Reflections of Winter – Snowshoeing

I don’t usually go away in the winter but had read that 2013 was going to be good for seeing the Northern Lights so I had a look at trips which would offer that opportunity. My attention was drawn to those offered by Exodus which also had a variety of winter activities over the course of a week. The Finnish Wilderness Week, staying at Basecamp Oulanka, was decided upon as I would have a chance to build an igloo and sleep in it too, there was cross country skiing which I fancied trying, a day at the local ski resort so I could try snowboarding again without committing to a whole week and also the option of doing some ice climbing. It ticked alot of boxes!

The first activity of the week was snowshoeing..the word conjured up visions of tennis rackets strapped to my feet and for once I hadn’t googled to see the reality. I don’t even know where the image came from, maybe it was the description in books I read when young.

The day starts with equipment being issued – a red plastic flipper for the right and one for the left plus a set of poles each – and off we went, down to the lake, first for the fun of putting a snowshoe on without falling over and then to fling ourselves around with a game of frisbee! Warmed up, a few more names learnt and now comfortable enough in a snowshoe to be happily walking, we venture off in our guided groups to explore part of the Oulanka National Park.

We are told to lean forward and use the claw under our toes when going uphill, with the poles helping provide balance and leverage. Going downhill we bend our knees and face the direction we’re going, letting our arms, and poles, hang loosely by our sides. Our guides make it sound so easy but it’s only a lack of confidence, bit of fear maybe, that makes it otherwise – it is afterall, just walking on snow 🙂

Through the wilderness we go uphill and down, stopping to hug a tree in a lovely setting overlooking the river…yes, I did just say we hugged a tree…why it is done I do not know but we go along with it, giggling to hide the embarassment whilst all the while looking aound to see if we’re really going to do this or will someone speak up and risk offending our Finnish hosts in declining to do something so silly..

Once we have had our snowshoe introduction, we are able to use them in our free time and after a warming soup lunch a few of us set out again, this time to find our way to Juuma the nearby village which can be reached by following the Little Bear Trail to its official start.

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That was when the urge to do a snow angel became too much and we all launched ourselves back into the soft deep snow – getting back up again with snowshoes on required a bit of team work 😮

The next opportunity to take out the snowshoes came on the weekend when we had a whole day free and we decided to go with the recommendation of snowshoeing the Little Bear Trail. With a packed lunch and thermos of hot water, we headed off at around 10am, heading towards Jyrävä after Myllykoski to ensure the 250 steps near Kallioportti were tackled upwards! Despite being covered in a thick blanket of snow, the variation in the stunning landscape was clear to see – the trail following the river sometimes from above and sometimes running alongside.

At one of the wilderness huts halfway round we took advantage of the chance to sit and shelter from the cold while we cracked open our packed lunches and supped much needed hot chocolate from our kupilka cup. We were enjoying this. No one else around, the silence disturbed only by the sounds of our snowshoes…or an ‘ooo that’s lovely’ as someone spotted another ideal photo opportunity 🙂

The steps werent nearly as bad as we had expected – head down, find a slow steady rhythym and up you go – and we arrived back at Basecamp around 3pm, nicely tired, refreshed and satisfied with some great photos…just in time for a sauna and pear cider before dinner 🙂

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Rafting to Russia via the Wild Route!

“Have you rafted before?” they asked…hmm, good question…I had and although I was sure it was more than once, I could only recall one occasion several years back when I was on holiday in Thailand. A hazy memory came back to me of a friend afraid of water asking for the raft not to be tipped over, the skipper’s disappointment at that, and the friend ending up in the water at some point anyway….hmm…I looked down at my clothes and took comfort from not being told to put a swimming costume on underneath…

From Basecamp Oulanka you can raft the ‘Wild Route’ which takes in three sets of rapids – Niskakoski (a grade 2), Myllykoski (a grade 3) and Aallokkokoski (a grade 4). Everyone then disembarks before the Jyrävä waterfall. From Jyrävä there is a route they call ‘National park’s most beautiful sceneries’….for ease I shall refer to it as the ‘Pretty Route’…this is a more gentle part of the river with a few rapids amounting to nothing more than a grade 2. You can do these routes individually or as a whole ‘Basecamp to Russia’ trip. Oh and there’s also a family rafting route from Käylä to Basecamp. www.basecampoulanka.fi for anyone interested.

Wild and Pretty sounded just my thing so I went for that and set myself for 5hours of rafting! 🙂

Kitted up with waterproofs, life jacket, helmet and armed with a paddle we set off down to the beach where the rafts were waiting. Numbers meant we were four to a raft plus a skipper and everyone looked a bit apprehensive about what lay ahead. We got in and moved out onto the water for a safety briefing and instructions – kindly done in English so I could understand!

After a short practice, including the ‘paddles up’ ritual for the start of each set of rapids, we were off! (the following photos are of other groups from Basecamp Oulanka..I was otherwise engaged whilst in the raft on this part of the route..)

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I was wet from the first set of rapids at Niskakoski and soaked through by the end of the final set at Aallokkokoski! I’m sure i was totally engulfed at one point along Myllykoski! (much like the lady in the front right seat below)

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It’s ok, even along the ‘wild’ part you still have calmer moments when you can stop spluttering and look around at the scenery..like the one below which follows Myllykoski

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The rafts pull over and everyone gets off just before Jyrävä even if you’re going on to the Russian Border. It’s a small but quite fierce sounding waterfall so the rafts go over empty and are fished back on the other side..(these photos are from my time rafting now, much more leisurely).

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If you’re only doing ‘wild’ then you walk back to Basecamp from there. Those doing ‘pretty’ too get back in the rafts, along with anyone just joining for that route, and set off again. As the rafts move away there is another safety briefing and instruction for the benefit of those who have joined the rafts at Jyrävä.

I changed sides for the second part of the trip to try and balance out the workload on the muscles…not sure whether it made any difference or whether I have a ‘stronger side’ when it comes to paddling!

The ‘pretty’ route goes along the river which the Little Bear Trail crosses in parts and on further through the Oulanka National Park.

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It is indeed scenic and the paddling is at a much gentler pace with parts where we just drifted along from momentum and the current. Halfway along we broke out the provided rolls and thermos of hot juice while the skipper did all the work 🙂 The area has had a really nice and dry summer but that means the water level is lower than usual which brings rocks closer to the surface…the skipper had more work to do then, like getting out and pulling the raft off the rock…ok, rocks! But that’s all part of the fun 🙂

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Sight of the Russian border (marked with the yellow rope across the river, you might be able to make it out in the photo) marks the end of a tiring and wet but great fun afternoon of rafting.

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But there’s just enough time before we’re transfered back to Basecamp for the short walk to the border sign for the obligatory photo…and yes, I was tempted, but kept my feet safely in Finland!

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Follow the (Little) Bear

What better way to wind down and reacquaint myself with the stunning surroundings than to walk the Little Bear Trail (‘Pieni Karhunkierros’) on my first day. The trail is 12km long and technically starts from the nearby village of Juuma but I started from Basecamp as it is a little further along at the Myllykoski rapids that the route becomes circular and that was the part I wanted to do.

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I should say i chose to come over in September because that is when the Autumn colours can be seen (which is a time I love in England) and I have timed it perfectly. Turns out underneath all that snow there were more than just pines and spruces; there were also silver birch and acers which are bringing lovely red and golden colours amongst the green with the shrubbery that covers the ground amongst the trees also changing colours.

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I headed off without a map as I snowshoed it when I was over in the Winter so I know the trees are well marked with a blob of green paint to show the Little Bear Trail (the brown colour is the Great Bear Trail, some 80km long). I remembered that there is a steep staircase at one point which on snowshoes you want to go up as that’s easier, and safer, but in walking shoes going down it would preferable…I forgot which direction I had to go in order to tackle it that way but luck was on my side thankfully!

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I was quite unnerved to find I was decidely underdressed for the occassion in comparison to the Finns I met whilst walking – tshirt, a light water repellant jacket and carrying a baseball cap, seemed sensible to me but I passed people wearing winter hats, waterproof jackets, waterproof trousers, everything!…and they had no backpack to suggest it was the longer trail they were walking before you say it…as i spent most of the day walking in my t-shirt then I would say i got it just right 🙂

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I had been told I could drink the water from the river and lakes which sounded like a joke until I went to the edge and saw how clear it was. Tastes good too, better than we get out of our taps and all without filtering first! I imagine the water is even better if you can drill through the frozen layers to reach it icey cold, but refreshing, in the winter.

Along the trail are campfire sites with log stores and alter fires where you can stop and get a fire going to cook yesterday some food or make a hot drink..or marshmallows on sticks as I saw one group doing (and not a child in sight!). It’s all so trusting and respectful here; no fear of anyone lighting a fire where they shouldn’t, taking the wood home to use themselves, leaving rubbish everywhere or running off with the axe and making the headlines. It’s so refreshing to see, yet it shouldn’t be.

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When I reached Siilastupa, another campfire site and prime location for viewing Jyrävä waterfall, I perched myself on a rock that was in the sun and watched four rafting groups from Basecamp Oulanka take to the waters and have their briefing before heading off. The final part of the trail climbs higher up to give a view of the faster flowing rapids below.

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