“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” – Boxer Mike Tyson
I try to see every experience in life from a positive perspective. When I succeed, I gain confidence and reinforcement in what I did right. When I fail, it gives me an opportunity to take stock of my skills, knowledge and experience and figure out what I can improve upon to avoid a repeat of that failure. While I would by no means call my recent trip to Lapland a failure, I would say that it could have been better in some aspects if I had not punched myself in the face in one big way, but I’ll get to that later.
On Saturday, September 21st, I boarded a train bound for Rovaniemi and rode 8 hours up to the capital of Finnish Lapland. In Rovaniemi, I transferred to a bus and rode an additional 4 hours to Ivalo in Northern Lapland, where I was picked up by blacksmith, knife maker, wilderness guide and all-around outdoor-dude Pasi Hurttila. The trip seemed to be getting off to a lucky start as I saw the northern lights (aurora borealis) for the first time shortly before arriving in Ivalo. Anyway, we drove to Pasi’s place and I hit the sack after a little chit-chat with him and his girlfriend.
After breakfast on Sunday morning, we did our final gear checks, packed up the van and drove about 100 km/60 miles to Lemmenjoki National Park. Our plan was to start from the northern border of the park, make our way southward to a certain point and then head eastward to our prearranged pick-up point, traveling through the “remote zone” of the park and entirely bypassing the more heavily trafficked “recreation zone”. Pasi would be hunting in the forested areas along the way. As a side note, the weather was expected to be on the rainy side and average about 5°C/40°F over the course of the trip.
We had planned in advance to enter Lemmenjoki Park by crossing the Vasko River (Vaskojoki) by canoe, so one of Pasi’s friends came with us to bring the canoe and van back to Pasi’s place. It wasn’t a long canoe ride at all, but it was fun to start the trip off this way.
We hiked southward from the northern border of the park towards some of the highest fells of the area, passing through pine forests and marshes on the way.
The views became more expansive once we reached higher elevations.
We decided to stop and cook lunch in this area, so Pasi made a stone fire ring, we gathered resin-rich seasoned pine wood for fuel and Pasi started the fire.
I was too hungry to wait for food to cook, so I ate some dry-cured sausages I brought with me, as well as some “rieska” bread and “juustoleipä” cheese typical of Lapland.
While we were stopped, I worked on hooking my kuksa to my belt for easy access. I tried the setup below for a little while, but abandoned it when the stick started slipping out. As a side note, we drank directly from streams, rivers and lakes throughout the trip, as no filtration or boiling is necessary.
After eating and resting for a bit, we continued on our way. Although the peak time for autumn colors had already passed, there were plenty of beautiful scenes left to discover.
By the time we reached the small pond where we wanted to make camp, it was getting dark, so we quickly set up our shelters. After settling in, we made some food and enjoyed the warmth and light of the fire.
Pasi tending the fire
I was really happy when we stopped for the day after a total of 10 km/6 miles of travel, because to be honest, the trip was already proving to be a challenge. Now, I’ve been on several backpacking trips where I’ve easily covered 4 km/2.5 miles per hour on trails with a fully-loaded pack, hour after hour (probably about average for casual backpacking), and I’ve also done plenty of hiking over rough terrain in Finnish forests. What took me by surprise is how different it is to cover rough terrain at a moderately fast place with a fully-loaded pack while wearing soft rubber boots (I decided to wear these boots instead of the new hiking boots I’d bought because of the wet conditions of the location). Wilderness backpacking takes a lot more energy compared to trail hiking! Of course, it’s not at all unusual to be tired out after the first day of any backpacking trip, so it’s something I expected to a degree. Luckily, my energy level picked up dramatically by the middle of the second day, as is usually the case with me, but an unexpected problem crept into the picture which forced us to completely change our original trip plan. More on that later.
After a long night of sleep, we arose on Monday morning and packed up. While getting ready, I realized that I had forgotten a small drybag at home containing my toiletries and other sundries, so I made this toothbrush out of a birch twig by stripping off the bark and then pounding the wood with the back of my knife to break up the fibers a bit (little did I know then that I did in fact remember to pack that small drybag: I had “cleverly” stowed it along with some other things in a larger drybag…). The birch twig toothbrush worked surprisingly well!
The small pond nearby
After a little hiking, Pasi let loose his West Siberian laika “Pyry” to find capercaillie, or “metso” in Finnish. The dog was outfitted with a GPS tracking collar, and Pasi skillfully used it not only to ascertain Pyry’s whereabouts, but also to determine what he was doing. If he barked consistently, ran in small circles and didn’t stray from a location, this would signify that he’s likely found a bird. If Pyry barked irregularly in a low authoritative way and covered greater distances, this could indicate a moose or bear. So Pasi was able to read the situation based on Pyry’s frequency and type of barking and his movements and other behavior. I was impressed! After a short while, Pyry found a bird and Pasi moved in. He made short work of it with his single-shot 12-gauge/.222 Remington combo (the shotgun in this case, of course).
We proceeded to a creek where Pasi removed the bird’s internals and put fresh juniper branches in their place to keep the body cavity open.
While we were stopped, I took pictures of some berries nearby.
Here’s proud Pyry and the first capercaillie. And no, the knife is not stuck in the bird’s neck.
As we continued on through the forest, I snapped a few pictures.
Chaga fungus on birch tree
After some more hiking, the factor which would change the course of the trip for us became painfully apparent. Although my energy level was picking up, hauling my pack over the rough terrain began taking its toll on my left knee. The longer I went, the more it bothered me. We decided to take a break at a creek and make some food. It was at this time that I realized the fatal mistake I had made before the trip: not training properly on comparable terrain wearing a fully-loaded pack. After the fact, it sounds like such a simple and stupid mistake! I had based my expectations for this trip on previous on-trail experience. Oh well, live and learn. You can be sure I won’t make that mistake again!
You might think that this experience would push me in the direction of going ultralight, but I’m not planning to. I will make a few changes to reduce my pack weight somewhat, but the real culprit here was simply not being fit enough for the task, so I will start taking long hill climbs with a loaded pack as a frequent supplement to my regular daily exercise routine.
Anyway, back to the events of the day. We had stopped at a creek to eat and rest, and I collected some resinous pine wood to get the fire started. I cut thick feathers into the pieces the way I had seen Pasi do it. Make up three or four of these, hit ‘em with a match and you’re in business. No other kindling or tinder necessary!
I decided to lighten my pack by using up some of the potatoes, carrots, onions and sausage I had brought with me, so I made a hearty soup out of them, adding a little salt and pepper as well.
While eating, we discussed how we’d have to change our route if my knee problems persisted (which they did). Instead of a route through the park from the northern border to the eastern, we’d change course and make a loop, traveling back along the Vasko River to a place where we could cross it near our initial drop-off point. After finishing and packing up, we made our way through more pine forest and a reindeer fence on our way to the Vaskojoki open hut where we would stay the night.
By this point, the trip had been a mixed bag. The scenery and companionship were great, but the sometimes uncomfortable travel detracted from the enjoyment. In large part, the gear I had selected for the trip (most of which is part of my normal outfit) was serving me well. The Swedish LK-70 rucksack fit and carried well, but the straps slipped a bit from time to time, so I used a sort of twine wrap to keep them in place. I realized I should have brought a larger axe, as the small Wetterlings Mini was a bit underweight for splitting the twisted pine we used as firewood. My LHA model would have been a better choice, I think. The old standby of instant oatmeal proved once again to be a good choice for quick and easy meals, and the nut bars and dry-cured sausage I ate were a great source of protein with no cooking required.
Stay tuned for the second half of the trip report for more adventures, misadventures and great scenery!