Nordkalotten Trail / Käsivarsi Wilderness Area

Warning: This is long and photo heavy, so grab a coffee.

Picture the scene (you'll have to, because there's no photograph): Roger of NielsenBrownOutdoors and me, gunning it up to Kilpisjärvi at the very north of Finland, rain hammering down on the roof of the Volvo. Roger's off for 11 days hiking to Kautokeino on the Nordkalotten trail, and I stole away from home daddy duties for four days to join him for the first leg of the trip, with the aim of trying to get to Halti.  All well and good. Just one problem; I'd realized too late that, while walking the 110km to Halti and back in four days is just about doable, it's only doable if you start hiking early and  go at it all day, and that would necessitate an extra two nights in Kilpisjärvi at the start and end of the hike. I didn't think that would go down well back home.

So there I am; excited to be out again, and yet my joy was somewhat lessened knowing there was no way I was going to get to where I wanted to go. There just wasn't enough time. All I could do was repeatedly tell myself it's not about bagging peaks, it's about having a nice time in good company, so enjoy yourself you stupid idiot!  In knew it was true, but still, the vaguest hint of disappointment hung in the air amidst the rainclouds.

We stopped in Kilpisjärvi to stuff a couple of reindeer burgers down our gullets, while waiting for the rain to pass. Clouds hung low over Saana, the distinctively-shaped hill that looms over the tiny town.

We drove back to the trail head and pulled on our packs. I was carrying a modest 9.5kg in my Mariposa, Roger something like 15kg in his Porter (mainly the extra food he needed for the additional days).

As I was expecting some pretty decent scenery on this trip, I was packing my D300, cleverly attached to my Mariposa via a couple of s-biners. I also took along a GoPro 2 HD video camera, the results of which can be seen at the end of this post.

I was pleased that my carrying system didn't add much weight to my pack, and Roger mentioned it was interesting that we both carried front packs of one kind or another. Are we slowly heading towards ultra-heavy? As Maz helpfully pointed out, a front pack doesn't count towards pack weight as it's a separate item :). This logic should be applied to all packing measurements. If we carried everything in separate bags our backpacks would be a light as feathers.

As we set off, the trail rose steadily above Kilpisjärvi lake. More heavy clouds rolled in from Sweden; threatening, dark. But every cloud, it seemed, had a silver lining, and the rain seemed to skirt us as we headed into the wilderness.

Up and up we go – passing the first of many traditional hikers. This couple – an older man, probably in his late 60s, and a woman I presume to be his wife – struggled under the weight of their packsand the cucumbers they were carrying. Cucumbers. Essential outdoor kit.

For what would not be the last time on this trip, I felt sorry for them as we slipped past. I'd turn back every now and then, worried that he might try to keep up, but they eventually receded into the distance.

Seeing as we only started hiking around 16:00, we planned to hike just 12km and find a campsite somewhere near the first hut. To be honest, this section of trail was a bit of a schlep. It felt like I was hiking to where the real hiking would begin. The trail was pretty rough – rocky, then marshy – but little did we know that the more difficult sections – the large boulder fields – would become a repetitive feature during the next few days.

By the end of the trip, my ankles would be starting to complain. On this kind of terrain over an extended period, you can really appreciate the support given by boots. Such a pity that Inov-8 stopped making their non-GoreTex lightweight trail boot.

Still, this was supposed to be the wilderness. We were lucky to have a trail to make traversing it easier.

We stopped briefly for a nibble of gorp and to view the surroundings. In the distance we could see the hut we were heading towards, and eagle-eye Brown spotted a Sàmi tipi on the shore of a nearby lake.

Scoping it with the zoom lens, I saw the encroachment of modern technology on the wilderness. Generally speaking, I despise quad bikes almost as much as I despise snowmobiles. In my (as yet unwritten) book, we should go into the wilderness under our own steam, but in all fairness I can't deny the Sàmi the right to herd reindeer in the most efficient manner available to them. It was clear form the quad bike tracks around that they follow distinct trails, and the next day we would see them herding reindeer using the bikes.

We continued on, leaving Finland for a sojourn into Norway. I didn't see any border or customs officials, and we slipped through undetected. Good thing too, as Roger was packing Vegemite.

It was funny to think that we were temporarily in the same country as Joe, Thomas, and Helen, albeit  over 1000km away. I suppose we should have changed the time on our watches, too, for a fully authentic experience.

The clouds began to descend once again. The elevation on the hike would be between 600-1000m. That may not sound like much (well, it isn't), but in Lapland, with the tree line around 550-600m, that's pretty much the equivalent of a high alpine environment.

The forecast for the next few days was cold and wet, with daytime temps around 10˚C, and nighttime lows possibly into freezing. I'd already decided not to take Rufus as he's a long-haired dog, and once he gets wet, he takes forever to dry (it's the GoreTex). It was a shame, but it meant less stress, and ample opportunity to admire lichen-covered rocks.

With Norway just a few hundred meters behind us, we arrived at our destination: the wilderness hut at Saarijärvi.

It took a while to find a decent patch of ground to pitch out shelters. Roger had his new Tarptent Notch, while I had my old faithful MLD DuoMid with a brand spanking new OookWorks inner. Most of the flat ground was either marshy or very rocky. There were a couple of obviously used sites, but previous campers apparently hadn't heard of "leave no trace". We eventually found a couple of spots that were workable.

A light breeze carried the mosquitoes away, and brought clouds that lingered indecisively over the higher ground.

Dinner time. I enjoyed an average Blå Band meal, adequate enough for the short milage we'd done that day. After a quick scout around the way ahead, I was ready for bed.

With midsummer just over, dark nights were still a month or two away. I didn't bring any kind of eye patches (or other piratic attire), but pulling the GoLite quilt over my head gave me enough shade to fall into a reasonably deep sleep. An 11 month old baby also helps accumulate tiredness credits which I was happy to cash in.

During the night I awoke a few times a little chilly, and made a mental note for the next night to a) put the 4 section z-lite under my hips, b) wear longjohns, and c) pee before bedtime. Things I should have done anyway.

 I suspected that in the morning the clouds would have descended again. I wasn't wrong.

Visibility was down to around 200m, and we had yet to ascend another 400m. In Finland, if you're above 1000m you know you're in Käsivarsi WIlderness Area.  I was hoping for one of those cloud inversions that everyone goes nuts for, but it was clear (!) that that was unlikely. Here, the only way out of cloud is down.

I fired up my new JetBoil SolTi (notice the utterly pointless handle has been removed) to make breakfast and coffee. Sadly, the Africafe which tasted so promising in my kitchen failed to live up to expectations on the trail, but as I drank it, I heard a familiar sound.

A small herd of reindeer – well, more of a gang, or knitting circle – were munching around Roger's Notch (you'll enjoy that more if you read it in a Frankie Howerd voice).

Once we'd consumed our oats, it was only a short while before we were on the trail again, slipping through the reindeer fence from The Wicker Man.

Soon we were back in the rock garden.

As we climbed up to a saddle between two mist-shrouded fells, the trail became harder to follow – mainly because we couldn't see far, but also because we had to cross patches of snow on which evidence of previous hikers was suspiciously absent, making me a little nervous.

We skirted the snow when we could, but occasionally found ourselves heading in the wrong direction. This was one of the rare occasions I've had to pay very close attention to the map and use navigational skills to find the correct route. Fortunately, in these circumstances, two heads were definitely better than one.

At the top of the saddle, around 960m,  we stopped for a break. The going was tiring, and the landscape hard to read or identify. The snow fields were not that large, but often we couldn't see to the other side of them because of the mist, and the presence of some quite deep chasms from shifting snow in some areas led me to (probably unnecessarily) worry that the snow might be unpredictable.

Getting down the hill was simply a matter of repeatedly heading around snow fields, and aiming to intersect the trail again.

Much of the time, I had no idea where we were. I remembered from the map that we were supposed to be passing through a nice gorge...

...but all I could see was the trail in front of me.

As we neared the next wilderness hut, the clouds slowly began to lift, revealing the classic curves of a glacial valley.

And soon, the hut emerged from the mist, too, and for a moment it felt like we were in the Himalayas.

I'd love to tell you that at the hut we found a couple of ultralight hikers who were just passing by and planning to sleep under a single wall shelter or tarp.

But no. Instead, the hut was filled with a group of 16 heavyweight hikers, a smaller group of four, and one guy from Helsinki in a leather jacket. The patio of the hut was loaded with enormous packs, and  Trangia stoves fuelled by the largest Primus gas canisters money can buy.

Worse, they were out for four days.

The guy in the leather jacket said he was thinking about taking an alternative route across the wilderness back to Saarijärvi. Roger suspected he might be an experienced hiker in disguise, but with his pipe and hipster credentials, I seriously doubted it.

It was around then that I started to feel almost guilty for having a light pack. I wanted to apologize to them for having been lied to by big companies selling them over-complicated, heavy gear that was unnecessary and probably didn't work anyway.

We decided that two's company, twenty-three's a crowd, and made a plan to stop in an hour at 12:30 for lunch.

That turned out to be a section of elongated plateaux where we experienced a break in the cloud revealing excellent views of the wilderness.

The sun even started to come out.

Much of the trail thus far had been less than easy going, so it was great to be able to pick up the pace again. After stopping for lunch I accidentally disturbed a nesting bird, revealing three perfectly camouflaged eggs. Other than mosquitoes and reindeer (which are so ubiquitous they don't count), it was the closest encounter with wildlife I'd have on the trip. 

In all the excitement(!) I forgot to take a photo, so here's another landscape instead.

We dipped down occasionally to ford a river (shoes and socks on, folks), and at one crossing came across a group of six women who had taken a helicopter to Halti and were hiking back. It would be easy to criticise Team Helicopter, but at least they were walking back.  And I have to admit, I was secretly a little envious of the helicopter ride.

I think it's accurate to say that this was by far the most people I had ever encountered while hiking in Finland. Before the trip I thought we might not encounter anyone, mainly based on my wife's comment that only an idiot goes hiking in Lapland in July. It would seem Roger and I are not the only idiots around. It's just a shame most of the other idiots haven't heard of ultralight.

Towards the end of the plateaux, we turned towards Halti and were rewarded by spectacular views, the likes of which are rarely seen elsewhere in Finland.

The highly unusual (for Finland) shape of Saivaara rose above a lake, looking like a misplaced precipice from Monument Valley.

The summit of Saivaara features a monument to Finland's former president, Urho Kekkonen. Another day for that one.

Towards Halti, the cliffs of Meekonjärvi reminded me of Yosemite's Half Dome.

Meanwhile ultra-heavies struggled upwards...

Passing ultralighters, skipping lightfootedly on the way down...

A magnificent waterfall gave us reason to stop and rest for a while before pondering exactly how far we might walk that day.

It was a spectacular location, and one which I would have happily spent a few days exploring. The lake was ripe for packrafting too, so I made a note to return wielding rubber.

In the lower elevations of the lakeside and birch forest, the Finnish Air Force was out in force...

We turned to head north towards Halti as another weather system rolled in. Our plan was to camp a few kilometeres upstream between Vuomakasjärvi and Meekonjärvi.

Across the river we could see plenty of luxuriously soft, flat areas perfect for pitching the shelters. On our side? Not so much. Bound in by the cliffs of Meekonvaara (Meekon Hill was apparently named by a Dan Dare fan), we searched in the rain without success and were left with no choice but to continue.

Luckily, once over the bridge at the south end of Vuomakasjärvi, we found a couple of idyllic spots by the river and lake.

The mosquitoes came out to join us, but were bearable. Squally showers drifted over now and again, playing with the light over the hills.

When the clouds passed, we were served another treat.

As we ate, I looked up at the hills, contemplating the inaccessible Halti.

We'd met a French couple on the trail who didn't get up to Halti, telling us there was too much snow and it was foggy and raining. For a while this made me feel better – even if I'd had enough time to make it to the top, I might not have been able to make it up there, so my not-being-able-to-make-it-now mattered less. Stupidly I then spoke to another set of hikers who had made it up, so I was plunged again into a pit of despair (yes, I'm exaggerating).

Realistically, I knew there was absolutely no way I could make it and get back to Rovaniemi on Tuesday. It was a further 16km, making the return journey 32km – a good days hiking. Plus, I'd then have to hike out 39km and drive for 5 hours. It wasn't going to happen.

So it was time to make the most of the moment. Tomorrow Roger and I would head in opposite directions – he, on to Kautokeino along the Nordkalotten Trail; me, back to Kilpisjärvi, back the way I'd come.

It was good to meet another of the ultralight hiking gang and spend some time on the trail. I enjoyed discussing gear and backpacking tips, and the differing needs and requirements for hiking in Lapland as opposed to other, warmer areas.

And we really had found a lovely place to camp, enjoy our food, and sip a little Talisker.

In the morning, the clouds had rolled in heavy again. I wasn't particularly happy about this as I'd hoped to get some views from the top of the saddle that was occluded the day before. It didn't look like that was going to happen.

Roger was experiencing a catastrophic technical failure, which he'll write more about when he gets back, but fortunately we were able to find a solution that would allow him to continue his adventure.

With oats consumed, shelters dismantled, and backpacks packed, we bid our parting ways to meet again in Rovaniemi in 10 days at the end of his trip.

The weather conveniently chose that moment to transform into what I believe meteorologists call "pissing buckets". I upped my pace, slogging back through the gorge, through the birch forest, and up onto the plateaux. I flew past many familiar faces from the previous day, and stopped to chat to a few. I planned to stop for lunch near one of the huts, but when I arrived the skies opened again and I didn't want to stop and be tempted by a warm cabin. I marched onwards into the steep valley that had previously been completely shrouded in cloud. Lucky me! Today, it was only partially shrouded.

The rain had raised the level of the river a little, and the ice-cold water was almost up to my knee in places. I knew that within minutes my feet would be warm again, so the best plan was to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.

Yesterday, we'd had trouble finding our way across the snow fields, but today the cloud level was a little more accommodating, and it was easier to pick my way safely across the snow.

I followed and overtook "mother and son". Weighed down by their heavy packs, they soon receded into the mist.

Near the top of the saddle, it felt like another world... another season.

Remarkably, when I reached the top, the air cleared. It was as if a curtain was thrown open, revealing hills surrounding me, and rolling on forever into Norway.

This, added to the fact that I was making some seriously good time, lifted my spirits. With the skies clearing,  I thought it would be a good time to dry out my trousers which were a little wet. My Marmot Precips let a little water in around the waist, probably as a result of hip belt contact areas. I'd also rinsed out my Ex-Officio underwear the night before, and thought this would be a good opportunity to strip and put them on so they would dry out from my body heat while walking.

I tried a couple of times to achieve this, but wouldn't you know it, on each occasion a couple of hikers would magically appear just as I was about to drop my pants and expose my dangly doodads. I suspect most of them thought I was having a dump right next to the trail!

Eventually I found a secluded spot and completed the clothing adjustments. In no time at all both trousers and underpants were dry.

Back down at the hut on Saarijärvi, I had a decision to make.

I'd arrived at 14:30 – a lot earlier than I anticipated – covering 24km in 6.5 hours. Pretty good going for the terrain. But this left me with a dilemma: it was too early to stop, and there were still 12km to the car. I didn't really want to drive home that day though, and camping near the car was out (for reasons which will remain mysterious until Roger writes about them!). I also didn't want to not camp, seeing as I was here and this was probably one of only a few trips I'd be able to make this year.

So, to make the most of it,  I decided I'd call it a day and set up camp, and use the free time to explore Saarijärvi.

I wandered around, muttering to myself in the Australian accent I'd mysteriously contracted, Zelig-like, from Mr. Brown. While doing so, I stumbled upon a hitherto unknown link between Finland and Easter Island...

I thought I'd check out the hut back at the camp, and found Team Helicopter inside, piling wood into the stove to create what felt like an impromptu sauna. As I mentioned, they'd arrived on Halti by chopper the previous thursday, and had been walking back, hut to hut, carrying heavy packs at about 10km per day. As a way to spend a relaxed week's holiday, I can imagine it was pretty nice.

What was alarming however, was the reason for the impromptu sauna – it was needed to dry their (probably GoreTex) rain clothes which were hanging on a line near the roof.

At this point I'd been hiking all day in the pouring rain, and my Marmot Super Mica – a very light and simple raincoat which I'm increasingly impressed with – had kept me completely dry. Furthermore, it was dry itself. Yet all of this group's gear was soaked, and apparently they got completely wet through.

All of this brought back the peculiar desire to apologise to them on behalf of manufacturers who have sold them that gear, and sold them the lie that the gear is intended to address.

One argument that frequently crops up against ultralighters is that ultralight gear isn't good enough. But if all that expensive, ultra-heavy gear doesn't keep you dry, and the ultralight gear does, then that argument seems to have been conclusively proven incorrect.

Of course all rain gear will eventually fail, and it's possible that the members of Team Helicopter had had that gear for a long time and never thought to re-treat with with NikWax or some other waterproofing equivalent. I know I've been in that position. But the point still remains: why carry all that extra weight in supposedly waterproof clothing if it's worse than an ultralight coat, and takes forever to dry once it's wet? You might as well not take a rain coat at all.

Scratching my head, I left the women and other guests to their sauna and returned to my DuoMid.

The rain was staring to intensify again, so I cosied up inside my OookWorks inner. I got Sean to make it with a full mesh front so I could enjoy the views bug-free. People rave about Sean's work, and justifiably so. A proper bathtub floor, good workmanship, and simple to erect while inside the 'Mid make it a great addition to the DuoMid. I had a bug perimeter added to my DuoMid, but frankly with a  bivy bag or the OookNest, it was redundant, so I cut it off (and shaved 50g off the weight, woohoo!).

During the night the winds increased. I dont know how strong they were, but enough to give the DuoMid a good walloping. It held up very well, even poorly pitched on insecure ground, in an exposed position, and without the mid-point ties attached. The pole was shaking, and the silnylon hit the inner, but the shelter was sound. I have no doubt that – like any shelter – it has a limit. Certainly, compared to the tunnel tents I saw (mostly Hilleberg) the 'Mid was flapping like crazy, while the hoops were flap-free and almost static. Nevertheless, I never felt that the DuoMid was anything other than secure.

Bearing in mind the difficulty of finding a suitable patch of land to pitch it (there are no trees, and the DuoMid isn't ideally suited to tying to rocks; it's possible, of course, but you need a pretty immovable rock and some patience), I can see the reasoning behind using a more free-standing shelter in Lapland. I simply don't want to start carrying that kind of weight. Even if it's more problematic, it certainly isn't impossible to find a good, pitchable location. I'd rather carry the skills to pitch the DuoMid than the dumb weight of a free-standing, pitch-anywhere tent. But perhaps there are other ultralight alternatives. 

In the morning I packed up again and set off, skipping breakfast. I just ate gorp and got going, preferring to spend time on the trail and get back home sooner rather than later.

It was a clear day, so Saana was revealed in all her glory as I neared Kilpisjärvi.

I enjoyed overtaking a group of four army cadets like the wind in a pair of slippers. I think they tried to catch me up, but were no match. It made me wonder about creating the world's first Ultralight Army™.

The trail led back down into the tree line; birch forest and hanging bogs.

I drank once more from the cold, fresh waters of Lapland, before completing the final kilometer, and arriving back at the car.

I was a little disappointed not to have made it to the top of Halti, but Halti isn't going anywhere, and neither am I. 

Perhaps though, there is something else we should consider concerning the matter of climbing Halti...

While this may come as a national identity-smashing shock to Finns worldwide, I feel I have to reveal the truth that Halti isn't the highest peak in Finland.

 I can almost hear the screams of indignation, but look closely at the map:

The peak of Halti is just over the border – in Norway! The location people are actually making their hiking pilgrimage to is merely the highest point in Finland, which is only on the slope of Halti. And, incidentally, that 55km pilgrimage is laced with irony when you find out that there is a road in Norway approximately 5km away from the summit!

For some this may seem like insignificant nit-picking, but if you want to bag the highest peak in Finland, you're climbing the wrong mountain. When you stand on top of Halti, look over to the south-east and you'll see where you should be standing: Ridnitsohkka!

Now, I'm a "support the underdog" kind of guy. Seeing as climbing Halti isn't all it's cracked up to be, wouldn't it be much cooler to tell people that you've stood on Finland's highest peak, and then explain to them, with a self-conceited glint in your eye, that they're quite incorrect when they assume you mean Halti?

I say it's time to elevate Ridnitsohkka to its rightful status as Finland's highest mountain. We should all stand up for the little guy. And for this reason, when I return to Käsivarsi Wilderness Area, I will be heading to Ridnitsohkka!