The crossing of Finnmarksvidda had made me nervous all along. While going over the maps during preparations it was always there: a huge empty spot on the map, barren, exposed, prone to very sudden changes in weather, only few cabins and they are far in between. Our encounter with the Germans in Honningsvåg did not increase my faith in it. And yet I was looking forward to it, too: one of the wildest pieces of land in all of Norway, hundreds of kilometres of nothingness, a famous and notorious stretch along the E1. We walked out of Olderfjord on the same afternoon we resupplied and set up camp on the edge of the plateau. Finnmarksvidda would live up to its reputation: we were up for four eventful days before we were forced out towards the road.
The first northern section of vidda was stunning. Wide open plains and gently rolling hills were bordered by round peaks, shining white far in the distance. Where we were all the snow had disappeared, the rain had made sure of that. There was seemingly no end to the plateau in either direction. Some of those wide panoramas resembled images of what I thought Alaska would look like, or northern Canada, and I could only imagine how intimidating the loneliness must be out there.
A strong southern wind blew in our faces and the sun was out. Sometimes I cursed that biting wind, but then again I was relieved that it was blowing from the south, if it would have been blowing in our backs from the north we might have been standing in the snow until our knees. And yet even without the snow we made slow progress. PJ and I were surprised to find there was no track (even though the map shows ‘marked trail’). We always figured there would be some sort of ground trail on a DNT route. Instead we followed irregular markings while splashing through swamps and wetlands, trying to keep our boots as dry as possible. Temperatures were just around zero degrees Celsius so it was really imperative not to get wet. After two days of cross country navigation we came to occasional ATV tracks, though they would disappear in the swamps too.
After the first day temperatures dropped below freezing all day, and far below during the night. In spite of the cold it was really damp: the swamps were freezing but had not frozen yet, the lakes and rivers were still somewhat open, precipitation hung in the air and that autumn wetness was present everywhere. We came on the edge of the seasons. Keeping dry really became a challenge. The tent became damp in the evening and would freeze in the night, never to thaw again. The same happened to our backpacks, shoes and even our down sleeping bags. That dampness became the biggest issue we had to deal with: keeping things dry became simply impossible, and as days passed without any possibility for drying it became harder and more dangerous to remain out.
The first cabin on route was Bojobæski, 93 km in. We walked from first to last light of the day, making slow progress through the half-frozen wetlands. A second significant problem were the rivers. We did not want our boots fill up with icy water and rather kept them dry, so we took off our shoes for every crossing. With air temperatures below 0°C and water temperature nearing the freezing point this became very harsh. The cold bit at our feet, pain increasing for every crossing done.
We frantically started scanning the maps for crossings on our path. There were many, though one morning was particularly bad. It was the second morning out and the coldest one. Soon after we packed our ice-plastered tent away we came to the first of four crossings which followed each other shortly. On the first one PJ slipped and fell, soaking half of himself in the icy water and nearly losing a shoe and a pole to the river (I caught the shoe and had to run back into the water to catch the pole in the last minute). Between the crossings lay an elaborate wetland. By the time we reached the last river he was entirely soaked. My boots were getting wet too. I still took them off trying to cross that last river, where the ice was setting. Not only above the water were rocks covered with ice but below it too, though that was not always easy to spot. I looked for a long time to find a place to cross it and when I finally found one it wasn’t without cutting my feet on the ice, something I would come to pay for.
Later that day, after we left the rivers far behind us, we heard engines coming out of the hills. Three ATV’s showed up, driving a herd of reindeer in front of them. They were driven by three Sámi men from Karasjok who were on their half-yearly migration with their herd from Nordkapp to Karasjok. We would walk parallel to them for two days, in fact following the moving of the herd. I envied them their tipi filled with reindeer skins and a warm fire inside. On that first encounter we greeted each other briefly before we each continued on our way.
We chatted more and more as we passed each other a couple of times. I guess we were curious about each other. I had met a few Sámi before while living in Kiruna, but never on the move with their herds. It was really interesting to ask them how things work. One of them explained that he thought their 350km journey from Magerøya to Nordkapp is one of the longest migrations anyone undertakes with their reindeer. They wondered what we were doing out there at this time of the year. They shared some advice and some thoughts and on our final meeting remarked: “You are tough people being out here on your free time, especially at this time of the year”. When we replied that we thought it opposite the guy just answered: “Ja, but we choose this lifestyle.”
Hearing that from them almost sounded like music as we were just beginning to conclude that this was one of the most miserable things we’d ever done. I became really worried about PJ and our lack of adequate shelter. That was the third major problem: we took the wrong tent. The three season tunnel was not up for the task, or at least I did not feel that it was. I did not feel entirely safe in it during stormy nights. Both the inner and outer sails would be covered with frozen condense and there was not enough margin to keep it off the big winter sleeping bags. I once stated that we should start with our smaller winter tent (Helsport Storsylen), but I should have stated it more firmly. I was angry at myself for not putting my foot down for it and at PJ for not listening. But there was nothing to do about it now: Storsylen was on its way to Kautokeino and until then we had to make do with what we had.
PJ’s feet had been wet longer than the start of Finnmarksvidda. His shoes were the same as the ones that went through winter in Nepal, another cold and damp place, and yet they did not work well here. His feet started looking awefully battered and got worse for every passing day. He started limping, a little sooner every afternoon, until he could barely walk anymore. I slept badly and kept all my focus on reaching the cabin. I took the lead, found the trail, scouted the river crossings, made dinner and breakfast, kept the pace up. I felt horrible for pushing him on but we could not stay put. There was no place to warm, no place to dry, no place to hide. The weather had been rather changeable but not too unstable though it could turn any moment and I feared when it would.
The snow came on the final night before the cabin. It came wet and heavy, propelled by gusts of wind. I was awake all night. The tent held as best as it could and it honestly did not do a bad job at it. The gusts were strong though and the wet snow made the sail heavy. With every burst of wind the inner tent got some spray until that one was wet too, and then it was our turn to be sprayed. At 6.30 I decided that we had to go. We had to make the cabin. We left in the blizzard, with my head worrying about what would happen if we did not get there.
The wind howled around our hoods and the snow lashed at our faces. By the time we reached the cabin the storm had died and it almost fell as if spring had come: a warm sun lit up the forest, melting the snow off the trees. The only dry items left to me were my primaloft booties and my warm evening socks. Everything else was either soaked or damp: every sock, every layer of clothing, my sleeping bag. The cabin was a saviour. Soon we had the fire going and the place was changed into a drying cabinet.
PJ’s feet were a horror. They had become wrinkly, pale and blistering things on the bottom, with weeping sores and dark skin on top. We pulled out all of our first aid documentation and preliminary concluded that he had trench foot, probably with some frostbite on the top. On my left foot the cut from the ice had gotten infected and that one was swollen: the beginnings of trench foot there, too. That immediately put continuing towards Mollešjokha out of the question: four large river crossings lay on that route, and especially PJ’s feet would not cope with that.
We had to make some hard choices and we both knew it. The voices of common sense in either of us said we had to go out towards Alta over Reinbukkelvhytta, towards dry and safe conditions, to find another way. The voices of the hikers wanted to try and go to the staffed mountain cabin of Jotka to find more info and see if we could reach Maze another way. We debated all day long, leaving it rest for a while to then get back at it. In the end the common sense won. We walked 40km towards civilisation and soon both concluded it was the right thing to do.
We had to take it easy: PJ’s feet were still very sensitive and he could not walk long days. It was really important that they stayed warm and dry. We slept at an old classmate of his in Alta and then took the bus south. We intended to get off at Suolovuopmi Fjellstue, to the west but almost in line with Bojobæski, to walk south from there. Instead the bus driver dropped us off at Maze and gave us a long explanation about taking bus 60 from there towards Karasjok to get where we wanted to go, and we realised there had been a misunderstanding. At least he dropped us 20km in the right direction, though we were somewhat bummed about skipping.
The final 58km to Kautokeino were done in two long days. Since we set course for Alta the weather had been clear and very cold. The ground was truly freezing now and it was due time to leave the tunnel and get the dome tent. We almost couldn’t pitch it on that final night. I looked forward to warmer gloves, a warmer beanie, warmer wool and a warmer tent. There’s not a lot of snow yet but winter is around the corner!
We’ll have to plan the next section carefully keeping in mind rivers and daylight. When we started from Nordkapp 18 days ago the sun rose at 07.00 and set at 18.00. Now it’s rising at 08.30 and setting at 16.00. Day light saving time will win us light in the morning but make us lose in the afternoon, making the potential distance we can reach a day shorter. Almost 20 minutes of light disappear every day. In return we get those deep blue and pink skies only short days above the Arctic circle can offer, making us walk through a painting every single day.
Distance covered: 304,5 km