Finnish Lapland: connected with people and nature

Finnish Lapland: connected with people and nature

From the port city of Oulu, we cycle further north into the vast and sparsely populated Finnish Lapland. Finland’s northernmost region is as big as the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland combined. And the remarkable thing about it is that only 180,000 people live there (or 3% of Finland’s population)! You read correctly, we didn’t forget zero…. In terms of cycling, this means long stretches and sometimes remote roads, longer distances between villages, stores and being surrounded by forest, forest and more forest and lots of animals!

Woolly friends and antlers!

Finnish Lapland is home to about 200,000 reindeer, 20,000 more than people. Even after we encounter reindeer daily, the animals remain special to watch every time. The way they move around, gracefully dancing and at the same time very funny and sometimes clumsy, and their stoic attitude toward cars we don’t mind either. They are our great friends as far as slowing down traffic on the 100 km/h roads that run through Lapland, albeit at the risk of their lives….

They like to stand along or on the road, perhaps because they are also bothered by the many mosquitoes and stinging flies in the forest, because they like to look at Tesla cars (we were eyewitnesses to this) or because they like to play the daredevil. It can also be dangerous, especially at night on the remote and over-lit roads.The nightmare of many a driving Finn, but perhaps even more feared is the moose.At 500-700 kg, these are a lot heavier and larger than the reindeer.

The reindeer’s antlers are the fastest growing bones in the world and they are covered with a layer of velvet bark skin. They can grow as much as 2 cm a day and every year it falls out and then a new one grows in its place. What is striking is that many Finns have antlers hanging in or around the house for decoration. Even Audrey, after a quick break, suddenly comes out of the bushes with enormous antlers in her hands. The skin is even still hanging on. We can’t take this colossus with us on our bikes, but it is certainly a special sight.

The beauty of being on the road and taking our time

We cycle towards the city of Rovaniemi, the place where the real Santa Claus is said to live. But before we get there we cycle for a few days through small and quiet villages.Somewhere we see a nice place by the water with a shelter and a toilet. We stop and soon a Finnish lady with kitchen apron comes out of a nearby trailer. ‘Do you want ice cream?’ she asks. Before we can answer, she says, ‘Come inside and have a look!’ and invites us into her trailer converted into a mini-cafe. ‘Here is also coffee for you. You want to write in my guestbook?’ So, suddenly there we are: writing in her guestbook, with a huge ice cream in one hand and coffee in the other, talking to a Finnish woman, who apologizes for her English, but tries anyway. When we want to pay, she refuses to take the money.

Meanwhile, supermarkets are becoming rarer and every time we see one we use it, or their toilet, because they are always publicly accessible, hooray! 😉 We fry scrambled eggs on a grassy field next to the supermarket and are addressed by an enthusiastic couple of hikers. In the evenings, Eloy swims a few more times in the cold Finnish lakes and Audrey picks currants, blueberries and red huckleberries to make jam for sandwiches and to liven up breakfast with oat flakes.

And then we reach Rovaniemi, but before entering the city we decide to take a break and eat something, because that will prevent a lot of misery 😉 We cycle into a kind of recreation area, and hear a woman shouting, ‘Turkish Flag!’ We don’t immediately see where it’s coming from, but as soon as we sit on a bench, someone comes walking toward us. It is Ceylan, from Turkey and she has been living in Finland for several years with her Finnish partner. Her mouth falls open in amazement when she hears where we have all cycled in Turkey. She herself loves cycling around the city of Rovaniemi. In poor English, she asks what we thought of Turkey and what our favorite food in Turkey was. A little later she walks back to her friends, but then one of the kids comes over to show us something on the phone. It says, ‘Have lunch with us.’ We are tired and hesitant, but we join anyway and not much later we are sitting on the floor at a Turkish-Finnish lunch, with Turkish tea and Sarmarolls, sunflower seeds, salads and Finnish home-baked blueberry pie. Besides Ceylan, there are two more friends of hers, from Turkey and from Kazakhstan, and all three of them like to play volleyball. So after lunch we are invited to play beach volleyball with them and then almost 3 hours later Ceylan bikes into town with us. Asking if she can still invite us to her house one of the next days…. !

Rovaniemi: Hard rock, Santa Claus and special people

Rovaniemi is the only larger city in northern Finland and, with 35,000 inhabitants, also the administrative center of Lapland. Well-known inhabitants are: Santa Claus and the Hard Rock band Lordi, with their monstrous costumes once winners of the Eurovision Song Contest. That Finns enjoy listening to hard rock and heavy metal music is an understatement, the country has the largest number of heavy metal bands per 100,000 inhabitants in the entire world, as many as 42 bands per 100,000 inhabitants! There is even a special band for children, Hevisaurus, who perform in dino costumes. Enough about heavy metal…

Less well known but incredibly welcoming are Finland’s Tero and Marika and their 2 large dogs, who we met through Couchsurfing and live in an old military housing complex. Tero and Marika hike regularly themselves and have their own snowmobile, because how else do you get around in the long and cold winters of the far North? From the start, Tero talks passionately about everything to do with being outdoors, about equipment he takes with him on treks, mountains in Finland, and is eager to hear our stories. Together they take us to a nearby observation tower and introduce us to previously unknown Finnish delicacies. We try the salty “Karjalanpiirakka”: a thin crust of rye stuffed with rice and cheese on top. Juice from the birch tree. And the yellow mountain blackberry on top of the craziest cheese we’ve ever eaten ‘Juustoleipä’, or ‘squeaky’ cheese, which you warm up briefly in the pan beforehand. With every bite your teeth squeak because of the texture of the cheese!

The next day we bake pancakes and afterwards we and Tero visit Santa in Santa Village, but actually the Arctic Circle running through the Christmas Village is the most impressive. We write a few Christmas cards for the nephews and nieces, which will be mailed by Santa later in the year. And suddenly we are sitting there next to Santa, talking about the bike trip and believe it or not, but we almost fall off the bench when he starts talking back in Dutch! When we go to the center of Rovaniemi later that day, we suddenly see a travel bicycle. It turns out to be the bike of the German Sophie; she has just cycled alone through Norway and is now on her way back. Tero invites her to join us for dinner and not much later we all sit together at a table; what a conviviality.

Before we leave we do some shopping together. Tero shows us the Lappish cookies “Mettäkakko. They contain a huge amount of calories, and in the past they were eaten mainly by people who worked in the remote forests. Lots of energy and lightweight, useful also for cycling he thinks. And so that soon becomes our favorite snack for the next few hundred kilometers through Lapland, along with some blueberries on top! We can only be incredibly grateful to Tero and Marika for the pleasant days together.

Crossing an imaginary border

Through Rovaniemi runs the imaginary Arctic Circle. It marks the southern boundary of the area in which the sun does not set (around June 21) or does not rise (around December 21) one or more days a year. In June, the famous midnight sun can then be seen in the area above the Arctic Circle. It feels crazy to cycle across this “line.” Something that once seemed so far away. What we notice about it? Now, in July and August, the nights are especially short. The sun sets around 11pm and rises again around 2-3am. Since we sleep in a mosquito tent, Eloy invariably pulls a sexy sleeping mask over his eyes every night. Frequently we think it’s time to get up, when it’s only 3 a.m. Yet Audrey also finds it special when she has to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, doesn’t have to find her way in the dark, and while crouching can admire the orange-pink glow of the sunrise.

As you can see from the photo of the “Artic Circle,” Eloy is suddenly ahead of his time… (An elderly Catalan man, who was happy to take a moment to pose with Eloy’s bike for a cool bike photo, as he is an avid cyclist himself).

Finding cans and losing each other

Quickly we cycle out of Rovaniemi. The road is busy and the traffic moves fast, so it’s not very pleasant, but soon it calms down. As we wrote in the previous blog, we have added a new element to cycling, picking up as many metal cans and plastic bottles as possible and taking them to the next supermarket. We cycle slowly anyway and it eats at us when we see trash in nature. Especially along the larger roads there is still quite a bit of garbage, so sometimes we cycle a bit farther apart and while Eloy picks up a new garbage bag, he doesn’t notice Audrey taking a side street. After a while we both realize that something is wrong and cycle back, of course blaming each other…. that also happens 😉

The collection of one day’s cycling is shown in the photo below. The overall result of cycling through Finland? Over 600 (!) cans and bottles and 60 euros in deposits. And then we had to skip regular stretches where it was not safe to stop all the time. Finland is a clean country, with a good recycling system, but nature deserves even better!

Connected and vulnerable

At the end of a long day of cycling, we come to a gate that at first seems closed, but the lock hanging from it turns out to be open. According to our map, there should be a laavu (shelter). There are no other houses or stores in the area, but we do see 2 fresh tracks of bicycle tires on the ground, so that is encouraging 🙂

After 2 kilometers on an unpaved path, we indeed reach a hidden shelter. While Audrey starts the campfire (against mosquitoes, bears and whatnot…) and dinner (mashed potatoes from a bag), Eloy puts up the tent. Since Audrey is afraid of brown bears, even though the chances of them seeking humans are slim, we half-heartedly barricade the tent with the bikes. For what it’s worth. So far we have only encountered life-size wooden bears in the front yards of Finns, often serving as mailboxes. Still, she puts our bag with food, pans and toothpaste in the primitive toilet stall a bit further down the road. But we can’t move the open trash can next to the shelter, unfortunately… Now just hope that one of those 1500 Finnish bears doesn’t come here to devour some blueberries. The vast and desolate environment, also makes you feel more connected, but also more vulnerable.

So it turns out the next day. Looking for a remote cabin, we get stuck in a swamp. The mud runs into our shoes and the two of us have to take turns pushing one bike through. Audrey decides to continue along the path on foot, to see what it’s like further on, but soon she comes back saying that we have to go back through the swamp, because we definitely won’t be able to get through by bike further on. While Eloy starts to get nervous from the huge amount of mosquitoes (because swamp…) and the water in his shoes, Audrey suddenly sees little yellow berries. She doesn’t manage to convey the enthusiasm to Eloy, but she will soon. They are the cloudberries, or Lakka, or yellow mountain blackberries, which are hard to find and grow mostly in swamp areas! Finns love to go out and find them and spend time in nature. They are mostly served on special occasions and the price for a jar of Lakka jam is easily 10 euros. Wasn’t that perilous trip through the swamp and 10 km detour by bike for nothing after all. Fortunately, back on dry land with a few yellow nuggets in a jar, vulnerable but grateful.

Caught at the Aurora hut

In Saariselkä, a small village that seems to be more of a (ski) resort, there is Santa’s abandoned summer house and a store where we can do some shopping. The past few days have been unusually warm in Lapland, temperatures of 27 °C are rarely recorded here in summer. Normally it is between 10 and 15 °C around this time of year. So sometimes we dip our clothes in a lake, which gives coolness, as the roads offer little to no shade.

We decide to cycle to a nearby National Park. Eloy begins to doubt Audrey’s route choices more and more when she has again chosen a route with rocks, tree roots and streams. We turn right around, choosing another steep path, but by pushing each other uphill we manage and eventually arrive at a huge and new hut, the Aurora hut. Known in winter for its stunning views and the chance to spot the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.

The hut’s guardian, a reindeer, barricades the passage. Later, however, she makes way. We hang a bag of water under the terrace and we shower with a view of the forest. Officially you are not allowed to spend the night in the hut, but we hope the mosquito tent in a corner on the terrace is allowed, and at night the wind picks up so we are glad for a little shelter from the hut.

At 7 a.m. we hear someone walk onto the terrace and then walk away. We think we have been caught and decide to quickly jump into our clothes and clean up the mess, and only then do we start eating breakfast. Then as we are about to leave and Audrey is off to the bathroom, a German hiker comes by. Eloy proudly says he has done some push-ups and sees when he turns around that it is not Audrey…. ‘I have breakfast for you, I saw you earlier sleeping here so I got to town to get you something’. Stunned, Eloy receives a bag of coffee cakes and thanks the friendly German young man. Then he walks on again so as not to distract us from our morning. Can it still be put into words?

Camper friends

On the way to Inari we encounter more and more motorhomes. Let’s say the ratio of motorhomes to regular cars on the road is 9/10. There are few alternative side roads in Lapland, so traffic is very concentrated on some stretches, many coming back from the North Cape in Norway or on their way to it. When we stop at a roadside parking lot, there is a German camper next to us. We watch as the mother and her 2 daughters wash their hair with water from the lake. When we want to leave again, the mother suddenly asks if we want coffee or tea. The husband joins us as well and tells us about their own (unsuccessful) cycling trip years back and how they ride and enjoy the countless quiet spots in the Nordic countries with their camper. We share the same passion and after 2 hours wish each other a good trip.

Cycling cafe Sininen Fillari

At the supermarket in Inari, we meet some young German men with fast bikes. One of them is packing his just bought oat flakes, but he quickly offers a small part, because he can’t get it into his bags anymore. He says he is going to the North Cape and left Helsinki 4 (!) days ago, while it took us almost a month. So there are many kinds of cyclists 😉

About 25 kilometers down the road we stop at a roadside sign, “Café Sininen Fillari” and “Welcome cyclist,” “Open 10-18h every day”. We park the bikes against a fence and see a tipi tent in the garden of a house. A woman about 80 comes up to us. She tries to explain that her English is not so good, but that we are welcome for a nice coffee. Meanwhile, we take a seat in a special tipi tent, with chairs and tables and admire the self-knitted socks in all colors and sizes, homemade jams and cakes. Later, the lady gets out her cell phone and types that her husband is picking up their daughter, who also cycles a lot. When the daughter is there she tells the following story, ‘My parents built 14 wooden houses/blockhouses after they retired, from cutting down the trees to furnishing them. They can’t sit still and I am glad that since this year they have found a new and safer hobby, opening a cyclist cafe!’ It turns out that the man regularly helped cyclists stranded near their home. They have no immediate neighbors and the wide area consists of forest and Lappish nature. In winter it can easily get -30°C to -40°C degrees there, and the days are dark with little daylight. Audrey asks how they do it in winter, so remote. ‘That goes very well. They grew up here and are used to dealing with these conditions. A lot of socks are knitted then, for example!’

So in addition to having a cyclist cafe (which is open every day), cyclists are allowed to camp in their garden, for free. We sleep next to another teepee that stands a little ways away by a lake. The man lights the wood fire in the teepee and gestures for us to cook on it. We can’t imagine what it’s like to live here. So remote and swimming daily in your own lake in the backyard. After a cold splash, the couple comes over again. They have fired up the sauna, which, by the way, they also built entirely by themselves, and we are allowed to use it. Just like that. It even has a rocking chair overlooking the lake. We know now: the most beautiful sauna, from the sweetest people, with the most beautiful view is in Lapland.

The next morning it rains and we are glad we pulled the tarp over the mosquito tent just to be safe. Because of the rain, it takes us longer to get going, and before we leave, the couple and daughter invite us back to the tipi one more time. They offer us, and 2 more Finnish cycling women, free coffee and waffles with the yellow berries, to warm up. Finally, we leave at 1 p.m. with our hearts filled with joy and kindness and we can only conclude, “They live what they love.”

Should you ever find yourself in northern Finnish Lapland, be sure to visit these extraordinary people.

Saami and Finnish

The short summary: rain, sun, rainbows, rain, sun, rainbows, sun, rain, rainbows. The road towards Norway is long and straight, with no side roads or houses. We learned that this road between Norway and Finland was built in the winter of 1943-1944 by German troops using prisoners of war, mostly from Southern Europe, with many dying from the cold. During the Lapland War (’44-’45), the Germans were able to retreat into occupied Norwegian territory and were driven out of Finland. A history where little is visible today except a mile-long dead straight road.

What is also special is that we encounter the first “North Cape” sign, albeit still a few hundred kilometers away. And many place name signs in Lapland are bilingual: Sami and Finnish. The Sami are an originally nomadic people who live in Lapland and make their living from reindeer, fishing or hunting. They have their own parliament and live both in Norway (50,000), Sweden (20,000), Finland (6,000) and Russia (1,800). Today, only a small minority leads a nomadic existence, but they strive to preserve their culture and language.

The last kota or hut

Around 10 p.m. it is still light when we arrive at a place where there should be a kota. However, we drive past it and there is no path to be seen, but suddenly we see that there is a small road between the bushes. Next comes a gate that is very difficult to push open, but we manage to maneuver the bikes between them only to find ourselves in front of a swamp. It looks like some kind of obstacle course, but fortunately this time there are planks across the swamp. Audrey (unknowingly) decides to swim anyway and, due to fatigue, can no longer hold the weight of the heavy bike on the narrow boards. Fortunately, the mud is not too bad… Then the kota comes into view! A cute little hut in the shape of a tipi, with a wood stove inside. We don’t have to pitch the tent and can sleep inside on the benches 🙂

The next morning we leave for Norway: another 10 km downhill! When we do some shopping in the small border town, Eloy finds out that he has lost the charging cable for his watch. It is probably still in the hut where we slept last night, but it is 10 km uphill cycling back…. After contemplating a sprint and there being only one road, Eloy decides to ask if any motorist or camper happens to be going that way. He addresses a family, but unfortunately they appear to be going the other way, yet they are willing to take him there and back. They turned out to be from Portugal and were on vacation, on their way to the North Cape. So it happened and to this day they follow the stories of our trip….

When the whole family is back with Eloy, including cable, suddenly a camper also stops with 2 girls happily waving behind the window. It turns out to be the German camper family we met earlier. They tell about their great trip and we wish each other an ‘Auf Wiedersehen‘, because who knows, maybe we will run into them again somewhere.

We enjoyed cycling through Finland, the people and nature and the connection between them, which is still very much present. ‘Metsä kuuntelee silloin kun kukaan muu ei’ is a Finnish expression: ‘the forest listens when no one else does’. The love of the outdoors, coffee, ice creams, licorice, game picking and sauna is infinite. The land where old people step on their walking frames, really! And where young people know the flags on our bikes better than anywhere else. Where kindness prevails and an unexpected encounter is never far away.

1500 km, +10,960 altimeters – 33 days (7 rest days)
Wild camping: 18 nights
Camping: 1 night
Locals: 14 nights
Finnish sauna: 5
The locations of the shelters can be found at: https://www.tulikartta.fi/en/index.php?type=Kaikki&lataus=1

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