Opposites week 49, part I

Jouni Laaksonen 5.12.2017

Ski touring in Urho Kekkonen NP (December ), part I
vs.
Day hiking in Southern Konnevesi NP (June), part II

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Choosing three meter long skis (metsäsukset) lets you select your own route off any tracks. December is a harsh month in Finland, but beautiful, if you are properly equipped and know what to expect.

My idea is to alternate between
1) pondering Finnish hiking culture and the specific conditions of our country (see last week’s blog post)
2) telling about treks I have done during just that month we are living, describing different Finnish hiking destinations

I had first thought I would always tell about one nice hike during the month I’m writing the current blog post, but then I started to think that as I begin the blog in December, I will not lure anyone to hike in Finland if I only describe my hikes in December and January… Those are the harshest months of our year.

So I decided I will select always two opposite months! In December I’ll tell about a longer ski tour in December, but also about a summer day hike in June. In January the months I’ll be telling about are January and July, and so on.

 

Christmas in wilderness

A few of Christmases ago our firstborn was old enough that we could leave her into the care of her grandparents. We knew she would enjoy herself with grandma and grandpa and her cousins. We wanted to restore to life our old tradition of hiking during Christmas holidays.

We hike a lot with our kids, but around December and January the conditions can be so hard that we do not want to take them along for a multi-day trek. It is typical that the temperature drops to –30°C, and totally possible it is under –40°C.

We headed to Urho Kekkonen National Park from Kemihaara. It was only –25°C, but it felt very cold. In normal life you only visit outdoors for a shortish while at a time, and if you get cold, you just pop in. Selecting the right amount of garments was a bit tacky after some years of break from midwinter multi-day hiking.

But, as we well remembered, movement soon made us warm. We skied in the darkening afternoon towards Vieriharju wilderness hut. There is a snowmobile track towards Korvatunturi fell farther east from Vieriharju, and skiing was quick along it.

We had our headlamps on our heads, but we kept them off. As your eyes adjust to dusk and darkness, you usually see enough to ski. And when the light is off, you see the shape of the ground farther. If you keep your lamp on, you see precisely what is on the spotlight and nothing outside of it.

But always when there is a downhill, or if you have to cross ice, you switch the lamp on.

 

Life in a wilderness hut

After a couple hours of skiing we arrived to Vieriharju hut. In Finland there is a network of hundreds of wilderness huts (autiotupa in Finnish). I’ll tell about these open cabins and the tradition behind them later on.

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Vieriharju wilderness hut. Wilderness huts are open for anyone to use. This seems to be already the second time I’m promising to tell more about Finnish hut system, so I guess I’ll need to come back to this topic rather soon.

We lighted a candle and made a fire in the wood oven. The hut had been empty for a while, and it was not very quick to warm up. We put some more clothes on and started to gather our kitchen. Kettles and frying pan from my sledge, dinner from my wife’s backpack.

We filled both our kettles with snow and with a tiny amount of water from my water bottle we placed them on the oven.

In fact we stayed at this hut for two nights. Tomorrow we would find out that it was possible to get water from the nearby Vierihaara river, but now it was dark and we thought the ice cover would be thick, so we did not check the river out. It was easier to melt water from snow – but running water tastes better, so it is the number one option if it is available.

We also took our sleeping pads and sleeping bags in, and loosened the bags to air out.

Slowly the hut started to warm up and we took our down jackets off, and later our knit caps, too. Snow in our kettles had melted, and we took the other kettle for food preparing. When we were eating our candle-light supper, it was already cozy and warm.

After washing our teeth we put larger chunks of firewood in the oven and closed the air hatch of the oven. When the air hatch is open, the fire is strong and the oven heats the cabin quite quickly. For the night we wanted slow burning so that the oven gives warmth for a long time.

The oven worked as it is meant to, but still it was rather cold in the hut in the morning. It was my turn to get up first, so I made a fire with the kindling I had carved last night. I also put a kettle on the oven, and then I jumped back to our joint, warm sleeping bag.

After half an hour of nice slumbering we got up to a warmish hut. Water was starting to boil, for tea and porridge.

As I told we spent another night in this hut, too. This was Christmas Eve and we wanted to celebrate it here near Korvatunturi fell, which we Finns believe is the home of Santa Claus. (Also Rovaniemi is said to be the home of Santa’s, but the older belief is he lives in Korvatunturi fell.) We did not visit the fell itself, it is inside the border zone of Finland and Russia, but we tried to get a glimpse of it from a large nearby bog. It was too cloudy for that, unfortunately.

But we saw tracks of some animals, like otter and capercaillie, and the nature was not only cold and snowy, but majestetic, tranquil, and totally silent. I had over three meters long skis, and my wife had 2,5 meters long ones. Long and wide skis are called metsäsukset in Finnish.

If you have skied, you maybe have done that in a mountaineous area? In treeless mountain or fell area the snow is throughout winter hard-packed and you don’t much sink into it. You can use shortish skis, like two meters or so, with maybe steel edges. Not so in forested terrain.

In forests and bogs the snow is soft and you need really long skis to be able to ski in it with relative ease. We had long enough skis and we enjoyed skiing off any tracks, heading just the way we wanted.

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For a winter multi-day hiking tour you have two options for transporting your equipment. A sledge glides often quite easily after you, and it does not strain your shoulders at all. A backpack allows you to choose your route a bit more freely. Bot have their advantages. Usually it is a good idea to use the same kind of transportation tool for every member of the group, but I needed fresh photos with a sledge, and we wanted to do it this way this time.

Always a tarp or tent, too

We were sure the huts in the national park would not be crowded. They are usually almost empty from November to February. In fact we only saw other hikers in one hut, Peskihaara, during our week-long tour. Other nights we had the huts for ourselves.

This area is famous for open saunas. There are 40 wilderness huts in Urho Kekkonen NP, and six open saunas with them. We visited two of those. You can imagine what kind of a luxury hot sauna is after a long day of skiing in cold wether. Or can you? Well, I think I’ll go deeper into our sauna tradition, too, later.

But although the wilderness hut network is excellent in Finland, never venture to deep wilderness without a tent or tarp. And warm enough sleeping bag so that you can sleep outside, if you happen to run into an accident, or get lost between huts. We are now talking about skiing outside any marked trails. We had a tarp in my sledge, just in case, but it was not needed this time.

There is a strong allure to sleeping under a tarp, or in a tent. One strong point is that you can decide the length of your day march and the scenery you want to sleep in yourself. But in December the night starts to fall at three p.m., so the evening is really long. And often cold. So, a hut is much more comfortable option.

We orienteered from one hut to next, saw no other snowmobile or ski tracks for five days, and enjoyed our days and evenings immensely. Härkävaara hill absolutely charmed us with its ancient forest. Mostly the temperature was around –20…–25°C, but the last day it was only –10°C.

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Old-growth forest in Härkävaara.

A week in the wilds did the same magic as always. We felt hugely revived, and ready to tackle the working life with new strength.

* * *

Where is this place? See Excursionmap.fi. The map view shows you the area from Vieriharju wilderness hut to our next goal, Manto-oja wilderness hut. If you want to see larger area, or more precise map, use + and -.

(Normally there will be a new post every week, but I want to post more during this first week. Tomorrow you’ll find a summer tale.)

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