Turer The dream was born some 30 years ago. During a midwinter ski trip in Orsa Finnmark a pal and I sunk below our knees, despite skis, in the deep snow. So we rerouted to a nearby railway, and skied on the tracks instead, right between the rails. It worked excellently as long as we remembered to step off the track when the two daily trains, one in each direction, went past. This was the Inland Railway, stretching 1300 kilometers along the wooded spine of Sweden, from Kristinehamn to Gällivare. And the idea was born: To ski the lengt of the Inland rail.
But thirty years have a way of devaluating dreams, and my skitrip this winter was only four days long, albeit in unique company. My Rulk, a pack and pulk combo constructed of thin aluminium sheeting, was the only companion.
By Jörgen Johansson
The sun was shining as I paid the taciturn taxidriver where the railway crossed the road some 20 kilometers north of Jokkmokk. The Arctic Circle could almost be seen to the south and it was time to give the Rulk its first and most important test. Having seen a number of my own bright ideas fail in the bleak light of real life testing, I suspected that the first ten minutes of skiing would tell if the Rulk could be pulled behind me, or carried on my back.
Having avoided pulks since my Army days, an embryo of an idea had been growing in the back of my mind for a couple of years. What if a very light, hard shell could be fastened to the back of my pack, enabling me to shift between carrying and pulling my load in seconds?
In brief, the Rulk is a piece of 1 mm aluminium sheeting, bent in the shape of a pulk, with cording attaching it to a hipbelt. This "pulk" is then strapped tightly onto the back of the pack, riding there as the shell of a tortoise, while in "pack mode". And the name is simply a combination of "rucksack" and "pulk".
More of how the Rulk was constructed and possible areas of improvement will be found in this article on Backpackinglight.com.
The first ten minutes of easy skiing on the railway convinced me that the Rulk was an idea that could survive reality, and it worked very well in these circumstances. The skiing was next to perfect between the rails, with the surface hardened by snowmobiles. This in combination with a temperature about five degrees below freezing and reasonably blue skies made for a great day of skiing. One thing I quickly found out, when you go by train and look out the window you get the impression that the rail is always running across almost flat terrain. When skiing or walking you find that the rails, as can easily be imagined, do indeed slope quite a bit. That this afternoon was all uphill did not take any sharpened senses to deduce.
I stopped to have my usual cup of afternoon coffee, known as the "three-coffee" in Sweden for the brilliant reason that it is usually drunk around three o'clock. Beside the tracks where I stopped the snow was blood stained in a couple of places and some tufts of reindeer hair remained. The animal tracks also following the rails for the last 5-6 km where probably wolverine, though it was a bit hard to tell because they were slightly snowed and frosted over. But the size and the gait could hardly be anything else, even if I'm no expert tracker by any means.
Temperatures were falling as the sun was rapidly declining when I reached the impressive steel bridge across the Great Lule River. On the other side began habitation that would shortly lead through the only village I would pass on my trip, Porjus. So this side of the bridge seemed a good place to stop for the night since I really hadn't come this far to camp in somebodys back yard.
I now found out that the rulk was no great shakes beside the railroad tracks. I was wading through deep snow up to my knees in spite of my skis. The rulk rolled over on it's side all the time and I had to go back and straighten it up. But after a couple of hundred yards of this I found a spot that looked good for camping.
First using my skis to trample a platform for the tent, I then left it to freeze as solid as possible and used the Rulk as a makeshift shovel to dig a hole in the snow for my fire. After collecting some firewood I added a match to the dry and twisted spruce twigs and soon had a small fire going. Time to put up the tent, which was done very rapidly with the Black Diamond Firstlight that In winter for the last couple of years. Skis and and skipoles go in each of the four corners as pegs, and then up goes the roof. All done in less than five minutes even above timberline in hard wind.
Darkness was now creeping closer to my fire and the temperature was -14 Celsius as I sank down beside the fire on my foam mat and fired up the gas stove. Soon I was eating my freeze dried fish stew spoon by spoon while trying to decipher the shapeshifting of the friendly flames.#
Soon after I crawled into the tent and arranged everything for a cold night. Thick cell foam and a Torsolite inflatable on top kept me warm from the ground. I let the BPL wool hoody I had used next to skin during the day trade places with a drier Woolpower shirt and added the Cocoon pyjama, hoody and pants on top of this and my old woolen long johns. Then I crawled into the WM Ultralite Super and pulled my homemade down quilt with it's two inch loft on top of everything. After all that exercise I was practically sweating, but pretty confident that the night would not be too uncomfortable.
The night was not uncomfortable at all. When I woke at dawn the termometer showed -20 Celsius, which was surprisingly cold considering how warm I felt. And I still had my WM Flight jacket as extra insulation for an even colder night. I felt satisfied that my calculations seemed to have been about right. With the down jacket on and the help of a hot water bottle if needed, I felt that I would have, if not exactly slept fitfully, have survived a -40 Celsius night with reasonable margins.
Both my warm jackets, the Cocoon and the Flight, was a pretty nice combination while packing up on this cold morning though, and it was nice to start moving along the tracks again. Soon it became warmer and around lunchtime I trudged through Porjus, still on the tracks. What I saw was mostly the huge outer works of the great hydro electric power plant and the remains of what used to be the railway station. The rest of the small community had obviously turned it's back on the railway, the only exception being an artistically painted wagon, "The Culture Wagon", by the old railway station.
It was a bit overcast as I trudged on in the afternoon and reached the legendary Luspebryggan after a couple of hours. Luspebryggan (Luspebridge) was the place where people going to the mountains in the 30's and 40's had stepped off the train and loaded onto different boats that would take them west on several lakes up in Stora Sjöfallets (Great Falls) National Park. All these lakes are now gone, together with the magnificent falls. Being a national park is not much of a protection when it comes to the crunch, it seems. A sad thing for any country, especially a rich one, to have a national park called Great Falls, but not be able to afford the falls.
I was now leaving the bigger trees behind and moving out into the wet and flat lands of Sjaunja, where the spruces are scraggly and look more like silouettes of fish bones than trees. Often the tracks passed across marshy areas where no trees grew at all. This was the last outpost of the taiga, the last trees before the tundra mountains to the west. This was what I had come for. This was where I stopped for the day, as the light was waning.
I placed my tent beside the tracks and built my evening fire between the rails. This night would not be as cold as the night before, I could feel that. I was a bit overcast and the wind grabbed at the flames and whipped smoke in my eyes. As wind and fire are prone to do to a lone wanderer.
It was the morning of the third day and a bleak sun shone. It was -6 Celsius and a sharp wind was blowing from the west. I made pretty good time going north across the marshland. A couple of times when I passed areas where no stunted spruce gave me shelter, the wind upended the Rulk, leaving it laying on it's side. Another disadvantage of a light pulk, high center of gravity and only ropes and no poles emanating from my hips to hold the pulk on it's right keel.
I say quite a few reindeer this morning and snowmobile tracks no doubt left by the Sami herders keeping an eye on their flock. I took a break, safe from the biting wind, in a tiny cabin right by the tracks that probably belonged to them. Someone with a sense of humor had written a sign on it; Avakadjo Hembygdsgård (Avakadjo Community Center).
After another couple of hours across the windswept marshlands with the battered spruces I came to Kuossakåbbå "station". Many years before I had stepped off a train here with a couple of friends, ready to start a week long ski trip across the giant bog across the tracks. This parcel of wetland looked like a frozen lake and was most likely only passable on skis in the winter. We had taken shelter in a small and newly built cabin that was the "station" building, since a drizzle of rain made having lunch in the snow less than appealing. The station building was now gone, probably taken away to be used someplace else instead of leaving it to decay, since it was relatively new at that time. The station sign was still there, and a flat spot in the snow indicated where the house had stood.
Stopping for lunch and to cook a real meal, as I always do, I hastily rigged my tent as a shelter on the realtively hard surface of the railroad itself. Since the sun was shining I took the opportunity to hang my sleeping bag and quilt to dry from some stunted birch trees. In a few mountainous regions of the world the birch trees make up the timberline. Scandinavia is one, and so is Kamtjakta I'm told.
Enjoying the lee in my tent and looking out the open door at my sleeping gear twirling in the wind, I spent the next hour or so eating my freeze dried lunch and melting snow for drinking water. I'm careful to drink at least one pint every hour on any trip like this, and in winter it usually means I have to carry the water. Scandinavia is a wet country and normally there is plenty of water and never any need to carry it around. Unless you enjoy the extra exercise that a heavier load gives, of course. So I melted water for two pintsize waterbottles that I carry in the pockets of pants or anorak to keep it handy and fluid. Another couple of pints in a bottle wrapped in my Cocoon pullover went into the top of my pack.
Skiing along a railway has it's advantages, and disadvantages. After lunch I spent a couple of hours on a stretch that had not a single bend in 6-7 kilometers. Yeah, a bit booring.
Stopping for afternoon coffee I noted that the single gas container I had brought felt a bit light, not to say ultralight. When I gave it some serious consideration I realized that I had been sloppy while planning the amount of gas I would use. For three season hiking I use 25 gram per day and person and I had calculated that a full container with 220 grams of Primus Powergas would see me through 3-4 days of winter cooking. Since I new fully well that my needs for winter are 75 grams per person and day I had definitely not done my math.
In some cases this could have been serious, but my sloppiness was partly due to the fact that I was travelling in taiga country and firewood was plentiful. So small safety margins with the gas was just a minor comfort problem, and not a major safety issue.
However, when putting up camp for the last night along the rails I used my fire for cooking and melting snow for water. I was happy that I had made the gesture of trying to dry out my sleeping gear, since this night seemed to be colder than the night before, which had been surprisingly mild compared to the first.
This last night had temperatures around -12 Celsius, and my quilt was now really damp. This night I put on both my warm jackets while sleeping. Dawn came and the gas carefully saved and kept in my sleeping bag during the night was just enough to melt some snow after my hot cocoa, morning coffee and muesli.
I knew from the impressive bulk of the mountain Dundret rising above the trees that the marshland of Sjaunja now lay behind me and the mining town of Gällivare lay ahead. It was a nice and sunny morning as I skied along. It being Saturday and all I half expected sizable numbers of snowmobilers heading out of town, on their way to a fishing lake somewhere or to get their kicks simply from using a combustion engine.
I didn't see many snowmobilers though, and after a couple of hours of enjoyable skiing I passed a sign saying Gällivare and a couple of minutes after that I was in the train yards. I kept to my narrow gauge rails, since I knew that no trains ran on those. When I say the railway station a bit further away I took of my skis, shouldered my Rulk and walked across the tracks and into the town.