Article by Onni Kojo
I travel and explore nature, history and culture. I am interested in the relationship between man and nature. During the summer and autumn of 2019, I hiked from Finland’s southernmost tip to the Arctic sea in northern Norway.
For a long time, I had this need to connect with the outdoor world again. For our generation, the human world is so much different than for any of the other generations before us. Nature, on the other hand, is always perfect with it’s dangers and beauty.
I had this idea of a big hike. Maybe I felt like I needed a break from this busy world of ours, or maybe just for the pure adventure. Many people share this same urge to explore. But to have the time for all of that is just so hard in this modern life. It’s also scary. Just to leave everything and go abroad by yourself.
Of course this hike would include visiting a lot of culturally important places and meeting new people, things that I really enjoyed as well. But this adventure would be more about the nature than my previous travels.
Big hike of a lifetime. There are those routes that take months to walk. Like Pacific Crest Trail in the US or Camino de Santiago in Spain. But here in Northern Europe there really is no such a route. Just few longer hiking routes amongst the hundreds of shorter ones. That is why I decided to plan the route myself and have as much different places along the way as possible.
I’m not the only one who has done a hike across Finland. There are few other people, even couple of people who I saw along the way, that have done a similar hike than mine. Some of these people might want to keep themselves. Who knows how many other big adventurers there are!
Hike Finlandia, part 1
The Baltic Sea opened up in front of me. The breeze from the sea was warm, the day was sunny and bright. Few tourists were by the sea, enjoying the day. Polished by the glaciers from ice-age, these cliffs were smooth, gently curving into the depths. This point was the southernmost point of coastal Finland.
My backpack weighted about 25 kilos. I had a wide grin on my face as I dipped my toes into the salty water and then put my hiking boots on. I felt free for the first time in ages.
My plan was to hike all the way up to the northern part of this country. To the highest peak in the north western part of it, to be exact. I had little bit less than 4 months to do this. I had planned this hike the whole spring as I was studying to become a nature – and wilderness-guide. So for me, this was also a continuation to my studies. I wanted to see what it was really like out there. What kind of secret places I would find? How many species in the nature would I remember from my studies, how many new I would learn? Would I survive by myself hiking the endless forest? What kind of difficulties would I encounter and what kind of people would I meet. I was eager to travel and explore.
For me it was easy to travel by myself, as I had been backpacking around the word much of my adult life. But this was a whole other level. I would walk. No cars, no train, no bicycle, no boat. Just hike.
Sunny and windy day continued and I started walking. The cape of Tulliniemi is a conservation area with couple of nature trails. The day hikers looked at me and my backpack curiously. Beautiful groves and pine forests covered this cape. It didn’t look like any other place I would visit during this hike. This was the only place that had that kind of southern temperate nature. I would soon be walking in endless boreal forests and swamps.
As the first day folded into the night (It didn’t really, the sun just went close to the horizon for a bit), I was exhausted. I had first walked into the southernmost point and then started the actual hike. I already had a blister on my foot. First day of any hike, is always the hardest. I hadn’t hiked in ages, because I was studying and working before this. My backpack was way too heavy. The day was hot.
I sat down and took my hiking shoes off. I was close to the beach I was going to camp for that night. I saw a stick. A branch of a pine tree. I took it, cut it half by kicking it. I hated it. It was crooked, not cool enough. But I needed a walking stick. It really helped me to get there the rest of the way. I had walked 40 km that day and it was almost midnight. Tired, but still happy. I made it even when my feet hurt so badly.
The next morning I dipped myself into the water. The air smelled salty. It was a hot and sunny morning. I felt like I was somewhere in the Mediterranean. This would be the last time I would feel and smell and hear the ocean, for months to come.
The days went by and walking got easier. I had marked down places worth to visit and good spots to camp from the map. I used ‘Maastokartat’-app on the phone. Here in the south I would have internet access almost anywhere, but in the north I would need to download the maps on the phone or then just buy a map. Anyways, I had a general plan of my route and all the camping sites, lean-to shelters and ‘kotas’ marked in the maps on my phone.
It was fairly easy to navigate with the app. At least here in the south. I just enjoyed the summer days and walked along country roads and forest tracks.
So the first bit of my hike was the nature trail and then the streets of Hanko. Very nice town by the way, Finland’s most sunny town, they say. There was no hiking routes around here. But luckily, Finland is full of forest roads, because of the forestry and logging industry.
The scenery changed all the time from the nice country estates with horse stables, to the mixed forests and then into clear cut forests (which there is a lot in the south). Here and there, there would be a small conservation area with a fire place in it, or just a nice beach or shelter to camp for the night. Most of the places were quite good. And they were free to use because of our everyman’s rights. I would see a white-tailed deer every day, as this introduced species has been very successful in southern part of the country.
Now, there was also some problems with everyman’s rights. In the town of Karjalohja for example, it was not allowed to camp on the public beach. I went into the nearby forest instead, and checked from the map that it wasn’t near any residence. This is the law, you are allowed to camp for a short period of a time as long as it is not near anyone’s property nor causing any disturbance.
But most of the evenings, I would easily find a place to camp. I had a tent with me, but I also used the shelters. The tent was better option in midsummer though, because of the insects. As I would go further inland and close to swamps, there would be way more mosquitos. But I will go into that later on.
So, it’s fairly easy to find places to camp for the night anywhere in Finland. Just need to know the rules that apply for the everyman’s rights and have general respect for the places and nature where you are visiting. Leave no trace, don’t set up a fire if there is a forest fire warning, don’t disturb others or the nature and don’t destroy any living trees or plants. In exchange, you can pick up the berries and mushrooms, camp, and roam freely! Now this habit of respecting the area and freedom to roam should be common knowledge, but unfortunately it’s not.
The next area after the countryside, was the national park of Liesjärvi. From there, I would use the Ilvesreitti trails into the lake country.
Liesjärvi is convenient and nice national park, as it is quite short a way from Helsinki. Because of the easy access, there would be a lot of visitors. It’s good that people come and charge their energies in the nature, and outdoors is a healthy new trend. But. Unfortunately the side effects of this growing number of visitors, is rubbish left on the fire places, food waste on the river next to the camp sites, people throwing every single piece of rubbish into the bonfire.
I do not know where this habit came from. Cardboard and paper is usually ok to burn, but anything else is really easy to just take with you and recycle at home. There is nothing nastier, than someone burning plastic and the next moment, kids around the fire place roasting marshmallows.
Why would you have the energy and willpower to travel into a certain natural place, and then leave your rubbish and food waste there. It does not belong in that place. It is ok to visit. To feel, smell, hear and see the pure nature. And then just leave with everything you had with you. Including your dog, who was on the leash for the whole time. Wasn’t it?
Anyways, there is clearly lot of advisory to be done for the hikers, tourists, any visitors really. Everyone who visits the nature of Finland, should know, what the common rules are. Without them, all this free roaming is in danger.
The national park had clear hiking routes marked with various colours, depending on what kind of a hike you wanted to do. I was following the route that was marked with a head of a lynx. ‘Ilvesreitti’ means ‘The lynx route’. This web of routes stretches hundreds of kilometres around the Häme region, about an hour drive from Helsinki. There is also an old heritage farm in the national park called ‘Kortenniemi’ that is worth visiting! I went there also and got a free presentation as there was a local guide doing a tour with visitors.
Besides the national park, there was literally no one on these routes. Some fire places along the way had day visitors, as they were usually close to the roads and had easy access. Some camping sites were barely used. As the route went to another municipality, it changed in its condition and scenery. Sometimes it would be just bush that was still marked with yellow signs hanging from the trees. Sometimes it was a dirt road, sometimes a nice path in a magical moss covered forest.
The reason for this alternating condition of the trail was because it went through different municipalities. When the trail is not entirely in one region or park, its condition varies. Some towns make an effort maintaining outdoor services, some don’t. Either it’s because of budget, or some places have just been forgotten. Seriously. I was surprised how many people there is, if the area is a national park. But there might be a beautiful conservation area nearby that has all the same services, but is nearly never used.
One of these places worth mentioning was Heinisuo. A swamp area close to Hämeenlinna. It was basically like mini version of the Torronsuo national park which is the biggest preserved swamp area in southern Finland. There I met first grouses and snakes during my hike. And not a single person.
Soon, I encountered another problem with the rights to roam. There was a field, rye field if I remember correctly. I had looked from the map, that if I went from the dirt road into the forest and went little bit along this field, it would be a smart route. The field was first just hay and it was not that wide. But then it changed. It was someone’s rye field. Now, to walk in fields where there is something growing is prohibited. I made a mistake with my route. Luckily there was tractor tracks where I reckon it was ok to walk the 100 meters to the other side. Still, I kind of broke the law.
Also, some maps are older and might not have all the tracks, routes, fields or clear cut forests marked into them. All hikers and travellers should know this.
Anyways, the Maastokartat-app worked very well. 10 days had passed from the start of the hike when I reached to town of Hämeenlinna. I would have a day off here, have a shower and go buy more food.
You could be thinking by now, how I managed to take care of the hygiene, what kind of food I would carry with me, how I would succeed generally. Like mentally and physically.
The thing is, while hiking, you have to let go of some standards. Especially in places where there is no modern comforts. Swimming in the lake every day for a week is enough to stay clean, before you get the chance to go into a sauna or shower. Luckily, Finland is full of lakes and public saunas!
For the clothing. Using materials like wool, that don’t need washing all the time, is good. Other hygiene, like I said: Wash your teeth and face, brush your hair, like you would do every day. But it’s really not necessary to have a daily shower. I was fine just going swimming every day and have a proper shower at least once a week.
Food supply was easy to take care while just hiking from town to town in the south, but further along the way it got harder. I would just go into the shops in almost every town and by fresh food and also go in cafes and restaurants. But I would also be on budget and when hiking in national parks and far from any villages, I would need lots of lightweight, mostly dry food that does not rot. At least in the summertime when the temperatures are not the same than in your freezer.
For the boredom, I listened audio books. That was only for the long days when I would be walking roads that went in the same looking scenery. Like these semi natural forests, which there is more than enough in Southern Finland.
But I was bored for a very little time as there was always something new to encounter. Was it a deer walking in the forest or a butterfly that I was trying to figure out which species it was. Or a villager passing by with a bicycle and talking with me, asking questions about my travels. There was always a new kind of atmosphere and landscape after every turn on the roads. It never really got boring. Sometimes it was just nice to listen to music and feel the breeze on your face as I was walking alongside a lake. Sometimes I would just listen to what birds I would recognize were singing. (I didn’t recognize many, it would take a lifetime to know all the Northern European species singing in the early summer choir)
To walk every day tens of kilometres with a heavy backpack, it takes a lot of mental strengths. ‘Sisu’ as we would say in Finnish. Everyone who has climbed a mountain or been on a weeklong hike in a challenging terrain for example, knows what I’m talking about. You are just not quitting.
Now for the physical endurance, obviously training is essential. I did try to get as fit as possible before the hike. But the most important part is just to take care of yourself. I did rest properly and avoided taking risks like climbing cliffs with heavy backpack.
Only thing I didn’t do during the first days of the hike was stretching properly. That I got to know after about a week. My right knee was hurting really bad. I tried to massage it. Didn’t work. It was only after I started stretching properly every morning and evening, that the pain was gone. I might have been pushing myself too much the first days of the hike. I was so eager to just go.
I also have to say that nutrition is very important. Your body needs so much energy while hiking. Lots of carbs and good fats. Good fats are also essential for the joints. I also picked some wild herbs for my lunches and dinners like fireweed and nettles. I’m pretty sure that they helped for the pain in the joints also. Later in the summertime there would be a source of vitamins in all the forests as the berries would grow.
So, naturally, the nature would be my chemist and nutritionist along the way!
Well rested day in Hämeenlinna and the adventure continued! The Häme region has always been the gateway to inland Finland. The lake country starts here. Lakes continue as far as the eye can see. You can hike up to hills that cut this landscape. It’s a maze of swamps, lakes, forests and rivers.
This area has lots of history with its castles, iron-age fort hills, churches, old towns and holy places in the nature. Like sacred groves for example. I was to visit few of these old sacred places, but further inland, as I had already visited in many places around Hämeenlinna before. There was lot of other interesting places to come, and I had planned my route so that I could visit as many new places as possible before winter.
My next destination was to hike to Evo-region. This hiking area is very popular combination of trails and camp sites. Not a national park, but a huge area consisting many little pieces of conservation areas. Here you can find animals like beavers, moose and flying squirrels. You can also find some of the oldest forests in southern Finland. These age old forests are in my opinion the most interesting of all places. There is just a different kind of feeling in them.
I didn’t see any beavers, moose or flying squirrels. But I did see a lot of beaver damns, lodges and other signs. I also started to see more of the ordinary species like common goldeneye and other water birds, frogs, squirrels, rabbits and hawks. The kind of animals you usually see and hear in Finnish forest.
First month of the summer is usually rainy. This year it seemed like the rain poured all at once, at the beginning of July. I was walking on the tracks of Evo and got a bit lost. Downpour, lots of water everywhere. There was a beaver dam and the trail went besides it. I somehow passed it and instead went next to a creek that was about 3 meters wide. Two birch branches crossed the stream. Of course, I had to try and walk to the other side. Rain, slippery surface and heavy backpack was not a good combo. I was in the creek to the waist.
Fortunately I had covered my phone in my pocket so it didn’t get wet. Be sure to always wear a waterproof case for your phone if you are hiking! For me the phone was extra important because of the maps in it.
Also, another rule if you get wet: always have dry clothes in a dry bag. And don’t worry, the next fire place is usually not far away. I changed my clothes and shoes (Yea I had two of them) in this lean-to shelter and ate some chocolate. Dry clothes, shelter and food, that is the only thing what we really need.
The lake country
From Evo, it’s not a long way to lake Päijänne. This is the second largest lake in Finland. I remember camping at the shores of the lake, after a long day of hiking from Evo. There was again, white-tailed deer. Actually two of them, chasing each other at the beach. It was a nice summer night, and I was thrilled that I got there. Big lakes have unique atmosphere. You could easily travel through half of the country just by using waterways! Now, thinking back into it, I should’ve definitely do a kayak or boat section of this journey at the lake country. So if you happen to be in the lake country of Finland in the summertime, hire a water vessel of your style and explore.
My plan was to just use the roads and various paths that go in the forests. The problem was though, that this area is full of people’s summer cottages and houses. The lake country is sometimes referred as the ‘cottage country’. I mean, there is half a million leisure homes in Finland! One for every five people. Every family has one, or everyone knows someone who has a second home somewhere outside cities.
Anyhow, Päijänne has a national park. It’s mostly islands, but there is a ridge going through the other side of the lake. I walked along it to the other side and beyond, towards Central Finland and Savo.
Here I had to walk little while by the roadway. Then back to the endless little country roads that go crisscross everywhere. Finland has definitely been efficient in using its forests. That is why these little roads go everywhere. They are also one reason that there is no big forest fires: these little roads cut the fire and make lot of places easy to access and put out the fire.
I continued to Kammiovuori in Sysmä. This hill was the highest point of lake Päijänne. The view was just amazing. I remember having morning coffee on top of the hill, pine tree forests as far as the eye can see, clear blue sky reflecting on hundreds of lakes. Common loon doing it’s call somewhere on the lakes, the sound echoing between the hills.
I didn’t have to travel many days when I was in another view point to the lakes. Neitvuori. This was middle of lake Saimaa, the biggest lake in Finland.
There was not really any good routes to hike in the lake country. There is few other national parks here but they are better to be visited by kayak or canoe. I was focusing on the small conservation areas or old sacred hills where I could see the view. These hills usually had interesting history too, as they’ve been used as a sacrificial sites or hillforts. This one, Neitvuori, was known to be used as a deer hunting spot. People would surround packs of deer towards the top of the hill and the deer would get stuck on the cliffs or drop. This hunting style made these kinds of hills very important.
If the rock or cliff had some kind of shape of an animal or human, it would be a sacred place. Sometimes just the location would made a specific place important. One of these was Sulkava hillfort. Finland has hundreds of pre-history fort hills. These places are usually protected by the law or have been hard to access during times, so they tend to have more diverse nature!
I was now in Savo region. People seemed little bit easy going then in the busy south. Beautiful landscapes opened up after every little hill as I was walking the countryside. A lot of cows around here. Every now and then I would walk pass a dairy farm. Then another lake and another farm, between of them, forests of course.
It was a nice and sunny after the beginning of July rain. Butterflies were everywhere alongside these country roads. Flowers and wild herbs almost at the peak of growing season, giving life to every little living thing flying around them. For me as well, as I sometimes picked a dandelion or some fireweed to spice up my lunches. Fireweed by the way, is ‘Maitohorsma’ in Finnish in which the first word ‘maito’ means milk. The name comes from a belief that it increases cow’s milk production. Because of this feature, it is preferably added to the cattle feed. Finnish milk products are said to be really good quality!
Moving on. I left the cows and continued towards east. There was one more town before I would go the region of Karelia. Savonlinna. This place is definitely worth visiting. It’s like the lake country packed in one little town! Surrounded by the lakes from all directions, this town has a medieval castle and an old town, and of course Tori – a really good market (where I ate so much it was hard to continue my journey).
July continued with pretty nice weather, even some super hot days. Luckily I was in the lake country, where I could go swimming every day. I didn’t encounter a lot of other hikers or even animals during this time. Didn’t get to see the Saimaa ringed seal – species that only lives around here.
Like I stated before, this area is should’ve been explored by waterways. There is also inland water cruises during summer if you don’t want to navigate through the lake maze by yourself.
So if you like water, beaches, castles, history and nature – lake country Finland is the place to be in summer!
After Savonlinna, I continued my hike towards the eastern part of the country.