Monday, June 21, 2010

Bearing Hike

Before coming to Finland there had been a small mystery that had been confusing me: why do you not see many Finns abroad? During all my travels I have met many people from neighbouring countries like Sweden, Norway and the Baltics, even from small countries like Slovenia and Singapore, but never (as far as I can recall) any Finns. The conundrum became a lot clearer when I went to Oulanka National Park: the Finns stay in their own country pottering around, savouring their exquisite countryside with its lakes and forests and grilling sausages over an open fire.
The pristine pine forest of Oulanka national park. And away from the main trail not a sound to be heard but the singing of birds, sighing of the wind and buzzing of mosquitoes.
Oulanka,which nestles next to the Russian border, is home to the Karhunkierros (Bear Ring) trail, probably the most famous and most popular hiking trail in the country, which winds 80km from Hautajarvi on the Arctic Circle to the ski resort of Ruka to the south. The landscape is nowhere near as spectacular as that of Norway with its stark mountains and fjords, instead it passes through (almost) pristine forests along fast-flowing rivers and across undulating hills. But the beauty is undeniable as you walk through endless forests, punctuated by the odd marshy bog, taking in the serenity and quiet. I got to thinking that this is what a lot of Europe must have looked like before man came along. Although the trail is called Bear Ring you would have to be incredibly lucky (or unlucky, depending on proximity) to actually see one. I was not lucky. Instead I did see many birds, frogs and insects of various sorts including Finland's least-loved animal, the mosquito. In fact I had a number of (too) close encounters with the little buggers who seemed to be everywhere. I thought I would be too early for the "biting season" but due to a particularly mild week in May it has come early, although it still hasn't reached plague proportions (the Finns call it räkkä), they were very persistent and didn't even have the common decency to be inactive during the day and only come out at dawn and dusk. Instead I got a very real experience of what it must be like to be a shark, which must continue swimming or die. Similarly whilst I was walking the mozzies were pretty inoffensive, but as soon as I stopped, even for a few seconds, to take a photo or have a munch, then I would be immediately engulfed in a cloud of black bitiness. On several occasions I looked over my shoulder as I walked, and, sure enough, there was a whining mosquito-cloud a couple of feet behind me. Swatting was pretty pointless because even killing a hundred a day was but a drop in the ocean to their numbers - although pointless, killing them did make me feel a little bit better. Mosquito repellent was quite effective, but not foolproof and a few hardy individuals still got through; my left shoulder being a particularly tasty spot for them. I was, however, very thankful for having invested in a mosquito net which I could place over my hat and thereby protect my face, not only from the biting, but also from the irritating whining as they hover close to your ear. The best €2 I've ever spent. Luckily the bites, though annoying, were not too itchy and would disappear after a few hours, unlike bites from other species which can last for many days. The mozzies were but a minor annoyance in the end (and no experience of Finland is complete without them anyway) and were more than made up for by the park facilities. At regular intervals there would be wilderness cabins to rest or sleep at. And not just some tatty logs knocked together in a hurry, but nicely built, sturdy constructions, with double glazing and (relatively) mosquito impermeable, kitted out with nice stoves and campfire sites outside, well-stocked with firewood, and an axe and saws to cut them with, and even large forks to grill your sausages with (as I mentioned before, Finns are inordinately fond of their grilled sausages and supermarkets stock umpteen subtly different varieties to cater to every taste). Such (free) camping luxury I've never experienced before and was terribly impressed with. Even the dry toilets were clean and well-supplied with compost. In between the cabins you even had what were termed lean-tos, but which were just as well equipped with the only difference being 3 walls instead of 4 (and hence not so great at keeping out the mosquitoes, but comfy nonetheless). The trails are very well marked and there are handy maps located all over the place so it's almost impossible to get lost, even without a map of your own. And it's not just the trails in the national parks that are marked, but at every roadside lay-by I've seen there have been information boards with maps of the local surroundings and little trails that can be hiked in a few hours. Since I was alone and had no distractions and because the mosquitoes wouldn't let me stand still (I kept telling myself not to stop moving, which, inadvertently, had the effect of planting a rather cheesy pop song in my head) I walked the entire trail in a little under 3 days, although I did suffer a little on the last day which ended with several steep ascents and descents that, although I was aware of, I slightly underestimated (I need a little more practice with contour lines) but I was rewarded with gorgeous views of the forests and lakes stretching all the way to Russia and beyond from the final cabin atop the Ruka Fells. And that night I told myself that never again would I do such a hike with a full backpack of useless stuff weighing me down (a promise I know I won't be able to keep).

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