Thursday, 15 September 2011

Midnight Sun, Part 2: Finnmark!

I could almost hear the prehistoric neds that carved this sniggering...

Believe it or not this carving is between 2000 and 5000 years old. Do times change? Ask the archaeologist who will be pondering the cultural significance of a nob carved on to a ruined bus stop several millenia from now. Not that a crappy bus stop will stand the test of so many thousands of years. Quite surprising these carvings have either, really.

Mostly, the carvings, as you will see below, depict ancient men clobbering ancient reindeer... and the odd moose.

I have to admit that these carvings bent my mind. For thousands of years this site, on the edge of Alta Fjord in the Far North of what is now considered Norway, was used by Sami mystics as a place of conduit with the 'other' world. Apparently, shorelines were significant spiritual places as they represented a meeting of worlds - the wet and the dry ones, presumably. Think there was more to it than that, though...

We spent an afternoon viewing the UNESCO designated petroglyphs after finding that absolutely nothing is open in the town of Alta on a Sunday (purveyors of hiking maps included). We had arrived the evening before following a spectacular journey by bus and ferry from Tromso.

Our choice of campsite seemed obvious from looking at the only tiny map of the town that was available to us at the time we arrived. A rounded peninsula sticks out in to the Fjord from the town of Alta. The peninsula is a rough hillock, devoid of buildings, by the name of Komsa.

It was fairly late when we made camp. But we had treated ourselves to a bottle of Wine and so spent a pleasant evening looking out from Komsa to the rolling hills beyond the Fjord.

When the shops opened on Monday morning we were able to buy quality hiking maps for the area we planned on backpacking through. The rough idea was to explore the edges of the Finnmark plateau on a circular route beginning and ending in Alta. The Sautso Alta Canyon and the enormous lake Iejsavri, were to be two key points on the itinerary.

It wasn't long before we were climbing away for the roads and on to the plateau. The number of birds flying all around us, or otherwise bobbing on rocks and calling to one other, was what first struck me about the tundra we were crossing.

I'm afraid I recognised few of the birds we encountered. However, a Red Throated Diver, AKA Red Throated Loon, caught my attention. Considered rare in the UK, only to be found on a scattering of lochs around the highlands of Scotland (including the beautiful Loch Maree, which I'm off to paddle on next week).

A question began to form which remained unanswered for the duration (and still does). Why so many Lemming corpses? They fairly well littered the ground. Some had clearly been predated but others were perfectly intact, perfectly dead.

After a few hours of walking on the tundra, which was easy underfoot and made for fast progress, we came to a wooded gully that dipped somewhat form the plateau. Running water made this an appropriate spot to camp so we pitched our tents and cooked dinner. Our stomachs were full and pots were washed by around 10PM (although my watch was reading Whiskey o'clock).

I was quite fascinated by the area where we had camped and a couple of drams fueled my desire to drink it in. So while Bill went to his bed I sat out on the ground beside the stream, at first watching Lemmings (the first live ones of a great many we saw while in the area) flitting back and forth along the opposite bank of the stream, from one hole in the bank to another.

Eventually, when I got tired of watching the Lemmings dance, I went to roam around the immediate vicinity, taking photos.

I was sweltering in my tent when I awoke. This was the same each morning during this part of the trip. The sky seemed immense.

We set off once again along the narrow trail under the relentless sun. Presently, we came to a lake and broke away from the trail in the direction of the edge of the Sautso Alta canyon. The canyon was impressive but there are probably better viewpoints from which to take it in. From the view I had, and from the only other pictures I've seen of the river, it looks as if the river Alta should be paddleable. I wonder if this is often done...

We continued some distance after leaving the edge of the Canyon. But it was a short day in the end and when we stopped it was among trees, as we were seeking shelter from the morning sun on our tents, and the local mosquitoes were as desperate for our blood as we were to escape. We swiftly retreated to our tents for an early night.

The next morning we continued in the direction of Lake Iesjavri and when we arrived, the scale of it was jaw dropping.

A camp beside the lake was a given and we set this up swiftly.

Iesjavri is the largest lake in Norwary, with a surface area of over 68 square kilometers. But it is relatively shallow for its size, with its deepest point being only 14 meters.

It was obviously going to be necessary to go for a paddle and the raft was quickly inflated. It was at this point that I realised a terrible fact. My headnet was gone. When it had deserted me I couldn't tell. It could have been many miles ago as I hadn't been wearing it all day. But it had been in my pocket and at some point the bastard thing had escaped. The Finnmark plateau may appropriately be described as a bloody unfortunate place to be without a headnet. Luckily, my repellent was powerful (20% DEET) but it was still a struggle, particularly in the next couple of days.

I took to the water and the cool breeze partly dissipated the band of eager mosquitoes that were hovering around me.

An island lay about 300 meters offshore from our campsite. I returned to land to pick up a passenger and two-up in the yak I paddled us out to investigate. Clean cut bones lay scattered from place to place beside fire circles on which haunches of meat must have been cooked. There was also a teepee like structure made out of birch bows, which I took to be the frame of a sauna. Through the bows a view of the Cohkarassa mountains, the most northerly mountains on mainland Europe, was intriguing. These mountains loomed larger and larger in my imagination as we moved towards them the next day, and as we got higher the view became more and more enticing.

We gathered up chopped birch logs left behind on the island and loaded them on board the raft to take back to the shore. Mainly because I was desperate for some respite from the mosquitoes, which of course began to descend in greater numbers as the afternoon wore in to the 'evening', we lit a fire among the rocks at the shoreside and the opportunity was also taken to wash and dry a couple of pairs of socks.

Although the sun was in the sky 24 hours the evening light still had a character that was distinct from that of the morning and afternoon.

Again, the coming of the morning found me sweltering in my tent. We were soon up, soon fed and watered and soon on our way. The idea of circling the lake had been mooted. It would have been great. But time was not in great enough supply so we set off in the direction of higher ground, up and down over one raise after another, and as we left the lake behind, the mountains loomed ever larger.

On reaching a relatively high point (at about 500m) we stopped and brewed up. From here it was downhill into Stabburesdalen or, as it is known by its Sami name, Ravttosvuopmi, which is a long valley that lays between the Cohkarassa mountains and the high ground of the plateau to the west. The valley looked impressive from above. But amongst the trees it really felt like a wild place. I was scouring the trees around for Moose, which I was convinced would be watching me quietly (I'm sure that Moose often manage to hide behind spindly birch trees). Unfortunately I was unable to stop and take any photos, plagued as I was by hoards of mosquitoes (and already coated in stinking DEET).

I am certain I will come back to this place (although I nearly always feel that way). The Stabburesdalen national park, as well as being home to the most Northerly mountains, is also home to the most Northerly pine forest in Europe. The Stabbureselva (river) runs through the valley itself connecting a series of long lakes and offering an obviously fantastic looking route for a packrafting expedition. I need to research when the best time to go will be, to manage climbs of the main peaks (which are rounded and scree coated but impressive affairs which my friend remarked were like mega-Foinavens) and also not to be driven to despair in the woods by the mosquitoes which fairly well tore me to shreds that afternoon.

We climbed out of the valley and back on to the higher ground, making camp at around 600m with a view of the mountains.

It became windy as we established our camp. I was just retreating to my sleeping bag when the rain began to fall. This was a change. In fact, it was a very very refreshing change given the warmth in the air over the past few days, particularly in the mornings when the heat of the the sun on my tent had been waking me uncomfortably.

It rained big, heavy drops. Rain absolutely belted out of the sky and it drummed on the fly of my tent. Such a fantastic sound to go to sleep to.

The next morning saw us continue across high ground, off trail at first before linking up with a narrow track heading north west. A rumbling could be heard in the distance.

The rumbling was getting louder and louder as we progressed across the tundra. The sky to the west was becoming darker, and the clouds to the west were moving visibly faster than they were above us. The wind began to pick up and soon, as we were arriving at the DNT (Den Norske Turistforening) mountain cabin, which is where we had planned to have lunch, we felt rain begin to fall.

We found a cozy gloom inside, lit a candle lit and set the stove boiling water, and then the storm broke (magnificently). From the window we observed fork lighting splitting the sky to the west. The volume of the thunder overhead increased and increased. We ate lunch, and enjoyed several cups of tea as this drama unfolded on the Tundra around us. It was lucky, I suppose, that we happened to make it to the hut just as the weather turned violent. As a result of this mighty storm, we didn't even get wet.

We began again along the trail as the sun again began to break through the clouds.

The mosquitoes were out is force. I walked quickly, fairly dripping with repellent.

Presently, we began to drop down from the plateau. The horizon was layer after layer of hills. But we were heading, by necessity, in the direction of Alta.

We found a pleasant spot to camp among trees but immediately retreated to our tents to escape from the airborne hordes.

The next day began with an enjoyable walk through birch forest, and I was again searching for Moose peaking out from behind the trees.

Unfortunately, but necessarily, we came to the road that would lead us back into Alta. We had left the mosquitoes behind, but now there were other irritants such as cars passing by and a pavement underfoot. A great big burger and chips at the first grill bar we passed was at least some consolation for leaving the tundra behind. We stocked up on food and beer from a supermarket and made our way back to the peninsula of Komsa which we had learned at the site of the petroglyphs to be home to a Sami shrine, or 'sider'. This time on the northern side of Komsa, looking our into the vast Alta Fjord and towards the northern islands of Stjenoya and Seiland, we made camp at a fantastic spot beside the shrine (which was complete with offerings, amongst which was a pair of broken spectacles) and drank Mack Lager while the colours of the mountains and the sky changed again and again.

There was clearly another storm taking place in the mountains which became veiled in cloud as we began to hear rumble after rumble coming from their direction. But although the cloud darkened over our heads, for a while at least, it didn't rain. Well after midnight we were treated to the closest thing to a sunset that we witnessed during the course of the trip. The darkened clouds and the sun shining on the water made for so an ever changing view that had me snapping away with my camera. My camera battery, which had been rationed so well for over two weeks, died at this point.

The next day we got up and made our way into the town centre. A spectacular six hour bus and ferry journey awaited. After arriving back in Tromso and celebrating with a beer in a pub (it cost over £10) we climbed out of town and camped at the same spot we had camped on for our first night in Norway (two and bit weeks previously). Tromso to Oslo and then Oslo to Edinburgh was the itinerary for the next day.

I'm already looking forward to returning to Norway.


  1. Fantastic trip report, I've only traveled across Finnmark on skis so it was good to see what that area looks like in summer. I have long wished to roam that area with a packraft, there is plenty of scope for extended trips so maybe next year I'll finally make it happen.

    It's been a bad, or good, year for lemmings, depending on whether you're a lemming or not! Funny little blighters to watch but they contaminate the water.

    And losing a head-net is a nightmare. The price of my head-net went through the roof when Thomas lost his on our Jotunheimstien trip this summer ;)

  2. Thanks Joe. I've read about your winter trip, sounded awesome.

    I'm thinking late summer early autumn, from what I hear, would be the time to packraft the area? Before the snows but after the worst of the mozzies are gone . . . but it is hearsay/assumption mainly so I'm on the lookout for good info. Good info about the Cohkarrassa mts I'm also looking for so if you come across much about any of that or Stabburesdalan in general (in English preferably), let me know!

    Cheers, Dave

  3. I really enjoyed reading your trip report from an area I've never been too. Us norwegians have a healthy respect for the mosquito hordes of Finnmark after hearing lots of stories, and it seems they were true! Like Joe mentioned, I forgot my headnet during our Jotunheimstien hike, so I can certainly empathize with your bug encounters :).

  4. I've really enjoyed reading this, so much scope for proper adventure, and it looks like you had your fair share on this trip!
    I'll be interested to see your future trips in Norway (hopefully with head net!) :)

  5. Thomas, thanks... the hordes of bugs were quite something. I have thought in Jotunheimstien the MASSIVE TROLLS would be worse though? ;)

    Helen, thanks. Can't wait to get back to Norway. Scotland will have to do for now... which aint so bad really! :)

  6. Mjøsa is the largest lake in norway. 5 times bigger than Lesjjavri


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