By Alv Elvestad
Many years ago, a group of friends bought canoes, picked a route on the map and went on an epic trip. None of us had been on a canoe trip before, and none of us knew how to paddle a canoe in whitewater, but we had a good time and I was hooked on canoe trips. Through pure luck, our route turned out to be one of the finest canoe touring routes in all of Lapland.
Fine does not always mean easy, and on my trips in the area I have thought about the best way to travel the route. This time we decided to go with lightweight solo PakCanoes. A solo canoe is manoeuvrable and easier to push into deeper water when you get stuck on rocks – and a small canoe is more fun!
From our home base on my brother Tore’s farm in the Reisa River Valley, Tore drove us in his Mercedes wagon, pulling a snowmobile trailer with all our gear up the rough mountain road to the Goulasjavri Lake where our trip would start. My American friends wondered what they were getting themselves into as we saw more and more patches of snow along the road.
Cliff Jacobson, the oldest member of our group (author of Expedition Canoeing and many other books on canoe travel and outdoor skills) was taking bets on whether the car would make it all the way to the lake. Wes Rusk and Tom Randgaard were starting to look worried when the lake finally appeared and we could start unloading the trailer. It was cold and windy up there and Tore did not stay long. We were on our own, heading for Kautokeino.
Once our canoes were ready, we were off – straight into the wind. The progress was painfully slow, and after just a km we had enough. We took the first campsite we could find – next to a snowfield with a spectacular view across the lake to Halti, the highest mountain in Finland.
We woke up to a perfect day – sunny, but cool with a strong enough breezes to keep the mosquitoes away. It was just right for a long day of portaging. Tom was in charge of breakfast and cooked up half a kg of bacon and a dozen eggs for the four of us.
It seemed like a lot, but it turned out to be just right for the day ahead. After completing the paddle across Goulasjavri, we had to carry our canoes and gear 3km, gaining another 100m of elevation to a pond at the height of land where a stream flows south into Finland. It took three loads, and we were exhausted when we finally made camp, but happy that any further portaging would be downhill!
Above the tree line
Our river trip began as high in the river as you can float a canoe. The blue line on the map indicating our stream starts about 3km above our camp, and none of that would be canoeable. At 850m elevation and 300km north of the Arctic Circle we were far above the tree line – a perfect place to start a river adventure.
The stream out of our pond had a nice narrow channel, so we could paddle for a few minutes to the first waterfall. We dragged the canoes along the tundra, past the falls to the next pool and then paddled a little until we got hung up on rocks – then dragged into deeper water and paddled a little more. Our big mistake was to drag our loaded canoes down a long and wide rapid where the water did not even cover the rocks. Carrying our gear would have been easier. It was a relief to get to a long pond that we paddled almost all the way to the reindeer fence that marks the border. We could slide the canoes under the fence, and we were in Finland.
As soon as we were across the border, a thick gray fog descended on us, and it was time to call it a day. Our backs were grateful to get a break from dragging canoes, and our sleeping bags felt very good. Tom woke up early, and expressed surprise that there were sheep so far into the mountains. He had not seen them, but we could clearly hear the bells. He was out of the tent like a shot when I told him they were reindeer – not sheep. Across the river from us was a flock of several hundred, and we had a good time taking lots of pictures. After seeing several more flocks later in the day, the reindeer became much less exciting. As we approached Pithsosjavri, the first big lake in Finland, we had the nice experience of dragging our canoes past the last waterfall on a large snowfield. Snow really is easier for dragging than tundra and rocks!
The river out of Pithsosjavri has enough water for paddling, but it is rocky, and it gets steeper and steeper. It got a bit too crazy for our taste, so we pulled off to scout – just before what turned out to be the first waterfall. Unfortunately, we had stopped on the wrong side of the river, so we had to work our way upstream until we found a place where we could safely ferry across to the hiking trail we would use to portage past the waterfalls to the next lake. Carrying heavy gear down a steep and rocky trail is hard, and Wes must have had a tough time. His knees are not quite bad enough yet to be replaced, but close. If they had been my knees, I would have at least complained about the abuse!
The next river starts with two waterfalls. One could be paddled, but we judged it too risky and lined it instead. The second waterfall runs in a steep gorge, so lining was not possible. We dragged the canoes on the tundra past the falls. Helping us old folks, Tom picked up the heaviest pack and pulled two of the canoes behind him. Just below the falls is a challenging rapid – almost 2km long, dropping over 20m. There is one good size eddy at the end of the steepest part, about half way down and we stopped to scout the rest. Cliff and I decided to line it, but it was impossible with all the brush along the bank, so in the end we got back into our canoes. It was at the limit of what we would run, but we got down without any serious problems, although all of us got stuck at least once.
We reached calm water just before the tourist huts at Meekonjavri. Paddlers who want to run the Poroeno River without the challenging mountain crossing from Norway can hire a float plane or helicopter at Kilpisjavri and get dropped off at Meekonjavri. This is the start of a beautiful string of lakes connected by easy rapids at the foot of a rugged mountain to the north. The Poroeno starts at the outflow from the lake Porojavri where the Valttijoki River enters from the north. Here we leave the mountains behind, and the terrain ahead is almost completely flat. The riverbanks are covered with brush and are quite wet, so campsites are rare.
At one point the river has broken through a long esker, forming a beautiful campsite on the north side of the river. This is the only site I have used on all my Poroeno trips. It was almost like coming home, and we enjoyed ‘happy hour’ with a glass of 12-year-old single malt inside Cliff’s screened tundra tarp. Cliff designed the tundra tarp in cooperation with Dan Cooke (www.cookecustomsewing.com), and it has become very popular with American expedition canoers. It provides effective shelter for a canoe group from bugs, wind and rain – much like a lavvu, but the tundra tarp is much lighter and is not intended to be a tent.
We learn a lot on a canoe trip with experienced ‘trippers’, and my first trip with Cliff was no exception. I am now the proud owner of a tundra tarp, and ‘happy hour’ gets even happier with something comfortable to sit on. I am less convinced by Cliff’s preference for fresh food on a trip where everything has to be carried – although there was something strangely fitting about serving the reindeer feast in Kautokeino at the end of the trip with fresh potatoes that had been carried through reindeer country for almost two weeks!
The day after ‘the esker’ has the most challenging whitewater on the Poroeno. That is quite obvious from Kyösti Pietikätikainen’s excellent paddling map. The ‘fireworks’ start at Runkakoski with a long Class IV rapid. We always stop to scout, and we always come to the same conclusion. The first part can easily be run on the left, and lining the rest on the left is easy as well. Cliff generally lines with a fairly short rope at each end of the canoe. On the Poroeno I like one single longer rope attached to the stern so I can launch the canoe into the current. I only pull it back to shore when it looks like the canoe may run into trouble.
Runkakoski was just a warm-up. At Ruunuvuopio the river widened to a small lake with two outflow channels. The first channel has big boulders and looked intimidating. The second one just looked challenging. It starts a kilometre long rapid that drops 10m. It was busy, but not very difficult. The next big rapid started just past a cabin on the left. The river makes a sharp left turn and drops over a small ledge. Don’t worry if the canoe in front of you disappears very suddenly! The challenge is after a km where the river gets even steeper. We stopped on the left and lined about 200m past the steepest section before we got back into our canoes and ran the rest of the rapid to an open cabin at Tenomuotka.
We were happy to have the opportunity to spend a night inside, but it turned out to be the most uncomfortable night on our trip. The Tenomuotka cabin is mostly used in the winter by skiers and had no mosquito netting, so we had the choice of getting too hot or being eaten by bugs. We chose the heat! It felt good to leave the cabin in the morning. Below Tenomuotka the Poroeno gets easier – except for the falls at Hell’s Gate. Here the river picks up speed between cliffs, makes a sharp left turn and drops 2m into the pool below. The portage past the falls was less intimidating, but we had to climb up a steep hill, through a reindeer fence and lower the canoes by rope to a pool under the falls.
Below Hell’s Gate, the river enters a beautiful forested valley, and we drifted quietly along between gravel bars. There was nothing difficult until we reached an abandoned border post at Munnikurkkio. The buildings are still there, and so is a stone marker commemorating the Norwegian King Olav’s visit there in 1976. It seems a strange place for a royal visit – as remote a wilderness spot as can be found in all of Lapland. We carried past the class IV rapid next to the old sauna and enjoyed the next 4km of fairly easy rapids.
Disinfecting the canoes
Our last 13km on the Poroeno were completely flat, and we were happy to arrive at an S-shaped bend in the river, knowing that the trail that would bring us to the Kautokeino River watershed started at the end of the curve. It is impossible to see the trail from the river, so I had to get ashore and look around. The trail is easy – a few hundred metres in flat, open terrain to Lake Kuoskata, but before we could put our canoes in the water, we had to disinfect them. Poroeno is infected with the Gyrodactilus Salaris parasite that would kill the salmon in the Alta-Kautokeino Watershed.
Making our way down the stream from Lake Kuoskata was a challenge. Parts of the stream were narrower than the canoe and overgrown with brush. Fortunately, it was not very far. Once the stream had water from several more lakes the stream bed was wider. Dragging became easier, and we could even paddle parts of it. As usual in Lapland, the national border was clearly marked with another reindeer fence. We pushed our canoes under the fence, climbed over it in the middle of the stream, and were back in Norway. Another couple of lakes and more stream sections brought us to the Kautokeino River at Acet.
There are not many good camp sites in the area, and our best bet was to continue a couple of km to the Sami settlement at Goatteluobbal. Sami reindeer herders use the place in the winter, but it is usually deserted in the summer. Getting to Goatteluobbal had taken us longer than planned, and our families expected us to arrive in Kautokeino shortly.
Fortunately, Cliff had brought his satellite phone, and we could call my brother to let him know that we were simply delayed. We were fine, and there was no need to be worried about us. Some people feel that bringing a satellite phone ruins the feeling of being in the wilderness. In our case, the phone made it possible to enjoy our wilderness experience without worrying that our families would be concerned about our safety.
The Kautokeino is a delightful canoeing river. Its upper part has an almost endless number of little drops that can be quite technical. But unlike the Poroeno, rapids on the Kautokeino are mostly short, so the consequences of a spill are unlikely to be serious. As we progressed down the river, the landscape became drier, and there were promising camp sites. But I was looking for my favourite site where cliffs appear on both sides of the river for the first time. There is a nice camp site behind the first cliff on the left – and a beautiful spot for a camp fire on top of the cliff about 5m above the water.
Our second day on the Kautokeino the river was larger, and so were the rapids. The scenery is spectacular where the river meanders between the cliffs, but we hardly noticed. We were too busy plotting a clean route for our canoes. Although it never gets intimidating, the river is steep and rocky, and the whitewater goes on for hours – with the occasional “hang-up” on a rock. Wes got stuck on a rock that he could not see and was in and out of his canoe several times before he got free to continue on his way.
We were happy to finally spot the power line at Galanito, marking the start of quiet water that we knew would last all the way to Kautokeino. It got even better when the wind started blowing at our backs. I had brought WindPaddle sails for all our canoes, but there had been no opportunity to use them. Now they were unpacked and attached to the canoes, and we spent a few minutes figuring out how they worked. That was not very hard, and soon we were cruising down the river. The last few kilometers were completed in no time, and we arrived in Kautokeino in grand style.