Like many of you I have an office job. I like it, but like most of you I need a break from it every now and then. I need short and intensive breaks: like an hour of high-heart-rate bicycle training or like spending an outdoor weekend with my family. And I also need long breaks, where I can relax or at least focus on something else entirely. Like biking through Northern Norway or skiing across Greenland. I got two weeks of time end of February, beginning of March. Returning to the snowy landscapes of Finnmark was the best I could think of. In this post, and the next one, I am writing about my 13-day and 260km long travel from Vardø to Skoganvarre in Norwegian Finnmark in the winter 2017.
DAY 1 – GETTING THERE
I did not take enough time to prepare for this trip. I had a ‘training weekend trip’ with a friend and because all went so great then, I did not even bother to prepare a packing list. I knew where things are stored and what extras I need to buy, so I simply packed in 2 evenings after kids were put to bed. Well, almost. I was still making the peanut butter and cheese sandwiches in the morning I was supposed to leave, tucking them into the pulk while the taxi was already waiting for me on the driveway. But the haste did not end there. A snow storm delayed all airplane departures from Tromsø – mine by about an hour. Luckily not more than that, because this still left me an hour and a half to buy fuel and food in Vadsø before catching the bus to Vardø. I have packed breakfast and dinner already at home, but I had to buy most of my lunch supplies and pack them neatly into daily rations. I have found a warm and cosy bench in the shopping mall and got myself to the packing business. When I was almost done I turned around to find a whole team of shop assistants peaking over my shoulder. I realized I was quite a spectacle for the place. They all gathered behind my back and were trying to figure out what on Earth I was doing. I have explained them my plan and they were wondering how I am going to make such a trip alone – and even without a dog! With their cheering I left for the bus station which turned out to be nothing more than a simple side of a building with a timetable. Vadsø is one of the windiest palaces in Norway and yet this town has absolutely no shelter at the bus station. Unfortunately the storm seemed to be affecting this part of Norway too and the bus was late. After half an hour of waiting in the cold wind it finally did arrive and me and another passenger hurried into the warm interiors. By then it was getting dark and I was kit-napping for some half an hour, just to be brutally woken up and ‘thrown out of the warm bed’ exactly where I told them to do it. Besides Vardø being further north and more exposed to the winds from the Barents Sea than Vadsø, the bus stop at the Vardø airport was even less equipped. The airport building was closed, so the bus stopped at the crossroads some 500 m away. The driver did not seem to be very confident about the success of my undertaking, so when exiting the bus, he instructed me: ‘And dress yourself well!’ He was very right. I literally walked out into a snow storm. I have to admit, I was not really ready for that. The southwest wind was blowing straight to my face, but the googles were somewhere neatly packed in the bottom of my pulk. It must have taken me terribly long time to get myself ready. Quite embarrassingly, I was still at the bus stop when the bus drove past me after turning around in town and heading back to the mainland. I supposed the bus driver checked the local newspapers for reports on a women found lost in snow next morning. But of course all went just fine. I found the googles, put on the harness and started puling my stuff up the slope between the closed and snow drifted summer cabins. I set my first camp right after I have lost the sight of the last one. It was to become the windiest and noisiest night on my whole trip, but I was still too disorganized (and tired) to find the ear plugs. Just 3km today.
DAY 2 – ALONG THE RIVER
Photo caption: Next day I could finally see Vardø. The night before I saw a lot of lights and I though the town must be big – or at least bigger than expected. Next day I realized most of the lights were street lights and the town looked small and cozy. According to Trond – my fellow passenger on the bus, Vardø is famous for rock’n’roll and spies. I could not say anything about the night life over there, but the radar antenna sure looked big…
The snow storm yesterday was actually a great start of the trip. The winter 2017 was record warm and it was raining just a week before my trip. I was dreaded by the prospect of bare ice and rocks at Vardø where a typical winter snow depth at the windblown meteorological station in town is in fact 0cm! By the morning the wind calmed down and the snow was great to ski on. Back at home I have made a preliminary GPS track for my trip and at this point it went straight up the rocky slope. The 40+kg of gear in my pulk was another convincing argument to follow a longer and gentler way around the hill and up the river. It was cloudy and it was snowing most of the day, still quite windy and towards the end of the day I even had an hour of a complete white-out. I was again following my planned GPS track in the evening and set up a camp 15km in a straight line south-westward from the day before.
DAY 3 – UP ON THE PLATEAU
I was finally up on the plateau after climbing some 150 of altitude meters yesterday. I was avoiding deep river valleys, but there were a number of snow-drifted gullies that I had to cross. The pulk was very heavy. At the airport in Tromsø it weighted 38kg together with the skis. I had to take my home made oatmeal breakfast out and carry it in hand luggage to get the pulk to the 32kg max limit of a single piece of air-transportable luggage. Then in Vadsø I have added some extra 10kg of fuel and food. I have started on Monday and I was expecting to be in Tana bru/Deanušaldi where I could re-supply by Saturday night. If I was slower than planned, I d reach that point only on Sunday, when all the shops except the tank station are closed. I am picky with the food and I did not want to risk it, so I packed all the food for 15 days (including 2 spare days). I only needed a fuel resupply. On a level hard snow surface a couple of kilos more in the pulk does not really matter. But I could sure feel the weight on the slopes. Still I made a great progress and added 20km in a straight line to my journey.
DAY 4 – BLISTERS
‘No shoes will ever fit this child!’ said my great grandmother when I was running around always bear feet all summer long. (And summers in my home village in Slovenia are substantially longer than in Norway.) Of course I have refused to wear any slippers indoors the rest of the year. I can’t tell if that helped or my feet were simply meant to grow wild – the fact is that I get crazy blisters whatever I wear. Especially on my heels. Actually the shoes seem to suffer too – most of the m have to be thrown away after 1-2 years because the inside of the heel gets worn out! Not surprisingly same happened to my feet and boots on this trip. I wore 3 pairs of socks and I have taped my feet at home beforehand. It helped. My left feet was completely fine, while the right one was not that lucky. I was getting blisters one on top of the other higher and higher along the back of my heel climbing from the base of the foot and up the tendon. Soon the outer layer of the socks got worn out and I had to tape those too. That finally stopped the further damage. Anyway, blisters were not a problem. I forgot about them about 2 minutes after I started skiing in the morning and the body warmed up.
This was the hardest day so far. I had to climb from about 250m to 550m, pass Skipkjølen/Bealjaidčearru – with the 634m the highest peak of Varanger peninsula, and then descend again towards the Jakolbselva/Annejohka. I was trying to make up a few km lost due to the late start on the first day and I set my camp 20km further down the track.
DAY 5 – SNOW
Studying the map last night I was looking forward to an easy day. There were no more big climbs before Tana/Deatnu and I was just supposed to follow a straight line across the river valleys and gentle slopes. But after a good night sleep I woke up in the morning with some 10cm of fresh snow. I was in the valley, the winds are not strong here and the previous snowfall was not compacted neither, so my skis were sinking in. 10 cm soon became 15 and I had no choice, but to plough, dragging my pulk and leaving a very nice and wide track behind me. I have covered about 19km distance and camped at a bottom of a narrow river valley. The wind started to catch up in the evening and I was hoping it will compact the snow for me over the night.
DAY 6 – LUCKY DAY
I call this day ‘lucky’ not because the wind did the job for me. It only made a thin crust that was not able to hold me and then there was an additional few cm of fresh snow on top. So, instead of simply sinking in like the day before today I had to kick the crust and ‘march like a soldier’.
I called it ‘lucky’ because when climbing out of the steep river valley, the plastic holding the pull rope of my pulk suddenly gave in. Luckily (!) that happened in the moment I was holding the rope with one hand. This means that the pulk did not slide down the slope with full speed and fall into the river, get wet or break some important equipment… Here I have to admit that I noticed the cracks in the plastic around the holes for the pull rope already a day before. But I was lazy or simply forgot about it. I said I would fix it when it really breaks. Of course I did not imagine it would happen on a steep slope… Well, as an old Slovenian proverb has it: ‘The dumbest farmer has the biggest potato.’
The first half of the day was then an absolute white-out with numerous gully-crossings. A dangerous undertaking when you can’t see where you are going and what is up and what is down. As everything can be good and bad at the same time – snow was deep and offered soft landings. I had to go really slowly and skied just 15km distance that day. But I have managed to reach the forest edge and as tomorrow was Saturday I was hoping to find one of the numerous ski-doo tracks lower in the valley and get some rest from the crazy march in the snow.
DAY 7 – DOWN TO TOWN
The clear cold night brought no new snow. And I woke up with sunshine! I had my alarm clock set to 4:30AM, but I snoozed it for 10 minutes and turned around in my sleeping bag. The days are still short at 70N during this time of the year and I had to get up early to be able to use all the daylight. But this morning was so cold – I don’t know how cold it really was, but my sleeping bag rated for -25 started to be less toasty than usually, that the GPS battery (getting low already the day before) simply did not make it through the 10 min snooze. So, I woke up at 6AM with warm sun-rays heating the tent.
In the forest there was more soft snow, but no crust and going down the slope was the morning exercise that my tired muscles really appreciated. I soon found a ski track that I could follow for about a kilometer. After another few km I found a couple of ski-doo tracks that I could connect in a nice climb up the last mountain before Tana/Deatnu. It felt like I am not alone, but working in a team, where I can go ahead and break trail for an hour and then relax behind a teammate for a while. On the other side of the mountain I even came across a groomed ski track! I could really feel that I was coming closer to the settlements. The slope descending towards Tana bru/Deanušaldi is very steep, but I ignored the ski-doo tracks that went around in big loops and went straight down through the forest. My pulk was probably a bit scared in some of the gullies, but successfully avoided major tree crashes and there was just some rolling in the snow and soft landings. I would next risk this if there was less powder snow! We came out right at the bridge and crossed the Tana/Deatnu River next to it.
As predicted this day was Sunday – the spare day dissolved in my snow battles, so I went straight to the tank station and got some fuel for the stove and the biggest burger they had for myself. I camped at the ski track just over the town. 19km on this day.