ever. I had not yet completed the American Triple Crown when the idea of doing something similar in Europe took root in my mind.

At the Southern terminus 2013
Still it was not until 2012 that I embarked on this huge European hiking project. By then I had completed the Triple Crown and had hiked several more trails in the US and Australia. I would have probably continued hiking overseas if the exchange rate had not deteriorated tremendously. The Euro weakened and all of a sudden Europe seemed very attractive to me. I decided to follow Nicholas Crane's footsteps and started my hike across Western Europe towards Santiago de Compostella. Never since my first long-distance hike on the PCT in 2004 had I experienced such an increase of knowledge than on this first European hike. So many things were different and exciting and I was hooked immediately.

At the Eastern terminus 2017
Originally I had just planned an East-West traverse of Europe but then my hiking friend Werner told
me about the newly marked European long-distance trail E1 to the North Cape. "Now it is possible to traverse Europe from it southernmost to its northernmost point", he told me - and another idea took root in my mind. With the Triple Crown I had traversed the United States three times - why not do it in Europe as well? Think big and traverse Europe in all four directions - South-North and East-West? And therefore I embarked on my Southern European traverse towards Tarifa in 2013.

At the Northern terminus 2018
My first attempt to tackle Eastern Europe in 2016 was thwarted by a medical emergency. With my backpack already packed I ended up in the ER of a Berlin hospital and after surgery my doctors told me to postpone any exotic hiking plans. I still ended up doing a 1,000 kilometres stretch through Germany towards the North Cape that year.

In 2017 I was finally ready for Eastern Europe and discoverd mostly unknown hiking destinations on my way from Germany to the Black Sea Coast in Bulgaria. With reaching Kap Emine I had completed my European East-West traverse. Now only the Northern traverse was missing. I tackled it in 2018 and completed the entire hiking project on September 1 at the North Cape.

To my knowledge I am the first person ever to traverse Europe on foot in all four directions. I have hiked 15,700 kilometres in 16 countries for this project. I hiked in rain and shine, summer and winter, in high mountains and on beaches. I was bitten by ticks, mosquitoes and even a dog. People from all stations of life told me their stories thus giving a face to their country. I learnt more about European history and culture than any university could have taught me. This hike has made me an even prouder European!



Northern Europe: Conclusion

On the Northern Kungleden
At the end of each long hike I always answer two questions for my readers: Did I like this hike? and Would I recommend it to a friend? In this case the answers need a lot of explanation ...

Did I like this hike? Yes, despite some definite lowlights overall I had a good time - but I don't think I'll go back to Scandinavia for hiking in the near future. Of all the four parts of my big European hiking project (West, East, North, South), I liked the Northern part the least. My favourite part was Eastern Europe, followed by Western und Southern Europe (France and Spain).

Forest in Central Sweden
Would I recommend it to a friend? No, definitely not - except if he/she has a personal preference for Scandinavia.
These answers probably surprise you because they are totally opposed to the general image of Scandinavia as an outdoor destination. Norway and Sweden are every European hiker's dream. German outdoor forums are full of Scandinavian trip reports and in no other European country have I met so many other hikers.
My evaluation of a hiking destination is the result of balancing two reasons: What does this destination offer me - and how much effort do I have to put into hiking there.

It is apparent what Scandinavia has to offer: It is one of the last wildernesses in Europa with lots of wild open spaces and very often spectacular scenery. There is no doubt about that and very often nature took my breath away because it was so beautiful! But as wild as it is - after several weeks it felt a bit monotonous. In Central Sweden I liked the forest at first, but after hiking through endless thin fir trees for weeks I got bored. And even the wide expanses of Northern Scandinavia started to feel monotonous after a while. But I can definitely understand why so many hikers are drawn to Scandinavia - although you can find wilderness and spectacular scenery elsewhere in Europe, too.

Food store in a Swedish Mountain Station
The problem is the effort you have to put into hiking in Scandinavia - and here I mean "effort" in various aspects. Most apparent is the financial effort: Norway is one of the most expensive countries in Europe for tourists. I don't want to discuss the reasons for that and if it is justified or not - but you just cannot dismiss that hiking in Norway is outrageously expensive! Sweden is a lot cheaper but still you'll spend far more here than in most other European countries. This might not matter for someone on a two-week-holiday but as a long-distance hiker this is a fact to definitely take into consideration. Norwegian prices blew my normal monthly budget and I had to transfer more money onto my credit card regularily. I ate a lot more crappy food than usual because I could not afford the good stuff. I had far less rest days than on other trips because of the high hotel prices. But there was one positive side effect to this: Because chocolate and food in general was so expensive I lost a lot of weight on this trip ....

Hiking in swamp
But more inportant is the physical effort you have to put into this hike! The terrain in Scandinavia is extremely demanding. Most problematic for me was the swamp. To hike through boggy terrain for days and weeks does not only result in slow hiking but is also very bad for the feet. Then there are the boulder fields with a high injury risk. Constant rain makes all this even more demanding. Then add to all this millions of mosquitoes, horse flies and hornets who are all out there to bite you. If you are too early in the season you'll be postholing through snowfields. And did I mention the river crossings? I was very lucky going northbound in this record summer year but I heard all the horror stories of early southbound hikers about waist high ice cold water in rushing streams ....

Watching the storm moving in on Nordkalottleden
 Of course you can have bad luck with the weather or a sprained ankle in any country, but what is a minor nuisance in Southern Europe can become life threating here in Scandinavia. Here you have a much higher chance of rain and cold temperatures and because of the exposed terrain it will affect you much more than anywhere else! You are often so remote that you will not be able to get out of an emergency situation by yourself. In cheaper countries it is no problem to sit out bad weather or let your blisters heal in a town in civilisation but here it will blow your budget. To sum it up: In Scandinavia you face higher risks and emergencies will affect you much more than in less remote places and more moderate climates.

Wooden church in Central Sweden
For me personally the financial and physical effort I had to put into this hike was not compensated enough by what I got out of it. And although the weather was exceptionally good, the chance of a bad weather turn always hung over me like a sword of Damocles.
And I personally felt another fact quite frustrating: Although I have hiked four months through Sweden and Norway I have learnt very little about these countries. I saw a lot of trees and fjell and wonderful landscape but almost nothing about their culture, history and how people are ticking here. In all other countries I have hiked through in Europe I constantly came across waycrosses, chapels and monuments along the trail - but here cultural experiences were limited to my short town stays. And because everything was so expensive I rarely went to a restaurant or a museum and therefore missed out on regional food or sightseeing.

Hut on Kungsleden
But even if this does not bother you because you want to come to Scandinavia for wilderness and solitude - don't get your hopes up too high! A popular trail like Kungsleden felt as crowded as the Caminos in Spain! And you'll probably see more Germans here than Swedes ....
Don't get me wrong: If you like Norway and Sweden go there and enjoy it! Despite all these negative points even I had a good time on this hike. But don't think that Scandinavia is generally the best place for an outdoor adventure in Europe for everyone. Because it is the most popular outdoor destination in Europe does not mean it is the best for you ...

Northern Europa: E1 to the North Cape 2

Private open Sami hut
There were no more official DNT huts along this last stretch but this private shelter belonging to a local Sami. The hut book read like a who is who of long distance hiking! Rainer, Knut whom I had met on this trip and various other well known E1 or Norge pa langs hikers had written into it. I was here just for a short break in order to get out of the infernal wind ... The rest of the day consisted mainly of walking along endless reindeer fences in a truly spectacular landscape. Because the weather forecast predicted even stronger winds at night I was shooting for another private (and very tiny) Sami shelter. But when I arrived there late in the evening, it was already taken by a German hiker. Grumpily I hiked on and found a surprisingly sweet sheltered spot two kilometres further on where I slept like a baby. The German hiker whom I met again some days later had had a problems at night because the wind had been battering his wooden shelter relentlessly - and very loud!


Campsite close to the North Cape Tunnel
Next day was very hard again and to make things worse it started to rain hard in the evening. I still made it to the entrance of the famous North Cape tunnel where I expected to meet my German compatriot again. He later told me that the weather had been too bad for him and therefore he had hitched into the next town ...
Again I had spent a much more comfortable night in my tent than expected. But I had to get up very early for my next endeavour in the North Cape tunnel: Many people were afraid of it and took the bus through it or hitchhiked. To avoid the traffic I decided to go through it very early in the morning - and I must admit that I was a bit nervous.

The tunnel is almost seven kilometres long and connects the mainland with the island of Magoyra. It goes down to over 200 metres below sea level and is definitely not for the claustrophic. But all my fears vanished in the air when I saw a wide pedestrian walk on each side of the tunnel that was even lit very well. It took me 1,5 hours to hike through it and I felt safe the entire time. Plus there was very little traffic at six o'clock in the morning. The only frightening aspect was the noise of the cars. Elsewise I would have considered camping in the tunnel - sheltered from rain and wind ... I was almost sad to leave the tunnel because outside the wind was so strong that I had problems putting on my rainjacket!

After another long road walk I was finally approaching the famous North Cape and the end of my hike! But unfortunately the wind had even gotten worse. No one was out on the platform under the famous globe when I arrived at the huge North Cape Complex. At least as a pedestrian I did not have to pay the entrance fee. To my big surprise a couple of cyclists were hanging out there and I wondered how they had managed to get here in the wind when even I as a hiker had been struggling. It turned out they were on e-bikes and of course they were Germans, too! I quickly recruited them to take my finish picture.

When I later tried to take a selfie I could hardly hold the smartphone steady in the wind. The buff on my head was blown away and I rescued it in the very last minute from disappearing in the sea!

People always ask me how I feel at the end of such a long hike. Honestly, I don't feel very sad or happy or elated or depressed. My goal in hiking is the route and not reaching the end of a trail. What I felt was relief. Relief to have reached the North Cape without any weather catastrophy or other major problem. The day before Dagmar who had hosted me a couple of weeks earlier had sent me a text message: "My Sami colleague has told me that the reindeer are becoming more and more nervous now. Therefore Sami people think that the weather will turn very soon and winter will set in quickly. Hurry up!" The next day I had reached the North Cape - probably just in time. From now on I could read the weather forecast without having to worry. What a relief!

At the North CapeI had not only reached the end of my Northern European traverse but I had also completed my big European hiking project. I have now traversed Europe both from East to West and from South to North, a total of 15,700 kilometres through 16 countries. To my best knowledge I am the first person ever to have hiked across Europe in both directions. That makes me proud - and thinking of the next big project!

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Northern Europe: E1 to the North Cape 1

Meeting a very unhappy hiker with foot problems
There were still plenty of hikers on this Northernmost section which is a relatively new part of the E1. Only a couple of years ago the DNT has finished to mark this last stretch of the E1 all the way up to the North Cape. Quickly afterwards a German guidebook was published which attracts many more hikers than I had expected. Shortly after Kautokeino I had my first encounter: a German lady was coming towards me in the rain. "Are you coming from the North Cape?", I asked her curiously. "No, I want to go there", she replied rather depressed. Before I could point out that she was heading in the wrong direction she poured out all her misery: She was hiking in heavy boots which had already destroyed her feet - three days after the start of her hike! I tried to cheer her up a bit with hot tea but she soon hiked on towards the main road to Kautokeino. "I'll probably spend the rest of my holiday driving through Northern Norway with a rental car. My feet hurt too much for hiking", she explained and stumbled onward.

Generous gifts from fellow hiker
The next hiker I met was also coming southbound - and was German, too. He hiked the E1 in sections and was carrying too much food like most hikers here up North. But this was my luck because he gave all his excess food to me including a big plastic jar of Ovomaltine which would refine my breakfast for the rest of my trip. He also instigated another interesting story: Earlier this day he had met two other German hikers on their way to the North Cape and they had chatted for quite a while. Shortly after they had hiked on he realised that they had forgotten one of their sandals used for river fords. They were already too far away when he noticed their loss. Therefore he had deposited the shoe right in the middle of the road in case they decided to hike back and get their lost shoe.

Two Germans happily reunited with their shoe
As I was heading in their direction he asked me to pick up the shoe and give it back to them. This sounded like a fun story and of course I agreed. I found the shoe shortly afterwards, picked it up - and eventually met the Germans the next day. I had passed them inadvertedly in the morning because their campsite was hidden, so they came up to me from behind when I was having a break on the side of trail. I had heard them talking in German from far away so I knew it must be them.
"I have something for you", I greeted them and showed them the shoe. The expression on their face was priceless! After I had explained how their lost shoe had passed them they rewarded me with German chocolate and a long chat at the little supermarket in Maze where we resupplied and had lunch.  

A couple of days later I was planning to stay in one of the last huts on the trail - and when I arrived late in the evening I found a Norwegian lady with a dog in it. Of course, she had the stove going and was happy about some company. Like several other women I met on this hike she was out on a fishing trip! In Scandinavia I met a lot more female hikers and hunters/fishermen than in rest of Europe. It was way too hot in the hut for me and therefore I slept in the emergency shelter next door. For the first time on this trip I had to use my headlamp at night. Summer was closing in and the sun started to set again. It got dark at night! Next day Ifound a huge Swiss army knife right on the trail. It was way too heavy for an ultralight hiker like me but so close to the end of the trip I picked it up and carried it with me. I asked anyone I passed whether he had lost it but nobody claimed it ...


Before the storm
Weather was still unusually good for this time of the year. But one evening I saw dark clouds approaching and unfortunately no real shelter in sight. I hid behind a mound and just finished pitching my tent when all hell broke loose and a torrential downpour came down for half an hour. After that it was nice summer weather again ... Typical Norwegian weather: it rained almost every day, but only for a short period. If you don't like the weather, just wait for five minutes and it will change. Rain was not my biggest problem now but the wind. The landscape was flat with no vegetation to hide in. I was always exposed to the wind and therefore I tried to camp as low as possible.


Next day I was just crossing a swamp with great difficulties when I saw two people ahead of me - dragging something behind them. I was wondering what they were doing and came to the conclusion that they must be volunteers from DNT out there marking the trail. Because for what other reason would someone drag a cart behind them? I finally caught up to them and to my utter surprise they turned out to be a father and son team with "pilgrim carts"! They hiked with carts instead of backpacks because the son was still too young to carry a heavy load and therefore the father had decided to use these carts. But he had already deeply regretted this decision: in this swampy and bumpy terrain with numerous river ford carts are more a pain than a help! I do hope they finished their trip without any major problems ....
                  
The supermarket in Olderfjord
I spent my last rest day in the hostel in Olderfjord where I did one last expensive resupply in the small supermarket. With only a few more days ahead of me I was now making plans for my return trip to Germany. I was most anxious about the weather. Since starting this trip the weather had been exceptionally good, in fact the hottest summer in Scandinavia in the last decades! But this great weather could not last forever. At some point winter would set in - and by then I wanted to be back in Germany. The forecast was still good though and I was hoping for the best. When I was about to depart from Olderfjord I even ran into Noe from Switzerland who took this picture of me. I left before him - and would not meet him again on this trip.

Northern Europe: Nordkalottleden 2

Finnish huts
For a couple of days the Nordkalottleden took me through Finland - where the huts were completely free! Plenty of Finnish hikers were trying to climb Halti from here, with more than 1,300 metres Finnlands highest mountain. Because the huts were occupied by Finnish hikers and the weather still good I continued camping. But even there I had company: Reindeer are roaming free here but some of the animals have bells around their necks. When I woke up in the morning because of bell ringing my first thought  was always: Cows! Some areas were almost overgrazed by reindeer - and smelled accordingly ....

Water here was barely knee deep
Because the Nordkalottleden is  not quite as popular as the Kungsleden there is less infrastructure. The trail is pretty well marked (depending on the country with cairns or posts or markers), but there is not much "trail" - and there are less bridges. I had to ford several streams - nothing difficult at all this summer with record temperatures and hardly any rain. Water was hardly up the the knees for me but Rainer who had been here in early June had big problems. It took me a while to figure the best shoe solution. Being an ultralight hiker I just carry one pair of shoes. Fording barefoot is way too dangerous, therefore my shoes get wet at every stream crossing which leads to foot problems on the long run. In the end I found the perfect solution: I forded in shoes without socks and put on waterproof socks AFTER the ford. This way my wet shoes did not affect the skin on my feet which stayed dry.

In Reisadalen
Biggest highlight on this stretch was the Reisadalen, where the river has cut a deep valley into the mountains. The Nordkalottleden follows the river down in the valley where a specific microclimate made me walk through enormous ferns. Raspberries were abundant and lots of fishermen spend their holidays here. As a downside of this noisy motorboats cruise up and down the river delivering and picking up tourists. I even met some Finnish guys who came here for packrafting - but I felt pity for them because they had to haul in all their equipment over the mountains .... Reisadalen is directly on the E1 route which makes a big detour to go through that valley. You could have taken a more direct shortcut but I have not regretted coming the long way.
 
Snow mobile skipping
Nordkalottleden ends in Kautokeino, the heartland of the Sami people. There is even a Sami university here. I rented a cabin on a campground for a relaxing rest day. When walking to the campground in the outskirts of Kautokeino I came across a rather unusual sports event: The annual snow mobile skipping contest! If you drive a snow mobile at high speed it even runs over water - which was done here over the week end. The noise and the exhaust fumes were incredible, but everyone seemed to have fun. I watched the event from a road brigde and decided that this sport is definitely not for me - I would probably sink immediately .....

Northern Europe: Nordkalottleden 1

Abisko was not only the end of the Kungsleden but also the "end" of Sweden! I now had to go back into Norway and after my rather negative experiences on the E1 in Norway further south I was less than enthusisatic about this prospect. But this time Norway did not disappoint me - on the contrary: The section on the Nordkalottleden turned out to be the best of this entire hike! This was due to various factors: First of all the trail here was very well marked. There were still some boggy sections but not as excessive as further south. But the landscape was absolutely stunning - and quiet varied. The summer heat wave was more or less over, but the weather was mostly still great with very little rain.

Like on the Kungsleden there were nice huts along the Nordkalottleden as well - but far less crowded and to my big surprise relatively cheap! For a DNT/STF member a night in such a luxury cabin costs just 15 EUR! And that includes sleeping in a real bed with duvet, use of the kitchen with a stove and of course heating with firewood. Still I preferred to camp and never slept in any of these huts - but I used them for lunch break. It was nice to get out of the wind for eating. And studying the entries in the guest book was really entertaining. I really liked the huts and was amazed how well maintained and clean they were!

I also got some company! Jonas and Noe were two Swiss hikers doing the entire E1 in Scandinavia. They had been following my log book entries for months when they now finally passed me. Although they are both from Switzerland they talked in English to each other because Jonas is from German speaking Switzerland and Noe from the French speaking part. These two young guys were hiking much faster than me but we kept bumping into each other all the time.They had even hiked with Knut from Norway whom I had met months ago! It was so refreshing for me to swap trail stories and discuss hiking strategies and gear! For both of them this was their first long hike - but probably not the last!

I also ran into another "celebrity" on the Nordkalottleden: Martin Kettler greeted me with "Good morning, Miss Thürmer" when I met him in the middle of nowhere. It took me a while to realise who he was. Martin had hiked Norge pa langs a couple of years ago and written a book about it. Now he was back doing short sections of the trail during his holiday. Of course we sat down and chatted about the trail - and about book writing! Generally speaking the people I met here on the Nordkalottleden were a lot more experienced than the average Kungsleden hiker.

The Nordkalottleden meanders through three countries in this section: Norway, Sweden and Finland and it led me to the famous "Three country stone", a major tourist attraction in this area which gave me some sort of culture shock. Entire school classes were visiting this place that is marked by a huge yellow monument in the middle of nowhere. I didn't find it particularly attractive but the setting is spectacular! From there it was only a short way to a major highway and the Finnish town of Kilpisjärvi! Finnland is the cheapest country in Scandinavia and was incredibly happy to do a cheap resupply including a huge of amount of chocolate that I would not have been able to afford in Norway!

Dagmar and Michael are Germans who have immigrated to Norway a couple of years ago. Dagmar had read me first book and when she found out on Facebook that I was hiking through Scandinavia she had invited me stay at their place in Skibottn which is 50 kilometres from Kilpisjärvi. When Michael arrived by car to pick me up I immediately realized that this was going to be one of the highlights of this trip! They not only fed me with wonderful Norwegian delicacies but even took me out on the fjord with their boat and let me try out fishing - alas with no result ... And their dog Lilleulv definitely helped me to overcome my dog trauma resulting from my dog bite in June! But most interesting for me was that they told me a lot about Norway and its culture and politics. I hit the trail again very refreshed and with a lot of food for thought!

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Northern Europe: Kungsleden conclusion

I had chosen to hike the Kungsleden instead of the E1 mainly because I thought it would be easier - and because I wanted to see why it attracts so many people. I honestly did not expect to like it!
In hindsight I must say that my expectations were met - but to my big surprise I liked the trail nevertheless.
Hiking was indeed very easy! I didn't have wet feet because all boggy sections have boardwalks. All major stream crossings have bridges, scheduled motor boats run over the lakes and the trail marking is perfect. You wouldn't even need trail markers because you just have to follow the masses. Still I saw many Kungsleden hikers with PBL's ....

Most hikers I encountered where traditional "heavy weight" hikers - although not everyone carried as much staff as the guy in the picture. Still heavy boots were a common sight and every other hiker seemed to wear a Fjällräven G1000 trousers. Hilleberg tents were everywhere. But due to the perfect infrastructure you really don't need all this. I felt very comfortable with my ultralight backpack and trailrunning shoes - although most people told me that my gear was inadequate... But I carried all my food because I did not want to resupply in the expensive mountain stations whereas most people just do that.

Boat crossing to Kvikkjock
What most Kungsleden hikers do not talk about are the enormous costs. First of all you have to get to the Kungsleden which is time consuming and expensive. Then you have to pay for all the motorboat crossing which cost up to 35 EUR per ride!!!! Altogether you have to pay almost 200 EUR for all the boat crossings....
As nice as the huts are they are expensive - and you even have to pay a fee if you camp close to the hut. Because everything has to be brought in by helicopter of snow scooter I think these prices are justified - but I still did not want to pay them. On the plus side many hikers carry too much food and leave it in the huts. There was always rice, maccaroni and plenty of half empty gas canisters in the "free food" shelves.

Overused campsite
 And there is no way around it - this is a very crowded trail with all the negative side effects. Camp sites with old fire rings are everywhere and the vegetation has suffered tremendously from overuse. It is difficult to get any wilderness feeling if you see hundred hikers every day ... You can avoid the masses a bit by hiking northbound because the vast majority hikes southbound. Due to the boat schedule you will then meet people only in "waves". I wonder if the authorities are considering to install a permit system to regulate the masses.
But still the spectacular scenery compensates for a lot. This is your typical picturebook Scandinavian landscape and even I had plenty of "wow" moments. I can see that this is a very attractive trail for trekking beginners - IF you can afford it.
I am glad I hiked it and I have enjoyed it - but I would definitely not hike it again. For beginners this is great but more experienced hikers are better off on the Nordkalottleden which was next on my route.