Day 108-116: Racing down Finnmark’s rivers towards the Barents Sea

We are into the final two weeks up to Nordkinn. This part of the trip is all about my journey starting to wind down, and my thoughts leaping beyond the world of the walk, and into the daily life I am about to rejoin.

I have a busy morning in Kautokeino. Besides buying food for the next few days, I also have my last major logistic stop, sending back maps to Belgium, but also collecting a post package with new shoes, an extra lower base layer, thicker pants, and a bunch of new maps for the last stretch up to Nordkinn. Late in the morning I am finally ready to give it a go. I walk towards the bridge across the river and inflate my raft for a long day out on the water.

The next 33km section of the Kautokeinoelva river is in fact little more than a long chain of lakes connected by narrows. This is a characteristic pattern for many rivers in Northern Scandinavia, which is caused by the strong postglacial isostatic uplift of the area. The total denivellation over the entire stretch is only 1m, so I expect a long day of paddling with little or no current to help me north. Luckily there is almost no wind.

Taking a break along the calm Kautokeinoelva

Taking a break along the calm Kautokeinoelva

The overcast day passes without too much history. The autumn colors seem to have peaked a few days ago, and millions of shed golden birch leaves now float down the river to mark the onset of the winter season. The first 15-20km of flatwater paddling pass by pretty easily, but after that my muscles start to sore and I have to take regular short brakes on the water to recuperate. When my left shoulder starts to nag in the late afternoon I decide to call it a day. Better take no risks with many packrafting kilometers still on the menu. I have covered 30km on one of the thoughest days of the entire trip when I finally beach my raft on a small beach near Sattasluokta. It soon starts to rain when I pitch my tarp.

Beaching near Sattasluokta at the start of a long rainy episode

Beaching near Sattasluokta at the start of a long rainy episode

The moderate rain continues all night. In the morning it still rains and, with my leaking jacket in mind, I decide to wait it out. But the rain keeps falling relentlessly, also when morning turns into afternoon and eventually into evening. At around 4 o’clock I realize I won’t get away today. Daylight is already significantly reduced with sunset at around 7 pm. It is my first rest day since the beginning of july, the first day off after 69 consecutive days on the move. But my body and mind do not like 36 hours on a sleeping pad. My back aches and my stomach feels bad. The only thing I wish is to get going again. It keeps raining until sunset, and then gradually becomes dry after 25mm and 26 hours of rain (nearly the average for a full month on the dry Finnmarksvidda!). One thought cheers me up: the discharge of all rivers will now be very high compared to normal, and my bumpy road towards the Barents Sea turns into a real highway.

The rain forced me to spend 36 hours on this spot near Sattasluokta

The rain forced me to spend 36 hours on this spot near Sattasluokta

The next dawn brings overcast and cool weather. Further south it appears to be sunny all day, but the bright spells never manage to reach me. Physically and mentally spent by the long waiting, I pack very early and leave at around 6 o’clock in the morning. I don’t bother inflating my raft again for the final 3 kilometers on the river, but immediately walk towards the road, which I start to follow north until I reach the junction with the road towards Karasjok. I cross the river on a bridge, and continue hiking on the quiet asphalt road (only 4 or 5 cars pass by) for two more hours until I reach the hamlet of Lahpoluoppal, situated at the southern end of the Lahpojávri lake.

The Kautokeinoelva from the bridge

The Kautokeinoelva from the bridge

Another view of the Kautokeinoelva

Another view of the Kautokeinoelva

I inflate my packraft again and paddle the length of the lake (about 11km) in one go. A slight tailwind helps me a bit. I put out again near the farm of Suotnju. It is around noon and I have already covered 25km. But, despite this good progress, I do not feel strong at all today. My stomach clearly did not like my weather day of yesterday. I feel sick and can only eat very small portions of food. I feels like I would immediately vomit otherwise. Besides that, I suffer from diarrhea. I try to drink enough and then continue hiking along the road again, which guides me along a chain of ponds, peat bogs, and patches of birch forest scattered on the Finnmarksvidda tundra plateaus.

Packrafting across Lahpojávri

Packrafting across Lahpojávri

This should be the last day with many boring asphalt kilometers, and I want to finish it. My goal for the day is Suossjavri, still about 20km away. There I should be able to start packrafting on the Iesjohka river. Once I have passed the Vuottasjávri lake, I feel my fuel tank is running on empty. My diarrhea also seems to get worse and this leads to annoying situations on the barren plateau with cars passing by on the road. I even have an urgent break underneath the concrete bridge across the Vuottasjohka river, with cars passing by right over my head. I am knackered when I finally get the Suossjavri lake in sight, and pitch my Cricket in a swampy meadow along the river flowing into the lake. In the evening the skies finally clear, and while the temperature plummets below zero I enjoy a quiet Aurora show before going to bed.

View back towards the Vuottasjávri lake from the road

View back towards the Vuottasjávri lake from the road

I feel slightly better by the next morning, but still not in top shape. The weather is cold and dull. I could have put in my raft right away to start paddling down the Iesjohka river, but because of 2 serious, long PR4 rapids (Cohttaguoika and Bahasguoika), which I certainly will have to portage if I want to keep my clothes dry, in the next few kilometers, I decide to continue hiking for a few more kilometers and put in further downstream. The sight of the river makes me happy: most boulder gardens appear to be easily navigable because of the high water levels.

Portaging the Cohttaguoika rapid

Portaging the Cohttaguoika rapid

A bit downstream of the bridge across the river I finally put in into the Iesjohka. After a few easy PR2-3 rapids near the farm Coavvdatmohkki, I already hear the thundering noise of the next long boulder garden, Stuorra Gohás. I make a short portage on the most serious part of the rapid (PR3-4). I could probably get through safely, but the cold and humid weather, which makes drying of gear impossible, makes me play safe to avoid wet clothes. I put in again and continue following the river for another hour through a series of long PR2-3 rock gardens (Uhca Gohas, Asteguoika, …) before putting out near Avjovardievva. Because of many more long PR3-4 rapids further downstream, I have decided to hike off-trail for 12km towards the easier Karasjohka river, which will guide me down all the way towards Karasjok, the Tana river and eventually the Barents Sea without major problems.

Portaging the PR3-4 rock gardens of Stuorra Gohas. The waves are almost 1m tall

Portaging the PR3-4 rock gardens of Stuorra Gohas. The waves are almost 1m tall

Putting out of the Iesjohka river

Putting out of the Iesjohka river

The crossing of the Skaiddecorru plateau is hard. After a lot of swamps and bogs on the first section through the birch forest, I am surprised by many the overgrown boulderfields on the way up. It also starts to rain when I reach the summit, which offers endless views across the Finnmarksvidda and into the Iesjohka and Karasjohka valleys. The terrain gets easier when I descend below the treeline again. Because of the lower altitude of the valley floor (<200m compared to 300m for the Iesjohka), pine trees grow near the river. I also encounter a lot of bear shit.
I put in my raft again near the Galdojohguoika rapid and continue paddling in the rain for a few more kilometers. The Karasjohka river brings an alternation between easy PR2 and PR2-3 rapids and short flatwater sections. I call it a day near Luossajavri and pitch my tarp along the river. It continues raining for most of the evening, and I go to bed early.

Traversing desolate tundra plateaus on my way towards the Karasjohka watershed

Traversing desolate tundra plateaus on my way towards the Karasjohka watershed

Bivouac along the pretty Karasjohka river

Bivouac along the pretty Karasjohka river

After about 4 weeks of mostly dull and wet weather, the next day finally marks a real turning point. It is still overcast in the morning, but bright spells start to appear by noon. It is the start of a longer period of stable and dry weather. I put in my raft again rather early in the morning as I want to make sure I reach Karasjok, still a respectable 42km away, early enough to have some time to go shopping.

The paddling on the Karasjohka river is fantastic. It’s the kind of river I like most on a trip like this one: fast enough to make good progress and with enough rapids not to be boring, but never wilder than PR3 so I do not have to portage. The only PR4 rapid of the day is the rocky Raitegorzi. It must be possible to navigate through the boulder garden through the right channel, but I keep left close to the bank to be able to portage, and end up in a shallow part bumping from rock to rock. I put out, portage a few decameters, and then continue paddling through the second part of the rapid, with a nice 0,5-1m drop on the way.

Break along the Karasjohka

Break along the Karasjohka

After that it’s a fast succession of PR2-3 rapids in the pine forest, with some farm buildings along the banks during the second part. After a last, long PR3 rapid where I take some water (the long slow-motion in the movie at the top of this post), I reach the confluence with the Iesjohka river (which I paddled yesterday about 20km further upstream). The river now gets considerably slower with long meanders with large gravel bars. The paddling becomes physically a bit more demanding, but helped by a 2km/h current I make good progress. It is just 2 o’clock in the afternoon when I reach the outskirts of Karasjok, the Sami capital of Finnmark.

Reindeer near Karasjok

Reindeer near Karasjok

I am the only camper on the local campsite. The tourist season has long passed. I go shopping in one of the downtown supermarkets, and make good use of my long afternoon to wash some clothes and prepare a real dinner.
Fog fills the valley the following morning, with temperatures slightly below zero. It looks like the sun will soon burn the moist away, though, and I decide to along the first meander downstream of the town on a quiet asphalt road along farms. I am amazed by how green it still is this far north, with sheep and even cattle still grazing near the river.

Old barn near Karasjok

Old barn near Karasjok

After a few kilometers I put in my raft again on a splendid sandy beach in an inner bend of the river. For the rest of the day, I only leave my raft to pee and for lunch. After a few hours I reach the confluence between the Karasjohka and the Anarjohka river. Together they form the Tana river (Sami for the ‘Great River’), the most important stream in Finnmark and the 4th longest river of Norway. I will raft it all the way down to its delta into the Barents Sea, nearly 200km downstream.

The current of the river is not very fast on this stretch, about 1-2km/h. My average speed is about 6km/h as I slide along rusty hillsides and vacation cabins. The river forms the natural border between Norway and Finland, and an asphalt road snakes along the river at both sides. Traffic is minimal, however, and it’s not too hard to just forget its existence. Late in the afternoon I reach the first rapids in the river, which are easy PR2 with small wave trains. However, all rapids are preceded by some boilers which require some attention at times. The discharge of the river is about 3-4 times the norm for late summer and autumn, and I guess these boilers are less vigorous at the normal discharge, while the rapids themselves could become slightly more challenging. Just before sunset I beach my raft near the Vuovdagieddi farm. As soon as the evening falls, the temperature plummets below freezing and thick fog starts to fill the valley and screw up the northern lights show I had hoped for.

A frosty morning along the Tana near Vuovdagieddi

A frosty morning along the Tana near Vuovdagieddi

When I wake up in the early morning it is -4°C. Visibility is less than 50m. I know there are no serious rapids on the next few kilometers and immediately get going after breakfast. The dripwater from my paddle immediately freezes on my gloves and spraydeck. I have a hard time keeping my hands and feet warm, but try not to fasten my pace too much as I need to be able to keep going all day. After a few hours the fog starts to dissolve to make way for another golden September day. The current remains constant at about 1-2km/h, my speed is about 6km/h.

Mist arc on the Tana river

Mist arc on the Tana river

Early morning on the Tana river

Early morning on the Tana river

It is Sunday and every few kilometers I note people enjoying their day off at the vacation cabins lining the river. When I approach the steep slopes of Núvvus around noon, a Sami family at the Norwegian bank beckons me to join them for their dinner. I get smoked reindeer and salmon fresh from the river, a delicious meal after all the snacks and cookies! This is a tradition Sami family living from their reindeer – but I realize that even the traditional Sami have entered the 21st century when grandpa apologizes to go watching Formula 1 inside.

Paddling down the Tana river

Paddling down the Tana river

Paddling down the Tana river

Paddling down the Tana river

After a long break and goodbye I continue my downstream float on the Tana. After some rapids in the late morning, this is a calm stretch again with nice views through the side valleys towards the Rasttigaissa range (1066m), the highest mountain in Finnmark. Once I have passed the Levajok Fjellstue, more easy PR2 rapids appear again in the runup to the Bajimus, Gaskkamus and Vuolimus Bihtta section, with a series of long PR2-3 and PR3 rapids. I reach the first one late in the afternoon. With temperatures hovering around zero day and night I cannot afford to get wet clothes, and therefore decide to portage. It’s a pity as it looks like a fun section, but I know I have to be rational in this kind of cold conditions.

I follow the quiet road on the Finnish side of the border for a few kilometers, and then descend a very steep slope back to the river near the second long rapid where I make camp between the birch trees. The slightest wind strips them of their last leaves when the night falls and fog and frost roll into the valley again.

Another cold bivouac, near the Gasskamus Bihtta rapid

Another cold bivouac, near the Gasskamus Bihtta rapid

It gets very cold again. My summer sleeping bag is about at its limit, even when I wear thermal underwear inside. I portage the last rapid, and then start another icy float. Luckily the sun breaks through earlier than yesterday. The Tana remains slightly faster than during the previous days with regular PR2 rapids. When I approach the Sami bridge in Utsjoki, the only bridge across the Tana apart from the one at Tana Bru near the Barents Sea, stratocumulus fields unfortunately start to flood the sky. The maximum temperature that day is about 3°C and I hardly take any breaks to remain warm.

Dissolving morning fog along the Tana

Dissolving morning fog along the Tana

Approaching the Sami bridge at Utsjoki

Approaching the Sami bridge at Utsjoki

Late in the afternoon I reach the Storfossen rapid. At the northernmost point of Finland, this is the only potentially deadly rapid of the entire stretch from Karasjok towards the Barents Sea. The river, with a discharge of 300m³/s, becomes very narrow and drops about 35m over a 2,5km distance. The portage of this rapid has been problematic for many centuries, and the 4km trip through birch forest and tundra was a full-day endeavor until the Finnish King decided to construct a small road above the river in the 19th century. It is this road, now a historic heritage trail which I now use to reach the lower end of the rapid. It is already getting dark and I quickly pitch my tarp and cook my dinner in the last twilight. Despite 2 portages I have covered a massive 62km today.

The PR4-5 Storfossen rapid

The PR4-5 Storfossen rapid

The next morning starts overcast and with fog, but as I progress east towards Polmak the clouds break again and I enjoy another calm and sunny fall day. I have been lucky with the weather on the Tana section. Winds from the north or northeast could have seriously slowed me down and turned this section pure horror. But as I paddle my last strokes of the trip into Tana Bru, it dawns on my I have covered a hard-to-grab distance 315km in one week. Nordkinn is only a few days away.

Approaching Tana Bru on a splendid september afternoon

Approaching Tana Bru on a splendid september afternoon


Stages:

17/09/2012: Kautokeino – Sattasluokta (31km, +0/-0, 6u35)
18/09/2012: Weather & Rest day Sattasluokta
19/09/2012: Sattasluokta – Suossjavri (45km, +210/-200, 9u00)
20/09/2012: Suossjavri – Karasjohka/Raitesuolu (34km, +220/-350, 8u00)
21/09/2012: Karasjohka/Raitesuolu – Karasjok (42km, +0/-50, 5u55)
22/09/2012: Karasjok – Tana/Vuovdagieddi (46km, 20/-30, 7u05)
23/09/2012: Tana/Vuovdagieddi – Tana/Gasskamus Bihtta (51km, +80/-110, 7u10)
24/09/2012: Tana/Gasskamus Bihtta – Tana/Storfossen (62km, +100/-180, 8u10)
25/09/2012: Tana/Storfossen – Tana Bru (32km, +0/-10, 5u30)

Map Kautokeino - Tana Bru

Map Kautokeino – Tana Bru

Discharge of the Iesjohka river in autumn 2012, with indication of the days I was on the river. The green line represents normal discharge, the blue and red lines the 0.25 and 0.75 probabilities. The extraordinary discharge peak following the long rainy episode is very clear.

Discharge of the Iesjohka river in autumn 2012, with indication of the days I was on the river. The green line represents normal discharge, the blue and red lines the 0.25 and 0.75 probabilities. The extraordinary discharge peak following the long rainy episode is very clear.

Discharge of the Tana river in autumn 2012, with indication of the days I was on the river. The green line represents the discharge norm, the blue and red lines the 0.25 and 0.75 probabilities.

Discharge of the Tana river in autumn 2012, with indication of the days I was on the river. The green line represents the discharge norm, the blue and red lines the 0.25 and 0.75 probabilities.

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