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.