Millennium hike, part 1: Vätsäri

Hiking in Finland - Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions
Jouni Laaksonen 7.11.2018

(The first part, prologue of this series of posts is here.)

Welcome to a time machine. Let’s turn the clock backwards for 19 years, to November 1999. And let’s travel to Nellim, a small village in the eastern end of Finnish Lapland, near the border cairn of Finland, Norway and Russia.

And welcome to share a big dream that came true. For a couple of years this hike had been just a pencil line on a wilderness brochure map, a dream that felt unachievable. Then I met Markus Rask as we started a course for wilderness guides. We happened to get into the same two person accommodation room.

Hiking in Finland - Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions

I placed the wilderness brochure on the wall above my bunk. Markus has sharp eyes and he spotted the thin pencil line and exclaimed he has nurtured similar kind of a dream! Both of us had thought to be the only person in the world to dream about such a thing, and now there were two of us!

There’s no marked hiking trail where the pencil line goes. Or, there are some short sections of marked summer trails, but nothing continuous, and no maintained winter trail

So, why just this route? Because the cairns of three countries (FIN-NOR-RUS and FIN-NOR-SWE) felt like interesting starting and ending points, and between these points there is nearly only wilderness. Well, you have to cross a road five times, but that’s not very much on a nearly thousand kilometers hike.

That’s what we wanted. As long and as uninterrupted wilderness experience as possible.

 

From dream to goal

We started to plan, to shape the dream into a goal. Together with a good and able friend the impossible started to feel possible. We had both hiked a lot, but the longest trek so far was two and half weeks. Most often our Lapland hikes had been about one week long ones.

Our wilderness course classmates heard us whispering every evening long into the night, as there seemed to be always so much to be pondered. We cannot carry so much food we need for 900+ km hike. Well, although we were planning to hike across wilderness areas and cross a road only few times, there would be a couple of towns we can resupply in. How do we cross big rivers? What if we don’t go during summer but in winter? I haven’t visited Tarvantovaara Wilderness Area, have you? Where are the wilderness huts in Pöyrisjärvi Wilderness Area? For some reason both of us had a fixation about Vaisjoki turf hut, though we didn’t know whether it is open or locked. So, we need to go via the turf hut and check ourselves. And so on.

Why did we want to hike for months? Well, I guess this is just a question of whether you do want or you don’t. To hike for weeks and weeks was the best thing we could imagine. If that’s not the case with you – well, I hope you still read this series of posts and maybe you’ll get an answer to this question along the journey. 🙂

 

Skiing expedition without snow

Now, to Nellim. It’s 1st of November 1999 and two men have just climbed down from the bus and started walking along a road towards north-east. That’s me and Markus.

We are heading to a skiing expedition, why are we walking? Because there is no snow yet. Then why are we carrying long skis if there is no snow? Because the next time we’ll visit a town is three weeks away and there will probably be too much snow for walking before that. Then why on earth have we chosen to start our hike just now? Because we want to be on the highest point of Finland, Halti fell, some 900 km west from our starting point, just when the new Millennium begins, 1.1.2000. We calculated day marches backwards from that date and saw we need two months to get there.

There often isn’t enough snow for skiing in the beginning of November, but sometimes there is. We took this into account, and shipped our pulkas to be picked up at our first resupply point, Karigasniemi town three weeks ahead. As we had all our gear in our backpacks, we could carry all we had, be there snow or not.

Markus on left, me on right.

Though the backpacks were way heavier than ever before or after. We both had a backpack that weighed over 35 kilograms, and in addition to that we both carried skis and poles, which made an additional 5 kilos.

We had to stop every fifteen minutes to rest, but we could not lower our backpacks every time. Lifting the pack up was such an enormous task we rather rested by placing our skis to stand against a tree and standing bent, leaning on our knees. That way we could continue for another ten or fifteen minutes before the proper rest stop, where we lowered our packs and sat down panting.

After meeting the frontier guards at the bridge of Paatsjoki river (see the earlier post), we continued along the gravel road.

 

A disaster of a day

The backpacks and skis were heavy, but walking along a road was easy. We were bubbling with enthusiasm and chatted all the time eagerly. In our maps the road ended at Pitkälampi pond, where we would find a path going north.

We walked, rested, walked, rested and so on, and ate a lunch, too. In the late afternoon we noted that the road seemed to go too much to east, compared to our compasses. However, we thought that after the next bend the direction would again be right.

Just when the daylight was gone and we had started to wonder why we haven’t reached the end of the road yet, we saw something yellow on the side of the road. Border zone! How on earth!? The road should end a couple of kilometers before border zone. Also the border zone seemed to wind to a wrong direction.

Where on earth we are? How can we get lost on the very first day?

We sat down, switched headlamps on and pondered the map for a long time. Have our compasses gone nuts? Finally we figured they must have built new road from the old road end eastwards, and we never noticed the old ending point. In that case we should be about here, which means heading to the dark forest in this direction we should bump into lake Keinojärvi in about a kilometer.

That was a very long kilometer. It was much more difficult to carry the long skis in the forest than in the road, and in a dark forest that is. All the time we had the nagging thought on the backs of our heads: What if our deducing is wrong and we don’t meet the lake? Why don’t we see the lake yet?

Finally we came to a lake, and after a while we got a feel of the shape of the lake, and eventually got certain we are on the shore of lake Keinojärvi. Pheww.

We trudged on one kilometer more and reached a clearing on other shore of lake Keinojärvi. We had planned to walk to Kessijärvi wilderness hut, two kilometers farther, but we had no strength left for that.

This very first day had still one surprise left for us. We had prepared ourselves almost all of our food: dried mince meat, dried potatoes, dried carrots, dried onions, dried salmon, dried ham, dried garlic… And macaroni, spaghetti, rice, lentils, textured soy, and spices, and so on. We had produced different dinner bags for every evening of a week, then the rotation started anew. Tonight the bag that happened to come out of my backpack was lentils and macaroni with spices.

Hiking in Finland - Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions

Before the expedition we peeled, boiled, fried, or whatever preparations were needed, and then dried most of our foodstuff. Then we combined the dried materials to sauce or stew packages, to be eaten with macaroni, rice, dried potatoes or something else high in carbohydrates. Markus weighing our dinners.

One of us cooked with our stove, the other pitched our tarp. We were very hungry, but when I started to eat, I found the food tasted so bad I could not eat much of it. I secretly poured most of my portion away and felt ashamed. We only have a certain amount of food, we have to carry every gram of foodstuff, we are using a huge amount of energy every day, and here I’m pouring food away!

Then we crawled to our sleeping bags and switched headlamps off. I confessed what I had done, and to my surprise Markus confessed he had done the same! Later we deduced that we should have boiled the lentils far longer. There are much more suitable lentils for outdoors, but we only learned that afterwards. When the lentil stew came up in the weekly menu next time, we learned to prepare it the right way.

In the end, this was the only time we got seriously lost during all the hike, and the only time that food tasted bad. However, we did not know this when we were drifting to sleep, and our thoughts were rather gloomy.

pp_Vatsari_9703

We had a tarp, not tent. Why? I’ll answer that on the next post. And these very dark and gloomy pics start to get a bit brighter, I promise. Though the quality of these old pics is not going to improve much, sorry. I hadn’t even seen a digital camera in 1999, and I unfortunately do not own a scanner, so I have had to convert old slides to digital format in quite simplified way…

* * *

Let’s continue day after tomorrow. I try to squeeze the rest of our week number one into that post.

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