Wednesday, 8 August 2012

In search of Central Finland Provincial Trail: Suolahti-Hietama

It only takes a minute or two before I am hit by the first drops of rain. Until now the sky has only been promising rain in Suolahti, Central Finland, where I start my quest for the Central Finland Provincial Trail. The trail used to run through most of the province of Central Finland, from the south to the north, but it is no longer maintained in its entirety. As far as I know, the trail was last marked properly in the 1980's in the area I've chosen to walk now - between Suolahti and Saarijärvi. I am equipped with (black and white) trail maps from approximately 1985 and a newer map which doesn't show the the trail. It would really help to have a proper look at either of these maps before hitting the road... However, I skip that part, take a wrong turn and end up by the wrong road.
How about a good look at the map now? I decide to go to a place where I've seen some traces of the Central Finland Provincial Trail last year, when following it from the direction of Jyväskylä to Suolahti. The blue signs point me back to the path that leads close to Keitele Hotel, where I started earlier but at least I will stay on the right track this time...
I wonder if this ancient footpath sign - the man has a backpack! - located in the bushes, is an omen. But at least I'm finally on the trail and soon find myself on a narrow track through a small forest, followed by a saunter across the asphalt roads of an industrial area. Stepping on the Pässinradantie road feels weird; it is so straight!
However, the name Pässinrata is a clue: rata means a railroad track which is exactly what there used to be earlier. The narrow railroad track became obsolete decades ago. Walking along the slightly muddy road, I watch for any remains of trail signs and am rewarded at least twice by a glimpse of faded blue paint on the old spruces.
Some kilometres later, a single motor boat heading north is rocking in the waves of Paatela lock, where the gap between the gates is slowly widening, letting in the water from lake Keitele. Paatela lock connects lake Keitele with lake Kuhnamo; the rise is 7-8 meters and the canal is about 500 meters long. This lock brings back memories from a kayaking trip some years back; I remember how it felt to paddle through the gates alone in a kayak, find a place not too close to the front gates, take hold of something in the wall, hear the gate behind me shut and then start the slow descent towards lake Kuhnamo.
I feel I've deserved a cup of tea and have a break at Paatelan Portti café-restaurant next to the canal. However, the rain is kind enough wait for me and I get a feeling it will keep me company for many more hours to come! This is where I (again) step off the trail (as marked in the map): the map was published before the canal was built by a group of Soviets in the early 1990's! Before that, there was no waterway here connecting the two lakes. I cross the canal along the tall bridge.
I tread along Sulkutie ('lock road'), cross the railroad tracks that were built to replace the old Pässinrata and find myself on the other side of the road between Suolahti and Äänekoski.When I arrive at the road that leads to Valio dairy (manufacturer of Aura blue cheese), I discover an original Central Finland Provincial Trail sign, complete with the wood grouse that symbolizes Central Finland. The blueberries by the tall spruces taste good... I start following the narrow trail happily but arrive far too early to the road, instead of going round the Ahola farmhouse like I should have done. Once again, I should be more close attention to the map, if I intend to stick to the original trail.
Oh well, no need to take it so seriously. The asphalt footpath offers an easy way to Äänekoski and as the rain continues, it's quite OK even if I have to endure the passing cars and trucks. This is where lake Keitele must have been originally connected to lake Kuhnamo; by Äänekoski rapids. Naturally, the location was ideal for making more money and a groundwood mill and a board mill were built there at the end of the 19th century.
I slip from the path once again, but this time on a purpose: to see if I could get a snack at the centre of Äänekoski. I am in luck and get a hot pancake from the local Women's Club stall at the almost deserted market place, and Wilhelmiina bakery next door is open until 7 pm. Thank you!
I've still got some kilometers left... First by the side of the Kotakennääntie road instead of a calm forest. The proud mistress of the roundabout is hopefully trying to make the skies turn blue instead of grey! Or is she casting a spell to catch some more fish?
On the other side of Kotakennääntie road the pink representative of functionalism, Hotelli Hirvi (1937), is also acting as a pedestal for a slim statue of its namesake hirvi, an elk. At the yard of the local youth club there is an old, small airplane. No longer in use, though.
On my side of the road, I rest my eyes on the artwork that covers the apartment building walls, as well as on the blue paint that can still be seen on some lamp posts. Trail marks! The footpath leads me to the highway E4 and even more traffic, but I won't need to tolerate the noise very much longer.
There are two bridges across Kotakennää at Äänekoski: the smaller one remains in use for local traffic only, and the larger one serves E4. The still erect Central Finland Provincial Trail sign tells me that the distance to Saarijärvi is 45 km. I doubt I've got so much left... It probably means the longer track that you would use when skiing.
The view from the bridge to lake Kuhnamo is very grey today, thanks to the rain. No boats. And very few walkers about on the roads...
After the bridge, there is a little ascent and a tunnel under E4 highway. The dirt road seems like a more reliable option than attempting to find the old trail from the side of the road so I stick to the road even though I manage to discern a blue trail mark among the trees. The old path seems to be so overgrown that I don't feel too bad about cheating a little. A sign to the right says Tärttävuoren lintutorni (Tärttävuori bird watching tower), 800 meters... Not in this weather.
I arrive at the fork of Tärttämäentie and Tärttälahdentie roads; my trail is the left one. The fields are not all cultivated anymore and trees are slowly taking over. At Kalliomäentie I meet someone and test his knowledge: do you know the provincial trail, perhaps?
Glad I asked. His advice was to walk on for about half a kilometre, then take this turn and keep going, even if the trail may look overgrown. He lets me discover myself that that occasionally the trail turns out to be not overgrown at all, but those rare occasions are a pleasant surprise...
... Because this is a more typical sight in front of me. It is not raining hard, but steadily, and whatever touches me when I push through the undergrowth, is wet...
However, it pays to keep reading the map and I even manage to find some trail marks on the trees! Still not lost!
Oh yes, this is a path. Although not too many people have been walking here recently. I start to think that I will really need map reading skills this time; the trail was probably last marked decades ago and even then it may not have been in heavy use in summer time.
I keep on reading the plastic-covered maps and hope for the rain to end, in vain. I am soaked - gore-tex doesn't always keep you dry - but realize I don't actually mind. The weather is warm and my backpack is extremely lightweight so I can simply take it as it is. A summer's day and a trail that whispers: now you see me, now you don't, but keep going! Somewhere around here there should be a place for making a fire, taken care of by the local villagers, but I miss it. Never mind. It's not too far to go anymore!
I walk past beautiful birches, a farm house called Onnela (Happiness house) and the sound of the traffic seems to increase. The flock of sheep is taking cover on the side of the field. Time for me to take cover also, isn't it.
Arriving at highway 13, I spot a Central Finland Hiking Trail sign by the side of the road. However, I choose not to walk among the tall grass but stick to the asphalt... My destination, Kartano Kievari (a hotel / bar / dance hall / summer theatre venue) is only few steps away.  I don't feel like a proper hiker because I'm sleeping between sheets instead of in a tent tonight, but the idea of carrying hardly anything for two days was very tempting and I fell for it. Plus I have a chance to dry my clothes properly overnight!

I wonder what tomorrow will bring - more or less trail signs, and will I keep on (almost) staying on the trail? For a change, this is so much more interesting than following a well marked trail where you don't need a map!

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