Saturday, 26 March 2016

A taste of UKK trail on snowshoes, Koli

It was a gorgeous sunny day in early March when I was walking towards Räsävaara at Koli, North Karelia in Finland. Before the last long ascent to Räsävaara I spotted a wooden sign saying UKK. The acronym stands for UKK Trail which runs between Koli and Savukoski. It is by no means an easy, short trail walked in a weekend;  Savukoski is up in Lapland, about 1,000 kilometres away, and the trail is well marked in some areas only and requires extremely good navigational skills. And you might still lose the way even if you carry detailed maps.

UKK stands for Urho Kaleva Kekkonen who was the President of the Republic of Finland in 1956-1981. Kekkonen was an outdoors enthusiast and loved especially cross country skiing and fishing. He is said to have hiked the trail himself in 1957.

It seemed that I could get at least a taste of the UKK trail with no chance of getting lost... The signposts seemed good enough and I would always be able to follow my own trail back in the snow. So, I returned to the same spot the following day, again equipped with my snowshoes.

There were no human footprints on the dazzling, white snow. Only a hare had made his trail in the snow before me. I strapped on my snowshoes and stepped off the road to UKK Trail. The snow was nice and crisp and my snowshoes sank somewhat into it, but not very deep. Nevertheless, winter walking in snowshoes is always harder than walking on a road without the extra weight and the sinking experience; very soon I had to wipe my forehead and slow down.

At first the trail followed a narrow dirt road (or should I say a snow road?) and I thought it would turn into a narrower track. But not just yet. I felt curious. Would I be able to follow the trail marks without being able to distinguish a well trodden trail on the ground?

I was soon to find out. When the trail left the road there was a clear sign to the right, but after that it got trickier. It really helps if you have some experience with looking for any possible trail signs in the land ahead, and you are lucky if the paint chosen for the trail is of vibrant colour. Nevertheless, it took me a while to spot the next trail marks that only just reached above the snow!

I had a small - but not very detailed - map with me which helped me to see the right direction, but no compass, and anyway, I was hoping to find out whether it would be possible to follow the UKK trail in winter time. This was already an indication that a good map would be a great help.

I could see the Räsävaara observation tower in the distance; it was my treat the previous day.  If following the trail now were to become too hard, I could always make another visit to Räsävaara.

Sun was keeping me company. I kept walking on, keeping an eye on any orange dots on trees or in wooden posts peeking through the snow. What a wonderful day! What a fabulous forest!

The trail turned left and I followed the trail marks between the fir trees. It was like a narrow lane, surrounded by the homes of forest folk. A kind hare had again jumped before me and marked the way in the snow, first to a small opening and further on, deeper into the forest. I wonder if the path was also created by animals before humans started using it as well.

On my left there was a dense fir forest; on my right deciduous trees wearing the latest winter fashion, fluffy snow jackets. When you walk among fir trees, you may not often catch the sun so this was a welcome view.

It was so quiet. No birds singing, no motors, not a sound. Except for snow sometimes falling on the ground from the top of the trees after the sun had managed to turn some of the snow into less solid format.

When I continued on in the forest, I kept looking for the trail marks but soon could see no orange dots on the trees. However, I figured that by walking to the right direction I would be bound to find the trail again and was right. Orange paint dots greeted me by the side of the next clearing and for a while I was definitely on the trail again. That is, until the trail marks again disappeared!

The distances were however so short that I was confident of meeting the trail again soon, and was right. At the next opening (felled perhaps recently?) I looked at my map and knew that a campfire site was near.

I walked down the slope and there it was. An official campfire site. Oh well, maybe I was content with just my thermos flask and didn't have an urge to make a fire this time... I didn't even bother to go and see if there would have been any dry firewood left.

The trail turned right before the next house (the first house I'd met on the trail so far) and joined a cross country skiing track which was heading in the right direction. I didn't want to trample on the skiing track so I jumped off it and made my personal trail on the snow. When the cross country skiing track arrived at a narrow road and turned right, I continued straight on, keeping on the UKK trail. Virgin snow again.

This time even hares had abandoned me and I had the trail and the forest all to myself. Or not really, but there were no hare footprints on the marked trail. Only some tiny footprints - perhaps mice  that ran across the trail here and there. Wait a minute, is that a bird singing? It sounded like spring.

Finding the next trail marks proved a bit more difficult in some places, but I felt confident I wouldn't have to turn back and follow my footprints back to where I had started from. Anyway, there were still many hours of daylight left.

After walking through a coniferous forest I arrived between lovely birches and to myt pleasant surprise, met trail signs and a map which told me exactly where I was. Nice! Mustikkavaara was only 2.5 kilometres away but I had already earlier decided that I'd be happy reaching Ryynäskylä where I could step onto a road that would take me back to Koli village. Not far too go anymore!

I walked across a field and then headed towards yet more fir trees. There was a house not too far on the left and I knew I didn't have too far to go anymore. And when you meet this kind of a straight 'lane' you just can't go wrong!

My final destination, Ryynäskylä's old village school was totally deserted, and it seemed like this was not due to school holidays. I suppose the school is no longer in its original use but that any kids in the area are transported to schools further afield. What surprised me was that the lovely kota had not been used recently either! It meant that it might not be easy to open the door...

I walked to the kota's door and tried gently to open the door, but as doors in Finland usually open outwards, the snow totally blocked the way. Also, I thought I'd prefer to stay out in the sun rather than go indoors, even if it would have been nice to make a fire, so I gave up quickly and headed towards the road that was supposed to be right next to the school. Although the road to the school yard was totally covered in snow, the Ryynäskylä road was clear and I took my snowshoes off. A couple more kilometres to go along the roads and then I'd be back at my lodgings at Koli village, at Kolin Ryynänen.

It was only then that I realized the connection between the names (Ryynäs = of Ryynänen, kylä=village)... I was walking from Ryynänen village to Ryynänen!

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Hidden treasure of Koli: Räsävaara

Koli, the best known attraction of North Karelia in Finland, has many hidden treasures. I'd heard that one such place is Räsävaara, a couple of kilometres off the most popular part - the peak of Ukko-Koli. On my previous trips to Koli I had planned a visit there but had never managed to make it (so many other things to do there!) so I finally decided to give it a go. 

I left Ukko-Koli via the trail that starts from the hotel to the Koli village and saw immediately that snowshoes were not needed. Not just yet. The trail went downhill for almost 3 kilometres and I stopped for a cup of tea at Kolin Ryynänen before continuing my walk towards Räsävaara by the side of the road. After the village, there is no footpath for us walkers... So better tread carefully and beware of cars passing by.

Firewood for sale...What a hilarious firewood house! There was no point in wearing snowshoes just yet; why make the trip harder when you have a normal road to walk on. Of course I could have tried to take a shortcut through the woods but I didn't have a good map with me so following the signs to Räsävaara was a better option. I walked about one kilometre from the village until I reached the sign to the right; Räsävaaran näkötorni (observation tower) 3.2 km. I had forgotten about that!

Again, I felt silly just carrying my snowshoes and not wearing them! But wearing them and just snowshoeing by the road didn't make sense either so I thought I'd take it easy. The road turned to the left and I met a cross country skiing track marked by Ahmanhiihto signs. The event takes place around mid March every year. I saw only one person skiing along the trail while walking beside it, but imagined that the trail would be extremely crowded at weekends.

I had the road all to myself. There were no cars driving past. The silence was fantastic; it gave me a perfect opportunity to simply enjoy the peace and quiet, to admire the snow and frost covered trees.

I spotted some orange dots on the trees, revealing that I was also following a  long-distance hiking trail called UKK Trail which runs in Eastern Finland and Lapland. UKK Trail is a summer hiking trail so it was no wonder that there were no footprints (not even those of snowshoes!) in the virgin snow when the trail turned off the road, to the left.

The slow and long ascent finally took me to the foot of Räsävaara's peak and it's lean-to shelter (laavu) which was deserted. I had been expecting to see a trail of smoke rising from there but there was nobody having a break in front of an open fire. There is ready-made firewood available for anyone who wants to sit down and just enjoy the moment in front of an open fire. Howeverm remember to bring your matchsticks and don't use more firewood than necessary!

Behind the log shelter, Räsävaara rose higher and I spotted yet another sign to the observation tower (näkötorni). The sign was pointing upwards to a steep slope and there were some footprints. The other alternative would have been to follow a snowmobile trail to the top but that was much less appealing! I finally fitted the snowshoes on my boots and began the ascent to the top.

Yes, it was steep. But not for long, luckily, because I rarely carry hiking poles with me and had left them behind, as usual. I know skiing or hiking poles can be extremely useful in the snow but when you've got a camera with you, it's not very convenient! It was interesting enough to follow the previous walker's footsteps because he (or she) had not been wearing snowshoes so the footprints were pretty small and deep in the snow. Very soon I realized it was easier to step on untouched snow and it became much easier to continue my journey amongst the fir trees and birches covered in lacy frost and heavy coat of snow.

There were so many different shades of blue up in the sky and the white trees were as if from a fairytale. Where are the elves? Hiding beneath the trees? Gently shaking snowflakes from the treetops as I pass them by?

I scanned the view ahead and wondered where the observation tower was. There were no paths visible so all I could do was to see where the land was rising and keep going until I would reach the highest point, in the hopes of finding the tower which might well be hidden among the trees, perhaps just as tall as them.

There were plenty of other footprints on the crisp snow. Most of them were those of hares of whom there are plenty in the area. When I glimpsed between the trees towards Ukko-Koli, the view was mostly obscured by mist and clouds over there although I could see the sun and blue skies on the other side of Räsävaara.

I could also see the huge expanse of Lake Pielinen in the distance, all white and flat between the mainland and islands. How beautiful! But I still couldn't spot the observation tower.

Then, all of a sudden, I saw it. The simple, tall structure made of wood, reaching up towards the sky. A solitary, quiet figure guarding the snowy forest and the view around it. I walked slowly towards it and took off my snowshoes before starting my ascent to the very top of Räsävaara. It was a slippery climb up the icy steps but I made it! There was a bit of wind up there, so I was glad to have a hood in my jacket. A simple woollen hat wasn't quite enough. 

But what a view! There is a fabulous 360 degree view to the whole Koli area. The hills (vaara), lakes and the neverending forests, mostly coniferous. Just imagine what this will look like in the spring, in the summer, in the autumn... All the different colours the nature can offer in different seasons... Already, I began to think what it would be like to be here in when the leaves have turned golden. Oh yes, even if there are mostly fir trees, there are plenty of birches and other deciduous trees that change colour in the area.

Räsävaara isn't the only hilltop that boasts obeservation tower in Koli; there is another great one at Ryläys, but Räsävaara instantly became my personal favourite. The movements of shadows and light, clouds, mist and different colours were simply enchanting. And I've never been able to resist a view from the top. The world beneath my feet.  

After saying goodbye to the shadows and tall trees from the very top of Räsävaara, I again took my snowshoes and made a short detour to the edge of the hill. To my pleasant surprise, I stumbled upon a sign that reveald this spot to have been the inspiration for Finnish artist Eero Järnefelt's gouache Metsälampi  (Pond in the Forest) in about 1895. His artwork depicts the scene in the summer so I couldn't exactly determine how the scenery had changed since but thought it would be interesting to see the original artwork. I wonder where the gouache is these days.

It took a while to return to Koli village although the journey was mostly downhill and I felt a cup of tea and some berry pie was in order at Kolin Ryynänen. Again. The rest of the way back to the hotel was going to be uphill, after all...

Someone had written I l Koli on the frosty railing of the wooden observation tower. No, I not me! It was there before I climbed up! But it could have been me - I love Koli!

I truly felt I'd found a hidden treasure of Koli and know for sure that I will return to Räsävaara some day. Until next time, Räsävaara.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Magnificent Mäkrä, Koli

Koli, one of my favourite places in North Karelia, was bathing in gorgeous sunshine, giving special glow to the tall fir trees covered in sparkling snow. What a day! Just perfect for snowshoeing!

There are marked snowshoeing trails at Koli, starting from the hotel. The shortest one does a circle round the top and takes you to the best viewing spots. We didn't bother to use our snowshoes at first; so many people had taken the path to the top of Ukko-Koli, the highest peak already that we started our daytrip by carrying our snowshoes. There was plenty of time for leaving our own footprints in the snow.

The view from the top of Ukko-Koli to Lake Pielinen is breathtaking, no matter what time of the year. In the summer blue takes over, from the sky to the lake, but now everything is white, white, white....And blue. The weather is just perfect, between -5 and -10 °C, keeping the snow dry and crisp.

I feel so lucky to be here.

Time to strap the snowshoes on. Which way? The next, shadowed peak is Mäkrä and I can't take my eyes off it. Mäkrä it is, as if I hadn't already decided... I've once gone up the hill in cross country skis, I've walked there in summertime, and enjoyed its slopes on snowshoes. It has been fun every single time. So why not this time?

With our snowshoes on, we descended Ukko-Koli and followed the marked showshoe trail for a bit, then stepped aside and  learned how deep in the snow we could leave our footprints. Bigfoot's plastic footprints. Yes, walking in the snow even with snowshoes is more strenuous than walking on a clean tarmac but without showshoes making a trail in the snow would be much harder!

After the first clearing, Mäkränaho, we continued further down via our own trail and soon reached Purolanaho. The soft glow of the sun made the quiet clearing even more beautiful. We stopped for a while to catch our breath and to consider having a snack. Perhaps just not yet, not even a tiny bit of chocolate. Mäkrä first!

I remembered the climb to the top of Mäkrä both with cross country skis and with snowshoes. I didn't have hiking poles with me - usually prefer to have my hands free even although at times I do miss them sometimes in deep snow when going up or down steep slopes.

Some other pairs of snowshoes had gone up Mäkrä before us and showed us the way. I didn't mind the ready made trail at all - it was hard enough to walk up the hill and it felt good to stop and take a photograph. No, it wasn't just to steady my breath...

The climb was well worth it! The view from Mäkrä is amazing. From here you can again see Lake Pielinen in its glory as well as Ukko-Koli where we started our day trip from. The downhill skiing at Koli was not to be heard neither here nor at Ukko-Koli: over here they don't play music next to the ski lifts.  The only sounds were the whiff of the wind and our own breath, shuffling of our feet in the snow.

After we'd gazed at the scenery long enough, we headed for the other western slope of Mäkrä to face the sun. In the distance I could distinguish Lake Herajärvi which has gien its name to a great hiking trail (31-60 km) which isn't as easy as it may sound. The hills, called 'vaara' can be quite strenuous.

I felt I was in fairytale land. You don't always need to travel as far north as Lapland to see the best of Finnish winter with the snow covered trees and experience the whitest of snow!

We chose our way down: the summer trail of Mäkrä, marked with green paint on the trees, took us directly to Ikolanaho under yet more snow covered trees. For a bit it felt like we were walking in a tunnel. A tunnel of white beauty. When some light snowflakes fell off the trees above us, glittering in the rays of the sun, it felt surreal.

Just before reaching Ikolanaho, our chosen stop, I glimpsed towards the cliffs on my right. Loads of icicles, like gigantic teeth of the elves grinning. I wondered what else was there, hiding under the white snow.

It was finally time for our snack. But first, a small fire. Metsähallitus kindly provides the hikers with dry firewood (you may need to use the axe though!) but it should be used sparingly, because transporting firewood to these places isn't easy and there are lots of people who stop to make a fire - often to cook their dinner if hiking. There is no charge for firewood, either, so be kind to others and don't use more firewood than necessary! Also, if there is a metal grill above the fireplace, do not leave it on the fire after you've fried your sausages, made your toast etc. but turn it to the side because metal grills don't last forever in the heat. We saw the proof of that... A totally ruined grill. Hope it will be replaced soon.

Our tiny fire was just about enough to heat our sausages - a must! - and we also had some tea from our flask to get warm. The sun was beginning to set soon and it was time to go: mostly uphill again, as we were heading back for Ukko-Koli.

We followed someone else's snowshoeing trail from Ikolanaho towards Purolanaho at first, but the trail diverted a bit to the left and we soon found ourselves close to the trail that we had first followed towards Mäkrä. There was no way we could get lost: all trails lead to Koli!

And if you think it's too cold to go snowshoeing at Koli, you are mistaken. Snowshoeing on Koli's slopes can only keep you warm... Still, it was great to go to sauna after our snowy day trip!