Finland - Part One
Updated: Aug 27, 2018
Saturday, 17th March, 2018
Jänisjärvi to Sevettijävi, Finland. 33 miles
It had snowed about four inches through the night and it took a good two hours to pack up and get on the road. I have no idea where the time goes, but most of it is spent trudging. It was still snowing by the time I got back on the road.
The cycling was slow but enjoyable. The peace, whiteness, the millions of trees that hide so many winter secrets like a forest in Narnia gives this cycle a uniqueness. And there is no one, a passing car every hour or so, maybe.
After five hours I saw a spec on the horizon that moved across the road. At first I was uncertain as to what it was. Was it an animal? A hiker? No it was a cyclist!
He was an old man in traditional Sámi dress out for a ride on his high handlebarred bike. I stopped and said hello but it felt strange as he was uncertain how to react. He was just above four foot, had bright red cheeks and a hairy wart on his lower cheek. I realise that their wasn’t much that we could say and I don’t think he had crossed the road to greet me as he moved down a snow trodden path to a lake.
You cycle all day without any interaction and then just a mile up the road four lads in a silver Opel Vectra pull up beside me. The rear window winds down and the acne ridden lad asks me if that was my bike up the road.
“Oh that belongs to an old man, did you see him?”
“No” said the youth.
I notice by the foot rest a red bucket full of energy drinks and realise how hungry and thirsty I am. He sees me look but ignores my desperate eyes.
“How far to the nearest shop?” I ask.
“Oh, a 100km. Enjoy your biking”
With that, his friend in the front seat waves his energy drink at me goodbye with a grin and I am on my own.
I cycle on and after an hour passes, I see two crushed cans at the side of the road and think about what a cracking way to spend a Saturday.
It was time for some tunes to get me going and my Frozen playlist came on.
That evening I came across some snowmobile tracks at the side of the road and followed them on foot for fifty yards. The track made for firm footing, but as I set off the track I fell into the snow, up to my hip.
I brought my gear down and began digging.
I dug a fire pit, my dining area, an area for my tent and a path between the two areas. I also dug pathways for the five nearby trees that seemed to have good quantities of dead wood on their lower branches.
You can see the floor plans on Right Move if you like.
I was low on petrol and began making the fire to boil up water for drinking and cooking. But the fire had gone out before the five minute rice boil time was up so I had a new dish, crunchy rice with jalfrezi sauce. Yum. And with temperatures of -10, I wondered if Ben and Jerry would be interested in my rapidly cooling dish.
Sunday, 18th March, 2018
Sevettijävi to Inari, Finland. 44 miles
Although it had snowed through the night, the morning was bright and I took this picture of how badly I had put up my tent. I want no one to be under the illusion that I am a great outdoors type.
I also lit a fire for breakfast. This meant harvesting more wood and more path digging. There is a type of moss that hangs from most of the birch and pine trees which is good for tinder here and also the birch tree bark is heavily laden with resin which burns well on that tinder. But you’d be having a laugh if you thought I was going to spend my morning peeling back bark when I had a few millilitres of petrol left. Whoosh - don’t try that one at home kids!
This was a beautiful, beautiful day’s cycling. I’ve put on a lot of photos to try and give you an idea of how beautiful the 45 miles of the day were. The main lake is called Inari and is one of the largest lakes in Finland and measure 440 sq miles. Lake Windermere comes in at 6 sq miles. But at least it doesn’t freeze over for more than half the year.
Here’s a picture of my first junction in three days.
It really was very exciting, epic to be turning left. This is not an overuse of the word epic. It truly was wonderful to see something different and to know that this difference meant change. Maybe the snow water was having an effect on me but with no petrol and no petrol stations, I had to get to Inari (the central town for the Sámi people) by nightfall or it would be no water and food at all and that would be too big a bicycle bumble.
Monday 19th March 2018
Inari to Alajävi, Finland. 35 miles.
Morning came too quickly as I woke up in one of the town’s hotels. All of my gear had dried and I ate all the breakfast I could before settling up and leaving.
I was heading to the Sámi museum. The cultural centre that, although was going back on myself, had come so highly recommended that I had little choice but to visit.
Monday is the Inari Sámi Museum closure day. Gutted not to find out more about ice fishing, I went to the town’s mini mart and bought a load of sweets and half a litre of unleaded.
If Inari is the Sámi chill out zone, a little too chilled after a heavy weekend, then Ivalo is their bustling Metropolis. It was just four hours by bumble bike and the road was clear of large amounts of snow.
When I arrived at Ivalo, I watched in awe when more than three cars drove by and two pedestrians walked the pavements and the Finnish flag flew from numerous - four - buildings.
The KMart, one of the buildings flying a flag had a sign for all day buffet. What quality, what value. I piled my plate high with roasted vegetables and mash and salad. After I had eaten more than my eleven euros worth I went back to the counter for a earl grey leaf tea. All included! Thank you Ivalo.
The E4 led me along a frozen river out of town and a slow climb back into the endless forests. I stopped after five thinking that sunset was at half past. I found a spot that was packed down and didn’t require any digging. Instead of setting up the tent, I laid out the bivvy and was looking up at the pine trees in time for sunset.
The actual sunset time was 1833, so I spent over an hour looking up at a clear blue sky. Unable to move in my bijou abode having read that you must lay on your back to allow your breath vapour to escape and not enter the bivvy saturating
you with condensation. Have you tried lying on your back for twelve hours? I caved in after two and dropped off no problem.
Where I had pitched there were some warning signs. It looked like the land belonged to some scientific research lab, but because there were no tyre tracks in the snow I though it was low risk to pitch out of the way of their entrance. Until about midnight when I was woken up by
this massive flood lights coming through the wood. I woke up some more and the glow was so brilliant I thought that ET had decided to visit me at Alajävi.
There were no dogs barking of flashlights piercing a misty night. It was the northern lights! I had only ever seen them once before, for about three seconds in Iceland. It was June and I thought wow then. I quite happily turned onto my back and watched the haunting green and red patterns for hours against a starry background. I don’t remember falling asleep.
Tuesday, 20th March, 2018
Alajävi to Porttipahdan, Finland. 40 miles.
The bivvy made packing up so much easier and I figured that without the digging I was saving over two hours a day.
This morning I was on the road by 8 and climbing to a resort at Saariselka. It was recommended to make the additional climb to a panoramic restaurant known as Kaunispaan Huippu but a tourist coach overtook me and I headed to a Nasty Neste petrol station for breakfast and to warm up a bit.
The map shown was at the roadside just outside of the Inari area. You can see where we are by the red dot at the very bottom. We started at the top right.
The early start gave me a few more miles and I was pleased to be making a bit more headway, and I rode until six where I found a spot in a large open field for Northern Lights II. The field, accessed by following two day old snowmobile tracks, gave me a much more open view of the sky but I was tired from the previous evening and said good night after the first wave of the silver fox’s tail.
Wednesday 21st March 2018
Porttipahdan to Sodankylä, Finland. 48 miles
The night's sleep was perfect, the bivvy was warm and the preparations the evening before made for a quick departure. I had learned from the night before a lot about dealing with the cold, making glove wearing the number one rule.
It’s snowing and blowing at 40 mph in my face, I plough on but stop after a few miles at a souvenir shop that sells little but offers refuge and a hot chocolate - being here doesn’t get the miles done.
I battle against the wind for ten miles, the vision of a hot meal and a cabin to see out the bad weather keeps me going. I find a stride and as I get nearer to the town I consider whether I should carry on.
The decision is made for me; it’s closed. My water is frozen and the concentrate remains of a carton of grapefruit juice is the only liquid in the juice container. I gulp it down and resign to fighting through the next remote thirty miles.
I take a photo of my frozen water bottles, it goes viral in China.
Yay! It’s a great feeling not giving in and I find a clean cheap B and B with catering facilities and a sauna. 48 miles today. It was a hard one.
Too tired I force myself to dry out my kit and charge up appliances. My eyelids are heavy in the pine clad room.
Thursday, 22nd March, 2018
Sodankylä to Kiurujävi, Finland. 35 miles
I left Sodankylä quite late. I wrote up the journal and made my way into town to buy some petrol and some provisions for the next few days as it looked to be remote.
Despite watching a half dozen extremely boring YouTube’s about the MSR Whisperlite, I can’t help but think that the mystical blue flame that people achieve in their back gardens are photo shopped. I keep getting this big orange ball of flame that covers everything in black carbon deposits and the gases makes me feel nauseous. It coats everything with an oil film so drinking melted snow water taste like Castrol GTX. It’s particularly difficult to implement the nano adjustments required when it’s -20 and you don’t want to be touching cold, life sapping, metal parts. Rant over.
The travel takes an easterly direction towards Russia. With a lot less snow on the roads, I put more air into my tyres and my speed improves.
I stop for a rest after a couple of hours in Kelujärvi and chat to a retiree about the journey. He is in his late sixties and tries hard to chat in English. His face is round and he is wearing an army surplus jumper under his blue anorak. He worked in an office, but I think he did well for himself as, despite his bad back after dropping off his rubbish, he’s returning to his lakeside house to meet up with five of his mates to go snowmobiling.
As I ride on, over the next half hour, five 4x4s with covered trailers attached come my way, each being driven by an old man. I wonder if he will tell them about the man cycling to Bulgaria?
I stop that night at a road t junction. A snow plough has created a flat area. So close to the road though, I take my chance and pitch up effortlessly. I spend some time setting up my camera and I’m glad I did because Northern Lights III was the Rambo of the trilogy.
Here’s a picture, which gives a flavour of the 180 degree show that I saw from my bivvy.
Friday 23rd March 2018
Kiurujävi to Mukkala, Finland. 52 miles
This was a very beautiful day from dawn to dusk. I continued to follow the road through the Urho Kekkonen national park to the mystical fell (or mountain as locals big it up to be) Korvatunturi: the home of Santa Claus. Yes, this is Lapland and there’s loads of magic about.
Last night’s display of aurora borealis remained vivid in my mind and the sunrise through frosted winter trees took the focus away from my frozen feet as I set off into the wilderness once more. Miles of snow, forest and lonely road.
At Savukosi, I stop at a petrol station to grab a tea, the forecourt has snowmobiles at the pumps and men in full body amour slap each other and rev their engines. I order a tea which costs me only 60 cents which in pounds is - around 60p. I asked the owner if he does food and he says “only hamburger” and looks disappointed to be even suggesting he does this. He swiftly points me in the direction of a good restaurant and having been out of civilisation for nearly 20 hours, I shot round to Samperin Savotta- Mrs Santa Clause's house, to be fed and to take a selfie of a poster with Santa and one of his reindeer.
The area I’m entering is where some fierce battles were fought against an invading Soviet army in November 1939 and memorials to the acts of Finnish heroism are found at the roadside. The ratio of Russians to Finns was 10:1 and the equipment was bayonet basic against tanks. The fighting and tactics used caused the Soviets to retreat in March and decide against further attacks.
Although there is supposed to be evidence of the Salpa line defences, mainly boulders to stop advancing tanks and gun turrets, they are all hidden under this layer of snow.
At six o’clock I stop riding and find a spot by a small village’s refuse point. The ground is flat and the snow is compact. It reduces my camp pitching time by over an hour and although not the most romantic of spots, the night time viewing is another instalment of northern lights.
Saturday 24th March 2018
Mukkala to Porolampi, Finland. 46 miles
My new found winning pitching technique pays off and I am on the road just after seven.
Convinced that there will be a place to eat at soon I forfeit breakfast as I can’t face boiling off some more snow with my toxic flame thrower.
My dreams are strange and often beach and pool related. It is cold and I find myself being woken up through the night with my shivering but the dreams that occur at the same time are most bizarre.
The going is slow though despite the early start. I am cold right through and my toes just don’t warm up. I have a few sips of like warm water from my flask and force my way to the Russian border. The miles go by slowly.
It’s so strange being a few hundred yards from the border of a county that holds much mysticism. From Tzars and Tolstoy to communism and oligarchs. This huge land mass is a few steps away. My guide book strictly warns me not to advance past yellow marked trees and notes the existence of movement dectors and listening devices. I think the five foot of snow and the need for breakfast is all the deterrent I need.
At Salla, I spot a museum at the side of the road mentioned in the Eurovelo 13 app. This app uses your location to correspond with the Point of Interest that you are at- and you get points. Until now, whenever I have tried to claim the points, it’s messaged me with ‘you are outside of 1.5km of the target zone’. This time I thought winner but no I got the same badly worded message.
Inside was amazing. Just me, a cup of tea and a wander around the most delightful museum of simple Lapland living, draining of the marshes, harvesting in the short summers, burning your village as the Russians advance, having your village burned as the Germans retreat and then turning your small town into a spa town for Russian border hoppers.
I stopped for a Chinese lunch, bizzarly this was one of three restaurants in this one roundabout town of 5,000. They also topped up my flask with hot water which was nice of them.
Fuelled, I sped on. What a difference and it wasn’t long before I was at another set of bins for the night.
Sunday 25th March 2018
Crossing the Artic Circle to Kussamo, Finland. 46 miles
I would like to say that things were beginning to warm up. Maybe they were, the clocks
had moved on an hour and I woke to dreams of being in an Aqua Park in sunny Spain.
The cruel reality was outdoor trouser changing when my Garmin was reading -20.
The departure was hassle free, after cooking a fairly successful meal the evening before with a hint of a blue flame, I took my chances on boiling up some snow. What a waste of time, I wonder if the temperature is affecting the fuel?
I pedalled and pedalled, rewarding myself with a sucky sweet every even mile and trying to suck it until the odd mile. To my surprise I came across a cafe about fifteen miles in. I recognised it from the POI app and was told that ‘you are outside of 1.5km of the target zone’ when I registered my arrival. The cafe opened in an hour and I cursed daylight saving but wondered around the outside of Karhunkierros Visitor Centre.
I realised that I had just crossed the Artic Circle, or Napapiiri in Finnish. After a few minutes of jumping backwards and forwards I read on Wikipedia that the line moves due to the Earth’s wobble and that the line was this March about a hundred foot north of where I stood. Good job no one was watching, I felt a right muppet.
The cycling for the rest of the day was easy, the weather was noticeably warmer, the roads almost snow free and at two o’clock I managed to find a closed cafe at Ruka that opened its doors to a rather thirsty cyclist who peered through its window.
The guy who was kind enough to open the door was cleaning up after the departure of the skiing teams. The season was coming to an end so I was lucky that this gregarious heavily tattooed German who found the area too busy and hated people generally and was moving to Finnmark with his wife to live in a hut with his dogs even gave me two euros change from the five I handed him. He said that he would keep an eye out for me as he had to drive back to Germany to see him mum and would be driving the way I was going. He said we could go for a beer.
Incidentally Ruka is where Eddie the Eagle would come to train. Ruka, for those with strange aspirations.
Kussamo, the next town came quickly and the cheap hotel opened its hot water valves for me so that I could allow the marrow of my bones to warm before drinking gallons of water and feeding myself to bursting.
Monday 26th March 2018
Kussamo to Hossa, Finland. 48 miles
I left Kussamo just before noon. I had stopped at an outdoor shop to buy a gas burning stove and a thermos.
I made some great progress into another national park. The snow had returned to the less travelled road and I passed through small villages again close to the border with Russia. The going was so good that I targeted myself with sixty miles, even though I had left late in the day.
But at the village of Hossa, 47 miles from Kussamo my rear wheel flattened and unlike in Norway, the tyre was completely shredded.
Now that may be considered bad luck, but after all of the empty miles I had travelled I found myself tyreless outside a hotel that rented luxury cabins on the Hossa lake. Even more coincidental one of the side buildings had a bicycle hanging from a sign post.
Please believe me that this is the remotest of places so far, second only to the Sämi area. And that in all my time in Finland I had seen three bicycles.
A young man, Francois, was walking by with a chainsaw and asked me if I needed any help. I asked if there was a room, oh and would anyone be able to find me a new tyre?
Francois led me around to another side building and he found me a tyre, it is half an inch thinner than mine and we chatted a lot as I made the repair. But it works! And looks sleek too for a studded winter tyre.
Francois looks after the hotel’s huskies, all 173 of them. The hotel Hossan Lomakeskus is French owed and serves a French clientele - it looked expensive and they were fully booked. Thankfully.
However, Francois called up the cheap seats cabins further along the lake and I am now waiting for the sauna to heat up as I watch a setting sun from a comfy chair.
Tuesday 27th March 2018
Hossa to Suomussalmi, Finland. 58 miles
I mixed in the rest of my berry juice into my porridge and sat at the table overlooking the lake and read.
As I packed up, I kept finding pieces of black soot on the furniture and floor. I had made an attempt last night to clean up my equipment and the soot sunk deep into my skin and in the surface of anything plastic. But I now noticed that I had seeped out everywhere in small granules. As I touched one of the small balls it would explode and embedded itself in the sofa, rug or vinyl.
I’m glad to see the back of the burner.
All packed, I leave the cabin and make the three mile trip to Nowind’s Husky Farm. I follow an iced road along a frozen river and hear the dogs barking as I approach.
Francois is at the entrance to the farm. There are a couple of wooden cabins and service sheds. We shake hands and he takes me to the kennels.
As soon as we enter the area, the dogs cease their barking. The whole wooded area is in silence as 346 eyes watch us.
Francois shows me the name board and kennel layout and explains how one dog is the Alpha. His name is Blizzard. He is shaggy, eleven years old, toothless and a little lame. Not exactly what I expected but the silence in the group is down to his intelligent leadership.
There is then tiered dominance through the three lines of kennels. They are fanned out like spokes on a wheel. Each spoke has a leader and each kennel has two dogs again with a dominant dog.
We went to see the puppies. Francois has the deep blue eyes and a hipster beard. He’s worked with the dogs for over two years and before coming to Hossa had no experience with dogs. He is the overall Alpha. We meet three teenagers, seven month old puppies who are beginning their sledge training. All white with pink noses.
In the next kennel the puppies are three months old. There are four of them all of mixed colours who try to play and bite my hand. Francois asks me to say no to this behaviour and not to encourage it. There’s a firmness in his voice and me and the dogs obey.
In the final kennel is seven one month old puppies who set about pulling the lose wool threads from my socks from the tops of my boots. They are very playful and I laugh non stop as I try to disentangle wool and teeth from one dog only to find another dog in its place.
We look at the retirees and the four mating pairs where the gene pool is mixed up. An intelligent dog will be paired with a less intelligent dog as with abilities, colours and body shape. Please note I haven’t used the word bitch here as that would open up a can of worms.
It was midday when I left Francois and I set off laughing towards Suomussalmi.
As the afternoon passes the sun hides behind clouds and it snows for a while and the roads are endlessly mine. The buildings and hills and curves in the road are familiar now and the time passes.
I arrive at Suomussalmi KK a little after eight. Sunset was twenty minutes ago and it’s a little cold. I’m out of food and water and I find a shop in this village outside of the main town. The lady behind the counter of the KMart is friendly and says good bye as I step out into the cold.
The temperature is -9 and I’m cold and tired and set off to find a spot for the night.
After twenty minutes I come across a flat area in an unused carpark by the town’s arched bridge. Perfect no digging. I try out the gas burner to heat up my rice. Perfect!
Wednesday 28th March 2018
Raate 9125, Finland. 44 miles
I was packed up and ready to follow my route guide into Suomussalmi by half past eight and crossed the arched bridge on the four mile journey into town.
In the town centre I stopped at a cafe and as the only customer sat down by the window in a very relaxed bar where the owner was on the phone and the coffee percolator brewed. In the far corner of the bar was a stage where electric instruments rested. I waited for the owner to finish his call.
“I’d like an omelette please, if you could?” I asked when he asked me what I would like. He said we don’t do food, some pastries.
“Oh, I saw some meals on your google page.”
“We do, on special occasions.”
He found it difficult to look at me and suggested that the restaurant in the supermarket would be open. And pointed me away.
It was an all you could eat, similar to the one in Ivalo and for ten euros, I tucked in. It would appear that quite a lot of lone diners had cottoned on to this value offering of good food. If they existed in the UK, I’m sure the queues would be out of the door. I’m not too sure what the business model is here. But I didn’t argue as I filled my plate. I spared no thought of the cafe across the road.
Apart from the breakfast Suomussalmi had little to offer, there were no museums, open or closed and I followed the guide back past the bridge, last night’s pitch, and onto the Raate (street) 9125. Here there is a museum called the Raateen Portti. It was closed. But next to it is a field of hundreds of small boulders, all snow covered representing the dead Finnish and Russian soldiers of the winter war. The central monument has 105 bells that chimed in the wind as I stood there alone. Each bell represents each day of the war.
Raate 9125 is well known in Finnish history for the battles and techniques used by the Finns to halt the advancing Soviets. The 18km Stretch would take me to the border and the last historical Finnish border post.
The road was trecherous and slow. Ridges of ice threw the bike away from underneath me and I averaged just a few miles an hour.
Half way along the Raate 9125 I was stopped by the border police in a large Mercedes van. They asked me where I was going and what I was doing. As I explained, I thought that the journey sounded stupid. Who would want to take a laden bike along a desolate road to a wooden hut? Who would want to cycle from the top of Europe to the bottom?
He checked my passport on his computer. And as he waited for the results I showed him the route I would be taking after the border post.
“Sure, no problem, and you’re all clear from us. Enjoy your journey.”
It took a long time to get to that hut. But when I did, and it was closed until summer, I felt a sense of closure. I had touched the Russian border at a point where there was a single track road, I had travelled along a road where over 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died at the hands of the Finns and cold and hunger. In that time and peace I had been able to contemplate the futility of war.
As I pulled away from the border post a man in a silver Skoda beeped his horn and pulled up next to me.
“Welcome to Finland!!” He said in a heavily accented voice. “Welcome to Finland!!” He was manically happy and I think he thought that I had just crossed the border. “Jesus loves you,” he said pointing up at the clear sky.
Thinking him local, maybe a caretaker at the border police station, I showed him my map and the road I was to take to continue south. I asked if he knew if it was clear. He said, “Go look. Go look.”
He pulled from his back seat a newspaper and pointed at the advert for the border post. Our language barrier however prevented us communicating any more and we both cheerily said goodbye.
The turning was about a mile from the border post along the road I had travelled. I turned into it and passed a sign which translated as “No Winter Maintenance”. I continued. It was hard going but the road had been cleared by loggers and so was passable. It was about nine miles judging by the map but after three miles I came to a point where there was no winter maintenance and no logging traffic.
With a low sun in the sky I turned around and made my way back retracing my steps for the day along the Raate 9125.
As I was looking out for a place to camp there was a familiar toot behind me and my friend in the silver Skoda bid me goodbye. He gave me a small package of food and a big smile.
After he had left I realised that he was probably on a journey here himself. Maybe with some deep meaning. A relative may have been killed here or he may have always wanted to have come here and with me, the only person on that road I became part of that story.
He was as mad as a bag of frogs.
At the side of the road in the woods I found a flat spot and cooked up my rice, I didn’t eat the Mämmi that my Raate 9125 friend gave me.
If there were ghosts from the war in those woods and along that desolate road that night, they kept themselves to themselves.
Thursday 29th March 2018
Suomussalmi to Kuhmo, 70 miles
Although an adventure the day before hadn’t brought me any closer to Bulgaria. After porridge and boiling off snow for water, I set off on the remainder of the 9125 and then onto the 912 south. This road had been treated since yesterday morning. It’s smooth icy surface was now covered in a brown sandy grit which gave me the confidence to pump up my tyres and push on into the endless forests.
A small village shop beckoned. I think that it was some sort of Russian black market stereo centre. There were boxes of pioneer CD players piled to the ceiling in the ‘cafe’ section. The owner was chatty and microwaved me up a coffee. It would be the only shop I would see all day and had I known I would have bought a couple of litres of loganberry juice because the next seventy miles brought forests and lakes and dwindling snow deposits, greener horizons but no water. It was late evening by the time I arrived at Khumo and although a balmy -6 the cold had set into me and I sought food and shelter at the town’s hotel.
In the lobby I got chatting with locals who showed me pictures of flies and talked about this particular larvae that was hatching this week. This would allow them to catch certain fish. They were very passionate about their town and sport. I realised that despite the cold, hunger, thirst and tiredness that the days of solitude had left me needing social nourishment too.