Kittelfjäll Mountains - Lapland's Treasure
Nature doesn’t make a fuss in Kittelfjäll. It requires you to be prepared and to know what you are doing. Just like outdoor lovers here want it.
We have actually come to Kittelfjäll to take a sauna, but chance has instead put each of us on horseback, which doesn't feel very comfortable. The child in me feels like the Lone Ranger on Silver, whereas the rational me wonders how far the nearest ambulance has to drive to get me.
Of course, I am not an experienced rider. Truthfully, I am no rider at all, and I have a real task of keeping my balance and dignity as the speed increases to gallop. The animal steams in the cold air and it goes fast through the forest. My horse is named Tornado Spirit, but is called commonly as the Escaper, which doesn't bode well.
We are four riders who move quickly south, on the northern outskirts of the Marsfjället Nature Reserve, and it strikes me how fast we come into total isolation. No engine sounds, no settlements, just Escaper's snorting and hoof's clapping. And my pulse. It seems as if civilisation ceased to exist as soon as we left the asphalt, and maybe it isn't so strange. The population density in the Municipality of Vilhelmina is not even one per square kilometre, and only about 100 people call Kittelfjäll home. More people live in my housing association back home.
Kittelfjäll is a paradise for off-piste skiers during the winter, but for the summer hiker, the surrounding lands are considerably more devoid of people. For those who are used to the Kungsleden hiking trail, it can simply feel desolate. The region belongs to the Vilhelmina mountains and lies just a little too far south to be part of Kungsleden, which ends in Hemavan some twenty or thirty kilometres to the north. Kittelfjäll is also located very north of the Jämtland mountains, in the divide that hikers recognise as the large gap in the Swedish mountain range.
Not because there is something wrong with the mountains themselves. The impressive Marsfjället mountain, for example, rises 1,589 m, which is only a few hundred metres lower than the county of Västerbotten's highest peak – Norra Sytertoppen in the Vindelfjällen mountains. Perhaps it is because southern Lapland has its geography against it. There are no larger towns like Gällivare, Kiruna or Östersund nearby that can act as a port of entry for tourists. The closest airport is in Vilhelmina, but it's more than 120 km away and the airport has at most two departures per day. A curse for those who wants to attract more tourists, but a blessing for those who want to be left alone. And who can handle it.
The car road to Kittelfjäll, the beautiful Sagavägen, continues to Norway, but was not asphalt until 2007 and only handles a fraction of the traffic that the European road E12 guides into Tärnaby and Hemavan. And when you enter the Norwegian side from Kittelfjäll, there are no larger towns that fulfil the same function as, for example, Trondheim does for Åre, Narvik for Abisko, Mo i Rana for Hemavan and, to a lesser extent, Røros for Funäsdalen.
The result is that nature comes closer in Kittelfjäll. Even during the winter rush, the amount of visitors is just a trickle compared to huge hubs like Sälen and Åre. You just have to compare the number of ski lifts to see the difference: Kittelfjäll has 4; Lindvallen in Sälen has a total of 48. In Kittelfjäll, it's all about free skiing in untouched snow, and any difference in altitude is gained with the help of helicopter or snowmobile. Or with climbing skins, for the real hardcore.
The even fewer amounts of people around Kittelfjäll in the summer mean that animals and plants have space to act as they would when people are not nearby. The arctic fox and snowy owl are notoriously shy, but they are here. Especially during years of lemmings. Wetland birds like the whimbrel, bean goose and ruff are more numerous and much easier to spot.
Marsfjället and Skalmodal Nature Reserves are both part of the EU network Natura 2000, which has protected threatened nature conservation around Europe since 1992. In total 828,309 hectares in the province of Västerbotten are protected as nature reserves and one-tenth, 86,000 hectares, makes up the Marsfjället Nature Reserve.
For hikers, one trail in the reserve goes in a southwest direction, along the northern shore of Lake Rissjön, where you can make a first stop at the Blerik hut after about 10 km. Strictly speaking, the hut was built by the Swedish Tourist Association (STF), which then transferred it to the Vilhelmina north sámi village, because its occupation was so low. From Blerik hut, the trail goes further south right between two of Marsfjället's peaks and down the other side to the Marsfjäll kata (tent). You can continue to the church at Fatmomakke, or turn north towards Borkan or back to Kittelfjäll. Other visitors hike away from the trails, with their sights set on the superb fishing waters surrounding Kittelfjäll. The river Vojmån and other streams have grayling and trout, while char is found in the lakes. For hunters, there are plenty of grouse, elk and small game.
Experienced outdoor people speak occasionally of “the shut-up place” – places that are wonderful thanks to their isolation and would be destroyed by far too many visitors. Kittelfjäll would easily make such a list for the Swedish mountains.
If I forget my food bag, it's 329 km to the nearest McDonald's.
However, the demands increase in the relative isolation that the place enjoys today. The margins those out in nature are small, for obvious reasons. You have to know what you're doing. Someone has said that what attracts us to the mountains is the feeling of having full control over what happens to us. If I forget my extra clothing, I'll freeze. If I forget my food bag, it's 329 km to the nearest McDonald's, in Umeå. In such a bare environment, any comfort will be each person's responsibility, and this feels both liberating and urgent.
What Kittelfjäll has with regards to primitive luxury is, well, the sauna, one the Swedish mountain world's most expensive. And, as previously mentioned, the original reason why we came here. But when summarising the visit, it is understandably the adventure with Escaper that still stands out as the high point. The jolting, the numbing fingers, the whiplash of the tree branches, the ear, the pulse.
It has been said that the endeavour for comfort is the enemy of great achievement, and if it's correct, Kittelfjäll stands there like an open invocation. Do you dare?
Even known as: Tjiehtele in southern sámi.
Vilhelmina airport: www.southlandairport.com