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!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Jyväskylä: Devil's Cave, Laajavuori

What are the rocks whispering? Stories and memories of days gone by? How did the Devil's Cave (Pirunluola in Finnish) get its name?

I've never visited a Devil's Cave (believe me, this is not the only of its kind in Finland) so it's time to hunt it down. My sources tell me that it can be found somewhere in the vicinity of Haukkala Spring, at Laajavuori, so after reaching Kortepohja I keep on walking to Haukkalantie road which runs parallel to Laajavuorentie, only closer to lake Tuomiojärvi. However, as soon as I arrive at Haukkalantie road I leave it and turn left, take a narrow path to the forest and start looking.

There are quite a few tracks meandering in the moss-covered forest but if you are looking for a cave, you know you have to head for the rocks.
Soon I find myself right below the Spa Hotel Laajavuori and its huge windows. This looks like a promising area for cave-hunting - the rocks are steep enough. It seems to be my lucky day because in no time do I find the entrance to Devil's Cave!
The entrance to the cave is very narrow but once inside, I'm surprised. The cave is by no means huge but it is not tiny either: this Devil's Cave is a couple of meters long. You don't feel claustrophobic at all.
Rock paintings are my favourites, but I must admit I prefer the ancient ones dating to the Bronze Age to the graffiti-like paintings from the past few decades that are found here. This one could be a modern version of a typical old Finnish rock painting - an elk. But who the devil was the artist?
At the other end of the cave there are two narrow openings that let in sunlight. I have no desire to try to squeeze myself a little bit further along the right 'corridor' because I'm sure I would only get stuck or rip my jacket. This is pretty much as far as you can go. I am certain that quite a few visitors must have spent a longer time here, perhaps hiding, or taking shelter from the rain, or even sleeping (judgding by the the remains of a styrofoam sheet). Unfortunately I don't have a plastic bag with me, to take the trash with me.
So that is Devil's Cave, Laajavuori, Jyväskylä. I still don't have an explanation for the devilish name, but who cares. Devils or demons have been called by different names (for example piru, hiisi, hitto) in Finnish over time and especially rocky areas may have places named after the evil one. This Pirunluola cave isn't marked on the map and it isn't signposted either so you really have to know where to look for it; few locals know about it either. However, it is literally just a stone's throw from the Laajavuori Spa Hotel. Just don't throw a stone at a sleeping devil!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Sarkasvuori rock painting, Juva

The ice-covered, winding roads force me to drive extremely carefully to my destination at Juva, southern Savo, Finland. I take a free mini-cruise on on ferry (1-2 minutes, there is no bridge) to Hirvensalo before reaching Uimasalo and Ristilampi lake. The spring hasn't arrived here just yet although it is on its way; it is still the ice age of winter 2013 and the lakes are frozen which means that I don't need to follow the marked path to the rock paintings. I pick up my snowshoes...
Or should have bothered to take the snowshoes with me at all? There seems to be so little snow left on the ice that I really don't need to wear them when walking on Ristilampi lake. Oh well, they might come in handy later.
I wonder if that rock has something to do with the rock paintings?
As soon as I leave the lake the snowshoes come in handy. There is still plenty of snow on the ground. I walk up to the rocks by Ristilampi lake and find out that this is a prehistoric quartz quarry, not yet a place to discover rock paintings.
In this distant place there have been people hard at work such a long time ago! Just imagine - quartz from this very rock has been used for knives or arrow heads in the Stone, Bronze or Iron Age and the tools used in the excavation weren't exactly modern.
I follow the arrow sign and the occasional red ribbons tied on trees to head for the rock paintings. The ravine between the rocks offers plenty to see around me: there are gorgeous icicle formations both on my right and left. I keep following the red ribbons as long as I can but when there are no further ribbons, keep on walking, in the hopes of arriving at the right place. However, when I reach a lake, I quickly realize that it is a whole lot bigger than the one I have memorized on the map before arriving here so I'd better head back and try again.
Yes, it is indeed interesting to be out walking without a printed map, trying to memorize the map from an online service that doesn't seem to be available when I'm on the spot. Wonder why I prefer to carry a printed map with me whenever I can instead of relying always on my cell phone? But no, it isn't really a problem because this is such a small area and I remember which way the right lake was supposed to be. Very soon I am walking on Sarkaslampi lake and start scanning the rocks for a rock painting. It goes on for a while... without success. I should probably have followed the trail (that is somewhere high up) instead of walking on the ice because there might be a sign leading me to the rock painting at this end of the lake.
I keep on walking slowly on the ice and lose my hope of spotting the first rock painting. However, as soon as I have passed the group of guys who have been winter fishing on the lake (and who are enjoying their break by an open fire) I spot an interesting looking rock and a sign beneath it. Once I'm there, it doesn't take long to find the  Sarkasvuori rock painting - it is clearly an elk! The rock painting is a couple of metres from the ground - the water level was much higher earlier - and the elk dates probably back to 3300-3700 B.C.
This is how long-lived artwork was made before spray cans took over. The red paint has survived surprisingly well over the years, telling its greetings from the days gone by so long ago. It is very easy to see the elk but the shape above it could be whatever. A human? I'm glad that the water level in lake Saimaa is exactly where it is now so that it is not possible to reach the elk painting and it can stay as it is, protected by law but unguarded here by a small lake in the middle of nothing. Almost.

The fishermen return back to the ice and sit down on their stools to continue fishing on this beautiful, sunny day. I wave a hello and walk past them to find my way back to Ristilampi. I feel a pang of sadness; this may well be my last snowshoeing trip this winter that is clearly turning to spring.

Map of Ristilampi - Sarkasvuori, Juva

Monday, 8 April 2013

Laukaa: Scenic Hyyppäänvuori

I just can't imagine a more beautiful day for a snowshoeing trip! My destination is a hilltop which some have claimed to be the equivalent of the famous Koli (of North Karelia) in the province of Central Finland. Hyyppäänvuori hill is located on the southwestern shore of lake Lievestuore in Laukaa and it rises to 171 meters above sea level. There are more than one path leading to its top; I select the shorter, unmarked one via Ruoholahdentie, being lucky in finding a place to park (for there really isn't parking available) by the side of the road only a little distance away. Also, finding the unmarked trail is easy because there are some footprints in the snow leading to the right direction.
Climbing to the top of Hyyppäänvuori is very good excercise. The path winds up the steep hill slowly but surely and I feel almost sorry for the cross-country skier who has also gone up the same way. When I am close to the top, I also encounter the marked trail which joins my path from the west.
Parts of Hyyppäänvuori area are also parts of a nature reserve maintained by Metsähallitus. As I'm out here without a map, having arrived here by following instructions only, it's great to see where exactly I am on the map as well as where the marked trail would have been (had I known about it!). Good to know for the next visit which might well take place when the snow is gone.
Well, I must say the view isn't too bad. Not bad at all. The view must be one of the best in Central Finland. And  there is no need for an observation tower because there are no trees blocking the panorama and there is a sheer drop right in front of me.
The lonely, grey pine tree strikes a weary pose for me. I stand still in the snow for a long time, gazing the blue-tinted view around me, and hear no sound, not even from a distance.
The other handsome, already grey or slowly greying pine trees may not be hundreds of years old but they are charming just the way they are. Let me think - there was also supposed to be a cave around here. It must be somewhere beneath me.
I take care in descending the rocky slope in my snowshoes and hope that I won't miss the cave; I have no idea how big or small it could be. Once I'm safely down, I start following the rocks and it seems pretty promising. I wonder if that can already be labeled a cave?
A couple more steps and... No doubt about it, this is a proper cave and it's easy to enter it, without needing to wriggle in through a tiny hole. I can well imagine someone must have slept here, safe from the wind and the rain. I guess these days this is not meant to be used for spending a night here... and making a fire in this area is forbidden.
I climb back up the hill and rejoin the trail that goes round the scenic Hyyppäänvuori, giving a view to almost every direction. If you are visiting Hyyppäänvuori and don't want to go down and visit the cave, you can also get a temporary shelter by sitting under the large rock by the path. Again, making the fire is forbidden and there is no fireplace offered here, unlike in many other nature trails. It is quite understandable because this gorgeous area had better stay as it is!

I walk down the hill with a light step, choosing a different shortcut to the road in my snowshoes now that I know the way. Hyyppäänvuori may not be the equivalent of Koli, and Lake Lievestuore doesn't exactly equal the huge lake Pielinen in North Karelia, but to me Hyyppäänvuori is now definitely among the most scenic spots in Central Finland. I hope to return here in the summer!