9-minute read + 40-minute film
The hard work of Danish filmmaker, Jacob Kastrup Haagensen, earned him Best Danish Film of the Year for his packrafting adventure documentary “Earning a River” in 2020 at the Nordic Adventure Film Festival (NAFF).
Packrafting in Swedish Lapland (photo courtesy of Caj Koskinen)
The film tells the story of six people who attempted a backpacking and packrafting expedition in Swedish Lapland. As often happens in such adventures, the group faced some unexpected obstacles.
In crafting his film, Jacob shares this on his website, “The charm about making a documentary is that the story isn't predictable and one has to adapt to the event as they unfold themself. My goal was not to tell an action-packed adrenaline story but instead a story about humans enjoying the wilderness of northern Scandinavia. I choose to focus on character development and why people seek joy in the outdoors and the community of traveling together.”
Along with Jacob, other members of the group included Jeremie Lamart, Caj and Katja Koskinen, Peter Tjarnlund and Johan Gronblade. The beautiful terrain you see was filmed primarily in Stora Sjöfallets National Park, Sjaunja Nature Reserve and Kaitum Fjällurskog Nature Reserve.
The Lure of Untouched Wilderness
It’s not easy to explain, but traveling in unspoiled nature is something that really matters to me. The nature experience aside, it gives a special feeling being in a place somewhat untouched by civilization. Also, being away from society gives some sense of seriousness and a rare feeling of remoteness.
I remember one of the last days on the Kaitum River where we could see the windmills at Siská. They somewhat spoiled the feeling of being far away, even though they were 10 km away, and stood completely remote on a small hilltop.
I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone, as many people prefer hiking in more populated places. The Camino de Compostela is, for instance, very popular. For me, I would prefer the more remote Scandinavian mountains over the Camino and try to plan trips with few roads and houses around.
(photo courtesy of Caj Koskinen)
How Unexpected Challenges Affected Their Experience
In hindsight, there are many things I would do differently—all the many mistakes we made that made us turn around.
On the other hand, the experience in the snowstorm was very educational and an important part of our trip. And since we managed to continue towards Kaitum River, the trip ended up a success. As the title suggests, the river felt much more rewarding because of all the hardships we experienced.
A high-altitude snowstorm (photo courtesy of Jacob Kastrup Haagensen)
I’m grateful we managed to continue our trip after the snowstorm in the mountain pass. Up in the storm it felt so close to canceling the trip. I think all folks who do these kinds of outdoor trips have experienced having to abort or cancel because something goes sour.
I especially remember a notorious hiking trip about 15 years ago where my group hiked up to a storm in the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. Our tent broke and we spent 48 hours in a barrel-like emergency shelter on a floor covered with sheep dung and even human waste in the corners. We had to abort the trip and went bathing in the Caspian Sea instead.
As the viewer probably can sense in this film, the discussion in the tent the night of the blizzard was very tense—partly because the trips meant different things to us and we had different things at stake.
Continuing the trip meant a lot to me as I had become a father the year before, and hence struggled to take the time away from my family. I also planned to make the trip into a movie and all would have been in vain if we bailed. Jeremie, who argued for going back, had other adventures planned during the summer so he had less to lose if we ended the trip.
After returning home I started to look at the footage, but it took me some time before I could start editing anything from our discussion because all the frustration came back. Still, the event hasn't done any damage to the friendships of the participants. All of us have been on trips together since.
Almost to the water (photo courtesy of Caj Koskinen)
How Group Dynamics Impact Wilderness Trips
We all came down from the mountain pretty scattered. We didn't know if the trip was over or if we could continue towards Kaitum. It was pretty surreal coming back to the bus stop because the sun was shining and the temperature warm—much different from the freezing temperature and exposure we had experienced that same morning.
I arrived together with Caj and Katja an hour or two later than Peter and Jeremie. By that time Jeremie had already gotten the text message and made up his mind to abort the trip and go home to deal with the family situation there.
I couldn't blame him. He made the right choice from his perspective (I would probably have made the same choice if I was in his shoes). Despite the tense discussion the day before, there weren't any hard feelings.
The fine weather played somewhat of a trick to get our moods lifted. And what really saved our trip was that Johan arrived full of optimism. We had time to make a quick Plan B where we could hike 5 km on a gravel road and then paddle to a nice camp.
I walked together with Johan and talked about our experience on the mountains, somewhat debriefing him on what had gone wrong. At the camp we celebrated Johan and Caj’s recent birthdays and drank a good part of our whisky reserve. It helped settle the mood.
From a group perspective we lost our most skilled whitewater paddler when Jeremie left. But since we changed the approach, we also missed the most technical and untouched rapids in a valley we planned to pass on the way to Kaitum. These rapids had been a huge motivation for Jeremie, but not something the rest of us would paddle without him.
For the rapids in Kaitum we were fortunate to have a good written river guide. We scouted the few harder rapids (including the one I swam) and portaged the few class IV+ rapids beyond our comfort zone. Five people is enough to set up security, and fortunately we didn't have any trouble.
Taking on Kaitum’s rapids (photo courtesy of Jacob Kastrup Haagensen)
The Story Arc of Real Life
From a filmmaker’s perspective, it would definitely have been easier to tell the story if we had our drama later in the trip, rather than the first day. But in real life I don't think it matters so much if the drama is in the beginning, middle or end.
In real life my experience is that you usually come out stronger from where you’re challenged to step out of your comfort zone, even though it isn't that fun in those situations.
I developed my interest in outdoor life when I was a Boy Scout. It was a very competitive scout group, and there were certainly many trips when it was "way too hard" for me and my comfort zone. But in retrospect the experiences were very rewarding and fun, and I continued scouting for many years.
That’s helped me on many later outdoor trips where things had somewhat gone sour—like our drama up in the mountains on this Kaitum trip.
What did You Learn from this Backpack/Packraft Trip?
There is so much to learn when things go wrong. From a route planning point of view, we needed to make our approach route easier. We clearly overestimated our ability—a common mistake.
One reason is that we based it on what we were capable of with a lighter pack and without packrafting equipment. But hiking with 27 kg is much harder than hiking with 17 kg. With 27 kg we shouldn’t have planned for this epic approach. If the snowstorm hadn't forced us to turn back, we would have had to climb an even higher and much more exposed mountain pass in order to get us to Kaitum.
A loaded packraft (photo courtesy of Caj Koskinen)
The route was based on one Jeremie had tried solo five years earlier where he ended up way over his head. It should have given us some warning that the route was too demanding for us.
There were, in fact, easier options to hike to the Kaitum River. We could have continued on Kungsleden—a good, well-marked trail—for 15 km to the Kaitum Lakes and paddled them for 35 km until the river started. We would have been exposed to hard winds on the lakes, but still easier and less dangerous than hiking off-trail with heavy loads. Another alternative was starting in Nikkaluokta and hiking a 30 km trail to the headwaters of Kaitum, close to where we started paddling.
Another important lesson we learned was not to split the group up. The fact that Johan was a day delayed and our group was split in two without any means to communicate played a huge role in our decision to turn back from the mountains. If Johan had been with us, I am sure we would have waited out the snowstorm and continued on.
Also, we hadn’t planned where to meet up with Johan and what to do if we were delayed. That was a huge mistake. That's something we need to play attention to for future trips.
(photo courtesy of Caj Koskinen)
We were also sloppy on our orientation in our approach the first day. Everyone counted on someone else to know where we were going. We got a bit off-course due to the fog, rain and clouds. On the rest of the trip we paid much more attention to the orientation. I was responsible for keeping an eye on the big lines on the map and Johan made all the micro-route choices.
Despite the difficulty, in the film Caj concludes: “One of the best things about these kinds of trips is when you really earn the river. You’re not just coming here by the road or with a helicopter. And you don’t pick the easiest way to hike here—we had to hike over the mountains. I think we really earned the river by hiking here for several days. That makes it really special to paddle in this place.”
Filmmaker, Jacob Kastrup Haagensen (photo courtesy of Caj Koskinen)
Learn more about Jacob and his film work on his website, Urban Packrafter.
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