Ski touring, solo expedition

Greatest sunrise ever?
Jouni Laaksonen 9.4.2018

Do you sometimes feel life is dull? I am quite positive person, but sometimes dullness hits. But it is no big deal, for there’s a remedy that works every time: I start to plan a hike.

For example right now there’s one meter of snow and spring days are so full of sunlight and energy, and I find myself starting to hope I could squeeze a skiing expedition in Lapland somewhere here in the nearby weeks. Often late April starts to be late for ski touring, but this winter there is so much snow the skiing conditions probably last long.

While I am checking my calendar and maps, let’s see my ski expedition a couple of Aprils ago. April is usually a month when there is a hard crust on top of the deep snow layer in Lapland. Or at least at some part of April, depending on the spring. Sun is shining during days and the temperature rises over zero Celsius degrees, but during nights the temperature is well below zero. This makes the top layer of snow melt during day and freeze during night. Very handy for a skier – but not for poor reindeers who have difficulties to dig lichen from under snow.

This time I wanted to ski a 165 km stretch across some of the least hiked wildernesses in Finland. I hopped off the bus at hotel Jeris and stepped onto the taxi I had booked in advance. The short taxi ride to Raattama village did not ruin my budget.

Started from left, ended on right. The route is drawn approximately, not downloaded from GPS or something as precise. Note that this is not a marked trail, and this is not any kind of a trail. And this is not a famous area you should someday ski through. I had fun here, but you can find more magnificent areas in Finnish Lapland. I’ve just been to all of them already, and I want to see something new every time. So, take this as a tale about conditions, not about this specific location.

 

No sun

But where is the sun? And the crust on snow? No sign of either. The sky was dark gray with no hint of anything lighter or bluer. My long forest skis (280 cm) did not sink much into the snow, but it was warm, snow was wet, and the glide was poor.

I crossed river Ounasjoki along snow mobile track, but then I headed off any tracks. I navigated for three days in Pulju Wilderness Area. All the time under a thick cloud cover.

Aapa mire, large treeless bog

Raakevuoma aapa mire (bog) is vast.

Untouched forest and mires

Three kelos on aapa mire. Kelo is dead pine that has no bark left.

Black and white can be beautiful, but after a couple of un-sunny days you start to long for colours.

You start to long for shadows already after one shadowless day, let alone a week. After Pulju I continued near the southern reaches of Lemmenjoki National Park. I knew these forests just outside the NP are still intact, but the forestry industry and super ugly clearcutting areas is coming closer and closer. So far the forests were not logged, and thus the sceneries were great – if you like black and white.

Don’t mistake me. I was not feeling sorry, I was enjoying every day and every kilometer. I was doing just what I wanted, crossing large wildernesses, being on my own. But I have to admit that when the sun is shining, even occassionally, my thoughts fly a lot higher, more freely.

Now my thoughts swirled around navigating, next lunch break, gathering firewood to melt water from snow, where to pitch my tarp and so on.

Typical lunch: small fire melts water and prepares food.

To enjoy spring winter hiking you need to like skiing, snow, melting snow, lighting a fire, rising very early in the morning, lighting a fire, melting snow, skiing, did I say this already? And you need to be able to take what you get weatherwise, without complaining.

 

Solo hiking in winter?

Isn’t it dangerous to solo hike? Especially in winter, and in a large uninhabited wilderness?

Well, it is a good tip to advice always taking a companion or two with you. And yes, winter temperatures, snow conditions, river crossings and large areas add risks.

But I realize these risks and work actively against them. I just could not manage to get a companion with this timetable this time, and solo it meant. I know from experience I enjoy my own company, it won’t be any problem to be alone for a long time. There aren’t extremely cold temperatures in April any more, and I do have a very warm sleeping bag. I definitively take no risks in crossing frozen rivers, and still my sleeping bag and spare clothing are always packed watertight. I have very long skis which makes it much easier to ski off tracks than with shorter skis. If the temperatures would turn very warm and snow turned to slush, my route takes me twice over a road, so I can change plan if needed. I know I won’t face too big problems with navigating. I cannot say I know every hour my location precisely, but I know it precisely enough. My wife knows my planned route and I’ll text her every other or third day when there is roaming for my mobile phone. And so on.

But what about your backpack, isn’t it very heavy when you carry yourself kitchen, house and everything?

A more common way to transport hiking equipment in winter is to pull a sledge. It is easier to pull than to carry, but on the other hand there are advantages with a backpack. For me the most important advantage is the added freedom in choosing of route. A sledge puller stays very much on flat surfaces like bogs and lakes, but a backpack carrier can also choose to explore a beautiful old-growth forest, ski over some more hills than the sledge puller and so on.

For a couple of reasons I can keep my winter backpack light: It is late springwinter (not so cold any more) and I am skiing across forested terrain (not so high winds than in treeless fells sometimes). When both of these conditions apply, I leave home many items I would otherwise pack along: shovel, stove, fuel, tent. Instead I have a tarp, I cook on small campfires, and if I need to dig a little bit, I use my hands and feet. For my tarp I tamp a platform with my skis, I don’t dig a hole for it.

I want to emphasize my point: if I go to treeless fells, I always take along those four items.

Also all my food is dried, mostly done at home. I don’t carry much water at a time, just half a liter. I find sometimes unfrozen creeks, and every morning, lunch break and evening camp I make fire and fill my bottle with melted snow. So, my backpack weighed a bit over 20 kilos with 11 days worth of food.

Nothing ultralight, but you cannot go to such lengths in lightweight approach in winter than in summer. More on this some other week.

 

Towards sun

Between the tiny Pulju and Pokka villages I skied for three days along or near a snow mobile route. I do not like the smelly, noisy, polluting machines at all, but it is part of winter wilderness skills to know where the routes go. If the snow conditions turn to awful, you may need the information.

After Pokka village I continued to Pomokaira. This area used to be huge in the former times, but forestry and roads have made this wilderness smaller. However, it is still 1000 km² large, so there is plenty of room… Pomokaira is not an official Wilderness Area, but it is larger wilderness than many of the official ones. Pomokaira is in fact protected in two nature conservation programmes, one half in mires and the other half in old-growth forests.

This was my seventh skiing day, and I started to doubt if I will see the sun or even pale shadows at all during this hike. Luckily there was something like –1°C during the night, and my skis glided for all of the morning nicely, first time this journey.

Wild camp.

I have pitched my tarp near Sotkaselkä and now I’m lighting the fire to prepare my dinner.

In the end I skied a long day march today, something like 25 km. I pitched my tarp near Sotkaselkä and once more built a small fire to prepare my dinner. I hoped the temperature would again drop even a tiny bit below zero during night, and set my wristwatch to wake me up at 4 o’clock.

In the early morning I did the normal routines: light a small campfire, leave no trace of course, boil porridge, eat bread, fill water bottle, pack the tarp and sleeping bag + pad, and off I went at 5.30. It was still very dark, but there indeed was a hard crust on the snow. My skis were gliding fantastically, yes!

The same wild camp early in morning.

Just after 4 o’clock next morning in the same camp. Morning fire to make porridge.

After half an hour I was in dense spruce forest beside a small creek. I started to see something reddish on the eastern horizon, but it was hard to see properly because of the trees. Could it be the sun?

I hurried to reach the next treeless bog, and when I arrived, I saw it indeed was sun! After a week of total grayness this sunrise was one of the most memorable during all of my hiking career. Completely not according to weather forecasts the clouds sailed away and I got a blue sky for all of the day!

PomokairanAuringonnousu_4111

Among my many fantastic sunrises this one is a very memorable one.

Now I saw lots of animal tracks on snow. It is easy to miss them on shadowless days, but now they shone brightly. My speed doubled or tripled from what it had been, and still I did not push myself a bit. I stopped to take pictures often. Now my sunglasses were needed, and to my dismay I noticed I forgot to pack sun lotion. I put a lot of basic creme (or base cream, or whatever it is called, the basic stuff that moisturizes your skin) on my face. I worked, I didn’t get sunburns.

Crust on snow: easy skiing.

Having a break in the middle of  a bog. It is still early morning and the crust on snow is hard, but sun warms so much it is nice to eat without gloves. Just perfect!

Capercaillie tracks in Pomokaira.

Capercaillie was one of many animal species that had left tracks in Pomokaira.

Now my thoughts started to fly. I began to plan a book about winter hiking, ski touring like this, off the tracks. This is how I usually get ideas for books or longer magazine articles: while hiking or skiing. (The book Hanki hohtava alla was published 2017.)

As I told, I had enjoyed all the week, but this sunny day took enjoyment to new orbits! Skiing was so easy and fast that I ended up skiing all the way to Rautavan kämppä wilderness hut.

Next day I planned to visit nearby fell top, but the sun was gone again. Thick layer of clouds made me decide to ski to Peurasuvanto (no proper village, just a name on the map) along road number 4. There I stepped onto a bus to Rovaniemi and from there back home. So, I hiked for 9 days instead of 11 days, because I skipped so many planned sidetours because of gray weather. I was happy with that. The one sunny day more than made up with two more cloudy ones.

This is what you get when hiking outside trails. I saw no other hikers, not even marks of anyone’s skis. The feeling of being completely responsible of your own life, without any safety nets, is invigorating. It makes you totally forget about workday stress. You cannot know everything about conditions in advance, so you take what you get. If you cannot enjoy what you get, you are not prepared and/or experienced enough, or you have a wrong attitude. At best you get experiences you remember all your life.

* * *

Next week I’ll ponder more about pros and cons of solo hiking, and about safety and skills.

 

 

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