Finland: Nuorgam to Helsinki

Well, here we are, posting a blog about the country we live in. But there’s actually quite a bit to occupy oneself with in Finland, especially up north in Lapland. Being one of the least densely populated countries in Europe, most of these activities revolve around the outdoors. A friend of ours from Utila left for warmer climes for a month or two and left her car with us. We thought it silly to squander the opportunity of rather limitless mobility and looked into what could be done. We toyed with the idea of a trip to Koli to visit the national park, or perhaps the Archipelago to see some islands. We checked train tickets north to Rovaniemi briefly, and Oona found an absurd discount on one random day in November, with a car and two sleeper bunks costing only 99€, so we sprung for it.

At Pasila, We loaded up the undersized Mini into one of the massive trailing wagons of the northbound IC 265 train designed for carrying a dozen or so cars and headed back to the passenger terminal to wait for our train to show up. Eventually it pulled up to platform 5b, as expected, and we hopped into wagon 25 to find our cabin. The scenery was rather invisible, as we sped through the countryside long after sundown, so instead we concerned ourselves with happenings inside the train, and eventually went to bed, knowing we had a very early wakeup the following morning.

We arrived to Rovaniemi at a little after 7am, just as the southeastern sky was beginning to turn pink, and exited our wagon into the brisk morning frost. Some 20 minutes later, after a shunt locomotive at the yard pulled off the car wagons and our original train continued towards Kemijärvi, we picked up our car and were ready to begin our trip in earnest, after a brief stop for breakfast in town.

Our destination that night was the northernmost town in Finland, and indeed the whole of the EU, Nuorgam, which was some six hours north of Rovaniemi, deep into the Finnish taiga. The Mini fared reasonably well, equipped with winter tires and weighed down a fair bit with our various sweaters, jackets, and hiking boots, and we came rolling into Nuorgam in the mid afternoon, although it was already as dark as midnight, as sunset at these latitudes at this time of year is hardly even 2:30pm. We checked in to a completely empty collection of holiday cabins, with nary a tourist in sight, as November is considered the deadest of the dead of tourist season here. The proprietor came from home to let us in, and told us to keep our eyes towards the sky as the northern lights were meant to be active some hours later. Unfortunately any activity was obscured by a thick cloud cover.

Some reindeer in the distance.

We had basically no strict plans, but had a rough idea of several places we wanted to visit. One such place was the vast Kaldoaivi Wilderness Area, whose border starts not even 20km south of where we were. A longtime desire of Ian’s has been to hike from Sevettijärvi to Nuorgam through Kaldoaivi, a trek of over 80km, but considering the weather and the car, we thought it wiser to do a smaller portion of this, an out-and-back to the nearest wilderness hut at Tsuomasjärvi. So, we stocked up on some supplies from the quaint little K Market in Nuorgam the following morning and headed to the trailhead.

A frozen lake.

There were no other cars to be seen at the trailhead, and the snow was a fair bit deeper than we were anticipating, but we headed out into the wilderness regardless. We followed the trail up and up through the sparse pine forest, and the magnitude of our undertaking was becoming painfully clear. Our progress was seriously hindered by the deep snow and lack of a broken trail, with the only other footprints in sight belonging to the endemic reindeer. Early into the trip, we spotted five or six of them grazing on the hillside, which was a welcome distraction from the mounting troubles at hand. We were averaging a grueling 2.5km/h, slogging through 20cm of dense snow up and down over the fells. We continued on nonetheless, assuring ourselves that we’d make it to the cabin before sundown, a goal which was becoming less and less believable the more we trudged on. The snow was falling with increasing intensity, and the low cloud cover was ensuring that we wouldn’t enjoy a single view. We eventually made it to an unlocked hut near the Norwegian border, but it was clear that somebody owned it, and thought better of crashing there despite the encroaching darkness. One benefit of these latitudes is that sunset takes a long time, and after a glance at the watch we concluded that we still had an hour or so of usable light. We did have half a mind to pitch the tent (we brought one, just in case) in the field in front of the hut though, as the trek was seriously beginning to wear on our nerves. After a short discussion, we decided that we would push on, as the notion of a wilderness hut with a wood stove seemed much more appealing than a tent in the middle of a snow-covered field. We overestimated our progress by quite a bit, and had we known the amount of work we were in for to reach our destination, we may well have reconsidered, but in hindsight we’re pretty happy that we continued. On we went, over yet more rocky fells and sodden valleys, each of which was surely our last, or so we encouraged ourselves at least. The last glimpses of light were long gone as we were passing an unnamed lake with a brittle layer of ice on top, soldiering up and over the final ridge before our cabin, piercing the all encompassing darkness with our headlamps. We finally approached the dark silhouette of the cabin, and our hearts sank as we perhaps hallucinated light emanating from the windows. The thought of sharing the place with somebody after such a torturous journey wasn’t exactly appealing, but we steeled ourselves for the interaction nonetheless. As we got closer it was clear that the place hadn’t been used in at least a month, a frigid and vacant frame standing among the skeletons of dead wood on the shores of a totally featureless Tsuomasjärvi, and we reminded ourselves that nobody would be stupid enough to do this sort of a trip at this time of year.

Norwegian border.
A cairn of sorts at the border.
Tsuomasjärvi autiotupa.

We had finally made it, and were as relieved as ever to find it packed to the gunwales with firewood ready for the burning, along with a fair amount of coffee and various other food items that previous hikers had left behind. We concluded that 15km in such conditions is way too long, as it took us nearly six hours of constant wading through calf-deep snow, an activity which is much more tiring than it sounds. We’re fairly experienced hikers by any measure, and such lengths are easily doable under many other circumstances, but the snow did much more to dampen our progress than we anticipated. Despite the coziness of a newly-warmed cabin, we somehow regretted coming all this way, as we knew that we needed to retrace our steps the following day. We tried to ignore that fact as we cooked up some pasta on the wood stove. We fell asleep quite early, as we were utterly exhausted from the day’s activities, although we were perhaps a bit too zealous with our manning of the stove, and the mercury inside the small cabin notched ever higher. It was tough to regulate the temperature, but we eventually got it somewhere within the realm of comfort and drifted off to sleep. After a fitful and sweaty slumber we were rewarded with a beautiful sunrise the following morning. We stocked the stove a bit more, in preparation for tea and breakfast. The totally inhospitable expanse all around us was indeed a beautiful thing, and the snarled and dead trees lining the lakeshore were bathed in a lovely pink hue from the rising sun. However, something about the night, either the extreme heat, the lack of water, or perhaps our stiff necks from the trek led to both of us having quite serious headaches. We had plans for an early start to the day, in order to avoid getting stuck in the dark like we did the day before, and after a small breakfast we extinguished the stove and off we went. Considering the difficulty of breaking trail on the way out, and with the help of some photos we took of the topo maps at the cabin, we decided to head straight back towards the car, some 11km as the crow flies, rather than following the considerably more serpentine established trail, and concluded that we would simply pass the lakes or fells we encountered in the most direct manner. We ended up with some new scenery, which was nice, but we did need to ford a fair amount of slushy swampland, which is probably not possible in the spring or summer. We made it back to the trailhead in less than five hours, despite maintaining a fairly unimpressive average pace. We did need to wade through a partially frozen Mivttejohka river though, which definitely sucked. The day before we crossed it much higher in the hills, near the Norwegian border, where we were able to jump across with the aid of an icebank and a long stick. In the lowlands where we crossed it on the way back, however, it was a force to be reckoned with, and we ended up simply taking off our shoes, rolling up our pantlegs, and running through the damned thing. We dried off our nearly frostbitten feet on the other side and continued on. For whatever reason, the trek back felt a lot better. The weather was considerably clearer, affording us some nice views of the surrounding scenery, but all in all it was still quite punishing, especially considering the condition our legs were in from the day before. We eventually made it back to the car and were like “yeah, we’re not gonna do something like that again”.

Melting some snow on the wood stove.
A snippet of a topo map at the cabin.
The cabin in the morning.
A lake in the distance.
We had to wade through this, it sucked.

Our next destination was the ski resort town of Saariselkä, where we had made a booking at a hostel of sorts for two nights. Predictably, that town too was nearly devoid of tourists, and our hostel was comfortably empty, with a few other reclusive guests scattered among the rooms.

The itinerary for the next few days was pretty relaxed, and we woke up at a reasonable hour the following day to go and get a look at Inarijärvi. We went for a leisurely drive along its shores, and eventually found ourselves in Nellim, just this side of the Russian border. The border indicators were quite serious, but the town itself is hardly more than a small collection of houses and its single attraction, which is a wooden Orthodox church built in 1988. The church is pretty cool looking, but the dull weather made for pretty lackluster views of the lake itself, which we could imagine is stunningly beautiful in the right season.

Multilingual border sign, including Skolt Saami.
More Inarijärvi.
The wooden church.

We took off the following day, doing a fairly large up-and-back from Saariselkä to Lemmenjoki National Park, then back down to Sirkka, where we were planning on spending the night. The national park was beautiful, and we went for a shortish hike of 5km through the woods and along the shore of Sotkajärvi, which is fed by the eponymous Lemmenjoki river. But again, the generally overcast sky and slushy weather left us wishing we had come at a different time of year. On our way from Lemmenjoki we spotted several dozen reindeer making their way across the road in Pokka, which was a lovely sight, and made for an improvement to the otherwise monotonous drive.

A pond at Lemmenjoki National Park.
The shores of Sotkajärvi.
A frozen stream.
Rather eerie.
The reindeer didn’t seem to mind though.

From Sirkka we had grand plans of stopping off at the Pallas-Yllästunturin National Park on our way down to the Gulf of Bothnia, but we opted not to, again considering the weather. There was a thick layer of fog and a fairly unrepentant rain soaking everything in sight, so we figured we’d just hightail it to our destination. We weren’t exactly sure where we were going to spend the night, but we did have firm plans of hopping into Sweden for a brief visit to Haapanranta, which is well-known among Finns as the place to buy snus, among other things. We bought some snus for a variety of friends back home, and picked up a few discount items from the numerous outlet stores there. Other than that, the town was extremely depressing, characterized by a large number of Finns drearily pushing carts of discount soft drinks, snus, candy, and anything else they can find for cheaper than back home to their cars, ready for the journey back to Finland. The weather certainly didn’t help, and it’s probably a much nicer looking place in summer. We ended up spending the night in Kemi, not far back into Finland, and were again shocked at the overall bleakness of everything. The oppressively low-hanging cloud cover was a bit claustrophobia-inducing, and had an effect of muting any color to a sort of dull gray. We stayed at a strange hostel of sorts, with an automated after hours reception and only a few other guests, but it got the job done we suppose.

We again had no interest in spending more time than necessary in Kemi and headed south towards the day’s destination of Vaasa. The trip was long, so we had a brief lunch in Oulu and explored the town a bit. It’s nice, and we hate to be repetitive, but this weather is a real bummer, and we’d imagine it’s much more enjoyable in the summer, or even winter, just not this in-between period.

Oulu’s claim to fame.
Market hall in Oulu.
Some charming waterfront buildings in Oulu.

The rest of our trip back down to Helsinki was more of the same, with low hanging cloud cover and a slight drizzle really harshing our vibe everywhere we went. We stayed the night in Vaasa and briefly visited some of the neighboring islands the next morning, but got sick of staring into the endless fog and decided to skip any intermediate plans we had on our way back to Helsinki and simply hightail it home.

From the archipelago around Vaasa.
Raippaluodon Silta, the longest bridge in Finland.

In short, we left wishing that we had come at a different time of year, as our refrain again and again was something like “well this seems like it would be nice if the weather wasn’t so awful”. In a way it did strengthen our resolve to visit some of the same places again, after catching a glimpse of what they could be like. The creeping, shallow path of the sun inching its way above the desolate and silent landscape of Kaldoaivi still haunts our memories, and a longer, more thorough exploration of the wilderness in that area in September or October could be a very memorable experience.

At any rate, we’re back home in the comfort of Helsinki for now, battening down the hatches for the impending winter.

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