The lure of wilderness
Lapland is known for its vast, untouched nature. You can still find vast wilderness here. You can immerse yourself in nature and shut yourself off from everything that has to do with civilization. Maybe a radical idea, but one that appeals to me in a certain way. Escape from the information storm where you find yourself in everyday life. No news, no messages, no cute cat videos on YouTube, and so on. Something that is difficult to achieve in practice. During the last week of October, I did a 6-day sole hike in the Urho Kerkkonen national park, an approximately 2,550 km² extensive, largely untouched wilderness. The ideal way to seek out in the wilderness for the first time, or maybe more correct, watch and listen to the call of the wilderness.
My alarm goes off Saturday at 3:45 am. Way too early, but the adrenaline gives me a wakeful feeling. When I arrive at the railway station my train has already a delay of one hour. I could have slept longer, which would have been welcome, as it had become quite cozy last night with some friends. The delay does not disturb my journey and I can easily catch the bus to Inari in Rovaniemi - the tourist gateway to Lapland. Four long hours to go. It would have been smart to sleep now, but I am way too excited. Excited to see the first Tunturis (the Sami name for the barren hilltops) and hoping for a Moose. I didn't get to see the latter, but still, I can enjoy beautiful landscapes (the lakes are starting to freeze over), reindeer, grouse, and even two Siberian jays. I arrive by noon in Kiilopaa and my adventure can finally start!
I get to see landscapes that I could not imagine until recently. Taiga and Tunturis as far as the eye can see... A sleeping landscape at the first sight.. but in reality full of surprises.
I regret almost instantly that my backpack is so heavy. I have my large backpack on my back (food, sleeping bag, etc.) and a smaller backpack with a camera and some snacks on my belly. Therefore I am not flexible in moving. In retrospect, it would have been better to rent a pulka (a kind of sledge on which you put your luggage) in addition to my snowshoes. Already learned something on this trip, mission accomplished as the goal was mainly to earn more experience for next time.
My first cabin is in the middle of a hillside on the edge of the tree line. Potentially a good place for Willow grouse, mountain hares, and other small mammals, ...
Can you imagine a more cozy place to sleep?
At first glance, the search does not yield much. The snow is full of tracks from grouse, little martens, lemmings, and indeed, mountain hares too. As the sun continues to go down, I start to wonder how on earth I'm supposed to find those bloody animals.
Fortunately, the willow ptarmigan make a distinctive call. The sun has almost set when I hear the sound (according to the Collins bird guide "ke-kerrrr-ke-kerrehe ehe ehe"). I look around excitedly. And then I see a white sphere on a stone. Could it be a bird? I quickly aim my lens at it, and yes, it is a ptarmigan. It turns out I'm still a week too early for the completely white winter plumage birds, but even with "dirty" brown spots, these birds remain a candy for the eyes.
The evening consists of eating, resting, and staring at the fire. I get to see a short glimpse of the northern lights before I go asleep. Nevertheless, the KPn is not that high thus I don't get to see much more than a green haze.
It was much more fun to try to photograph Jupiter. If you realize that Jupiter is about 1321 times the size of the Earth, it is almost as spectacular to see this planet as to see the northern lights.
It is already light when I wake up the next morning. I try to pack my stuff as fast as possible. You should know that a winter hike is a bit more complicated than a summer hike. A summary of my to-do list when I arrive at the hut:
- Make snow shoes ice and snow-free.
- Light the stove
- Get water from the river/melt snow
- Hang my jackets and sweaters to dry
- install sleeping pad and sleeping bag
- Prepare food
- Keeping my diary (write down the route and keep track of observations)
- clean the hut when I leave
So you certainly understand now that you will quickly lose over an hour if you want to leave the hut in the morning.
Under a bright sun and with a fresh -10 °C, I started to climb the hill. I am once again awarded by a breathtaking view when I arrive on the hilltop. I feel enormous respect for nature surrounded by a white expanse of snow and ice. But I was not alone here. Countless reindeer tried to find food while trampling on the snow.
Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) play a significant role in Finland. Unlike Norway and Sweden, most reindeer herds are not maintained by Sami but by ethnic Finns. Most Sami live/lived (formerly) in Finland mainly from fishing and hunting. The reindeer you can encounter in northern Finland are semi-domesticated. This means that humans maintain the animals very extensively. Twice a year, the herds are herded in special places to be tagged (summer) or slaughtered (winter). Besides this, apart from some supplemental feeding in the winter, is not necessary. There may be a fence around a herd area, but these areas are pretty vast. These reindeer still do a limited migration between their winter (forests) and summer (Tunturis) grounds, but this is much less spectacular than it used to be.
Just like large-scale farming, reindeer herds can have a bad influence on the landscape and local ecosystems. The most pronounced problem is often the overgrazing of lichens etc. Climate change also affects the feeding behaviour of reindeer negatively. When the snow melts in the winter and later freezes it hardens, the reindeer have more difficulties in finding food as they can no longer get their feet through the icy snow.
You also can encounter forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) in Finland, which live mainly in the south and in the Russian border region in the east. They were once extinct in Finland, but the combination of immigration from Russia and reintroduction have ensured that you can also see these animals back in their native habitat. In short, there is a lot to tell about reindeer, maybe I'll make a separate blog about it one day...
One of the target species of this trip was grouse. There are two species of grouse in Finland: the Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) and the Willow grouse (Lagopus lagopus). The ptarmigan lives on the rugged, barren hilltops while the Willow grouse occupies peatlands and the edge of the tree line in more hilly areas. The latter is more common as mountainous areas in Finland are restricted. Because the differences between these two species are subtle it didn't matter which species I would encounter. I just wanted to see white chickens!
During winter, these birds get their distinctive stark white plumage to be camouflaged in their environment. In summer, the two species are easier to tell apart. Willow grouses are much browner and often have more white in the summer. Alpine ptarmigan have more grey colours to be well camouflaged between the rocks. The legs of these birds are strongly feathered. This gives a kind of snowshoe effect and therefore the grouse sink less deep into the snow.
As you could read before, I already met my first grouse on the first evening, but the true spectacle came during the second evening. I arrive tired at my second hut. As there is a little stream close to the hut I plan to get water after I am ready with unpacking my stuff. I hear the funny sound of the grouse again shortly after I started to unpack my stuff. I grab my camera and go outside. No less than ten birds are foraging around the hut!
The birds forage mainly on the catkins of birch and (creeping) willows and rarely land in the snow. Nevertheless, I got some great photography opportunities. I never expected to get such good photography opportunities of this emblematic species before leaving for this trip.
Disappointment and hard times
So far, I have only written about the first two days. But don't worry, I'm not going to write another ten paragraphs about the remaining days. After these first two days, I got grey days with a lot of wind and snow. During my stay in the national park, something around 20 centimeters of fresh snow fell. Every step felt terrible heavy.
Walking at 1 km/h was already a success. Roads were no longer visible. I had to rely mostly on the map and the GPS of my smartphone.
In other words, It were tough days. Especially when I lost my precious thermos with hot tea and when the shop where I planned to do my shopping turned out to be closed.
Because of this, I had to return earlier than expected and with pain in my heart to Oulu.
This trip was despite this series of setbacks, a success. Especially now that I look back on it a month later. It felt good to be able to travel again after two summers without really adventurous travel and to be able to escape the corona problems(how long will it last). I also learn how to handle my next winter trip better. The suffering also made me realize again that photography never comes without sacrifices. It was quite confronting at times to realize how easy we have it sometimes, and that we forget what suffering really is. I will try next time to live more in "the moment". Often I shot without a tripod because I didn't want to lose time taking my tripod from my backpack.
You can expect as much as you want when you walk a bit further, but what you never lose what you see now!
I am already looking forward to the next one to apply everything I've learned!