It began, as is often the case, with a book. This time, the book was Mike Clelland's Ultralight Backpackin' Tips, but I recognised the feeling from reading other books, articles, or blog posts before: that unshakable, nagging itch to go hiking; to explore somewhere new.
I pulled out the map box and started to ponder where I might go? How long? How far?
The options needed narrowing. I only had a couple of days, so a long, deep wilderness hike was out. But nor did I want to go on too short a trip. And although there is plenty of hiking in southern Finland, my eyes are drawn north as sure as a compass. I came up with two options: the Nuortti Trail in Urho Kekkonen National Park (40km), or a route of my own devising in the newly expanded Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park from Äkäslompolo to Aarkenus Fell (around 50km).
I wanted to push myself a bit and do a really decent hike in the time I had available. I was bored with short-distance trips, and I needed a little training to get me ready for the upcoming trip to Halti. The number of nights out was less important than the number of kilometers walked. Nuortti looked nice, and I'd always wanted to do it, but the trail head was a three-hour drive away, and it was pretty much a forest walk from what I could see on the map.
What I really wanted was some views. That made the decision much easier: Äkäslompolo it is.
It takes 2 hours 20 minutes to drive to Äkäslompolo from Rovaniemi. After a quick stop in the Kellokas visitor's center to fill my water bottle and check on conditions with the staff, I was on the trail by 10:30am. I knew this would be a fairly long day of walking. I estimated the distance at around 25 km, which I thought would be fine. Even with really difficult terrain, I'd be at my destination – a wilderness hut on Aakenus – at the very latest by 9pm.
The trail began in a nice little dell leading down the Varkaankuru ravine.
As I tramped down the duckboards, I heard thunder in the distance. The forecast had been for rain, but I'd hoped it would stop at that. No such luck. As I edged around the hill toward the foot of Kesänki Fell – which I'd planned to ascend – the storm gathered force.
I was a little worried about being on top of an open fell in a storm. It's not the Colorado Rockies, where daily afternoon lightning storms are terrifying – but it would be a stupid place to be walking.
Fortunately, Clelland's LATS technique for determining weather revealed that the storm would skim the edge of the hill. I was pretty certain that by the time my out of condition legs got me to the top it would have passed and I'd be fine.
The way up was... how can I put it... direct. Straight up a rock-strewn ravine on the escarpment (Pirunkuru). The rocks, wet from the rain, were slippery, but luckily I'd made the wise decision to wear my Roclite 295's, with their sticky soles. Stability on the loose rocks was another matter. It was tough going, but quite rewarding.
It's been a few years since I was on top of the Lapland tunturi (fells), so when I eventually reached the summit, I was quite taken aback by the rugged beauty of it all.
Lichen-encrusted rock. The pink-hued trail. A patch of snow. A twisted dwarf juniper bush. Not a person in sight. Not a sound.
I snapped vast panoramas which would be utterly lost in 690 pixels. Watched water spring miraculously from rock and trickle its way downhill to find a marsh. I followed the stream, leaving the open spaces for the forest again, at first sparse, then thick. The trail turned from rock to earth, from rugged to rolling. I saw few footprints, but the occasional mountain bike track. But all the time I was alone.
The kilometers passed effortlessly in the forest as I walked between laavus (lean-tos) and huts marking junctions in the trail I'd chosen. Before I knew it, I was in the mire leading to Kotamaja – a ski café (closed for summer) and shelter where I had my delicious protein bar lunch.
I'd timed it well. Another storm crashed directly overhead, echoing furiously around the fells. I sat out the worst of it, then pulled out my raincoat and pants. The trail continued following a stream on the edge of a hanging bog through forest marshland, so the chances were fairly high that the next section would probably be wet. It didn't disappoint.
I'd been hoping to give the wet shoes technique a thorough testing, and this was certainly the place to do it. Luckily all that water meant I didn't go thirsty.
The water was crisp and clean. Fast running, far from pollutants, and, as far as I could see, beaver free. At least let's hope so. I'll know for sure in 10 days.
This was clearly a section of trail less travelled – at least in summer. I imagine that in a few weeks time the air would be thick with mosquitoes. For the moment there were just a few. In fact this was the most threatening animal I encountered during the whole trip:
Even the reindeer were off enjoying themselves somewhere else. I saw plenty of droppings, but saw not a single one.
The 8km-long forest wetland section was, to be honest, a bit of a schlep. I wasn't looking forward to going through it again on the return journey – it was the only section of trail I'd need to cover twice. But every step taken was one step nearer my destination – or at least one step nearer the next significant landmark: the pretty lake Phyäjärvi.
There are a few shelters, laavus, and kotas scattered around Phyäjärvi, and my route took me by a day hut. Day huts differ from wilderness huts in that they are not strictly supposed to be used for overnight stays.
I'd planned to keep this hut as an option if, for whatever reason, I couldn't continue any further that day, but I was feeling pretty good with 18km under my belt, and pretty confident about making the reindeer camp cabin on Aakenus. It was a very nice spot though, and very cosy inside.
As I shouldered my huckePACK again I heard a distant rumble. Another storm. Hmm. This posed a problem.
I checked the sky again – the storm clouds were on the other side of the lake and moving too slow to tell which direction they were going. If they were following the prevailing conditions during the afternoon, they should slip by to the north, but I was worried by the little skimming clouds that seemed to by flittering around in all different directions.
My plan was to walk over the 8km ridge of Aakenustunturi and then head to the reindeer camp to sleep (either in the cabin or under my DuoMid). But there was an alternative 8km route along the flank of the hill through some good old forest wetland.
I decided to postpone my decision until the next trial junction 1,5km ahead, and see what the weather was up to when I got there.
Onwards and upwards then.
At the junction there was a lovely spring – pure and cold and delicious. I filled my bottle and considered my options. It wasn't raining, and I heard no thunder, but something was nagging at me, making me cautious. My legs were feeling a little tired, and I thought perhaps an 8km trek over the rocky terrain of the ridge was maybe not such a good idea when tired.
I also figured a hike over the fell would be a great way to start the day tomorrow. It would be something to look forward to, certainly much more inspiring than the wetland I'd have to cross now.
I made my decision. Wetland it would be. And, boy, was I right.
As I stumbled along from root to rock and back again to squishy moss, the grey hulk of Aakenus eyed me from the north, its long, kidney shape enclosing me, drawing me towards the saddle between its west and east peaks.
The sky turned dark – for a moment I thought the sun was setting, then remembered where I was. There'd be no sunset for a month. The sudden darkness was an approaching storm.
Rain began to patter down, and as the area was open and the rain not too unpleasant, I opened up my Euroshirm umbrella and strolled through the marshland like the English gentleman that I am.
Soon, I knew, I would have to cross that mire. And soon, I came the the duckboards that would lead me across the expanse – just in time for the thunder to rip the skies open so the rain could come bucketing down. I was very glad then not to be walking on top of the fell.
An open marsh isn't the smartest place to play umbrella roulette with a storm, so it was time for the
to fulfill its destiny. My Colombia trousers (how wonderful to write trousers instead of pants!) were also pretty wet so there wan't much point in putting on rain pants (dammit!). They'd dry fast once I got a fire going.
I enjoyed walking across the mire in the pouring rain. It was a strangely calming and meditative. Just me and the elements. I realised that throughout the entire walk that day I'd hardly noticed my backpack, it's weight surely key to the distance and speed I'd walked. I checked my watch: it wasn't even 6pm. I was well ahead of my estimations.
I felt some warmth on my shoulder, and looked up to see Aakenus bathing in light.
From somewhere in the mire, strange, almost metallic calls sounded. Were they birds? I couldn't see any. The sci-fi sonics we something I'd never heard. There was only one conclusion to be made: Laser Frogs.
Little trees, half covered in lichen,sprouted up out of the swamp, eking out just enough nutrients to maintain a tentative hold on life.
I always find it a little bit stressful heading to cabins in Finland's national parks – you never know how popular they will be, who you'll share with, what they will be like. My fears are typically totally unfounded as almost every time they are empty. The same was true now, when, with legs aching, I finally made it to the cabin; I was alone.
I decided to stay in the cabin that night instead of under the DuoMid. I frequently feel an weird obligation to camp under a tarp or shelter; but really, why would I do that? These cabins are provided free. What's more, using them allows you to travel super ultra light, carrying only the barest minimal shelter. Frankly, I didn't really need to carry my DuoMid at all. If I'd needed to, I could have slept in just the bivy, or just taken the SpinnTwin. Even if there had been people in the cabin, people are usually more accommodating than the generally accepted rule of "s/he who's been there longest leaves to make room for new arrivals".
The cabin was small but cosy, with a tiny window letting in just a little light – perfect for the nightless nights of summer in Lapland.
I got a fire started, heated up my Real Turmat meal, slipped into my SealSkinz socks, and checked the map and GPS.
I'd walked 27km, which surprised me. This was truly proof that going ultralight transforms your backpacking experience. In the past, 20km with a heavy load and my Meindl boots would have been a grueling experience. Today, I could have quite confidently walked another 8km or so and still been ahead of schedule.
But my day was done. It was time to relax.
I slept pretty well, waking a few times thinking it was dawn when it was 2am, then 2:45, then 4:00. I gave up at 6:30, cooked my oats, tidied up, and made for the trail leading to the top of the hill.
I'd look back occasionally to take in the view, glad that the storms had passed.
The trail led over the boulder fields, weathered down over millennia from the days when ancient lakes licked at the summit shores of these island fells. They're pretty to look at, but testing to walk over for long periods.
This was what I'd come for. The vast openness of the hilltops. Views stretching to the horizon. Space for the mind and body to wander.
The purring calls of "fell chicken" (also known as snow grouse) drifted around me as walked toward a crystal clear pond whose waters I was not sufficiently tempted to drink. Clear sitting pools in high places where reindeer roam don't usually entice me to drink, pretty as they may be.
A vague and meandering trail led over the ridge toward the summit, and some spectacular views over the park and central Lapland.
In the distance, Pallas and Ounastunturi sat veiled in haze – places I'd hiked before and which beckoned to me for a return visit.
Next week it will be mid-summer, but there are still patches of snow to be found on the hills. The nights, too, are often cold, and even in the cabin that previous night I felt the chill of winter in the air.
I was reaching the end of the bare-topped tunturi. I took a moment to appreciate the solitude and contemplate the general scheme of things. It seemed as if the world and my day-to-day troubles were located somewhere else.
Meanwhile, I had this...
The trail was about to lead downhill... back to the spring, to Pyhäjärvi, and to the forest wetland which I could see far below. In fact I could see the toute for the next couple of hours; I'd pass along the base of those hills, then between them. It seemed implausible to imagine my tiny figure walking so far away, yet before I knew it...
...I was back in swampland. The schleppy part of the trail passed quicker than I remembered. I started to see things differently, switching from vast panoramas to minutiae.
And signs of the times...
I stopped briefly for another protein bar lunch, before moving on into the forest.
The lower trails around Yllas are pretty much a result of the area's winter activities. Cross-country ski trails don't make particularly interesting hiking trails, and I missed the trail junction that would have taken me up to the top of another hill for a little terrain variation. As it happened, it was probably fortunate as the tendons in my left leg were beginning to complain a little too loudly. I don't think it would have been wise push them up and down another fell.
Instead I hot-footed it back to Äkäslompolo, with the intention of checking out the village before I left.
I crossed a little river that looked ideal for a
combo trip. Just enough skiffle on the water to make it interesting. I made a mental note to revisit one day.
But right now, the further I walked, the more it seemed I was heading in the wrong direction. I found myself on a dead end ski trail, heading into impenetrable swamp. I backtracked and tried another route and got equally lost. On my map the mess of trails obscured the vital information I needed to figure out a route. The GPS then... but a momentary glitch in that left me equally uncertain. I knew I was on the wrong side of the river, so I had no choice but to begrudgingly retrace my steps, and try to find a way back to the Kellokas visitor's center. I became increasingly annoyed at the signposting which seemed to only be helpful for winter use.
I discovered that, in fact, I had been on the right track earlier, but the signs gave no indication of this. I'd walked 3 unnecessary kilometers, making 28km so far that day. I decided I wanted the fastes, most direct rout back to the car I could find, so I walked the final 2km on the road.
The disappointing ending didn't detract from the rest of the walk, but it felt odd to have walked 55km without a single navigational problem, only to get lost and confused within the town boundaries.
But then again, perhaps that says more about me than I realise.