30-Mar-2004 -- INTRODUCTION
Having a small tradition of combining cross-country skiing with a yearly
glider flying event in the Swedish Lapland, I thought collecting a
confluence point at the same time would give a rewarding purpose to the skiing. I was somewhat surprised to discover that all points in Sweden had already been visited. The closest unvisited point was in Finland and seemed to offer a nice challenge, being situated 33 kilometres from the closest road.
The point has been attempted by a renowned confluence hunter, Mr Hermann Grebner already twice, but he had abandoned the attempt because of the wet swamps. Sounded like a perfect destination for a skiing trek in winter, everything frozen.
On a Friday afternoon 26 March 2004, I started driving from The Hague,
Holland, where I live and work, towards the tip of the "arm" of Finland,
my home country. I arrived in Kilpisjärvi two days and 2900 km later,
just in time to have a sauna, some ice swimming and a dinner just before the restaurant of Hotel Kilpis closed.
Next morning my average speed towards the confluence dropped
dramatically as I abandoned my car and started skiing from Saarikoski,
roughly 20 km from Kilpisjärvi.
The first 36 km consists of a snow scooter track leading to a
sami-village called Raittijärvi. Every thirty metres there was a wooden
pole with a diagonal cross on top. At first it seemed like silly waste
to place the markings so close to each other in an open, treeless
landscape, but later I met two gentlemen who just a couple of days
earlier had had trouble finding from one to another in a snowstorm.
After a few kilometres skiing I encountered the first of the few people
I met during my trip, a reindeer herdsman, who a bit disappointingly
lived up to their reputation as notorious drinkers, by opening the
conversations by asking for a drink. Only a few hundred metres later I
met an ice fisher from whom I heard the cause to the poor guy's thirst.
A wolverine had dispersed a herd of reindeer and he was probably one of the herdsmen who had spent the night chasing the wolverine and gathering and protecting the herd.
On the fresh scooter trace of the thirsty herdsman I soon discovered
even fresher wolverine footprints. Wolverine is a ferocious predator
known to have killed tens of reindeer in one go. It too had found it
easiest to follow the scooter track. I had never heard a wolverine
attack human beings. Surely, this one would not either. Not even a
hungry and chased wolverine, suddenly followed by a lonely skier instead of snow scooters. Surely not...
After a short rest at Namakka herdsmen's hut my route slowly climbed
above the tree level and after a total of 28 kilometres I parked my 38
kg pulka down in a shallow valley, still on relatively high grounds. In
the horizon a herd of reindeer silhouetted against the sunset asking to
be photographed, but to save weight I had left my tele-objective in my
car. A handsome male separated from the herd to admire my snow
shovelling efforts. It took me more than an hour to build a protective
snow wall around the hole where I put my tent. Meanwhile my ungulate
friend had disappeared to return with his girlfriends; to share, or to show off, I don't know.
I learned the next day that just a few kilometres further down, in a
river valley in the roadless Raittijärvi village, the temperature had
dropped down to -18 °C. Temperature gradients in the mountains can be
impressive. It is very common, especially during clear and calm nights
that low ground become bitterly cold, while just a few hundred metres
higher it can be more than ten degrees warmer. Reindeer know this
phenomenon well and it was not a bad idea to pitch my tent where they
were. During the night I even woke up sweating and had to open my
sleeping bag to cool down. However, at this point I feel obliged to
admit that my camp location was actually determined more by beginner's luck than meteorological expertise.
The next morning I soon reached a crossing of snow scooter routes.
Continuing straight would bring me across the Rommaeno river to
Raittijärvi village, while turning right would bring me several
kilometres closer to the confluence, but not across the river. I opted
for the safe river crossing and local knowledge hopefully available in
the village. I was not disappointed. Smoke was rising from one of the
chimneys and in that house (sorry to disappoint, but nobody there lives
in those wigwam-like Lapp tents anymore) I found two helpful gentlemen who among many other things were able to point me to a snow scooter track they had created the day before to do some ice fishing. This track led me to only two kilometres away from the confluence. Had I come just half an hour later, these men would have been gone and I would never have found the track. This would probably have meant several kilometres more knee-deep plodding through soft snow that was omnipresent in the dwarf birch forest surrounding the Skaiddivaara-hill, on top of which the confluence was situated. Officially these men were gathering firewood for the subsistence of the Raittijärvi-village, which gave them the right to drive around freely. Recreational snow scooter driving is restricted to the designated routes and ice.
However convenient the track was, it brought me back to the wrong side
of the river. Apparently, most of the time the ice was very strong,
since the track ventured on to it every now and again. Where it had
carried a snow scooter, it would carry me as well, I figured. But there
were open parts as well, especially where the stream was faster, and
therefore, logically under the snow there could be anything between open water and one metre thick ice. How could I tell? The scooter driver had visited the area regularly since 1967, so he must have known where the quiet waters were. All I could do was to pick a wide spot with as little
inclination as possible. With nearly a metre snow on the river it was
not totally obvious. Sometimes it was not even clear where the river
Luckily the part of the track closest to the confluence fulfilled my
criteria. As a precaution, in case the ice failed, I took my back pack
and camera pack in my hands, my hands out of the loops of the ski poles, and released the heel loop of my ski bindings so that the skis would come off as soon as I moved my feet backwards. The pulka I had already left behind. Otherwise fine, but the ice fishers had drilled a hole
there and the weight of the snow on the ice was greater than the
buoyancy of the ice itself. As a consequence, water had flooded on the
ice below the snow. This had made the snow field somehow unstable, which I learned through a split second feeling of weightlessness and a blunt thump when the snow field collapsed under me, creating fault lines that reached 15-20 metres away. A curious and scary phenomenon which repeated itself several times and definitely made me want to turn back asap. Knowing from a course in ice mechanics, that an ice field that floods due to a load it is bearing will eventually collapse, did not make me any calmer. However, turning back proved to be quite tricky, since my ski bindings were loose and deep in the snow, capable of forward
movement only, and stepping on the snow with a boot alone would have
soaked my feet. Only on the skis I could stay dry.
Eventually I found a dry route to the other side of the river and could
start my arduous final 2 km leg towards the confluence, wading through
the bushes in knee-deep snow on the constantly steepening southern slope of Skaiddivaara. Once on the virtually treeless flat top, a thin hard
layer of wind swept snow and ice greeted me, and made the last 800
metres a pure pleasure.
Apart from the compulsory photographs, there was not much time for
celebration at the confluence. The sweat from the climb and the wind on
the top forced me soon to turn back to the shelter of the dwarf birches.
I found again my pulka and skied a few kilometres back before putting up my camp, this time on the snow scooter track. Off the track, all I found was bouldery terrain covered by powdery snow. Having logged the
confluence point and 26 kilometres I enjoyed a windy and substantially
colder night than the previous one. The thermometer inside the tent
showed at some point -10 °C.
Thanks to the wind during night, drift snow had surprisingly managed to
cover parts of the typically about 30 cm deep track, but just enough
irregularities in the snow cover still revealed it's presence, guiding
me back to Raittijärvi via the well tested parts of the river ice. At
this point the prospect of reaching the same day the civilization:
Sauna, bed sheets and fresh food, started to prove irresistible and I
adjusted my pace so that I would cover the remaining 36 kilometres in
time for the good old Kilpis Hotel sauna and ice swimming. Halfway I
returned to GSM-coverage and managed to inform my family about my
well-being after a two-day "radio silence".
After a well-deserved rest in Kilpisjärvi, I drove 300 km to
Pirttivuopio, near Kebnekaise, the highest mountain in Sweden. There I
attended the glider flying camp in favourable conditions and managed to
enjoy once more the soul-caressing fjeld scenery, this time powered by
wind instead of muscles.
I am grateful to my wife for the "time allowance" and her stretched but
not snapped patience towards all the shopping the trip required.
As for the shopping: I m grateful to the portable EPIRB (Emergency
Position Indicating Radio Beacon) for providing some peace of mind to a
lone skier where mobile phones don't work. I am also grateful to the two
cousins of Rudolf the Rednose for providing me with my first truly warm