Just over 11 months ago I returned from spending 11 days in the far north, 8 of which was spent in the cold, quiet beauty of Finland’s largest National Park – Lemmenjoki which, in Sámi (Lapp), means Warm River. It was this river valley that we were to follow for the next 8 days staying in open-cabins and a tent. But why have I waited until now to show the images and tell the story? As some of you will know, last month I held a fundraising lecture with the second half dedicated almost entirely to the adventure and although I wrote about it in my newsletter shortly afterwards, I wanted to keep it back from the ‘public’ along with the majority of images that I took in order to keep it fresh for the audience. But now that the talk’s done and dusted I’m free (and eager) to show and inform others of this experience.
I have to admit, I didn’t look at this as being a photographic trip, rather an experience and quality time with a good Finnish friend whom I have known for over 15 years – Markus Sirkka. Markus was my guide in 2001 while leading a brown bear photography tour in eastern Finland. We hit it off immediately and since then have hiked and canoed together both in Finland and the UK. He is a man at home in the wilds. He writes stories about man and nature, is a wilderness guide and tests hiking equipment for an array of outdoor magazines. Strong and incredibly fit (you only notice such characteristics when you see someone moving with aplomb uphill through a trackless forest on skis or chopping firewood with barely a raise of the axe), he is more capable in outdoor life both in terms of expertise and character than any person I know. He has a wicked sense of humour too – so yes, we get along quite well you could say! He was to be the perfect companion on this adventure.
It began, however, rather unexpectedly at London Heathrow. Arriving in good time I was told at the check-in desk that my flight to Helsinki had been delayed by 2 hours. Catastrophe! I was to miss the one and only connecting flight to Ivalo. The plan was to stay in a hotel that evening, be met my Markus the following morning and head off into the wilds. This totally scuppered those plans! At the desk they advised me that they would put me up in a hotel in Helsinki and check my two bags through to Helsinki only as I would need overnight clothing etc. Feeling disheartened, straight from the off, I went through security but then had a thought! What if I flew to Rovaniemi instead and catch a bus to Ivalo? It’s only 4 hours away and I will still be on schedule. First I rang Markus. “Good idea” he said. I then rang Finnair customer services who said that I would need to go back to the check-in desk as the bags would need to be re-tagged. I spoke to security. I couldn’t just go back through, I had to go all the way around, through passport control and back into departures. Well, Heathrow’s not small and arriving at the desk some 20 minutes later, panting and looking a little dishevelled I explained my situation. “Don’t worry,” she said, “the flight to Helsinki has been brought forward and they’re holding the Ivalo flight for you as there are more than 40 other passengers requiring that same flight. Your bags will be re-tagged to go straight through so you won’t need to pick them up in Helsinki”. Shoulders dropping and exhaling in relief I made my way, again, through security. The plan was back on and just prior to boarding I was also told personally that my bags had been re-tagged and was handed two new ones as confirmation. The smile grew. The flight to Helsinki was wonderful. Flying on an Airbus and having all 3 seats to myself I settled back and watched a couple of films.
Eventually, having arrived at the tiny airport of Ivalo I waited by the luggage belt, expectantly waiting. Everyone had picked up theirs – except me. “Where’s mine?” I thought. A lady appeared. “That’s all the bags she said”. Just mine and one other hadn’t arrived. Back to square one! Delayed luggage form filled and overnight toiletries bag received I was advised to return the following day in the hope that my bags would arrive on the first flight at 12.40pm. All I could think was “no bags – no trip”! Everything I needed was in those bags. Sure, I had my cameras but I’m heading into the wilderness for a week, not jollying on a ski-slope! There were thermals, headlamp, boots…everything! I sent Markus a text to break the news. His exact words – “Hell-o! Looks like we are really using our bad luck: first speedticket and then car broke in the middle of nowhere! I got it going, but some delay. I go to garage in the morning to check. I hope to be in Ivalo at about 2pm. Let’s get plenty of beer ready!!!” Good old Markus. Never one to flap under pressure! Immediately, I felt better. Hearing someone else’s bad news always does. It must be a British thing. The following morning I awoke after, as expected, a rather restless night. I was feeling surprisingly optimistic. If they weren’t on this flight, there were two others later that day so my chances were quite good really. It was a crisp, bright morning so I headed out for a short while and took some snaps. It was around -10 and with just a fleece jacket (my duvet coat was in the suitcase) I didn’t venture too far.
Arriving at the airport, as soon as the plane landed I went through to where the luggage belt was where, along with everyone else, I waited. “There’s one! And there’s the other”. Jubilation! I immediately texted the family and then Markus. He was on his way. The car was ‘moving’ – the adventure was back on!
Being this far north (250 miles within the arctic circle) at this time of the year means two things – cold and darkness. Temperatures can fluctuate wildly from +2 to -30 so it was wise to come prepared with plenty of warm clothing. We experienced the full gamut. The day I arrived was the last day of Kaamos – the Polar Night where for the first time in almost 6 weeks the sun just starts to become visible above the horizon. Days were very short with sunrise being at around 11.15 and sunset at 12.30. Even though we had, on occasion, clear skies, not once did we see sunshine which was largely due to the fact that we spent most of the time in a steep-sided river valley.
We were to traverse this white landscape on skis and snowshoes with our equipment distributed in a Pulkka (low-slung small toboggan) which we would pull behind us. I knew this was going to be a tough trip and recall those words when Markus first suggested it. “This will not be easy”! I don’t do the gym and so for 3 months with barely a day off I would ‘route-march’ up to 5 miles each day sometimes with, sometimes without a 20 kg pack at a speed that was close to jogging. I would march up steep hills in my local wood to the point where my legs could go no further and where I wished there was a nurse at the top with oxygen! I thought, if I can get used to being this exhausted but still have the capacity to put one foot in front of the other then I’ll be OK. And oh, did I not mention that I have never even so much as put on a pair of skis? This was going to be a challenge and I do love a challenge!
The evening before heading off was spent in a hamlet on the edge of the National Park called Njurgilahti. This would give me the opportunity of trying on my skies (and having a shower for the penultimate time in a week) and I have to admit I found it quite easy but then again I was on flat ground and not pulling a sled! How hard could it be?
Aside from there being a small restaurant and providing chalet accommodation, its income largely derives from reindeer farming and herding and so it’ll come as little surprise to learn that reindeer feature heavily in their diet – and on the restaurant’s menu!
The following morning we were met by a chap on a snowmobile with a substantial sledge in tow. Our equipment was loaded and our destination for the next 2 nights was a cabin 25 kilometres away. It would also be the last time that I would have any communication with others since there was to be no mobile phone signal. It just gets better!
On occasion, the driver (a local Sami whose family herd reindeer in the Park) would go on ahead to make sure the river-ice was strong enough for us to cross with the sledge attached since the river consists of rapids and tributaries thereby weakening its strength.
It took, with stops, around 2 hours and what an exhilarating experience it was too. As I laid on my back on the sled and watched this pristine landscape swish by I admit, I almost nodded off on more than one occasion. But it was blooming cold! Minus 25 when we set off so when you’re travelling at speed it was probably more like -35. I had plenty of layers on, topped off with a balaclava and trapper’s fur hat so although I was OK the camera (which I was filming with), toward the end of the journey, had frosted over – including the lens’ front element.
The view from our cabin which would be ‘home’ for the following 2 nights. The building you see on the right is the woodshed and on the left, the sauna which was locked. Adjacent to our cabin was a rentable-cabin which gave you access to the sauna. There was no-one else there. Infact, we didn’t see a soul throughout the entire trip!
We bid farewell to our driver and moved our stuff indoors. First things first and so lighting a fire in the stove and collecting water was our priority. Once lit we headed down a slope where through reading the landscape Markus could see there was a stream buried somewhere beneath the 50-60cm of snow and ice. He was right! Bucket of water collected and placed on stove, it was now time to collect firewood from the nearby wood-shed. Cabins and shelters throughout Finland’s National Parks are run by the forest service and there’s always a wood shed with an axe – and a dry composting loo, too! Wood chopped and carried inside, we had sufficient for that evening and morning. But, as cabin etiquette dictates, we knew that we would have to stock up before we left in a couple of day’s time incase of any new arrivals. It could be a matter of life and death! I don’t say this for dramatic purpose. Three people had already died in Finnish Lapland that winter through falling through the river/lake-ice. People get in ‘trouble’ on a semi-regular basis out here and an entry in one of the visitors books is testament to this whereupon a young man’s entry (in broken English) writes how he fell through the ice last October. He did manage to get out and run across the river to this very cabin and light the fire and in the end he was OK as he made another entry in a cabin further up that we also stayed in. He had met a group of hikers who gave him some food as he’d lost his pack when he went under. More often than not cabin users leave matches and a morsel or two such as packet soup (as we found) for example. Small things such as this can be real life-savers.
With an hour or two of light remaining it was time to test out the skies for real and explore our immediate surroundings. Forest skis differ from cross-country skies in that they’re longer (often over 2 1/2 metres) designed to glide over deep snow. For 20 metres or so I did just fine until we reached a hill. Markus demonstrated how he did it, stepping up in 45 degree angles and using his ski poles for power. But, I just couldn’t get it. I kept sliding down. I was a fish out of water and compared to the ‘animal’ that is Markus, a bit of a wimp! Blow this I thought so I took my skis off and carried them uphill and put them back on when I reached the top and that’s how it went for the trip’s duration. On flat ground I used skis and on hills, snowshoes. This worked out well in the end since when moving several kilometres from one cabin to the next we would do so on the frozen river which, at times, was a little unnerving I can tell you. Markus instructed me on what to do should an ‘incident’ arise. By that he meant if I fell through the ice. He gave me a pair of ‘ice-claws’ which hung around my neck. A brilliant and simple Swedish design. If I started to hear the ice crack I was to first undo the sled’s harness then deploy the ‘claws’. These small picks, attached by cord, simply unclip from the neck strap (kept short so that, should you fall through, they can’t come over your head) which you can then use to hold yourself above water and hopefully, out.
It was -25 but the halo around the moon (caused by the refraction of moonlight through ice crystals suspended in the upper atmosphere) was too good an opportunity to miss.
Frost patterns on our cabin window illuminated by candle-light
Our first full day was to be spent atop a nearby fell. It was quite windy and at times the visibility was very low indeed. Birches, both living and dead were dotted around this barren landscape. It was perfect for minimalist compositions and time flew by as I hunted for suitable subjects.
I, of course, needed to keep weight down as much as possible and so I thought long and hard about the camera equipment I was going to take. In the end I settled for the following. Two camera bodies (Nikon D810 and 7200), 15mm fisheye, 14mm /f2.8 (for astrophotography), 20mm, 28-105mm and a very old 200mm f/4 prime. I chose this over the 70-200mm f/2.8 (as much as I love the lens) since it weighs less than a third of the latter. I left the Lee filter system at home (with such little daylight it was unlikely I was going to use it much and I can always merge exposures in Photoshop) and took just two (one for each filter thread) standard screw-on polarising filters. I also took a blower brush (for basic sensor cleaning), cable release and lens cleaning cloth. This packed rather snugly into a Lowepro Mini Tracker backpack which, in turn, slid into my more substantial backpack which I kept spare clothing in. Of course, I also took a tripod – a Manfrotto 055 carbon-fibre with Markins ball-head attached.
It was dark as we made our way down and headlamps were needed. It’s incredibly easy to become disorientated in such an area and it was a credit to Markus’ orienteering skills to find our way back to the track which led to our cabin.
When we couldn’t get fresh water we melted snow.
On one of the days we visited the Ravadasköngäs waterfalls which are located in the confluence of the rivers Lemmenjoki and Ravadasjoki. It was a beautiful place and in some parts pretty hard going due to the snow’s depth and in being extra careful where you placed each foot! Hidden dangers lay beneath snow in such environments.
Collecting fresh water from the river having first chopped through the ice.
I am often asked when I give talks what I do about batteries in such cold environments and especially when there are no sockets to charge them. I bought extra batteries for this trip and took 8 in total. I also, specifically, purchased a fleece sweater (which I would wear as a mid-layer) with a breast pocket so that 3 batteries could be popped into a small pouch and be kept close to my body. The other 5 were put in another pouch and wrapped in spare clothing for insulation and each evening I would hang my trapper’s hat from the ‘clothes-line’ above the stove and in it place all the batteries. Battery power, as we know, drops considerably in the cold but few realise that it increases close to its original strength when warmed. For example, on most days power would drop down to 30% or so but when warmed at night it would go back up to 50-60%! I never ran out of battery power but was always careful to remember to keep them warm whenever possible.
Our tracks under moonlight
It was a beautiful, still, moonlit night and I spent close-on 3 hours capturing what I could.
One of the biggest issues we had throughout was surface water on the frozen lake, hidden just below a few centimetres of snow. Once your skis got wet, they would freeze, become extremely heavy and would make a sucking noise and it felt as if you were being pushed back to the ground. It made going very tough and the only way to completely lose the ice was to take them off and with the blade of the shovel scrape the ice free. Easier said than done when you’ve a backpack on and you’re harnessed to a sled which the shovel’s strapped to. So, off with the harness, backpack and skis, release shovel, scrape off ice, re-attach shovel, backpack and harness. A simple task such as this in minus temperatures can take as long as 10-15 minutes and be very wearing.
Nights were long and when Markus wasn’t planning the following day’s trek or writing in his diary we would simply talk or sit in peace, enjoying the silence.
We were keen to get up above the river valley. To view the landscape in all its beauty. Our destination Ravadaspaa. Although less than 4 kilometres away it was the sheer steepness of the fell that made it the hardest day by far. At dawn we skied (with Pulkka) 2 kilometres to the base of the fell. Leaving the Pulkka resting against a tree I took the pack with tripod attached and hoisted it upon my back. The first 50 metres was a killer! Incredibly steep and through 60+cm of snow even with snowshoes. At the time I remember thinking, if it’s going to be like this all the way up there’s no way I’m going to make it! It soon levelled off to more of a slope and we zig-zagged our way through the forest. The terrain was undulating and snow for the most part would be deep and so I set myself goals. I would walk 100 paces and stop for 30 seconds or so but never too long. I wouldn’t push myself to the point of collapse but then again I couldn’t hang around too long or I would lose the light. It would take a while but I was going to get there. Four hours later from leaving the cabin and I was looking across Lemmenjoki.
The summit was incredible. Light snow on a rocky surface with solitary pine and birch frozen in time. In the more central regions of Finland such as Kuusamo where there’s more moisture in the air, the accumulated snow on spruce and freezing temperatures create snow-sculptures known as tykky. Here was Lemmenjoki’s equivalent.
I had just a couple of hours of light. Lunch can wait. I didn’t stop. I was in my element and have always thrived under self-induced pressure to produce images in such a short space of time, particularly when it’s most unlikely that I’ll ever return. Content with what I’d captured and with the light fading (and my stomach rumbling) I stood, sipped a hot drink and swallowed a few handfuls of nuts and raisins while taking in this incredible view. Going down was to be much easier, and quicker!
Our final night was to be spent in a tent. We had no choice as there were no cabins en-route to where we were heading. Just 5 kilometres lay between us and where we were to spend the evening. It was one of the most memorable days of the trip. The kind of day I had hoped for all those months previous as I sat at the computer planning the trip or as I lay in bed at home more than 3000 kilometres away, imagining what the trip was to bring.
I had got used to the skis, pulling the sled and carrying the pack was no longer a burden and I had grown in confidence on the river ice. Just as we set off from the cabin we noticed a herd of reindeer crossing the river. We had seen their prints throughout the trip and it was wonderful to see them, for real.
The sky was almost clear and as Markus moved on ahead I would stop and take in this magical place. To stand, as if alone, in the middle of this huge frozen river with steep, forest clad banks either side and to not hear a sound is what I will take away most from this trip. The air was cold and crisp. I could see my breath against the darkening sky. As we reached our destination I was eager to carry on an extra few kilometres to the next camping place. I didn’t want this to end for in the morning we were to be collected and shuttled back to that most terrible of places – civilisation!
The next campsite was set deep in the forest and with a clear sky imminent and with the prospect of witnessing the northern lights, a more open site close to the river was favoured. It was dark by the time we had arrived and while Markus chopped firewood I dug out the fire-pit buried beneath 50+cm of snow, revealing the swinging pot-hanging arm and pit stones. Physical activity’s a great way to keep warm! In Finland’s National Parks it’s forbidden to camp and light fires anywhere other than at designated sites and why would you when there’s a woodshed on-site?!
We had set the tent up, had pasta (again!) and finished off my hip-flask of Becherovka – a Czech spirit – which, as we found, has remarkable medicinal properties to aid digestion. We wished we’d brought two!
As we looked up from the camp fire the stars were out in force and I suggested we head down to the river to do some night photography. If no northern lights then it would still be nice to do some astrophotography and soak up this wild region one last time. We had been down on the lake less than a minute when a curtain of green began moving across the night sky. An arc formed from where our campsite was to the far side of the lake and would morph into varying shapes, occasionally, revealing hints of red within. The last night. Oh how lucky we were!
The nervous feeling of being on the river ice never fully left me, and especially so as I photographed at night – for obvious reasons! But, I was glad of that, never taking a risk for the sake of a photograph.
And so it went for the following two hours with them dissipating almost as suddenly as they had began. The scientific explanation for the aurora borealis is long and, to be honest, quite dull. How can you be moved by such talk in an environment as unspoilt as here?! I much prefer the Sámi legend whereupon the tail of a fox running across snowy fells strikes snow drifts whipping up sparks creating a mesmerising light show. They call it ‘revontulet’ – meaning “fox-fires”.