What was supposed to be a week-long epic hike in Northern Sweden turned into a short and painful lesson on stupidity. Important safety tip: Don't chop wood barefoot.
The Kungsleden (King’s Trail), is a well maintained and scenic trail in Northern Sweden that runs from Abisko in the north to Hemavan in the south. The entire trail is 270 miles long (440 km) and passes through forests, mountain valleys, and over the 3,770 ft (1,150m) Tjaktja Pass.
Along the trail are more than 20 small villages maintained by the Swedish Tourism Association. The villages are spread out so that each is approximately a one day’s hike from the next, so hikers are able to make the journey without a tent if they wish. Some of the villages have small supply shops; others have Saunas, but all have bunk beds and gas stoves for cooking. This support system means that you can hike the majority of the trail with just a light pack and a couple days’ worth of food and simply resupply along the way.
The trail is closed during the worst of the winter months, and well-traveled during the summer months. When the snow is still on the ground, it is a popular cross country ski route (or snow shoe if you are up for a bigger challenge). The most popular route is between Abisko and Nikkaloukta, both of which can be reached by bus or train from Kiruna.
I’ve been on this section of the trail in the winter months via dogsled, and had long wanted to hike the trail in the fall when the scenery would be sensational. I spent a good portion of my summer testing out gear, going on practice hikes, and obsessing over every ounce of weight, giving priority to camera equipment with which I was planning to make an epic film. During Fall 2016 I set off with a friend to make the week-long journey. The weather forecast was perfect. It was cold enough that the bugs were gone, but warm enough to not need heavy clothing. The first day of the hike went great! All of my preparations had paid off and the 15km to the first village of Abiskojaure went well. As I laid my pack on the ground I was quite proud of myself. I looked towards the snow dusted mountains of Lapland that we would tackle on the next day and then went about settling in to camp. However, my trip was about to take a major detour.
Everyone who stays at these camps is expected to chip in with the chores such as sawing and splitting fire wood, fetching jugs of water, and keeping the huts clean. I had seen plenty of other hikers over at the wood hut swinging away with the axe and decided to pitch in myself while nobody else was there. As my hiking boots were wet, all I was wearing were my sandals. That was my first mistake – always wear the proper safety gear.
I had split logs with an axe before but was by no means on the same level as the locals, most of whom heat their homes with a wood stove. I was making progress but was definitely not doing so with grace. Another hiker came by and suggested I use the larger axe–the much larger axe. I had chosen the smaller one on purpose, but how could I say no without also handing over my man card? That was mistake number two – don’t use a tool you’re not comfortable with. I took a half power swing to get my line set and then went for a proper overhead chop. I was going to split that log with one blow and make it look like I knew what I was doing! Only problem was, my aim was slightly off and the axe glanced off the log and continued to the side towards the ground, where it just so happened my bare foot was occupying the same space of dirt. Needless to say, that miscalculation changed my trip. After a brief “that’s not good” moment, I took a closer look and realized it was most definitely not good. I called out to my friend for some help and hobbled over to a bench.
I definitely did some very foolish things, but luck was on my side in some regards. I’ll spare you the gross details, but the axe ended up right between a couple of toes. A hair to the left or the right would have been a lot worse. Several other hikers poured out of the hut to see what all the fuss was about, and it just so happened that one of them was a foot doctor. His wife got me some blankets to keep me comfortable while her husband, the doctor, took a look at the damage and bandaged my foot up quite nicely, while also declaring that I needed a hospital to stitch up the wound.
Each village has a satellite phone, and so the camp steward called up the hospital to say that I needed to be picked up. I’m sure the conversation went something like: “a stupid American damn near chopped his foot off and you need to come get him.” It took about an hour for the helicopter to arrive, during which time some workers who were making repairs to the camp cleared a few small trees to make it easier for the helicopter to land close to the huts. After apologizing profusely to my friend, who would continue on without me, I went for my first ever helicopter ride. An ambulance transfer later I was at the hospital in the city of Gallivare. A welcoming party of hospital staff was gathered in the entrance to have a look at what this stupid American tourist did to himself. A very skilled young doctor and nurse team stitched up my mess of a foot, and just after midnight I got wheeled to the hotel next door to the hospital. And thus ended my one day hike of the Kungsleden.
The next day I had a follow-up visit with the doctor before being picked up by my friend Marcus, who lives in Kiruna. On the way out of the hospital I stopped by the front desk to pay the bill. Given that I had a helicopter evacuation (with a crew of four), ambulance transfer, and several hours in the hospital (X-rays, stiches, drugs), I was expecting a rather large bill. I tapped the number into my phone to do the currency conversation and had to ask the girl behind the counter where the other bill is, as it only came out to about $500 US dollars. That couldn’t be right…could it??? Turns out, it was. Sweden has a government funded health care system, and there is a cap on all medical procedures, which is about $500. So if there is anywhere in the world where it is “good” to get injured, Sweden is definitely the place.
Back home the doctors told me that all the pieces of my foot should fully heal thanks to the splendid job the staff at the hospital in Sweden did, and so I had a couple of relaxing months off while I zipped around town on a knee scooter. These days I have a gnarly scar but almost no lasting impact; only a gentle sting as a reminder if I bend my toe just right.
I may not have gotten to complete the hike of the Kungsleden, but I certainly have a good story (and scar). Thankfully I still have all my toes, so I can complete the trail on another trip and properly finish my travel guide. I’ll see you again Sweden!