Saturday, November 24, 2012

Dark times: November bikepacking on the Ilvesreitti (Lynx route), Häme, Finland.


Bike packed for bikepacking. Swollen stream from the autumnal deluges behind


Hillbilly country
The older I get, the more I can’t ignore it, November is a shitty month in southern Finland. Snow is a rarity but so is sun. Do expect darkness, rain, wind and misery. Today, where I live, the day was 7 hours and 4 mins long, and when I say ‘day’, don’t get over excited: with 100% cloud cover, the skies have gone from black to grey and back to black once more. 6 hours of greyness and drizzle; that was the day. It’s interesting to note that we’ve actually lost over an hour and half of daylight since the first of month as well. So like I say: November - it really is a shitty month.

Old collapsed farm building, quite normal in rural Finland
Last weekend my son had a Scout camp to go to. In a fit of making-myself-do-something-I-might-otherwise-not-do, I volunteered to take some of kids up early on Saturday and bring them home on Sunday. The plan was, once out in the countryside, I’d stay and do something outdoorsy rather than drive there and back twice in two days. Climbing was one possibility, but didn’t quite work out. Rock climbing in November is always a bit marginal, so perhaps I didn't miss out on much. Instead I decided to go for an overnight bikepack trip near where I was taking the kids. I mentioned in a past post I've been to various parts of what are called the "Häme Lake Uplands", and have the outdoor recreation map to the area. Using the map I figured I find some sort of circular route around the Liesjärvi National Park and taking in what I presumed might be good single track riding on bits of the 250 km long Ilvesreitti long distance hiking trail. It didn't quite work out like that.

The 'path' as state of mind...
The map is great, showing loads of different potential adventures in this area. Besides the Ilvesreitti itself crossing the whole region, there are loads of other, much shorter circular paths that join it for sections; canoeing routes; cycling routes using quiet back roads; and even a long distance horse riding trail. Someone has been investing in the Ilvesreitti, there are plenty of signs and waymarks where it crosses roads and the like but actually in the forests, the path is almost non-existent in the places where I tried riding it. There are strips of faded plastic tied around trees every 50 metres or so. They take some effort to spot but you need to, because the path on the ground in places just disappears. There are little bridges and such across ditches, a few duckboard sections here and there, but over all the sense you get is that not enough people are using the route to really make an actual trail on the ground. Sections were essentially unrideable and I was pushing or carrying my bike. It's not easy hiking even without a bike.
...rather than geographic reality
In other places the route follows pre-existing dirt roads which make for easy mountain-biking and perhaps rather dull hiking, but don't get complacent because the route will suddenly leave the road and head off into the forest with just a few strips of plastic on trees showing you the way! It's interesting, because if I have any complaints about Finnish national parks it's that they make the hiking trails idiot proof: so many waymarks that walkers don't really need to take any responsibility for themselves in navigating. I followed the Ilvesreitti for maybe 20 kms or so of my trip and found that I was consulting my map and compass regularly, and backing that up from time to time with the GPS on my phone. I could imagine anyone used to the more normal Finnish marked trails finding the bits of the Ilvesreitti I followed frustrating and easy to get lost on. I eventually bailed out after a good few kms of pushing and carrying my bike where the trail follows the northern shore of Onkimaanjärvi (just east of Liesjärvi national park). After the autumnal deluges, the path was underwater at one point, so I escaped away from the lake, giving up on the trail for the nearest logging tracks.


The map showed a laavu on the shores of a small lake called Kivijärvi. I realised that it was past 3pm and overcast, meaning I didn't have a lot of daylight left, so it only being a few kms from where I had escaped from the bike-pushing torture on the Ilvesreitti, it seemed a like a good bet. The main thing I wanted was a fireplace and some dry wood, which often comes with hikers' laavus in Finland, and I wasn't disappointed with this one. The wind meant most of the smoke from the fire went into the laavu which was unfortunate, but considering that my gas stove was malfunctioning (until a little emergency repair work with the pin from my swiss army knife later) it was great to have the fire to cook my food on and boil tea and coffee water.

The inky dark of a cloudy November night
 By 8pm I had ate, drunk and fixed my stove, so I realised there wasn't much else to do beside let the fire go out, roll out my sleeping bag in the now less smokey laavu, and go to bed. I think that's the earliest I've been to bed in years. It was a very dark night, only one electric light visible off in the distance and the stars and the moon hidden behind thick clouds. The noise of the wind driven wavelets on lake slapping against the shore and the gusts of wind kept away the claustrophobia that all pervading darkness can bring. I got stuck into a new book, but after 45 kms of biking (or bike pushing!) that day I soon went off to sleep.
The laavu fire bucket made an excellent windbreak
Trail signs; we're just missing the trail!
Dawn on Sunday was marked by a slow and subtle change from blackness to greyness. The wind was blowing straight off the lake and into the laavu. It wasn't desperately cold, a few degrees above freezing, but the dampness, wind and greyness made getting out of my sleeping bag and unattractive prospect. Eventually I did, and once breakfasted, packed and back on the bike it wasn't too bad. I rode around the top of Liesjärvi on some pleasant quiet roads and into the national park. Virtually no one else was around, so the highlight of the day was riding along the amazing two kms long esker ridge of Kyynäränharju that splits the lake in half. I imagine in summer this could get quite busy but I saw no one else. After that I did some much better, technical single track riding through to Korteniemi Heritage Farm. Leaving the farm area I took another footpath that turned out to be a bad move as it followed duckboards for a couple of kms through a swamp. Normally riding duckboards is a fun challenge of your riding skills, but these were in lousy shape, often broken and with a gap in the middle big enough to catch even the fat tyres on my mountain bike. They are also as slippery as hell after the autumn of rain. Even just walking on them and pushing the bike was no easy task. Duckboards escaped, it was nearly back at the main road. Once on the road, now in real rain rather than just the drizzle of the morning, just a few kilometres of tarmac bashing had me back to the car and the closing of the circle.

The woods are rather dead feeling at this time of year; the leaves are all now just brown mulch under your tyres, all the ferns and grass have died back and perhaps most noticeable is the almost total absence of any type of bird song. Biking should be (if you have everything running well) very quiet, so I have had far more close encounters with wildlife when riding than even whilst walking; but on this trip - nothing. There must have been moose around somewhere because I saw a standard huge Finnish hunting party out to shoot something, but if the moose were about they must have been sensibly keeping their heads down.

Brown and grey
Overall? By no means a bad trip, but there is something melancholy about this time, these dying weeks of the year. Nevertheless, without it we would neither appreciate the glaring purity of the thick midwinter snows and hard frosts, nor the manic abundance of life and growth that is the short northern summer.
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