Nature post! I went to Lapland for a few days, and am so bursting with happiness about the fact that I can’t help sharing some of the experience. Anyone looking to read about nature observations of plants, lichens, mushrooms and animals, as well as my hiking mishaps and serendipities above the arctic circle in Finland, with plenty of photos to go with, read on.
My much awaited Lapland visit could not have packed much more of the things a wilderness hike is all about: surviving the cold, drying wet socks over the fire, climbing a fell (rounded ancient ice-ground mountains of Finland), finding vibrant valleys between fells with clearwater lakes and waterways, crossing said waterways on foot, eating bilberries everywhere, and encountering a family of fearless Siberian jays (kuukkeli), reindeer, owl, and rock ptarmigans (kiiruna).
I started my hike by disregarding the fell-centre lady’s advice at Kiilopää to take the road, and headed instead out in the forest where the map showed that a winter-time cross-country track would go in the direction I wanted – after all, I had a map and a compass. I didn’t regret my decision, for the easy route crossed a wonderful pine forest dotted with kelo or snags (dead, silvery smooth pine trees) standing or fallen, the latter sprouting the richest varieties of lichens, lying on an ubiquitous carpet of friendly mosses, heathers, and bilberry twigs.
It was fascinating to reflect on the length of time the trunks had been there, considering that reaching the stage takes anything between 300-500 years, and it can then be sustained for several hundred more. Once fallen, I’ve heard the process of breaking down and being overgrown with lichens, mosses and twigs in the harsh environments of Lapland may take so long that we are approaching a thousand years or more. Below, as rudimentarily identified by me: some Iceland ‘moss’ (Cetraria islandica, or moose lichen in Finnish) and several species of Cladonia lichens, including reindeer, red horn or lipstick (Cladonia coccifera or cristatella), and pixie cup lichens.
I was alone on the first part of the hike, and after a while I felt a bit nervous about bears, so I sang a couple of songs out to myself while walking and taking photos (all shot with the phone’s screen lighting a millimiter or so above minimum, in order to reserve battery life – looking at how I managed to frame the photos despite all that, I’m pretty pleased).
I found the laavu, the shelter, where I was to meet my wandering companions at the undefined time when they’d have hitch-hiked their way to my latitudes.
The shelter was located on the red sandy banks of a purling brook. This is one thing I had not expected (or didn’t remember from my childhood visits): the amount of sand in Lapland! Lovely reddish ridges and sandy soils were everywhere.
The fine misty drizzle increased to a steady rain and chilly gusts over the evening and night, which included a heroic effort of managing to light a fire in the wind and rain, warming myself on the fire while drinking copious amounts of tea, and enjoying the tastiest dish of simple pasta sauce with tomato, tuna, and olives I’ve ever eaten (wilderness is the best spice).
During a break in the rain, a curious family of three kuukkeli flew right up to my shelter, literally landing on it, regarding me sociably for a time. I heard afterward that they might even have eaten from my hand had I tried to offer them any crumbs.
For the night I cuddled snugly next to my friends in the open shelter, realizing I had brought a sleeping bag bought in Switzerland (d’oh) without twice looking at its aimed temperature range. It was a breezy compact thing with a limit set at +3 degrees Celsius – which happened to perfectly match the prognosis for the night, and would be accompanied with a 6 mm-helping of cold rain. Shared body heat and improvised warm-water bottle for the win!
Warming up again around the fire with coffee, tea, and scramble from self-dried and ground egg powder, we were ready to go.
After a mild and dry morning hike through the pine forests we reached the fell-side, fortified ourselves with lunch and a nap at a reindeer herder’s hut, and waited out another bout of rain. Then we set out to climb the Niilanpää fell (540ish meters), whose open slopes were surprisingly windless.
We enjoyed the gentle silhouettes of treeless felltops as far as the eye could see in south, east and north. West was mostly forest. Two of the south tops (Nattaset) are famously described as being shaped like two breasts (yep, I see them).
In the east slopes of Niilanpää we found a rocky gorge, which we thought clearly promised to be a Tintin-style opening into a secret kingdom. And the rocks! Rocks all along our hike were so colourful and varied, the photos don’t do them credit. The multitude of lichens growing on them was incredible, ranging from silvery and neon-green to mysterious black dotted map-like patterns.
After several hours spent crossing Niilanpää and Rautupää fells, descending down into a sheltered valley of majestic birches felt nothing short of paradise-like.
I say majestic birches, for in the fell birches are abundant, but mostly in a twig-like form, sticking up from the ground like bilberries or heathers with their miniature leaves or, higher up, with their ‘trunks’ spread flat along the ground, hanging onto rocks for dear life.
In the valley of the lake Rautulampi (‘arctic char pond’) on the other hand, the dwarf birches gave way to crooked fell birches, rising to heights of several meters, with trunks so thick that you could even hang your hammock on them – which I did. The evening and night were much milder this time, and our atmospheric campsite on the lake was unusually short of mosquitos.
While we sat around our dying fire at eleven in the night, the twilight barely setting in, we were all struck speechless by the appearance of a large, round-faced owl. It circled our campsite just above the fell birches, its wing beats perfectly soundless as it flew over our heads once, regarded us calmly, then headed off northward. Being no owl-expert, this one to me most resembled the Great Grey Owl (Finnish: Lapland Owl), and I feel very privileged to have seen one.
Another feature of Lapland dawned on me soon after (or rather, didn’t dawn), when I woke up in my hammock, saw that it had gotten lighter, and got up to start the fire… only to realize it was 3:44 AM. (The photo above is from about nine in the evening – I didn’t take one at night, I went back to bed.) In fact, the summer’s first sunset had taken place only three weeks prior our visit. The sun still didn’t set very far below the horizon, so the night was more akin to a long twilight.
Some of my favourite plant life along the way were the wealth of berries everywhere, which made an excellent addition to my morning porridge by the lake.
Above you can see silvery-leafed bog bilberries after the rain; crowberries (cousins of the heathers) on a lichen-covered rock; strikingly red bunchberries sticking up from the hay; and bilberry and lingonberry twigs turning red. The one missing here is the Lapland classic, the orange cloudberry, which turns a golden honey colour as it ripens. For that one I would have needed to head into proper bog landscape. (Next time!)
Other favourites that I found along the way included a man-sized pine which had not gotten the memo that fell-tops are supposed to be treeless; a large, wrinkly jelly fungus sitting on a branch (English names include yellow brain, golden jelly fungus, yellow trembler, and witches’ butter); the iconic white tufts of arctic cottongrass here and there in the wetlands; the frequent deep red tussocks of Magellanic bogmoss; and the crawling fir-wannabee, growing flat on the ground of the fell, called ketunlieko or fir clubmoss (apparently poisonous).
I made my way back toward civilization in a valley between fells on my own, as my friends were headed for a 10-day trip further in the wilderness. To alleviate some of my envy, the route revealed some of the loveliest landscapes of my trip, with a meandering rivers, ponds, colourful heaps of rocks, brown rocks, red rocks, black rocks (you get the picture), sandpits, pines, birches, and fell-slopes.
Two paths lead along each side of the valley, often hundreds of meters apart. At one point I was crossing the valley, curious of the landscape on the path of the other side, when I spotted the first reindeer of the hike (though I had seen several along the road during the 4 hour bus-ride from Rovaniemi). Filled with the enthusiasm only befitting a Lapland tourist, I jumped as quietly as I could from one tuft of hay to another to cross a surprise labyrinth of waterways, which stood between me and the reindeer, all the time keeping it in my sights.
The gray smudge in the photo on the left, beside the largest birch, is the reindeer (kudos for anyone who can spot it). It very politely stayed put while I hopped my way over.
There it was! Meeting with a reindeer in the wilderness. What more could I wish for?
Why, the very thing waited around the bend: crossing a brook barefoot. After covering some 30 km over the last three days, while carrying a 18 kg hiking backpack, my feet thought this was a glorious idea.
As it happens, the unnamed brook I waded through had its origins in the very same rocky gorge between Niilanpää and Rautupää, (the portal to a secret kingdom) which we had found the day before.
My last stop was on the beautiful sandbanks of Luulampi (Bone pond), and with a mere 4 km from the fell-centre, the place hosted a wilderness cafe during several weeks of the year – including now. Coffee with actual milk! Ahh.
I ate the last of my snacks enjoying the view before climbing over the fell-side once more, ptarmigans twittering warning calls as I went, and a mother reindeer herding its calf to give me a wide berth as I climbed the edge to look in the direction where I actually wanted to head off to, on the far side of the lake, instead of being destined for the fell-centre once more.
Nevertheless, an hour and a half later, it was with great appreciation that I attacked the classic dish of sautéed reindeer with mash and lingonberry jam at the restaurant of Kiilopää.
It was with even great wistfulness I started my long trip back to southern Finland, lakes and bogs of Lapland whisking past my bus window in the evening sun.
Next time I’ll do a longer trip, and drag the whole family with me.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Lapland. The wonderful wildernesses still existing in the world today are a big part of why I do what I do – why I blog about science-based environmentalism, and am a member of the Finnish Ecomodernists. I want us to make sure we do the best we can with the best tools possible, to be able to leave places where nature may flourish.
For more about scientific environmentalism, you can read my piece Plants don’t have problems, the On the Nature of Natural, or other articles under the topics of Farming and GMOs and Climate and Energy.
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