It was a fortuitous accident that I found this incredible place, “The valley of the three skulls”, a long open valley smack bang in the middle of the secluded Malingsbo Klottern nature reserve. I was looking for a famous cave in the area, which is supposed to be full of ice all year round, it wasn’t, it was full of faded, decade old beer cans drowning in dank water.
The co-ordinates for the cave were entered incorrectly into the GPS receiver, and instead of bringing us along the well travelled, well sign-posted paths to the ice-cave, we (I and 3 co-researchers) went completely off course and were forced to bushwhack through acres of heavily forested hills and valleys, before the GPS brought us precisely to the body of a half rotten moose.
This was very upsetting to some of my companions, one of whom wanted me to bury the moose. A live moose was only seen, as is the norm apparently, almost an hours drive away at the edge of the nature reserve.
|Spot the moose, win a prize.|
Curiosity drove me back to the valley a month later, with my best buddy and pal Brian. Curiosity in seeing what happens to 600 kg of maggoty moose in the forest after a month.
And curiosity paid off, the trip was exciting, we found three moose skulls, forever baptising the valley with its melodramatic name, we found five meaty moose legs, and we heard a whole lot of wolf howls, howls which seemed to surround us as we prepared to leave the valley.
We also found fresh moose tracks where there were none the night before, all through our campsite. This valley was a real find for nature enthusiasts.
I have wanted to go back all Winter, I was planning to ski through the forest and look for tracks, in snow I thought it would be easy to see what animals frequent the area, and I hoped that I might find wolf tracks. It was a long-shot but I decided it would be a fun trip anyway. When the date was picked it turned out all my most reliable and dependable hiking partners were out of action. I decided to go solo, but was now unsure about shelter. I had been planning to give the Grand Shelter’s Icebox one last spin before reluctantly packing it carefully away in sawdust and tears for Summer. With two people I still found it tough to get an igloo done within a couple of hours, with just myself I think I would be working all night to get any shelter at all. And knowing how lazy I am, I’d probably just skive off and disappear, and I’d have to go off and look for myself and then find myself smoking a cigarette behind the bike shed. This got me thinking, why not use the Icebox to build another kind of shelter, a quick and dirty solo shelter? It’s been preying on my mind since I got the Icebox, what happens if you get sabotaged by terrible weather, you won’t have the time or calm needed to get a decent shelter made. Could a quick shelter be thrown up in an emergency? And if so, how long would it take?
I was going to bring my MYOG bivy, which perfectly matches my Exped downmat 7 in size. Careful measurements revealed it would take just 18 blocks to make a double row around the bivy bag. Then I could either rig a tarp over the top of this wall or try to angle them in and connect them in an arch as with an igloo. So I packed up my gear, carrying around 10 kilos, (the Icebox was sans poles for lightness, just the box and the U-bar were packed up). I drove out early in the morning and parked the car at the nearest available spot, which due to the insane amounts of snow blocking all the access roads, was a few km away. I skied out along an access road, passing the tips of traffic signs that rose just a few decimetres out of the snow, and then headed out into the forest, over a stream and into a valley that led to the target valley.
|Stupid signs of stupid wet shitty Spring.|
The weather was brilliant, the sun was out in force. Skiing was tough at first as I sank in even up to my knees in the soft snow, but after a while a strong cold wind began to blow and within minutes the surface of the snow had hardened and the skis flew over the top with no resistance. I’m a clumsy beginner but even with an occasional fall it was impossible not to enjoy the crisp clean air, beautiful surroundings and the gentle slopes that make back-country skiing so variable and fun.
One thing I hated though, was the optical illusion that is unfortunately so prevalent in skiing. It happened almost every kilometre, I would come to a steep, heavily wooded slope. The ground fell away at a dizzying angle, and a long long way below tiny toy-like trees could be seen bending in the wind. I would grit my teeth and start heading downhill, picking up speed at a sickening rate, the wind would tear at my face, forcing streams of tears from my eyes, my ears would pop as I dropped in altitude like a falcon dropping from the sky onto its prey, and in seconds I was flashing across the bottom of the hill, feeling completely exhilarated. And then, without fail, I would look back and see, instead of the massive shear cliff that I had just come down, just a tiny, near-imperceptible slope. Every goddamn time.
|Triple diamond, 8C+ Black slope from the top, barely a slope from the bottom.|
As I skied towards the valley, I came across some old tracks. The tracks were covered up with snow, so minutiae were impossible to spot, but the distinct detail was where the tracks went.
They wandered out of the forest, moved across the valley to a tree, circled it, moved to a rock, circled that, wandered into the centre of the valley, walked in a circle of perhaps two or three metres in diameter, before wandering back into the forest.
It was unusual. In the secluded forests I have seen only a few tracks (moose, deer, rabbit, hare, fox, rat/vole), and they always seem to go from cover to cover in a straight line. This seemed more predatorial.
It’s also worth noting right now, that although I came out on this trip specifically to look for tracks, I had prepared for it as well as I do for anything, and hadn’t even managed to google the subject for a minute. I now know a lot more, and apologise in advance for the terrible photos and lack of measurements.
The only picture where I managed to get something in frame in order to compare size, the length from the back-end of my ski to the tip of my toe is around 1.5 metres. The stride length appears to be around 30 cm.
The photos are tweaked to bring out the tracks as much as possible, but that has rendered them pretty fugly, so please forgive me.
I continued on my path to the spot where we had found the dead moose, and from there continued further up the side of the valley into a hill overlooking the entire area. The tracks had continued all along the valley, wandering in and out of the forest, quartering the entire area. I stopped to remove my rucksack in order to quickly scout about and find a good spot for to shelter in overnight. As I stood there enjoying the lack of weight on my shoulders, I heard a wolf-howl. A good omen I thought. I found a spot on the hillside for a shelter, and flattened out some snow to have it well sintered by the time I would be back with my rucksack.
The hill was fairly steep and heavily wooded at the base, so I decided to skip skiing down and slog through the snow instead, it was only a hundred metres to my pack. Big mistake, huge. It took around 50 million calories and what felt like a year of Sisyphean effort to get down and back up again. A 10 kilo pack-weight is light, but it’s obviously not light enough yet. I dug out the icebox and started to pack in the snow. It was surprisingly fast, without the need to be careful, the blocks took only minutes to prepare, even working alone.
When building an igloo, the first layer of blocks is of prime importance as all subsequent work depends on their exact angle to work well. I didn’t have that as a worry and so just threw in a shovel of snow, slapped it down, and repeated until the block was done. This turned out to be a mistake.
After the first row was done, I started to build the second row, now I realised that although an exacting angle on the first row was not needed, if I wanted to angle the wall in enough to create an arch over the top, I should have at least put some kind of inward angle on the first row. Live and learn!
Live and learn is something I say often to myself but never seem to be able to do, that’s why I’m almost thirty and still in school. The temperature had dropped like a stone and now the blocks were hardening at a great rate, they came out of the Icebox already as solid as a rock. After a food break I completed the second row with some slight lean inwards, and then decided to throw a tarp over the top to complete it.
|It got dark quick.|
|Delicious stew made from dehydrated carrots, extra spicy beef jerky and zweiback, all home-made.|
I took apart the Icebox to pack it away, and then looking at the large, flat plastic sides, I thought perhaps the Icebox could help shelter me in another way. I placed the pieces across the wall, and covered them in a decimetre of snow.
The tarp covered the last metre of open roof, and after throwing some snow over the edges it was ready to sleep in. And I was ready to sleep, the wind had a knife edge and was cutting through my layers with ease.
I find it interesting how fun it is to make shelters. It feels like being a kid again and playing in the sandbox in kindergarten, a relaxing busy attitude of being completely immersed in messing around. I had a huge feeling of nostalgia when I realised how similar it felt to scrabbling in the dirt aged three. My friend Liam thinks I have arrested development at age 15, but I’m starting to think it’s earlier. That would also explain my breast fixation.
I got into all my sleeping gear, read some of my book (absolutely fantastic stuff), and drifted off to sleep. I normally sleep extremely well when camping, I wake a lot more than I do at home, but it’s never a problem. It’s not like that endless purgatory of being unable to sleep for some unknown reason, it feels more like the reawakening of a primitive instinct, the neanderthal need to sleep with one eye open and keep watchful throughout the night. I tend to drift from sleep into wakefulness, glance around, snuggle up and drift into sleep again. That night I woke up two or three times, just enough to glance out of the shelter at the stars, and listen to the screaming impotent wind, before drifting off again. Suddenly however, I awoke with a violent start. A terrifying scream had echoed through the forest, so close to me it seemed to be in the shelter with me, a drawn out, screeching banshee howl that instantly had cold sweat pouring out of my skin. I sat bolt upright and my heart froze in my chest, my breath was caught in my throat. I wanted to make a noise but all that came out was the most pathetic little groaning whimper. This whimper I made was actually so animal and pathetic that it shocked me, it had really been drawn out of me before I had any control of my actions. It was shocking to hear myself involuntarily whimper like a little dog, and that shock snapped me out of this paralysis and instantly my senses came flooding back to me and I haltingly yelled out, and then yelled again, yelled a big deep yell that echoed across the valley. There was no sound after the echoes died away. The wind still howled, the trees made creaks and soft swishing sounds and that was all.
The only other sound was the massive, booming drumbeat of my heart and the rushing sound of blood pulsing through my ears. I didn’t move, I remained sitting up in my sleeping bag for maybe a minute or two, deadly still, before calming down a little. It had just been a nightmare, I realised. I lay there for a while longer, ears cocked, eyes staring out into the dark valley but seeing nothing. My heart slowed down, and in an instant everything was rationalised and I suddenly felt ridiculous, and decided to go back to sleep. It had just been a nightmare, a little intense but just a bad dream. Yes I felt ridiculous, but I did pull my rucksack in to the shelter, partly blocking the entrance. Yes it had just been a nightmare, but better to feel secure so as not to get another one I thought.
I got woken up by a woodpecker hammering right outside my shelter. I had seen a rotten birch nearby and thought that would be where he was, but instead it turned out he preferred nice healthy trees.
I had already resolved to keep my little nightmare to myself, I was mostly just surprised at myself, it’s been a long few decades since I got woken up by a nightmare. I made a quick breakfast and started to pack up my gear with customarily freezing hands.
|Cooking in winter is great, just dig out a kitchen at waist height and take the water from anywhere.|
The shelter had hardened even more overnight, and now had the hardness of new concrete. I was glad I had it, the wind had been blowing hard all night and the temperature was a lot colder than the low minus tens that had been forecasted.
I pulled out the Icebox parts and wasn’t too surprised that the roof of snow stayed in place, despite the flat angle. I’m starting to get more and more comfortable with the fun way snow can be used for building, next time I’m definitely going to try and get a full length tunnel built with more of an arch to complete the roof, and I’ll try building it without any breaks and see if I can get it done in less than half an hour.
|The snow roof was completely horizontal, but held its own weight easily. It was around a decimetre thick.|
I decided to head back along the ridge of the hill I had stayed on in order to avoid some of the uphill/downhill. I skied back as far as where I had entered the valley before rejoining my tracks. And there I found new tracks, all over my tracks.
|Rounded shape, large outer toes, no claw marks.|
Sadly it had snowed a little that morning, so they were quite indistinct, and sadly I was too dumb to try and take any proper pictures or to try and measure the paw size, or stride, or anything. The only clear print mark I managed to find is the in the picture above, which was on my ski track and so the snow was compacted compared to the soft snow the rest of the tracks were made in. The tracks appeared to be the same as the older tracks I had examined, they came out of the forest, wandered along, walked over my tracks and then back into the forest. They continued the entire way back from where I had left the valley floor, all the way back out to the part of the forest nearest the access road I had skied in on.
|A long, direct registered stride.|
|This picture from another set of tracks, maybe not from the same animal, they look a lot smaller.|
If I had known then what I know now about tracks, I would have done so much differently. At the time I thought it was interesting, and could maybe be a fox, but was obviously not a wolf because the tracks were so small. Big for a fox, but that maybe was just the snow making them seem larger than they were. When I got back, I sent pictures of the tracks to a friend who is a little track crazy. He asked me for more details and I told him about the whole trip, and even threw in the embarrassing nightmare details. Then he sent me a link to these Lynx sounds. I was sitting on my couch with some headphones on, and when I heard the sound of the Lynx scream, I got a total flashback of the feeling I had when I woke up that night, the feeling of an animal primal terror running through me like cold fire. It was bizarre, the exact same scream, something by then I had rationalised into having come from a nightmare. I had had no idea that there were lynx in Swedish forests at all. I also listened to a lot of fox screams (they start to sound like an Aphex Twin track after a while), and while they certainly are freaky, they’re not similar to what I heard.
When I came back from the moose skull trip, I was loathe to believe that the wolf-howls Brian and I had heard were really wolf howls. It seemed so much more obvious and normal that they were dogs, wolves seem so mythical almost. However I was convinced by people that knew the nature reserve, there are no homes in the nature reserve, no dogs, and plenty of wolves. It seemed absurd that we had been in the same forest as real, actual wolves, but the evidence was overwhelming when someone else impartially pointed it out, gnawed bones and all.
I felt the same way about this event, that despite the evidence it seems ridiculous to imagine an actual, real, live lynx had found my ski trail going through its territory and followed it curiously, and finding another animal sleeping on its turf had screamed its annoyance. It took me a few days of reading and questioning some experienced friends to realise that it’s not actually that weird, there are a lot of lynxes in Sweden (the Swedish population estimated to be around 1200, constantly falling because of lax hunting regulations), mostly in the middle of Sweden. Looking into how lynx tracks are, compared to fox (the other likely suspect), reveals that they are indistinct in soft snow but clearer in impacted snow because of all the hair on the foot, and also the tracks are usually ‘wandering’, unlike fox tracks. I researched a little more and found that there are even Lynx-hunting holidays organised from the UK to Malingsbo-Kloten during mating season (hunting with cameras, not guns). I had travelled out to the valley in the beginning of March, which I now know is the middle of the Lynx mating season. I had just happened into the middle of a lynx-rich area in the middle of the best time of the year to encounter a lynx. Maybe the lynx might have been making a booty call, instead of trying to scare the living shit out of me, but I didn’t mind that. What matters to me is the idea of going back soon, while the mating season is in full swing, and trying to get another, closer encounter.
…, That sounds a little like I am going back to get laid with a lynx, I am not going back to get laid with a lynx. That would be impossible, rohypnol doesn’t work on felines. I do however want to go back to that area, built another snow-shelter, and spend a couple of days under the full moon, waiting for the slightest sign of a lynx.
The valley of the three skulls turned out to be a total gem. The relatively grassy, treeless valley cutting through the thick forest, with a small stream pouring through the valley floor, is an absolute honeypot for animals in this nature reserve.
|I have yet to drink from the stream in the valley, still nervous about the corpse that was lying in it over Summer.|
Herbivores use the valley for food and water, and as a means to cross from one area of forest to another, the carnivores use it to get at the herbivores. And next week Tomas will use it to get a few photos of the carnivores.