There and back again

How long has it been? Far. Too. Long. When I look back at the calendar and see the last time I spent a night outdoors was in Sarek in 2014, I realize a trip is way overdue. It's not that I've not been active; there have been plenty of adventures and, in an attempt to shed a few kilos, a lot of cycling and running, but opportunities for longer trips – even overnighters – have been few and far between.

So, with the arctic winter fully behind us under the assault of an alarmingly tropical spring, I see a break in the calendar and hatch a cunning plan for a weekend overnighter and the chance to revisit an area I've not been to for over ten years: Korouoma Nature Reserve – a canyon cutting a diagonal slice through Lapland about 100km from my home in Rovaniemi.

I've only been to Korouoma once before on a 10km day hike; longer visits have always put me off a bit because of the "there and back" nature of the trail leading through the canyon. But I figure any trip is better than no trip, and besides, sometimes heading back the same way in a different light gives a new perspective. 

I'm a little nervous while packing my bag – I have a nagging feeling I've forgotten something, and when the backpack weighs in at 6.7kg including food (pretty much the lightest I've ever managed to get it down to) I'm increasingly disconcerted. I don't think I've left anything out. The extremely positive weather forecast (sunny, warm, no chance of rain) means I've been able to pack less clothing than usual, but the light load means I can take my D800, Gitzo tripod, and other photo gear which I almost certainly will not use.

I jump in the car. It's 24ºC. In Lapland. In May. Unheard of temperatures, but this has been the warmest spring ever in the arctic, with the snow melting two weeks earlier than usual. (Sing it with me, climate change deniers: "It's not real! I can't hear you! La la - la la - la laaa.")

After an inauspicious start in which I arrive at the wrong trail head (I blame poor signage, a lack of advance research, and Van Morrison – but not necessarily in that order), I backtrack to the place I want to start at Koivuköngäs in the northwest end of the canyon. After donning my Trailrocs, pack, and sunglasses(!), I realize I forgot to fill my water bottle. Well, never mind. I'll come across some water soon enough. Sure enough, within minutes of hitting the trail I hear the roar of a waterfall.

I delight in the spray of water from the falls on my face, and fill my bottle with cold, fresh Lapland water. As I look at the turbulent water, I remember that in Sarek I had to wade across rivers like this. Fortunately here there's a sturdy bridge a little way upstream.

Korouoma is a pretty popular destination, and I expect to meet a few other people on the trails. It's also very popular with climbers, both in summer and winter, and I hear a few shouts from a rock wall as I reach the first laavu at Pirunkirkko. There are a couple hanging out at the laavu, but I'm claiming the right to be antisocial, so after a brief hello I move on.

While most of the 17 km route I have planned down the canyon to Kaivoslampi laavu follows just one trail, there are a couple of alternatives I plan to take that add a little scenic variation. The first leads me up the cliffs to a trail along the top of the canyon.

As I climb the steps, I feel the benefits of having shed 20kg from my personal "skin-in" weight. There's far less huffing and puffing, and when I stop, it's simply to enjoy the views.

It's a hot climb, but I'm pleasantly surprised by the lack of mosquitoes as the trail winds through the forest. Maybe it's a little early in the season for there to be many, or maybe this will be a good year. I'm just glad not to be bothered by them, and not to have to slather chemicals over myself all the time.

I stop at a laavu for a quick nibble of trail mix and a gulp of water. I can see my return trail across the valley, and the river and verdant valley bottom below. 

I set off again, and the trail leads me down to the river Korojoki running along the valley bottom. It's a twisting, winding river that cuts its way through sandy eskers, slowing a deep red under fallen trees.

Red river, green trees, blue skies – these are the primary colors that will accompany me on this trip. The trail is soft underfoot: sand, pine, occasionally moss. 

I follow the trail and the river. The fallen trees lend a nice wilderness feel to the area; a sense that everything has been untouched for centuries. In reality, this is not the case, and this area was once prime logging and shepherding territory.

Now the trail leads off on a new route. My map is laughably inadequate – just an old leaflet from years ago – and there is a new unmarked trail that leads by the rock walls used for ice climbing in winter. I decide to take it for the change of scenery.

The air is noticeably much colder in the deep enclosed section by the rocks, and the information signs tell me that the waterfalls usually only run as water in August. Here I am at the end of May and all I see is running water, and a few small pockets of ice between the rocks.

I pass by the "mammoth" stones – huge boulders that have fallen from the cliffs – and meet a family walking their dog (which growls fiercely at my trekking poles) before heading up onto another glacial esker.

As I walk along the valley, the rock walls slowly decrease in height, and I emerge into a meadow. Now, meadows might be common in deforested Britain, but in Lapland they are rare, and I'm immediately struck by this, and the strangley peaceful feeling I get from standing in what is clearly an old pasture.

I can only put the uncanny feeling down to the vague memory of meadows and pastures from Kent and Surrey. An info sign nearby tells me this was indeed used as a meadow, and provides a bit more historical context for the use of the valley for grazing, haymaking, and logging in the past. After a couple of kilometers, the land opens up to more meadows, bisected by the winding river.

There are plentiful signs of ancient industry in the collapsed and decaying storage huts and sheds that I pass every few hundred meters.

Occasionally, I find one still standing, weathered with time.

And one in particular has such intricate discoloration in the old wood that I have to stop for a little while to admire it and wonder what caused the colours to form. Orange, red, blue, cyan; I've never seen such a palette on a shed before.

I find mi mind turning to historical thoughts as I walk, thinking about how different the world would be if we still retained some level of localized production. Would it even be possible today? The world, and its demands are so different, but I can't help feeling drawn to simpler times, so I pull out my smartphone to make an audio note of this.

I pass a couple of other backpackers, but they catch me up at Pajupuro wilderness hut. I ask them where they are heading; to the reservable hut at Koronkorsu. I plan on heading a little further to a laavu at Koivulalampi. About 17km walk in total from the trail head, but on the map at least it looks like a nice spot.

I leave the couple and move on. A little later I pass a group of about 8 others checking out the korvasieni mushrooms that litter the trail. They are also heading to the Koronkorsu hut, so that will be pretty full tonight. I'm happy I've chosen to pitch mu DuoMid elsewhere so I can hopefully enjoy the silence.

Eventually I catch sight of my proposed destination, and from this position it looks quite tranquil.

The closer I get, however, the more I realise something is amiss. I suddenly find the trail obscured by a lot of deadfall. As I look around I notice almost all the trees on the entire side of the hill have fallen – the highly localized nature of the damage looks to be the result of a microburst, something I've rarely seen in Finland. The fallen trees remind me a lot of the deadfall on the Sioux Hustler Trail in Minnesota, and this will not be the last time I am reminded of that trip while in Korouoma.

The damage is impressive, and not a little disconcerting. When I turn to check the laavu, I see that I might need to choose a different spot to sleep tonight...

The little island is flooded, and not as attractive a destination as I had anticipated. So then, plan B.

I check my inadequate map, and decide I'll head the extra 3 km to another laavu at Koronlatvajärvi. My legs are a bit tired, but 3 km feels doable, and I can always look for other places on the way. The rules of the park are that you only camp in the vicinity of existing shelters, so I'd prefer to get as close to the laavu as possible.

It's a pleasant evening, and I do spot a couple of previously established firepits by the lake that I could use in a pinch. But as I draw nearer the laavu, I see a perfect place on top of some rocks. I can actually see the laavu from there, so I feel it's justified to pitch up there, especially as the ground near the laavu is very uneven, and a couple of other guys had just arrived and staked their claim on the laavu itself. I want to stay in the DuoMid anyway, so I was fine with them claiming their spot.

I pop down to the laavu to say hello, make some food, and fill my water bottles. They don't speak any English, but one of them needs a plaster for a horrific mosquito bite, so I'm happy to provide it. My good deed for the day!

It's a beautiful spot. I take the opportunity to dip my tired feet in the cold, clear water and admire the view.

After my slightly runny Pasta, Chicken and Bacon, and with the two guys taking a nap, I slip away back to my camp spot and set up the DuoMid. 

I'm very happy I walked the extra 3 km, as this is much nicer than the devastated, flooded laavu I first encountered.

With my bed made, I settle in for the evening with a whisky nightcap and a pretty sunset.

At night, I awake often to the most beautiful concerto of cuckoos, echoing around the lake. I wish I'd taken my sound recorder to capture it because it is truly amazing. One cuckoo's call echoes around, but then another, perfectly tonally lower pitches in, creating a mesmerizing, minimalist refrain, not unlike a Philip Glass piece. Beautiful.

I do eventually drift off to this, and wake at 6:30 to a still lake, providing mirror-like stillness for some strange photography.

Even with all the cycling and running, my legs ache in the morning, but as I get moving and they warm up, the discomfort is soon gone.

The day is once again sunny and mosquito free. Even the pine forest parts, which in a couple of weeks will no doubt be a nightmare, go by without any signifiant loss of blood.

Soon, I'm retracing my steps through the pretty meadows, admiring the sheds and streams that define the landscape.

It always seems quicker on the way back, but I'm surprised also how different it seems. There are sections I don't really remember from what became a bit of a march the night before. 

Occasionally, I'm reminded of bigger wilderness landscapes, both here and in the States.

At a fork in the trail, I decide to take a "tourist" route, up the hill and into the historical logging forests. I walk along old logging trails, cut so that horses could pull sleds full of logs in winter up from the bottom of the canyon. Again, I'm acutely aware of the history of the place; the sense that I am walking through time.

At a small stream, I decide I don't want to go back without having used the photo filters I carried all the way with me.  I can't stand the idea of carrying all the gear for nothing, so damn it all I'll take a long exposure photo, even if it isn't the best or nicest example.

Not long after I make the superhuman effort to take a photograph, I find an altogether much more impressive waterfall that would make a much better photo, but spontaneously decide not to photograph it. Call me mad if you will, but over the last year I've grown tired of seeing "perfect" landscapes – the kind of image that has been processed beyond perfection. I'm no purist. I don't believe photographs represent truth or anything ridiculous like that. But I've realised my interest in photography lies in two areas; one is more in the conceptual realm, and the other is just taking landscapes for the pure pleasure of using the camera. The moment I start to feel I'm taking photos to gain likes on some social platform, it starts to become less interesting, and more frustrating. Appreciation of an image shouldn't be based on how well timed and well tagged it is on instagram to gain the most traction. But I'm probably just old fashioned. Ignore me. I'll go away soon enough.

Anyway, back down to the river, I continue to enjoy the play of red water, green leaves, and fallen trees. I really can't get enough of it. There is something about the chaotic nature of entropy and decay that almost feels organised and delicately arranged.

At the Piippukota laavus, I see a sign for Piippukallio (o.5 km). I have time so I decide to take a look, but after a kilometer of climbing up collapsed steps and trying to figure out what (if anything) there is to see, I give up and return. I think the sign just pointed to a side trail leading up to a road, so hopefully I didn't miss the most spectacular part of the reserve. After another 4 km I arrive back at Pirunkirkko to the sound of rock climbers. This time I go to check out the action out of curiosity. I soon catch a glimpse of them up on the wall.

I edge in for a closer look, and on the trail see a sign asking visitors to avoid the area between May 1st and July 31st so as not to disturb endangered species. This is the second time I've seen climbers flagrantly disregarding notices asking for respect. The previous time was at Devil's Tower in Wyoming, where a sign was posted asking people not to climb that month out of respect for Native Americans and their beliefs. And sure enough, someone was climbing. 

Still, their tent at least added to the red /green / blue theme.

On the last 2 km I find a sparkling stream, and I can't resist refilling my bottle. This water is some of the best I've tasted in Lapland. Clean and cold and clear. Bracingly delicious.

Back at the waterfall near the trail head, I take the opportunity to dip my hot and tired feed in the ice cold water. I've collected one blister and a sore left sole which I blame on inov-8's incessant redesigns, and the fact that I lost my Dirty Girl gaiters as some point between buying them and actually using them. But these are small prices to pay for such a delightful walk. With 42 km behind me and a great night outdoors, I'm ready to return home revitalised – and ready for more adventures, large and small. And this time, hopefully the wait won't be so long.