Walking through a national landscape – Karhunkierros

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The low-lying midnight sun fills the inside of the tent with a pale blue glow.  I’m holding a bottle filled with fresh, cold water on my ankles which are swollen and tender. The ankles are protesting the past 27 kilometers which they spent in excessively tight hiking boots.

One of the most popular Finnish hiking trails, Karhunkierros (The Bear’s Trail), snakes through Oulanka’s National Park’s breath-taking scenery – the landscape featured in many famous Finnish romantic paintings and poems. Our national landscape. 

I had planned to walk this 82km trail alone, but my parents suggested teaming up. So, in early June 2019, my parents and I drive up to Kuusamo, park at the eerily quiet Ruka Ski Centre and take a taxi to the beginning of the trail.

Day 1

Of the two starting points for the trail, we choose the original starting point which goes by Risticallio Cliffs, which offer incredible views over the Oulanka River. A hundred meters off the route, there is a spot on top of the cliffs from where you can see the curve of the river. The water has eaten its way through the rock and left tremendous cliffs to guard its path.

Inspired by the cliffs, we decide to check out another landmark, Oulanka Canyon, after we have pitched our tent near Taivalköngäs hut. The canyon is 5km off our trail, on the route taken from the other starting point. However, even though we walk a good while along the canyon, the scenery is not as impressive as Ristikallio Cliffs.

Day 2

On our second day, we walk along Oulanka River in a light rain enjoying the quiet shelter of the pine woods for the first nine kilometres. Then, to my annoyance, the trail goes right past Oulaka Visitor Centre. The area is spotted with visitors wanting to see Kiutaköngäs Rapids which are only a short walk from the visitor centre. Foamy water, roaring water, fast water. We balance on the rocks next to the river breathing in the chilly air before a group of retired visitors invades the slippery rocks.

After Kiutaköngäs Rapids, the trail abandons Oulanka River and climbs up to and dry and bright esker where the kilometres fly by on an easy path. Soon the path joins River Kitkajoki and descends to a damp forest where we fight the first mosquitos of the summer while pitching the tent for the second night.

Day 3

We soon learn to recognise the hikers who are walking the trail with us. One couple walks past us every morning while we are still sleepily gulping down porridge, and every single afternoon we pass them on the path.

We walk through the Small Karhunkierros, a 12km long nature path on the third day. The suspension bridges that cross the river several time swing slightly under each step. The bridges in the park are all fairly new and no longer as scary and romantic as they used to be. However, it is still necessary to limit the people on the bridges to one or two at the time. Sometimes we have to queue.

In my opinion, there are too many people on the trail near the Oulanka Visitor Centre and on the Small Karhunkierros. There is room for everyone, but the sense of wilderness is lost as day tourists with prams stroll along the paths.

Day 4

We spend the last night at Porotimajoki campsite and walk the remaining 15 km on the last day. This end of the trail is made for those who want to admire the scenery, not for those who want to avoid hills. The path goes up Konttainen Hill, snakes down the hill only to climb up Valtavaara Hill and dive down again. The trail finishes at the Ruka Ski Center after having climber over the Ruka Fell.

During our lunch break, we meet a local couple who have been successfully chasing the Red-flanked bluetail, also known as the Orange-flanked bush-robin which has come over the border from Russia to visit Finnish woods. Apparently, we have just passed the area where the rare bird has been spotted. It is very likely that we heard the little bird while we were sweating up the hill in the sun. Perhaps it was cheering for us, “Well done, only a few more kilometres left!”

A quick breakdown of the hike

  • Day 1: Car park to Taivalköngäs. 9km plus a 10km evening walk to the canyon.  
  • Day 2: Taivalköngäs to Kulmakkopuro. 21km
  • Day 3: Kumlakkopuro to Porotimajoki. 27km.
  • Day 4: Porotimajoki to Ruka. 15km.

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