Life as a wilderness guide

Just 6 months after qualifying as a wilderness guide I find myself back in Lapland for the winter. Dividing my time between working at Husky&co as a guide and starting my own business Sidetracked Adventures.

LIFE IN FINLAND

Both days are quite different. I’m based in Saariselkä which is about 300km north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland and situated right next to Finland’s second largest national park, so a really beautiful part of the world. From my doorstep there are hundreds of kilometres of skiing tracks, hiking trails and untouched wilderness. It’s a very small place, not many people, but I love the pace of life here; it’s basic but it has everything you actually need and none of the nonsense. Everyone here is very capable and independent and it’s one of the reasons I love living in Finland.

ON THE HUSKY FARM


Typically my day starts at around 6am to get my van engine warmed up. With the temperatures sometimes getting down to as low as -30°c, I need to make sure the van is heated properly before driving it to the farm. This gives me time to have a decent breakfast as it’s possibly the only chance to eat anything before dinnertime. Normally a big bowl of porridge with cinnamon and apple does the job, and I load my pockets with snacks for the day; nuts, fruit and cereal bars. Then I head to the husky farm – where there’s over 250 dogs waiting for their breakfast.

IMG_4238.JPG

We start with a briefing in the morning about the organisation for the day; which dogs are running, how many sleds we’re taking, and any updates on the dogs in general. We then go to feed them all with a meaty soup we’ve made; encouraging them to drink some water ready for the day. Then we start building the sled teams. We often try and keep roughly the same team of six dogs together, but there’s always a few changes here and there. I originally started working here as a trainee when I was studying to become a guide. I worked for a month during December, one of the busiest periods on the farm because of Christmas, and then again in March during the spring time. It’s possibly one of the most physically demanding jobs I’ve ever done. The days are long but for me the dogs are worth it all.

During the busy periods we only run 2-hour tours, taking groups round a loop in the forest. But once the crazy Christmas season is over we do longer runs with the dogs, often including a lunch spot in our kota (a wooden teepee style cabin) in the woods where we make salmon soup and hot berry juice for the group to warm up with. With so many dogs on the farm it took me a while to learn all the names, especially because most of them are Finnish, but working with them every day you start to learn their personalities and small differences between each other.

LIFE AS A WILDERNESS GUIDE


My other life has me organising backcountry ski tours in the national parks. I take small groups out into the wilderness for a week, making our way from hut to hut each day using a typical Finnish style ski. They’re called forest skis, as they’re very long and quite wide which makes them perfect for making fresh tracks in the endless Lappish forests. I run 7-night tours into the Finnish wilderness, based at the moment in Urho Kekkonen national park, with plans to run trips in other areas of Lapland in the future, skiing each day hut-to-hut pulling everything we need for the trip behind us in sleds.

A typical morning would has me waking up early to get the fire going in the wilderness hut. The whole of Finland has these great systems of open wilderness huts that are so beautiful and practical – equipped with a log burner, a gas stove, large bunk beds to accommodate everyone, and a nice wooden table to enjoy dinner round. The night before, I usually chop a pile of wood ready for the morning, because having to drag yourself outside in the dark to split wood is never too appealing. As the hut begins to warm itself up again, I start to prepare breakfast for the team. Some huts are located next to a stream which can be frozen, so sometimes there’s a pickaxe for you to open a hole up to collect water, or you grab a bucket of snow and get melting. Once the water is boiling I can wake the group up with the smell of coffee and a large bowl of porridge ready for a big day of skiing.

The huts have no electricity so it’s always nice to eat breakfast together by candlelight, just as the sun begins to rise outside. In Lapland the winters are extreme but that’s partly the reason I love them so much. Where I’m based we have around a month of polar night between December and January where the sun doesn’t rise. The days are very short and we have a few hours of pinky sunrise glow. The darkness doesn’t bother me that much because on a clear day during the polar night you can get some of the most beautiful skies, pinky-blue hues in one direction and this bright intense orange glow in the other. I run my trips in February/March time as the days are much longer and it means were not skiing a lot of the day in the darkness.

After breakfast the group packs away their gear into their sleds and we set off to our next hut. Our distances each day vary from 8-19km, determined by the distances between the cabins. Although Finland is very flat, the routes do include a lot of up and down and when you’re pulling a fully loaded sled this is no walk in the park. You have to be physically and mentally very strong to keep yourself going, especially when we get some super-cold temperatures. Typically in winter it can go from -5 to -30°c. The lowest I have experienced was -38°c, which was very tough. You can’t really understand it till you experience it, although the cold here isn’t as bad as it sounds; it’s a dry cold. I think I’ve been colder on a wet rainy day hiking in North Wales! With the right clothes on, and an activity that keeps you moving and warm it’s really not a problem.



For this reason we often have a very short lunch break. In the morning I fill everyone’s thermos bottle with tea etc and I make some extra thermos bottles of hot soup. If it’s not too cold we will have a longer lunch break, and perhaps heat a quick pasta meal but often I just do something that can be eaten on the go. Sometimes en route there’s a designated fire place (these can be buried in snow so a bit of digging is required) or if not we will just stop somewhere with a nice view.

This is my first winter running my own company, guiding groups in the National Park. I’ve done quite a lot of guide work in other places; Switzerland, the French Alps, and the Italian Dolomites but I wanted to share my love of Finland with others. I love the winters here, they’re so unique and changing all the time. From the extreme temperatures which freeze your eyelashes in seconds to the feeling you get when you see the sun rise above the horizon for the first time in a month. No day is ever the same. You’re surrounded by nature, by silence. Life becomes simple. It slows people down, and I think in this day and age that has become a bit of a luxury. To have no distractions, no phones, nothing but a warm place to stay each night, some good hearty food and a means to make your way through the snow – it’s pure bliss.

After lunch we get moving again, and each day can differ so much because of the conditions. If there’s been fresh snow any tracks will easily get covered and you have to make fresh ones. This is hard work, especially with the sleds, so suddenly a short distance can become a long day. The beauty of travelling in the national parks in winter is that you probably won’t see another soul for a week. Not so many people venture that deep into the park during winter.

But after a long day skiing the hard work isn’t over yet. The huts have no electricity or running water so the first job is normally to get the fire going and some water to boil. All the cabins will be stocked with firewood, but sometimes you have to split some for kindling. I often make a quick snack to fill everybody up until dinner. Some days we get to the huts late, so it’s all hands of deck to try and whip up dinner as fast as possible. I encourage the group to help out but of course it’s often been a long ski day so it’s also good to have a nice relax.

Anybody can come on my ski tours, you don’t need to have any previous experience (but it definitely helps if you have skied before – it’s very different to downhill skiing) what’s more important is a good level of fitness and strength. The ski days can be long and you need to be able to keep on trucking as often we have no other options.

My guide duties never end as I chop enough wood for the rest of the evening and the morning, then prepare dinner and sort out plans for the next day. As we all help with pulling the food for the week I often have the meal plan in place so I know exactly what I’m cooking each evening. Because we have a fairly light lunch I always make sure we have a big hearty meal and I’ll cook a big chilli con carne or a bean stew. As I’m vegetarian I try to make the base veggie then have meat on the side for people to add like chorizo or dried reindeer meat. I also make sure I do some traditional Finnish meals, including some local delicacies from the area. One of my favourites is Leipäjuusto, a squeaky Finnish cheese which I warm up on the stove and is eaten with cloudberry jam (a bright orange berry that grows in swampy areas).

The evenings are spent relaxing in the cabins. If people are interested, I show them how to whittle a spoon from the pine firewood. This gives them a bit of a project for the week and it’s a nice way to relax beside the fire. If the skies are clear then the chances for northern lights are often high, so if there’s a fireplace outside we go out and toast some marshmallows whilst waiting for the aurora to show up. In one of my favourite wilderness huts there’s even a wooden sauna. The Finns love sauna, and it’s a bit part of the culture here, so to get to share this with my clients deep in the heart of the Finnish wilderness is just the best. Then I chuck on the last log for the evening and we all tuck into our sleeping bags for the night ready to go again the next day.

FUTURE PLANS


Now you find me half-way through my first year of Sidetracked Adventures, I have two trips coming up in February and March and I’m splitting my time between working on the husky farm and exploring trails and preparing for my tours. Having a mix of both these worlds is perfect for me; the chaos of the farm contrasted with being in forest hearing nothing but your own breath and the skis gliding across the crisp snow. It’s a unique place, and is even classed as Europe’s last great wilderness, and I know I’ve only scratched the surface of it. Every venture out there is different, and the amazing job of showing people the wonders of life above the Arctic Circle is what keeps drawing me back here every year. My plans for the future include going on a log house building course in the spring and one day build my own place in the forest. Other than that, I don’t tend to plan that far ahead. Going with the flow has served me the best four years yet, so I’m just going to keep going and see where I end up.

IMG_1721.JPG

Road Trip | From the UK to Lapland

Sat in a car park of a closed shopping centre on the outskirts of Tampere (southern Finland) its -4 outside. I pull on yet another jumper, making sure to be as fast as possible I lie back on the bed thinking ‘What the hell am I doing here?’

With bigs trips like this there is always a down day, a day where you doubt everything your doing, when you just want to be back home in a nice warm house. But I’ve come to realise that these moments are important. To build confidence, to build strength, and to make the good times even bloody better.

The Big Idea

So how did I end up driving over 2000km from the UK to Finland? Well I had a job for December as a guide for Husky&Co (read blog about life on the farm here) and having spent many winters in Finland I knew the importance of having transport. I looked into buying a car in Finland, or buying one in the UK. There was pros and cons to each. But it so happened my friends were selling their camper van which they'd travelled round Europe in during the summer.

I’d always dreamed of having a camper, and with my lifestyle at the moment where I’m rarely ever in the same place it seemed perfect. So I decided I’d buy it and head over to Finland.

So meet Hector:

IMG_9972.JPG

Getting the van ready for an Arctic winter

I would be spending my winter in Saariselkä (300km north of the artic circle) where temperatures can drop to -35 so a few adjustments were needed so Hector could survive winter. Now I am totally useless when it comes to cars (this was actually my first owned vehicle!) So I just tried to do my research, ask friends and to be honest I just hoped for the best…But here is a list of what I ended up doing (It’s late November now so i’ll let you know in 3 months if it was enough)

  • Legally you have to have winter tyres in Finland - So I had them fitted in the UK and actually drove over there with them on. Some people say you need to have studded tyres but I’d read that actually up north in Lapland a good deep tread is better because the temperatures are constantly low. Compared to the south where they vary a lot more - snow slush ice etc

  • Block heater - As Hector is a diesel his odds of dealing with the winter are even narrower so I had a block heater installed - which basically is a device you plug in and it keeps the engine. All Scandi countries have these boxes in most car parks.

  • Change the coolant fluid - I got the garage to change this and make sure it wouldn’t freeze.

  • Change wiper fluid - Brought in Finland, and just put in straight as it works down to -50

  • Fluid for the rims of the door (the squidgie bits) so they don’t freeze to the door and rip off.

  • In the car I always carry a bag of grit, a shovel, a brush (remove the snow from the roof every day) ice scraper, gloves, head light


The route

So this was my route, as I had a party in Southern Finland to get to I had a slight deadline. This was my schedule:

Day one: Shrewsbury to Ghent - via dover ferry (10 hours driving)

Day two: Ghent to hamburg (8 hours driving)

Day three: Hamburg to Travemunde ( 2 hours driving)

Day four: Ferry - Travenmunde to Helsinki (27 hours long)

Day five: Helsinki - Kemi (12 hours driving)

Day six: Kemi - Saariselkä (5 hours driving)

(I spent some time down in southern finland so I didn’t do the whole journey in one go)

RoutePlan_RoadTrip-01.jpg

The worst part of the drive was actually the first day in the UK, because of awful traffic in Birmingham (should have known!) I was running super later for my ferry so was panicking slightly but I made it just in time. Then after that my schedule was relaxed so I didn’t really need to worry about anything.

I found the app ‘Park4night’ so helpful, it tells you lovely places to stop for free, or campsites and what facilities they have. Great little app!

Ghent & Hamburg

Unfortunately it was just a flying visit to Ghent, I was visiting friends but what little I saw off it it seemed lovely. We went for a short walk the next day to a coffee shop and I will make sure on my way back to spend a bit longer there. I then headed ti Hamburg, where I planned to stay on the outskirts of in a small forest area so it was nice and quiet.

It was all going nice and smoothly…too well perhaps.

The stupidest of mistakes!

All was going to plan, my ferry wasn’t till 3pm tomorrow I knew I had plenty of time on my hands. I woke up and checked the time on my phone and I had 5 missed calls from a German number. I wondered who it could be? Perhaps someone wanted me to move the van - but hang on how would they know my mobile number? as I sat there wondering who it could be it hit me.

My ferry must have been 3am not 3pm. I felt sick.

After using every swear word under the sun, berating myself for being the world BIGGEST idiot I phoned the ferry company to try and sort it out. It ended up being a very expensive mistake. After a small melt down, I decided that it was over, the ferry had left and beating myself up about it wasn’t going to change that. Instead I decided to head to the forest - my happy place.

Always look on the bright side. If I hadn’t missed my ferry I would have never spent the day in this beautiful forest.


Travemunde - Helsinki Ferry

I had two options, I could have driven through Denmark and Sweden then gotten the ferry from Stockholm over but as I was on my own I thought the less driving was probably better. Once you add the toll road fees, plus fuel plus the ferry from Stockholm - plus its longer then its actually the cheaper option anyway.

The ferry was really quite nice, I guess I was used to the awful P&O ones from Dover so anything is better. I had my own little cabin (I’d booked a quad female room) but after being on the boat for 2 days I realised there probably wasn’t even 4 other ladies on the boat…let alone single ones so a cabin to myself.

I packed a bag full of snacks, as food was very pricy on the boat and with no much to do I just read my book and relaxed for a while. It got a bit bumpy at one point. I was deciding whether to go out and look at how big the waves were, but then i decided that if I went out and they were big i’d never be able to relax so I just tried to ride it out…

Finland

Having spent the last year studying in Finland to become a wilderness guide It felt a little bit like coming home. I’d planned to catch up with all my course buddies and visiting the different places they lived.

Salo, Southern Finland

My particular favourite was on the coast of Finland. My friend had recently brought a house in the middle of the forest, with a view of the sea. Its beautiful, we had a great weekend hiking and we even went to try out shooting (I was reluctant at first as I hate guns) but I actually really enjoyed it. When they’re used just for sport then its not a problem - it felt a bit like golf. But I was much better at it!


The long drive up north

The last and longest leg of the journey would be the 1,107km drive from Salo to Saariselkä. I decided it was too much for one day 13 hours driving…without breaks. So I did it in two, stopping off in Kemi on the west coast.

Navigation in Finland is simple, there really aren’t many options. I’ve actually done this drive north at least 4/5 times already so I know it pretty well. Its long, its straight, its forresty. With the days getting shorter and shorter the sun was setting around 3.00 so I always avoided driving too long in the dark. I still ended up leading Salo at 8:30am and arriving in Kemi at 9pm.

The second days drive from Kemi to Saariselka was nice and short, just 4 hours and I love the drive from Rovaniemi (the artic circle) up to Saariselka. Then we arrived, with less snow and more mud than we expected but we’d made it! Hector had been a trooper, the van had become my little safety den. I knew everything would be okay because It had everything I needed; food, shelter, and boxes full of cookies!

Chamonix Via Feratta Via des Evette

IMG_7619.JPG
IMG_7534.JPG

After discovering my love for Via ferretas in the Italian Dolomites I was excited to try some out when I was in Chamonix for the weekend. Via des Evette is a fairly new route - created in 2016 the perks of that mean that its only a short walk to and from the route (20 minutes walk in and out). We rented a VF kit from sports shop in Chamonix (harness and tails). 

If you're based in Chamonix its a nice 30 minutes stroll along the river (or a 10 minute bus) to get to the Flègère lift. Then as mentioned before its a super short walk to the start of the route, its all well sign posted out from the lift. 

The route has two sections. The first part is the Via ferreta and the second is a climbing route. As I was with two friends who had never done any climbing we were just doing the VF section. There is a short walk out section between the two. 

The first small bridge

The first small bridge

The VF took us just over an hour, and that was with two guys who had never done it before. It is quite a good route for first timers. Because its a new route there a lots of staples and features to climb on - you rarely have to use the rock (this could be deemed as a good/bad point) I gave them a few pointers but they got the hang of it pretty quick. 

Although it was a Saturday in early august it wasn't as busy as I was expecting. There were some really quite exposed sections so you need a good head for heights. Also two Himalayan style bridges which are fun. The first one is nice and short and gives you a good taste of the big one at the end of the route. 

Being on the valley opposite to the Mont Blanc it gives you great views all day of the peaks and glaciers. Theres a few good resting spots to sit and have a snack or take photos too. 

All in all a short but great VF, a good taster for people who have never tried it before because its only an hour or so long. Then in the afternoon to make full use of the lift pass we went on a popular hike to Lac Blanc. Its all uphill on the way there and takes around 1hr 15 mins (decent pace) then its faster on the way back. 

Lac Blanc 

Lac Blanc 

It was quite a busy route but the lake was nice to have a dunk in after a hot/speedy midday hike. Was definitely a good when to maximise the day in Chamonix

Survival night

Survival night = a night in the forest with nothing but a knife and some matches and the clothes on your back. 

Another part of the IWG course was learning to deal with spending an unexpected night out in the forest. Learning to find good places to locate a shelter and different techniques of how to build something decent to sleep in. 

IMG_5311.JPG

Location 

Location is quite important, it can make a huge difference to the comfort of your night so its worth taking time to scout somewhere decent to base yourself. It's worth looking for natural shelters; big rocks or under large spruce trees. You also have to consider how wet/damp the area and make sure you don't base yourself low down somewhere that could collect water if it rained.

As it was a nice sunny day, around 24 degrees so actually very good weather for Finland in May. I didn't have to worry about keeping out of the wind/rain too much. This made it a bit easier when scouting for a location. I ended up choosing a nice open forested area; somewhere I could actually use the warming sunlight to my advantage. 

Shelter 

For the shelter itself I chose a fallen birch tree that was arching over quite low to the ground. Then using this my idea was to build a small cone/sleeping bag style of shape that I could shuffle into. I  made a frame from dead wood that was lying around date forest and used this as a base for mainly spruce branches to build up the roof. Filling the gaps with dry leaves and moss. 

For my bed I used more spruce branches for the base then I got long strips of birch bark and layered them on top to make a mattress. I always find that I feel the cold coming the worst from beneath me so I took time to make sure I had enough layers underneath me. 

Keeping warm 

Once the sun went down (around 10:30pm) the temperature quickly dropped. I had just my walking trousers on, with a t-shirt, my down jacket and a thin shell layer. So nothing special clothing wise - just what I would normally have on my during a normal hike. 

During the day I collected quite a bit of firewood, trying my best to find decent dead pine. But as it was only a few weeks since the snow had melted a lot of it was really damp. There wasn't much small dead standing wood, so I did collect a lot of branches hoping that they would last a while. 

My plan of action was to sleep early whilst it was still fairly warm and then wake up and start the fire. So at around 8pm I shuffled into my sleeping cone and had some kip. It was cosy actually, the mosquitos were quite annoying but other than that I had a few decent hours sleep. 

 

IMG_5350.JPG

I awoke around 11pm, feeling the cold from beneath me - despite my best bed efforts. So I shuffled out of my cone and got the fire going. The fire was fairly easy to get going, there was plenty of dryish birch bark and small dry branches. The problem was without an axe it was hard to split anything, I seemed to only have tiny branches or huge dead pines. So what I did was form a triangle of large logs, then built and maintained a small fire the middle of them, then pushing the long logs down every hour or so. It worked out quite well, but it still needed a lot of work feeding it all the time with smaller branches. 

Burning my big dead pine, this one lasted all the way till morning. 

Burning my big dead pine, this one lasted all the way till morning. 

I also found a really nice big rock, which at first I was using to sit on beside my fire, but when U decided I would head back into my cone for some more sleep I put it next to the fire for 30 minutes to warm up. Then I used it as a heavy hot water bottle for my next round of sleep. It worked really well heating me up as I wrapped myself around the warm stone to fall asleep again. 

We had ideal conditions that day, It had been super warm and sunny in the day with no real prospect of rain for the evening. Yet the night was still very cold. It really made me realised how difficult this would be. It was hard even with the best weather conditions possible. 

The night was a constant slog of trying to get to sleep. But always waking up and feeling too cold. So restarting the fire, warming up, collecting more firewood, getting sleepy again next to the fire then retreating back to the cone to try to sleep again. Then repeat. 

The nights were already quite light now, only getting dark around 11pm but despite my best firewood efforts I still had to keep going to collect more. Once it was dark this was tough because I could barely see where I was going, let alone what was decent firewood. I think the standards of nice dry pine had dropped massively as I gathered anything near by that would potentially burn. 

My humble abode 

My humble abode 

Around 3am I gave up on trying to sleep, and lodged myself beside a birch tree to just wait it out. It's crazy how slow time moves when you're waiting for it to pass. The birds were already making quite some noise so It was actually quite nice to just relax next to the fire watching the forest waking up. 

All in all it was a good experience. I went into it a bit cocky thinking that it would be easy because of how warm the day time was but it just shows, even with the best conditions the night time is still cold, and its really hard to make yourself comfortable and warm enough to get a decent amount of sleep. The lack of sleep gives you this awful hazy feeling, a bit like a hangover. Making every task very sluggish, and compared to the rest of the class I had a lot more sleep than most so most were feeling pretty shattered. Thankfully we had a nice relaxing day of paddling on the lake in the sunshine to enjoy. 

 

Solo ski trip

The infamous 'bear ski' trip, a 9 day self supported solo skiing trip to Hammastunuri wilderness (northern Lapland). 

As mentioned in my previous post, I was beyond nervous and excited about this trip. In a way this was one of the big reasons I wanted to do the IWG course. To prove to myself that I was capable. 

It was a loooooong drive up north, 934km to be exact. We were bashing it out in one day in order to get a nice early start on the first day. Jacked up on petrol station sugar and some questionable German techno I was overexcited for a remarkably uninteresting journey. After arriving to our destination in the early hours of the morning we spent some uncomfortable hours in the vans then woke at 5am to unpack our gear and load our sleds. 

Running through the gear list in my head as I tetris packed my sled to perfection I was ready to go, even with my skis prematurely on. Then as I go to switch on my trusty little Nokia phone my heart sinks as I read 'Enter pin number'. I felt physically sick, that number was on the back on the sim card packet. Which was of course 934km back down south. As part of the planning group for this trip I knew the importance of having a phone that would last the whole trip. After the initial panic reaction thinking I wouldn't be allowed to go, I set about sorting the problem.

A few hours later and I got the best text ever. '3651 - enjoy the trip' I spent the next 2km repeating that number...I'm pretty sure all the other guys in the group could tell you what my pin number was. But I didn't care. It was happening, I was freeeeeee. 

All of us heading in to the forest together. Till we were set free. 

All of us heading in to the forest together. Till we were set free. 

After a short lunch stop we were free to leave, it was around 10am and already pretty warm so those of us that had quite a way to go to our first spot headed off. One last salute to the group then it was just; me and the forest and a whole load of silence. 

Each of us had drawn a route plan, at first I planned some big ski distances - figuring I would be happier skiing all day than sat in my own company. But a few factors made me scale it back, the reminder that we I'd still have to setup my camp each day; setup the shelter, collect firewood, chop firewood, cook dinner. So I shortened my distances down a bit. 

Literally 500m after leaving everyone I came to a downhill section. As always my slight over confidence towards the situation landed me on my arse. Well actually it was more of a downward dog yoga pose, with a fully loaded sled wedging into my back. As I grappled for some support off my ski poles which just kept falling deeper into the snow and with one boot now completely off I worried that this was a bad sign of what was to come. 

Thankfully that was actually one of the only times I fell over. However the next one would be much worse. But i'll get to that later. 

First camp

First camp

I followed the river which was heading into a valley, it looked quite tempting but my compass needed me to go a different way. That direction happened to require me to go up quite a steep slope...and with my big fat sled I avoided biting the bullet for as long as possible. When I saw the faint lines of an old snowmobile track I decided this was the best it was going to get. I started my accent with 'speed' hoping I could get quite far up with a bit of momentum. But the slushy snow wasn't having any of it. So I turned 90 degrees and started side stepping my way up, awkwardly dragging my sled behind me. 

IMG_4800.jpg

Half way up, dripping with sweat already, wailing ' I regret my decision!!!' an unexpected reply came from Maria who was skiing down below 'Perhaps it'll be worth it' - she was forever an optimist. And at that moment I really hoped she was right. 

After getting to the top, and taking off all my layers I ploughed on towards my first camping spot. I did a lot of talking to myself on that first ski stint. A mix of excitement and nerves were swirling around in my belly. 

The snow has gotten really slushy in the afternoon, large sections of it would just drop when you were skiing so it made progress pretty slow. I reached my first camping point after a sweaty day of skiing, I chose my spot because it was right next to a huge dead fallen pine tree, so firewood wasn't a problem. 

First camp 

I set up my camp, trying to position it so I'd get a good sunset. Then collected a big pile of firewood and whipped myself up some dinner. I was surprised how much firewood I was going through. The huge pile I'd collected barely lasted me the evening. The combination of lack of sleep from the previous nights, the relieve of finally being off on the bear ski, and that sense of calm that sleeping outdoors gives you meant that I was asleep by 7pm. 

The perks of 4am 

The perks of 4am 

For the first few days I got into the routine of getting up super early and skiing in the crisp morning hours. The flashbacks of trying to drag the sled through slushy thick snow were enough to deter me from snoozing the alarm every morning. The only problem with this plan was that I was reaching my next camping spot really quick. I was easily covering 5km in a hour or so, which resulted in a lot of down time. Being the type of person who doesn't sit still for very long I kept myself busy finding/chopping/splitting firewood. Digging myself intricate tunnels and extravagant extra things in my camp. 

But each day I would learn a few key lessons:

  • I hated having to collect firewood in the morning - so making sure there was plenty in the evening ready for the morning was a good way to start the day. 
  • Food that you don't like 'normally' doesn't taste any better when its your only choice.
  • Spending extra time levelling out the camp/ my bed area is worth the time and effort for a good nights sleep. 
  • All you need is marshmallows. 
IMG_4813.jpg

The first few days had been bliss, nice cold temperature in the morning - the forest skis were gliding like skates on the big open bogs. The navigation was fine, it was easy enough to just read the map and not rely on the compass. Then I'd spent the afternoon skiing around my camp collecting firewood and then relaxing in my sled in the sunshine. It all seemed a bit too cushty.

Hammastunturi wilderness area - day two 

Hammastunturi wilderness area - day two 

After the success of the first few days I thought I could add a few more km's to my route. So decided to take the longer route to camp 4. Barely 100m into the forest I regretted my decision. Every few meters I skied a big layer of snow would completely drop - not just scaring the crap out of me with the noise it made - but then i'd struggle to haul myself and the fully loaded sled out of the hole that had been created. It was exhausting. 

The weather had also turned, it was very grey and cloudy and I could feel the wind was really starting to pick up. I sang a bit of Bob Marley to keep the spirits high and trudged on. 

On the morning of day four I awoke to snow fall. It was so peaceful lying cocooned in my sleeping bag just watching the big snowflakes gently fall down around me. One thing the past few days had taught me was to enjoy the moment. As mentioned previously It's not in my nature to sit still for very long but with so much time of my hands each day I'd learnt to embrace it more and was beginning to enjoy it. I'd realised that sometimes you can just be - I didn't always need to be doing something. 

As I lay watching the snow fall my watch alarm went off - It was time for me to start my morning routine ( start fire, make porridge, try and shove porridge into my mouth, pack camp, head off) but then I began to question myself a bit more. Was I actually in a rush? Did I need to interrupt this moment or could I just get up when I felt like it? For me, although it was nothing spectacular this changed the whole rhythm of my solo journey. I'd spent the last few days as a whirlwind - creating non existent jobs for myself thinking thats what I needed to do/ or needed to prove. But I didn't, it was only me. No one was telling me what to do, I was free to decide myself and in some ways it took 4 days for me to realise that. 

From then on I didn't make any plans, I got up when I wanted, I ate when I was hungry, I spent 3 hours building a snow moomin. Although I still kept a bit of a routine, my whole attitude had changed and it felt quite liberating. 

I had scheduled a rest day - well by that It was actually just a day where I didn't move my camp. So I spent even longer on this camp. I had two bathrooms, an elaborate kitchen, a small fishing pond - for moomintroll to catch us dinner. (As I write this I realise perhaps my sanity was slightly going...) 

It was one of my nicer camp spots, but these things must always have a downside. And for camp 4/5 it was a serious lack of firewood. I had to go on some long hunts in order to track some decent wood down. At one point the distances were so far from my camp I ended up taking my sled with me so that I could load it up rather than ski back to camp each time with an arm full of wood.

Camp 4/5 

Camp 4/5 

Dealing with the silence 

The biggest thing I thought I would struggle with on the trip was being on my own. On the first night I had this feeling of 'this isn't bad at all - it's actually nice' and this feeling didn't change, I felt perfectly normal. It didn't bother me that there was no one around to talk to. I realised I'd spent all my life in my own head - so what was there to be scared of? I guess I was expecting to feel this intense loneliness but it didn't happen. I was enough company for myself- if that makes sense. 

IMG_5099.jpg

Before the trip we'd had a few chats as a group about the solo aspect of it all and our tutor had mentioned that the time alone could lead to you dealing with a few skeletons, or perhaps we'd experience a big epiphony or something. I was quite intrigued about this and wondered how I handle it. 

What I discovered about myself is that I'm really not very complex. I have no deep inner demons or no great capacity to discover any big revelations. In some ways I'm really quite simple.  I don't overthink things,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               or dwell to much. I also don't have any big profound thoughts. I'm still the same idiot on my own with no one around. And don't take this as some self deprecating statement, as it's not because It's just who I am

....But in some ways me just working that out and accepting it was quite a big deal. 

Things were going a bit too well...

On my rest day I went for a short hike up Jypptamaa, it was nice to be able to ski without the sled. I took the long/steady route as it wasn't a very big hill and I was in no rush. It started snowing just as I got to the top so it wasn't the clearest of views, but it was still a good feeling. There were quite a few tracks leading up, so it was quite comforting to know some of the others must have been up here too. It was my job as part of the planning group to sort everyone routes and maps so I could even remember who had planned to hike up here. I started a game of trying to guess by the tracks who it was...I'm sure I got 100%. 

The view from Jypptamaa

The view from Jypptamaa

Although it was still early in the morning (I'd gotten to the top much quicker than expected) I have a nice early lunch on the top and enjoyed the views. But the wind got the better of me after a while and I headed back to my camp.

The next day I decided to diverge from my set route a bit and add in another hill. I'd enjoyed my hike so much the day before I wanted another go. So I set off early again and headed for the slightly bigger hill Hirvipäät. It was a longer route, but it felt good to have a bit of a challenge. I didn't hang around at the top a it was quite windy and I was sure the snow started to feel like rain...So I just had my usual summit cookie and headed back. 

There was only one other set of tracks up Hirvipäät so I decided to follow those tracks down to mix it up a little. The decent was by no means too steep but the forest skis did pick up some pace. Just as I skiing down hill my left pole got caught in a load of branches and sharply pulled me backwards - snapping my wrist back as it went. The noise it made was gross. 

It was pretty painful, but I strapped it up using my spork as a split. Finished the rest of my cookies and ploughed on. Progress from there on was a bit slow, as soon as the skis would glide I would try to slow down but this technique was quite stuttered. As the adrenaline from the fall wore off my wrist became really quite painful and the snow was getting stickier - building up huge layers underneath my feet. I had to stop every few steps to bang it off. Having one arm had definitely given me the challenge I was looking for...

IMG_4972.jpg

I headed to one of the basecamps where my tutor was so he could check it out. A stupid part of me downplayed it slightly because I was worried I'd have to get evacuated and not be able to continue and with only a few days to go I really didn't want to give in. We came up with new plan which had me head towards the final common camp - rather than the longer route I'd originally planned. 

The final days 

The final days weren't my best. Buggering up my wrist had really ruined the nice, chilled ski trip I'd been enjoying. But hey these things happen. I spent that first night unable to sleep (mainly due to taking pain killers with caffeine in them - bad move) going over it all and beating myself up for being stupid. Now I know I can sometimes be a bit reckless, and I think a few of the guys didn't believe me when I said I wasn't going super fast, but I really wasn't. I was in control, the slope wasn't steep, it was just bad luck. And it's no good trying to rewrite whats already happened - you just have to keep trucking. Thats what I did. 

Final thoughts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solo trip - Preparation

28616951_344299736071090_2526913176660689055_o.jpg

Preparation before the expeditions is normally making lists, laying out my gear, keeping my fitness level high. This has all been happening but this trip is a bit different. Tomorrow we leave for our 9 day solo ski trip. A self supported trip where we pull all our gear in sleds and have mapped out a route which we will try to stick to over the 9 days. Each night setting up camp, finding and processing firewood. Its the ultimate test of everything we've leant so far. 

I keep going from hugely excited to sitting on the floor with the overwhelming doubt sitting heavily in my stomach. I try to question what it is that scares me, an exercise that we even did in class as part of our preparation for the trip. As with most things it's the unknown that scares me. When I first found about about the International wilderness guide course my heart always beat a bit faster when I read about the 'bear ski' - at the time I wondered 'How the hell do I survive in the wilderness for that long'. That isn't my fear anymore, over the past 8 months I've learnt ways to survive in the wild, I can look after myself no problem, theres always room for improvement of course but this isn't what is weighed heavily in the pit of my stomach on the day before departure. 

The question that worries me is 'Can I be alone for that long?' - we live in a world that is more connected than ever. Its rare I go a few hours without talking/messaging or somehow speaking to somebody. When I'm alone I play music 90% of the time to fill void of people and to take my mind away from itself. I'm not a person who seeks time in their own head, don't get me wrong I am quite happy doing things alone but thats different to embracing that silence. 

I've technically got Wilson to keep me company...

I've technically got Wilson to keep me company...

Every element of the trip I have practised, and worked on. Pulling a heavily loaded sled, making fire out of damp wood, sleeping in -28. I've done all that I know I can cope, and deal with it. But I have never spent that length of time disconnected from everything. It does excite me at times, it's such a luxury these day to have the chance to just head into the wilderness and worry about nothing but yourself for 9 days. Then again the prospect of all that time alone, in my own head scares the hell out of me. 

I'm intrigued to see how I handle it, I'm taking my iPod and a book for the times when I want to distract myself but I'm going to try my best to stay in the moment, to take everything in and deal with everything as it comes. 

When planning the trip I found a very apt quote from the writer of the Moomins, Tove Jansson:

"The very last house stood all by itself under a dark green wall of fir trees, and here the wild country really began. Snufkin walked faster and faster straight into the forrest. Then the door of the last house opened a chink and a very old voice cried: 'Where are you off to?'

'I don't know,' Snufkin replied.

The door shut again and Snufkin entered his forrest, with a hundred miles of silence ahead of him."

Ice water self rescue

As part of our IWG training we had to complete a self rescue from the ice water. With the solo trip coming up we were beginning to prepare ourselves for situations that could arise during our expedition. It wasn't something I was particularly looking forward too...

Making the ice hole

02009112-a575-48e4-9571-ac082c31d6ce.jpg

We needed to make a hole in the ice, so armed with a few ice drills and saws we set about making ourselves a nice sized pool to enjoy. We began drilling lines of holes into the ice then sawing out big cubes, and dragging them out using some rope. 

At first when I could see some small cracks in the ice I worried I was heading for my ice dip a bit prematurely but as soon as we removed the first chunk of ice, and I saw just how thick it was - I relaxed a little. 

However rational I tried to be about doing it, I stick felt sick in my stomach about jumping in. Water isn't my most confident of places, I prefer my feet on something more solid. But I knew I was going to do it, so I just powered through the 'what ifs' going on in my head and kept drilling holes. 

You can see in the photo below just how big the chunks of ice were! The rule for walking across frozen lakes is that there needs to be at least 5cm of ice in order to support you. But in most cases you can't tell how thick the ice is until you drill into it. Areas to avoid are always streams/river mouths coming out from the lake - any narrow sections. It's always worth checking with locals though before going onto any frozen lake, because lots of things can affect the ice so always double check.

IMG_4467.JPG

The jump

We were told to wear clothes we would be normally skiing in, so that we really understand the feeling. Although too much Gore-tex and we'd be in the water much longer waiting until the water actually soaked through. The idea of the exercise was to get a good feeling of what it was like once you were wet through and how it felt to try and get out/function once you were in that situation. 

Niall went first, doing a Peter Kay style 'top bombing' move that made most of us hold our breath until he resurfaced! Lunatic...

I didn't go for any style points, I mainly just wanted to get it over and done with. As with all the small personal challenges the thought is always worse than the reality. Once I was in the water, yes it was bloody cold, and I struggled to get my words out (I was trying to tell the others that it's not so bad) but it came out as breathless mumble...which gave the opposite effect to reassurance. 

But after a while I got used to it, did a few lengths, swam around for it a bit just concentrating on my breathing. Nice deep breaths, calm your mind and calm your body. It's something I'm going to try and do whenever I think I'm about to panic/react too fast. Just take a minute, and concentrate on each breathe. 

Now with all that water soaked into my nice cotton hoody I was pretty heavy, so hauling myself out wasn't too easy. You can imagine if you fall in, and have nothing (like ice picks) to help you, just how hard it really is. 

Starting a fire

As part of the exercise we had to try and get a fire going after we got out, because it could happen that you fall through the ice and have no way of getting to anywhere warm so you would need to build a fire to dry yourself. 

I didn't feel too bad, as I started busying myself collecting firewood and finding my fire making kit, but as I had to try and use my knife to make some feather sticks I realised they were completly numb. I felt like I had no control over them. After laughing at the blobs of useless flesh at the end of my arms attempt to make delicate feathersticks, I went and grabbed some small dry spruce branches instead. I set it all up and then went to light the match, amazingly it caught first time, despite my shaky useless hands, and just as I was about to celebrate a massive wave of water ran down the sleeve of my jacket and into my small flame. Damn

2 sodden boxes of matches later I had a fire going. It wasn't easy, and that was in an almost ideal position. I have some existing firewood and my fire making kit started off dry - but in reality it would take much longer. But it felt good to understand the feeling, and how learn fast your extremities lose their feeling. 

The worst part of the day was actually warming up. In my head a hot shower was all I was dreaming of when I was floating around in the lake. But in reality it was an excruciating, itchy, burning experience. But hey it was yet another little personal victory. I had done it, and it wasn't as bad as thought it was going to be.