When my friend Antoine said he'd like to come backpacking with me one day as he'd never been hiking anywhere before, I smiled – it's always nice to introduce a trail virgin to the joys of the outdoors. I started looking at maps, wanting to find a place that was a little bit special, and less likely to be busy. Autumn, and ruska season is the busiest time of the year for hiking in Finland, and as much as I love popular places like Urho Kekkonen National Park, they get very busy in September.
I wanted Antoine to have a true wilderness experience, and after a looking at some maps, I thought I'd found the perfect trip.
Muotkatunturi Wilderness Area is famous for its wide-open spaces, formed by the rolling hilltops of around one hundred fells. It lies in the far north of Lapland, covers 1570 square kilometres, has no marked trails, and only 4 wilderness huts. Much of the southern section is covered in mires, but the northern half has plenty of potential for hiking. I sketched out a 75km traverse that would take us along rivers, up over the hills, and across forest wetlands in an arc from the east to north sides, taking in as much open ground as possible. It would be a bit of a push for Antoine's first trip, with a few long days, but as he was borrowing a lot of my lightweight gear, I was confident he'd be able to do it.
We drove up to Sulaoja, and found the parking area for the famous Kevo trail – which was packed full of cars and vans. Kevo is a very popular route, but we were heading in the opposite direction. In fact, this was actually the end of our trail – in the morning we'd take a 7:00am bus to our starting point at Muotkanruoktu.
Our first day would be split into two halves: the first along the banks of the river Peltojoki, followed by a climb up and over the fells after lunch.
There's an old trail by the river which leads to the large lake Peltojärvi. It made for an easy start, so we headed off straight after getting off the bus, and decided to stop for breakfast once we'd walked a couple of kilometres along the trail.
Lapland is famous at this time of year for it's autumnal colours – or ruska as it's known in Finnish. As well as golden leaves on trees, all the berry leaves and shrubs turn spectacular shades of crimson, orange, and yellow. It seemed as if the colours were becoming more vivid with every step we took, even though it was a relatively dull and cloudy day.
We found a nice breakfast spot by the river, fired up our stoves, and filled our stomachs with porridge.
In this early section, there were a few local trails leading up to a couple of fell tops, and a lot of random fishing trails – the river is popular for sport fishing.
Although the river formed an easy handrail to follow into the wilderness, I tied the map to Antoine so we could keep track of our progress and check the side trails as we passed them.
It was a beautiful section of trail, and we stopped often to taste the delicious Lapland water, fresh from the source.
It was nice not to have to carry much water, and we made good progress along the trail. My Mariposa backpack weighed around 9.5kg, and Antoine's Vapor Trail was about 11kg – which meant we'd be able to cover the 25+ km for that day fairly easily.
About 7km along the river, we encountered a group of three women out under a laavu tarp, also on a trip of four or five days. They were the last people we would see for the entire trip.
The trail headed inland a little, taking us through a short, open, swampy area where, for the first of many times to come, any visible evidence of trails vanished as we picked our way between tufts of grass, rocks, and unavoidable wet patches. It was nonetheless quite pleasant, and the openness gave us a first glimpse of Peltoaivi – the fell we would be climbing after lunch.
Shortly after, we found the photogenic Lahtinen hut – barely 1.5m square and with only enough room for very short people inside, it was owned by a chap named Lahtinen. I'd say it's more of historical interest than use as a shelter. Pretty though.
There were plenty of Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushrooms around, but call us unadventurous, we didn't try drying them and eating them.
An interesting side note from my book of mushrooms: the indigenous reindeer-herding people of Lapland – the Sámi – used the mushrooms to induce dream states, but perhaps more interestingly discovered that reindeer love them. Apparently you can round up a wandering herd by scattering pieces of Fly Agaric on the ground. However, the reindeer are similarly affected by the hallucinogens, and sadly, the book doesn't go into detail about how the Sámi subsequently went about dealing with spasmodic, hallucinating reindeer. It does, however, reveal that the Sámi also discovered "the intoxicating compounds can be recycled by consuming the urine of an intoxicated person." How they discovered that is also omitted from the otherwise edifying volume.
After some 11km, the old trail peters out as it nears the lake. Although I thought Peltojärvi lake would make an interesting diversion, we decided to climb up to a smaller lake on the hillside for lunch.
Apparently, we were not the only ones with such an inclination.
After huffing and puffing our way up the small hill, and avoiding stepping in putrefaction, we found the rather lovely lake, and views up to the cloud-kissed fell top.
I was surprised to find sand banks surrounding the lake – presumably the millennia old shoreline of an ancient lake or retreating glacier. We sat for lunch on the sand dune, I enjoying my protein bar, Antoine, like a true Frenchman, his stuffed duck neck and fois gras (well, maybe it was salami and cheese from Lidl).
When we set off again, I think Antoine must have felt like a Legionnaire.
A criss-cross of paths led vaguely up to the summit, some perhaps from people, others certainly from the reindeer that ran away from us in the valley.
As we climbed higher, it became more open, and the vistas became more epic.
The paths were now a distant memory, replaced by low lying bushes of bilberry, crowberry, and lingonberry. Occasionally, I followed a faint reindeer trail which inevitably vanished. But the summit wasn't hard to find: it's up there at the top.
The 360-degree views were spectacular, with fells disappearing into blue haze in every direction, and low-slung valleys lying between, gilded in the golds and yellows of autumn.
With the trails gone, it was time to break out the map, compass, and GPS, and then head off: that-a-way. To be honest, navigation was a piece of cake in such open landscape and with the weather conditions we were experiencing. Even with the haze, it was possible to see the route over or around the many hills ahead.
While the terrain was mostly very easy rambling across heathland and through scrub, we also passed through the occasional dried-up riverbed, or across the edges of mires and wetlands.
Always present were the reindeer – distant and alert – and the colours of ruska.
We tramped for miles across the open fell tops, stopping behind rocks to get cover from the breeze and for occasional breaks. The feeling of walking in such spaces is hard to describe; the openness is eventually experienced internally – there is a feeling of breadth and scope that penetrates the soul as the landscape slowly shifts around you.
We followed a rocky canyon to a convenient crossing point, then ascended again to a plateau. It seemed as if we could walk forever through this open land, picking berries as we went, passing the discarded horns of reindeer that littered the ground.
The only disadvantage to the fell-top walking was the lack of water. We'd stocked up by the lake where we had lunch, but our supply was running low, and every potential water source on the map had dried up over the summer.
Eventually, my planned route began to descend into a valley where I was confident there would be a perpetual stream strong enough for us to replenish ourselves. As we descended, the dwarf birch trees reappeared, and we were soon bushwhacking our way through what the maps accurately describe as "easy-to-traverse forest wetland."
My original plan was to camp on higher ground a little further along the route. However, we were both feeling a bit tired. I checked the GPS and saw we had walked 27 km – no wonder we were tired. The map showed a small lake nearby, with the stream I was banking on near to that. I saw a game trail heading in the general direction of the lake, and took a chance: often, if a trail is heading downhill and there is a water supply, it'll lead you straight to it.
Luckily, I was right, and we arrived at a very welcome sight.
The lake was quite small, and although clear I preferred to get water from the nearby stream, so we went in search of the gurgling sound we could hear.
It was all perfect. An excellent water source; superb pitching possibilities for the WickiUp, scenic views, and legs that were telling us they'd had enough for the day.
The decision was an easy one to make: we'd stay here for the night.
We scouted around the lake and found several little campfire places. It was clearly a popular stopping-off point for hikers, and, judging by the pile of reindeer horns in one location, hoarders.
We soon had a fire going, and stoves boiling water for a well-deserved meal.
I was very impressed with Antoine's hiking legs, bearing in mind that this was his first trip ever. 27 km is by no means an insignificant amount of walking, and a little bit more than I had anticipated. I hoped he wouldn't crash out the next day, but he seemed perfectly happy.
Of course, a fantastic location always helps to buoy the spirits!
The night was chilly (as you might expect in a depression by a lake), and I found myself reaching for my insulated trousers to bolster the thermal powers of the Navis quilt I was using.
I awoke, after a fairly good night's sleep, promptly at 6am. Antoine woke soon after, and we shovelled more porridge into our grumbling stomachs, ready for another day's marching.
After filling all our water bottles, not wanting to run dry like the day before, we set off again. A herd of reindeer ran through the dense birch woodland ahead of us, as we skirted around swampland on our way towards the Piekanaäysti ravine, and the turn towards the north.
As we walked, the clouds began to break apart, giving way to pools of sunlight that lit the way ahead.
With compass and GPS employed to lead us directly to our turn, we watched as the sun grazed on the red-hued leaves and vegetation beneath out feet.
With an easy navigational aid ("head towards that pointy bit") we made fast progress along the flank of hills that make up Gálgoaivi.
As we were heading deeper into the wilderness, the names of the hills and rivers took on more of the melodic, original Sámi names; Gálgoaivi, Rátnoskáidi, Kuárvikozzâ, Jeageloaivi...
The landscape and light also took on more of a wilderness feeling; vast, epic, majestic.
Our turn north was at the entrance to the Piekanaäysti ravine – a dried-up river with rock-strewn walls and the solitary skeletal structure of a Sámi teepee shelter.
The ravine was short but scenic, and provided another landscape variation among the many we had already encountered.
The sun and clouds conspired to create suitably dramatic vistas back towards the south.
While to the north, after we emerged from the ravine onto a plateau, the clouds continued their dispersal, leading to what we hoped would be a beautiful day of fine sunshine.
On the plateau, we picked up another old trail that crosses the fells northwards towards our destination for the night: the Stuorrávzi canyon.
Unlike crossing the fell tops, when the trail descended into the wetter and more verdant valleys, the route became trickier to follow. With every mire crossing, the trail disappeared and we often found ourselves following other vague paths leading us off-piste.
It was by no means difficult; more of a navigational exercise, and an opportunity for some interesting problem solving. And often, these little excursions led to unexpected scenery, as if the wilderness was trying to show us its favourite scenes.
It was inevitable that, at some point, we'd have to cross a larger stream, and we soon encountered our first. Naturally, I bounded across using the wet-foot technique in my non-waterproof Roclites. Antoine, however, had a pair of (reasonably light) Haglofs GTX mid-boots, and had a decision to make: cross wearing them and get the GoreTex nice and wet (and risk them not drying), or go barefoot. He opted for the former.
Now, normally, I wouldn't advise that course of action, but as it turned out, the boots dried quite quickly once he'd wring out his socks. So, it seems on some occasions, and with boots that use the right materials, you can get away with it.
Anyway, after a couple of hundred meters my feet had warmed up and my shoes were starting to dry out – just in time for a stretch of mire.
I'd planned a route that avoided as much mire as possible, but some crossings were unavoidable. Fortunately, nearly all of them were short and relatively easily crossed by hopping between clumps of firmer grass.
After passing through the bottom of the valley, we began to ascend again to the top of Urroaivi fell. With the sun shining brightly, and warming our backs, the both agreed that the climb through the forested flanks of the hill felt oddly Mediterranean, as if the dwarf birch woodland were a pleasant Greek olive grove.
The trees quickly began to thin out as the summit came into view.
We decided to have lunch on the summit – well, technically not the actual summit, but the prettier, slightly lower of the two peaks that make up the top of the fell.
It was nice to see the landscape bathed in sunlight after the previous day's clouds and haze.
We hid on the lee side of the hill, away from the cooling breeze that brushed over the tops. There we found some of the sweetest lingonberries I have ever tasted. Antoine marvelled at how nature can sometimes provide you with exactly what you need. We'd often grabbed a handful of bilberries on the climbs as instant refreshment, but it will be these puolukka from the almost-summit of Urroaivi that I remember as the best-tasting berries of the trip.
The route led down again into a sparsely-forested section where Autumn seemed to suddenly burst into full colour. It was as if ruska was happening while we watched. The hill opposite seemed to be covered in blood-red leaves, while beneath our feet, a fiery kaleidoscope burst into flames.
We often found ourselves just stopping to look at the colours. It was quite beautiful.
But it was time for another valley, and another stream crossing; this time much easier, with stepping stones and, as Antoine pointed out, members of the Robert Smith fan club.
Onwards, and over another tunturi (fell): Rátnoskáidi.
A day of ups and downs then. Down one more time, to cross the Rátnojohkâ. This time, wanting to keep his now-dried shoes dry, Antoine opted to go barefoot.
Throughout the trip, the reindeer had kept their distance, but we'd both noticed that they were starting to come nearer. We pondered why this might be, and decided that it was probably because by now, we had started to smell more like the landscape, and less like a couple of city boys. Our layers of sweat and grime and mud and grass must have made us less obtrusive.
Now, it seemed every encounter with reindeer was closer and closer.
Interestingly, we noticed another related phenomenon: reindeer are chronically afraid of the sound of zippers. They would appear, and stand stock still in some kind of dramatic formation that would make a million-dollar photograph. But as soon as I unzipped my camera bag, off they would go. Maybe it has something to do with the Sámi and their hallucinogenic urine.
After the previous stream crossing, we followed a reindeer fence up over Stuorraskáidi, and down again into a small valley leading towards the canyon. There was something unusual about this little valley: the rocks seemed different – more like limestone – and the verdant nature and clear waters were quite refreshing. It was nice to walk along the stream for a change, and a very pretty section of trail.
As we approached the end of the valley, the rocky walls of Stuorrávzi canyon made their first appearance. And as we rounded the corner into the canyon itself, we were met with more beautiful scenery.
Autumn toyed with the trees on the canyon side.
A trail led along the foot the canyon, by reed-covered streams and a string of crystal-clear, cold lakes.
As we walked along, we heard fish jumping from the ponds, their splashes echoing from the walls.
At the end of the canyon, there is one of the few huts located in the winderness area. As Antoine had never stayed in one, he was as keen to try it as I was to show him. But as we walked along the canyon bottom, I became aware that he was a bit quiet, and thought he might be getting a bit tired. I asked, and sure enough, he was. It had been another long day – 24 km so far, and if we wanted to make it to the hut, it would be another 3.75 km, most of which would be rocky and without any visible trail.
At around the same time, we arrived here:
It was such a beautiful spot. I was immediately drawn to the idea of putting up the tent and spending another night in it, right there. I knew Antoine wanted to go to the hut, but I felt that the additional kilometers and increased tiredness would be less joyful than simply stopping here, resting, and enjoying the location; the here and now.
We mulled it over, but I think we were both tired enough to realise that enough was enough.
Plus, I heard fish. It was the evening, and I had my new Tenkara rod and our fishing permits.
Easy decision, really.
Now, I'm not much of a fisherman. I only got the Tenkara rod because it was on sale and I've always liked the idea of having one. In the past, I've only ever caught one fish, and that was by accident. So imagine my surprise when...
...a wild brown trout decided to come our way and provide us with a delicious fresh appetizer before the dehydrated main course.
So, all-in-all, a splendid end to a splendid day.
Next morning, the clouds were back, this time dropping a little of the wet stuff, just for some variation in weather.
The fresh temperatures and rainfall seemed to bring out the best in the bilberries. I woke early, so pottered around picking a few to fortify our breakfasts.
It was a bit of an "indoors" breakfast with the showers, but we made the most of it before packing up and heading off again.
As we scrambled along the canyon bottom, I was glad we decided to call it a day when we had the evening before. The route was quite tiring and would, I suspect, have been a bit unpleasant had we tried to continue on to the hut.
We found a place to cross the stream and clamber under a reindeer fence to get to the north side of the canyon, so we could bushwhack through quite dense scrub up to the top of the hill.
Rain pattered down through the trees, and we eventually broke free of cover a little wet, to pick up another old trail heading northwards, up and into the clouds.
The weather was definitely grimmer than the day before, but I was pleased my Rab Demand was shedding water like the proverbial duck's back. Antoine was wearing my old Marmot Super Mica with no complaints, so I guess it was also performing its duties.
Once again, reindeer escorted us over the top of Avzeasoaivi.
After crossing another valley and small wetland, we saw a lone tent just off the trail. It was zipped up, although it was 11:30am, and I would have thought anyone would have been on the move by then. We heard no voices, and saw nobody; a mystery.
It was time for us to leave the faint trail and head off on our own across and around Jaegeloaivi fell.
It seemed the clouds were always just a few meters above our heads, just out of reach, but at least we had good visibility.
We stopped for lunch on a wet rock, and I was happy to have sections of Z-Lite to sit on as I scoped out the landscape, and the route ahead through the swamps around the Nirvejohka river.
It looked pretty easy – I could see an easy crossing point from the hill. When we got down there I found an even easier section.
We both enjoyed these little sections; they are like small intellectual games where you have to find your way across without getting your feet wet.
I know, I know – wet foot technique, right? Well, to be honest, my feet had been wet all day from the rain and mire crossings. I was happy to try and avoid prolonging the wetness, and give them a chance to dry out a bit.
Sadly, the entirity of Oadatcohkka fell is pretty much a hanging bog. So, it was wet going up, and wet going down. I tried, to my error, to take a short cut deviation from my planned route through a section of that "easily-traversed forest wetland" I mentioned earlier. I should have stuck to the plan as the ground was annoyingly uneven. We were jumping around over streams, mud, and bracken, finding circuitous routes around impassable sections, thinking we were out only to find ourselves back in the thick of it.
It wasn't our finest moment, but there was still something fun about it.
We were now reaching the last section of trail for that day, and looking for a quad-bike route used by the Sámi herders that would lead us to our camp for the night by the Karigasjoki river. When we found the trail, it was an odd feeling; to be walking on this path formed by a motorised vehicle felt peculiarly far too civilized. It was almost as if we had emerged from the wilderness into a shopping precinct!
But of course it wasn't. We were still well within the boundaries of the wilderness area, and we were reminded of this by the occasional husky smell of animals that wafted past us as we walked along. I imagine the smell was reindeer that had heard us and run off, but it was interesting to feel close enough to nature that our olfactory senses were attuned to recognise the scent of other animals.
We had truly become wild.
Eventually, the trail led down to the river, and to a very nice campsite indeed.
The river was small, but off to the east I saw a scalloped bank of sand with a mohican ridge of trees along it's top. It looked comically large for the surrounding landscape, which was by and large quite gentle and flat.
After setting up camp, I decided I had to go exploring. It took a while to skirt the mires surrounding it, but I eventually found my way up, and was treated to a view over the Garden of Eden.
I looked back towards the camp, and saw Antoine waving, a tiny spec in the distance. Can you spot the tent below?
Back at the tent, we rested and saw an abrupt break in the clouds coming from the west. The clouds were moving at a glacial pace, but it was good news: a change was coming.
While we waited for the sun to arrive, I went to give myself a rinse in the stream and clean off some of the previous days' sweat and grime.
Refreshed, I put my clothes back on, but shortly after I noticed an unnerving, uncomfortable itching in my nether regions.
I began to fear the worst: probably I had put my briefs on a bed of ticks, and at this very moment they were burrowing into my balls. Fear gripped my soul.
However, after a rapid examination, I found this in my underpants.
I'd like to thank the person who ignored strict "leave no trace" principles by leaving some rusty wire wool on the stones by the river for giving me the fright of my life. Luckily for me, it was only your insensitivity to the natural environment, and not a nest of ticks, that had attached itself to my underwear and attacked my private parts.
As if to celebrate, the sun came out, and I got Antoine to start posing for pictures for the next cover of [insert your favourite backpacking magazine title here].
Between the dark clouds in the east, and sun in the west, things got pretty spectacular, and I was soon snapping away like crazy.
Luckily for you, in an already photo-heavy post, I've narrowed them down to two shots.
The sun set shortly after, taking golden hour with it. It was time for our final dehydrated meal (also known as "flatulence in a bag") and my trail specialty, steam-baked muffin, which Antoine kindly enhanced with some cheesecake flavoured vanilla sauce.
With the sun down, and temperatures dropping rapidly, a fine ground mist began to appear, and it was time for bed. That night was the coldest, getting down to around 2ºC. I had to seriously bolster the warmth of my sleep system (but more on that in a separate post).
The next day, we had just 6 km to hike along the quad-bike track to the trail head and back to the car at Suoloja.
On the road, we met a very curious reindeer. I think it had been eating Fly Agaric mushrooms.
And finally, after 75 km we were back at the car. At which point I laid my shoes to rest.
It was a really great trip through some spectacular landscape which seemed to vary each day. I think Muotkatunturi makes a great "true" wilderness hike for anyone who'd like to try it, as the terrain isn't that difficult, and providing the weather behaves reasonable, it is quite easy to navigate.
I have to say, for his first hike ever, Antoine did exceptionally well, and he seemed to enjoy it immensly. I hope we get to do this on an annual basis, and I already have my eye on the map box for a trip next year!
If you'd like to go on trip to Muotkatunturi, take a look at Backpacking North's self-guided trips – we provide everything you need for your own wilderness adventure. Find out more >>