Monday, 29 July 2013

Cannonball Read #23: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Rarely does a book manage to fill me with apprehension after just one paragraph. But The Slap did it. After just one paragraph I was prepared to hate this book. I usually hate books that only have despicable characters in them.

Set in Melbourne, the story revolves around a group of people related to each other by blood, friendship, marriage. While these people are together at a barbecue, one of them slaps a three-year old child across the face to protect his own son from getting hit by the child. The group is then divided between those who think that the child deserved it and those who believe that no one should ever hit a child and that the family should press charges.

From the description above, you would think that the genre of this book is legal drama, or perhaps a murder mystery, but what it really is is a character study that has mostly nothing to do with the titular slap. Divided into chapters where each chapter follows a different character, it reveals their secrets and dark desires. It is unrelenting in its portrayal of these people's lack in basic morality, and it is an ugly world it paints. There are no good people to offer redemption here, no one to shed a light in this bleak suburban existence, just bad and less bad people. People that are obsessed by how they look, how their lives look, how their own needs will be satisfied. Except maybe one.

It is that person, right at the end of the story, who made me change my perception of the book. This person would probably be judged as ”bad” by some (hopefully a few), but in my eyes he never did anything inexcusable. This made me wonder if some of the characters I found horrible, narcissistic, self-absorbed would get a pass by other readers, just like the slap was deemed horrible by some and ok by others. And, perhaps, that's exactly the point Tsiolkas is trying to make: that we all play by our own set of rules, and as long as we don't break any rules or are too outspoken about the ones that we do break, our own version of immorality goes largely unnoticed by the world around us. But morality is so bound by cultural standards that it becomes a very relevant question, especially in this day and age, in our multicultural Western societies. At several points in the book, for example, the adults complain of young people not showing respect for their elders. This complaint is, in itself, laughable, because, by all accounts, the adults in this story haven't done much to deserve this respect – they just expect it.

An easy read, The Slap kept me interested throughout, its depiction of some deeply flawed people like a bad car accident that just forces you to rubberneck. Thankfully, my fear that I would hate this book was unfounded. I didn't love the book either. The lack of redeeming features in the characters felt unrealistic, and that so many rotten of them would find each other to spend time and procreate with only amplified that feeling. But it was definitely a thought-provoking book that I would recommend to my less-sensitive friends.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

I won't even mention how many times I stumbled and almost got my skull crushed

I couldn't come to Hemavan and not try to put in a long run. J had spent the night in a tent somewhere close to Kungsleden, the King's trail. I consulted the map. I wanted something relatively flat. I say relatively because we're on the mountains. Nowhere is flat, except maybe the airport, and I'm not even sure about that. I had run to the first STF cabin a couple of years ago, a long run that I remembered fondly. Now I was curious to see what lay beyond it. During our hiking trip here a month ago, we had put up the tent about a kilometre after the cabin, right at the mouth of the Syterskal valley. The map told me that a reindeer guard hut bookended the valley on the other side of the passage.

I ate a hearty breakfast and set off around 9. I walked the first 4-5 kilometres, knowing from past experience that they are uphill and not worth wasting energy on. Speaking of energy, all I had with me were two flapjacks and some peanuts. In hindsight, it was probably a bit optimistic of me to think that would be enough. I also had almost three litres of water, my VFF for crossing streams, a towel to dry off my feet afterwards, a compass and map, an emergency whistle and a bandage. Just in case.

An hour later I was able to start running. I met a few people along the way, said quick hellos. I saw a dark brown forest hare disappear into the jungle-like vegetation near a stream. The sun was mercilessly turning all intake of water into steaming perspiration before I had even started running, and now it was threatening to turn my brain into boiled mush. It was unbearable. The heat sucked all my energy from me. I tried to combat its loss by eating but what I really wanted to do was to jump in a stream. Soon enough, I came to a big one, the one we hadn't been able to cross without poles on our previous trip. The water was so low now that I didn't have to change into my VFF. I splashed some cold water on my face and on my head. It was a great relief.

Some clouds had started casting thick shadows across Syterskal valley, as I could see even before getting to the STF cabin. This was great news for me, of course. After passing the cabin and our old camping place, I was enveloped in the darkness cast by the clouds. The ground was flatter, too. I could run longer distances without having to stop all the time. I did have to stop where the terrain got really technical. Huge, unstable stones covered the path at times. At some places, little rivulets of melted snow from the vast mountain walls above made the ground into a muddy mess, forcing me to stop and think how I would get across. I didn't want to get my shoes wet. I had a long way to go and my feet had enough blisters as it was.

Blisters. I had gotten them during our 32 km-long hike up South Sytertoppen (1685 metres high) two days earlier. My legs were tired, sure. But the blisters felt like needles were stuck into my feet with every step. 

The ridge we walked on our way back from South Sytertoppen

I saw the reindeer guard hut in the distance. It got closer, but at an excruciatingly slow pace. It was mental torture to be able to have my goal in sight, yet feel like I'm running on a treadmill and getting nowhere. The Syterskal valley was adding to this effect by being monotonously flat, with no distinguishing landmarks.

Finally, I was there. I turned to look at the valley and its two sentries standing on either side, North and South Sytertoppen. The precipice at the Eastern side of South Sytertoppen looked horrifying and I couldn't believe we stood just a couple of metres from its edge two days before. 

South Sytertoppen looms over the reindeer guard hut.

Two runners showed up just as I was trying to figure out where I was going to take a break and eat. We started chatting. One of them had started off in Abisko (where Kungsleden starts, approximately 450 km from Hemavan) and the other one in Ammarnäs (”only” 80 km away). I reflected on my own condition. I couldn't help but compare myself with them. I had only run 11 km at that point and I was already knackered. How did they train for such an enormous adventure?

After a quick bite, I felt some raindrops on my arms. It felt nice to get cooled down but I knew that if I stayed too long, I would start getting cold. The sun was shining somewhere else at the moment. I got a text message from J, who had climbed up a 1300-metre high top and was getting a bit worried that there might be a thunderstorm on the way. Mountain tops and thunderstorms are not a good combination. I hurried back, thankful for the flatness of the valley this time, but then I realised that I couldn't help J. He was half-running down that mountain, and I wouldn't be able to get to him before he got back to his tent, at the foot of the mountain. I took another break by our old camping site, removed my shoes and socks and put my feet in the cold Syterbäck river water. Heaven.

Beach 2013

An hour later, I saw J walking down the slope near the bridge, waving his hands at me from the other side of the river. I waved back, glad to see he was ok. I ran over the bridge to meet him. After catching up briefly and getting an update on each other's plans, I decided to run back down to the village a different way. Big mistake. I climbed up the first bit of the trail and tried to start running when the ground became flat again. It didn't work out so well. The mud that covered large parts of the trail was threatening to suck the shoes right off my feet. Then, the trail got divided in two, looking just as untrodden on both sides. I, of course, picked the wrong side and was soon bushwhacking through a birch-canopied, Downy Willow (Salix Lapponum) shrub-covered forest, completely lost with nothing but an inkling to where I was supposed to be going.

Warning! This is where my parents should skip the next paragraph. All others, keep reading. Great stuff.

Bear poo. BEAR POO. Right by my SHOE. In the middle of the forest, in the middle of my frantic efforts to find the bloody path again. I'm not certain it's bear poo, at least not until I see something that looks suspiciously like a bear paw print in the mud, but unless they've been lying to us all these years and the dinosaurs are not, in fact, extinct, I can't imagine what other animal would be able to produce poop this size. I'm so sorry, Internet, that I was a lousy blogger and didn't stop to take a picture of the poop. I was too busy getting the hell out of there, with my emergency whistle in my hand. A whistle that I was hoping would scare any bears away. Yeah. These are the phenomenal survival skills that would make me think bringing a kitten along on a swim in Australia to scare off approaching sharks is a fantastic idea.

Why, hello there, mum and dad! You just read all that, didn't you. Well, I did warn you.

I didn't have to use my whistle. The only thing that attacked me was a swarm of really persistent flies and something that kept buzzing angrily in my ear. I found the path and was hit by a tsunami of relief. A few minutes later, I was down by the road and the tsunami of relief was replaced by a heat wave that almost made me choke. Without the trees to provide shade, I ran on the tarmac road back towards Hemavan, suffering with each step, sipping on my water but suspecting that the reason I was so sluggish was salt deficiency. I had sweated buckets, as anyone who stood within 100 metres of me could attest to. I also desperately craved ice-cream but I only had 10 crowns with me and wondered if someone at the store would take a look at me, feel sorry for me and give me one for free. I didn't test my theory. Instead, I switched off my Garmin at 27 km and walked the rest of the way up the hill back to our flat. I reckon that the total distance I covered today, including the walking parts, was close to 37 km, and it took me 7 hours to do it. The thermometer showed 33 degrees in the sun.

I bought an ice-cream on my way to pick up J.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Cannonball Read #22: Shift by Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey's Wool was one of the best books I read last year. Original, clever, well-written, I've recommended it to lots of people. Naturally, I was excited to find out that there was going to be a sequel.

Shift mainly takes place before the events described in Wool. The story of Wool, for those of you who haven't read it (obviously, SPOILERS ahead) revolves mainly around Juliette, a young woman living, together with thousands of others, in an underground silo. The world above is toxic and anyone who is unlucky enough to get kicked out of the silo dies within a few minutes. In Wool, we don't find out exactly why things are the way they are. Shift tries to do that. Through the main character of Donald, we get to look back at the world before silos, and how it became a toxic wasteland.

Just like Wool, Shift was released in parts before it was published as a book, and just as in Wool, I found the first half to drag on a bit – maybe because of their episodic nature. The issue I had with Wool, namely that...


Characters are introduced and fleshed out only to be killed off, turning out that they weren't important to the main story after all


bothered me a bit with this book too. But, in the end, the biggest issue I had with this book was that our main character seemed to reach important conclusions about the secrets that were hidden from him (and from us), yet these conclusions were never fully revealed to us. Was I not paying attention? Do I lack the capacity to follow the same logical steps as he did? I kept thinking that the big revelation was just around the corner, a revelation of such enormous importance (you want the truth? YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!) that it kept me turning the pages. But the revelation never came. Not in a way that I was able to understand, anyway. In the end, I felt a bit cheated and the hints that there was a great mystery felt like nothing more than a way for the author to produce a thicker book.

That said, I still enjoyed reading this book. I love the world of the silos, the idea that whole societies live underground, unaware of each other. I want to find out more about these societies, their psychology, their religion, their politics. I will be reading the follow-up, Dust, but my expectations may be a little lower this time.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Drottningleden – The Queen trail

So what if my quads were shot because of yesterday's fiasko? My throat felt fine this morning and so did I. Looking through the window at a sunbathed Hemavan, yesterday's reluctance to ever run in the mountains again seemed like a dream. Days like these are rare in the mountains and you have to -sorry for being corny- seize them.

Still, the painful memory of twisting my already injured ankle was fresh. I chose Drottningleden, the Queen trail, that stretches between Hemavan and Laisaliden, and which is relatively simple to hike on (ergo, a good running trail). The first 3 km are uphill, so I walked up the toughest parts – which was most of them. I had decided to let this run take however long it takes, not stressing about having to walk at places. I had all day, hardly a cloud was in the sky and I was feeling great.

This hawk (or one like it) is there every year, always circling the exact same spot by Drottningleden

I reached a point where the uphill parts were shorter and far between, and took a moment to breathe and admire the view. A reindeer male could be seen a couple of hills away, looking majestic, with a huge crown on its head. I realised that yesterday's deer was probably just a reindeer after all, but I'd be forgiven for thinking that it was something wilder: I had never seen such big, brown reindeer before. I usually see the smaller, white/grey ones, grazing around the plains. The reindeer were now close enough to photograph, and were kind enough to stand still while I snapped a couple of pictures.

The illusion of solitude and fragility I usually associate with being alone on the mountains was soon shattered. More and more people started showing up on the trail, all of them heading towards Hemavan. A group of primary school-aged children wandered around with only one or two adults to accompany them. It was starting to feel like Saturday at the shopping mall, and I didn't like it. Then I came across three MTB cyclists who had stopped to rest.

- Are you out getting some exercise? one of them asked me.
- Yes, it's a beautiful day for it, I replied.
- Mountain weather is not usually like this, he said. It's only been such weather 3 or 4 times whenever I've come here.
- Are you guys heading towards Laisaliden? I asked. Because, in that case, I'll keep my ears open for you. Ring your bells to let me know you're coming.
- Well, then, you should run faster! one of the other guys quipped with a grin on his face.

I told them I'd do my best and started running again. I got to Laisaliden about 20 minutes later, and, while I was having a look around at the trail head, the cyclists showed up.

- I made it here first, I told them cheekily.
- Are you going back the same way? they asked.
- It beats the alternative, I answered and pointed at the narrow, asfalted road that led back to Hemavan.
- Then all we can do is applaud you, one of them said.

They wished me a good day and left me to climb the first tough segment of the Queen trail back. I stopped by a stream to fill up with energy and water, and then continued, passing group after group of hikers. My quads were complaining. Loudly. What was an easy, gently downward sloping trail on the way to Laisaliden was a long, uphill struggle on the way back to Hemavan. I walked more and more, not even wanting to push my legs any harder, jogging carefully among the stones where I could. I had to take a longer break before the trail turned down towards Hemavan again, which did wonders for my energy. The view from here was amazing. Everywhere I looked were snow-clad tops, and today, none of them were covered in clouds. Several hundred altitude metres down, I could see Hemavan airport and the village. I could even see where our flat was. All the familiar landmarks looked so small, you'd think they were tens of kilometres away. Yet I knew that I didn't have long left to run.

I heard shouts. A woman I had passed on my way to Laisaliden was now standing on top of a cliff with two dogs on a leash, whistling and calling a third dog at the top of her lungs. As I ran past, she asked me if I had seen a loose dog. I simply answered ”no”, biting my tongue. What I had wanted to say was that maybe she shouldn't have had the dog loose in a nature reserve, where it is forbidden. Maybe the dog ran after one of the reindeer I had seen earlier on. Still, I hoped she would find her dog. Losing a pet is a terrible, terrible feeling. And it's definitely not the dog's fault if its owner doesn't know how to handle it.

The whole excursion took me 3 hours. Of the approximately 17 kilometres between the flat and Laisaliden, I ran just over 14. Not bad. This is trail running at its best.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Trail running in Hemavan, day 1

I've been looking forward to this trip since we started planning it a year ago. I have been longing for the undulating trails of Hemavan since I first ran on them two years ago. But, after my first excursion over the bush-covered hills at the foot of the mountains, and after a hot shower and burrowing into my sleeping bag in this cold flat we're renting, I'm not sure I want to ever run a trail again.

We got here around 4 yesterday afternoon, and after eating some dinner and unpacking our things, I went for a short jog around the street-illuminated prepared path by the village. Oh how wonderful it was to breathe in the crisp air. How at peace I felt in the familiar surroundings. How my legs worked effortlessly. I forged grand plans in my head, long runs that would take me to see new places. I could do all that, because I felt great. I felt strong.

Then, this morning, I woke up with a throat that, while not exactly sore, was not exactly the healthiest throat specimen in the world. Still, I put on my running clothes and picked a destination: I would follow the stream into Kobåset, the valley between two imposing mountains.

To get there, one has to start by following Kungsleden for a couple of kilometres. A few hundred metres in, I was already knackered and reduced to a walk. No, not a power walk or anything even remotely resembling exercise: it was a zombie-like, slow stumble, while my lungs and heart worked furiously to pump oxygen into my blood.

Shelter: Fjällfinakåta

Let me take a break at this point to tell you that J and I had started off towards the same destination at the same time, only J was going to hike there. A couple of kilometres later, I could still see him, not so far behind me. That's how slow I was.

Anyway, I was stubborn enough to continue. I ran a few metres, walked a few metres. After the trail diverged from Kungsleden, it became more and more wet and stony, the mud so thick at places that it sucked in my shoes and refused to let go. Single-track is not the word I would use to describe it. No. There wasn't even enough room for one single person to walk on, unless this person was walking sideways like a crab.

Yep, this is the trail...

At some point I must have passed some invisible barrier, the ground must have levelled off or my legs were finally warmed up, because I found myself running, happily splashing through the marshes, balancing precariously on stones, casting quick glances at the still-not-ripe cloudberries, listening to the plovers and the approaching Kobåset stream. I crossed the aforementioned stream without a problem, only to find out a hundred metres later that the track, or whatever that was, ended abruptly near the entrance to the valley. The view was beautiful and wide, from cloudy Sytertoppen to Hemavan and even the sunlit, snowy Norwegian mountains in the distance.

This, too, is the trail. Sytertoppen is in the clouds.

I turned back, and 2 minutes later I met J. Told you I was slow. We gave each other promises once again that we'd continue to be careful and I left him to continue his hike, while I tried to hover over the marshes in drenched shoes. Once I got back to Kungsleden, I looked at my Garmin. Only 6 km! And it had taken over an hour? I needed to keep running. I had my eye on another route that would take me further on Kungsleden and then turn westwards towards Klippen and the village, a route that was new to me. Kungsleden went on being pig-headedly steep, and I found both my physical and my mental energy draining quickly. Then, the thing that was not supposed to happen happened. I put my foot down in a weird angle, and my injury flared up. The pain was excruciating and lasted a lot longer than it usually does. I was convinced that I had taken my last running step in Hemavan and that I would have to hop back to the flat on one leg.

A couple of minutes of groaning and cursing later, I tried putting some weight on the foot, and then walking on it. It felt ok, so I tried running on it. That felt fine, too. No pain at all. Onwards and upwards I ran and/or walked, my mood so rotten that I thought only following my plan would fix it. Suddenly, the most awe-inspiring creature, the stuff of fairytales, appeared further up the trail from me. It was half-hidden by the trees, but I thought that it was far too magnificent to be a mere reindeer. No – it had to be a deer. Its crown was enormous, its beautiful face nature personified. I started reaching for my camera, that was, somewhat inconveniently, inside my backpack. The deer started moving away, and I went after it like a hunter, fumbling with my camera at the same time as I tried to tiptoe silently towards it. Before I knew it, the deer was gone and I had veered off the trail onto a mountain bike path. For some reason, I chose to walk up that path, instead of turning back towards Kungsleden, probably thinking that the two paths would meet further up. They didn't.

I reached the top of the hill and for a moment I was unsure how far off the path I had gone. I recognised the ski lift over my head, but I thought I remembered Kungsleden being much further down the slope. Then, I saw an orange-painted stone and breathed a sigh of relief. It marked Kungsleden and it wasn't far at all. Further down, I could see some signs, and I hoped that one of them would point me to the direction of Klippen, my destination.

Once I got there, I was disappointed to find out that the only signs there pointed either towards Hemavan or the STF cabin in Viterskalet. The path to Klippen was much further away. At this point, my energy was at a dangerously low level. I hadn't brought any food with me, gravely underestimating how much time this little jogging trip would take me. I made up my mind: I would turn back.

It was mostly downhill from here. This was good (because I didn't have hills to struggle upwards) but also bad, because the path is littered with stones and the downward speed makes it easy for runners to twist their ankles. Mine was already injured and it wouldn't take a lot to make it hurt again. Despite my exhaustion, I was careful and managed to get back without incident. The hot shower was longer than usual. In fact, I think I might have used up the whole village's hot water. And all this for 12 lousy kilometres.

When I grow up, I want to be a real trail runner.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Three national parks and 75 km in five days

(LONG read. Yeah, I don't write that often any more, but when I do, you get a lot for your money)

This summer has been all about the mountains. Less than a month ago, J and I roamed the ones around Hemavan, and a week ago we drove up to Ritsem to hike around mount Akka (also known as the Queen of Lapland). During the 5 days we were there, not a single kilometre was run, but believe me: running was on my mind very often. Keep reading and you'll soon see why.

Day 1: The drive up to Ritsem and looking for a place to camp

It's not easy getting to Ritsem, the little collection of Sami fisherman cabins by the lake Akkajaure. The road there is long (around 430km) and the last part of it is narrow and rough, the asphalt broken up by the harsh winter climate, its side littered by huge stones that have plummeted from the cliffs above. Also, suicidal reindeer hiding in the ditches, waiting until you're almost close enough to hear their racing heartbeat before they throw themselves at your 90 km- per hour speeding ton of metal. Judging by the look it gave me before it trotted back into the bushes, head held high, I was being unreasonable to brake and shout obscenities at it.

I guess reindeer are not known for their smarts. I mean, you don't see many of them graduating from Harvard.

We had to wait for an hour before we could get on the boat that would carry us across the lake and to Änonjalme, the trail head of Padjelanta trail. The boat tour took a little more than half an hour, but it was a pleasant tour: Mount Akka looked very impressive, looming over us, surrounded by other snow-clad tops.

Padjelanta trail is around 140 km long and pretty easy to hike on. It seemed to attract lots of people, all sorts of people, most of whom only went as far as the first cabin (a couple km from Änonjalme). We continued over the shaky suspension bridge that hangs over the raging river Vuojatädno. 

Our goal was to reach the Northern side of Akka and find a place to put up our tent at the foot of the mountain. Then, the following day, we hoped to climb up to the Hamberg glacier. We found what looked more like a reindeer track and less like a trail veering off into a mountain birch jungle, complete with mud, puddles and thick bushes our heavy backpacks got caught into. After fighting nature for one kilometre, we decided to give up on that goal and turn back to Padjelanta trail.

The trail was like a motorway compared to the narrow track we had attempted to follow, complete with fellow travellers having put up tents at strategic locations. After 10 km of hiking with 10 kg on my back (and a long car journey), I was eager to find such a strategic location. But it proved to be harder than we thought. We needed to have access to water and a clearing big enough for our three-man tent. We were also hoping to find such a place a bit further into the woods so that we'd have some privacy, and some protection from the elements in case the weather got bad. We had taken a food break by a stream, and we briefly considered putting up the tent there, but having people walking 2 meters past our tent wouldn't do much for our illusion that we were in the wilderness.

We chose to walk on and get to the next cabin, which was 15 km from the boat. About a kilometre before we got there, we found the perfect camping place: a peninsula of land right where two rivers meet, the rivers that divide the area into three national parks. We had access to glacier water, blue and frothing. We had trees around us that provided shelter and privacy. And the reindeer poo that covered the whole area made for a really soft surface to put the tent on. Not to mention a pleasure to clean the tent afterwards.

Yeah. The last part was maybe not ideal. But we had driven 430 km and walked 16. We just wanted to sleep.

Day 2: Sarek national park

Sarek is pure wilderness. No cabins, no trails. Just hikers and wild animals, which, fascinatingly enough, never collide. The bears, lynx and huge moose that are the natural inhabitants of this area kept well away.

We found a reindeer track and followed that along the river Sjnjuvtjudisjåhkå (someone forgot to put some vowels in there - surprisingly, I suspect that word is easier to pronounce after a bottle of wine. Or maybe when noone is sober enough to correct you). Despite the lack of official trail, it was mostly pretty easy to hike there. We upset some long-tailed jaeger and willow ptarmigan. The plover's mournful cries accompanied us the whole way. We were hoping to get near Nijak, a sharp-looking top 10-12 km from the tent. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse and we could hardly see our noses, let alone a top which by now was surely hidden in the clouds.

We turned back, our clothes slowing getting wet despite the rain gear. After a couple of kilometres, the rain stopped, because of course it did. That's mountain weather for you: unpredictable, always changing, fierce. We took a detour past a hill that offered a great view of lake Vastenjaure and a reindeer sighting. When we finally arrived back at the tent, we had hiked 20 km.

Day 3: Stora Sjöfallet national park

We were aching to put in some altitude kilometres, and since we couldn't get to Akka from where we were, we aimed for the next best thing in the area: the 979-meter tall mountain hill Sjnjuvtjudis (remember that word? How could you forget). It wasn't a steep climb but our thighs still ached pleasantly. The top was marked by a heap of stones littered with reindeer antlers and offered a magnificent view over Akka's Western tops, Akkajaure lake and the mountains Nijak and Kisuris. 

As easy as it was to climb up, getting down was hard. We thought walking around the whole hill would be a great idea, but what we didn't take into consideration was the weather (which turned foggy and rainy) and the thick bushes covering large parts of the hillside. It was slow going, and it was mentally tiresome to not be able to look around and judge how far we'd walked. Thankfully, we had our GPS with us, telling us where we were. We finally got back after 14 km and cooked some delicious couscous on the stove. Well, not so delicious. But when you've spent the whole day hiking, even paper tastes good.

Day 4: Padjelanta national park and the way back

Just as we were finishing our coffee on a cold morning after a dreary rainy night, J exclaimed: ”Look!”. Not 15 meters from us, a young reindeer and its adult companion were walking towards the river shore to drink some water. I hardly had time to produce my camera before they spotted us and ran away.

The sun finally appeared, just in time for our last-day hike into Padjelanta. The plan was to walk for 2-3 hours on the easy trail, saving our strength for the evening hike back to the bridge. Conveniently enough, a Sami village lay 5 km from our tent and we headed for it. The environment was almost surreal at places, barren but for some beautiful mountain birches that struggled to survive. The trail was undulating, taking us over sandy ridges and past cool streams. All I could think of was how cool it would be to run Padjelanta trail, maybe staying at the cabins at night. It wouldn't take more than 6-7 days.

The last part of the hike cut through low marshlands. The elusive cloudberries (also known as Norrland's gold), going for 40 euro/kg in the supermarkets, were abundant here – unfortunately not ripe enough to eat yet. That didn't stop us from tasting a couple.

Back at the tent, we ate some couscous and packed our things. The weather was still beautiful, the air crispy but not cold enough to cool us down, the sky blue among the scattered clouds. Akka and the surrounding mountains were revealed in all their glory, with some fresh snow powdering the tops. We walked in its shadow with our heavy backpacks on our shoulders, stopping to admire the awe-inspiring glaciers slowly gliding down its sides. 

We put up the tent by the suspension bridge. We had to be at Änonjalme at 12 the following day to take the boat back to Ritsem, and we still had 4 km to walk. Some dark clouds seemed to be coming our way from the West, and we re-hydrated our dehydrated dinner in a hurry. We indulged in a couple of home-baked flapjacks for dessert. The dreaded storm turned out to be nothing but a drizzle. We slept badly that night, knowing that the alarm would go off at 6 the next morning.

Day 5: The journey back

We were very efficient with our breakfast and packing routine, and we headed back to the boat at 8.30. We arrived there way too early, and, with nothing else to do, we sat by the beach, cooling our feet in the icy lake. The mosquitoes were almost outnumbered by the seagulls, but they were infinitely more annoying as they buzzed in my ear. Good thing we had hats with mosquito net on them.

The boat took us to the Vaisaluokta cabin first before it turned back towards Ritsem. Our car was, thankfully, still there when we got back. Some rainy weather was waiting for us in Skellefteå, and the temperature had dropped to 8 degrees. It seemed like the mountain weather had followed us all the way home.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Cannonball Read #21: Löparäventyret - på småvägar genom Europa

(This is a book originally written and published in Swedish. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn't been translated yet. The title means: "The running adventure - on small roads through Europe")

In April 2011, ultrarunning legend Rune Larsson and marathon runner Susanne Johansson set off from Portugal on a journey that would take them across Europe and all the way home to Sweden. They travelled on foot, mostly running, pushing a baby pram loaded with essentials. During their 75-day adventure, they crossed 8 countries and over 3500 km.

I love stories like this. I have several books on my shelves written by people who'd covered great distances on foot and the things they saw. I find such stories incredibly inspiring. I, too, want to embark on such adventures. Imagine the things I'd get to experience.

Despite the fact that I've always loved Larsson's articles in the Swedish edition of Runner's World, I felt that this book was lacking in some areas. I enjoyed the first half of the book a lot more than the second, picturing how it must have been to travel through Spain and France, to meet all sorts of people, swim in the rivers and camp under the stars. But then the book runs (pun not intended) out of steam. All the exciting incidents get reduced to just another page in what reads like a diary. Neither Larsson or Johansson are, of course, writers by trade. They are athletes. So perhaps I shouldn't have expected more than this day-to-day account of kilometres run and how much accommodation cost. It's just that....on the few occasions when I've run 40 kilometres or more, I've always had a story to tell. In this format, without a story to make each day unique, the numbers fall flat and become meaningless to an outsider, their importance diminished. I suppose I expected more from what I am sure was an amazing adventure.

This is a book for runners, written by runners. It's not a bad book, per se; I just don't think it does the actual journey justice.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Cannonball Read #20: Into the woods by Tana French

Detective Rob Ryan is relatively new to Dublin's Murder Squad. He and his partner Cassie Maddox have only had easy cases to deal with so far. But then, one day, a case falls into their lap that will affect them both profoundly. 12-year old Katy has been found dead, left in an archaeological dig in the middle of the woods bordering an estate. The woods where Rob Ryan's two best friends mysteriously disappeared with hardly a trace when he was 12. Are the two events connected? And how will Rob Ryan cope with the resurfacing of the old case?

Into the woods is Tana French's début novel. Yet, that's hard to notice; she exhibits a confidence in her writing usually found in more weathered authors. Her language is at times almost poetic, filled with metaphors and then sharply contrasted by the grim events she describes. Her characters are believable, flawed (wretched, even) but likeable. There's never a dull moment in the book. It never sags or misses a step, and it certainly doesn't feel like it's 600 pages long.

The whole experience was like being in a nightmare, like walking through the fog on a starless night, the only reprieve being the occasional good-natured taunts between Ryan and Maddox – but even those seemed ominous at times. Although I wanted to find out whodunnit, I also didn't want the book to end. As dark and devoid of life its landscape was, I didn't want to leave it, yet. Especially since it left me with unanswered questions.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a good detective story and who isn't afraid of the dark.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Cannonball Read #19: World War Z by Max Brooks

Max Brooks' World War Z is a collection of stories as told by Zombie war survivors. Soldiers, politicians, refugees from around the world present us with pieces of an apocalyptic puzzle, one that brought mankind to the edge of extinction. Their accounts are vivid, horrifying, often bitter, bleak and demoralizing. Faced with an almost unstoppable force that feels no emotion, humans will do anything to survive.

There has been a lot of praise for Brooks' book, and, already after reading the first page, I could see why. He has crafted a detailed, realistic scenario of what would happen if there was a zombie outbreak. You can tell he's given this a lot of thought: he explores everything from how to effectively destroy zombies to how different countries would react, to how some zombies would float to the surface as opposed to walking the bottom of the sea depending on how bloated they are. It's a rich world – which was kind of the only drawback of this book for me.

Having read World War Z right after Robopocalypse I couldn't help but make comparisons. The two are similar in some ways, not least in how film-friendly their subject matter (and even their approach) is. Both are told through several narrators. This works much better in the case of World War Z, perhaps because the reason there are several narrators (there is a journalist collecting the stories) is much more plausible than in that of Robopocalypse. The journalist keeps mainly in the background, speaking up only to ask questions or to introduce the setting. He's discreet and doesn't get in the way of the story - which is way more complicated and nuanced than in Robopocalypse.

Still, the fact that there are so many narrators is, I feel, detrimental. While the story never really became repetitive, it did tend to drag on a bit. Some narrators' stories were similar enough to be eligible for exclusion; some could have been left out as they didn't seem to do anything to advance the plot. Maybe it is the format of having several sub-plots instead of a main plot that doesn't suit me.

Although this book wasn't perfect, I found it enjoyable and at times it had me at the edge of my seat. A must-read – at least for zombie enthusiasts.