Lyrical in Lapland – Biologist Released into the Wilderness

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.

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On the green banks of brook Sivakkaoja

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).

Day one

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The gnarly giant has fallen

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.

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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).

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My campsite at Sivakkaoja

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.

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Kuukkeli in mid-flight

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!

Day two

Warming up again around the fire with coffee, tea, and scramble from self-dried and ground egg powder, we were ready to go.

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Reindeer herder’s hut in sight (left)

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.

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Rautulampi and view of the fells toward Finland’s eastern border with Russia, some 30 km away

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).

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‘Breast-fells’ in the south

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.

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After several hours spent crossing Niilanpää and Rautupää fells, descending down into a sheltered valley of majestic birches felt nothing short of paradise-like.

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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.

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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.

Day three

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).

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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.

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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.

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Luulampi

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.

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IMG_1780.jpgNevertheless, 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.

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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.

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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.

If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Back up your claims with evidence.

About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, volunteer science communicator, and fiction writer.
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11 Responses to Lyrical in Lapland – Biologist Released into the Wilderness

  1. Jim Baerg says:

    According to the wikipedia link you gave kuukkeli are related to the Whiskyjack aka Grey Jay aka Canada Jay. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_jay.

    Those will eat out of my hand & I have some pictures of that, from XC ski trips in the mountains west of Calgary. Where humans have been too generous you have to guard your sandwich or the Whiskyjack may try to take it from your hand while you are eating.

    Like

  2. Robert Budd says:

    Wow, thanks for sharing that great little excursion. What an interesting landscape. Loved the dune shot. Fascinating flora.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You had everything needed for an excellent adventure: solitude, wild lands, surprise visits by animals, lichens (much different than our arid lichens here), food (it all tastes good out there), flowing water, rocks and trees, cold and rain.
    Ever since I did a report on Finland when I was in 5th grade, I have wanted to go there, especially Lapland, and your story just renewed my desire. Thanks you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great to hear you liked it! If you ever get the chance, go for it! Both the summer and winter time are pretty special, with midnight sun and special flora and fauna on one, and snow landscapes, great starry skies and northern lights on the other hand.

      I’d love to take my kids to experience both in the coming years when they grow a bit. Would also love to travel all the way to the arctic sea, and see the famous Kevo canyon, and Lemmenjoki, and and..

      Liked by 1 person

  4. marianwhit says:

    You deserved every moment of that, and took us with you…thanks so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Planar says:

    Hey, long time fan of your blog for its thought provoking science articles, I really enjoyed seeing you posting something different. Funnily, I have been in Finland this summer visiting some friends and blogged about my experiences. Would be curious to hear your opinion 🙂 Did I get the Suomi psyche right?
    https://planars.wordpress.com/2018/08/24/finland-part-1/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link, much appreciated! I like your reflections on the Finnish mentality, lot of things were spot on. I like the straightforward style, I get quite stressed and frustrated when I try to navigate these situation where people say something because ‘you must say it’ and so that the others can counter with ‘what they must say’ etc, adding all these layers of guesswork and complication to it.

      I’d make a small note about a detail: Finns are indeed Nordic people – but we are not actually part of Scandinavia at all, just neighbours. The definition I recognise is Nordic countries = Scandinavia+Iceland+Finland. More about the distinctions here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scandinavia

      I loved your photos! They certainly capture a very Finnish nature spirit. Nice to hear about your trip, thanks for sharing 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Planar says:

        Hey thanks for reading my post and thank you very much for the correction. I learned something new today i.e. that Scandinavia is a different concept in every part of the world. I plan to leave it the original text as it is (since it demonstrates nicely my overall point about preconceptions and personal biases) and include a note at the end of the text stating the correction .By the way when I was writing about the Finns not being Nordic people I was thinking mostly from a cultural point of view(ref: “Vikings etc) rather than a genetic one. I need to look into that some more 🙂

        Like

      • Yes, that’s right, we are not Vikings – the Scandinavians were 🙂 And Iceland was settled by the Norse Vikings, AFAIK. To add to the confusion, there’s also a term ‘Fennoscandia’, which refers to Finland (Fennia) and Scandinavia (but not Iceland), and it has its origins in a more geological definition of the Nordic peninsulas. Of course the language lives its own life, and terms change if their usage changes enough. The word ‘Nordic’ and ‘Norse’ (old word for Norwegian/Scandinavian) in turn both have their etymology in the word ‘north’… haha must stop checking nordic terms now and get stuff done. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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