As the summer was approaching my girlfriend Laura and I were busy sketching plans for our first road-trip with the newly purchased Volkswagen T3 Syncro. We had already roughly decided on the route, starting off from Helsinki, heading towards the western and north-western parts of Finnish Lapland, then crossing the border to Norway and heading off to the Lofoten Islands via Tromsso, before finally making a full circle by crossing the Swedish Lapland back to Finland. The idea was to take our mountain bikes, hiking and fishing gear with us and enjoy an active holiday in the Lappish wilderness.
Having spent my childhood in the city of Rovaniemi, situated right along the arctic circle and worked several seasons as an outdoor guide I felt quite confident on making preparations for the car-camping part of the trip: camping and fishing gear, cooking stoves and utensils, charcoal grills, first-aid kits, wilderness toilets etc. It was the car itself I was worried about – before buying the Syncro I had not once even changed the oil!
Well, luckily with hard work and spending enough time on Youtube videos and Bentley´s book everybody usually manages to learn to do the basics – which is just what I did as preparation for the trip. Having worked on the basic mechanics of the car I did some minor arrangements in the back section of the van, trying to apply a DIY model for enhancing the van´s camping comfort. I stapled a new rug on top of the “bed section”, attached a couple of Ikea storage boxes and compartments on the walls, a new foldable table and a place to attach a gas cooker. Since we were planning a summer trip, I was not too concerned about installing a permanent campervan setup inside the van.
We then made a list of things we needed to buy before the trip. As we were going to Lapland we had to get a custom-made flysheet for the VW T3 (This is something you really DO need during the early summer up north.) We also bought a cheap inflatable mattress for two, which lasted intact for about half of our trip, a big cooler box for the food, a well-made and compact charcoal grill and a solid bike carrier by Thule.
By Mid-July we were finally ready with everything and take off from Helsinki, driving north on the A4 with a pace suitable for our holiday mood and the 1,6 td jx motor. After reaching central Finland we continue our journey towards Lapland. From Oulu, a university town situated on the shore of the Sea of Bothnia, we take the western route towards the twin border town of Tornio, Finland and Haparanda, Sweden.
The Tornio river valley, situated on the border of Finland and Sweden, was part of Sweden, before the now Finnish part was annexed to Russia in 1809. Due to the joint history the areas on both sides of the border still share a similar culture and the area even has a unique language called meänkieli, which is a combination of Finnish and Swedish. The river Tornio is the longest free-flowing river in Europe, spanning some 500 km from it´s source of lake Torneo in Kiruna Sweden to the Gulf of Bothnia by the twin town. For about half of it´s length it acts as a natural border, so if you´re driving north you have Sweden on the left side and Finland on the right side of the river.
After shopping for groceries in one of the large supermarkets and visiting the Haglöfs outlet shop on the Swedish side of Haparanda we head for Aavasaksa, some 55 km north from Haparanda/Tornio. Aavasaksa is said to be the southernmost place in Finland where you can see the midnight sun at summer solstice and the midsummer festival here drew in crowds of up to 15 000 people during the 1960´s. The revived festival now draws mostly elderly people who come to recall their wild experiences of the past – an elderly lady visiting the area recently told a local hotel owner that in her youth she had driven 900 km from Helsinki to the festival – on a moped.
The café at the top seems deserted when I pop in to fill up my cup, and there seems to be little activity around the rental cabins scattered in the surrounding forest. You get the impression that Aavasaksa is on a summer hibernation, waiting for the arrival of winter when the ski lifts start running again.
We take the 3 km nature trail that goes around the top of the fell and visit the Imperial lodge, a log house with beautiful carvings that was built in 1882 for the Russian emperor Alexander the second´s trip to Lapland. Due to political instabilities the emperor never visited the lodge. Inside the lodge we find out about an earlier visit in 1736 to the area by the French mathematician and astronomist, Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertois and his expedition group. Besides his scientific calculations Maupertois wrote a travel book of the area, where he depicted the strange customs of these northern people, that became popular among the elite in Europe.
After leaving Aavasaksa we soon arrive at Kukkolankoski, a small village by the river Tornio known for it´s fishing and river rafting. Before 1809 the village was naturally divided by the river, now there a two separate villages with Kukkolankoski Forsen on the Swedish side (Koski means rapids in Finnish, Forsen in Swedish.) We park the car in the backyard lawn of café Myllynpirtti and set up camp with the rapids just a stone throw away providing a constant roaring sound in the background.
I remember having spent a weekend here in one of the quaint wooden houses of the village during the 1980´s with my dad and his college Esko who had grown up here. Esko drove us on a motorboat to an island in the middle of the river where we fished for harjus or grayling, which we then fried on a stick on open fire by a lean-to on the shore. I also learned then how the system of net-fishing siika or whitefish is organized in the village. According to an old tradition the men of the village use purposely-built peers to access deeper pockets in the river where the fish rest, with their nets attached to long wooden sticks. The catch of the day is then divided between the houses of the village.
The river is also known for the salmon whose yearly return to their breeding grounds in the headwaters marks the start for the migration of the hopeful fishermen travelling here. I set up my fishing gear and walk to the shore to try my luck in catching one of the returning salmons. It´s not the best spot though; the rapids are too strong making the fishing difficult. Still, it provides a beautiful sight with the local fishermen in the golden hue of the midnight sun, balancing on the not-so-solid-looking piers with their long wooden nets, the Swedish part of the village providing the background.
After a good night´s sleep and a shower we continue our journey following the river Tornio north towards the area known as “the arm” of Finland. This area, basically the municipality of Enontekiö, consists of remote wilderness tundra and is home to the biggest mountains or fells in Finland. Finns sometimes call their country the Finnish maiden and the northernmost tip of the map is thought to present the head, the south-eastern part the skirt and the north-western part the arm – hence the nickname for the Enontekiö region.
The main A8 route follows the Swedish border, after some time there is Y-junction where we turn right saying goodbye to River Tornio that continues left towards it´s source in Sweden. Soon we are greeted by it´s tributary, the 230 km long river Muonio. It seems that nearly all the bigger villages and towns in western Lapland are situated alongside these two mighty rivers where once, before the Russian empire stepped in, there was a unique culture combining the Swedish and Finnish customs and languages. There has always been plenty of fish in the rivers and trade, sometimes illegal like just after WW2, has provided the people. Perhaps for this reason the area seems wealthier compared to the eastern parts of Lapland.
We stop over at the river´s namesake town of Muonio for a coffee and to buy a fishing permit for the region. To our big surprise we find a Swiss café-confectionary in the center and enjoy our coffees gazing at all things Swiss –we make a promise to try the cakes next time. After some asking around we finally get the fishing permit from the local petrol station. Our next destination is yet another river called Lätäseno, which is the source of river Muonio. When you think about the waters of river Muonio ending up in river Tornio it almost feels like we are now on a dr. Livingstonesque quest to find the origin sources of the river we have been following since Tornio.
We continue north along the E8 and notice the surrounding round fells that are starting to dominate the landscape. The trees, although a bit smaller than in southern Finland, are still there, but a bit further up north and they will have reached the limits of their growing region. Spruce and pine will give way to the flora of the tundra, birch will remain but only as a bush-like version that is adapted to the northern harsh climate. Add some of the 200 000 reindeer that roam semi-wild in Lapland and you have the quintessential Lappish scenery.
We are heading towards Kilpisjärvi and the Käsivarsi (the arm of Finland again) Wilderness area, which is was founded in 1991 together with 11 other wilderness areas in Finland. All but one of the Finnish “Munroes”, or fells that are over 1000 meters high are situated here, perhaps that is the reason for this roughly 2000 m2 area being the most popular wilderness area in Finland. (If you don´t like crowds fear not: this is Finland and you can camp in the area without seeing other people unless you want to.)
After some navigation we make a turn for a 4×4 road that gives access deeper to the wilderness area. This is the part of the trip that makes me the most nervous as in case of a break up we will be in an area that is unreachable by a tow truck. There is a parking lot by the road where modern SUV´s are parked in a neat row. I take a final look at the A4 size maps, which I have printed off the area from a national map site, before heading into the wilderness. It´s a gravel and sand road that has experienced years of erosion, resulting in endless rock gardens and deep mud puddles. With not much 4×4 or “off-road” driving experience it takes some time to get the hang of it. It is surprising how slow you have to drive, the reduction gear really is there for a reason. The driving is active, you have to constantly scope for the best route, avoiding the biggest rocks, deepest puddles and the bushes and branches protruding from the sides of the road.
The 1.6. td jx motor is known for heating up and with no intercooler we soon have to have a break to cool off the engine. When stepping out of the car we are instantly surrounded with a cloud of mosquitoes. After the engine has cooled down we continue and come across some interesting looking buildings and an abandoned van and decide to take a closer look. We find out that the houses belong to the local reindeer herders.
Back in the day when the reindeer herders were still nomadic they lived in teepee-style dwellings called Kota´s when they followed their reindeer roaming freely between Finland and it´s neighboring countries Norway, Sweden, and Russia. Now things are less free and the herders have mostly settled down, but some still use huts like these during the summer around the areas their livestock are gracing in. Some, but not all of the reindeer herders belong to Sami, the indegenious people of Lapland, of which approximately 10 000 reside in Finland. Only 3000 still speak one of the three native languages.
After about 10 km there is a view of a lake that is situated on the tundra below the road. I had planned the lake as possible camping place and we begin to scope for a suitable place. We meet a hiker by a campfire overlooking the lake who tells us that he has been coming to fish to these parts for twenty odd years. According to him the road used to be in good enough condition to be driven by a normal car, but two decades of erosion by the arctic climate has left it in a less ideal condition. He tips us about a tractor route around the next bend that descends all the way to the lakeshore. We thank him for the tip and decide to give it a try.
Before continuing we see a four-wheel drive Jeep passing us, which is the only other vehicle we come across here during our visit. Soon enough, we see tire tracks descending right from the main route. After stepping out of the van and examining the route we decide to follow it. The descent is rather steep and bendy at times and there is some loose sand, which makes me nervous thinking about the climb back up on our way back. Once we reach the flats the bushes give way to a specular spot at the tip of the lake with no one in sight as far as the eye can see – a picture perfect car-camping spot.
After turning off the engine we start setting up the camp with the sun shining on us from a cloudless sky. It´s time to reap the benefits from our grocery-shopping trip to Haparanda where we stocked our sizeable cool box with frozen steaks and minced moose meat among other treats. The frozen goods have prevented other products like butter and cheese to go off. As Laura makes preparations for the steaks and vegetables I gather enough dry wood to start up a fire. Our camp is situated on a bank in the tip of the lake and with no trees there is a constant breeze, which has a cooling effect and acts a natural mosquito repellent. The curling smoke rising from the campfire takes care of even the most determined buzzers. We feast on steaks, vegetables and potatoes while soaking up the view of the surrounding wilderness while the midnight sun shines on.
The following morning we wake up into a hot and yet another sunny day. After the breakfast we set out to hike around the lake. There is a fell on the left-hand side that descends towards the shore and typically to Lapland it is covered with boulders, making the shoreline walk a careful one. Midway through the lake I stop and attach the ends of my fishing rod together. There is a small rocky protrusion towards the lake center and the bottom deepens quickly. It proves to be a good spot as I hook several trout, but they are either too small or difficult to net.
We continue and arrive at the opposite end of the lake from our base camp. It´s a beautiful pristine spot on a river mouth with crystal-clear water. When moving up from the shoreline the rocks covered with patches of moss blend in with heather, crowberries, lichen and dwarf birches. We put our sleeping mattresses on the tundra floor and set up a picnic, which is followed by camp-stove cooked coffees. It is the warmest day of the summer and we enjoy the heath, lying in the sun and occasionally skinny-dipping in the icy-cold lake. We can see our van on the other side as a small white dot. It feels like our own private wilderness paradise.
I am determined to catch a trout though, so after the lunch break I decide to follow the stream that is connecting the lake to another one nearby. The stream quickly turns into rapids falling down a steep rocky ravine. I struggle with my steps in the rocky terrain covered with lush undergrowth. Finally the pitch gets less steep and the roaring waters settle into a couple of meters wide stream, zigzagging in the boggy delta terrain. I stop, tie a trusty old copper-colored Mepps spinner and whip it as far as I can. The spinner lands in the next bend of the stream and within a couple of seconds I have a fish on. After the fight is over I net a beautiful trout.