Saariselkä is a wilderness located in the Urho Kekkonen National Park, not far from the border with Russia. It’s known for its majestic highland fells, extensive bogs and enchanting forests. Nordic nature appeals to me in a way that I find impossible to resist. In the last few days of September, I set out from Kiilopää, where the Finnish cross-country skiing association Suomen Latu runs a visitor centre, complete with hotel, café and shop.
It’s late in the year and most of the landscape is now bare; winter is coming. The first snows fall and suddenly everything is covered with a white blanket. As I set out, the snow is up to my ankles. This is not quite the start I had hoped for. I’m heading southeast and plan soon to leave the last vestiges of civilisation behind.
Tent, Autiotupa or Varaustupa?
On day one the trail runs above the tree line for a while. Here in northern Finland, it’s at just 400 metres. Snow flakes swirl around my face. The skies are a dark, leaden grey. I plough on uphill and then follow the Suomujoki River until I reach the Suomunruoktu hut. The old hut is an autiotupa (for independent visits); the newer Suomunruoktu hut on the other side of the river can be booked – a varaustupa. I make myself at home in the autiotupa – given the weather, I can’t see the point of putting the tent up. I’m not the only one. During the course of the evening other trekkers arrive to spend the night.
Next morning the thermometer at the hut reads minus three degrees. Brrr. I’m in no hurry, so I take my time. I have another cup of tea before I head off. A thin sheet of snow coats the ground and the trees. I’m glad I’m warmly dressed. Around the Salonlampi lakes, the bogs are already frozen. Only the nearby Suomujoki River is free of ice as it meanders its way through the landscape. It’s pretty tame here; further downstream it picks up speed.
The quiet, peaceful landscape is infectious. Stopping at a resting spot, I take a break and put my feet up for a while. Just as the cold starts to get to me, reminding me to get moving, two female hikers arrive. As they leave, I watch them walk on without realising just how useful their tracks are going to be. Leaving the marked paths of the basic zone of the national park behind me, I head deeper into the Saariselkä wilderness zone. From here on in, I shall have to find my own way. The trail I’m following over a ridge disappears into a forest. The higher I get, the more snow there is – and the less I can make out.
As I arrive at Lake Luirojärvi, the weather turns warmer again. Melting snow drips from the trees. The melancholy mountain is covered by a grey blanket of clouds. It smells like rain. At the Rajankämppä autiotupa, I set up base camp for a quick ascent of the treeless Sokosti Fell, the highest mountain in East Finland. There is no way I plan to miss out on this 718-metre scree-covered highpoint and so I head for the summit in spite of the clouds. At an altitude of 450 metres, I hit the bare upper section of the mountain. Without really being able to see where I’m heading, I scramble my way up to the top. Is it worth it? The clouds mean I can see no further than I could throw a stone.
After searching around, I find a sheltered spot behind a wall of stones for a short rest. My cold fingers take a while to tear open my muesli bar. Then I head back down to the lake. The next day I’m rewarded for my efforts on the way to Hammaskuru. The trail winds its way through a forest. After each turn a new scene unfolds in front of me; I’m astonished by its beauty. Thick conifers give way to lighter sections of pine and birch. Here and there, the sun’s rays pierce through the green canopy, lighting up the moss and lichen at my feet. I find myself amazed at their colours, like a child opening its eyes in wonder.
After a night in the tent and a further day’s trekking along the Anterinjoki River, I reach the Anterinmukka hut. From here, it’s only a few kilometres to the Russian border. I’ve reached the easternmost point of my journey and have travelled deep into this wild and unspoilt terrain. But before I can head back west, I spend what turns out to be a night with an uninvited guest. The rustic looking hut with its large balcony looks much more comfortable than my tent. However, I’m constantly woken by rustling in the roof beams. I shine my headtorch around. All goes quiet for a while. And then the rustling starts up again.
Although the new snow has melted, the temperatures drop well below zero during the clear, starlit nights. I can think of more pleasant ways to start the day than wading through the icy Muorravaarakanjoki River with rolled up trousers and in nothing more than hut shoes. However, there’s no bridge. Luckily, the water is not that deep. Nevertheless, I’m glad to reach the other side and pull on my warm socks and trekking boots. The trail now leads uphill into the Pirunportti – the stony ‘devil’s gorge’.
Via Sarvioja, I make my way back to the valley formed by the Suomujoki River. From the Porttikoski hut, the trail leads upstream to Kotaköngäs. I start to take my leave of this idyllic place, stopping to spend the night camped next to Lake Rautulampi. From here, I watch the sun set behind the Raututunturit Mountains. Inspired by all that I’ve seen and experienced, I spend the last day trekking to Saariselkä. This small village sees few visitors in autumn, although it’s a popular winter destination. That’s fine by me – I enjoy the calm tranquillity. I feel privileged to have been able to immerse myself in this still, remote world.
The National Park
Urho Kekkonen National Park is divided into four zones: The basic zone with marked hiking trails (camping only at permitted sites) and the wilderness zones Saariselkä, Nuortti and Kemi-Sompio. There are no marked trails in the wilderness zones and you can camp wherever you like here. The basic zone is ideal for novice hikers and families; the wilderness areas are for experienced trekkers. You should have a reasonable level of fitness. The national park has over two dozen huts where you can stay overnight (generally 8 to 20 km apart). Learn more