Lemmenjoki National Park, Lapland, September 2013 – Part 1

“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.

Northern bilberries

Black crowberries

Cow berries

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

Birch burl

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!

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15 comments on “Lemmenjoki National Park, Lapland, September 2013 – Part 1

  1. Bill says:

    I think that it is very easy to become too ambitious and to try to accomplish too much with unproven gear. I live in the flatlands and am accustomed to walking on flat ground. When I go somewhere hilly and hike a few miles, my calves start to hurt and it takes several days for them to recover. I think that the reason is that I’m used to flat surfaces and when I walk up slopes, my calf muscles are stretched when I put my feet down. This has happened to me before, but I don’t think about it until I’m out in the country. I’m not certain how to prepare for this. The only thing that I could do here is walk up and down the roof. Some stretching exercises might help.

    • To be honest, none of my gear was unproven. I’ve used it all before. Even the terrain itself wasn’t unproven (to me). It’s just as rugged here in eastern Finland as in Lapland. The mistake was not considering the difference between smooth trails (regardless of the incline) and rough terrain. I’m very aware of this now and will train properly right here in eastern Finland for future trips to Lapland. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment, Bill!

      • Bill says:

        By unproven, I really meant gear that I haven’t used all that much. I think primarily in terms of boots. I would prefer to take a pair of boots that I have worn extensively over a pair that might be more suitable, but hasn’t been used much. I wasn’t thinking of your experience as much as my own. I agree on rough terrain. It’s one thing to walk along the road shoulder and completely different to walk across a plowed field.

        • OK, gotcha. In my case, I ended up wearing the Swedish fireman’s boots which I have been wearing during the wet seasons for the last 4 years or so. It was a good thing, too. On multiple occasions, the boots prevented my feet from getting wet. Had I been wearing hiking boots, they would have been waterlogged multiple times and I would have been miserable. 🙂 So the Swedish fireman’s boots were actually more suitable AND I have worn them a lot. Unfortunately, there was no “perfect boot” I could have selected for the trip. :/

  2. Ron says:

    Well, let’s face it…. We’re no longer springchickens here. 😉
    Most of us have reached an age where jobs, kids and familylife take up a great deal of our time and that means deteriorating fysical conditions. We simply do not have the time and/or energy to stay fit enough to do what we like to do.
    I know I’d be hardpressed doing 10km a day hikes with 25kg on the back over rough terrain for more than 3 days in a row. It might be an idea to use a tumpline for that. Read many good things about them.
    On the other hand you have had so many good experiences so far. Don’t let the shadowside drag them down.

    • Very true, Ron. Being single or in a relationship with no children is a lot different from being a dad in terms of free time for our hobbies. Still, I am going to make an effort to get into better shape by supplementing my normal exercise routine with some weighted hill climbing. Can’t hurt after all! (uh, well, I guess it can “hurt”. ;))

      As for my outlook, it’s still 100% positive. I see this experience as a challenge to get into better shape and tackle it again in the future, maybe next year. I’m definitely not discouraged. 🙂

  3. Duncan says:

    Great post! Sounds like a great trip and a beautiful place to spend time outdoors. I’ve been there on the pains of hard hiking and physical activity when in the woods. Sometimes, it can be a tough journey. If you notice, at least once a month, I post something about staying in shape or getting physically fit. It’s tough being a woodsman when you are in poor shape! I’ve actually got a tough hiking trip coming up as well so I’m anxious to see how my gear and my body hold up to it. I’m looking forward to part 2. Keep it up!

    • Being physically fit is definitely important when it comes to our hobby. It’s one of the reasons I exercise five days a week and walk an hour a day. I don’t do a power workout, but it’s better than nothing. Apparently, it’s not enough for longer wilderness outings, so I have to kick it up a few notches. 😉

      Thanks for the comments, Duncan!

      • Duncan says:

        I totally understand. I try to run, hike and bike as much as I can but I’ve got a trip coming up that is sure to be a physical challenge above what I’ve been doing. Even so, I’m looking forward to getting outside and pushing my boundaries!

        It really looks like you had an awesome adventure at an equally awesome location. Other than the knee pain and intense exercise, I’m glad it went well.

  4. OutdoorEnvy says:

    Fantastic Trip buddy! That looks like a great time. A couple notes for ya, you’re brave bringing only rubber boots on a backpacking trip that long, even if it is soaking wet. I don’t think I’d risk that one. Your friend’s gun looks awesome and obviously is very versatile. I’m hoping we get to see some wild meat cooking in part 2. Your pics are great. I really enjoy the photo journaling. Looking forward to more…

    • Thanks bud. 🙂 I did enjoy myself despite the knee issue. It really was a tough call regarding the boots. If I had brought regular hiking boots, I know they would have been soaked the whole time, so I would have had ankle support, but probably plenty of other problems on the flip side. To be honest, I am actually still glad I wore those boots!

      Thanks for the comments!

  5. Caleb says:

    Beautiful!

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