This past summer, I spent 6 days and 5 nights on a wilderness backpacking trip to Urho Kekkonen National Park in the northern part of Finnish Lapland. This park is located about 250 km/150 mi north of the Arctic Circle in a sparsely populated and rugged area within the Saami homeland. I had been to this same area once before, back in 2005, but spent most of that trip in a nearby village visiting a friend of a friend and only doing a little hiking. This year’s trip was quite apart from that. I sweated, froze, climbed up, slid down, explored new places, remembered familiar places, felt lonely, met people, felt awake and healthy and felt tired and had one eye swell shut. The sun burned and the clouds hailed. The hiking exhausted me and invigorated me. The journey was too long, but WAY too short. It was both a valuable learning experience and the best wilderness trip of my life.
I woke up at a quarter to 6 the morning I was to depart. This isn’t THAT early, but I was up late the night before getting the last of my gear together, so I started this trip with half-open eyes (and nearly ended it that way, too). I drove south 4 hours to Helsinki airport and then flew north to Ivalo, where I hopped on a bus to Saariselkä, a tourist village just outside the national park, arriving shortly after 1 p.m. After buying a map of the park and getting my pack in order, I walked down to the end of the village’s main street, where the trails begin. Apparently, that’s also where violent hailstorms begin. Literally, at the moment I was first able to see the trail, clouds rolled in and it started raining…and then hailing. Welcome to Lapland, baby! This was not exactly what I was hoping for, but you have to do your best with what life gives you, for example by hurrying to a nearby hotel and eating some French fries and drinking a beer at the bar while watching TV until the storm of the century lets up. Sounds like a pretty good wilderness backpacking trip so far, right?
Fortunately, the story does get more wildernessy, but not before getting more luxurious. While sitting there at the bar, I realized something: I was utterly exhausted. Not from staying up late the night before, getting up early or the day of traveling. Working too much, helping to raise a non-stop toddler and not getting enough sleep in general were the culprits. The only way I was going to start off on a good note was to get some much-needed rest first, so I got myself a hotel room for the night. Regardless of what you think you might have done in that situation, it was the right thing for me to do, and it paid off. After dumping my stuff and getting a little shut-eye, I felt pretty good and, not wanting to lose a hiking day, I put on my pack and hiked a 16 km/10 mi loop in the park. I returned to my hotel room and collapsed in a comfy bed.
Here are a few shots from the first day.
Dwarf birch, in shrub form:
A main entrance to the park in this area:
Saami rock site:
Dwarf birch, in ground-crawler form on top of a treeless fell:
This is curly birch. Much bigger than dwarf birch, but still a shrubby bush:
Here’s a wood lemming:
I didn’t have to boil or filter any water. I could drink it all straight from water sources the entire time:
The next morning, I awoke refreshed and ashamed. Did I really just sleep at a hotel on my wilderness vacation? Again, I reminded myself how getting off to a good start was crucial. I bought some insoles at an outdoor store to make my 1968 Swedish military surplus boots a bit more comfy (no, I’m not a sadomasochist, I just dig old gear. By the way, the boots ended up working just fine). I hiked 6 km/3.7 mi to a place called Rumakuru (“ugly gorge”), where I made some lunch (mac-and-cheese type meals, which I ate each day) and rested.
My custom-made leuku from Ilkka Seikku worked out well:
After resuming my hike, I finally admitted to myself 1 km/0.6 mi later, at Rumakuru Vanha (“old ugly gorge”), that my pack was getting very uncomfortable. I was using a German military surplus rucksack, the old version with leather pocket straps and metal belt buckles. It originally came with slip-on pads for the shoulder straps, but I chucked them on a previous trip because they were even more uncomfortable than the bare straps. So something had to be done. Putting on my “MacGyver cap”, I mentally searched through my pack to figure out how I could remedy this situation. I decided to sacrifice one of two thin sitting pads I had brought along, cutting it into two sections for my backpack straps and one for my shoulder bag. After a few hours of tedious sewing and several groups of reindeer passing through, I had two much more comfortable packs. By that time, it was late in the day, so I decided to camp where I was and hit the trail again the following morning.
On Sunday morning, I broke camp and hiked 6.5 km/4 mi to Taajoslaavu, an open shelter located at a beautiful small river and the border between two large reindeer herding districts. It was hottern’ heck out, and drinking from that crystal clear river was incredibly refreshing.
I was lucky to have gotten there when I did, because a storm rolled in shortly after. I ate some lunch and took a nap in the shelter. A little while after I woke up, I was amazed to spot a moose coming to drink from the river. It was really close! The shelter probably prevented it from smelling me. I took a few pictures of it while I could (with zoom).
While I was hanging out at the shelter, a Spanish couple from Valencia showed up. We chatted for a while, and I found out that they were touring Finland because they wanted to see a very different part of Europe and to experience the 24-hour daylight (my trip took place right in the middle of the time when the sun does not set, so it was continuously light the whole time). We left this place, hiking 4.3 km/2.7 mi to Luulampi, where we stayed for the night. When we reached Luulampi, I realized that it had taken me about two days of hiking to get into the rhythm of these very active days. I felt stronger and full of energy.
Please check out Part 2 here.