HANNAH SUMMERS combines hiking and rafting in the land of a thousand lakes… where social distancing is a way of life…
I’m bobbing inches above the water on an empty expanse of lake. Around me, thousands of birch trees sway in the breeze, the wind making soft whooshing sounds through the branches. I close my eyes, lean back and let the sun warm my face. Several minutes pass. I could get used to this state of zen. This is packrafting, one of the world’s tidiest rambling concepts. A combination of backpacking and rafting, it is a refreshingly simple way to reach the world’s loveliest and most remote corners. You simply strap an ultra-light, rolled-up, one-person raft to your rucksack to carry along trails and inflate it to cross lakes or journey down rivers, allowing you to access untouched places and cover terrain that even the most hardcore hikers may struggle to navigate.
There’s no better place to try it than in Finland, which has 187,888 lakes in which to dabble. With a landmass about the sixe of the UK, but a population of only five million, it’s one of Europe’s finest wilderness hotspots. There’s thick forest, lakes so clean you can drink from them, and ‘everyman’s right’, meaning you can camp, forage and fish even on private land. While packrafting has been around for decades, it has only recently become more mainstream, making its way onto the radars of adventurous travel companies. May three-night trip in Helvetinjarvi National Park (in the country’s southwest) is led by Joose Jarvenkyla, a philosophy lecturer turned guide. While I’m the only person on this expedition, typical adventurers include time-poor doctors, lawyers and IT consultants whose wilderness experiences tend to be limited to browsing palm-tree-print scatter cushions online.
Luckily, Joose expects my lack of preparedness. The long weekend starts with a debrief on how to put up a tent (or hammock, I prefer) and a run-through on how to use my kit: backpack, sleeping bag, stove. My food has been carefully planned and weighed, and all gear is included in the price. My packraft and kit for the entire trip (including anti-ageing cream and chocolate) weighs under 13kg, leaving me with plenty of energy to enjoy myself. I pitch my one-person tent on the edge of a forest of Scots pines, its zip-up entrance facing water so still and vast I have to squint to see where the lake ends and sky starts. I take a dip as the late afternoon sun turns the water pink, before wrapping up in cosy layers for a feast of sausages on the campfire. That night I sleep utterly soundly.
In the morning we stroll to the empty shores of Lake Kovero, which is where the adventure really begins. “Is that a sleeping bag?” I wask Joose as he unravels a compact package. “This is the whole damn ship!” he replies, teaching me how to inflate the raft. I flap it about so it fills with air, then I squeeze it into the ultra-durable raft… a process I have to repeat about fifty times. It’s a ten minute job, but Joose assures me by the end of the trip I’ll manage it in under two minutes.
After strapping my backpack to the nose of the raft, I tentatively negotiate getting in, and float out into one of the mos invigorating landscapes I’ve ever experienced. Thousands of spindly birch trees circle and expanse of flat, gently rippling water, and there’s not a soul in sight. For the first hour I concentrate on my technique: dipping the paddle low into the water and trying to counter my natural instinct to hurry. Our peak speed is 2.5mph, slowing a little over 1mph when there’s a headwind. I embrace it. About four and a half miles later we reach our first portage, in which you carry your raft between tow stretches of water. This is when the packraft really comes into its own. It weighs in at about 2kg, so I can sling it under my arm or deflate it and tuck it into my backpack. Lazily, I opt to pull it along behind me.
We trample through dense forest, scrambling over tree roots and squelching through spongy bogs without a bother while Joose points out Finnish lichen, known as old man’s beard, female elk droppings (oval-shaped, unlike those of the male) and tinder fungus, a natural fire starter. While the hikes aren’t hard, they would be impossible with the pacckrafts chunky rivals. Four empty, sun-dappled lakes lakes, and three hiking stints later, we reach our camp for the night: a tucked-away patch of forest on the shores of another pristine stretch of water.
Joose may not look like the rugged wilderness guides we’re used to on telly, but he possesses all their skills and more. He trained in the Kuru international wilderness guiding programme (Finland is the only country to recognise wilderness guiding as a profession) and he trained by the same man who taught Ray Mears. That evening he gives me a masterclass in survival skills. We swig Jaloviina, a Finnish cut brandy. Biscuits and hot chocolate are served by moonlight, and Joose lets me in on the finer points of Finnish sauna etiquette. I sleep soundly in the silence, waking when the birds begin nudging pine cones from the trees. It’s on the second day I notice a change in myself. I stop trying to ‘get somewhere’ and instead sit back in my inflatable throne and relax. I confidently plot into my raft and out again, strapping and unstrapping my backpack and taking on the hikes: some short, steep and boggy; others flat, shady and serene.With each hot and sometimes sticky portage comes the sweet relief of the paddle. I occasionally skirt the edge of lakes, reaching out to touch the cliffs and closing my eyes to hear the hypnotic sound of swaying trees. At other times, I let the breeze carry my raft, skimming over water lilies and dipping in my wrists to cool off.
During lunch I sit by the water in a ring of birch, Scots pine and spruce, eating Joose’s pea soup. Sunlight filters through the leaves and Joose tells me packrafting is one of the most energy efficient ways to travel. My thoughts drift to splurging £800 on a packraft and wondering where I will go with it. For two days, during which I visited eight lakes, I saw a maximum of twenty people: an elderly couple on a quad bike and a handful of intrigued hikers. No kayaks, no canoes, no campers. No hassle, no stress, no noise. Just me, thousands of trees and vast stretches of water. We spend our final night paddling and watching the sunset on a sandy forest-lined beach. Tufty clouds linger in the rose-pink sky, their shapes reflected in the silvery water. The panorama slides into a vivid magenta, then a star-studded black. Soon the only light is from the campfire in front of us. I had expected to leave feeling physically worn out, but instead I feel invigorated… and excited to know where my packraft will take me next.
HANNAH SUMMERS is a freelance travel writer.
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This article has also been published in The Times.