A slow trek in Lapland

Eberhard Leutz describes a walk on Kalottireitti/Nordkalottruta from Kilpisjärvi (Finland) to Reisadalen in Norway with his 8-year-old son

Before we head off the trail, maybe I should first introduce ourselves: we are: Felix (aka The Boss), 8 years old; and me, his father (aka The Sherpa). It is the summer of 2020 and the Coronavirus has the world firmly in its grip. Where to spend summer? Where the risk of an infection is as low as possible.

In Europe that means Lapland, the Finnish and Norwegian parts. The idea is to start in Kilpisjärvi, in the very north-west of Finland close to the borders of Sweden and Norway, and walk on Kalottireitti into Norway. If possible, as far as Kautokeino, via Halti, the highest point of Finland.

Beautiful people in front of Sarafossen
Beautiful people in front of Sarafossen (Reisadalen)

So we fly to Helsinki. I would have preferred overland travel but Finland has closed its borders to Sweden, and therefore that is impossible.

From Helsinki, we hop into an IC train to Rovaniemi – the home of Santa Claus himself. Tickets start at about €50 for an adult and a child (see www.vr.fi where you also find the occasional night train from Helsinki to Kolari, which saves you the night in Rovaniemi).

There are a couple of bus companies doing the same route for about the same price, but on rails it is faster. Unless your train breaks down. Why does that always happen to me when I go north in Scandinavia? Anyway, this year we are late by only three hours.

The next day we go to Kilpisjärvi by bus. There are two companies doing the trip, Eskelisen Lapin Linjat and Onnibus.

There are two main stops, Kilpishalli and Kilpisjärven Retkeilykeskus. If you want to climb Saana, the holy mountain of the Sami, you get off at the latter, and probably stay on the campsite just 4km from the top of Saana. We are going to Halti, so Kilpishalli is the place to get off the bus. There is a supermarket, an ALKO – liquor – shop, an outdoor shop, etc, all mainly frequented by Norwegians trying the avoid the hilarious prices in their native country, which is just 5 miles up the road.

It is 1.1km on a cyclable, somewhat steep, path to Tsahkaljärvi. But after 1km a tiny bridge takes us to a campfire site. As of summer 2020 a toilet was being constructed. There is a very basic open shelter, but we pitch our tent next to it.

Saarijärvi
Saarijärvi

The next morning is sunny and actually much too warm. The weather report (I use www.yr.no) forecasts 21 degrees for today – it feels even warmer – and a temperature drop for the following day. We enjoy magnificent views of Saana and Saanajärvi.

The trail turns left after about 50 meters, first along the shore of Tsahkaljärvi, slightly undulating. After about 2km we cross a stream and Kalottireitti turns north. Uphill with incredible views back to Saana and Saanajärvi, down again and suddenly we leave the EU: the path runs through Norwegian territory for about 1km, there are even border signs.

On an undulating, clear, somewhat rocky path, after about 8km the huts at Saarijärvi come into sight; around Lake Coahppejärvi, and there we are. We finish our day here. It is too warm, very sunny, wonderful lakes, billions of mosquitoes. They love this kind of weather.

Huts

At Saarijärvi there are two options: an autiotupa and a varaustupa, commonly translated as open wilderness hut and reservable hut, respectively. These huts are a great Finnish tradition: every 10km or so you have an open hut and often a reservable hut as well.

An autiotupa is simple, but free, and equipped with a simple stove for heating, simple (bunk) beds (you bring your own mattress and sleeping bag ), and there is even a gas cooker; the latter is absent in the huts that are meant for day rest.

Autiotupa on the big trails in Lapland provide a cooker. If you want a bit more luxury, there is the alternative, the varaustupa, or reservable hut.

The reservable ones need to be booked (check www.nationalparks.fi/northernlapland_enontekio for details), and you will have to collect the key. In a varaustupa, the beds have mattresses and pillows and everything is a bit nicer. The prices are very reasonable, an adult pays around €12 /night for a bed. The huts are run by Metsähallitus, the Finnish Environmental Agency (www.metsa.fi/).

All in all, the reservable huts are meant for people who want to sleep under a roof, the open huts for those who carry their own tents, and only in case of emergency need some shelter. This Finnish hut system is by far the best one in Scandinavia. You occasionally find open huts in Norway, but not as frequently.

Meekonjärvi Autiotupa
Meekonjärvi Autiotupa

As distances between huts are short, adults in average shape can do two stages per day; the path to Halti is easy enough. Felix walks about 3km per hour, and I start in Kilpisjärvi with 35 kilos on my back: food for both of us for two weeks. There is no chance to stock up before Reisadalen unless you catch some fish. So, one stage per day is enough for us.

10km to Kuonjarjoki

The next sunny morning offers stunning views back to Saana. It is about 10km to Kuonjarjoki, the next hut, the first 5 of which are an easy hike up from Saarijärvi to about 980m. Going is easy; the trail is grassy and clearly marked with wooden poles with orange tops. You have wonderful views of the valley and the mountains around you. This is one of the rare places in Finland where you can see plenty of peaks that are over 1000m high.

From the pass we walk down until we reach Kuonjarjoki (Autiotupa and Varaustupa). The hut is over 800m above sea level and there is little wind protection for tents. We really feel that the following night. The warm air is wiped away. The night – OK, “night” is the wrong word, early August means that skies are blue, not black – brings a severe thunderstorm with strong winds. Around midnight we decide to search for shelter in the hut.

The next morning is clear again, but about 10 degrees cooler than the previous one. A stormy wind blows from the west, and as we walk east for the first 6km, I feel like Usain Bolt with the wind in my back.

After about two hours we get the first beautiful views down to Meekonjärvi Huts and the surrounding lakes.

Fishing #1

The next day we decide to relax. And go fishing. I have no clue why Felix is interested in fishing. He does not eat any fish except fish fingers, but wants to try fishing. In Finland you may fish anywhere with simple equipment (pole, line, hook, natural bait) as part of the country’s everyman’s right (www.visitfinland.com/article/everymans-rights).

The problem is that we are sitting on the shore of Lake Skadjajärvi with very shallow water in front of us. We hear some fish in the lake, but have no chance to get near them. And I am not sure whether I share my son’s enthusiasm for fishing. After two hours we are really cold and walk back to the hut. End of fishing – attempt 1.

We walk on the next morning. Around the hill and along stunning river Vuomakasjoki, along a short passage secured with ropes, across a luxurious bridge, uphill for about 3km until we arrive at Lake Pihtsusjärvi with its incredibly clear water. It is a bit problematic to find a spot to camp at the hut, which is surrounded by peaks of over 1000m. This is Finland’s Himalaya.

The next day takes us up Finland’s Everest! Next to the hut a sign says “Halti 12“. We do what everyone does, we leave our tent and backpack here and start walking. Up the valley, after two hours the path gets rockier and you could turn west to Halti Huts. We go straight up the mountain. All the way I am surprised how easy it is to walk and hard the path is. Permafrost keeps the rocks together, there is surprisingly little loose gravel. Given the speed of climate change, I guess in 20 years that could be different.

However, today is today; we need 3½ hours to get to the summit, including building a snowman on the one and only snowfield on the way (we build another one returning because the first one has already melted). At 1324m, we are at the highest point of Finland, which is also the border to Norway. Reward of the climb: spectacular views of Norway’s snow-capped mountains.

View from the top of Halti
View from the top of Halti

Once you have returned to Pihtsusjärvi hut you have to decide how to get back to civilisation. About 90% of Finns walk to Kilpisjärvi the same way they came; most of the others go west to Lossujärvi hut (including a not-too-cool river crossing), and then on a tiny yet visible path through Norwegian territory to the Kilpisjärvi–Skibotn road where you might catch a ride back to Kilpisjärvi.

We have a different idea. We turn east at Pihtsusjärvi hut and continue on Nordkalottleden. This is the toughest long-distance trail up here. It connects Kautokeino in Norway with Sulitjelma (in Norway or, for those who prefer dryer boots, with Kvikkjokk in Sweden) via about 800km through Norway, Finland, Norway again, Sweden and (if you go to Sulitjelma) Norway once again.

Like the Swedish part (mainly consisting of Padjelantaleden and Kungsleden), the Finnish part between Kilpisjärvi and Pihtsusjärvi is a piece of cake. The trail to Kopmajoki, and particularly the Norwegian parts, is not. Here the trail is usually marked, but hardly maintained. Rivers are rarely bridged, and you might end up walking through mud and swamp.

However, today we are still in Finland. First a longer ascent through hundreds of reindeer. At 950m above the sea, there are views of two lakes. We have to cross in between them (not really a problem), and five minutes later we cross Kopmajoki/Gopmajohka river for the first time (more of a problem… you do get wet).

The path winds through rocky ground, away from the river, and the waymarks disappear between the rocks. For the first time since Kilpisjärvi I need my GPS (free downloads of Nordkallottleden on www.traildino.com).

Fishing #2

After about 90 minutes we are down at Kopmajoki river again. The bad news: we have to cross it again. After another hour we reach Kopmajoki Autiotupa. Kopmajoki is much smaller than the previous huts, and there is only an autiotupa.

We come for a night and stay for two. For the first time we sleep in the cabin because of the hard rain. Guess what we do on the second day? Right. We go fishing until even Felix agrees that both of us are wet. We catch the same as always.

After two days we leave and walk about 90 minutes across two streams and the border of Norway to Somashytta, an open hut on the Norwegian side. The cabin is nice and new. We stay there for three nights; inside most of the time. Day 1: hard rain and stormy winds all day. Day 2: the same. Day 3: heavy storm from the north. Felix does not even want to go fishing anymore because it is really cold.

Swampy terrain

The following day is cloudy but dry, so we leave the hut. The path gently winds uphill, crossing a stream, nothing serious, but Felix manages to land on his back and get his boots completely wet. The rest of the day he will walk in his trainers. The path is firm under foot; after about 5km a quad track comes in from the south-east.

We follow it for over an hour. You frequently find such tracks in Lapland: large quads, often combined with 4-wheel trailers, are the best way to get through swampy terrain. They leave their traces, but as most drivers – and walkers – use the same tracks for decades, damage to the environment is limited.

Easy walking, great scenery, no sun. About 10km from Somashytta the path forks. The quad track heads north-west to the parking lot north of Halti. If climbing Halti is all you want to do, you start here (Norwegian side) from where you can do the return climb in a day. Yet only very few people do that. We turn right on a tiny path, following a discouraging sign saying “Saraelva 30km”. My GPS says 18km.

Never trust Norwegian signposts. The path accents to a small pass, quite wet, but nothing compared to what is waiting north of that pass. For about 10km we experience the ugly side of Nordkalottruta. After the rain of the last days the trail is soaking wet.

We cross an endless number of streams, are soaked into swampy patches (there must be hundreds of them), and are forced to walk on, no chance to pitch a tent in all that mud. I wonder how Felix gets through it (you remember he is wearing trainers…). Honestly, even I wonder what I am doing here.

The good news: we survive it ! After about 10km the path turns east, we reach an unnamed tiny lake and the ground gets firmer. We have a long break and my GPS tells me that the remaining 9km into Reisadalen are downhill with only two small streams to be crossed. That really cheers us up.

Reisadalen
Beautiful Reisadalen without people

We walk into this incredibly beautiful valley (when the sun shines), down from about 700m above sea-level to about 90. We camp about 2km from the dirt road running through upper Reisadalen. In the morning we find tons of blueberries around our tent, and – YES ! – the sun reappears after six days!

On the way down we pass Sarafossen, one of the many waterfalls. We intend to stay in the valley and continue walking south to Kautokeino, but after 12 days from Kilpisjärvi we need to stock up. So we decide to go to Storslett on the north coast, the main village in the area.

There is no public traffic in this part of Reisadalen, but we manage to hitchhike. A woman from Sappen, the only village here, gives us a lift. We camp at Josvannet, an incredibly beautiful lake.

So we forget about Reisadalen and Kautokeino and spend the rest of the weekend taking a bus from Storslett to Tromsö (there are between 1 and 3 buses per day, beautiful journey along dozens of fjords), spending the night there, and on 23 August, at 7.25 am, we are on the very last bus from Tromsö to Kilpisjärvi.

Eskelisen closes down its service to Norway the following day. Three hours later we are back in Kilpisjärvi, and after two days of resting we start the Hetta–Pallas Trail, the first trail ever marked in Finland. But that is a different story.

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