Thursday, October 22, 2015

Shivering My Way Across Finland and Norway (July-August 2015)

October 22, 2015

The cycling half of my Nordic peregrinations began on July 20, 2015 when I tumbled off a very comfortable sleeper train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.  Rovaniemi is the biggest city in Finnish Lappland and the end of the line for the passenger train.  I rode into town and waited for the tourist information office to open since I needed to figure out where to replace the camping gear that had just been stolen in Helsinki.  I also needed to make a police report of the theft in the hope (which ultimately proved futile) of getting my travel insurance to pay up.  The tourist info folks sent me around to several camping gear stores that had an absolutely underwhelming selection of tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and hiking backpacks.  I eventually decided to buy cheap stuff that would last for three weeks and then buy better gear when I got back to Canada.  It took me until about 2:30 to to deal with the very professional police and to buy what I needed, with the final bill coming to less than 220 euros for a functional but small backpack, a functional but very heavy tent, a heavy and not very warm sleeping bag and a fairly terrible sleeping mattress.  I was surprised at the lack of quality gear, given Rovaniemi’s reputation as the centre of outdoor adventure activities for Finnish Lappland. 

Sadly, all the shopping left me with not enough time to visit the official Santa Claus village, one of the biggest tourist attractions in town.  Rovaniemi is located right on the Arctic Circle, and has lots of reindeer around, so I guess it’s as good a spot as any for Santa to set up shop.  Leaving at 3 pm, I was happy that I had essentially 24 hours of daylight so that I could ride as late in the evening as I wanted.  That first day I rode steadily north and then west until 9 pm through recurrent drizzle and cold.  The scenery was gently undulating, with birch forests and stands of pine trees, neither of them terribly high, surrounding a series of small lakes.  It reminded me of the scenery around Thompson, Manitoba, where I once spent a month planting trees.  From time to time I came across reindeer beside the road, although I wasn’t fast enough to draw my camera before they bolted for the woods.  It was cold and bleak and hard to motivate myself to ride, and I had difficulty finding a good spot to put up my tent, finally finding a clearing in the woods after 84 km.

Nice river junction on day two, on the Swedish border
I slept solidly for 10 hours, as my body was a bit unused to cycling after a couple of weeks off the bike.  I awoke to even colder weather, with the maximum temperature for the day not getting above 11 degrees and little sunshine to warm me up.  I rolled 20 kilometres westward into the junction town of Pello before a futile 12-km round trip expedition to the police station to pick up a copy of my police report; the station wasn’t open that afternoon turning more due north along the river that forms the border between Finland and Sweden.  I kept rolling north through dreary weather until finally, around 4 pm, I found a beautiful spot overlooking the junction of two big rivers, the Tornealven and the Muoninjoki, and shivered my way through a picnic lunch.  The landscape reminded me a great deal of the Kaministiquia River outside Thunder Bay.  According to a fisherman I met there, this river provides some of the finest fly fishing in Finland, with 30 kg salmon, great trout and tasty Arctic char.  Sure enough, from this point north I saw a lot of fishermen in boats out on the water.  At the 120-km mark for the day, I contemplated camping in a roadside picnic area but was put off by the number of people who had used it as an outdoor latrine.  Instead I took a side road around a lake and found a secluded clearing in the forest to put up my tent, cook my pasta and fall asleep, tired and sore and cold.

July 22nd, my third day on my slog through Finnish Lappland, was another 120 km day.  I awoke in the night to recurring heavy rain, and the morning was cold, wet and very grey.  It was a bleak 60 km to the city of Muonio, with my feet getting so cold in the biting headwind cutting through my sandals that I lost all feeling under my right foot.  It definitely wasn’t a fun day in the saddle, so when I found a roadside truck stop serving reindeer burger, I lingered indoors, reluctant to leave the warmth.  I set off again at 4 and was rewarded by the headwind shifting into a tailwind and the sun finally reappearing. 
Looking like a real bike vacation!
My pretty campsite at the end of day three
I suddenly loved the look of the landscape and made much better time and was in a much more positive mood.  I camped a bit earlier than I had planned when I found an absolutely idyllic camping spot about 13 km north of Palojoensuu on a bluff overlooking the border river, surrounded by pine trees and out of earshot of the road.  It was by far the prettiest spot I had seen since I left Rovaniemi, and I needed the positive vibes of camping there.  I had a stiff left knee and both my Achilles tendons were sore; the persistent cold didn’t help my muscles and tendons get warmed up.

The highest road pass in Finland, outside Kilpisjarvi
July 23rd was the best day of cycling I had in Finland.  I woke up after 9 pm and then dawdled over breakfast, as I had bought some delicious smoked fish from the tourist shop just down the road.  I fixed small things on the bike that needed adjusting, washed some laundry and finally set off at the fashionably late hour of 12:30.  I moved slowly for the first 20 km to a road junction, where I bought ice cream and cookies to fuel my body.  Then the wind shifted to a brisk tailwind and the skies cleared, and I began to fly along.  The next 60 km went by quickly as the trees thinned out and barren fells got closer to the road as I climbed steadily.  It was distinctly chilly at the top of the 550 metre high pass that separated me from Kilpisjarvi, and I dropped to the lakeshore in bitterly cold headwinds.  It took me forever to crawl the last 5 km to the campground with my legs feeling empty and heavy.  I had a sauna to warm up, cooked dinner and was in bed at 1 am, with the sky still pretty light.

Lovely flowers on the way up Saana Fell
Atop Saana Fell
I took the next day off from cycling, hoping to let my body and my motivation recharge.  Kilpisjarvi is the extreme northwest corner of Finland, and is a major tourist centre.  I paid 10 euros for a massive breakfast buffet (I made sure I got my money’s worth), lazed around using the campground’s wi-fi and reading as I waited for the morning’s fog to break.  Finally at 12:30 the sun came out and I hiked up Saana Fell (1100 m above sea level), one of the barren fells towering over the lake.  Finland doesn’t have the big peaks that Norway and Sweden have, so these are among the higher peaks in the country.  There were lots of hikers on the trail, and the scenery was wonderful, with expansive views to Sweden’s mountains to the south and to endless fells to the north.  The tree line was about 200 metres above the lake, so most of the hike was across treeless terrain.  The woods were full of birds that were hard to see and identify, although a passing birder told me that they were bramblings.  I strolled back down to the campsite, rode into town to buy groceries and change my euros into Norwegian kronor, then went back to the campsite to sauna, read and cook up a big meal of steak and veggies in the campground kitchen.

The view towards Sweden from Saana Fell
In the campground car park, Kilpisjarvi
Pointy peaks in northern Norway
My first Norwegian fjord
Lovely Norwegian scenery
July 25th was my last day in Finland.  I cooked up a small mountain of pancakes in the kitchen while outside the weather continued cold, grey and bleak.  Eventually I could delay no longer and saddled up to climb over the low pass into Norway.  The scenery was pretty, although the tops of the fells were shrouded in clouds.  On the downhill to the Norwegian coast, I passed a series of very pretty waterfalls and the previously spindly birch trees got bigger and bigger.  I was on a newly paved road and I made good time despite the cold and the wet pavement.  I reached the shore of the fjord (Storfjorden), turned left, picked up a tailwind and raced along through very pretty scenery, with sunshine lighting up the waves on the fjord and the peaks of the mountains.  I stopped for a late lunch at a camper parking lot and had to shelter behind a camper to eat as the wind was gusting at about 80 km/h.  I climbed over a 90-metre-high pass between one fjord and the next, flew downhill and took an old sideroad along the shore looking for a good place to camp.  There were too many farms and summer cottages to camp along the shore, so eventually I turned inland along the main road and found a lovely spot to camp, well off the road in a mossy clearing.  I was glad that I had better weather and nicer scenery than I had had in Lappland.

On the way into Tromso
The next day was a great day for cycling and sightseeing.  I woke up at 7 (Norway is an hour behind Finland), left at 9 and was in the city of Tromso by 11:30.  Tromso is a big town (70,000 inhabitants) in an absolutely amazing setting, surrounded by mountains and fjords and beauty.  I rode across a high bridge with a very narrow bike and pedestrian shared lane that was almost impossible to navigate because of the number of elderly Italian cruise ship passengers clogging the lane.  I headed first to the Polar Museum where I learned about Amundssen and Nansen and other figures of the 19th century and early 20th century exploration of the Arctic, most of whom passed through Tromso.  I lazed outside in the sunshine, out of the wind, using their wi-fi and then bought some groceries. 
The Ice Cathedral in Tromso, looking like Sydney Opera House
As I ate lunch in a small park, I had to fight off the depredations of big seagulls who were utterly fearless in their attempts to eat my sandwich.  The climb out of town was steep and led across the island to another steep bridge leading to the large island of Langoya.  The light on the water and on the snowy peaks was magical, and I climbed steeply over lovely interior moorland down to Kattfjord, eyeing up some juicy-looking ski touring possibilities.  I cruised along the fjord, through my first road tunnel (the bane of Norwegian cycling touring!) to Bremshomen ferry dock, where I had to wait only 15 minutes for a boat to the next big island, Senja, where I found a great spot to camp beside a stream. 

Typical interisland bridge, Norway
Typical tiny fishing village
Beautiful scenery on the outside coast of Senja
The next day’s riding didn’t start until after 12:00, as it poured rain from 3 am until then.  I stayed in my tent reading and eating breakfast, and then had a bit of time pressure to make the 7 pm ferry on the other side of Senja.  The riding was through brilliant scenery all day, with dramatic granite sea cliffs, picturesque fishing villages, wild moorland and a series of intimidating road tunnels.
Another ferry ride
Wild Norwegian scenery
The view from Andenes campground
Campground views, Andenes
The gale force winds were mostly at my back, although at times I had to crawl through headwinds to get into tunnels.  My face was painfully windburnt by the end of the day.  I had a brief lunch stop of peanut butter on rye bread, then kept riding.  I took a brand new tunnel and equally new bridge to the ferry port at Gryllefjord; the bridge was resonating in the wind with an eerie, echoing “song” that alarmed me as I rode over it.  I made it to the ferry with 40 minutes to spare, bought groceries and scarfed down food as I waited.  I met my first-ever Chinese bicycle tourists outside China, a couple on some neat folding bikes with a good pannier system.  We communicated in my terrible Chinese, as they spoke essentially no English.  I was impressed by their fearlessness in setting off with essentially no ability to communicate with people.  The ferry crossing was beautiful, with striking light on the shore, on distant mountains and on the rolling sea.  On the other side, in the city of Andenes, I broke down and stayed in a commercial campground so that I could enjoy the perfect location on the outer shore of the island.  It was a very pretty spot on grass-covered sand dunes, looking out to the open North Sea.

Midnight sun over Norway
More late-night light
I had hoped to make an earlier-than-usual getaway the next morning, but instead I was awakened by torrential rain in the night.  I woke up at a decent hour but instead of rushing off on the bicycle, I went for a swim in the chilly ocean, shaved, trued my back wheel, had a leisurely breakfast and finally rolled off at 11:30.  All day long as I rode along the outer coast of the island of Andoya, headwinds slowed my progress to a crawl.  I listened to podcasts, hoping to get some sort of mental inspiration, but the scenery faded from the sculpted peaks of the past few days to humdrum undulations.  After 30 km of battling the wind, I had lunch on a windy white sand beach that apparently is an up and coming surfing spot.  Nobody was out in the howling gale that day, but it was still pretty.  There were more and more people living on the land as I headed south, but almost no surface water to be had, a complete contrast to the gushing waterfalls of a few days previously.  When I got to the town of Sortland, I still couldn’t for the life of me find a place to camp wild.  I pushed on and on, through densely packed farms, and finally, 10 km south of Sortland, where the busy road went over a small hill, I found an abandoned field and camped in the long grass, tired and jaded after 118 km that had been tougher than they should have been.
Surfing beach on Andoya

July 30th was a better day of cycling.  I was up and on the road in less than 90 minutes (about an hour less than usual) and raced into Stokmarnes with a brisk tailwind at 20 km/h.  I had a hot dog, checked e-mail, went to the post office to mail postcards, did some shopping and was out of town again before noon.  I made great time to the ferry terminal at Malbu, but missed a ferry by 20 minutes and had over an hour to wait for the next one.  This was my penultimate ferry, crossing to the Lofoten Islands, about which I had heard so much.  As I waited, munching sandwiches, I talked to a Norwegian family (mom, dad and two teenage kids) on a two-week cycling trip, and to Joris, a Dutch motorcyclist.  The ferry ride to the Lofoten islands was quick, and as the islands approached, I could see a number of appealingly pointy peaks rising up.  I disembarked in Fiskebol and rode through very pretty, wild scenery, with expanses of bare granite, little inlets and steep peaks still streaked with last winter’s snow. 
Lofoten scenery
The capital city, Svolvaer, left me cold, a functional expanse of concrete buildings with a surprising number of African migrants on the streets.  I pushed on through suburbia, looking in vain for a place to camp.  For an island out in the North Atlantic above the Arctic Circle, Lofoten is surprisingly densely populated!  I finally pitched my tent in a commercial campground in Kabelvag, cooked up a slap-up meal in their fancy kitchen and slept for a long time, listening to rain come down on the tent.

The next morning it was pouring rain so I had breakfast in my tent and lay there sipping tea and reading until 1:30 when the rain finally let up.  I got up, made myself lunch and rolled out at the ridiculously late hour of 3:30. I still managed to ride 46 km under leaden, cold skies along roads surprisingly choked with traffic.  I was relieved to make it across the inter-island bridge onto Vestvagoy and turn off onto a back road to lose the vehicular traffic.  It looked pretty (although cold) as I gazed back over the water towards the fishing village of Henningsvaer, alone on its long peninsula.  I was glad to see more open space and a wilder shoreline, but it just got colder and colder as I rode along, so I was relieved to find another commercial campground at Kongsjorda, ate a lot of pasta and a nice piece of chocolate cake for dessert.  I was pretty chilled, and my cheap sleeping bag didn’t do a great job of warming me up in the night.  I woke up with a distinctly stiff lower back.

Headed toward Moskenes
Inland lake near Moskenes
The next day was the last day of July, and the last real day of cycling of the trip.  I set off by 10:20, surprised not to wake up to rain, and rode 15 km to the town of Leknes.  I bought groceries, ten sheltered on a church porch to wait out another rain squall and eat some peanut butter sandwiches.  When the rain stopped, I rode on towards the western end of the Lofoten archipelago, and the traffic finally began to lessen a bit.  I rode through a long, dark interisland tunnel, then over another bridge after a spectacularly scenic ride along a pretty fjord.  I pushed along the inland coast of the island, along old roads around the new road tunnels, under steep granite cliffs.  I rode through the intricate harbour shared by Ramnoy, Kvalvik and Reine and, by 6:30 I was setting up my tent in my favourite campground of the trip at Moskenes, a huge expanse of grass and hills with lots of secluded spots to camp.  I feasted on smoked salmon (bought in Kvalvik) and rehydrated some fish soup, talked to Terri on Viber and then retired to my tent, cold and tired.  I was getting tired of never being warm, and my back was getting stiffer by the day.

Harbour in A
I had one day off the bike in Moskenes the next day.  I replaced my worn-out bike chain, rode to A (the absolute end of the road for the Lofoten islands) past racks of drying cod heads (Lofoten’s economy runs on dried cod—stokfisk—and has done so for centuries; the fish heads are apparently shipped to Nigeria to be turned into pungent fish sauce) to the renowned stokfisk museum, which was unexpectedly closed.  I biked back, noticing that my gear cable housing had split and broken, making it impossible to shift gears accurately; I didn’t have any spare cable housing, so I was going to need to find a bike shop in Bodo.
Fish heads drying in A, ready to be sent to Nigeria

The next morning I was in line for the ferry by 7 am.  It took almost 4 hours to get to Bodo, a modern city even bigger than Tromso.  I got off the ferry in (inevitably) drizzle, and headed to the airport to find out the rules for bringing bicycles on the flight.  I stayed there for a while, enjoying the warmth and dryness, listening to a live jazz band and using the free airport wi-fi.  Eventually I couldn’t put it off any longer, got onto my bike and rode out through the drizzle to the municipal campground.  I put up my tent, chatted to some Swiss university students who were carving soapstone statues out in the rain, ate sandwiches and then got to bed early for a long, rain-disturbed night.

August 3rd began with yet more rain.  It was the coldest, rainiest summer in Finland since 1962, and apparently Norway had had a similarly miserable summer.  My back, tired of being cold and tired of sleeping on a cheap, cold mattress, was even more sore than it had been, and now my left hip and thigh were distinctly sore, making cycling a miserable experience.  As it turned out, it was the start of two and a half months of piriformis syndrome, a sciatica-like condition that blighted my life and made it hard to walk or cycle or do any sort of exercise.  Only now, after going to a really top-notch physiotherapist, am I finally improving, just in time for my upcoming trip to Antarctica and South America.  I went to the local bike shop to get my gear cable housing fixed and to get a bike box for the flight, then went to the expensive hotel that I had treated myself to for the last night.  I packed up the bike, went out for a kebab at a take-out joint run by an Iranian guy, and then got to bed early, sad that my bike trip was over but glad to be escaping from a solid month of cold, rain and grey skies.

I flew out the next morning, August 4th, to Geneva, glad to have had 10 days of cycling, happy to have seen the spectacular coastal scenery of Norway and ready for the next stage of my farewell tour of Europe. 

Bobbing Around In the Baltic: A Finnish Sailing Trip (July 2015)

Ottawa, October 22, 2015

When I got back to Leysin from my Danube bike trip, I was barely in town for 24 hours before I got back on another airplane with my bicycle, this time on a solo trip to Finland, Sweden and Norway.  Terri had to go back to work for her last term of school during July and August, so I was on my own.  Finland and Sweden were the last countries of Europe (other than the self-declared independent pseudostate of South Ossetia) that I had never visited, so I wanted to visit them before I waved farewell to Europe.  

On July 9th, I hopped from Geneva to Zurich to Copenhagen to Helsinki, where I found my friend JP waiting for me.  Unfortunately, my bike box didn’t make the same connections, and we arranged for it to be delivered the next morning to JP’s house in Espoo.  We headed off with JP’s mom with two mountain bikes on a bike rack of her nice car.  The plan was to hitch a lift with her 40 km out of Espoo to the small town of Lohja and then JP and I would ride the rest of the way to her house so that we could get some exercise and I could see the southern Finnish countryside.  We pulled up in Lohja, got out of the car, and all stared like stunned mullets at the back end of the car:  there were no bicycles there, and the bike rack itself was gone!  We looked a little more closely, and discovered that the trailer hitch on which the rack had been sitting had fallen right off.  We couldn’t believe we hadn’t noticed this, and were worried that we might have unwittingly caused a serious accident.  We turned around and drove back and found the bikes, rack and trailer hitch safe and miraculously undamaged on the road 100 metres back, where we had driven over a small speed bump entering the downtown area.  We breathed a sigh of relief and set off on our bikes.

Nice view from JP's mom's place.
The bike ride was pleasant, through a rolling countryside that could have been taken from anywhere in the Canadian Shield:  small lakes, birch and spruce forests, occasional farms carved out of the woods, little traffic.  In fact one of the reasons why Finland was so low on my to-visit list for years was that I knew that the countryside was going to look familiar.  In fact Thunder Bay, my home town, has a sizeable population of people with Finnish last names, the result of heavy Finnish immigration over the past hundred years, partly because the area around Thunder Bay is so similar to Finland.  We ended up at the house that JP’s mother and stepfather live in, a summer cottage on a peaceful lake, now converted into a beautiful year-round residence.  We ate a delicious salmon dinner, swam in the chilly lake and then had a few rounds of steaming in the sauna and cooling ourselves in the lake.  I slept like a log.

The next morning JP’s mom, an executive with a big media conglomerate, headed into the office and gave us a lift back to Espoo.  Given the previous day’s debacle, we took the wheels off the bikes and fitted them (barely) into the back of the Volvo!  JP and I managed to get in an hour of tennis before the heavens opened in a Biblical downpour that made us less excited about exploring downtown Helsinki.  We did manage to drop by the harbour, where JP’s brother owns a tall ship, the Swanhild, that he charters to groups over the summer.  A group was just assembling to start a cruise, and we socialized for a bit.  JP often goes along on these cruises as the chef, so I was looking forward to the food on our upcoming sailing trip!

In the mid-afternoon, we crammed a car full of food, my bike box (freshly arrived from the airport), JP, myself and JP’s girlfriend Miia and drove a few hours west, past the previous day’s destination, out to a small yacht harbour on the island of Kirjais.  
Typical archipelago scenery
The south coast of Finland is a cartographer’s nightmare, an intricate pattern of islands, islets, rocks and shallow rocky shoals all emerging slowly from the waters of the Baltic as the land continues its rebound after the most recent Ice Age.  This emergent shoreline makes for thousands of tiny islands and tricky but beautiful sailing, and it was where we would spend the next week exploring.  JP and Miia actually had a two-week timeslot, but I was planning to hop off partway through that period with my bike to catch a ferry to Stockholm. 

Curves and lines in the rigging
JP grew up sailing a lot with his father and has the best of both worlds:  access to a boat without having to be an owner.  His father and three friends bought a 36-foot sailboat, Blondi, years ago and have a timeshare arrangement, rather like a holiday condominium.  As the original owners get older, they don’t always use their full time allotments, and JP’s father lets him use some of his time; in exchange JP does a lot of the maintenance work on the boat over the winter.  Not being an owner frees JP from being the butt of jokes like “What are the two happiest days in a sailboat owner’s life?  The day he buys his boat, and the day he sells it.”  We met the crew who had had the boat for the previous week (the son of one of other co-owners and his friends, two of them professional snowboard photographers and videographers; I wish I had had more time to talk to them), then moved our gear aboard in a steady drizzle, and handed the keys to the car to the other crew to drive back to Helsinki.  (It was actually the other guy’s car which we had driven from Espoo; boat handovers involve a fair amount of co-ordination and logistics.)  By 9 pm we were sailing out into the intricate jigsaw puzzle of the Finnish archipelago, searching for a perfect anchorage as the rain stopped and the skies cleared.  Since JP has sailed so extensively in the area, he knows it like the back of his hand and found us a spot behind the tiny island of Blyglo that was sheltered from any waves or wind.  We anchored, pulled out a portable barbecue grill and JP grilled up a huge feast of veggies, lamb and shrimp/scallop skewers.  We fell asleep at 12:30 with the sky still in twilight; early July in southern Finland has essentially no true night.  I slept exceptionally well in my slightly coffin-like berth in the bow.
The skipper is also a pretty fine chef!

The next morning we were up at 8:20 and JP broke with his usual tradition by switching on the boat’s engine.  We motored to a nearby island in search of freshly smoked fish.  JP knew from bitter past experience that this little fish shop often runs out of fish fairly early in the day, and was determined to be first in line at the counter.  We moored next to a number of sailboats that had spent the night there and walked briskly into the fish shop.  Our alacrity paid off as we had our choice of numerous species of fish, either cold-smoked, warm-smoked or fresh.  We bought a small mountain of fish, loaded it into the tiny onboard refrigerator and went out for a walk around the island.  
The world was a bit tilted that day
Historically these islands have been farmed, although the number of people willing to live in relative isolation, raising a handful of sheep and cows, has been steadily declining.  This island had two farms on it, but only one is really in operation, and its animals had been shuttled over to a neighbouring island, so we had the forests and meadows more or less to ourselves.  A lookout tower provided wonderful views of the surrounding islands, so densely scattered over the sea that it looked impossible to find safe passage through the maze.

Beer o'clock
Back on the boat, we set sail and tacked upwind in quite a strong breeze to the island of Berghamn.  The names of most of the islands of the Finnish coast, along with most of the people living there, are Swedish.  The 7 percent of the Finnish population who are ethnically and linguistically Swedish are concentrated along the coastline and on the offshore islands.  We walked around another pretty hiking trail taking photos, then returned to the boat for a feast of smoked fish, washed down with a fine mojito, JP’s drink of choice.  We carried a large amount of fresh mint for the entire week just for the purposes of making a good mojito.  
Perfect mojitos every evening

At 4 pm we roused ourselves and sailed on an exhilarating run at nearly 7 knots with a howling tailwind.  
Me at the helm with JP charting our course
I took the helm under JP’s watchful gaze and loved the feeling of steering such a big boat, trying to keep a steady course through the rolling waves.  All too soon we tied up in the yacht harbour of Noto, where the village festival was scheduled for the evening.  We walked around the tiny, pretty village and played a wonderful Finnish outdoor game called Mollky, involving throwing wooden blocks around the grass trying to knock down numbered blocks to get a required score.  More mojitos and supper followed before we headed off to the annual village festival, the reason we had come here.  It was a fun evening of dancing, drinking, listening to music and chatting with other yachties.  There was a wedding earlier in the day and at 11 pm the wedding party arrived in force to inject energy into the dancing.  JP and Miia, keen salsa dancers, lit up the dance floor with their moves.  Around 1 in the morning we wandered back to Blondi to catch some sleep.

Miia at the helm 
The next day, July 12th, we got up late and had a lazy morning, not leaving the harbour until noon.  We sailed a short distance to the island of Bjorko to hike and swim in a large freshwater lake in the interior of the small island.  It had been a dismally cold and grey summer up until that point in Finland, and the lake, like the Baltic, was quite chilly, but we all got in and felt slightly cleaner as a result.  When we got back to the boat, JP decided that since we had sunshine and a favourable wind direction we should head southeast to the island of Uto, the southernmost island in Finland.  It was two and a half hours of beating, tacking upwind in a strong wind and decent swell.  Halfway there, sitting in the open cockpit at the back of the boat while JP steered, I suddenly felt seasick and had to head to my berth to lie down and sleep it off.  I re-emerged as JP steered us into the harbour of Uto, feeling much better but having missed quite a pretty passage between the rocky islands.
The fine art of sailing sideways

Sitting in Uto harbour we took advantage of Finland’s absurdly fast 4G mobile phone data network to connect JP’s computer to the internet and watch the last set of the Federer-Djokovic final at Wimbledon.  As Federer fans, we were both disappointed in the outcome, but I found it amazing that we could watch it so easily over the mobile phone network at the utmost extremity of the country.  We dined on a wonderful sausage and blue cheese omelette that JP whipped up and then went for a stroll around the island.  Uto has always been a key spot, controlling one of the few deepwater shipping channels through the archipelago, and is adorned by a huge lighthouse, old military bunkers, a cemetery for the generations of ship pilots who have lived and worked on Uto, and lots and lots of wild strawberries that we picked and gobbled down by the handful.  Miia was happy that she found a geocache near the cemetery that she had been unable to locate the previous summer.

The next day we woke up to the sound of someone wanting to leave his docking spot; since the harbour was crowded, our boat was in the way, so JP rapidly moved it while I lay in my berth in a slight daze wondering what the noise was all about.  Bacon and eggs followed for breakfast before Miia and I tackled a small mountain of dirty dishes.  
Karlsby harbour, Kokar
At 11:45 we set sail for a longer day of sailing, crossing from the Finnish archipelago to the autonomous Aland archipelago.  As we sailed out of Uto, through a maze of small islands, the wind died and we spent hours floundering and becalmed, watching the Uto lighthouse not getting much smaller astern.  Finally at 5:15 we gave up, turned on the engine and motored for a while until we caught up to some wind to take us into Karlsby harbour on the island of Kokar.  The harbour was small and very pretty and full of yachts.  We put on running attire and went for a 50-minute run halfway across the island.  After four days on the boat, it was a relief to stretch the legs and get some serious exercise.  On our return we took advantage of the harbour’s sauna (Finns build saunas absolutely everywhere, as a basic human need) before taking our grill ashore and having yet another great supper, watching the colourful perpetual twilight of a Northern summer night.

More typical Aland scenery
We took it fairly easy the next morning, doing some much-needed laundry, showering and shaving and then renting bicycles.  It was clear and sunny and perfect weather to explore the island.  We rode out to the island’s church and the ruins of its Franciscan friary, then hiked out to the remains of a Bronze Age sealing camp from 1000 BC, when the island was an amazing 17 metres lower above the Baltic than it is now.  
Kokar church
We next rode out to an apple orchard where we had a lovely fish lunch, bought apple ciders and ate an Aland pancake.  The pancake wasn’t what I was expecting; it more of a savoury Spanish omelette than a pancake, but it was very tasty.  The bicycles we had rented were upright one-speeds, but they were fine for such a flat island.  The roads were full of groups of cycle tourists; by combining cycling and ferry rides, the entire Aland archipelago can be explored by bicycle, and it is probably the most popular cycling tour in all of Finland.  Back at the boat we did dishes, had a shower and finally left at 5 pm.  We sailed west, then north along the west coast of Kokar and finally northwest towards a deserted anchorage near Huso which JP had spotted on his chart.  I took the helm again for a while so that JP could cook, an impressive feat in the rolling boat.  We ate a delicious pasta with tuna and tomatoes, then sailed into the little cove.  All went well until it was time for either Miia or me to jump ashore to tie up the boat.  Miia didn’t like the look of the drop onto the steep rock of the shore, so I volunteered to jump.  I landed perfectly, but the rock had slippery moss on it and I lost my footing and slid down into the Baltic.  I swam around to the stern and I thought that no damage had been done until I realized that my binoculars were around my neck.  Despite valiant attempts to dry them out, that was the end of those binoculars as optical instruments!  JP found an adjacent landing spot and Miia successfully tied us up while I changed into dry clothes.

JP:  the fearless skipper
My Baltic swim aside, the island was beautiful:  completely uninhabited, with a dense forest and the droppings of moose who swim from island to island in search of grazing.  We went for a walk around searching for berries; no blueberries showed up, but there were lots of tiny strawberries instead.  It was an unbelievably peaceful spot to spend the night, with barely a ripple on the sheltered water and the cries of terns and gulls the only sounds as I fell asleep. 

Our next day, July 15th, was perhaps the best day of sailing of the entire trip.  We woke up at the fashionably late hour of 10 am, breakfasted and then sailed through a succession of dramatic narrow passages between islands before beating upwind to the town of Degerby.  The Alands are far more populated than the Finnish archipelago, and Degerby was the biggest town I had seen since we left the mainland.  I debated hopping off the sailboat there and catching a ferry to Marienhamn, the capital of the Alands, but JP convinced me to stay aboard until we sailed to Marienhamn.  I was very glad that I listened to him, as our late afternoon cruise
The Aland flag

OK; we're not really heeling over that much!

out of Degerby was perfect.  We had sat out a heavy rainstorm while eating lunch on the boat, but the sky cleared and we sailed under sunny skies and good winds, beating upwind at over 6 knots.  I got to take the helm again and loved the feeling of being in control of such a complex machine.  Soon enough we were motoring into a perfect cliff-lined anchorage surrounded by a landscape straight out of a Tom Thompson painting. 
Salsaing up a storm on the granite boulders
We drank mojitos atop a cliff, and then JP and Miia turned on some Latin music and danced salsa on the flat rock while I shot videos of them.  Then we collected dry wood and grilled chicken fajitas, with flambéed crepes for dessert, over an open fire.  It was a perfect ending to a wonderful day of sailing.

The next day, July 16th, was my last day on Blondi.  We had savoury crepes with smoked fish for breakfast, then lazed around reading, doing dishes and watching JP swim in the chilly Baltic.  He had been disappointed with the weather for the trip, as the previous year in early July it had been 30 degrees and he and his friends had sailed in swimsuits for a week, swimming in the Baltic every day.  I hadn’t swum yet once in the Baltic, aside from my involuntary dunking the day before, and I hadn’t even been tempted, given the air and sea temperatures.  Eventually, around 2:30, we lifted anchor and sailed towards Mariehamn.  It took three hours, most of it in strong winds that had us scudding along at between 6 and 7 knots.  
Another memorable meal
I had my last turn at the helm as we raced up the long sound leading to the capital.  Just as we arrived, a massive rainstorm hit, and we sat indoors, waiting for the squall to blow over.  While JP and Miia went for a run, I took my bicycle out from under the tarp on the foredeck where it had been lashed for the past week and put it together out on the quay.  By the time JP and Miia came back, I was ready to roll.  I felt sad saying goodbye after such a great week together, but it was time to start cycling.  We discussed meeting up in Lappland in a week’s time, as they were planning to go fishing up in another family cottage in the far north and I was headed in that direction too.  One last round of hugs and I was off, riding through the big, bad city in search of a ferry to Stockholm.
The last evening at our perfect anchorage

The Aland islands are a legal oddity.  They’re ethnically Swedish, but were once the westernmost bit of the Russian empire.  When Finland became independent of Russia after World War One, Finland got the islands, and the first case ever decided by the International Court of Justice was between Finland and Sweden over which country could have sovereignty over the archipelago.  Finland won the case, but Aland was granted extensive autonomy, with its own customs, post office and license plates.  The Aland flag with its red cross superimposed over a Swedish yellow-cross-on-blue background flutters proudly on many flagpoles.  The Aland produced a lot of emigrants over the years (including the grandfather of my American friend Cris Lindquist), along with plenty of sailors and quite a few wealthy shipping magnates.  Their turn-of-the-century mansions still line the main street in Marienhamn.

I waited until the wee small hours to catch a Stockholm-bound ferry at 4:30 am.  I was pretty bleary-eyed when I tumbled off the ferry and rode to the train station to see what the scoop was on taking a train north to Swedish Lappland.  The scoop was simple:  no dice.  Swedish trains don’t accept bicycles unless you have a folding bike, which seems like a very retrograde policy for a progressive country like Sweden.  I checked out the possibility of taking a bus north, but that wasn’t a whole lot better, plus there were no tickets to be had for days.  I decided to buy a ferry ticket back to Helsinki (the first one available was for the following afternoon) and then headed off to explore a few sights in town.  I loved the National History Museum for its great prehistoric section, featuring stories of a number of bodies found over the years, and for its Gold Room, full of wonderful gold crowns and coins and reliquaries.  I also stopped in at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to look around the Nobel Prize Museum. 
The Royal Swedish Academy
It’s small but very well done, with lots of video information and a video installation of a number of laureates talking about what is important in life and learning.  The old neighbourhood outside the Academy, Gamla Stan, is Baroque and charming and full of tourists and street musicians.  I had a truly bizarre conversation with a middle-class Iranian tourist.  Was it true, he asked, that if you emigrated to Canada, the government would give you a farm for free and a hunting and fishing area for yourself, again for free?  I assured him that this was definitely not the case, but I wondered whether similar tall tales fuel the current wave of migration, filling people’s heads with pretty unrealistic ideas of how wonderful life will be in the West.  I noticed that there were noticeably more non-European migrants on the streets in Stockholm than I had seen in Finland; Sweden is, along with Germany, the preferred nation of many of this summer’s surge of migrants.

A Nobel Prize winner with whom I went to grad school
I was already suffering from price tag shock (Sweden is far more expensive than Finland), so I decided to ride 12 km to a big campground on the outskirts of the city.  It was an interesting ride, through a gritty hipster area and then through endless low-rise apartment blocks out to a pretty lake.  I put up my tent, cooked up some pasta and then slept for 11 hours, making up for the previous night’s lack of shut-eye.  I woke up to rain which persisted all morning, so I stayed in the tent and read.  I also checked out some Norwegian road maps which I had purchased the previous day; I needed to figure out how far into Norway I was likely to ride, so that I could choose a departure airport.

The rain finished around 1:30 and I packed up the tent and retraced my tracks back to the ferry dock.  I rode onto the massive ferry, parked my bike, brought my sleeping mat and sleeping bag on board and installed myself in the ship’s huge nightclub to get some free wifi.  I bought a ticket for the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet and stuffed myself silly on great food, before having a beer at the pub where a drunk Swedish motorcyclist gave me 700 Swedish crowns (about 70 euros!) for my trip since “it’s better that you use it for your trip than that I buy even more beer!”  I found a somewhat quiet spot in a hallway to sleep (the cabins were booked solid) and tried to sleep, interrupted by late revellers and early risers.  Another all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast and I was back in Helsinki.  In my bleary-eyed state, I managed to lose the 700 crowns that the biker had given me; he should have bought more beer for himself after all!

My priority in Helsinki was to get a train ticket, so I rode straight to the train station and bought a ticket for myself and my bike to Rovaniemi for 6 pm that day.  Finnish trains give cyclists no hassle, as they have a separate luggage carriage with space for lots of bicycles in it.  I had a few hours to spend in Helsinki, so I headed to the national museum (good, although a bit drier and less engaging than the Swedish museum) and then went round to the two big churches (one Orthodox, one Lutheran) that dominate the downtown skyline.  Both were closed to visitors, but I got some good pictures and got to listen to a bell-ringing group giving a free concert outside the Orthodox cathedral.  
Lutheran cathedral in Helsinki
It was cold and windy and grey, threatening rain, so I decided to go back to the history museum to warm up and use their free wi-fi.  I could have gone to the station, but I thought it was a dodgy place to leave my bike.  This was ironic, as when I emerged from the museum at 5:30, I found that someone had stolen the big backpack that I keep strapped across the back of the bike, over the panniers.  That meant I no longer had a tent, sleeping bag or sleeping mat, which was a drawback if I was going to camp up in Lappland.  I was really angry and saddened by the theft, and went off to report it to the cops, only to find the police station closed on a Sunday night.  I rode off to the train station and headed 14 hours north to Rovaniemi (Santa Claus' official hometown) with my bike to start the cycling section of my trip.
Orthodox cathedral, Helsinki

Overall, the sailing and ferries part of my Nordic trip was fantastic.  The scenery in the Finnish archipelago and in the Alands is wonderful, very elemental and boreal.  I can’t thank JP and Miia enough for their amazing hospitality and for showing me such a remote and hard-to-get-to part of Finland.  I think that the Baltic islands and Lappland are the parts of Finland that are most distinctive and are most worthwhile visiting for a Canadian tourist.  I liked what I saw of Stockholm, although I was bummed that the Swedish train company’s policies prevented me from exploring more of the country.  And while I was saddened by the theft in Helsinki, I am pleasantly surprised by how infrequently this sort of thing has happened to me during the years that I have spent on the road with my bicycle.  I’m not sure when I’ll be back in Finland or Sweden, but I enjoyed my time there (much more than I enjoyed, say, Papua New Guinea!!)
Lots of twilit evenings like this