It was not ‘love at first sight’… –Ela reminded (and heartily laughed!) when I shared my plan to write a more personal article about our experience and impressions of early days in Finland…
We arrived in Finnish Lapland after two months spent in Norway, surrounded by magnificent rocky mountains caressing our eyes every day. However, when we first crossed the Norwegian-Finnish border (in Utsjoki) we did enjoy driving in Finland – the roads were much wider and finally we didn’t have to slow down, nor move to the very side of the road to be able to safely pass other cars! What a relief! We wanted to make the most of it, so we tuned in to Sami radio (Sami are indigenous folks of Lapland). Oh, you need to try it, it’s fun and somehow fits the scenery perfectly!
Despite being enthusiastic, on the second day of driving thru Lapland and seeing mostly trees, we missed the spectacular views… even more, we kept joking that the scenery is nice but the trees obscure the views! How silly of us, and more importantly, how little we knew that our time in Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park is going to be one of the highlights of our road trip through Norway and Finland.
Finland is a country which you need to EXPERIENCE and this is exactly what happened to us – we were lucky enough to allow Finnish Lapland to show us its beauty, and it delivered fantastically!
I think we need to write a separate blog post about ways to experience Lapland, but for now keep on reading to find out how two foolish mountain lovers fell completely in love with a rather flat Finnish Lapland.
You probably recall that we always say that to really experience country’s beauty one needs to go for a hike. Only driving through the area will never give you the same experience and impressions as hiking. This is EVEN MORE true when it comes to Lapland!
So what happened?
At that point, we have been driving for 3 days and the autumn was already fully present in Lapland. We do not have any heating in ‘sleeping/living part’ of our camper, so we were desperate to get south as soon as possible and enjoy last warm days. However, at the same time we were a bit disappointed by not attempting any hikes along the way.
Spontaneously, we decided to change direction and drive to Levi, to visit tourist information office and get a map, or some info about nearby hikes. We must say, that girls at tourist information were fantastic! They were so enthusiastic about hiking in nearby Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park that we couldn’t help, but share their enthusiasm! We decided to follow girls’ advice and hike from Hetta to Pallas – the distance was only 55 km and we planned to only spend 3 days hiking, and then continue the drive south…
I am so happy we decided to take this route. It was an amazing experience to hike from hut to hut in Lapland!
Enthusiastic as we are, we drove to Pallas (Pallastunturi) – where the Lapland Hotel and Pallas tourist information are located (directions). Most importantly for us, couple of hundred metres before the hotel there is a large, free car park where we could stay overnight (directions).
Getting to Hetta… not!
Since Hetta to Pallas hike is one way (rather than a loop), we needed to work out how to get to Hetta. It turned out that taking public transport (as we hoped) was not really an option as it would require taking two buses which were not synchronised with each other and the 50-odd kilometre journey would take most of the day! We opted out from it.
Bea then got an idea – we could go to the hotel and ask at reception if, perhaps, there is someone going to Hetta next day .. but that didn’t work out either…
Eventually, feeling pretty deflated we returned to tourist information at Pallastunturi and shared our frustration with the girl in charge (another amazing person, who helped us greatly!) and she suggested another option. She gave us a list of three people/companies which provide the boat and pick up service for hikers. Oh, have I mentioned that apart from getting a transport from Pallas to Hetta we also had to arrange for a boat to take us across the lake, to the trailhead? So yes, we actually faced two transportation challenges!
We checked out the boat/pick up options, and although they were a bit pricey, we didn’t have much choice, it was our only option. Finally, we arranged the pick up from Pallas the next morning at 10am. Sorry, I do not remember how much we meant to pay for a pickup, as we eventually didn’t use it (‘about 80 EUR’ said Ela).
‘The disaster’ and a very quick lesson on camper electrics
Enthusiastic and happy, we spent the whole evening packing and getting ready for next day, planning the route, gear and food for the 3 days hike in Lappish wilderness, we were looking forward to start the adventure in the morning!
BUT, the next morning we woke up and realised that the orange light on our fridge was flashing!
Originally we thought that the fridge broke down.. but then we noticed we don’t have power in our sockets… and that there is a red light flashing on our charger-inverter device (one of devices related to electricity in the living/sleeping part of our van).
Oh gosh! What is happening and why now?!?!? We were both devastated and panicked – we had no clue what was happening, and to be frank, none of us had a clue about electrics! We only knew we cannot go hiking and leave our camper in this state, we had to find out what was happening and fix it!
Instantly, we phoned the guy to cancel the pick-up from Pallas, and we agreed to call him back once the camper situation is under control.
Only then we set to find out what was happening with our electrics and battery – to our terror we discovered that, as per manual, if the charger is flashing red, it’s either overheated or the voltage is low. ‘It can’t be overheated, it was -5 degrees at night’ we reasoned ‘so it must be related to low voltage’. But what does ‘low voltage’ mean?! After a quick research we already knew how to check our battery voltage and that 10,6 V means we withdrew our battery to ZERO. It was completely dead!
Which then meant that with utmost urgency we needed to plug the battery in (flat leisure batteries often never come back to life, they’re completely damaged)!
We started checking online only to find out that all nearby campsites were already closed for winter. Eventually, desperate we drove to the nearest one (30 km away) which we knew was closed, but we hoped to find somebody or the owner, who will allow us to plug in for couple of hours, and hopefully, get the battery back to usable state. Luckily, it worked out well! ‘Yeah, yeah, just plug in for a couple of hours, no problem!’
Reassured, we re-arranged the pickup from Pallas and were looking to start the hiking adventure at 2pm. Yay!
Ready and excited we arrived to Pallastunturi earlier and looked hopeful at every guy who potentially could be “our guy” but none of them were.
10 minutes past 2pm… 20 minutes past… and he was not around. While we were waiting, an elderly couple approached us and asked if we want some tea, they just prepared a fresh pot. We chatted about our hiking plans etc and I am glad we did because….
Unexpected turn of events!
Our guy eventually didn’t come to pick us up.
At 2:45 pm the girl from tourist information called him on our behalf, and he apparently misunderstood the situation and expected us in Hetta. Till now we are not sure about that; we think he just assumed we are too crazy and we won’t be waiting for him in Pallas because we re-arranged.
However, when the elderly couple heard about our situation, they joyfully said ‘but we are going to Hetta!’ Kindly, they offered to give us a lift! That was the very first moment we started falling in love with Lapland. The moment when every piece of puzzle fell into right place. Because of the ‘battery disaster’ we actually saved 80 EUR and were humbled by strangers’ kindness.
The couple travelled in an old, battered van. They were just renovating their cabin in Lapland and the van’s back was full of tools and materials. With only 3 seats in front, Ela offered to jump in the back.
We were so surprised by the turn of events, but at the same time extremely grateful for their help. The elderly lady mentioned ‘Our children like going hiking and often other people help them. Here in Lapland always something happens! Others help them, we are happy to help you’.
Drive to Hetta and a visit to a Sami reindeer farm
Excited to be on the move again, we jumped to the van and took off from Pallastunturi. However, on our way to Hetta we stopped at Sami shop, as the couple wanted to get some reindeer meat. We were wowed again. We entered the deserted shop and were welcomed with tea, coffee and some biscuits! Also, surprisingly, the couple and shop owner had a chat and banter, like old friends. Only later we found out that they haven’t known each other before…
The shop owner was very curious of our hiking plans, even more curious when we didn’t buy A LOT of frozen reindeer meat, like any Finn would do while at Sami shop. We explained that we’re going hiking NOW and can’t take 5kg of frozen reindeer with us, we wouldn’t be able to prepare it! ‘Why? I’m sure you took a pan?’ he asked, and we replied ‘nope’… ‘but surely you have pots and grilling stick to make it over the fire’ he insisted, to which we, again, replied ‘nope… ‘but at least you do have a knife, right???’ With relief, this time we confirmed. If only he knew that, yep, we did have a knife but not the one he meant! We had a small kitchen knife with us, but all seriously outdoorsy and hiking Finns have their ‘special outdoor knife’, proudly hanging off their belts (we got one later on to confirm that despite being foreign we’re serious about outdoors LOL)!
Once we left the shop and were about to drive off towards Hetta, the guy put his newest Sami music CD on and turned it up, so Ela could hear it at the back too. Oh, they really wanted to ensure we enjoy the experience!
Some 15 minutes later, when we were finally arriving to Hetta, the couple decided to give a call to “our boat guy” to be able to drop us exactly at his boat.
Having arrived to a boat haven, the boat guy assessed us head to toe and decided to change the agreed crossing price from 8 EUR per person to 10 EUR, which extremely pissed off the lady. Unfortunately, the boat guy totally ignored her remarks and we had no choice… we just thanked her and her husband for help and decided we will pay the increased fee anyway. At one hand we were happy that he didn’t want to get even more from us, as we found him actually quite a rude man.
So if you ever hike from Hetta to Pallas, the boat crossing on Lake Ounasjarvi takes about 15 minutes and costs about 8 – 10 EUR. I suggest you agree the price over the phone.
So there we were at the trailhead to Pallas!
We got off the boat and at 5 pm we were finally ready to hit the trail! Not your usual time for starting a hike, but we were so happy to be actually at this place at that time – full of gratitude to people who helped us to be there. Little we knew that the best was still ahead of us!
I think it would be a perfect time to tell you a couple of words about ‘Finnish essentials’; as we learned by experience, these are some of the most important things to have on a hike in Lapland and since then we ensure to have them with us while hiking. These are:
THE KNIFE. No outdoor lover in Finland (especially in Lapland) will hit the trail without a knife hanging off their belt. Any outdoor knife would do, however knives with wooden handle are preferred. If you have a Lapp Knife, made of reindeer antler and curly birch (ingenious Lappish tree), handmade in Lapland (not a Chinese fake thing!) it means you must have at least 1% Finnish genes.
KUKSA. It’s a small wooden cup used to drink when in nature. The cup is hand curved, traditionally of one wood piece of birch. Naturally coloured dark with coffee, it’s perfect for hot drinks as well as taking water from streams. A must have while hiking. Mindful, do not to make a gaffe – your kuksa should be made in Lapland, not China. How to make the difference? Lappish kuksas are darker and smoother, Chinese ones are machine made of pine and rather yellow-ish, they’re also cost 1/3 the price of Lappish. If you’re after a genuine one, be prepared to cough out 45-80 EUR (45-55 EUR for one made of wood only, 60-90 EUR for one made of wood+reindeer antler/bone)
MAKKARA. I think that many Finns would agree that hiking requires having makkara and a bonfire at least once a day. Makkara is Finnish sausage!
SINAPPI. Nope, you can’t have your makkara with ketchup like some silly foreigner! True Finn will always have the sausage with sinappi – a mustard! If you join a bonfire, make your makkara and try to have it with ketchup, you’re at risk of being offered a mustard by strangers (friendly Finns), as it happened to us 🙂
Hetta to Pallas hike – amazing adventure in Finnish Lapland
But let’s come back to the hiking adventure 🙂
This 55 km trail is one of the most popular hikes in Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park and for a good reason – it runs thru tundra and bare fells, the scenery changes every day. It is equally popular in summer as it is in winter.
Day 1: Hetta – Pyhakero
On that day we walked only 6.7 km on a clear and gently rising path, through the pine forest up to Pyhakero open wilderness hut. This is not a very big hut – probably can fit about 6 people sleeping on a wooden platform, and if needed additional couple of bodies on the floor. It has a fireplace and a gas hub for cooking meals. There is a well with fresh water, also a dry toilet.
Together with us there was only one couple staying in a hut and another couple camping nearby, so we all had a nice evening chat before going to sleep.
Day 2: Pyhakero – Hannukuru
Next day we woke up early and after having porridge for breakfast (our usual hiking breakfast) we hit the trail again.
The day’s aim was Hunnukuru hut, about 21.5 km away, with a brief stop at another small hut, Sioskuru, for lunch after the first 8 km.
The walk started gently, but it became steeper and steeper as we approached fells. Having passed the first hill, we already saw Sioskuru hut in the distance. Further, the trail leads mostly up the hill, as it climbs Siosvaara and Sillasvarra hills. However, after this two-hill climb, it became easier.
Approach to the next hut, Pahakuru, was beautiful – we watched reindeer grazing and the vast, open space around was just fantastic.
That day Ela was a bit grumpy as she carried the heavier rucksack! At first, she wasn’t even bothered to check out the hut. I (Bea) was curious of it and stepped inside. There was a Finnish couple inside having a sausage over the fire (as people do in Finland!). So, naturally I started a casual conversation by saying ‘you Finns, you do love the sausage!’
We exchanged our travel experiences both from Finland and Poland, and after saying goodbyes Ela and I walked further while the Finns enjoyed their sausages. We only had about 1.5 hours walk left to Hannukuru.
We both hoped to use sauna, which is located in neighbourhood of Hannukuru huts (there are 2 small huts). It turned out it was a busy place, with a large organised group sleeping in the reservable hut, all of them keen to go to sauna.. so we chickened out and never used it that day. It was a bit too busy for us, Finland newbies.
I think we just needed the first proper Finnish sauna experience to be more sublime, if you know what I mean. We did get wonderful introduction to Finnish sauna later on…. just remember this couple from Pahakuru hut, they will come into picture again 🙂
Some time later, while fetching water from the well, we saw naked guys running to cool down from sauna in nearby lake. It’s a big thing in Finland, not to ‘sexualize’ sauna, and people treat it very seriously. For example, even in the wilderness of Lapland, sauna is arranged – ‘odd hours are guys hours’ and ‘even hours are girls hours’ and people are very respectful of that. Within ‘girls hours’ guys don’t come near sauna (nor the lake) and vice-versa, as one can expect to come across bunch of naked hikers running to nearby lake or river to cool down!
Day 3: Hannukuru – Pallas
It was a very cold night (around -5 C), so it was nice to wake up in a warm hut. The two Finnish girls who shared the hut with us, decided to have a longer lay, but we had a long day ahead of us (over 26 km to walk), so we woke up early and got going. The ground was frozen and we had to be careful following a rocky path. But the autumnal colours around us were magnificent, and at this point we both have already fallen in love with Lapland, so happy to have decided to take this hike despite all the odds against us. We really EXPERIENCED Lapland!
Morning was very nice and sunny on that day, but afternoon brought snow and stronger wind.
But before it started snowing, we met the Finnish couple from Pahakuru on the trail again. They stayed in their cottage in Pallas – Yllastunturi National Park and were going for day hikes. They seemed to be very happy to see us again, despite the encounter with grumpy Ela the previous day! We chatted and walked together for some time.
Ela and I walked a bit faster, however, so at one point we parted and thought we won’t meet again. However, the snow was getting heavier and heavier, therefore we decided to wait for them to ensure they are fine and have enough cloths to keep them warm in that weather. They were on a day trip after all and we wondered if they had hats and gloves and warm layers. So we waited for them and then ended up walking together the rest of the way, to the parking lot.
And then our fellow Finnish walkers asked if we would accept an invitation to their cottage. OMG! We both thought – a night in a warm cottage instead of a night in a freezing, snow covered van – it cannot be true! And very calmly, really trying to keep all emotions inside we said that only if this is not causing any trouble to any of them (couple’s parents stayed in the cottage as well).
After a few minutes of polite conversation, we just wanted to shout YES!!!!! Ela quietly said to me ‘Oh, I am dreaming of hot shower’. BUT very calmly we said that we would be delighted!
So there we were: after 55 km walk and last couple of hours in snow blizzard we were going to a proper Finnish cottage! Lapland you are magical!
We followed the couple to their cottage and when we arrived, we noticed the well, and the dry toilets…. ‘Oh…’ thought Ela, ‘no running water means …no shower?’ Hahaha, again, how little we knew what was coming…
Hospitality, Finnish style
We arrived and the dinner was served few minutes later… absolutely fantastic food. It was a feast really, all dishes and sides homemade, plenty of berry preservatives from the forests around. We couldn’t have dreamed of anything better that evening!
Despite a total language barrier (we only knew single words in Finnish), we managed to ‘connect’ with couple’s parents as well.
And after the dinner we heard the magic words: the sauna is hot!!! OMG! At that point we were like kids, who just got Christmas presents.
Our host asked if we wanted to go just the two of us, or we would like her to join us. ‘Of course, please join us!’ Then she asked if we want to do it casually or Finnish style -you can guess the answer, we wanted to go for the full experience! It was a fantastic introduction to Finnish sauna, we just were so happy and couldn’t have dreamed of anything better happen to us.
So the 3 of us went for it (ladies and guys go separately, unless they’re a couple). We walked into a small hot room, a very nice wood burn sauna. Being ‘sauna newbies’ we relied on our host to take care of us. After some 15 minutes when we were totally melted, she said ‘How do you want to cool down? You asked for ‘Finnish style’, so let’s get out this way (door to the back of the cottage) and have a dip in the lake’ (or rather a pond, just behind the cottage). So, dressed only in towels, we run to the icy cold lake for a quick dip and couple of minutes later, we came back to sweat again. All of that would not be completed without having a drink. And we quickly discovered that the best drink to go with sauna is Long Drink (Lonkerro) – a Finnish gin with grapefruit drink. Fantastically refreshing!
To our surprise, ‘Finnish style sauna experience’ felt very natural. None of us felt awkward sitting naked in a hot room with a stranger and casually chatting about life. It actually opened us for other sauna experiences, which we’re happy to enjoy whenever we can, and always go for the most ‘local’ way of doing things, which sometimes is rather unusual.
Finns do know how to enjoy sauna!!
After the sauna, we washed ourselves in hot water which boiled during the sauna heating process. Then we came back to the spacious living space of the cottage, and had makkara (with mustard!) grilled in the fire place. It seemed that we only had a couple of Lonkerros more, but when we finally checked what time it was, we realised that we chatted well into the night…
Next day we woke up to another feast, hearty breakfast and lots of coffee 🙂 and an open invitation to stay with them if we go south (they stay near Helsinki).
We could not thank ‘our Finns’ enough for their hospitality, and we knew that we have just made new friends for life. In fact, we have already met again after Lapland adventure, we spent a fine day exploring Helsinki and learning about its secrets.
Couple of words at the end…
We absolutely believe that Finland has to be experienced; there’s much more to Finland than what your eyes see . You already know, we believe that no trip is completed without having a hike or going for a walk – we really felt it so strongly in Finland. If we only drove from north to south and never took this hike, we would still be fools thinking that there is no more but trees, wetlands and lakes. In fact, we can admit it now, couple of years ago we looked for a location for our 6 weeks holidays. Yes, we looked at the prospect of going to Finland, but we opted against it. Want to know why? Because there’s nothing, just trees and lakes…
I guess now we can say there is MAGIC! Since that first visit and hike in autumn 2018, we have already came back to Finnish Lapland; and have visited 7 national parks (or wilderness areas) across Finland and completed 4 multi-day hut to hut hikes. And you know what? They’re all very different!
Further, during our first and subsequent hikes we have learnt so much about Finnish culture, have talked to many people. In Lapland we learned how to make a fire even with wet wood! We got ourselves a proper knife and kuksa. We totally embraced the ‘makkara and sinappi ritual’. We have learned a word which is so important in Finnish Lapland – RUSKA (the word describes the autumn colours one can see in Finnish Lapland, reds, oranges, yellows, browns, all so vivid and pleasing the eyes).
Nowadays everyone dreams of visiting Lapland in wintertime (snow, frozen trees, northern lights, Husky, Santa… you name it) but trust me Lapland is magical in other seasons as well.
I will be bias and say autumn would be my favourite season in Lapland for now. And of course I do dream of visiting Lapland in winter. Hope it will happen soon.