Tackling the High Ropes

It’s no ‘Go Ape’, which is somewhat surprising given the number of trees in Finland, but the High Ropes course at Basecamp Oulanka provides enough height and challenge for a group of friends to have a laugh at and with each other or even co-workers to get competitive and do some team building.

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Starting on the lower route gets you used to walking on the rope; building confidence in your own ability..or falling off and realising the safety harness works ;)..whilst learning the techniques that will be needed to get round the higher route.

and if you need to cheat slightly, like me :), there’s always the top rope to hold onto as you make your way across..

 

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Even if, or especially if, you’re scared of heights (as I am!) this little course is a great chance to put yourself out of your comfort zone without the pressure of holding up people following on behind, as can happen at bigger and busier courses. It’s also a great laugh when you’re with friends so easy to forget any nerves.

The view’s not bad from up there either!

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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 JyrĂ€vĂ€ 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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The Finnish Smoke Sauna

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So this is what the inside of the smoke sauna at Basecamp Oulanka looks like when it’s cold and just opened up for use. For those who have stayed at Basecamp during the winter, like me you’ll just have walked past the building and wondered what was inside…so I hope you find this little insight interesting..

I was invited to learn about and experience the smoke sauna at Basecamp Oulanka by heating it up from the start…some 5 hours before use…yes, that was 5 hours. I still can’t get over it, I may need to do it again 😀

At around 10am I took my instructions, which I have by my side now, and went down to get started. First thing to do was to remove the wooden seats and mat from the sauna then open the three vents – the photo above is taken at the point that was complete.

Next comes the fun bit..getting the fire going. I’m a girl guider so I should know what I’m doing in that respect..but it proved frustrating, I think I was impatient 🙂 I had been told to start with a small fire, using only birch wood (plenty of that around at Basecamp) to gently warm the stones up and to keep it small for about 20 minutes. The photo below shows my lovely small fire…before it went out…

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Eventually I got it going again, after a telling off for putting big logs on too soon, and the smoke started to rise through the stones..cue next photo below where you’ll see the (too) big logs and you might also spot the obligatory designated poking stick 🙂

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It was interesting to see how the smoke rose and filtered out of the sauna in a way that gave a clear and smoke free lower level so I was able to sit low to stoke the fire without getting the smoke in my eyes and throat. Despite what you may think about such a smoke filled space, it is interestingly such a clean environment that in days gone by smoke saunas were the place where babies were born and bodies prepared for funerals.

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After 20 mins of warming with the small fire, I was at the next stage; time to throw on the big logs and stack them right up. All this time the sauna door and all the vents are still open. The birch burns quickly so I was in and out stocking up on logs and finding space to fit them in. It soon started to feel very hot but it was important to keep the fire full for another 3-4 hours.

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At about 2pm it was time to stop stoking and let the fire burn out. At that point all the vents are closed up and the door closed. It is important to remain by the sauna and check on it every 15mins or so as this is the time when the sauna is most likely to catch fire. Not too much pressure on me then 😼 Another interesting fact – most smoke saunas have a five year life span due to the likelihood of it catching fire. The smoke sauna at Basecamp is older than that…and was still standing when i left 🙂

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(note the poking stick survived, although there were a few moments of panic when I thought I had thrown it on by mistake. It makes me smile to see that picture of it 🙂 )

After about another hour or so, it is time to get the leather gloves on (yes, don’t touch any of the metal without them..ahem) and clear out the ashes. A couple of cups of water are then poured onto the top rocks, the railings cleaned off from the smoke and the seats put back into place.

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It is then ready for occupation!

Despite being called a smoke sauna, and somewhat surprisingly from the amount of smoke produced during heating, when people sit in there, there is no smoke. It is very hot, especially when you have a Finn throwing more water on just when you’re getting used to it, but I felt that I could take the heat in there more than I could in the electric sauna. It didn’t feel such a dry heat..or maybe it was just after so many hours of tending to it and worrying that I would get enough of a fire going for the temperature to gain Finnish approval, I was determined to stick it out!

I was happy to follow the tradition of taking a drink into the sauna with me but I drew the line at then running down to jump in the lake, standing outside for a few minutes was enough of a cool down for me. I was also spared the blushes of following other traditions although I like to think I’d have given it a go – well, when in Finland.. 🙂

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When I was told that the bear print which forms part of Basecamp Oulanka’s logo was from a bear called Vyöti and I could see him at the Predator Centre in Kuusamo it immediately became somewhere I wanted to visit.

The Predator Centre is owned by a man called Sulo Karjalaisen, famous in Finland for being the ‘bearman’. The centre came about from Sulo’s love of animals and is part of the farm that he has lived on all his life. The animals there are all predators in Finland – bears, wolves, lynx and fox – who were taken in when orphaned through traffic accident or hunting. With Sulo being in his 70s, a successor needs to be lined up if the centre is to have a more certain future; whilst there is a little cafe selling souvenirs and guides are employed to take visitors round in groups, this is not a big commercial establishment.

http://www.kuusamon-suurpetokeskus.fi/index.html

We pass by the wolves on the way to the bears

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Bears are the main stop on the tour of the centre and they come over to the fence ready to take whatever food is offered to them. There are c1000 wild bears in Finland, each one can weigh more than 400kg and run at speeds of 60kph

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At this time of year they are preparing to hibernate so their diet consists mainly of fruit, to build up their fat stores. Vyöti had already built his nest and was sleepy so he was certainly prepared for it but he ventured out of his nest

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occasionally for food while we were there. Vyöti is housed with his daughter but there are no breeding issues as bears are monogomous and recognise the family relationship.

The bears will be hibernating from October to April, their natural habits remain despite the captivity, so the centre is closed during those months…in case you were thinking of a visit whilst in the area 🙂 When a bear comes out of hibernation their jaws are that strong they can eat four reindeer in one sitting without leaving any trace of it!

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The guide told some very interesting tales of the bears and their intelligent antics which include how they lived in the house with Sulo and went shopping with him!

http://www.visitfinland.com/article/meet-sulo-the-bearman/ (there are also alot more on the internet)

If the animals are able to be returned to the wild then they are but one of the bears was seen kissing a reindeer – at that point they knew it couldn’t return to the wild!

After the bears we see a fox and then several lynx.

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The fox is very common here too with c100,000 in Finland. Similarly they will nose around rubbish bins near houses but I thought this fox looked so much healthier than the ones we see wild at home so you can tell the animals at the centre are well looked after.

There are also c1000 lynx in the wild in Finland and a fully grown adult can weigh up to 30kg. When the fox was near the part of the fence closest to the lynx pen, they were all sat looking over; it took me a while to work out what they were looking at as I couldn’t see or hear the fox but they obviously could.

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Worth a visit if you are in the area especially if you have children.

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Further into Oulanka National Park

Spanning approx. 105 square miles, Oulanka National Park is one of the most popular in Finland so I took the chance to explore further afield from Basecamp Oulanka and have a night even closer to the wilderness.

http://www.outdoors.fi/destinations/nationalparks/oulanka/Pages/Default.aspx

Driving to a spot further into the Oulanka National Park and leaving the car there for the night, we hiked towards the River Kitkajoki to find a viewpoint high up the side of the valley through which the rafts travel on their way to Russia along the ‘Pretty Route’ (see previous blog post as that’s not the correct name, just a shorter one for me to type!). The view we were aiming for would allow us to see the River meandering for some distance. It is also from there that some great photos have been taken of the morning mist engulfing the river and the trees below (hence the plan for camping overnight). I started to refer to it as ‘Middle Earth’ as it felt very Lord of the Rings…I do a poor impression of Treebeard but if you know the film you’ll know what i was trying to come out with 🙂

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The route isn’t marked although there are ‘paths’ through, nothing that deliberate however or you can just head in your own direction across the springy undergrowth following the sound of the water. We did a mixture of both and soon found the view we were aiming for..

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One of the things you can do in the National Parks are pick the berries and mushrooms. The mushroom season was in August so those we saw had ‘gone over’ but there were plenty of blueberries to eat as we walked along.

We also ventured down to the river…for some mad reason because that meant getting back up to the top after!

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Unfortunately it ended up being a cloudy night so no sighting of the Northern Lights and no morning mist below but still great views and a worthwhile trip.

The next day Oulanka Canyon was on the agenda so off we went – it’s about half an hour drive from Basecamp Oulanka. This time there is a proper trail, again marked with green blobs on trees, which is a circular 6km long. Part of the trail is also the route of the Great Bear Trail.

The river at the bottom this time is the Oulankajoki which the joins with somewhere toward the Russian border.

Now maybe it’s me but ‘Canyon’ created some expectation of a deep and rocky expanse and I couldn’t help but think ‘that’s more of a gorge’ although it was also less rocky than I would even think of a gorge as being. I’ll leave you to decide…

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In May when the rivers in the area are at their peak then it may be more impressive, and noisy, a sight but it was still a scenic and good healthy walk though as the trail passes through forest and alongside lakes as well as the canyon itself 🙂

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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 JyrĂ€vĂ€ waterfall. From JyrĂ€vĂ€ 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 KĂ€ylĂ€ 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 JyrĂ€vĂ€ 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 JyrĂ€vĂ€.

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 JyrÀvÀ 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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