A 9 day self supported hiking trip just above Paanajarvi national park in an area of completely untounched wilderness.
We would be travelling from Kuru to Kuusamo 660km of the first day then staying overnight and leaving for the Russian boarder the next day. It was a pretty long drive, the roads in Finland can get pretty boring after a while as they're long and straight. This put's a lot of pressure on the driving playlist. My two favourite CDs were Metallica - Metallica and Neil Young - Harvest Moon - a very different driving style was adapted for each.
Kuusamo to Paanjärvi national park - First bit of advice when crossing the boarder to Russia. If you're passport is a few years old and you signed it when you were much younger....make sure you know what bloody signature is on it. Because they will test you, again and again and they definitely won't smile at you.
I've done a few dodgy boarder crossings in my time, (Going from Laos to Vietnam they even found a pig in my backpack...but that's another story) but I've never had such a clear representation that you are leaving quite a civilised, developed country and heading into the complete opposite before. We went from smooth tarmac to a pot holed filled dirt track which made your ribs rattle as you bounced over the large rocks. Hey, welcome to Russia.
After a few hours we arrived in a small village, it was possibly one of the most depressing looking places I've seen; grey concrete blocks, broken down cars on the side of the road, wooden shacks and decrepit buildings. Maybe there is some signs of communism left in Russia.
Welcome to Russia/
After lunch in the Paanäjarvi nature centre we set off to our parking spot on the other side of the national park. Driving fast enough to not feel all the pot holes but slow enough to make sure we didn't drop our stuff out of the trailer bobbling behind us we had snippet views of the stunning Russian wilderness.
As Enter sandman played, volume on full we drove further away from civilisation, we all realised we really were off to never never land. The excitement levels were pretty high, and after weeks of planning and packing we were finally here. The mix of anxiety and excitement was evident in everyone; Niall was chomping his way through half his supply of cereal bars, others were going for one last 'civilised' wee, and some stood fully ready to go with their 24kg backpacks on.
Our first hike wouldn't be too long, as we arrived pretty late we would only be walking 5/6km before setting up camp for the night. As we were still in the National park it was easiest to follow the road until we were out (we weren't allowed to camp in the national park, and actually you're not allowed to walk freely within the park just on the market trails)
The packs felt heavy but after a few initial adjustments, I had it sitting nice an high on my hips, taking most of the weight there and not having it so tight on the shoulders. This helped massively and I can't stress enough the importance of making sure your pack fits right, especially when carrying a decent amount of weight. It really made a difference and because of that I had no trouble with the bag for the duration of the trip.
As this was an educational trip we each had a designated day where it was our job to be the daily guide. Each day was a different pair and it was your job to make most of the decisions including navigation, break times and where to camp. So as the sky was getting darker and darker we headed off the road and into the forest. Instantly you forgot the incredible weight of the pack as you were concentrating on your footing in the dense forrest- but we were all much happier to be in the forest. The first of many songs were sung at the moment, I tried to teach Niells a song I had learnt at camp when I was younger about a moose drinking a lot of juice.
So we had arrived to our camp spot as chosen by the daily guides. It was now pretty dark, it was drizzling and Markus and I headed off to set up our camp (we had been put into pairs to share food/tools with). Let's just say the whole set up didn't go very smoothly. As we eventually lay down on uneven, smokey beds we recapped on what not to do next time:
- Check if both Loues will fit in the designated space
- Check the wind direction and make sure the smoke from the fire won't turn your lungs black
- Don't choose fresh birch as your firewood, its hard to split, it takes forever to dry therefore smokes for hours also because of that it doesn't burn that easily. Just don't.
- Don't spend hours trying to make it work, go and find better wood.
- If you have a small lightweight stove with a big pot of water on it, it will fall. All over your stuff. More than once. Learn from the first time!
- One packet of instant mash really does serve 4 people.
- Make sure all your headlamp batteries are charged. Incase they randomly run out after an hour!
- Bring tomato ketchup
As I shoved my head into my sleeping to escape the smoke that was still being blown into my face I did have an 'Oh shit what they hell am I doing?' moment.
As my 5:50am alarm went off I spent what would become a daily personal pep talk convincing myself to get out of the nice warm sleeping. The plan for that day was a 14km route north, with a hefty hill in the middle so mentally I was prepping for a big day. As we gathered around at 8am which was supposed to be departure time we got told that we had a few problems so we told to hang tight for a few hours. It turned out that Gary needed to be evacuated, his mental state wasn't good and the plan was to get him out of the forest and back to Finland. A quick plan was assembled and we established we would hang about for the day whilst some of the guys drove to the border. It was a strange situation, I personally didn't know what to do - I wanted to help but didn't really know how. He had plenty of good people looking after him, so I knew he would be okay.
So nothing really was going to plan. But this meant that we learnt early on, the plan isn't concrete. When you've got 16 people together in a new, tough environment things will rarely go to plan. You have to be able to adapt, accept and just get on with it. That night we moved about 1km down to the tip of the lake to find a slightly flatter spot to make camp and wait for the rest of the team to come back to us before setting off again.
So with a whole new route plan, this day was to be our longest hike day. With all the changes it was now on my guiding day -instead of the nice rest day fishing trip I would be leading the group on the first leg of our largest hiking day. Not quite what I expected.
Everyone seemed pretty happy to be heading off and doing some proper hiking, Jere and I were the daily guides so I took the first half of the day and would lead us to a nice lunch spot then we would switch. After a few disasters previously with my navigation I was a bit anxious. Instead of taking a bearing because there was a big hill right in the way I took a general North-east direction and tried to use the contours of the hill to guide me for the day. It worked in a sense, apart from one moment when I saw a clearing and despite it being the completely wrong direction I rushed over expecting the lake but found us in the middle of a giant bog. (The first of a many bogs!)
Being the first one was quite hard because I had no model to work off so it was quite difficult to judge the pace/amount of breaks. I think my pace was a bit quick, when you're concentrating so much on the navigation and choosing the path you can be in a bit of a bubble and forget the 17 people behind you. But I reached my destination in fairly good time, with only one hiccup so I was fairly happy. Now I could relax and just follow for the rest of the week.
I realise this is turning into a massive essay and a day by day breakdown isn't actually that interesting. Instead I will just talk more about lessons I learnt, and interesting moments during the trip. But first here's a load of photos to get a better sense of the place we were in; the weather was pretty grey for most of the week, raining for the first few days then a bit of a dry spell for a day or two which was nice. Then we payed for the good weather with a nice bit of sleet.
Rest day in our German Monkey camp. Markus and I teamed up with Neils and Jere for the rest day, making one big mega camp. With a lot of wet clothes and sleeping bags to dry we constructed a large teepee style construction to hang our shelters and clothes off. It did end up looking like some crazy Chinese style laundry house with stinky damp clothes everywhere but for those two days it was like staying in a fancy hotel. With no hiking to do we just made a great big fire, cooked some good food and well the boys just spoke german nonsense for most of it. But I really enjoyed that rest day.
- Practice makes it slightly better. What was nice about being partners with Markus was our little evening pep talk/assessment of the day. The first few camp set ups really weren't very smooth or to plan and a few hours later we would laugh and reflect on what a lousy job we had done. But we knew we were here to learn, it was never going to be perfect first go. We tended to end the night on 'well it can only get better right?'
- One thing at a time. The first few days were a bit manic, nothing was going to plan and we all got a real sense of just how far away from any help we were. This was no walk in the park. Sometimes that thought would consume me, I would doubt not only my ability to get through the next 8 days but wether I was even enjoying myself. It felt like such a long time, and I had moments where I really just didn't want to be there. To get over this I just had to not overthink things, and just do the task in hand. 'Just keep swimming' as Dory says. If you do that nothing seems impossible.
- Kevin Lacey. On long trips like this everyone has different ways to fill the time. Luckily on this IWG course they're were other lunatics that like stupid games, telling bad jokes, and singing songs like a monkey for others to guess what song it is.
- This is the wilderness. For me the forest's in Finland felt like the wilderness, but then we went to Russia. This was like the next level, it was so untouched. You just had this feeling that we were probably the only people for miles and miles. No one goes to these places, they don't hike around here, you can see it in the nature that surrounds you. It's different, theres things growing that i've never seen before. It really was a beautiful place.
- IWG22 are a bunch of diamonds. We've only known each other for a couple of months, but every single person has got each others backs. Every day you would see someone going out of there way to help someone else, looking after each other, it was so reassuring to know. We will get through this thing together.
- We are all different. Everyone has there strengths and their weaknesses. I've often been quite impatient or sometimes I lack in empathy. It's something I've been working on and I like to think i'm much better. It was good to have to do a trip like this with such a big, diverse group. To learn about myself but also about how others deal with things. Physically it ended up not being to much of a challenge for me but for some it really pushed them to the edge, but to see them still trucking on and just getting on with it was so awesome.
The penultimate day/
With most of the last few days being much shorter hiking days due to illness & injuries within the group we didn't have to far to go to our final camping spot. As we packed up after a rather windy, unenjoyable lunch spot the snow started to fall. But that bubble was soon popped when it turned into rather heavy rain. We trudged up a steep slope to our intended camping spot and the weather just got worse and worse. A mix of freezing sleet was what greeted us to our flat-ish camping spot. After days and days of the same routine we all go on setting up camp and chopping down firewood. We happened to be in a spruce heavy part of forest with no pine in sight so we opted for birch instead. That night I was partnering up with Sirpa, she's awesome though. She's always looking after everyone else, she's the first to volunteer for anything and she's saved my ass many a time.
I have never made so many feather sticks in my life, trying to keep the fire going, trying to dry the wood and not let the rain inside our little teepee setup. She just kept going, we were cold, we were drenched and all I wanted to do was curl up and just pretend this wasn't so grim. But I couldn't, if you're the guide and you have a group of people relying on you to get that fire going you can't give up. You need to do it, however cold your hands are, however shit the weather is, however crap your wood is you just keep going. Sirpa already has that in her, she doesn't give up.
The next day we had a short walk out of the forest back to the road and then back to the van. Which of course had a flat tyre. Just another unexpected thing but we were kings of the unexpected now and sorted it out in no time. Then as we all returned back to the car park with two working vans we had a big group hug. We had done it and it felt so good.
We were filthy, everything was soaked and stinky, but we were so happy. What a trip!