Finland, an Archipelago Odyssey: Canoeing Lake Saimaa (Part 1 of 2)

James WerbCanoeingLeave a Comment

A beautiful lake system

The waves were breaking over the front of our canoe. Marie was noticeably quiet. We paddled hard for what seemed like hours towards our destination along the shore of the largest lake in Finland. The wind attacked us from one side, waves bouncing off the towering granite rock on the other.

Though I kept it to myself, I was thinking how we might get ashore should we capsize. The fear was especially great knowing that everything we needed for our trip was in the canoe with us. Tent, sleeping bags, clothes and various equipment. Let’s just get there as quickly as possible I thought.

Anttola Harbour

As we approached Anttola harbour, it was relief that flooded over us. We’d made it.

Lake Saimaa is a huge archipelago. A labyrinth of over 3,500 islands and a drainage basin the size of Belgium. We’d not experienced anything like it and out first paddle made us briefly doubt our decision to take the trip.

After loading up on supplies of bacon, pasta, bread, rice and various cereal bars along with lighters and matches that we’d been unable to carry on the plane, we set off again. After another silent paddle back along the rocky shoreline we made it to our destination. A wooden jetty greeted us as I stepped ashore to make sure we’d found the right place. Tent pitch, compost toilet, wood store and a fire pit – perfect.

Our camp site at Kaijatsari

One of many designated camp sites in the area

After unloading our gear we discovered designated camp sites like this were spread all over the area. The site was immaculate and had everything we needed. In spite of our battle with the 30mph winds we’d only been paddling for about an hour and a half but were more than ready to have a more leisurely afternoon.

We quickly pitched our new tent, an MSR Hubba Hubba NX. We knew that a free-standing tent was going to be the best option having had some really helpful advice from a couple that had paddled the same area a few years before and wrote their own excellent account. Much of the ground is rock so pitching a tent in some places required a bit of creativity.

MSR Hubba Hubba NX

Our freestanding MSR tent. A really good choice.

The wind died down as we spent a lazy afternoon and evening cooking and relaxing by the fire. The occasional boat went past along the narrow channel between the pine strewn islands. We finally shared with each other how concerned we’d been paddling earlier that day and got the maps out to consider our route.

We spent the next day at camp having checked the forecast on our phone. Another windy day. After yesterday we wanted an easier paddle so decided that we’d head off tomorrow to make our way to the next site. After planning the trip for a few months it was a dream to finally be here amongst the tall scots pine, nothing to think about but the day ahead. I’d also discovered a new love – Maoam sweets! These would become an almost lifesaving burst of flavour after the monotony of pasta and rice ready meals.

Marie and I had not only brought with us all our equipment but also our own canoe. A Pakcanoe 160. We’d picked it up second hand the year before and had been looking for a good excuse to take it on an adventure ever since.

Pakcanoe 160 and Burly Jack Canoe Pack

Our folding canoe and canvas pack. Two essential pieces of equipment for us

We’d actually hardly paddled it since our purchase though I did make some comfort modifications before we left. Some carpet samples and an old sleeping mat made for excellent padding, though we still found it less comfortable than a traditional canoe after a few hours paddling. Nevertheless it was an excellent canoe that we’d managed to wrestle from car, to plane, to train, all the way from England to Finland with just a couple of folding trolleys. And here it was, transporting us and all our gear on a two week odyssey through the Finnish wilderness.

Finland and Lake Saimaa

Spanning the south east of Finland and past the Russian border, Lake Saimaa boasts areas with more shoreline per unit or area than anywhere else in the world. The total length is nearly 15,000 kilometres made up of various channels, inlets and islands. Dotted with small and large towns along it’s shoreline as well as various holiday cottages and more permanent residences, there are still vast areas with no signs of civilisation.

Lake Saimaa

A breathtaking landscape

Finland itself is country with an incredible landscape and also the most sparsely populated in Europe. It’s also known as the land of a thousand lakes though in fact it boasts over 185,000 of them in total and incredibly over two thirds of the country is forested. This became apparent quickly on the rail journey from Helsinki to Mikkeli where we saw little more than a few houses through the rare breaks in the trees on the whole two and a half hour ride.

Escaping the Wind

Back on the water, the winds having died down since our first foray on Lake Saimaa, we were keen to explore more of this beautiful landscape. We set off still with some slight trepidation as we knew there was one larger 1km crossing to make before landing on our island home for the evening. We were treated to some spectacular weather and being a Saturday we were expecting there to be some competition on the water. However, we were surprised that it was so quiet and peaceful.

Jaantarsaari in Lake Saimaa

Our second camp on the beautiful island of Jaantarsaari

The wind picked up in the afternoon as we got up the courage to cross from the shelter of a large island to make our way to the shore on the other side. It looked relatively calm from in the eddy of the island but soon whitecaps appeared and Marie was feeling the cold lake spray on her face as the occasional wave broke over the bow. We paddled furiously to the other side though there was little shelter until we entered an area of calm water as we rounded the headland. Our destination was in front of us. A small but beautiful island called Jaantarsaari.

Designated camp site in Finland

These signs helpfully marked out the various free camp sites

Once we’d set up camp we were soon joined by a couple of other boats moored up on either side of the small island. We chatted to a Finnish man while his grandchildren added small twigs to a fire I’d just started to cook our dinner. He’d taken his family out to enjoy the scenery and told us about his holiday cottage on the shore of the lake 10km away. I was definitely feeling a little envious.

Holiday Cabin by Lake Saimaa

One of many holiday cabins which lined the shore of Lake Saimaa

As we climbed into our sleeping bags we were unfortunately treated to the sound of euro pop blaring from a nearby island. Not quite the song of the paddle, more of a strong baseline echoing out across the lake but I still soon fell asleep. Tomorrow would be a longer day on the water and we’d set our alarm early to make the most of the calmer morning weather.

I was in trouble.

After barely an hour on the water Marie let me know that what I had described as a ‘millpond’ might have been a little optimistic. The wind was gusting 20mph from the North West and we had to weave between tree covered islands for protection from the worst of it. We made short crossings, paddling as hard as we could to reach the safety of the next island.

Once following the southern shore we still had 4km to go before heading into a narrow channel where we would be afforded shelter for the rest the day. We hugged the shore as we made our way west towards the channel. Traffic on the water increased as well as the waves and we were thankful when we made our way round the final granite bluff and into the narrow channel.

View of the lake

We’d escaped the wind and enjoyed the shelter of the land

Once out of the wind we enjoyed a wonderful paddle with clear blue skies and the sun shimmering on the blue water that surrounded us. I was looking forward to exploring the ancient pictographs at Astruvansalmi that lay an hour or so away.

The Pictographs of Astruvansalmi

The towering granite face rose impressively out of the cool, deep water. More impressive were the ancient paintings, hand drawn in red ochre, across the 30m high wall. The largest single pictograph site in Finland with over 60 individual designs depicting human figures, animals and boats. The most impressive and clear of these is a large elk or moose. There are a further 19 depictions of moose or elk, all facing west with one exception, half of which with a dot representing the heart.

Pictographs at Astruvansalmi

A moose painted on the rock face with red ochre

What’s incredible is the fact that the paintings have survived so well for thousands of years though we’re still unsure of the exact composition and methods of preparing of the paint. It was presumably made by heating iron oxide with fat and blood added as well as possibly birds eggs to create a binding agent. A transparent film of silicate oxide created by minerals dissolving on the rock face is what has protected the images for so long.

Rock Paintings

More rock paintings

A sign beneath the pictographs offered the following thoughts into why these paintings had been originally created:

Perhaps they did not have a single explanation even then. The paintings can be linked to the beliefs of the Stone Age population and their spiritual life.

The themes display connections with the shamanistic beliefs of the hunter-gatherer cultures of the northern coniferous zone.Sign at Astruvansalmi

We spent some time at the site, gazing at this glimpse into our ancient past before heading back onto the water to find our camp for the night.

Stood on an island in Lake Saimaa

A wonderful wild camping spot near to the pictographs

There were no official sites marked on our map so stopped on a small island that had obviously been used before. Two stone circles marked the previous occupants fire pits though we chose to use our stove instead that night. Pitching the tent required some creativity as I found when each peg I tried to hammer into the ground made a distinct clink before it had barely passed the surface. We found trees, rocks and roots to tie our guy lines to which worked remarkably well.

Pitching our tent

A bit of creative pitching using long guy lines attached to rocks, roots and trees

The Art of Navigation

Our longest day on the water by far, we covered 24km over 8 hours of paddling. After a slightly windy start to the day, it soon eased off and the sun’s warmth grew stronger as the day progressed. It was a beautiful day, with hardly a sole out on the water. The sky seemed to go on forever and there was barely a cloud in the sky. We followed the edge of the lake in blissful quiet. Only the sound of the paddles rhythmically dipping into the water.

Paddling on a lake

Navigation was usually straightforward but as the day wore on I was unable to think clearly

There was little respite from the sun beating down on us. It had been a blessing earlier in the day but as the hours went by we wanted a break from it and the canoe. We’d been canoeing for 6 hours with only a brief stop for lunch on a small rock.

Holding a red folding canoe

A short break for lunch during the heat of the day

Even the constant shifting of positions, from seated to kneeling, to something in between was making little difference to our legs. I was losing feeling in my feet more often than not and my knees were not thanking me for the long day. Knowing that we’d have to find another wild spot to camp we stayed on the lookout for a reasonable place as we carried on further up the coast.

A beautiful sunny day on the lake

A beautiful sunny day on the lake with barely a breeze

We stopped to check out a few locations as we continued. The first had the remains of a burnt out cabin. Not much of it remained other than ironically, the fireplace and chimney. I looked around to see if it had been abandoned but there was a new stove placed nearby. We didn’t want to spend the night in case the owner came back to do some late night DIY.

A burned down cabin

The remains of a burned down cabin.

It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to find a place to stop. Most of the shore was lined with lodges and holiday homes. We checked out a couple of rocky outcrops which in hindsight would have been suitable but we were getting hot and tired and wanted a decent place to spend the night.

The heat and the full day on the water had taken its toll. We’d become so keen to find somewhere to stop that I’d taken my eye off the map. The route had looked very straightforward so I didn’t bother to spend much time studying it. I knew we were looking for a portage across a road and we figured we’d just keep going until we found somewhere that looked sensible to stop for the night. In our haste to find a campsite we’d completely missed the portage and suddenly the route started to look less familiar than I’d been expecting.

Something didn’t look right.

A sunny day on Lake Saimaa

With the sun beating down on us and tiredness kicking in I unfortunately ended up trying to make the map match the landscape

We were supposed to just get to the portage by following the shore. Now we were faced with a long channel stretching out into the distance with many large islands lining the centre of it. I asked Marie to stop paddling while I checked my compass. In my growing anxiety I hadn’t made an allowance for the 10 degrees of declination so my bearings didn’t match up.

We paddled back and saw a small bridge along a narrow channel. It didn’t seem to match with the map but I knew we had to cross a road so we continued towards it. Instead of a portage there was a small tunnel which led under the road.

When we’d made it past the road, again the landscape didn’t match with the features marked on the map. I couldn’t get the compass bearing to add up either but it didn’t seem too far off. None of the islands that appeared before us were marked. I was growing more tired and getting noticeably flustered.

Beautiful day on the lake

It was a good idea to stop and regroup rather than push on further that day

The heat wasn’t helping and there was just no shelter. Hot, thirsty and tired, I wanted the map to make sense of what I saw. I told myself over again in my head ‘don’t try and make the landscape fit the map’. I knew it was a mistake and I was blaming the map for being wrong. Perhaps these islands just weren’t marked.

I knew it wasn’t right, however, much I hoped it was. I asked Marie to pull over to the shore. I’d had a thought to check Google Maps on my phone. I hoped we had signal. Fortunately we did and it quickly revealed my mistake. We’d missed the portage while looking for somewhere to stop and had gone about 2km past where we should have crossed the road. It wasn’t far but it felt like a disaster. I just wanted to take shelter from the sun and have a drink. My decision making skills had been impacted and I wasn’t able to make sense of the map as I usually would.

Camping by the lake in Finland

I was relieved to have the tent up and get out out of the sun

Marie said what I needed to hear, ‘why don’t we just stop here for the night?’ We had a quick look round our surroundings. It wasn’t perfect but there was a flat area we could use for our tent and a rocky outcrop for cooking. It would do and it felt like a relief to finally stop. We quickly pitched the tent using a similar method to the day before. I filtered some water and we fired up the gas stove. It was a quick meal as we were both very keen just to get into the tent and relax. We’d been paddling for 8 hours in the heat of the day. At least we knew where we were now and could set off in the right direction the next day.

Cooking over a stove by the lake

Marie setting up our kitchen. We used a gas stove on nights where we didn’t cook over an open fire

We packed away our cooking gear and climbed into the tent. Finally some shelter from the sun and the heat. It wasn’t long before we fell asleep.

It was a surprisingly cold night. We’d been sleeping with our sleeping bags open but during the night I’d been forced to do mine up and pull the warm, down hood over my head. Marie had a more disturbed sleep and was awoken many times during the night by the various bird calls.

Wildlife of Finland

Finland boasts some amazing wildlife, big and small. Though we didn’t see any large mammals while we were there, the locals informed us that moose are fairly common and can be seen swimming between islands. Bears, wolves and lynx and the top predators though sightings are very rare. They generally keep away from humans though bears have been known to start foraging around towns when food in scarce. There are also an incredible variety of birds as well as being home to the world’s rarest seal.

Unfortunately we never saw the famed Saimaa Ringed Seal, only found in Lake Saimaa. They are adapted to living in freshwater having been cut off from the sea during the last ice age. Numbers are very low and in spite of conservation efforts there are still no more than 300 left. As with many endangered animals, their greatest threat comes from global warming and human activity.

We were lucky enough to encounter a variety of amazing bird life. The most distinctive trait of many of the birds was their calls. The Black-throated Diver, or Loon had a distinct call which at times sounded almost human. They are able to dive under the surface of the water and we were often treated to close encounters as they popped up without warning next to the canoe.

We saw a few flocks of Whooper Swans (Finland’s national bird) and heard them ‘laughing’ during the evening.

The most remarkable call of all came from the Bittern. We never saw one but their booming territorial calls can be heard from 5km away. You can listen to their calls below though you’ll probably need to use headphones to hear the Bittern as they use infra-sound which is inaudible using normal speakers.

Here’s some more information on Finland’s wildlife as well as the calls of some of the bird species:

Overview of Finland’s Wildlife

Birds and their Calls

Tweet a quote from this blog

[bctt tweet="Lake Saimaa is a huge archipelago. A labyrinth of over 3,500 islands."]
[bctt tweet="Astruvansalmi is the largest single pictograph site in Finland."]
[bctt tweet="Bears, wolves and lynx and the top predators though sightings are very rare."]
[bctt tweet="The rare Saimaa Ringed Seal are adapted to living in freshwater."]
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