Chapter 2 – Karhunkierros

Chapter 2 – Karhunkierros

It was already after 7 PM when I walked into Juuma, a little sleepy village along the Karhunkierros trail. A few decrepit houses, scattered around the end of a lonely road leading deep into the forest being the only reason to even call it a village. The day had progressed at a slow and relaxed pace. About an hour, three chocolate bars and a pile of dead mosquitoes after Juha and I had parted ways an old RV had stopped, and Antti had welcomed me aboard. With his shaky, rusty campervan from the 70s, mouse grey overall that seemed to have been bought around the same time as the van and merry wrinkles around his eyes he reminded me somehow of the milkman that used to deliver milk to our house when I was a kid. Antti didn’t speak much English but through a lot of hand gestures, a few German outbursts and a couple of photos on his surprisingly modern mobile phone I learned that he was going on an overnight fishing trip close to Kuusamo, a town only a few kilometres from the Russian border. Despite a lack of communal language it quickly became an animated trip with a few coffee breaks in rundown roadside cafe’s. We harvested many a curious look from coffee-drinking truckers, nodding when we passed by, probably trying to figure out what brought our unusual, sign language-dependent party together. From Kuusamo several short rides had eventually landed me in Juuma which, according to the unanimous opinion of my drivers that day, served as the best entrance point to walk part of the Karhunkierros trail, also known as the Bear’s trail due to a few very sporadic encounters with these giants of the forest. I crossed the village and a previously hidden parking lot suddenly came into view. In the little camping ground next to it an unexpected amount of activity was in full swing. People had just started putting up tents, were fumbling for their fishing gear or cooking noodles over their gas stoves. As I was buying some provisions in a tiny shop which also served as a cafe for the exhausted hikers who were continually appearing out of the forest a very confident, tanned guy in speedo’s caught my eye. He was standing on a huge rock beside the lake, shouting frantically in Italian in the direction of his GoPro which he held in one hand while stroking his chest with the other. Well aware of the attention from the rest of the camping folks he set out to gracefully dive into the water. Just as I came out of the shop, armed with a map of the trail and provisions to survive in the forest for three days, I saw him again making a quick escape, loudly cursing in Italian, much to the entertainment of all Finnish hikers who were obviously aware of the temperature of the water, even this time of year.

After a simple dinner with dry rye bread, cheese, salami and some chocolate I strapped on my backpack and headed to the start of the trail. I wanted to hike for a few hours before finding a nice spot in the forest to pitch my tent, far away from the other hikers, Italian or otherwise. The trail itself was phenomenal, going up and down steep hillsides, following winding rivers, crossing suspension bridges between valleys and zigzagging through swamps and dense birch forest, here and there facilitated by wooden planks to prevent wet feet.

The section I chose to walk lead from Juuma along the Kitkajoki river, crossing a few serious elevation differences, through pine forests and over the raging rapids of Oulankajoki river to finally end in the Oulanka visitors’ centre in the heart of Oulanka national park. Apart from a few hikers following the trail in the opposite direction I was alone. Very soon I learned that the stories of my drivers concerning the mosquitoes during this time of year were not exaggerated. Despite using a mosquito repellent smelling strong enough to sedate a horse, wearing long trousers and thick sweater with long sleeves it only took the little bastards an hour to provoke my first nervous breakdown. They stung through three layers of clothes. They stung in my face and fingers. They stung in my armpits, crotch and even my head. Taking a break would not be much of an option under these conditions. I practically ran part of the trail to stay clear of them. Pitching a tent was an arduous job as well, shoving all my stuff inside including myself and subsequently killing the twenty bastards that had followed the sweet scent of my sweating body in the three seconds the whole process had taken me. Until I got a campfire going there was nothing much I could do. Fair to say I got pretty damn fast at doing so. At the end of the day though, while lying in my sleeping bag, all this discomfort was only a minor setback compared to what I got in return.

Go out there. Climb a hill. Curse because of a wrong turn 3 km earlier. Kill 5 mosquitoes in a single devastating blow. Admire the beauty of the landscape in amazement. Complain to yourself about blisters. Chop wood in one of the designated fire places. Cook noodles. Remove shoes to fetch drinking water from a nearby stream. Cross a suspension bridge between two high cliffs. Marvel at the view. Spontaneously decide for a cheeky skinnydip. Find a sunset-worthy camping spot. Pitch the tent. Kill mosquitoes. Get a fire going. Engineer a sausage holder above aforementioned campfire. Relieve the backpack of a beer. Enjoy the red velvet midnight sun. Be content and completely at peace. Roll out a sleeping bag. Listen to the sounds of the forest. Relax. Repeat.

There is nothing else to be done. No one expects anything from me today. Nor do they tomorrow. I am my own boss and biggest critic. I set my own goals and am hard on myself. I grow. I value what I have. I fall asleep with no regrets.

My feet hurt but the coffee tastes good. I smell of smoke and damp forest soil but my spirits are high. The hike is over. There’s asphalt under the soles of my feet once again. The kids of the hippie family that picks me up from the end point of the trail complain that I smell bad. The father agrees. He insists that I join them to their rented summer cottage to take a shower. Once more I’m stark naked in a little damp sauna with a guy I’ve met half an hour ago. We talk of military service in a country sharing a 1340km long border with Russia.

An hour later I’m having lunch with Pekka, a balding guy in his fifties with sad eyes and a non-existent proficiency of the English language despite not realising so himself. He can only drive me for 5 km but insists that I try his stew of potatoes and reindeer meat while he loudly relieves himself in the adjacent bathroom. It tastes good. Pekka is building a summer cottage with sauna for his wife. He bought bungalow number 19 of a recently shut down holiday resort, he tells me. I get the general impression here that all people are as resourceful as he is. “All you have to do is just saw the bungalow in half, transport both parts in their entirety on a trailer, put them back together wherever you want them and secure with a few bolts and screws. No biggie.”

Another hour later I’m on the side of the road again, baffled by the chain of events that unfolded themselves today. I hitchhike 200 more kilometres into Rovaniemi, Christmas capital and official residence of Santa Claus, and check myself in into a hostel. A warm bed and shower await.

Chapter 1 – The start of an adventure

Chapter 1 – The start of an adventure

Juha throws a few more spoonfuls of water on the hot sauna stove. Steam rises and another heat wave reverberates through the small wooden room and hits our bodies. It’s 1.30am but the tiny square window of the sauna provides plenty of natural light. “Lake time!” Juha screams excitedly. He storms out, runs down the few steps that separate the cottage terrace from the smooth, still surface of the lake that sparkles in the midnight sun and dives head first in the cold water, breaking the spell of smoothness. We have been repeating the same mantra for the past hour and a half. Sweating in the sauna for approximately 15 minutes until our bodies can take no more, storming out into the little clearing in the forest and leaping in the cool lake for refreshment. The process has repeated itself for 5, maybe 6 times, and each time the temperature of the water seems to rise a tiny bit. This time I don’t immediately follow Juha’s example though, but stand on the little wooden walkway that leads up to the lake, stark-naked and with both hands in the sides, and look out over the surface of the water facing north. The sun has just reached its lowest position in the sky for tonight and is already starting its next cycle. A new day on the rise. I think about yesterday, when I headed out of my Helsinki hostel in the pouring rain. About all my little doubts and insecurities to do this again. “Didn’t I get too old to be hitchhiking? Why not just take the train north? People will be looking at me like I’m a crazy person. What if someone throws a banana peel at my head again, like last time? I can afford it, let’s at least check the train schedule…”

They call it the doorstep mile. The first step of doing something big and exciting that you’ve been looking forward to for a long time and have been working towards for weeks, or months, or even years. Something that, to other people may seem odd, trivial, or crazy. Stupid even, maybe. An adventure that means nothing to most, but means the world to yourself. The doorstep mile is the hardest part of any journey, both in life and in travel. Creating enough momentum to actually take the first step. Once you’ve mustered up the courage to set the whole thing in motion, there’s no way back and everything becomes so much easier.

I awake from my musings by an aggressive mosquito stinging me in the buttocks and am suddenly acutely aware of my nakedness and the solid reputation of Scandinavian mosquitos during the height of summer. They are literally everywhere, and I hurry down the last few steps and let the cold water numb my body and soul. The moment my head touches the water time seems to stand still and an explosion of nerve cells hits the synapses of my central nerve system. It feels like my mind gets reset. I feel more alive than i have in ages.

Today really was the best day. Heikki, Juha’s redneck cousin and proud holder of the title of ’92 and ’93 consecutive Eastern Finland swimming champion on the 25 and 50 meters, taught me the game of Finnish ‘cottage darts’, a game that involves drinking beer, roasting sausages over a bonfire and, if still capable, throw a few darts in the direction of a darts board from a few meters away. Both cousins also took me fishing in their little motor boat and taught me how to catch no fish at all in the shallow creeks around the lake, despite our united efforts and another few empty beer cans.

Yet again the doorstep mile had proven to be the hardest part of all, I thought while laying in bed that night, counting the number of mosquito bites that had sky-rocketed during the fishing trip. Summoning up the nerve to just go for it. Once the decision to leave the hostel and find a good hitching spot was made in my head, the universe had conspired in my favour and had taken care of me. After leaving Helsinki in Hugo’s car I had been picked up by Juha who had told me it was no problem whatsoever to join him until Oulu, a city 600km further north, halfway across the country. As the hours had passed by the topic of conversation had ranged from music (Juha was an accomplished musician and let me hear the rough version of a few new songs he was working on) to the definition of success, religion, the opportunities and challenges of being part of generation Y, family and of course, girls. Before I knew it I had eaten dinner in his parents house, had met his sister who was working a summer job at the gas station down the road, had counselled his mother on the construction of a new backyard porch and had gone to a music bar in the city centre of Oulu for a few beers with Juha and another friend of his, conveniently also called Juha. Juha 1 showed his considerable musical talent by playing and singing a few songs on request. After a good night’s sleep in the television room and a lovely breakfast we had been on our way to the family’s lakeside summer cottage where Juha planned to spend a few days to enjoy some peace and quiet and compose a few new songs, much to the disagreement of Heikki who saw his own peace and quiet disrupted and at one point threatened to throw the guitar in the lake if he heard one more note. I slept like a baby that night.

The next day the hangover of both Heikki and Juha (I was spared somehow) was washed away with a big breakfast of omelet and potatoes and I said goodbye to Heikki. Juha and I did some sightseeing before he drove me to a good spot from where I could hitch a ride further north, to the Karhunkierros trail in Oulanka national park, close to the border with Russia. Confident now, I placed my pack next to the sign of the bus stop and sat down on top of it. The empty road before me cut through the vast, green blanket of forest as far as the eye could see. I put out a thumb and waited.





It’s 11.30am when I get out of Hugo’s car. My mind is racing. Excited to finally make it out of the city. Hugo understands. “You don’t come to Finland for its cities,” he says. “You’re right,” I answer. “I want to go north. The real, distant north, above the arctic circle. Experience the vast, raw, natural landscapes and simplicity of life that comes with them. I want to hike for a few days, and most of all enjoy the freedom of not having to make decisions that don’t have an immediate impact. I want to go with the flow, and in this case with the people that are kind enough to stop, invite me in their car and listen to my story. When there are no expectations nobody can get disappointed.” “Won’t you get lonely up there, all by yourself?” “Being alone isn’t the same thing as being lonely. Besides, personal growth isn’t always meant to be a group activity.”

I slam the car door shut and start walking in the direction of the motorway. Absorbed by my own thoughts I barely notice the endless, monotonous downpour falling from a milky white sky. Helsinki is only 50km away now, but it already feels like an eternity ago that I attended the wedding that was the reason I came to this country in the first place. Those sunny days celebrating on a private island with long-lost but quickly-recovered friends now seem like something from another world, standing on this grim and unfamiliar junction of a random road somewhere in Finland. “It’s funny how time flies when you’re comfortable and surrounded by people you like, but suddenly comes to an abrupt halt when you’re alone in an unfamiliar place and without a concrete plan,” I ponder while making sure not to get hit by a car speeding in the opposite direction. The challenge is to make something out of it. It’s been almost five years since Chris and Saija met in a language course that Saija only got into after someone else dropped out, during an exchange year they had both planned to spend somewhere else. Now they were joined in holy matrimony, surrounded by friends, family and a few of us who had been there at the very beginning. Life sure can make weird twists and turns, and so does the road. I take my place on the shoulder of the motorway and stick out a wet thumb. Time to get on with it.