Women Outdoors || Leanne Downs || St. Olav’s Path

Women Outdoors || Leanne Downs || St. Olav’s Path

St. Olav’s Path is an ancient pilgrim’s trail that crosses Sweden and Norway. Following in the footsteps of Olav Haraldsson, an ancient Norwegian king; it’s a beautiful trail with a rich history. Sounds pretty cool, huh? Leanne Downs, from Pine and Peak, gives me the low-down on the trail, the highs and lows of the trail, and why she’s doing it again.

Happily admitting that she has a slight obsession with all things Scandinavian, it’s no surprise Leanne ended up finding this trail – thanks to her good friend Angeliqa (left in the below photo – Leanne, right).  “The thought of walking for 30 days in Sweden and Norway was my ultimate idea of heaven,” she says, “[it] appealed to both my love of the outdoors and Scandinavia… but at that time I wouldn’t have had the confidence to bring anything to reality without a push… I had big dreams of adventure but I constantly battle self-doubt and anxiety when it comes to making anything happen.”

Leanne Downs Pine and Peak blog

“This was a trip of firsts. I’d never done more than a couple of days consecutively hiking. I’d never been on a plane on my own before. Never been to Sweden. It was a complete baptism of fire. I’m so much stronger for it.”

“I wanted to do it so much, and when I found nothing stopping me other than my own anxieties, I pushed that aside as best I could and things started falling into place.”

As if planning a big adventure was not hard enough, St. Olav’s path isn’t that well established, especially in comparison to other pilgrimages. So, I needed to ask how on earth they went about planning it…

HJ: What did it take to plan it? Did you plan in detail or leave it open to take advantage of opportunities along the trail?

LD: We planned things like equipment lists and a rough plan of where we’d start and stop each day on a spreadsheet, with details of potential accommodation.

It was pretty hard to plan as an English person, as there wasn’t a guidebook in English (though one is in production now). The website for the trail is pretty good though and there is an amazing Facebook group for the trail where loads of locals and people involved with promoting and maintaining the trail love to answer your questions. Loads of people who have walked the trail are also there, waiting to impart their knowledge. That is actually the best resource.

I emailed as many of the accommodations as possible beforehand giving a rough idea of our arrival date, but we were well aware of the ‘best laid-plans’ saying, so knew that we could be as meticulous as possible but really, we had no idea of what to expect and how things like fitness would affect our progress. The hardest bit to find info on was things like food replenishing and working out how much to take, because there are some sections of the trail without any place to buy any food for a few days.

HJ: What kit did you take with you? How did you decide on what to take?

LD: The main kit included a Gregory Cairn 58 rucksack, Montane Minimus sleeping bag with a Blue Mountain Microfleece Travel Liner and a Thermarest Neo Air Lite sleeping pad. I also took a 2-litre Camelbak and a 1 litre Platypus. Angeliqa bought along our MSR Freelite 2 Tent. I had a pretty good knowledge of kit from working at Simply Hike (who kindly supplied a couple of the above items) so I was fairly confident on the basics but I read a lot of long distance hiking blogs and forums to get a working idea. I’m a terrible over packer (packed 12 types of teabags – spot the English girl!) but I tried to be strict (the teabags did get deposited in the kitchen of one of our early accommodations) and whittled it all down as much as possible, spending probably a bit too much money on some lighter gear.

You can read the full starting equipment list info on my blog if you want all the fine details including first aid kit items, clothing etc…

On St Olav's Path

On St Olav's Path

HJ: In terms of cost, what did you expect to spend each day? 

LD: We thought we’d need about the equivalent of £30-40 per day each roughly for food and accommodation – just as a maximum safe average. Some days would be less, some a bit more. We did receive some complimentary accommodation and food on the trip thanks to the lovely people involved with the trail in return for photography and promotion on our blogs and we stayed with some blogger friends of Angeliqa’s a couple of nights – Rania and Sara.

Accommodation on St Olav's Path

Accommodation on St Olav's Path

HJ: Did you need to take time off work?

LD: I’m self-employed so for the most part, my time is pretty flexible but I did have to agree with the Thryve team that they could do without me for a month and actually it worked out pretty well, as the site was at a point where we were waiting on some other stuff, so it didn’t matter if I didn’t work on it for a few weeks. I am so so grateful to those guys, they are the absolute best for supporting my decision to go on this trip (and just genuinely lovely people in general). Knowing I could come straight back and get on with working and having some income was vital.

However, because I am self-employed, I did give up 30 days worth of income, which I am still feeling the negative effects of now. I’m pretty terrible with money in general, so spending loads of money the same month I didn’t have an income was pretty scary, but I thought what the hell, I deal with it when I’m back. Life’s for living y’all. (I wouldn’t actually recommend doing this though, because the reality can be pretty sucky afterwards when you’ve got bills to pay).

On St Olav's Path

HJ: Did you both always feel safe when on your trip?

LD: This question makes me laugh at myself for a couple of reasons. I pretty much always feel unsafe, so this is a strange question for me to address. I have an anxiety disorder, so there were many points during the trip that my mind conjured up worrying eventualities such as getting lost, getting eaten by bears, getting hypothermia and then needing rescuing from a deep dark wet forest. I tried not to voice these too much to Angeliqa but I definitely did on occasion and she just responded casually and completely unperturbed every time – ‘We’ll be fine’. It was really good for me to be doing something like this with her, which is the second reason why this question makes me chuckle to myself.

She is actually the coolest person on the planet and you should probably be interviewing her – she’s completed army training and has ninja karate skills, so I was in safe hands anyway, even though Sweden and Norway are the most wonderful, safe, clean and lovely places on earth.

“Hiking for 30 days alone sounds romantic and adventurous, but I do actually enjoy company, sometimes”

HJ: If Angeliqa hadn’t have come with you, would you still have gone on your own?

LD: If Angeliqa had pulled out for some reason right before the trip, I have to be honest, I cannot say for definite that I would have done it alone. I probably would have tried to find someone else to do it with me. Hiking for 30 days alone sounds romantic and adventurous, but I do actually enjoy company, sometimes. If you asked me if I would do it alone now, I’d say yes. But it would be so different to do it alone. It was a so much richer experience for doing it together.

St Olav's Path

HJ: How did you feel once you’d completed the walk?

LD: I felt amazing. I hobbled into the ground of the Nidaros Cathedral as the bells rang and it was so emotional. I felt so proud of myself because I’d never imagined that I would ever do something like this. My boyfriend was waiting for us at the cathedral so I was also super excited to see him, I’d missed him a lot.

At the end of St Olav's Path

I felt so proud of myself because I’d never imagined that I would ever do something like this.

HJ: Is it something you’d do again? Or a similar adventure?

LD: Definitely yes! I’m constantly dreaming of long distance hikes nowadays. I feel like I’m more prepared now, I feel like I’d get even more out of doing another one. I’m planning on going back to St. Olavsleden this year to walk the couple of sections I missed due to my foot. I cannot wait to go back. Obviously being able to go on 30 day long adventures all the time isn’t realistic for most people, including me, so I’m willing to settle for some smaller trips closer to home until I can do another longer hike. I’d like to do the West Highland Way and the North Downs Way in the UK, exploring more of my homeland but I also want to go back to Scandinavia again and do the Kungsleden in Norway and so many others. Maybe even the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) one day. It makes me happy to know that I’ve now found something I love to do and there are so many long distance paths at home and abroad waiting to be explored, whether that be in small chunks or as full excursions.

HJ: What were the biggest lessons taken from this trip?

LD: I learnt about the kindness of strangers and that the world isn’t a place to be scared of, no matter how hard it is to remember that sometimes. Things are almost always never as scary or as hard as you imagine.

The kindness of strangers St Olav's Path

I also learnt that I want to live in Sweden one day and that Norway is no longer my favourite country. Sorry Norway.

“I really enjoyed witnessing the way of life people have in Sweden and Norway. They are all very outdoorsy – it isn’t a thing, it’s just part of life”

HJ: Tell me a bit about the people and cultures you encountered?

LD: Well I can tell you that both Swedish people and Norwegian people are super nice. We met so many amazing people. We coined the term ‘the road gives’ during the hike, because we had so many amazing experiences of people going out of their way to welcome us and help us. We had people offering to drive our bags for us to the next stop so we could have a more relaxing walk (I don’t recommend this, the one time we agreed it was a really bad idea).

We also had people cooking us dinner, driving us around on moose safaris, buying us ice cream, letting us hitchhike. You just genuinely felt so welcome and wanted. I really hope someone else does this hike after reading this, the people put so much effort into this trail and they want people to come use it!

I really enjoyed witnessing the way of life people have in Sweden and Norway. They are all very outdoorsy – it isn’t a thing, it’s just part of life. Special mention to the 73 year old Norwegian ladies we walked with sometimes. This gives me the impression that Norwegians are all so unbelievably fit and outdoorsy.

I also ate lots of traditional food during the hike including moose, reindeer, lingonberry jam, chanterelle cream sauce, Sodd (Norwegian meatball soup) and Norway’s national dish Fårikål (Lamb, boiled potatoes and cabbage).

Food on St Olav's Path

I also learned the delights of raw fish in sauce for breakfast, fish eggs on boiled egg for breakfast, sandwiches for breakfast, how dippy eggs are considered WEIRD and DISGUSTING here (according to Angeliqa) and I drank more coffee in 4 weeks than I have in my whole life.

HJ: If somebody approached you wanting to do a similar trip, what are the things you’d tell them about or recommend they do?

LD: I’d say camp more than we did, but still make the most of the hospitality of the accommodations along the way. Meeting the people was one of the best parts of the trip, alongside the beauty of the nature here. You are no less hard-core for wanting a cosy bed at times!

2: Try and include rest days, otherwise it becomes all about getting from A to B and not enjoying yourself. I was loathe to tear myself away from the prospect of taking a dip in glistening crystal clear lakes every time I walked past one, having a flight to catch in Trondheim.

3: I’m not religious and you definitely don’t have to be religious to ‘do a pilgrimage’. But appreciate the history and the link. The churches are beautiful here and staying in the church hall at Markabygda in Norway made me feel more connected to the pilgrim aspect of the trail. It was a hard day’s walking and to stay here is cheaper than anywhere else on the trail. We were cooked the most delicious fish soup (I actually recreated this for lunch at home I loved it so much) and even though it was very basic, it felt so completely welcoming, despite being on our own. We felt so cared for and I was so grateful that night. That particular accommodation made a real impact on me. We’d had some really luxurious moments along the trail but I have just as strong warm feels for this place.

4: Sit and have lunch among the blueberries in the mountains and watch the reindeer. I never wanted to leave. Oh, and swim in as many lakes as you can.
5: Say hello to everyone for me!

Leanne is a freelance content writer and photographer. She blogs at Pine and Peak and is currently working on a new website called Thryve. All photos belong to her. There were so many beautiful photos – go and look at the rest (and read her journal on the walk) on her blog.

Trondheim, end of St Olav's Path

A little bit of history on St. Olav

Born to King Harold he spent his youth as a Viking, raiding the coastlines of the Baltic Sea. For several years he and his men caused all sorts of trouble, including pulling down London Bridge. This resulted in the King of England having to pay them an extortionate amount of money to leave. After this, Olav turned to Normandy and ‘decided to offer his services to Duke Richard II of Normandy’*. It was here that he was introduced to Christianity. Now, Olav learned an awful lot on his travels and associated with Normandy and decided to head home to become king of his country.

Norway was very different to today and it was un-united. The kings of Denmark and Sweden both held parts of Norway, and smaller petty kings, dukes, and even a commoner ran the other regions. Olav wanted to be King of all of Norway and set about conquering it. Incredibly, he achieved this by the age of 22. Wherever he went he spread his newfound Christianity, a difficult mission as most of Norway – although religious – all worshipped different gods, such as Odin, Thor and Frey. Imposing this new religion did not always sit very well, especially as he started to enforce Christian laws as well as religious practices. This unrest led to an uprising against him, meaning he fled the country until news of the death of the governing Duke saw him return to reclaim his country. It was in this attempt that he was killed, just east of Trondheim.

He was more successful in his death than in life when it came to swaying his country towards Christianity. This was due to strange happenings that started to occur after his death, in the area he had been buried. Soon, there was widespread belief, even in his powerful enemies, that killing him had been a huge mistake and he was canonised. Christianity and Christian law was soon widely accepted, and was known as St. Olav’s Law.

 

* http://www.viking.no/e/people/st.olav/