After a long debate, many calendar- checkings and phone calls, emails and instant messages later, my two friends Paula and Susanne, and at the last minute, Susanne's boyfriend Emppu and I finally set the date for the long drive up to Oulanka National Park in Kuusamo, which borders on Lapland and criss-crosses close along the Russian border. We'd mainly wanted to go because this was the year we all turned 30, and we all had a long list of things to do before thirty. Unfortunately, we realised that it was now too late to actually write a Nobel-winning novel or to get a record deal. So we had to scale down our aspirations and instead, went for something we'd always wanted to do: trekking 63 kilometres of the most beautiful Finnish scenery there is.
Now, I am, by no means, a hiking/ camping/ wilderness -type of girl. I much prefer complicated cocktails, seeing up-and-coming bands or trying on clothes I can't afford. But I seem to do these things, mainly because the scenery and the experience is almost always unforgettable, and also because I kind of like to push myself a bit. Anyway.
Oulanka national park was recently featured in the National Geographic due to it's unique soil, ecosystem and scenery, so it seemed like a great way of seeing a bit of our own heritage. All of us, Paula, Susse and I have never really travelled in our own country, too busy roaming around abroad, so one sunny afternoon in Southern Finland, we packed up a car with (other people's) camping stuff, and drove 750 kilometres to Kuusamo.
The trail, called Karhunkierros, which roughly translates to The Bear trail, or Bear's Loop, has various starting/ finishing points, and is altogether 80 kilometres long. I'd been adviced by a friend that the last part of the trail is actually quite boring, so we decided to skip it, mainly because I occasionally have to work and therefore it's a good idea I'm in the right town, and Paula has two small daughters. So four days on the trail it was.
Upon arriving, it rained and because, to our outrage, you had to pay for the camping grounds, we decided to camp on the parking lot. As you do. We lit a disposable grill and prepared a few sad-looking sausages. It wasn't the greatest start, but at least the raincoat my mum had forced on me came in handy.
Camping at the parking lot
The fantastic thing about Oulanka is that it is completely free. There are no entry fees, and the camping grounds, traditional leaning huts, lappish teepees and wilderness huts are free to use. According to the ancient wilderness tradition, and the strange finnish logic, it works on a "last to arrive, first to be served" -basis; a person arriving first should always give their space to late-comers, because the last person to arrive is usually the most tired one. Hmm. I wasn't buying that; last one to arrive is probably last because they spent the previous night drinking and therefore hike slow, and deserve to be eaten by huge, mutant-size mosquitoes. Luckily, it never became an issue as there was always room.
Traditional leaning hut
Four days of hiking in a sunny, humid, but essentially cold forest is not always easy. At the start, the ground was flat-ish, with lots of marshes and lakes, and not a lot of other people. We carried all our food for the four days, filling water bottles in the streams, and so every steep rise uphill was bit of a battle- some of them so steep we literally went up in all fours. The first day was also the roughest- 17 kilometers before we arrived to a beatiful little hut with a campfire already lit. As a little extra evening work-out, we climbed up to Oulanka Canyon, with stunning pine-forest views across the park.
Surprisingly, we all felt quite good about the hike the next day; as an unexperienced hiker, I'd been a bit worried about coping with lots of walking- they'd said on the brochure that the trail requires good basic fitness and some camping experience- basic fitness? Camping?? Does camping in the backyard when you're seven count??
First off, we crossed a few hanging bridges, a source of lot of photos and fun- Fred came out from my backpack and joined in on the fun. We followed the trail up along a big cliff, looking down on the river and the endless forest below, before finally seeing some people, and more hanging bridges suspended over rapids.
What we loved most, though, was the deserted campsite on the second night by the fast-flowing river Oulanka. Not only was it wonderfully surrounded by the forest and hidden from view, but it had, to our surprise, a sandy beach lined with flowers. As it was a sunny evening, and as the sun never sets in Lapland in july, we spend ages jumping in and out of the, admittedly, freezing water.
Finnish people have a saying which means a place where the soul rests. This was it. It was perfectly still, quiet and harmonious. We felt like we were the only people in the world.
The last day of hiking was by far the hardest. I'd ran out of clean shirts by then and everyone complained about having smelly socks. We'd stocked up on food, but as we had heavy tents and torches (clever move in a country where the sun really doesn't set in July), we'd left the clothes to a minimum. Even then, it didn't really matter- we've all been friends since early school years, and seen each other looking and smelling far worse. The only exception might have been Susanne's new boyfriend, but then again, he's a bloke so he probably didn't care.
The trail followed the river for a few kilometers, sometimes disappearing almost completely- it was the first time we actually had to look for the yellow markers which line the path. We crossed a dozen fallen trees and climbered up cliffs, all the while trying not to fall to the river. Getting to the campsite felt like a wonderful achievement that night, and we celebrated by having a drink by the fire, and cooking all the rest of the food we had- a lovely mixture of noodles, soups, soya pieces and raw carrots. Fred also had a drink and got a bit rowdy... bad giraffe.
It wasn't the easiest of routes...
Fred celebrating the final day of hiking
The last day was an easy stroll from the last wilderness hut to the car; we hardly counted that as hiking at all, although it did include some of the steepest staircases up. We'd deliberately stayed in the park for the last night, as we had no intention of camping at the gloomy parking lot again, nor did we want to pay for a campsite at Juuma, where the trail ended. The last 10 kilometres joined in on the pieni karhunkierros, or Small Bear Trail, which is essentially a 12-kilometre loop around Juuma, meant for day trek. It felt almost polished in comparison- steps, proper river crossings, and yes, lots and lots of people, looking glowy and happy and carrying small daypacks. We felt like some sort of forest gnomes, emerging from the woods without having seen a hairbrush in days. They also seemed stunned that we'd walked all the way from Hautajärvi- do we really look that unfit?? People seemed, as they always do, intrigued by Fred, asking if he was a bear-repellant. Which was odd. At least three people said that. I've never known inflatable giraffes to repel bears, but there you go.
So, Sunday morning at the local petrol station, again in the drizzling rain that had miraculously stopped while we actually walked, we took stock of the whole trail. Yes, it was beautiful. Yes, it was challenging enough without being too extreme. Yes, the huts and the campsites were well looked after. But although we liked it, I felt like it didn't quite hold enough to be stunning. I don't know why, but scenery-wise, I was left wanting just a bit more. Something really stunning and unique. Or maybe it's just because I am finnish and therefore used to the scenery. I don't know, but I'm very willing to go to Lapland again, maybe to another national park, and give it a second go.