The Sami Museum and the Wilderness Church

Siida, the Sami museum, is mentioned in quite glowing terms on the Internet and, though I am not overly fond of museums, this one really was quite amazing. The permanent exhibit was done in a most remarkable way. It was beautifully thought out and it managed to be detailed without being tedious. Quite well worth the time.

There was an information window at the museum and the people there told me that the other trail I’d noticed, to Otsamo, was best avoided. It involved a climb, they said. I’d seen it on the map and it didn’t look like much of a climb to me. I’d trekked in the Himalayas, after all. This was Finland. What climb?

But the snow, they said. The snow. It’s too soft for walking on. If you’re skiing, it’s okay, but not for walking on. It’s been so warm the last few days, you see.

Warm, yes, indeed. It was 8 degrees and I couldn’t tolerate actually wearing my fat, cuddly, comfortable and comforting Bear Force, the big fat parka I’d bought in Chicago — 20 years ago, was it? It remained slung over my shoulders, where it could continue to be comforting without being too warm.

Go to the wilderness church instead, they said. It’s a shorter route, 8 km each way (Otsamo was 9 each way) and easier.

Well, when the locals tell you something, you should listen. I spent the evening back at the laavu on the Jutuua trail… with a beer. Yes, I will walk that far just for a beer with a view. I mean, there’s a certain something to it, right? It’s not just a beer, it’s not just a view. It’s a beer with a view. In fact I went to the second laavu, which has a better view, but somebody had beaten me to it. Two somebodies. They had the fire going and the sausages laid out. I jammed their scene for a bit, but they didn’t take the hint and leave, so I had to go back to the first lean-to, which I could enjoy in solitary splendour. The beer unfortunately ran out way too soon. I should have carried at least one more, but it’s heavier to carry in the hand than in the stomach.

The next morning, I set out for the wilderness church at about 8 a.m. right after breakfast. I’d been advised to start early before the snow got too soft, but I didn’t want to miss breakfast. Why? Well, reindeer blood sausage, two or three kinds of raw pickled fish, reindeer meat salami, some tasteless cheese, yoghurt, coffee, juice. Who’d want to miss all that? I mean, this is supposed to be a holiday, right?

The wilderness church has a name and its name is — I’m only going to attempt this once — Pielpajäärvi. It is an old church and it is accessible only by foot. There’s a parking lot 4.5 km from the church and a spot on the lake that a boat can get to, 2.5 km away. Well, I didn’t think there would be any boats on the lake that day, given that the lake was frozen solid, so that left the parking lot, which, not having a vehicle at my disposal, I would have to walk to.
That part of the walk was unremarkable. A little tedious, walking on the road, but there were these mobile homes on one side, with paths sloping down to the frozen lake. You couldn’t see all of it, but what you could see was very pretty.

Then I reached the parking lot and the trail began. It was a narrow trail with plenty of snow on both sides and plenty of snow on the trail itself. Unlike in the Himalayas, there’s no sense of danger here, because the ground slopes away very gently and there are many, many trees. If you do fall, you won’t roll far (certainly not with a camera bag on your back) and it looks quite difficult to even get hurt.

The trail was beautiful and easy. The day was warm and sunny. The trees were tall and shady. The birds were signing. All fabulous. There were lots of reindeer trails through there, but there were lots of signs posted telling you which trail you should be on. Easy. Three and a half of the four and a half kilometres went by in a dream. Oh, I stumbled a couple of times and sank in up to my knee, but that we only because I didn’t pay attention to the path and stepped wide, where the snow was soft and deep. As long as I stayed on the hard packed path, it was fine.

Until it wasn’t.
I must’ve been no more than 1 km short of my destination when suddenly the path disappeared into a broken, jumbled, sunken mess. Someone with snowshoes on had floundered around in there. They’d got past, it looked like, because I could see the path resume it’s normal appearance just there, a mere 20 steps away. But I’d no sooner put one tentative foot into the mess than I was in up to my hips. I put an arm out to push myself up, and the arm sank in up to the shoulder. I tried to gain some traction with my other leg and then I was in up to my waist, with only my left arm still at ground level.

Of course I wasn’t ready to give up. I tried to rise, sank again. Tried again, sank again. Hmmm. Change in strategy. I tried to pull myself forward. My fingers got no purchase; wherever I touched the snow, it fell in. Hmmm. Change in strategy again. Twenty steps were never going to be accomplished like this. The only option was retreat and even that wasn’t simple. Trying to pull my left foot out of a hole, my boot seemed inclined to stay where it was. I didn’t fancy walking back in sopping wet socks, even if they were woollen. If I got my foot out, could I stick my arm in and retrieve the boot? Not a good idea. My arms are shorter than my legs and it wasn’t even clear that I’d be able to turn around sufficiently to actually get my arm into the hole. Hmm. I pushed my foot back into the boot and kicked at the snow deep down until the boot had a hole big enough to come out. _MG_5263

With some further shenanigans, I finally managed to claw my way out of that hole, distributing my weight on my arms and legs. My hands and feet were frozen by the time I could finally get to my feet again. Thank god for waterproof pants! My hands warmed up soon enough when I started walking again, but my feet were soaked and remained frozen for a long time.

Oh, and it’s not as if I gave up even then. I did look for a workaround and there was a path that looked as if it might skirt the troublesome patch. But no. Two steps in and I was in up to my waist again. I might be stupid, but I’m not that stupid. I’d seen only one person that day and that was 5 km away and he’d been headed in the opposite direction. If I got sucked into the snow here, they’d be sending search and rescue parties out for me after a couple of days. It was hardly a heart-warming thought.

So I tucked my tail between my legs and turned around. The way back wasn’t any too easy. The sun had already softened the snow at an alarming rate, so at first I was falling in above my knees every few steps. I shouted at myself, irritated at this inconsiderate behaviour, but there was no on around to hear except the birds who chirped back at me mockingly.

When I finally trudged back into the hotel, for a while I was happy to just thaw out in the warmth and gorge on whatever food I’d managed to salvage, while circulation returned to my feet. But not for long. The morning’s misadventures notwithstanding, I hadn’t come all this way just to sit in a warm room. I tucked my feet into fresh socks and walked to “town” — for want of a better word — where I stocked up on beer and other essentials. Then I went to the only restaurant in town and got myself kebab takeaway. And then I walked all the way up to my favourite laavu on the Jutuua trail and settled down to a solitary feast. It was sheer bliss.

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