Article by Onni Kojo
In this article I will be going more into the less known places of Eastern Finland.
The end of July was really warm. Hot even. The weather made hiking harder. Insects like mosquitoes and horse flies were annoying. I was now heading close to the eastern border of the country. Here, you can still find crystal clear lakes, untouched forests and endless mire lands.
The downside with the seemingly never ending nature is that it has also been cultivated a lot. In North Karelia, 89% of the land area consists forests. Forestry companies own a prominent amount of them. Peat, or turf, is also a significant resource around here. I saw that as I was walking past those infinite fields on these hot summer days. By the way, if Finland had done the same with their swamps and turn all of them into peat fields, we could have a very plentiful source of fuel. Peat is harvested for fuel from these fields.
It’s good that we didn’t.
Swamps are super important for the environment, since they are host to a range of plant life and a high level of humidity, hence plenty of insects. Now this might be uncomfortable when visiting swamp areas, but when you realize how many birds and reptiles there are because of the insects, you respect them much more. And because of the smaller animals, there is always a bigger animal coming after them.
In addition to biodiversity, mires are important carbon sinks.
I would be walking through endless swamps for weeks! But first, I had to visit some of my relatives. I had planned my route so that I could pay them a visit this summer. I also needed a bath so bad. I’m making a statement now. There is nothing more satisfying than sauna, a swim in a pure lake and to having a cold beverage after hiking a day in heat. Trust me. Or maybe there is, but this combo is surely very close to the ultimate satisfaction.
I had a weekend off from hiking. It is important to rest properly on such a long walk. I also needed to do laundry, as from now on it got harder and I really had to plan my stops and rest days. Where could I charge my phone and batteries, where could I do laundry and get more supplies? Up to this point, I could just visit friends and family, but after this I’d have to book a guest house every now and then.
After the July heat, the temperatures dropped tremendously. There was a cold north wind to all around Finland. These extreme weather changes are getting more and more common in Finland. Before, our climate has been fairly mild, at least in southern inland.
For me it was good though! The north wind kept the nasty insects away and it was nicer to walk than in the heat. I was so prepared for having to deal with millions of mosquitoes around here. I did encounter a few flying devils that I really hate, like the deer fly. Also it is notable, that in the very eastern part of North Karelia, close to the border, there are ticks that can carry diseases. That’s why they are one of the only dangerous creatures in Finnish nature. There is only one venomous snake in Finland, the common viper.
Equal growth pine forests and gray skies led my way to the next national park, Patvinsuo. Here, it is fascinating to see some age-old pines amongst the new growth ones. I hiked through vast open swamp areas to the lakes of the national parks. I found some nice beaches along the way and met other hikers. It was nice to talk with people. My social life took place only online on some days of the hike
I ate last of my Karelian pies (you only get the real ones in Karelia) and continued the journey north via ‘Karhunpolku’ – The ‘Bear trail’. This would lead me to the town of Kuhmo and from there I would take the Eastern border trail all the way up to Lapland.
At Karhunpolku, I didn’t meet any other hikers! Again, once out from the national park, there was no one else. The forest looked magical, full of white lichen, moss, pink blossoming heather and berry bushes of different colours.
Slowly, through the beautiful ridges cutting the swamps and forests, I made my way towards north. These trails would also have other kinds of shelters besides the huts and lean-to shelters: wilderness cabins. This culture of open wilderness cabins is one of a kind in the world. Some of them even have saunas! Absolutely brilliant for a tired hiker, or a country-cross skier in the wintertime!
These shelters always have a visitor’s book, where one should write about their visit. These journals were so much fun to read every night. I found notes from few other long distance hikers, even couple from one of my teachers at the wilderness guide course. One note was from this one guy who had done a big hike the previous summer (I met him earlier in the summer somewhere in the lake country). He had only written: ‘On my way to the North’. Pretty modest from a guy that hiked across the whole country!
These stories and encounters with people are worth writing down. Apart from these forgotten hiking trails, I met many people. I had many of confluences with interesting people. I heard stories that I would’ve never heard. People opened up to me in a very different way. I mean telling me, a stranger, about their lives. Maybe there was some kind of nostalgia to the old days, where there would be vagabonds and tramps all around the country. You stayed connected with the people because of this folk.
Sometimes when I had to walk along the driveway, I felt like a rebel. Maybe little bit extremist, but why use fossil fuels, when you can just walk to places? There was other free riders and rebels along the way. Every time there was a biker or a long distance cyclist passing by, we shared this smile. These people know what freedom feels like.
One of the most interesting stories was from this old man and his wife who I met somewhere near Kuhmo. They were locals and had lived there all of their lives. This mosaic of old growth forest, lakes and swamps was, just 50 years ago, a true wilderness. Now, there was are a lot of clear cut forests in the area. Luckily there still are conservation areas in between of these more cultivated lands.
I was in the lands of storytelling. No wonder there would be people who like to share stories. From the notes in the visitor’s book, to the old guy at the market square of Kuhmo telling me about his life, I was having difficulties to write it all down. I felt like a 19th century explorer going around the wilderness collecting stories from times that were forgotten.
I mean, Finland’s epic, Kalevala, was collected from these lands. The vast area of White Karelia (Vienan Karjala in Finnish) spread from here far to the east to the Russian side of the border. Culturally, White Karelia also has three poetry villages on the Finnish side of Kainuu.
There was other culturally important places along the border too. A Traveller faces the relics of the wars around here. Old foxholes, bases, fortresses, some of which have been restored as a historic sites. There has always been war around these lands and I think it’s good to visit these places as we should never forget how horrible war is.
While I was walking the Eastern border trail, I was for a few times, stopped by the Border Patrol. They were just keen on what I was doing, as they were no hikers around here. Metsähallitus (Finnish Forest Administration) had just stopped maintaining the trail. I worried that the campfire places would not have any firewood because of this. It would be harder to dry clothes and shoes after many days of hiking in the swamp areas! Luckily they were still somewhat serviced, maybe because the local day hikers or hunters would still be using them. I did actually need the campfires a few times because at the beginning of my two week journey at this trail, it was quite rainy. Also the trail was in some parts, in very bad condition. I would have to cross the creeks because the bridges would be broken down. I would have to walk in the swamp a few times because the boardwalks would not exist anymore.
It was good meeting with the Border Patrol because we both changed information like, what animals we’d seen, what was it like at the next campsite etc. Now to clarify a bit, the guards were driving with a jeep along the dirt roads, not hiking the trails like they used to. Still, nice guys that were amazed of my journey.
Last time I talked with them, they half-jokingly stated that I’d have to put something red on my head, as the bear hunting season had just started and these lands and forests were full of hunters. I might get shot otherwise. It was only later, at this Wilderness Centre in Martinselkonen, I realized the Border Patrol was not joking. I talked with the owner of the centre. He said that if the hunters would not get the bear at one shot, which is highly likely, the bear would be extremely dangerous wounded. Not only the wounded bear, but the hunters running after it and shooting, while I’m there as well!
Later I heard a few gunshots here and there. Some of the dirt roads along the trail had pickup-trucks beside them and tents in the forest which the hunters used. I met few hunters as well. It was interesting to hear what they were doing, as this was a totally new world to me.
I’m not a hunter, so I’m not going to go into it. All I know, is that hunting and fishing are a big part of the Finnish outdoor life. To kill for trophies and for sport is in my opinion bad, but to hunt for game, for food, is just an old way of living.
Anyways, I was now in the land of lot of bears. I saw signs of them every day. Like ant nests dug, all the blueberries eaten (European brown bears love blueberries!), or I would just step on a pile of bear poop.
I didn’t see the king of the forest. They have a natural fear of humans and they could smell me miles away. There is bear watching tours you can book, if you want to see these mighty creatures! At Martinselkonen for example.
I saw other animals though. Moose would walk in the forest or crane (bird) would fly past me every now and then or make its very recognizable sound echoing in the open swamp areas. All kinds of forest grouses would hurtle from the bushes when I walked quietly by myself through the boreal forests. Some of these age old forests had hanging moss or beard lichen on the branches of the trees more than I had ever seen before. This is a clear sign that the air is super pure. This moss doesn’t grow if there is any pollution.
I would some mornings, be woken up by whooper swans. Their sound is loud and can be heard miles away because the lakes carry sound. These small ridges would cut the swamps and lakes. Little birds flew in all directions from the berry bushes on the ridge slopes. In addition to blueberries, lingonberries and crowberries grew everywhere.
I diverged from the trail a bit to get supplies. There was only one village with a little country store around here. Ala-Vuokki store had a post office, bar and a gas station in the same building. Very typical to have all the services in one place in these remote areas. The store owner was interested of my journey and offered me coffee and pastry! I continued to the trail the same day. Days were getting shorter and nights darker.
A few times I heard hunting dogs barking or the forest machine would break the feeling of being in the wilderness. Otherwise, I still walked mostly on magical lands. No wonder these forests and lakes were attached to the age old storytelling lands. And did I already say that I didn’t meet any other hikers along these hiking trails? There were couple of days that I didn’t see any other human being!
After the long eastern border adventure, I made my way to Finland’s latest national park – Hossa. The contrast was huge. Suddenly there was all these newly made trails and huts. People hiking along the turquoise waters of Hossa or mountain biking next to these magnificent cliffs.
I had a resting day in the town of Kuusamo. From here I would continue to one of the most known hikes in Finland – Karhunkierros.
Before this, it had been relatively easy to hike, at least in terms of altitude differences. Finland is pretty flat country. So until here, I would not have to ascend more than sixty meters or so! But here, it was crazy! Climbing up and down these hills was brutal. With a backpack full of one weeks supplies, anyways.
The scenery changed more to the northern kind. Gorgeous sceneries, big rivers and cliffs. I also saw little bit of northern lights the first night. Already! The days got even shorter and the leaves of the trees would turn to yellow, orange and red. By now, I really had to try and wake up early because I had to use the daytime for hiking. Summertime was easy – it didn’t really matter what time I was walking since there would be enough light even during night time.
I started to see more northern species like the Siberian jay and reindeer! I was now truly in north. I felt so good. I had hiked through the endless swamps all the way to up the north, by myself!
You can follow my adventures on Instagram @onnimarkus
Blog in Finnish: onnitravels.blogspot.com