Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Finding mosquitoes, trout, and tranquility in the arctic circle.

Once again, the onus, enjoyable though it may be, was on me to plan our annual fishing trip. We’ve been to some truly epic places from Montana to Slovenia, so topping past trips was getting increasingly difficult. This year, we wanted a little wilderness along with our fishing, and northern Sweden seemed to fit the bill. One of the first things that struck me during planning was that I was a bit overwhelmed. So much land, so many bodies of water, so many helicopter companies willing to take you wherever you go, the logistics involved of organizing the heli and renting a car just long enough to go shopping for supplies and gear, combined with my complete and utter lack of any knowledge of the Swedish language quickly proved to be too much. I did a little research and found Pukka Destinations, a company run by a German gentleman named Carsten Dogs who organizes trips to the area. I inquired  and he told me over the phone what packages he had available and what we were looking for, and Mark and I chose to take a 5 day trip via inflatable kayak down a northern Swedish river in which we would stop periodically along the way to make camp and fish.

And so the trip was booked, and the weeks and months simultaneously flew and crawled by until the day of our trip in late August when Mark flew from Singapore to Switzerland where we packed our gear. This was a part of the trip I was taking particularly seriously as Mark’s impressive business acumen alone wasn’t enough to keep us alive for five days in the arctic circle. I had to rely on my gear and planning. (Read about what gear handled the trip and well, and what didn't, here.)Though I brought along a 3 person Fjallraven Abisko tent, I was planning on sleeping in Hennessy Deep Jungle hammock. I’d done a few test runs in the weeks running up the trip, including one rainy night in the alps, so I felt pretty good about shelter. A 9x9 foot tarp, gas stove, water filter, cooking gear, hatchet, heavy knife, and some long underwear rounded out the essentials. As far as rods went, I brought my 9 foot 5 weight H2 (I couldn’t get my hands on an H3 in time for the trip, damn!), a 9 foot 6 weight Recon for streamers, a 10 foot 4 weight Recon for nymphing, an Epic 686 for all around fun use, and a Sawtooth from Tenkara USA because what the heck. Carsten supplied us with a helpful list of suggested flies so I had spent the previous few weeks filling boxes for both Mark and I. Full of anticipation, we piled up our gear and went to sleep with the knowledge that we’d be fishing in the arctic circle by this time tomorrow.

The next morning we took an early morning flight from Zürich to Stockholm, and then from Stockholm to Kiruna. We were met by a taxi that took us to the lodge on the outskirts of the Swedish mining town. We deposited our gear and were brought back into town to load up on food and supplies, which went quickly as I had planned out meals for the week. After another stop at the state run liquor store to buy some beer and a bottle of local whiskey, we were back at camp and waiting for the heli to arrive to pick us up. In the meantime we got a short briefing about the fishing as well as a map marked with potential campsites and our pickup point. The minutes felt like hours and every subtle breeze sounded like a helicopter in the distance, but eventually, there was no mistaking the sound of the approaching chopper. We were ecstatic as the pilot loaded our gear and piled into the heli. The flight itself didn’t disappoint, I think I’d been in a heli at some point during my childhood but this all felt completely new. I gazed out at the passing scenery and the river beneath. The trip seemed to pass in moments, and before I knew it we were standing amidst a pile of gear watching the heli grow smaller. 

You'd have a stupid look on your face too, admit it.

Heli exits stage right.

Fully loaded kayak. Don't forget the TP.

A year of anticipation, and now we were here. We didn’t have much time to reflect, we needed to find and set up a proper camp. Our current spot wouldn’t do. It was marshy, the ground was uneven, and there were no trees. We inflated the kayak while slapping away mosquitoes and loaded it with as much gear as it would hold and began the search for a good site. It took longer than anticipated, but 2 hours or so later we found a good point on a riffle with a good view of plenty of rising fish. After setting up camp, we built a nice fire and cooked up some sausages, drinking in both our surroundings as well as sharing swigs of the Mackmyra whisky we brought. I waded out into the river under the almost perpetual twilight, and caught a few smaller browns on dry flies before crawling into my hammock, exhausted.

Sunset at Camp

The next morning we woke up, made some egg sandwiches for breakfast, and prepared our camp for the forecasted rainstorms before heading out to fish. Mark caught some fish on dries, and I had a few hits on a streamer in a likely looking spot, but the fishing was slow and we spent most of the day getting to know our surroundings. We napped for an hour or two in the afternoon, explored the area and made note of a bunch of fishy looking locations to visit the next morning. It was such a huge river, it was going to take some time to figure it out. Again we caught some more smaller browns on a riffle near camp, and I made some delicious reindeer chili over our fire for dinner before retiring. Very early in the morning of day three, shortly after 2 am, I awoke to the sounds of strong winds and driving rain against the tarp over my hammock. The brief hours of semi-darkness were over, and I lay in my hammock, warm and dry, and drifted off back to sleep with a feeling of peace and comfort that I’ll not soon forget.

Prepared for anything.

Releasing a brown.

The view from above. If you can spot the fisherman, the kayak, or the tents, it really puts the size
of the river into perspective.

We woke up to a grey, rainy morning. I won’t lie, spirits were low as we huddled under a tarp along with half of Sweden’s mosquito population, lifting the netting from our faces just long enough to eat a spoonful of muesli or take a sip of coffee, filtering out the drowned mosquitoes with our teeth. Sitting around camp depressed was pointless, so we put on our waders and grabbed a dry bag and made our way to the spot where I’d had some hits yesterday. I cast streamers into a deep hole where the river began to flatten out, and Mark cast dries to a rising pod of fish in a slick. Our mood changed instantly when he hooked a nice char, which we kept for lunch. We were just about to move on to another spot when, predictably, I took one last cast with my streamer and hooked a nice brown that joined the char on our dinner plates. We had some more success throughout the day, catching good sized browns on dry flies. The weather changed for the better, the mosquitoes were slightly less ever-present, we watched in awe as a pair of moose swam across the river directly in front of camp, and a delicious dinner of fresh trout and baked potatoes drizzled in olive oil made sure that the day finished off much, much better than it started.

A pair of Moose crossing the river

What a meal!
Fishing under the seemingly endless arctic sunset
Mark admiring a nice dry-caught brown

Day four was moving day. We needed to make our way downriver in order to make it closer to our pick up destination. We had some breakfast, broke camp, and packed up all our gear. We decided to play it safe and only packed half of our stuff into the kayak. Theoretically we could have packed it all in but it would have been quite overloaded and the chance of losing something in the rapids was high. We headed downstream for an hour or so, past two camps of fisherman, through two larger lakes and smaller sections of easy rapids before we found a suitable spot. The ground was much drier here, and as before, we were located just at the top of a promising section of fast water. We deposited half the gear and began to head back to the first campsite.The wind picked up, and we had to head upstream and directly into the wind. A long, exhausting afternoon loomed large. Hours of rowing, complaining, portaging, and laughing later, we arrived at our new camp with the remaining gear. We were too exhausted to fish with any sort of focus and determination but we tried nonetheless. A few of the young fisherman from a nearby camp came by, and we found out that not only were they from Switzerland, but that we lived just 15 minutes apart. We chatted with them for a bit while preparing our dinner of tuna pasta, then headed to bed.

The scenery was consistently breathtaking

Schlepping a kayak through the brush, thankful that I had a good pair of waders. (Mark, on the other hand, did not)

Sunset on the glassy waters, broken up only by our paddle and rising fish

The weather was beautiful on the fifth day. We saw blue skies for the first time and there was enough wind to keep the mosquitos at bay but not enough to make casting particularly difficult. Our plan today was to head to the far side of the river to fish. We packed up all the ingredients for a shoreside lunch of trout and potatoes, betting that’d we’d have a nice fish before lunch, and that we did. I caught fish all morning on streamers, and Mark was doing well on nymphs, and we kept a good fish for lunch. After lunch I put Mark in a good spot I had found earlier, and he landed some fat fish on a Matuka. The wind remained strong all day, and we didn’t see any actively rising fish, but Mark, the eternal optimist/dry fly snob, tied a stimulator on his Tom Morgan 4 weight and tried anyway. He had luck almost immediately, and I decided to switch to a Klinkhammer and move my way through the rocks casting to holding water as well. It was a good strategy, and my favorite way to fish. At dinnertime we headed back to camp, made some dinner, and decided to visit the nearby camp of the Swiss guys and share our second bottle of whiskey with them. They were very friendly, looked to be in their early 20s, and spent a month every year up in Sweden fishing. We exchanged photos and stories, and they mentioned that they’d had some luck night fishing with big streamers. It’s something I’ve wanted to try for a while, and since this was my last night here, I wouldn’t have another chance. We headed back to camp and around midnight I very carefully made my way into the river. It was fully dark and would remain so for a few hours. It was eerie, and admittedly somewhat stupid. The river was huge, I was alone in the middle of nowhere wading a few feet from fast deep water in utter darkness. I didn’t need much imagination to know what could happen if I slipped in the wrong spot. I took a few casts and lost two streamers in short succession. I decided to call it a night, I’d rather try night fishing on waters that I’m more familiar with. I headed back to camp, where Mark was up waiting. If I hadn’t come back at the time we agreed he’d have come looking for me.

Mark with a nice arctic char

Typical of the size of browns we caught

Mark tying on a fly amidst rising trout

Throwing streamers into a nice hole

The river from a long way up.

The last day of our trip was already upon us, Mark decided to sit it out when it came to fishing, and I couldn’t blame him. He’d been dealing with extremely leaky waders all week, and his feet were waterlogged, cold and wet at the end of every day and combined with the many mosquito bites, he was a bit worried about infection. Fortunately I had no such concerns, and focused on my favorite type of fishing to finish up the trip, casting dries to likely looking spots among the many rocks and riffles. I packed up all my rods except for my 5 weight H2 and walked to the bottom of the long section of rough water next to our camp, and waded and rock hopped my way slowly back upstream casting a stimulator to inviting seams and pockets. Every so often I was rewarded with an unexpected take that came out of nowhere. And so I spent the rest of the day. Shortly before the 3pm, the agreed upon time to head towards our extraction point, I came across some larger trout slashing and jumping in a big slick. It was a good distance away, and I didn’t have the time to wade carefully to a more advantageous position, so I launched a hail-mary cast that dropped the stimulator in the center of the slick. The drift was brief but it was enough to entice a fat 16 inch fish to rocket out of the water and hammer my fly. He immediately launched himself back in the air and somersaulted 12 feet or so directly towards me in spectacular fashion. I was taken by surprise, but I raised my rod tip, took up line as quickly as I could until I felt his weight at the end of the line, and then he promptly snapped me off. I stood there grinning, my leader whipping in the wind, taking this last fish as a fitting goodbye to Sweden but also an invitation to return.

The heli picked us up, and brought us back to the lodge where'd we'd spend a night before heading back home. A nice bonus of the trip was the dinner that was included with the trip. I wasn't expecting much in a small town like Kiruna, but when we arrived at the restaurant we were spoiled with a delicious dinner of fat reindeer steaks, charcuterie, and a selection of a hundred or so international microbrews and fine whiskeys.

All in all, the trip was unforgettable. It put my shifting expectations of a fishing trip into perspective. Fishing for 12 hours straight and collapsing into bed just to wake up and do it all over again was undeniably fun and resulted in plenty of nice fish, but this trip made me realized that I like building a camp, cooking over a fire, and sharing a bottle of whisky with Mark just as much as the fly fishing itself. As our 8th trip ended, and as plans for trip numbers 9 and 10 coalesced, we were both aware that every one of these trips is a gift, and we never know which will be the last.

Retrospective: The gear that made it and the gear that didn't

I'm pretty easy to please. I don't expect heroic efforts and extraordinary performance from people or gear, just enough to get the job done. That said, being alone in the wilderness for a week requires reliable gear and whatever doesn't meet the standard can result in a very uncomfortable if not dangerous experience. Being the optimist that I am, I’ll start with the gear that exceeded expectations.

All of my Fjällraven stuff.
It’s no coincidence that basically everyone here in Sweden wears Fjällraven clothing. They’re comfortable, durable, and keep both stink and mosquitoes at bay. For the entire trip I lived in a pair of Barents Pro trousers and a Skogsö jacket and they showed no wear or damage in any way. I waxed the jacket and pants before the trip, and I also brought along a block of greenland wax to reapply in case the rain was particularly heavy, fortunately it wasn't as wet as we had feared. Mark spent all his nights in the Abisko 3 tent and couldn’t have been happier, it stood up to the heavy wind, rain, and mosquitoes with aplomb, and it packs down neatly into a small package.

The Fjällraven Abisko 3 tent in its natural environment.

The Hennessy Deep Jungle hammock. The true star of the trip. I brought it along in the hopes I could use it but half expecting to share the 3 person tent with Mark. It ended up being the perfect choice for the trip. We passed literally hundreds of spots where I could have hung the hammock while looking for dry level ground to pitch Mark’s tent. Along with a underquilt and a sleeping blanket, it kept me perfectly warm and comfortable down to the coldest nights of our trip, which were a windy 4C/40F. It’s no secret that there’s a vocal group of Hammock campers on the internet, and they tend to be sort of fanatical about hammocks. I can honestly say that I can see why after this trip. I have no desire to ever sleep in a tent again if I don’t have to. I don’t know why, but I’m much more comfortable and happy in a hammock. The hammock I chose for this trip is the Hennessy Deep Jungle XL hammock, one of many offered by Hennessy. I chose this one because it has an integrated mosquito net, and a double bottom that prevents mosquitoes from getting to you through the fabric. Swedish Lappland is legendary for its mosquitoes, and our trip was no exception. I’ve never experienced anything like it, we had to keep ourselves covered at all times, even lifting the mosquito netting from your face long enough to take a sip of coffee often resulted in a few bites. Yet in the hammock, I was safe. The material is very strong, and has unique and very comfortable feel to it. Like practically everyone else who hammock camps, a little experimentation is part of the game. At first I tried the hammock with a bubble pad in cooler weather, but found that an underquilt was more comfortable. I’ve since added some new suspension options from dutchwaregear.com to make setting up and adjusting both the hammock and the tarp more quickly. I definitely recommend trying a dedicated camping hammock, but if you do, I can’t stress enough how important it is to spend a few nights outside testing things out before it really counts.

Hennessy Deep Jungle XL with a silnylon hex tarp and a DD hammocks underquilt.

The Hex tarp from above.

MSR Pocket Rocket  and General Ecology First Need Filter. These two items worked great, nothing particular spectacular except when you consider that I bought both of these things around 20 years ago and they work as well as they did on day 1. I’m a big buy it for life guy, and these items definitely fit the bill.

Orvis Silver Sonic Zip Front Waders. I’ve had these for two seasons now, and I abuse them. Seeing how miserable Mark was with leaky waders on our recent trip to Sweden only served to reinforce my opinion that going cheap on waders is likely to be a bad idea. I spent most of the week in Sweden wearing my silver sonics, I tripped and fell while wading, slid down rocks, and spent hours bushwhacking and dragging a kayak through waist high shrubs, yet my legs stayed dry and warm the entire trip and I had no tears or punctures.

The Hall of Shame:

I’m quite easy to please and not picky, but some items struck me as massive failures, particularly the
Korkers Buckskin Wading boots. I bought these 3 years ago for 130 bucks. I do a good deal of wet wading as well as fishing from the bank without waders so I’d say as a wildly optimistic estimate, I wore these 10-20 times a year. They’ve failed me in almost every aspect. Both shoes have multiple holes as well as multiple spots where the stitching has come undone, the laces are disintegrating, and the interchangeable soles have come off randomly twice. (I found them the first time, but on my most recent trip to Sweden the attachment knob for the soles came off and the sole is gone for good. It made wading an already dangerous river even more hazardous). To see a pair of boots in frankly unusable condition after a maximum of fifty wears in unacceptable. Never again.

I hate you, boots.

Fiskars X10 hatchet. Looks cool, feels good in the hand, and is lightweight. Unfortunately, normal use (chopping dead branches for a fire) chipped and dented the blade to the point where it looked like I had been hacking at stones. Come on. I really don't want to spend hours and hours grinding all this damage out, but my choice is either that or buy a new hatchet because this thing is completely unusable in its current state.

That'll take a while to fix...

North Face Base Camp Duffel – Though not quite as egregious a failure as the other two, I was really surprised to see a small hole in the duffel on its maiden voyage, a short commercial flight from Zürich to Stockholm. I’ll patch it and move on, but I have shitty no name duffel bags from Walmart that cost 95% less than the Base Camp duffel and have been through far worse without a puncture and that stings a bit. Maybe there's some disgruntled ex-north face employee working the luggage belts in Stockholm stabbing every TNF bag with an icepick. Who knows?