When you sleep in a building the dawn’s light wakes you later than it would through the canvas of the tent so by the time we stirred the day was already warm and bright. After a leisurely breakfast we set off for another day’s adventure.
Today the tracks were an exercise for the ultimate track to come. We were presented with drops into rivers and had to clear trees from tracks that had not been used since our last foray 5 years ago, also some of the wooden bridges were a little shabby to say the least. Rob, Isabella, Kevin and Sue were a little astonished when Steve and I told them that the rickety bridge in the picture was the best that they would cross on this adventure. We even had to use our winch on one sand climb where the track had been washed away after the spring melt.
As we drove along flocks of Snow Buntings, Yellow Wagtails and Siskin’s flew like autumn leaves in front of the car and over lunch a gyrfalcon shot passed, causing panic to the small bird population.
Tonight would be our last camp beside the sea, on the opposite side of the Estuary to our first camp. The nights were cool so a fire was started early so that it would be well established before the cool of the evening. Kevin made a bespoke pan boiling system using a variety of sticks held by logs and successfully cooked tea for Sue. We then cooked the salmon on a stick set above the fire and it was as delicious as the one that we had had the night before.
Just as we were finishing our salmon I happened to mention that the last time that I had camped in this spot a Russian turned up with his Lada slightly the worse for wear. Minutes later a family, in their Lada turned up as if on cue and we enjoyed an entertaining few hours (until past midnight) with them conversing in broken English and sign language. The father, Roman, even went out into the bay for a paddle in my canoe. His daughters gave me some beads and a flower that still adorns the Impala Range Rover to this day.
The family stayed until we had all turned in and then roared passed with a loud pip of the horn. We could hear their car slipping and sliding back along the track for a while before the silence of the night returned.
Our journey away from the sea inland to Oktyabrsky was as bright as the days before and we had one more wild camp before two nights in the Yolki Palki Lodge. There are two ways to get there: The lower road (the winter road) that is frozen during the northern winter and therefore easy to drive, but during the summer becomes a very difficult track of mud. To the west is the summer route, but you need to know firstly where it is and secondly which of the myriad of turnings you need to take so as not to end up back in the mud. The first 25km or so is the same route and while we were on this part we met a Swiss team travelling through Russia and they spoke of impassable mud ahead on the track, warning us that it would be very difficult and to take care. I talked for a while and gave them some routes down by the White Sea so that they would not miss out on some great off roading.
I have the summer route so we set off with the knowledge that we would enjoy an incredible journey across the high ground. The track runs between lakes of clear water and forests of pine, larch and birch that are growing far enough apart to allow the soft carpet of lichen and blue, red and blackberries to grow, (all are edible). Along the way is the occasional rickety bridge and rock tracks that are fine tuning the skills needed for the last adventure between Monchegorsk and Verkhnetulomsky.
Our campsite was reached by 1830 and was set high up amongst trees with views across the immeasurable forest. We pitched our tents on soft Lichen in the company of the mosquitoes, but within an hour or so they had been sent back into the trees by the cooler evening wind so we enjoyed the camp fire insect free. One insect of note that we have seen in abundance was the humble Bumble Bee. I have never seen so many here; they were everywhere, a good sign of a happy nature.
I am always first up in the morning, anytime between 0500 and 0700 so always get the fire going so that when everyone else stirs and leave their tents to see what the weather has in store for the day there is always the welcoming sight of a log fire - a quintessential part of a forest adventure I think.
Coffee is next on the agenda for me and Steve, my support. This is the second time that Steve Pitt has supported in Russia so he now knows it well and enjoys it immensely.
Today the rain is falling gently and we have but 60km to go on sand tracks and with a couple of river crossings to get to the Yolki Palki for the rest day tomorrow.
As we broke camp the rain stopped and the temperature started to rise again. The route passed through two villages, one deserted because after the forest had been harvested in the communist times the government moved people back to the towns and left the villages to rot. Some of the houses are still lived in but if Putin made the decision then they could be bulldozed away and the inhabitants would have to move to towns like Kivorsk or Kandalaksha.
The first long river crossing was tackled successfully, another piece of experience for the ultimate test. The rocks in the tracks also became more numerous, often fiendishly placed to trap the unwary: another training session for Rob and Kevin which they passed with flying colours. There were also a lot of Russian’s on the tracks, because today was Sunday and everyone heads out into the wilderness to fish and picnic.
By late afternoon we had arrived at Yolki Palki and Frank welcomed us with a Russian beer and his usual superb hospitality. The lodge is in the village of Oktyabrsky, which is another one of the logging villages that is inhabited although the people should be in the flats in Kivorsk. It appears that after the logging finished the inhabitants did not want to spend all their time in the city so the village has become a place to go at the weekend.
After eight days it was good to have the time to wash some clothes and get oneself clean in the sauna before enjoying a fantastic dinner of traditional Russian food. Sleeping inside a building after twelve nights under canvas seemed a little airless, but I did sleep well enough as the bed was very comfortable and it was very quiet outside as the village of Oktyabrsky was still deep in the forest.
The next morning dawned bright with not even a breath of wind. This allowed a few midges to venture forth from the woods behind our camp which necessitated the use of nets over our hats. As usually happens here half an hour or so a wind got up and blew them back into the woods from whence they came.
After breakfast we followed the sand track that runs beside the sea, enjoying the occasional challenge of a river crossing or steep climb over a headland before dropping down onto the sandy beach for a twenty kilometre blast to the Estuary. This was Bear country so we kept a good lookout just in case one passed us by, unfortunately one did not, but there are plenty of days to come yet. The Estuary of the Varzuga was the furthest east that we could safely go, there is a ferry that crosses here but the sailings are “alcohol dependant”. The owner is not always at his best and there is a real chance that you could be marooned on the wrong side for days or even weeks. On the other side there is no way round the Peninsular as the tracks finish some fifty miles to the east, after which is complete wilderness, while to the north the river is wide and deep until far into the impassable interior.
Just a kilometre north the river mouth is the wooden village of Kuzomen which we passed through on our way to a wild camp in the dunes between the forest and the river. Later as we sat around the campfire chatting about the days adventure the rain began to fall gently so we retired to the awning and watched the fire from a distance, keeping it topped up in between showers. Kevin meanwhile had set off waterproofed with his fishing rod in hand to catch a Salmon to smoke beside the fire for tomorrow mornings breakfast!!
An hour later Kevin arrived back empty handed so the smoked salmon would have to wait. The rain continued to fall so we chatted underneath the awning, cup of wine in hand, before turning in for the night to that very comforting sound of rain bouncing of the tent.
By morning the rain had stopped although the sky above us and to the west was cloudy. To the east a thin streak of orange sat just above the horizon promising a good day. By the time we had had breakfast, broken camp and arrived at the last village this side of the wilderness (Varzuga) the sun had begun to burst through. We found a shop that sold bread, chocolate and beer, and marvelled at the abacus system of adding up was used in the shop. Down by the river we met a very friendly fisherman who told us, mostly in universal sign language that it was possible to sleep and fish here in Varzuga. We also made a coffee and enjoyed a bread roll, In England we have sausage rolls here in Russia they are Salmon rolls and they tasted wonderful.
The tracks today took us through Lichen filled pine forests that ended up back on the beach. On the way a Sea Eagle flew out of a dead tree so we stopped to find its next resting place in the forest which we did after a scan with binoculars. Our goal was the village of Kashkarantsy which was made by early evening after lunch and a couple of coffee stops in the silent forest and we were treated to another sighting of a Sea Eagle sitting on a rock between the sea and the shore.
In Kashkarantsy we stayed in some wooden lodges beside the sea and enjoyed a beautifully sunny evening watching the tide come in over one of Rob’s beers and some red wine. Steve got the barbecue going to cook some chicken that he had bought from the shop in Varzuga helped blow the coals into life. As we sat down to eat the owner of the lodges gave us two salmon so I gutted them down at the beach in the attendance of some gulls who were very grateful of the guts and eggs that I left for them on a stone beside the sea. One of the salmon we cooked there and then and it was enjoyed by all except Sue who has an aversion for fish and the other would be cooked tomorrow night at our last camp beside the White Sea.
At 10:30 the sun had still not set, even though it had given us a magnificent display of colour against the clouds but we were tired so had to turn in for the night. During the night there was a lot of traffic passing the lodges, human traffic, so it seems that the Russians stay up very late at this time of year. I found out in the morning that they were going the sauna that, unbeknown to us, sat a few yards away from our lodges.
At this time of year in the very north darkness lasts but a very short time so that by 0400 or so the sun light brings you back from sleep and it is impossible to lie in. I must admit that this morning I managed to stay in bed until 0630 (which will shock those of you who know me well!!) before ambling downstairs to enjoy smoked salmon and eggs for breakfast.
After breakfast we spent the morning walking around Kandalaksha. During our walk Steve and I found ourselves leaning against a bridge looking out over the railway. Here in Russia trains are a very good way to get around and in Kandalaksha it looked as though there was more rolling stock than you would find in all England.
At 1200 we started our journey into the Kola proper, stopping off at the view point high above the city where you can see for miles into the Gulf of Kandalaksha which sparkled in the sunshine. From the viewpoint a rocky track leads down to the White Sea and we enjoyed lunch sitting beside a beach looking out onto a calm blue sea in hot sun. It was 100km from here to the military town of Umba where we fuelled for The Kola. Only a few kilometres from the fuel station the off roading starts with a crossing of an estuary, which I had timed to coincide with the low tide so we enjoyed a run along the sand before finding a campsite up on the shore between the sea and the forest. The climb up to the camp was difficult and I had to use my front and rear lockers to forge a way through the sand, allowing the Land Rover of Kevin and Sue to enjoy an easier climb on compacted sand. Rob and Isabella’s Toyota brought up the rear and we were soon camped and ready for a relaxing evening beside the sea.
Whilst sitting (as you do) watching the tide come in bathed in glorious sunshine an Osprey flew by while Velvet Scooters bobbed around on top of the waves that a stiff southerly wind had stirred up.
Steve, Sue and Rob got a fire going as the evening chill came in so we sat in daylight, chatting about the day, enjoying the warmth of the fire and the sound of the waves against the shore until at least 1100 when we knew that we really ought to get some sleep.
The forests of the north are awash with Elk, there are thousands and thousands of them living in the enormity of this wild and immense landscape. So many in fact, that seeing them is probably one of the most unlikely things that you will experience on a journey in Finland and Russia.
I have spent many hours over the years that I have traveled in the Scandic Countries and Russia walking quietly at dawn or dusk in search of these elusive beasts and most of the time will see only the tracks that they have left. This picture of the spoor of an Elk is so old that moss has grown in it. Occasionally my patience has been rewarded with a fleeting glimpse of Elk bounding off (very quietly for such an enormous animal) into the darkness of the forest. On the island of Torso in Sweden I had an awe-inspiring meeting at that point in the evening just before darkness sets in when an Elk and I bumped into each other and stood eye to eye for what seemed like 10 minutes but was I am sure in fact only a couple, before with a snort he walked off into the forest.
So you can imagine my surprise as I was driving on a busy road near the town of Vos in Norway to see in an agricultural field not two hundred yards away an Elk and her calf munching the grass quite unconcerned with the busy road. I stopped, took some pictures and watched them for a full 15 minutes before the pair ambled off back into the forest-Quite a surreal experience I thought.