The thermometer showed -16°C when we left the hotel in Kautokeino at 10 in the morning. The temperature we were actually feeling was -23°C. It was a crisp, clear morning, everything sparkled in the sunlight. Every twig, every blade of grass, every needle on every pine tree was frozen and covered with a thick layer of hoarfrost. Thick ice crystals covered the ground, too. I had never seen anything quite like it. Everything around us was white, glimmering and reflecting the sky with its vivid pinks and blues. It was a scene out of a dream.
The cold really bit. I was really grateful for my warmer winter kit that PJ’s parents sent up. We spent two days in Kautokeino waiting for the package of warmer wool, beanies, gloves, buffs, a dome winter tent and snow shoes. My hands felt warm while a thick woollen buff covered my face. My pack felt enormous holding 11 days of food, the snow shoes and half of the tent. At first I wasn’t quite sure how I could move. I didn’t carry a pack that heavy in years, not since before I started long-distance hiking.
Somehow though I was walking, comfortable in the knowledge that we were ready to tackle cold and snow, one of which had already arrived. PJ needed some motivation to leave the comfort of the hotel but he was walking too. It did not take long before we really felt immersed in the emptiness around us. The lonely gravel road we followed headed somewhere but seemingly nowhere. Snow came in the afternoon and obscured the vastness of it all, reducing our world to the immediate 100m around us. We headed for the Reisa and Käsivarren Erämaa national parks, nearly 200km of mountain wilderness to get to Kilpisjärvi.
We reached Reisa after a day and a half. The Sámi were still out, too, keeping an eye on their reindeer roaming the national park. We learned that two weeks hence they will move south, across the Kautokeino river. It was truly only the reindeer, the Sámi and us now, much to the entertainment of all the reindeer owners we met. They all pulled their ATV’s over to have a chat, usually starting along the lines ‘now this is an unusual sight!’ and wanted to know where we were headed and where we were from. We’ve met many incredible people so far. I feel really privileged to be able to do this, especially now, when the conditions are hard and the encounters genuine. The north will always hold a special place for me.
Reisa is an absolutely stunning and incredible place. Old forests cover the valleys and gorges while big walls jut from the landscape. The mountains around us grew bigger after entering Troms fylke. Often it was cloudy or foggy and the world reduced to shades of black and white and grey, but when it was clear it was hard not to stop and let it all soak in. The landscape was incredible, a vast white world contrasted by the painting of pastel colours that only a late-autumn Arctic sky can offer.
Lots of reindeer passed along the way. Somehow I always find it comforting to see them. A lot of other animals left their tracks in the snow without showing themselves: moose, hare, lynx, wolverine. An eagle took off on the ice merely 10m away from me. That was a mighty experience: I had never seen an eagle that up close. Their tracks followed ours sometimes, to then venture off and disappear into the wild again.
Reisa is one of those rare places in Norway where the high plateaus as well as the lower valleys are protected. It’s a biodiversity hotspot, containing rare and threatened species of fauna and flora. Though almost 17% of mainland Norway is protected in one form of another, most of the national parks cover mountainous and vidda-like landscapes. Less than 4% of the productive forests have any kind of protection, transforming the woods in monotonous rows of trees of the same species and the same age. This often makes people say that forests are boring to walk through, though that’s not what they ought to look like. It’s an impoverished forest. Old forests have young trees, old trees, high and low and thin and thick trees. For species depending on old or dead trees these monoculture woods don’t provide a viable habitat, so they are forced into the margins of old-growth left in Norway. Once you’ve seen old-growth the difference is haunting. That’s why we want to talk about the 10% mark for forest protection in Norway, so that there can be more places like Reisa and to keep the diversity of Scandinavian forests alive.
The cold spell that persisted for the two days we were in Kautokeino really worked to our advantage: the swamps had frozen and even the bigger streams were covered in ice, making our crossings much easier as we could now simply walk over them. It was good that the cold came before the snow: a snow layer insulates, it would have taken the wetlands a lot longer to freeze. Now everything was solid and it was much preferable to walk on snow rather than on pure ice like the final days on Finnmarksvidda.
Yet even in the cold it remained surprisingly damp. Huts were a welcome change after a couple of nights in the tent. We started avoiding camping for a while: our sleeping bags did not handle the existing conditions well and we needed to remain cautious with PJ’s feet, keeping them as dry as possible which is an assignment while walking through wet snow. This was hard in Norway, where surprisingly many of the cabins along this route do not belong to the tourist association but to private actors and are locked. It was much easier in Finland, where huts are not only very well equipped but even free.
Reisa national park ended in the impressive canyon of the Reisa river. Bad weather hung in the air so from Nedrefosshytta we pushed out in one long day, racing the daylight to Ovi Raishiin 29km down the trail where supposedly another small DNT cabin stood that we had access to. The river lies at an elevation of only 150m. Temperatures were rising, the snow was melting and it was especially damp that day making us push hard to be able to sleep inside. When we finally came to the cabin in the dark we found that the DNT lock had been replaced by a private one and we were left on the outside. General morale was not flying high that evening.
Early the following morning we left the immense walls with their towering ice falls behind and climbed to higher ground again on the way to Finland. A warm front came in and dropped rain, not snow, for two consecutive days. I know of few more depressing things than walking through snow in the rain. It was accompanied by a bad-tempered wind, now coming from the north and now from the south. After a stormy night in the tent we reached the border, bypassing the last Norwegian cabin that was without firewood and relieved to find a place out of the rain and wind in Finland. After the tent hung drying and the fire was crackling we smiled again. Alone up there in the dominating darkness a cabin makes all the difference in the world.
The following days would be characterised by high winds and rapidly changing weather. When the sky was clear it exploded in shades of orange and pink while the rising sun lit the eastern flanks in a glow of bright red and golden light. Then the fog would hit again and we’d be left in the void, walking through nothingness and trying to trace the small poles that serve for markers. In the night the sky occasionally lit up by bright and colourful aurora’s, but when the storm clouds came back the deep darkness gave the impression that nothing existed at all. Once a polar fox appeared out of that darkness, its white fur almost ghostlike, curiously looking to see what was happening to then disappear into the blackness again.
We walked around Halti, Finland’s highest mountain that is actually in Norway, dominating the landscape like a glowing beacon in the morning light. It seemed so close, it was actually close, and we considered making the detour to the summit. But it wasn’t the time. Warm temperatures made the snow soggy and subzero nights combined with rain during the day covered the rocks in verglas, and there were a lot of rocks on the way there. We were using our snow shoes more as spikes than as actual snow shoes, requiring some acrobatics to cross rocky fields. Halti would be something for another time, another sunny spring trip on skis in eternal daylight.
The swamps opened, the creeks opened, snow turned to ice. Winter came and left again, leaving us hoping for snow by the time we got to Kilpisjärvi. There was no snow on the forecast, leaving us wondering about our change into full winter gear. We took two more days of rest in Kilpisjärvi, enjoying the comforts of modern life after the darkness of the mountains, trying to look ahead. Soon the polar night will be upon us and hopefully the snow as well.
Distance covered: 491,1 km