By Tim and Susannah Gent
For more on canoeing and camping, purchase Tim’s book, ‘Canoe Camping’.
Travel north above the Arctic Circle, along the road that skirts the wondrous indented Norwegian coast, and deception hangs innocently in the clear bright air. With its smooth and well-kept tarmac surface, modern signs and not infrequent towns, villages and isolated houses, this road can easily fool a traveller into feeling that this feathery continental fringe is part of mainstream Europe. There are even small hay meadows up here.
Turn right at Alta though, heading up alongside that glorious river onto the plateau around Kautokeino, and any such elusions evaporate. Gone are the fields, the bus stops and road signs. Gone are the ponies and cows, the gleaming Japanese and German 4x4s. In fact, apart from the windswept Sámi settlement of Kautokeino and the occasional bleached timber reindeer corral, gone are almost any sign of human existence. Even the vegetation has changed, a lot, and the low scrub and stunted birch hint at the appallingly low temperatures that rule up here through an ever-dark winter.
As our van rolled onwards amidst the emptiness and into Finland, nothing much altered. Peering out, slightly stunned at the magnitude of this apparent wilderness, part of the culture/landscape shock may have been due to lingering doubts. Had we made the right decision in turning south at all?
So far our deeply satisfying trip to the farthest reaches of Scandinavia had been dominated by the coast – and what a coast. After crossing from Dover to Dunkerque, dealing as fast as we could with the highway horrors of northern central Europe, we’d crossed the stunning Ostersund Bridge into Sweden. Cruising up the wonderful central E45, our van had burst over the mountains onto the Norwegian shore just north of Mo i Rana.
We’d then put into practice what we’d driven all this way to do – slipping our canoe into pristine water, paddling as far from any sign of civilisation as we could, finding our own slice of emptiness and putting up a tent.
Shifting display of colour
To canoe on this coast is almost a chance to reconnect with a past shore – one not yet diminished by man’s greed and carelessness. Still, fathomless fjords, ringed by majestic mountains and sandy beaches, the calm of the turquoise water broken only by pods of hunting dolphins and countless shoals of hungry mackerel and pollock. Unbelievably beautiful sunsets, followed, almost immediately, by equally stirring sunrises, the sea and sky a constantly shifting display of colour and reflected northern light.
Pause a moment, rest a paddle against the gunwale and peer over the side. Vast pulsating lion’s mane jellyfish, heading… somewhere, shoulder their way amidst vast clouds of smaller cousins – moon-jellies and tiny electric-rainbow-edged box jellyfish. As a barely perceptible tide picks you up, sweeping the canoe very gently along the shore, your gaze travels down across the urchin-encrusted flank of a plunging underwater cliff-face, to where vast lugubrious cod haunt the shadowy depths, ready to pounce on anything even vaguely edible. Overhead, terns pirouette and dive, while eagles patrol high above across the vast almost 24-hour blue arc of the sky. All pretty special, and a cure surely for all manner of crowd and bustle-induced ailments.
Glorious stretch of empty coast
Not surprisingly, we took to this Nordic balm with enthusiasm. For the Brits with ancestral origins along the northern coastal fringe, this is almost like coming home. A happy and familiar paddle and tent-pitching pattern was soon re-established as we moved our way slowly north, taking whatever left turn off that main road that looked promising, hunting down another glorious stretch of empty coast and repeating the prescription. Efjorden near Narvik, Ballesvika and Bergsfjorden on Senja, then reindeer-rich Øksfjorden beyond Badderen.
All this fun couldn’t go on forever of course, and just north of Alta, perched with our tipi on a rocky outcrop overlooking Årøysundet, filled comfortably with very fresh baked cod and fried chips, we had to decide where to head next.
Despite the obvious allure of reaching Europe’s nearly northernmost point, repeated reports of the sad slide into busy commercialism that surrounds any visit to Nordkapp made the drive in that direction sound increasingly unattractive. Much as we fancied continuing right along the top of Norway to Grese Jakobselv, tight on the Russian border, the cost of fuel (and we’d already worked our way through quite a lot) was also fairly off-putting. What now then – more of this alluring coast, or a change of scene? As you know, we opted for a turn inland – and rather more of a change than we’d expected.
Even having visited Arctic Scandinavia before, and believing naively as a result that we knew something of this northern landscape, the striking and sudden transition from modern coastal Norway to, well, almost timeless Finnish tundra and forest was a little disorientating. And then the benefits started to seep in as we realised that this was exactly what we’d travelled all this way to find.
Sat on the shingle at the edge of the river Ounasjoki, a small open fire bright in the near midnight dusk before me, I found, to my surprise, that I didn’t actually miss the coast at all. Tipping a fresh log a little deeper into the embers I looked up to enjoy the stubborn rosy glimmer of the sun, hidden now below the far hill, but still reflected pale and iridescent off the buckled water before me. Easing into an even more comfortable lean against a pine log, I turned back to a little more spoon whittling.
We’d wanted to escape civilisation, and in heading into the heart of Finland, we’d certainly managed to achieve that. Turning towards our tent, sat just up on the bank at the edge of what I knew was a simply vast forest, I pondered on how far in that direction you might have to follow the drifting wood smoke before meeting the next home.
Under another stunning blue sky, we dropped back down the river the next morning, wending our way between the shallows, drifting over deep dark sections in which huge grayling flitted between the fronds of long sinuous weed. At one point, with the whole breadth of this wide river broken by the rounded backs of exposed rocks, we’d been forced to climb out and manhandle the canoe. A way was found amongst the narrow ribbons of flowing water – just.
The one that got away
Immediately below this natural barrier, spotting the potential of the deep aerated water beyond, I pulled out a rod and managed to hook, and then lose, what was possibly the biggest grayling I’d yet fooled. No matter, the beauty of the spot more than made up for the loss (and I later went on to land another ‘biggest’ grayling, this one hooked in Sweden).
During our short introduction, Finland had certainly gained a hold, and we meandered about for as many days as we could, paddling up an unspoilt river here, across a stunning lake there. In the evening we’d swim or fish, or both. On one fine afternoon we made our way up onto the fells to marvel at the swathes of forest, broken only by water, the sky reflected blue off the nearest lake. So taken were we with this intriguing and friendly land, that when we eventually made our way back into Sweden, we found ourselves making an almost instant return, if a slightly odd one.
After driving across the border river of Muonionjoki at Kolari, we’d launched, not much later, a few miles upstream on the Swedish side. Paddling steadily across this wide smooth river, Finland was reached an hour and four minutes later – not because of that width, but the rather bizarre time-warping result of our first canoe time-zone crossing. Our return to Sweden (managed in an even stranger minus 56 minutes) led back to a slight campsite problem and a rather peculiar night under canvas.
Despite being quite lengthy, our untroubled stretch of Muonionjoki was bound at either end by long, lively and shallow rapids, neither of which we fancied dealing with that late in the day. Unfortunately, despite quite a lot of shore from which to choose a campsite, even two countries, the banks running along either side were steep, narrow and covered in bushes. Certainly no room for our tipi here.
Eventually though we did find enough space to pin out our big blue tarp. So, with a simple pine-branch platform lashed together and propped on stones to provide a level sleeping area, and a vital mosquito net in place to stop ourselves being vampired dry overnight, we could finally settle down and try to sleep. Now all we had to deal with was the heat.
If contemplation of Arctic summers conjures up images of chill frosty mornings and lingering banks of stubborn snow and ice, Nordic reality will come as quite a shock. True, in prolonged overcast, weather temperatures can certainly hover somewhere in what we might call the cool range, and snow definitely loiters on the northern sides of mountains, but as soon as the clouds clear, and with the sun not setting at all for a couple of months, things can warm up fast. Even in August that big round fiery thing up there only dips below the horizon for a couple of hours or so each night. Temperatures can sit well above 20˚C for days at a time.
And then we had inadvertently driven north into what one happy Finn suggested was the warmest summer he’d seen in 40 years. All extremely uplifting stuff, but stretched out under the white side of our tarp that evening, the warmth from a low sun seemingly doubled by a wobbly reflection off the river, we lay wide awake, our down bags rejected at our feet. Sleep came at about midnight as the sky finally turned a deep stove-enamel orange.
For the canoeist, and particularly the canoe-camper, Sweden, with its unspoilt rivers, lakes and coast is almost too good to believe. As an example of what’s on offer, the municipality of Arjeplog has hills, mountains, forest, fish-filled rivers and 8,727 lakes of almost unparalleled beauty. In an area about the size of Belgium, this almost pristine environment holds a population of little more than 3,500 – and no, I didn’t forget a zero.
And in terms of what’s on offer in Arctic Sweden, Arjeplog is only a tempting southern starter, set almost exactly over that invisible 66°34’ circle. Move further north and if the experience improves, that’s only because there are even fewer people and even more empty space. The opportunities to set out with a tent stowed at the base of your canoe, to find somewhere that can temporarily be called your own, are almost limitless.
And as if this entire wilderness isn’t impressive enough, there’s the Scandinavian attitude towards access and camping.
In Sweden, this approach is wrapped up in something called Allemansrätten, literally ‘all man’s right’. This glorious institution, pretty much enshrined within Sweden’s very identity, is actually quite hard for a Briton to take in at first. After all the restrictions and unfairness pervading most of the UK (Scotland standing alone as the proud exception), this Nordic stance offers just about the most mature response to land and the access rights of its inhabitants to be found anywhere in the world. Heady stuff.
Outdoor Recreation Act
This attitude is mirrored in Finland, where it is called Jokamiehenoikeus, and Norway, where Allemannsrett was codified in 1957 with the implementation of the Outdoor Recreation Act. In brief, as long as you’re a reasonably sensible canoeist, walker or camper, you can go just about anywhere you wish, do just about what you like, and pitch a tent where it takes your fancy. All in all then, the makings of a perfect canoe-camping visit. It has to be admitted that it isn’t always easy, and our attempts to find a campsite alongside the Muonionjoki illustrate that. The thing is, it really is wild up there. But then because of that, any effort is repaid many times over.
An expedition north-west from Jokkmokk provides a good example. Setting out up an isolated river one afternoon, the flow, apparent as a continuous blue line on our map, just disappeared, petering out gently amidst a truly vast swath of huge water-rounded boulders. An hour, and a lot of scrambled reconnaissance later, it was clear that we wouldn’t travel any further up this shrunken summer watercourse, at least not without a lot of extremely tough portaging.
Enjoying every minute
We turned back, to spend another three hours searching again for a suitable gap to pitch a tent along the tree-pressed and often marshy shore of the river, the lake beyond and its numerous islands. Hard and frustrating work? Not a chance. We enjoyed every enticing minute of the hunt, and our final spot, found as the light faded before a rare and short-lived storm, was a real gem.
With the tipi pitched on our own private beach of fine yellow sand, a fire crackling merrily nearby, we set out on foot to explore. This entailed surprising a beach party (an invitation only reindeer affair), finding the washed up remains of some heavily gnawed birch beaver snacks, and then wandering into the woods to collect blueberries – lots and lots of very tasty blueberries.
Mind you, we first had to fight our way past wild redcurrants, golden-ripe hjortron (cloudberries), juniper, lingonberry and some incredibly tasty strawberries. The whole place, in fact much of Arctic Scandinavia, was covered. Almost every morning during our trip we’d managed to rise from a lake or riverside canvas residence, stretch, take in another unspoilt birch or pine-studded vista, and then potter off a few yards into the woods to collect our blueberry breakfast enhancement.
Other, more mobile, wildlife was also pretty impressive. Along the way, as well as the numerous reindeer sightings, we also enjoyed a meeting with a young and very tall elk, shared a cliff-edge campsite with a family of mink and came across a pair of wild foxes that needed to take a very close look at these strange two-legged southern animals.
In all this getting to know the local wildlife, I will have to admit that the infamous northern Scandinavian mosquito was as equally keen to get up close and personal to us. Fortunately we had bottles of strong insect repellent with which to beat them over the head (most contents proved relatively ineffective). On a more positive note, you only had to stand still in any wood for a minute or two for the local birds to creep in to take a closer look too, and they didn’t bite.
And if you worked your way further into the woods, uphill until the trees gave up the struggle (quite soon), the rugged uplands were mossie free – something the local reindeer had worked out millennia ago. Not only are those uplands wonderfully impressive, but a little height also offered a proper chance to gaze out over the surrounding expanse of forest, hills, lakes and rivers.
We made our way up into the mountains twice on foot during this visit, first, as mentioned, in Finland, reaching the top of Pallaskero on the edge of the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, and then up amongst the snow-fringed peaks at the north-western end of the Stora Sjöfallets National Park in Sweden.
On both occasions the prize was the same – a breathtaking chance to take a really good look out over this extraordinary area. Those unimpeded views took in tens of miles in every direction, views in which any human presence was almost invisible. Compared to the rest of Europe, this is a landscape that has altered little since the last glaciation. A very special place then.
Admittedly, It isn’t that easy to reach, at least not if you want to take your own canoe and camping kit, but if you can spare the time and fuel costs, it is very much worth the effort. With all that space, teeming wildlife, occasional but invariably friendly people and glorious access legislation, there can be few places in the world that offer quite such an opportunity to someone with a love of the outside – especially someone with a tent and canoe.