Kaldoaivi: Finland Under a Black Supermoon
Having recently moved to Finland, Allan Knabe set out to explore the northern reaches of his new home by bike. During a rare black supermoon he set out though Kaldoaivi National Park, a magical land where reindeer (and possibly goblins) run free. Find his story here…
Words and photos by Allan Knabe (@obiwanknabe)
Last year, my family and I made a big move from Switzerland to Finland. The one thing that most people know about Switzerland is that it’s not short on big mountains, but my new home of Finland, by contrast, is what you might call gravity challenged. Not put off by its lack of mounds higher than 2,000 feet, I decided to head north from Helsinki to discover what this magical country has to offer a humble bikepacker.
It didn’t take long to decide that it had to be Lapland. Set deep above the Arctic Circle, Kaldoaivi National Park is the furthest north you can get before you bump into Norway, and just happens to be Europe’s largest wilderness area. It was perfect for my first solo bikepacking trip, one where I wouldn’t see another soul for two days.
I chose to follow the course of the Kaldoaivi Ultratrail, a 130km trail race that happens once a year. The format is the exact opposite of what I have planned: that is, go light and fast, with the hope that you’ll make it in one day. Armed with the knowledge that it could be done in a day, I drastically underestimated the route with a fully laden bikepacking bike. My aim was to get it done in around two days but, secretly, I tried to fool myself into believing I’d have time to spare.
I rode the Kaldoaivi as August rolled into September, touted by the locals as one of the best times to visit. Alas, this meant I was way past the midpoint of the year and couldn’t rely on the midnight sun to light my way, which turned my attention to the moon. Wondering what kind of light to expect, I tapped out a quick search. Black Supermoon came back. A little research revealed that if you have a regular Supermoon you should go forth and bask in its healing rays. That’s not necessarily the case with its evil twin. I concluded that if there are beasts up north, they’d certainly be out to play when the sun goes down.
It seems to take forever for D-Day to finally arrive, but two trains and a hire car later, I finally make it to the starting point in Nuorgam. The first few turns of the cranks seem surreal. The amount of effort it’s taken over the last week to get everything packed, serviced, and up north was a mission on its own. Before the ride has even begun I’ve had an epic journey, all building up to this point. I can’t quite believe it’s actually happening, but a glance back down the valley shows some nice progress and makes things more real.
After the short climb, I start the descent into the next valley. I can see something in the distance. I slow and squint. It’s a reindeer. No, it’s a small herd. They eyeball me from their vantage point, before mutually agreeing that they don’t want anything to do with the strange intruder. I scramble to get my camera out of its bag as they scatter into the distance; a circus show that shall be repeated more than once this trip.
By chance, I happen across Santa’s sleigh. Forget what you see in the movies, his sleigh is a lot more industrial than it’s made out to be, which makes sense if you think about it. I place my bike out front to size it up and find it fits like a glove. If Rudolph gets sick this Christmas, I’ll be ready for the call.
I battle on and time slips by. It’s starting to get darker, and I stop to take a look around. I see the black silhouettes of barren trees and shudder a little. I feel like a Hobbit entering Mordor for the first time, but here its hoards of reindeer instead of Goblins. Feeling it’s time for some warm food and whiskey, I decide to quit while I’m ahead and pitch camp.
It’s to be a wet night. I contemplate just going with the bivvy, but the thought of getting soaked on day one has me pulling out the tarp. Half an hour later, I barely win the battle with the wind and I’m all set up.
The snapping of twigs announces the arrival of a pair of deer—mother and child. They stroll nonchalantly around the outside of my camp, the mother eyeing me warily. When her calf is safely out of harm’s way, she turns back to have a good look at me. She mutters, “What on earth are you doing here?” before stalking off after her offspring.
There really is nothing else out here, not even the sound of a car in a distant valley. No church bells to disturb the peace. Just the wind. I stretch a little and am pleased when I can hear my own breath. The wind whistles in my flask as I take a nip of whiskey, startling me briefly. It’s been a long day and it’s time to slide into the downy comfort of my bag. I’m serenaded to sleep by a choir of frustrated mosquitoes, but they’ll have to wait until morning to exact their revenge.
Looking at my progress on the map, it occurs to me that I didn’t do nearly enough yesterday. Today will have to be a big one.
Slowly, Mordor gives way to something else, and I gradually become aware that the landscape has changed. Gone are the barren, leafless trees of Mordor. Nothing but weeds survive up here. Despite its modest altitude, this is now proper mountain country, with a headwind to prove it.
I remember from looking at the elevation profile that most of the uphill was in the first part of the ride. Encountering false summit after false summit, I wind on nonetheless. A glance at my watch and I’m starting to grasp what I’m up against here. This isn’t some ride you can just spin out. This is an epic, and If I don’t get a move on I won’t get it done. I suppress the panic before it sets in and press on, this time a little harder.
I look over the brow of a hill to be and see horns. Has the Devil finally come to collect me? A part of me feels some relief. The other half takes a closer look and sees it’s just another reindeer. Unlike the others I’ve seen so far, this one’s on his own, and doesn’t immediately run off. I stop and we spend a minute in a standoff. He flinches first and makes a break for it. I decide to name him Norman. Norman was loitering at the side of a dried-out lake bed that offers good shelter from the wind. Time for a brew. After a few minutes, Norman reappears. He sighs, “I hope he’s not planning on staying.” I only have to reach for my camera to see him bolt.
Then I see the mirage. A small house, propped up against the side of a lake. Surely, it can’t be? It looks so out of place it may as well have been the Moon lander. As I approach, I entertain thoughts of a warm sauna and a cool bottle of Koskenkorva. Instead, I find a stack of antlers. I guess I’m actually at a hunting lodge. Poor, wee Goblins.
The Reindeer Strike Back
After a folly into the heather, I come across another nice, long climb. A broken siege weapon awaits me at the top. It turns out to be a fallen hunter’s watchtower. I imagine that an army of reindeer snuck up one evening and rammed it repeatedly until it crashed to the ground.
The sun makes an unusual appearance, warming my soul and I bask in it on a rolling downhill. Satisfied that I’ve done enough for the day, I make camp. I take a short walk to a better vantage point where I can see the sunset, polishing off the rest of my whiskey. I notice strange blue objects on the ground, and upon closer inspection, they turn out to be empty shotgun cartridges. Not wanting to be mistaken for the wrong type of creature in the darkness, I quicken my pace and retreat to the relative safety of my sleeping bag.
Fog has set in the next morning, and leaving my warm bivvy takes both mental and physical strength. One gymnastics stunt later, I’m out in the open, quickly piling on some layers. I start to wonder if I should indulge in my old age and buy a tent? I tell myself to toughen up.
I don’t hang about. Camp is dealt with quickly and my fast is broken with an energy bar. I replenish my water supplies at a nearby lake that’s beautifully still and silent in the morning. There’s not even a reindeer to snort at me. Luckily, the next few kilometres are on gently rolling terrain and I make some welcome progress before reaching a part of the trail that’s obviously a 4×4 track and has seen a lot of recent abuse. I have to cross numerous bogs, which slows my progress to a crawl. Things aren’t going to go as well as I’d hoped today.
Again suppressing the desire to panic, I press on, putting more kilometres under my belt and paying too little attention to my surroundings. As if to taunt me, a pack of wild grouse launches from just a few feet away into the air around me. They’re so close I can almost feel the wind beating from their wings. Suitably stirred, I accept nature’s shot of espresso and promise to pay more attention going forward.
Not long afterward, I stumble upon what can only be described as Hobbiton. It’s a small community of summer cottages banded together as a tribe, where it’s very easy to imagine a family of hobbits sitting on small stools around a large fire, enjoying a nice jug of ale. I stay a while to take some pictures, the clouds have parted for a while, and some rays of sun warm through. I depart with a mental wave to the residents of Hobbiton and continue on my journey.
A bit later, my eyes see the river, but the rest of me doesn’t quite believe it. I’d assumed that the streams that we crossed the day were before were in fact rivers, and that the route’s three river crossings were already ticked off. Turns out, that’s not the case.
Shoes on or Shoes off?
I spend too long staring into the fast-moving current, both mesmerized and humbled by its power. Giving myself a mental kick, I know I have to start moving, but what’s the protocol here? Does one cross with shoes on, or shoes off? The shoes off approach is appealing, but a quick test proves the river bed to be slipperier than my dog on a wash day. Not wanting to risk a twisted ankle, I opt for shoes on, feeling smug that I decided to bring waterproof socks with.
A while later and I sit on the bank of the river, where, from my new vantage point I can see that I chose one of the worst points to cross. The river that had formed a deep channel immediately before me was broader upstream. I take a mental note of that for next time, then get on with emptying the water from my boots and socks.
Two more rivers later, and with damp feet, I negotiate more waterlogged trails. I’m not sure if the monster trucks that have been here before me are a help or a hindrance. The path is churned and scarred with mud as if it were blood oozing from a wound. On the other hand, the trail probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the petrol heads in their steel boxes.
Finally, I can see the fence that marks the boundaries of the national park. Pedalling harder now, I push on, over and out of the park and into the “reindeer round-up area” of Skalluvaara. It’s a stark contrast to the nature I’ve just left, masses of wooden fences laid out in such a way as to almost form an eye in the centre. Goblins beware.
The ride that follows is actually very pleasant. Not dissimilar to something you might find on the moors of Scotland. I climb on and on, at a good pace, one that makes me feel like I’m making good progress. I stop from time to time just to feel the wind on the exposed ridge top. As it starts to darken, the last of the reindeer line the hillside like spectators at the end of a long race.
I can feel the end of the ride in my bones now. The trail starts to give in to gravity and I find myself riding faster than I have any right to. Bike and rider are as one, small corrections in course are dutifully executed, mistakes are forgiven. We are, for want of a better word, stoked.
Then it appears. We nearly don’t stop in time, but we do. It isn’t so much of a gate as it is a portcullis. A monster of a thing, it takes my fatigued brain a minute to work out how to get it moving. With my full body weight, I slide the monster to one side and re-enter the land of men.
As I heft the portal back into place with a solid thunk, I take a moment to reflect on the journey I’ve just taken. It’s time to bid farewell to the land and its inhabitants that have tolerated me these past days. I say a silent “thank you” and continue on my path.
A sketchy descent leads to a road. It’s a lovely thing. All crisp, tight tarmac, not a pothole in sight. I resist its seductive attempts and continue off the side of the hill as instructed by the man in charge. I have a hunch that this is a bad idea. It appears to be more stream than trail, and neither of us is quite sure why I’m there.
A quick glance at my Garmin shows I’m about to collide with a major road. This is it, I’m about to complete one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. I entertain thoughts that some locals may have put out a banner declaring “well done!” and “you did it!” Instead, much to my dismay, I’m greeted by a swamp. The few toes that were entertaining the idea of staying dry this day curl up in anticipation.
Ten minutes later, a passing taxi driver witnesses the swamp thing emerge from the undergrowth. He wags his head in disapproval and mutters, “I hope he’s not planning on staying…”
About Allan Knabe
Allan Knabe is a Brexit refugee, living in his adopted home of Finland. When he was first able, he swung a leg over a crossbar and hasn’t looked back since. He never backs down when faced with a big challenge. He’s looking forward to more big adventures with his three children. Owner of too many bikes (allegedly). Find him on Instagram @obiwanknabe.