This story appears in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Not so long ago—just a few days, perhaps—the icy water sluicing around my bare legs was snow on a rocky mountaintop in northern Sweden, a hundred miles above the Arctic Circle. Once that snow melted, it joined the Rapa River, which surges through the heart of Laponia, a 3,630-square-mile primordial landscape of mountains, lakes, and boulder-strewn valleys that is both a sublime natural wonder and one of the largest wilderness areas in Europe. Embracing four Swedish national parks (Padjelanta, Stora Sjöfallet, Muddus, and Sarek) and two nature reserves that together were declared a World Heritage site in 1996, Laponia today provides a vast refuge for wildlife and sanctuary for tech-frazzled human beings—the modern European equivalent of a restorative visit to the Pleistocene.
Laponia is a diverse heritage site with natural and cultural significance, and includes communities of the Sami people (once known as Lapps), who’ve roamed these northern latitudes for millennia. Yet many people believe that Laponia’s still point, its essence, is found right where I’m standing: in the valley of the Rapa River, in Sarek National Park, one of the most remote places on the continent. There are no roads here, no tire tracks, no bridges.
Which is why my two hiking companions (one woman, one man) and I are knee-deep in rushing water with our pants rolled up, and our boots tied together and slung around our necks. Balanced precariously on smooth stones as large and slippery as eggplants, our barefoot trio, Hobbit-like, is fording the Rapa with 50 pounds of weight on our backs.
“Seventy pounds,” Christian, our Swedish guide, corrects me. That’s how much he’s carrying on his back; I’m the one carrying 50. “Actually, your pack is closer to 45,” he says.
Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, Christian Heimroth is a laconic outdoorsman, 35 years old, who comes across as a laid-back ski instructor or a retired athlete but is in fact a very astute businessman who owns a wilderness outfitting company based in Jokkmokk.
His summer intern, Karin Karlsson, is also carrying 70 pounds of gear, which is impressive considering she’s half his size.
“No way,” says Christian. “She’s hauling 50, tops. It just looks big because she’s a shrimp.”
“Watch it, Boss,” she fires back. “I may be small, but I bite.”
A college student in southern Sweden, Karin has been in Laponia only a few weeks, but she seems to be acclimating. Dark-haired, with horn-rim glasses, she’s half Sami and proud of it.
“This place brings out the wild in me,” she says, as we pull on boots, hoist our packs, and prepare to move on—a Swedish Iron Man, an aging American reporter, and a Sami Supergirl.
To reach the interior of Sarek—the heart of Laponia—we’ve spent days scrambling over boulders crusted with lichens of rusty orange, mint green, and yellow. We’ve thrashed through birch forests whose leaves were turning yellow, grazed on blueberries and cloudberries, waded through boreal wetlands, sunk in quicksand up to our knees, and found recent tracks of bears and moose—all while searching for a trail that seems to exist only on official maps of the park.
The few trails we have found are paths laid down by wildlife or traditional Sami reindeer herders, who are permitted to graze animals in the park, having been here as long as anyone can remember. At certain times of day in Laponia, especially at dawn, it’s easy to imagine what their distant forebears might have seen and heard, after roaming this far north in search of game, wrapped in animal skins, staggered by the roaring winds of glaciers in retreat.
In many ways Sarek is a vision of that newly minted world: massive sharp shoulders of dark rock rising above a landscape carved by ice sheets. The latest one receded from northern Sweden some 9,000 years ago—so recently that the bedrock, relieved of its burden, is still rising up to 0.4 inch a year, in a phenomenon geologists call isostatic rebound.
The melting ice left behind a terrain littered with glacial features: cirques, moraines, drumlins, eskers, lakes, erratics, and boulder-strewn hills. Today, in the perfect hush of wilderness, the incremental grind of glaciers still echoes across Laponia, and it seems only moments ago that the big ice melted, leaving the rhythms of soil and rock, wind and rain, to shape the land.
More recently—perhaps 5,000 years ago—Laponia was settled by nomadic hunters of reindeer who were ancestors of modern-day Sami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia whose lives moved to the rhythms of the reindeer herd.
Caucasians who speak a Finno-Ugric language more closely related to Hungarian than to Swedish, the Sami are thought to have rambled north out of central Europe toward the Kola Peninsula of present-day Russia and west across the frozen boreal wastes of what is now Finland, Sweden, and Norway.
Judging from rock art and artifacts recovered in the Laponia region, reindeer defined indigenous culture here from the very beginning, a legacy that can be traced in a continuous line to the Sami of today.
The relationship between the Sami and their fellow Swedes is complex, a product of the centuries-old power imbalance between Sweden’s government and its Sami minority, who mostly lived north of the Arctic Circle.
The family of John Utsi, a Sami writer and cultural historian based in Jokkmokk, arrived in Laponia in the 1920s, when his grandfather, Per Mikkelson Utsi, and his family were forcibly removed by the government of Norway from the coastal mountains in Skibotn. They were sent south, to Sweden.
Their arrival caused problems. Even in such a vast region, the newcomers naturally impinged on herders who’d been established there for many generations. And though John, like most modern Sami, doesn’t earn his primary living from reindeer herding, the animals—and Laponia itself—play a pivotal role in his life.
“We Sami live a double existence,” Utsi says. “We speak Swedish, look Swedish, and most of us live in Swedish towns. But we act Sami, because that’s who we are. Chalk it up to genetics.”
Whether it’s genetics or upbringing, a large number of Sami in northern Sweden spend their summers in Laponia, living in cabins and tending to a few reindeer, fishing, and hunting moose—something other Swedes are not permitted to do in the park.
Sami traditions were suppressed by the Swedish government and society for centuries, Utsi says. Those traditions reemerged as the Sami, who experienced a political awakening in the 1970s, demanded and won respect for their culture on the national and international stage.
Whenever we stop to rest or graze on berries, Christian breaks out a plasticized map of the park. “It’s ridiculously easy to get lost in Laponia if you don’t pay attention,” he says. “Hell, it’s easy to get lost even if you do pay attention.”
As he and Karin study the map, I scan the valley and adjacent slopes and birch stands with binoculars, searching for any movement or dark object in hopes that it might turn out to be a reindeer, brown bear, wolverine, lynx, or moose.
Christian, Karin, and I are the only humans in the park, or think we are, until I catch sight of two distant backpackers disrobing next to an explosively rushing creek, preparing to wade across. Awhile later we greet them as backcountry travelers do, warmly and with a certain ritualized generosity, and they seem happy to postpone their mid-morning dip in frigid water.
They are visiting from Germany. One of them, a man of 30 sporting a mane of curly blond hair and a slightly sheepish smile, says they’re planning to walk another eight or nine days after crossing the Rapa a few miles upstream.
“Trouble is, we’re already running short of food,” he says. “Total miscalculation,” adds his friend, a tall, goateed fellow with his black hair pulled back in a sleek ponytail, in the style of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish soccer star. “We’ve only been on the trail a few days.”
“Are there any emergency phones in there?” he asks, taking in a thousand square miles of trackless wilderness with a careless sweep of his arm. “Just one,” Christian says. The travelers blanch, then watch with concern as he notes its distant location on their map, days away from their intended route. “Once in the park, you’re pretty much on your own.”
We give them a loaf of bread and some granola, and wish them well. Hours later, I spot them from a plateau overlooking the valley. They are miles away—two tiny figures fording the Rapa River in their underwear. Clearly, they’re headed off the grid, into the Pleistocene.
There’s a small stream a few feet from where I’m standing, a rivulet of pristine meltwater racing down to join the Rapa. I push my cupped hands into the water, raise them, and drink.
Those Germans are going to get mighty hungry wandering around Laponia. But they will never, in their lives, drink better water.