It's already April. No more excuses. It's time to make the most of what remains of winter.
It's been gorgeous weather recently – the blinding sun gives just enough heat to raise daytime temperatures above freezing. While the cross-country ski tracks in the city are looking a little the worse for wear from the warmer weather and ski-hungry crowds, the snow in the forest and on the hills is still deep and clean and virtually untouched – so that's where I'm heading.
It's going to be a short trip – a microadventure if you like – leaving home around 17:30 and back in time for my morning duties. A refreshing dose of exercise, fresh air, solitude, and relaxation, sandwiched in-between the daily rituals.
I stuff everything I can find into my pack, in this instance a Granite Gear Vapor Trail – its voluminous capacity (it can swallow small children whole) and the fact that I'll be pulling everything in my pulk means I'm less concerned with weight than usual. I strap the skis to the top, and shove the shovel underneath; it's probably overkill, but who cares. For short trips it's best not to sweat it:
Don't worry. Just go.
A couple of days earlier, I found an unexpected trail leading through the forest near Vikaköngas Rapids. That, I thought, might have potential for an excellent loop.
And so this became the objective of the trip: to make a loop from what is usually an "in-and-out" trip from the rapids to the laavu at Vaatunkilämpi.
As I drive the 20km north to the trail head, the sun descends into golden hour – the time of day when the light is low and the golden rays make it optimal for photography. At the parking area I change into my boots, attach the
, grab the camera and harness the pulk. I'm ready to go.
The trail is easy going at this point. Multiple snowshoers and hikers have compacted it before me, and I stride along at a brisk pace, the pulk tugging at my hips but sliding smoothly. As I have more time this evening, I decide to take the more difficult uphill route now and get it over with. It's not far to the laavu – maybe 5 km, so I should be there in an hour or so.
As I head further into the woods, the trail begins to thin. Some of my forerunners have given up the ghost, and the trail divides into two: snow shoes and hikers. I try walking on the snow shoe trail as it's wider and more forgiving for the pulk, but immediately I'm post-holing 50 cm down into the snow. The hiking trail is harder and takes my weight. It's also thinner, making pulling the pulk more difficult, but I take it anyway. I have a hill to climb, and the existing trail will be easier with boots than breaking my own trail on skis.
I lean into the hill, dragging my penance behind me like Robert de Niro in
It's a hard slog and I work up a healthy heartbeat, but eventually I reach the top amid a blaze of golden rays.
There's a viewing tower at the top of Vaatunkivaara, and I take a break to climb it and check out the hills and landscape. The gently rolling hills are thrown into relief by the setting sun; a shaded cartography laid out before my eyes. In the distance I spot my destination, still some way off but certainly reachable before the sun sinks below the horizon.
I strap in again and head off, still on foot. The trail is now less clear; few have ventured this far either on foot or snowshoe. Still, I carry on.
Further downhill, I come across a snowmobile track, and the snow shoe tracks vanish off in the wrong direction. The trail ahead is marked now only by deep footprints, post holing along in the snow. I consider putting on the skis, but again decide to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before.
Soon, I begin to regret this decision. The going is very hard. The deep steps are uneven, and the pulk complains loudly and frequently that this is a bad idea. It seems with every step the trail becomes more and more difficult. It's time for a change of transportation.
I stop and switch to skis. Anything has to be better than stumbling through the deep holes that make up the trail.
In theory, the wide skis should float along near the surface of the snow, but I'm out of luck. While they slide along over the post holed trail, they are hard to steer along the narrow, winding path. I try instead to ski a path of my own and break trail, but this damn snow, fluffy for so long this winter, just hasn't consolidated. Instead it's jumped a stage and become 80cm of corn. Actually, more like lentils. The skis sink in, deep. It's possible to move forward as they rise nicely up out of it, but it's tough going.
I know there's only another 1-2km to go, so I soldier on, grunting with dissatisfaction. At the bottom of the hill, another snowmobile trail crosses the path, coming from the river. The trail vanishes completely on the other side, so I take a chance and leave the marked trail to follow the track to the river, aiming to take a short cut across the snow-covered ice.
Now this is much easier! This is what skiing is
to be like: smooth and fast. I take a bearing and head towards the laavu, and in a matter of minutes I am there. It has taken over two hours to travel 5 km.
At the laavu I make a fire and put the Primus Spider to work on dinner and a warming cup of berry soup.
I have my Firstlight tent with me, but sitting in the laavu, tired and hungry, I wonder if I can be bothered to put it up. All the hassle of stomping the snow in the dark and waiting for it to sinter seems exactly like the kind of thing I don't want to do right now. I could just stay here, lay out the bag, throw a log onto the fire every now and then...
And yet I really want to sleep in the tent. It would be a shame to bring it and not use it. With my rather uninspiring Real Turmat meal consumed and warming me up inside, I wander down to the ice to look at my options.
I find a couple of snowmobile trails that have crossed and created a small area of compacted snow tough enough to take my weight and walk on. The area looks just about the right size for the tent. That decides it then. I grab the gear, and don the skis once again to compact down any lumpy bits. It'll be much nicer to spend the night on the ice with a view of the surroundings, than in the laavu with a view into the forest.
The Firstlight goes up like a charm, and the snow is even hard enough for me to use some MSR Blizzard stakes to secure the corners – that's a first, and a welcome one.
The sunset lingers around the horizon, painting the sky and casting the clouds in silhouette. There's unlikely to be Northern Lights tonight, but I don't care.
Later, with the last of the light fading away, the night sky fills with specs of light, and I watch clusters of stars appear in delicate configurations that have fired imaginations for millennia. I am content.
I'd hoped to get an early night and recapture some of the sleep-deprived nights that come with a 20 month old, but I check my watch and see it's 23:30 when I hit the down.
It doesn't feel like I'm sleeping, but apparently I am. The hours go by, and I drift in and out on consciousness. I much prefer sleeping here than in the laavu; there are fewer distractions and sounds to break the silence. There is something about that laavu (
) that freaks me out, so I'm happy I pitched the tent on the peaceful ice.
Almost as soon as I think this, I hear a distant
, and on hearing it I know it will be followed soon by an echoing
from under me. Sure enough, the ice sings, and I drift off again wondering what caused the cracking. My over-active imagination conjours up a the only reasonable explanation: an asteroid has crashed into the river upstream; a tidal surge is at this very moment ripping the ice in a wave heading rapidly toward me; the tent and I will at any second be thrown upwards into oblivion.
Or on the other hand, I might just fall asleep again.
At 5:30am I crack open the door to the morning light and a lungful of bracing -15ºC air. I was a little chilly at night – the
seems to reach its limit around these temperatures, but it wasn't too bad. The view from the tent is open and spacious, and thankfully the snow I melted before bed last night is still in liquid form in my Thermos flask, so breakfast is quickly made and consumed.
After scoffing my oats and coffee, I waste no time and pack up the shelter and belongings as the sun peeps through the trees. I know the way back should be easier than the way in; it follows the river most of the way, so should be a more direct, and more importantly, a flatter, smoother route as I'm hoping to follow the trail I discovered a few days ago.
With the pulk loaded, I set off, skiing pleasantly across the ice. I round a headland and pass a couple of houses on the eastern shore I had no idea were there. A snowmobile/ski trail leads off across the river and I check the GPS. Although I know I need to be on the east side later, it appears that crossing the river here should be faster. It's a hunch, but I follow it and the trail.
A couple of kilometers later and things don't feel right. The snow over the river ahead looks discoloured – brown and thin – and I hear water. I need to be on the other side, but there doesn't appear to be a way across up ahead. Somehow I've missed the trail into the woods and around the hill back to the trail head.
I weigh up my options: I could continue and
reach the trail head, but I know the smart move is to backtrack and cross the river downstream at a safer point. I haul the pulk around and head back the way I came. Soon find a spot I recognise from the other day; a house, a snowmobile track across teh river. How did I miss it now? How strange everything can appear at different times and from alternative angles.
I cross following the track across the river to the trail. Somewhere between here and the houses I saw earlier, there must a more direct route along the east bank, but I missed it. Not to worry. I'm back on track now.
Heading up and over the hill the skis come into their own. A roughly groomed trail allows me to slide quickly downhill, making the last leg of the trip fast and fun. I round a corner, speed past another laavu, and see the bridge over the rapids, and beyond it the car.
It's 08:00. I'm right on time. After a 30 minute drive back home, I'll be back in time to walk the dog and take my daughter to day care, refreshed and ready for a new day. That's the beauty of microadventures: they makes it entirely possible to find somewhere interesting nearby, head out fast and light, and spend a night under the stars.
Only one question remains: where will you go?