The Royal Trail, known as the Kungsleden, weaves through Arctic Sweden, one of the last remote wildernesses in Europe. It is the most vast — at times the most unforgiving — landscape I’ve ever experienced.
It's also the most beautiful.
Since I was raised in the desert, I knew the arctic landscape would be a world unlike anything I'd seen before. But I love to walk, and that was enough to pique my interest and to start planning the 260-mile trek.
Foremost, this was a hiking trip, and at times I needed to remind myself to take photos. The landscape was so magical, I wanted to capture its otherworldly quality. Shooting double exposures have always taken me to another place and felt like the perfect way to realize that magic.
The trail begins on a wooden path that continues almost infinitely into the horizon. In the Swedish Lapland, distances are so boundless that you could look at a boulder, and think it was a quarter mile away.
Only after hiking two miles do you realize that the boulder is the size of a two-story house.
Falling asleep on the first evening was an experience. Abisko, the trail’s starting point, is quite far north and the days in August are long, the perpetual sunset following you. The sun dips just barely under the horizon, leaving only a few hours of true darkness each evening.
Many days began quietly at 4:30 a.m. Not much stirs up here. My companions along the way are reindeer and small birds.
One morning, I woke to jingle bells. Peeking sleepily out of the tent, I saw a herd of reindeer running past. I watched as they slowly faded out of my frame, the sleigh bell jingle gradually fading.
When it rained it came on so strong it felt like being battered. This was no pitter-patter. Whipped by the winds, it would come in from the left, and then the right, changing directions in an instant.
Days later, I passed through a snow storm and caught a bad cold — and found that walking twenty-six miles the following day can expel a cold pretty quick. But not before collapsing through emotional and physical depletion a few times.
One afternoon, I reached a valley called Áhusjavágge, roughly translating to “the valley with a deep brook which cannot be waded, only jumped across,” in the Lule Sámi language. It was so pleasing to the eye, I felt at total peace.
At the end of one day, I saw signs for reindeer meat and smoked fish. I walked to a house on the bank of a lake and was waved over by a local Sámi woman, Ana. We got to talking about my trip, and she suggested a seven-day detour, in a completely different direction, towards Sarek National Park.
Ana said the time was right; great weather and the mosquitos shouldn't be that bad. I didn't think twice. I sat with Ana for an hour while she drew up an itinerary on my map of the area. She sold me four big bars of chocolate, a large bag of pasta and smoked reindeer jerky for the route.
No trails, just my map and compass.
In Sarek, I soon found myself more scared than I'd ever been. At one point, I didn't cut high enough on the ridge line and got stuck in a river canyon, reevaluating my approach and trying to find a good route down. One misstep would have been costly.
Mosquitos swarmed, and I made it about one kilometer in two hours. I learned a proper wilderness lesson: When getting a shortcut from locals, ask which side of the river you need to be on.
One morning after walking for a few hours, the rough path I was on fizzled out and I was lost. I might have been going the wrong way for hours. I started running, up and down hills, sinking in water to my knees, all in 80° heat while trying to stave off a nearly biblical mosquito swarm, read a map and head in the right direction.
As for the end of my trip, I only knew that I needed to catch a train out of a small town called Hemavan 22 days after I started. Though I had planned to hike the entire trail, I took a rough 50-mile detour in the opposite direction of my ending point.
This turned out to be the best section of the trek, affirming my love for keeping an eye open to possibilities. I can't say that I didn't immediately have my eye on an ice cream cone or three when I finished walking.
Just like hiking the Kungsleden — between trials and tribulations of routes, exhaustion, elation and the mosquitos — photographing double exposures is a curious medium. When I shoot film, I think through the image more. I find myself tuning into my surroundings and feeling what I am photographing. With double exposures, I am less concerned with getting a technically perfect photo, and more open to possibilities.
Much like the trail, there is room for exploration — and for failure. There is room for creating something difficult to believe. And room to create something that makes you pause and look in the distance, as far as your eye can take you.