It is an odd time of year. Winter – or at least the snows of winter – has just about left Rovaniemi. The trails are reappearing, and it will soon be possible to walk freely wherever one chooses. Go a couple of hundred kilometers north, though, and things are very different. The last, cold breath of winter still coats the landscape. It's possible to still ski on tracks. But venture off track and the corn snow of spring swallows you up to your thighs.
I've decided I've had it for winter this year. I want spring and summer to arrive as soon as possible. I want to walk, not ski. And I want to walk on solid ground, not through the atomic ball pool of late winter slush.
So, then. Where to go? There are potential locations not too far away, but their scenery-to-slush ratio is not in my favour. The only place I know to be acceptably and increasably walkable is nearby. But I need somewhere new.
I've decided to set myself a little challenge, and create a new route. There are many small 5km loops around here, and a few longer one-directional trails. But I want something a little longer, and more loopy. I've had my eye on an area I'm less familiar with – a largely untamed area south of Pöyliövaara. It's criss-crossed with waterlogged mires and forest wetlands, but after looking at some maps, and scouting out a few possibilities, I think I've found a potential route: long enough for a decent overnighter, with a trail head five minutes from home. A roughly 25km loop with, I happen to know, a very nice place to pitch a shelter about half way around.
The first post-winter trip is on.
I've been thinking a lot recently about walking: what it means to me, why it seems such an innately important part of my life. There is a paragraph in the opening chapter of Frederic Gros' A Philosophy of Walking which struck a chord. In it, he states simply that walking is not a sport. It sounds obvious, but often, I think, we tend to put too much significance on achievement: the distance walked, the elevation climbed, the conditions endured. When walking becomes more about endurance, it becomes more competitive, more sports-like. We might compete with others to go to the farthest place, hike the longest trail, walk fastest, and yes, backpack lightest. We mark our boundaries in some way and challenge others, implicitly or explicitly, to do the same.
It strikes me that this is fundamentally not what I am really interested in. In general, I loathe competition. There is enough of it in the world that I have no desire to bring it with me when I go hiking. The thing I like about walking is that it is simple. You don't need anything (although legs help). You can just go.
What's more, you don't have to go far. Instead of trying to find a uniquely wild experience, there is a lot to be said for exploring locally: finding the unfamiliar in the familiar.
How many of us truly explore our local surroundings? Could there be hidden pleasures in our everyday geography that are yet to be experienced? Perhaps, instead of seeking out the uknown in the most remote places, we can discover terra incognita on a smaller scale – find the unexplored on a minute scale, not far from home.
This year, with winter dealing its strange blows, epic frozen spectacles have been few and far between. Instead I've been trying to find uncanny beauty in the everyday; the things we normally pass by, most notably the forest. This little walk will give me plenty of opportunities to do that.
For Finns, I think, forest is a significant part of the national identity. With most of the country covered in it, it has to be, I guess. I've never felt much affinity with the forest. Coming from the UK, where, after industrial deforestation, only a few pockets of forest remain, I've adopted the opposite relationship to the woods: I find them a little spooky. They are, for me, at best a pagan domain of sprites and mythical creatures that lurk in the shadows and dark spaces, and at worst the scenes of sinister crimes. It has taken me quite some time – years, in fact – to gain a comfortable acquaintance with the forest, one where I can relax and stop and observe. But once this threshold has been crossed, the forest opens up and offers its miniature drama. Small dioramas of meticulously organised detritus, dappled in the light of the sun, filtering, flickering through the trees.
Increasingly, a subtle arrangement catches my eye as I walk through the woods: a fallen tree breaking the dominant verticals. A retreating snow bank, melting into a palette of mineral deposits. There is a depth to the forest that draws you in. As ease of wandering from tree to tree. The challenge of navigating on a macro scale (across and through, when your sense of direction is so easily confused), and micro scale (hopping from one clump of undergrowth to another as create your own path around the plentiful "easily traversed forest wetlands" that litter the maps).
It is simply a matter of learning to stop, and look. Move slightly to rearrange your perspective. Let the random fall into uncanny alignment, and and become somehow, imperceptibly, more than the sum of its parts. It is almost as if, in the forest, you allow your unconsciousness to flow through the trees. Fractured, fragmented patterns are recognised and appeal to the eye on an unconscious level. There is just something about it.
My planned route takes me initially along familiar ground from Poyliövaara towards Virikkolampi, but that's fine. Every time I've been there recently I've found something different; melting snow, newy-cut forest, contrasts between winter and spring. And soon enough I'm on new ground, on a muddy back road leading south towards Kursunkijärvi, a 3km long lake. The clouds roll in, and release a few snowflakes.
I've not walked in this area before, so it's nice to explore and find new viewpoints, and see what lies around the next corner. I'm heading toward some cliffs where I plan to camp for the night, and the stream that runs along the bottom of the valley meets the lake here. The only reason I'm able to do this route is that I discovered from sateillite imagery there are stream crossings at each end of the lake, making the loop a lot easier (the stream is surprisingly deep, and crossing it elsewhere would be more problematic at this time of year).
I follow the still snow-packed track up Kulmunkivaara, in search of a convenient entry point to some off-trail bushwhacking. My theory that there will be a path through the forest is proven correct, but the confusion of trail markers (a different kind of flash mob) makes following it difficult, and after a while it leads into deep snow-covered wetlands, which I decide to avoid.
I head back to the track to find another way to the cliffs that avoids the run off. It seems there is no easy route, and I consign myself to thwacking my way through a closely-packed stand of birch.
Eventually, I find a way towards my intended camp, only to find I need to back track again to avoid another suspicious area. Back and forth I go, but I know I'm getting nearer as the Garmin Fenix 2 I'm testing keeps buzzing on my wrist.
After a scramble up to the top of a small rocky hill, I find the campsite, close to the top of the cliffs. It's a lovely spot, and quite unusual for the area, so I dump my pack, and take a look around.
I'm not the greatest at standing on the edges of cliffs at the best of times, so I'm particularly cautious with the snow and ice that is still lingering around. A couple of slips are enough to keep me well away from the white stuff.
But the view, and the sense of space is nice. It's a little surprising that this area isn't better known. It doesn't feature as one of Rovaniemi's main attractions, perhaps because accessing it is not so easy. Maybe that's a good thing. Perhaps there should be a few places that remain hidden and obscure – places that reward those who seek them out.
I search around for a good place to pitch the DuoMid. The nice flat spot I had planned is still under snow, and I have neither the patience nor the snow-stakes to be bothered to deal with it. There's another spot by the trail that is flat enough, and will do nicely. It also affords me quite a nice view.
There's a bit of a breeze coming up over the cliff, but I have a feeling it'll drop off after sunset. I sit contemplating and enjoying the peace and quiet while my vile beef and pasta "curry" meal slowly rehydrates into something only slightly more appetizing than ttongsul (look it up, if you dare).
In quiet moments like these, it's nice to closely observe your surroundings...
The subtle curve of a birch...
An isolated splash of colour...
The final moments melting snow...
It's only May, but already the nights are very short, with only a couple of hours of astronomical twilight. I'm able to read my book late into the night, and transport myself onto other trails, in the company of Nietzsche, Rousseau, Rimbaud, Throreau. I wander with them along their local trails as they escape whatever ails them, or lose themselves in search of solace and space to think.
I've often thought about the epic journeys made by people in the past, made mostly through necessity (lack of other modes of transport), poverty, or impending danger. For example, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi walked from his home in Tirgu Jiu, Romania to Paris to work as an assistant under Rodin, until he famously realised that "Nothing grows in the shadow of great trees." What would it be like to re-trace that journey today?
But enough. I put away my book and settle down in the shadow of the relatively small trees that surround my home for the night. There is no beautiful sunset, but the watercolour sky is pretty enough.
In the morning I'm greeted with sunshine and a cold nose. It's -7ºC. The ground has hardened nicely, and after a leisurely breakfast I pack up and fail to find a less difficult route back to the forest trail. More jumping from tree to tree to avoid the snow, until I discover that the cold night has hardened it enough to carry my weight. I finally bushwhack my way out, and pick up the pace along a very nice section of trail.
The cold night has spread its fingers across the trail in many places, trying to regain a grip on the streams and rivulets of meltwater.
My route takes me along the length of the lake following the path of some pylons. I'm not usually one for pylon-assisted walking, but in this instance, the trail leads through some stunning open spaces, giving beautiful, spacious views over the area.
As I make a short diversion off-trail on my way to the head of the lake where I plan to cross the stream again, I pass through sections that remind me oddly of other countries; Portugal or Greece, maybe. It isn't the contents of the landscape, more the light, the space, the visible distances that feel out of place. I could be in alpine foothills or olive groves. How the mind wanders.
But I'm soon very much back in Lapland. After I cross the stream, I hear the groan of a tractor, and stop to have a brief chat (in Finnish, no less!) with the driver, who also (if I understood correctly) lives in the house I'm about to pass by. He seems surprised to see someone walking out here – I doubt many people venture this way as the route I've concocted is quite unofficial.
I stop for a moment by the lake, in the grounds of his house (Everyman's Rights are so great: he wasn't home, and I was discrete) for a bite to eat.
He certainly has a nice little spot. A couple of loons warble on the water (I'll call them loons as they had the same call, but they're probably not) as I snap a few photos.
Once I negotiate a small section of wetland, I'm back on the forest roads, heading northwards; homewards. The going is fast – much easier without the need to dodge snow or navigate through scrub.
I take a look behind me, and get that "this could be somewhere else" feeling again, this time America.
I decide to try another short cut off trail, but I'm confounded by a mire and some very uneven deforested land. My aim is to reconnect with waypoint I'd set, but I'm tempted away by the "summit" of Pöyliövaara, a heady 150m above sea level. Giddy heights.
Before long, I'm back at the trail head where I began, but as it's only 11:30am, I decide to walk the extra 3km back to my front door.
At the end of it all, I'd walked a pretty decent 28km - not bad for a walk along the local trails, and almost door-to-door to boot. Most importantly, though, I was happy to have found a circular loop that offered some really quite lovely scenery – and some areas that felt quite different to my day-to-day walks on more familiar trails.
I think it's important to realise this: that you can find something new close to home. You don't always have to go on a trek, or drive hundreds of kilometers to find an escape from the drudgery of the everyday. With a little creative trail imagination, it's surprisingly easy to give yourself a little temporary freedom from being, and find the space to think.
(Apologies to Lucy Lippard for egregiously stealing the title of her excellent book.)