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

James WerbCanoeing0 Comments

The morning mist drifted gracefully above the still water

The water was pure calm when we woke, with a layer of mist hovering mystically above it. The air was cool and still as we loaded up the canoe. After half an hour on the water we made it to the portage that we’d missed the day before. Fighting through a dense wall of reeds we made it to the shore and were soon hauling our packs and boat across the road and into the water on the other side.

I could see how we’d missed the portage the first time around. It’s so sparsely populated that other than one lorry, no other vehicle used the road at all while we were there. So much for listening out for the traffic noise.

It was another beautiful day and being back on the water heading in the right direction made me relax back into the trip. We weaved between small islands lined with birch and spruce, drifting across the sparkling lake as if in another world.

Hurrisalo Harbour

We stopped at Hurrisalo harbour to pick up food for the next week

We’d planned to reach another supermarket to replace our dwindling supplies. I’d marked one on the map before we’d left. I left Marie with the canoe moored up between some larger boats on a small harbour outside of Hurrisalo while I made the 2km walk to the shop. It made a pleasant change walking through the landscape and I enjoyed stretching my legs along the road.

Walking along the road to Hurrisalo

It was a lovely walk along a tree lined road to the supermarket and a chance to stretch my legs

The supermarket soon appeared and I rummaged back and forth through the isles trying to tick items off of my shopping list. Unfortunately the store was about a third of the size of the one in Anttola and options were fairly limited. I did the best I could to judge what we needed including some heavenly smelling pastries, filled up my bags and got back on the road.

Supermarket at Hurrisalo

Made it to the SALE supermarket.

I’d no sooner started walking when a red van tooted its horn and slowed down next to me. A man poked his face out of the small window and in his best English asked if I wanted a lift to the dock. He’d seen Marie there with the canoe and was heading that way himself, owning a fishing boat moored up nearby. I accepted his kind offer and got in the van. It transpired that it wasn’t a good day for fishing so he’d popped to the shops to get some supplies himself. It saved me from the walk back which I knew wasn’t going to be so enjoyable with my full bags of shopping.

When we got to the dock I thanked him very much for dropping me back and his van disappeared out of sight around the corner. Marie loaded up the food barrel once again and we enjoyed the sweet tasting pastries sat on the edge of the pontoon before making our way to the next camp.

Tent pitched inside a wooden shelter

We pitched the inner tent to keep the bugs at bay

This camp spot was different to the rest. Privately owned by a nearby farm but not lacking in facilities. Fire pit, stove and a well-built wooden shelter which we pitched our inner tent inside. We were more than happy to pay the small donation into the honesty box and signed our names alongside many previous travellers from around the world.

Names written on a stump of wood

We signed our names alongside others from around the world

An enchanting cliff top location which was well worth hauling our packs up the steep walk to the top. The views were beautiful, especially as the sun grew low in the sky. We cooked our bacon and sausages over the fire while overlooking the lake. A truly magical place. The loons called out in the distance as the sun set on another wonderful day.

Beautiful sunset over Lake Saimaa

A beautiful sunset over Lake Saimaa

Saimaa: its People and Economy

Here’s a bit of history on the Saimaa area:

The first people came to the Saimaa region immediately after the ice had retreated. These pioneers were hunters and fishermen, who moved with their prey.

The area was treeless tundra at the time. About 10,000 years ago, pine forests began to cover the land. Rock paintings in red ochre on steep cliffs all around the Saimaa region hark back to the hunting-and-gathering days.

It was not until the 13th century, with the advent of agriculture, that permanent settlements were set up. The Saimaa region was for a long time a frontier zone between two major powers, Sweden and Russia (formerly Novgorod). In fact, the oldest towns in the area Rock paintings on sheer cliffs depict life thousands of years ago. Kolmiköytinen, Ruokolahti grew up around fortresses built by either side.

Today, there are six towns around Saimaa – from south to north, Lappeenranta, Imatra, Mikkeli, Savonlinna, Varkaus and Joensuu – and about 30 other municipalities. The total population is about 350,000, although in many places the population increases by anything up to double in summer as holidaymakers occupy the 40,000 summer cottages in the region.Source: http://finland.fi/picture_book/saimaa/

An Unfortunate Tidy Up

The next few days just flew by, camping on one small, island paradise after another.

A sunny island in Lake Saimaa

Another lovely island where we spent most of the day

We spent less time on the water and a bit more time in camp enjoying the scenery and the wildlife. Brightly coloured dragonflies danced and darted along the shore while woodpeckers hammered their heads into the forest canopy.

Canoeing in Finland on a calm lake

We glided effortlessly across the lake with barely a ripple in sight

The days were sunny and hot, averaging 24 Celsius. Thankfully the wind had all but disappeared too, making the lake crossings less eventful and far more relaxing. We barely saw a sole, just the occasional fisherman perched in their small rowing boats, enjoying the tranquillity as much as we were.

Folding canoe moored up on a wooden pontoon

We had the small island of Heposaari to ourselves, though it needed a bit of tidying up

I was annoyed when we stopped on an island called Heposaari, to find the previous occupants had left the place in a mess. Half burnt timber strewn across the fire pit which was also partly demolished. We spent a good half an hour tidying up and restoring the spot to its former glory. My general camp routine always included sawing more than enough wood for the next visitors as well as what we used during our brief stay. Though most others clearly followed the same principle, there’s always someone that has to spoil it for everyone else wherever you go.

Sea to Summit Solar Shower

Our solar shower hung from a tree after warming the water in the sun

Once I’d finished my rant to Marie about the earlier tenants we treated ourselves to a much needed shower. We’d brought a Sea to Summit Pocket Shower with us for just such an occasion. It didn’t seem to matter how long we left it in the sun, the water that poured from it was always cold. Not that I was complaining, it felt wonderful to be clean and free of insect repellent and sunscreen even for a short while.

Camp site on a lake island

Our tent pitched on the only available area. There was unfortunately a bit of a slope.

The main downside of this site was the very small area to pitch the tent. That wasn’t the issue in itself but rather the quite noticeable slope we were on. I didn’t sleep particularly well but it turned out I wasn’t the only one. When I woke the next morning it took me a while to locate Marie. I eventually found her crumpled in a heap at the foot of the tent, looking quite bleary eyed.

Sunset Island

We couldn’t really believe how lucky we’d been with the weather. Another glorious day on the water more than made up for our less than comfortable night in the tent. We leisurely covered the 7km to our next island home. Right out in the middle of the lake it wasn’t somewhere I would have wanted to get to in a strong wind but today it was perfect. We’d planned to spend two nights relaxing and catching up on some reading.

Canoeing towards sunset island

A lovely calm paddle on our way towards sunset island.

We pulled the canoe ashore and upturned it on the edge of the sandy beach. The little cove had a wooden shelter with a fire pit built in front of it. We pitched the tent on the other side of the beach with views out across the lake. It was a Friday and the area soon became busier than we were used to. Motorboats large and small as well as jet skis, canoes and sea kayaks crossed our view. The wake from the larger vessels soon created waves that lapped against the sandy shore.

A wooden shelter on Makutsaari

A wooden shelter and fire pit on Makutsaari

As the evening drew closer and the sun dropped in the sky, we witnessed the most beautiful sunset. At first the warm orange rays filled the lake and sky. Then as the fiery ball drifted below the tree line in the distance the skies became awash with magnificent hues of yellow, orange and mauve.

Enjoying the beautiful sunset on Makutsaari

Watching the sun go down

The colours grew more intense before fading away into darkness as the night and the moon arrived in its place. I watched the last of the light ebb from the sky as I lay in my sleeping bag. It had been a perfect sunset which felt like it was put on just for us. I zipped up my bag and had a wonderful night sleep.

Sunset from my tent in Lake Saimaa

A wonderful sight. Deep orange filled the sky as the sun set over the horizon.

Getting More Crowded

It was Saturday and we’d chosen a popular place to be. Though it wasn’t our island, it felt like it, and when the first people of the day arrived it did seem like they were trespassing on our bit of paradise. An older Finnish couple in a green canoe slid onto the beach. Our first visitors of the day.

We chatted to them for some time and were enjoying the last of their holiday before having to go back to work. They told us we might see Saimaa seals and that moose were also common here. Marie was relieved to hear that though bears and lynx do roam the area, they are incredibly rare to see. The couple had never seen either in 20 years of living in and exploring the area.

Camping on the beach

Camping on the beach

After they left we’d barely put our breakfast things away when a group of sea kayakers joined us. They restarted the fire from the embers and enjoyed home-made blueberry pie. They were a family from Hong Kong that were out on a day trip with a person we recognised. It was Tiina. We’d stayed in her cabin on the first night of arriving and would be staying the last night there as well before heading home. She’d impressively mapped most of the lake herself and was guiding this group for the day.

Though they all spoke excellent English, the younger daughters had surprisingly strong American accents. They were both studying in the States and taking a break with their family. None of them had seen an open fire before let alone helped light one so I think it was a real day of firsts for them. Once they’d finished their pie and drinks we wished them well for the rest of their trip and watched them haphazardly set of in their kayaks, colliding with each other and the rocks as they rounded the bay and out of sight.

Three more boats landed on the island that day. The first, an older man making a short but necessary pit stop, while the second and third spent the night. Unfortunately that meant pulling ashore in a fairly large motor boat and tying off to a tree near our tent. The unhindered views that I’d enjoyed the night before now consisted of the bow of a rather less attractive motor cruiser. I guess we’d been lucky up to this point to have every place to ourselves. It was a Saturday night after all.

A motor boat moored up on the beach

We shared the island with two families. Our view from the tent wasn’t quite the same.

We chatted with the couple who’d come out with their young daughter to spend the night. We handed the fire over to them once we’d finished cooking and cleared away our things. A woman appeared from the trees on the other side of the island to my surprise. Her and her family had moored up on the opposite side and it turned out they recognised our other neighbours. I couldn’t understand a word of what they said but they obviously all knew each other well and we left them all to it.

Unfortunately we didn’t enjoy such a peaceful night as the group chatted and laughed well into the darkness. I wouldn’t have minded so much but our tent was less than 10 metres away and the thuds as the axe splitting extra firewood right next to our tent shook the ground keeping us awake. I’d left them quite a bit of wood to get through but come the morning they’d left nothing behind. We were awake by 7am and the boat outside our tent was absent of any activity. I thought about loudly singing while chopping wood to get my point across but decided against it. Only just mind.

Neitvuori

Islands on the lake

We weaved our way through many islands of varying shapes and sizes which aided navigation.

We headed North West through between islands of varying sizes and shapes. A landscape that we were becoming familiar with but no less impressed by. We’d planned to climb to the top of the tallest peak in the area, called Neitvuori. I was reluctant to leave our canoe and all our belongings unattended at the jetty while we scaled to the top but there was no other choice.

Neitvuori

Neitvuori is the highest peak in the area at 184m.

We made our way up the trail, through a wide variety of trees and plants. It was steep in places and we stopped a couple of times on our way to the top, some 184m high. I don’t know why but I was half expecting to be confronted by a bear each time we rounded a corner as we made our way along the narrow path.

Walking through the conifers up to the peak

Walking through the conifers up to the peak.

After about half an hour we reached the summit. The views were spectacular. We could see for miles, endless trees and water stretching out in every direction.

View from the top of Neitvuori

A stunning view from the top of Neitvuori.

The distant white trails of motor boats crossing the surface of the water like the jet stream of a plane cutting through the sky. We soaked in the views for a while before heading back down to our canoe. I felt some relief on seeing it tied to the jetty undisturbed.

Stood at the top of Neitvuori

Marie at the top of Neitvuori.

Saunas and Sunbathing

We paddled towards our next island camp. We knew this would be a bigger island and a possibly a busier area, though we hoped not too busy. We found two jetties when we arrived, one with four motor boats moored up on. Their owners sunbathing on the decks, enjoying the rest of the weekend sun before no doubt returning to work the next day.

This camp site was definitely bigger than anywhere we’d stayed so far. Multiple pitches, a large wood storage shed, covered area with a stove and grill as well as an impressive sauna.

A sauna on Korvensaari island

The sauna on Korvensaari island.

We set up at a far point near to a fire pit overlooking the lake. We followed the idea of all those on their boats and spent time just lying in the sun, reading and chatting.

As the day went on, one by one, the boats left their moorings and disappeared across the lake. It was just us and another couple in a canoe right at the other end of the camp site. There were rules and charges for using the sauna and I could see it was a very popular spot for the locals.

Boats moored up on a wooden lakeside jetty

As the day went on the boats set off and we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

Neither of us fancied using it though as it was just too hot outside. I’d last been in one in Alaska where there was a vast temperature difference outside and it seemed to make sense. Here I was already hot enough without cooking myself in steam. I left a comment in the visitor book which next to it had photos of the sauna construction.

Building the sauna

The sauna was obviously very popular with the locals and a lot of work had gone into building it.

We played cards by the fire after dinner. I’d enjoyed some more pasta while Marie was getting quite bored of rice for the third day in a row. The chocolate wafers I’d bought were very popular though!

Paddling through Lake Saimaa

We’d been blessed with the weather and it thankfully held out until our last evening.

We spent the next day on the island before heading back to the first site we’d stayed on. It was near to Tiina’s cabin where we’d spend our last night and would be a quick canoe trip round if the wind picked up. I’d been able to check the weather forecast which looked like it was starting to go downhill. We didn’t want to get trapped on an island if the wind picked up so this seemed like a safe bet.

Carrying a Burly Jack Canoe Pack

We used a large canvas canoe pack to haul our food barrels.

When we arrived the couple we’d seen at the last camp were just leaving. They were on their honeymoon and were heading to Helsinki the next day. He was quite taken with our canoe and quite surprised to learn that we’d brought it with us on the plane.

Sawing wood

Preparing wood for the fire. There were bow saws and axes at all the maintained sites.

We spent the next day and a half at camp, starting to think about going home and organising our gear. We didn’t want the trip to end but it looked like we had enjoyed the best weather we could have hoped for. No rain since the first day and beautiful blue skies for most of the two weeks.

A large industrial vessel pulled up on our last evening. It looked like a fishing boat but had a large crane on the back. One guy jumped off while the other started up the crane and took to hauling logs off the deck on to the shore. They obviously maintained the camp sites and soon they’d filled the entire wood store again.

Camp fire in Finland

Boiling water in a billy can over the fire. We cooked over an open fire almost every night.

Once they’d left we were left in the quiet again, listening to the call of the loons which would occasionally appear in the water below. The clouds started to roll in and fill the sky. We hoped for one more dry night so that we didn’t have to put the tent away wet.

Fortunately we were greeted with a cloudy but dry morning. We packed up for the last time and filled the canoe with our packs. A short paddle round and back to the cabin. We hauled the canoe out of the water and immediately started taking it apart on Tiina’s lawn. The cabin was basic, a couple of flat platforms for beds and an outhouse nearby. No running water as we’d learnt on our first night when we were tired and thirsty.

Canoe and cabin

Getting ready to take our canoe apart and pack up at Tiina’s wooden cabin.

We organised our kit, taking everything out and repacking it for our return journey the next day. We were sad to be leaving. It was an incredibly journey in a beautiful place and somewhere that I’d happily return. I was surprised at how quiet it was and how few tourists visit given how cheap and quick it is to get to. We’d timed it perfectly. As the evening drew in, the rain did too. I could hear it pattering on the wooden roof above our heads while I lay in bed.

As I fell asleep that night, I relived the trip once more in my head. What a special trip it had been.

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