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July 13th 2005
Published: September 4th 2009
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Church HousesChurch HousesChurch Houses Jokkmokk if my memory serves me correctly
Motorhome News from Europe 26

Sweden 5th July 2005
Across the Arctic Circle - twice; and into Finland

If I asked you to paint me a picture of Lapland, it would of course have to include reindeer, wouldn’t it? It would also probably show Lapps in reindeer-skin coats, hood covered heads down, pulling a sleigh in a snow and wind-lashed landscape. Things have changed a bit. These days Sami, the indigenous people of Saapmi go about their business un-noticed and herding on foot is almost a thing of the past. The reindeer live freely in the forest and they are now only gathered together for separating and marking of new calves. Many Sami herd their beasts by snowmobile, 4 X 4 or helicopter nowadays and their traditional costume is generally reserved for special festive occasions.

About 20,000 Sami live here in northern Sweden in normal homes and their ‘church houses’, pyramidal log buildings set amongst their store houses, are rarely used these days except for family gatherings, christenings and funerals when some might travel long distances to the church. The church houses are not open to the public, but we wandered amongst these strange but practical buildings and
The Arctic CircleThe Arctic CircleThe Arctic Circle

we crossed it twice
visited their pastel painted 17C wooden churches at Arvidsjaur, and Jokkmokk in the land of the midnight sun, a hundred miles further north. (We just had to visit a place with a name like that!)

The Arctic Circle is marked with a large sign by the roadside just before Jokkmokk and, of course there is the obligatory gift shop and café. Todd collected his certificate there (couldn’t resist it!). We opted out of the skinny dipping ritual by the way.
Bosch, BMW and Audi all have winter testing facilities a little further along the road, in Arvidsjaur, where they have special tracks on the ice-covered lakes. Temperatures have been known to reach 42 degrees below freezing and the military also have a presence here, with special units operating in extreme conditions. All of the car parks in town have car plug-in facilities for the winter. As we filled up with diesel, a local doctor, a Brazilian, drew up behind us in a brand new motorhome.
‘I’ve only had this two weeks,’ he said. ‘We’ve been to Nordkapp and back. It rained every day.’ What a great start! He went on to tell us how many Km to the litre
Capercaillie Capercaillie Capercaillie

a rare sight in Scotland, but plentiful here
he gets from his new machine but it didn’t mean much to me.
‘We don’t have any of those in England,” I replied. ‘We only have miles per gallon.’
The garage was beside the town lake, where we saw our first red throated diver of the trip (with more fond memories of Scotland).

Endless spruce forests line the winding roads to the north, pointing their spindly tops skywards like a medieval army of lancers going into battle. It’s 100km from Jokkmokk northwest into the wild-blue-yonder, along the lonely road to Stora Sjofallet and beyond to Ritsem, only 70km as the golden eagle flies from the Norwegian border. You might ask why anyone would want to drive there when the only way out is back the same way! Perhaps it’s the glow of the sun on the snowy mountain tops reflected in the deep blue waters of the vast hydro reservoirs, the thousand feet of sheer rock-face, dark and sombre as we approached; the pure air at 5000ft, the dipper in the fast flowing stream, the capercaillie with her chicks, the boulder strewn landscape or just the fact that the crystal light sparkles on every stone and every leaf -
Reindeeer and Elk stir-fryReindeeer and Elk stir-fryReindeeer and Elk stir-fry

Dining with our new Danish friends, Marie-Anna and Henning
or it might just be the silence; the total silence. This is pure wilderness indeed, but the mountains are more Cairngorms than Alps perhaps, but big; really, really, big. In an hour of driving we passed just three cars, and we played spot the vehicle and spot the reindeer! (Cars 3, reindeer 12) Intrepid fishermen come here by helicopter we’re told, bringing valuable income to the local Sami.

Our campsite restaurant provided a superb dinner that evening, prepared by the larger-than-life chef in his blue and white striped apron. We shared a meal of smoked char and generous servings of reindeer and elk stir-fry with Marie-Anna and Henning from Denmark, our neighbours, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening, watching arctic tern dancing in the sky as the sun dropped behind the mountains. They had been there before, and like others we met on our walk, they will come back again, and again, and again. Visitors are welcome here in the winter too, for cross-country skiing and jet-skiing along the illuminated trails. I know a couple of very special Aussies who would love it here. There’s a walk of 425km with strategically placed mountain huts along the trail. The Kungsleden path
The Kungsleden PathThe Kungsleden PathThe Kungsleden Path

.. a 425km walk - if you have the stamina!
is tough in parts, but the views from the short stretch that we walked were stunning indeed. Now, there’s a challenge for you, Brian and Kathryn. I also know a few people at Thetford Golf Club who would like it here. They play golf on the ice-locked lakes in winter. Red balls are compulsory, (you get them as soon as you arrive here in winter).

Our count of reindeer is quite impressive, but then they do tend to be easy to spot. Mostly, they walk in drunken fashion along the middle of the road, their heads down, a vacant expression on their huge appealing eyes, their comical oversize feet padding along the tarmac and totally oblivious to any danger. Oddly enough, we have not seen any accidents with these strange beasts; indeed ‘road kills’ of any sort are almost non-existent, an indication of the shortage of wildlife up here. Remind me, reindeer can fly, can’t they? We haven’t seen Santa or his sleigh yet either.

Gallivare, along the road 150km to the east, is an iron-mining town. The train passing through the station was all of a mile long with wagon after wagon of ore. For a mining

They do tend to be easy to spot. Cars, 3 - Reindeer, 12!
town it’s amazingly clean and tidy. It was market-day. The market appeared to be there in readiness for the 2nd July bicycle race along the 190km road all the way from Ritsem, which we had left just two hours before. It looked more like a marathon race with many of the entrants going along for charity, as the promotional picture shows a family on mountain bikes. We managed to leave our lovely valley before the crowds marred the image!

This is certainly not the place to run out of diesel. It’s sixty miles between towns up here which could be mighty inconvenient: ‘I’m just off to do the shopping, love. I’ll be back on Wednesday’. We had some rough plans for the day, but as navigator for the morning, I changed the route for something more scenic than trees and more trees, and we ended up at the end of the day three hundred miles to the southwest, down through the Arctic Circle again and into Finland! Driving beside the beautiful Kalixalyen river, white fluffy clouds guided us, seemingly pinned on a Mediterranean blue backcloth and the birch trees shimmered in the warm breeze by wide green verges splashed with buttercups and cranesbill.

The currency in Finland (or ‘Suomi’ as the Finns like to call it), is the Euro and we spent our leftover notes from Italy on paying for the ‘rather rustic’ campsite as Janice so nicely put it, at Kemi just across the border. Campers were all fishing for their tea and cooking their catches on the wood-stove by the fast flowing river, shining gold in the evening light. Our second night gave us a better catch; a superb campsite in the lovely town of Oulu, on the east of the Baltic Sea, where Norwegians and Swedes from further north come for the sun and sand. It’s a strange mixture of young technical town (Nokia have a factory here) and resort. The sea is clear and brackish, fed by numerous broad rivers flushing fresh water into the bay from the mountains, the sun shines a lot and there are lots of exciting things to do, but the sand leaves a little to be desired! The couple in the caravan next to us had travelled down from Harstad in the north of Norway with their two daughters. They recommended that we should watch the sun go down over the sea at midnight. Now, how romantic can you get? The sun dipped to a tiny speck before rising again, slowly raising its head on the horizon. It really is light all night here.

‘Where to watch birds in Scandinavia’ came up trumps again with coastal wetlands at Liminka where the Temmesjoki and Lumijoki rivers enter the Bay of Bothnia. Amongst our sightings (or was it ‘excitings’?) were white tailed eagle, a hundred or more cranes, red-backed shrike, whooper swans (note: blue and white marking rings - watch out for these Finnish birds at Welney next year!), yellow breasted bunting, reed bunting, willow warbler, reed warbler, curlew, and a pair of marsh harriers stealing black gull chicks from the nests. We were joined by Evan, a hitch-hiking American student at the end of his exchange year in Finland and we were able to take him with us to three local hides. Evan recommended the Oulu campsite - thanks Evan! (One hide was well splattered with guano and pellets. We think the evidence pointed to the white tailed eagle using this as a roost).

The Finnish language is a little more difficult that Swedish. It has little of any European origin, being perhaps closer to Russian in many respects. Evidently the grammar is similar to Korean which should help us a lot.
There are so many images of Finland in the memory bank already. Whole fields of cotton grass, white as the first snow of winter; mile after mile of empty roads; birch fringed forests; trees and more trees, turning purple at the last distant fold in the landscape and vast pine bordered lakes, calm and restful, inviting the evening swimmer.

Just five million people live in this huge country. Every now-and-again there would be a road-sign showing the name of a town or village, but more often than not no houses appeared. Imagine Olde England when there was that much space. It was like that when the first Vikings arrived in Britain and I guess they liked it so much, they stayed there instead of going home! The rest of Finland went to the USA in 1890 it appears, along with a few Norwegians and Swedes. An impressive seven percent of their GNP is spent on education in Finland we’re told, more than any other country in Europe and they are the world’s largest exporter of paper outside of Canada.

From Oulu, we turned towards the north-east, crossing the country to Kuusamo less than 20Km from the Russian border. It is 600 Km south to Helsinki and it is trees and lakes all the way we’re reliably informed. Better, we thought, to leave the south of Finland for another day. We had a ferry to catch in Norway, sailing for Shetland on the 23rd August and Lapland to the north is calling, though with diesel at 70p per litre, I think we might stay in Finland for a while longer!

You knew it would happen of course, and remember, you read it here first. Yes, as mentioned in our last newsletter, we now have yet another new member joining us on our travels. Erik (the Viking) Elk, rescued from his boring perch on the shop shelf, comes with big brown antlers and a white knitted sweater emblazoned with the Swedish flag.

We’re hoping to get to see a few local festivals over the coming months. There’s the Air guitar world championship, midnight golf competitions, wife throwing competitions (or is it carrying, in these days of health and safety?), hay cutting challenges, country music, folk dancing festivals … and lots more.

But, for now, it’s ‘nakemiin’ from Finland.

David and Janice, Todd, Ron and Erik.
The Grey Haired Nomads and friends

(Please reserve two places in the mental home)

Birds seen: Even a few swallows get this far, house martins, swift, capercaillie, curlew, shoveller, redstart, lapwing, black tailed godwit, redstart, cuckoo - still calling on the 1st July, fieldfare as common as our native blackbird and lesser white fronted geese.
Flowers: Mountain heath, globe flower, agrimony, meadow sweet, water avens, round leaved wintergreen and tufted loostrife.
Plus ………red squirrel and smooth snake!


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