(By José Mijares) Three years ago I completed a winter trip across Lapland from Murmansk (Rusia) to Ritsen (Sweden) through Norway and Finland. I did it in 67 days, 46 of which where in darkness. What I liked most on that trip was the hospitality of the Russian people; it was difficult to make progress with being invited or entertained by locals.
Many short and long trips come after my Trans-Lapland trip, and the Kola Peninsula has always been present in my mind. The Kola map moved from the kitchen table to my office, always visible, always calling me. Many times I opened the map and dreamt about a journey through forests and across rivers. But I was not able to draw a logical and coherent line across it until this summer, when I finally saw a chance for a great trip.
The game plan
To describe the location, Kola Peninsula is something like an ear hanging from Scandinavia on the border with Finland and Norway; though it looks more like Finland than Norway. 140,000 km2 of forests (pines and birches), lakes, rivers and marshy bogs are the predominant landscape, not many mountains.
Cities and roads are located on the western side, while the east and south are an immense taiga ending in the White Sea. It can only be reached by helicopter or by winding tracks, some of which are only passable when winter freezes those swamps, lakes and rivers.
My journey´s plan was to get from A to B, but as my wife says, between A and B feels too many letters to me. The main plan was to packraft Ponoi River. But the real difficulty of the trip was to approach the river by fair means, as close to the source as possible, and end the trip at the White Sea.
In short, I wanted to get to the source of the longest river in Kola, Ponoi, by bicycle, and packraft to its end at the White Sea.
Cycling to the source with my bike would easy. Packrafting on the Ponoi River would a beautiful experience. But, when I began my trip September 2nd, the uncertainty was knowing when I would be leaving from the delta at the White Sea.
Cycling to the Source
On September 2nd I took off from Oktyabrsky my bike towards the Ponoi River. The approximately 100 km took me five days. I was pretty alone. I came across only four people, but lots of bear tracks everywhere.
The route in question has no signs or indications, no people or inhabited houses, but countless detours. It was so beautiful to bike through forest on the way to Ponoi River.
The fourth day at noon I reached the River Koupuuos (or similar, I can read on my Russian map), spent the day resting at shore, organizing stuff, and saying goodbye to my bike. I knew from the beginning that it should be left there. It was the cheapest of the cheap bikes at the shop. I guess it is now in the home of a Russian hunter and someone who will be making good use of it.
Starting to paddle the Ponoi
Early the fifth day, I went to the river and start packrafting. What a joy!!!
Koupuuos River is just a little creek, some places not even one meter wide but I progressed at 5 km/hour in a landscape that looks like the Garden of Eden.
The small river entered in Ponoi River, the longest in Kola and bend after bend a lush jungle landscape, barely fast, progressed much easier and simple than sitting on my bike. What a happiness!!!
Salmon were jumping everywhere. The Ponoi River claims to be the river with the largest catches of Atlantic salmon in the world. Although I lacked days to watch the fishing camps, I felt very curios.
My daily routine on the river was ten hours of rowing before finding a good campsite on the shore of the river. Lighting a fire, cooking and enjoying the scenery was a dream for me.
For this trip I brought a dry suit, so getting dry out of the camp and starting dry the next day was a strange pleasure for me. I still remembered the damp and cold days during my last packraft trip last year.
A town frozen in time
Three days down the river I reached the village of Krasnoschelye. I was eager to see what's there. I arrived at noon and searched for someone who could give me accommodation. It took me 10 minutes to find a "guardian angel”, called Yura, who not only gave me a house to stay, but a lot of info about all possible ways how to get out of the White Sea.
He showed me on the map all villages whereto a helicopter flies. I do not speak a word of Russian, and could not find anyone who speak a language other than Russian, so "helicopter" was ta-ta-ta-ta and a gestured propeller by hand, "boat" siren noise, etc. Two old guys talking like children ...
I decided to stay an extra day resting and watching Krasnoschelye, a town frozen in time. A Lapland that no longer exists except in the Kola Peninsula. We imagine Lapland as colorful houses, clean landscapes and people living well. But Kola has mostly misterious, horrible remains of Soviet cities, heavy metals factories that contaminate hundreds of kilometers around and a life expectancy that seems taken from Conan Doyle times.
But the warmth and hospitality in this remote part of Lapland are awesome and people give you what you need and much, much, more.
I can only feel gratitude for the people that I have met a long my trip.
Yura drove me to the river and said goodbye with a hug, but not before asking me to call him from home to tell the outcome of my adventure. He touched my Packrfat with his fingertips and shook his head in disbelief, poking a laugh of surprise, like a child.
A stage of a Tolstoy novel
The day I left Krasnoschelye I reached a farm. If Krasnoschelye seemed to me anchored in the nineteenth century, the farm was a faithful stage of a Tolstoy novel. The farm had a cabin that looked like a hut. I got permission from the woman of the farm to stay there and spent the night. Early morning I went towards a lake. A difficult lake to sail because of the shallowness and the millions of plants that invade the lake. It is home to hundreds of swans.
The wonderful wildlife spectacle that the lake offers, is breathtaking. In a few hours I found the exit of the lake and was back to a wider and stronger Ponoi River. Here the river is 150 meters wide. Now the difficulty was to find good areas to camp because the banks where very wet or just very wild forests. Therefore I had to put up the tent on the sandy beaches often found. Fascinating places.
Three days later I arrived at the first fishing camp. Accommodation was under construction but I got a bed and food for a very reasonable price. The person who seemed in charge and his wife were friendly people but apart from the onomatopoeic sounds and gestures, my communication was still very primitive.
Two days later, after the fishing camp, I came to the second and last village on the river, Kanevska. Didn't like it as much as Krasnoschelye, so after a few photos I decided to continue downstream. Not far from Kanevska I found the largest fishing camp so far, Acha Camp. I arrived just before lunch and the manager, Maxim, not only offered me a place to sleep, but delicious meals, and vodka, finally!
A James Bond film
Leaving Acha Camp, I entered the "private" territories of Ponoi River Company. The camps I found so far were a joke compared to what I was to see shortly: a company that has exclusive clients, who came in direct by helicopter from Murmansk and pay a lot of money for a week of exclusivity, luxury and fishing.
This company has claimed 70 km of the river and “owns” all that moves in.
A couple of hours after leaving Acha, a security boat came up to me and stopped me. The green boat with the word "security" on the side and a couple of big guys in uniform, left no room for doubt: Name, last name, permit, etc, etc.
They called with their satellite phone to the office in Murmansk, also to headquarters in Moscow and finally Ryabaga Camp, 40 km downstream.
I went into the boat and they took me out of the river to their camp, strategically installed in a tributary river with unbeatable views of the Ponoi. "Withheld" might be the word, but I must say that they were very friendly and hospitable with me. I was there five hours waiting for the manager of Ryabaga Camp, who appeared on a hovercraft; it looked like a James Bond film.
The manager is a nice Argentinian guy, who explained things to me very clearly. They were willing to help at all times but making it clear about their very exclusive clients and I was incompatible and they would not let me pass. He offered to take me the next day on the hovercraft all the way to Ryabaga, with a cabin, dinner, breakfast in the Ryabaga Camp and a helicopter flight to Lovozero. All free of charge. The manager said: "If it was another time of the year… but this week is premium, etc."
The White Sea from Ryabaga is only 50 km away. I wanted to get there and especially to walk along the White Sea coast up to Sasnovka, the nearest village from the Delta with a helicopter service, but I accepted my “destiny”. It was not a bad ending anyway.
Nevertheless I am grateful for his hospitality and I understand that in some parts of the world, the world has an owner, although we hate to admit it or is not in our logic.
The helicopter flight to Lovozero I shared it with Ponoi River company workers. It was an MI8, and was one of those unforgettable experiences I will remember for ever.
Kola is the last chance to experience a Lapland that no longer exists.
Jose Mijres was born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (April 1967) and spent his youth in Palencia, Spain where he started his first mountain adventures at age 10. For 11 years he worked as a tour guide in Europe and North Africa. In 2002 he decided to make a change and settled in North Norway where he operates Arctico Ice Bar, combining work and outdoor activities. Since then Jose does no longer make trips for work, just for the pleasure, he lives them and keeps dreaming.
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