The Karhunkierros Trail, or The Bear Ring (we didn’t see any), is Finlands most popular hiking trail. 82km, from the town of Ruka to Hautajarvi, via Oulanka National Park. The day after we arrived in Kuusamo, we put our bikes away, stuffed 5 days worth of food into our hiking packs, and set out.
The first task was getting to Ruka, only 25km away. We intended to catch a bus, but when our host Matti escorted us to the bus station across the road, he suddenly remembered that it was a public holiday. No bus today. Damn it. We decided to walk to the nearby highway and try our luck hitchhiking. Tanya led the way, because it was her first time hitching and girls get more lifts. It took a while to get our first ride, but in a little over an hour we’d arrived in Ruka and saved on the bus fare.
Our second ride was courtesy of a couple of volunteers for the NUTS Karhunkierros race, which is a running race that takes place each year along the trail. Distance options are 37km, 53km, the full trail (82km), or an insane return trip, 164km. We found out just how insane when we started the hike that afternoon and covered 3km in the first 3 hours, hiking through thigh deep snow for most of the way. By that point the novelty value had expired, and when we reached a day hut, we took refuge inside for a few hours, and eventually camped right next to the hut. There may have been a few tears, and we were pretty sure we were going to turn back the next morning and find a more enjoyable way of experiencing the Karhunkierros.
The next day happened to be Tanya’s 29th birthday. We woke at 5, looked outside to see an amazing morning, slept for a few more hours, and then awoke again to howling winds and freezing temperatures. Despite that we decided to rug up and push on, thinking it surely must get better soon. Another 4 hours and 4 kms passed, falling into thigh deep snow every few steps, before we emerged onto a road crossing. There was a checkpoint there for the soon to be arriving runners, and whilst milling about we got talking to some Latvian hikers who recommended a detour to avoid the next 8km of similar deep snow. Grateful for this upturn in events, we took the detour and a couple of hours later arrived at the first overnight hut site. It was still early afternoon, but we made camp and enjoyed some unique mini birthday cakes (biscuits, nutella, chocolate) whilst playing cards in a toasty warm hut.
Next morning we got underway at 8, just in time to see the race leader run past us, with 15km to go in his 160km race. He eventually finished in a time of 23h:25m. Unreal. Throughout the morning we occasionally saw the rest of the top few runners, and then after lunch the leaders of the 80 and 53km races started coming by, quickly turning into a solid flow of some 1600 runners who we were constantly stepping out of the way for. 20km and 7 hours after we saw the leader, we saw the last few runners, a group of four 160km athletes who were in a world of pain with 35km still to go. I hope they made it! We walked 24km ourselves, arriving at a nice big hut and enjoying some more cards, chocolate and fire-building antics.
After a big day we were pretty sore, but we got going early again, keen to reach Oulanka Visitor Centre in time to replenish our food supply and get some info. After stopping at a few impressive landmarks along the river (which is in flood due to snow melt), we made it with an hour to spare. The range of food was less impressive than we had hoped, so we splurged on the ‘lunch special’ without even asking what it was. Our bowls of reindeer soup were interesting, but we were hungry enough not to care.
We walked another 5km in the evening, pitching our tent at a campfire site and falling asleep super early (around 7pm). I then woke at around midnight with a bad stomach (probably from drinking river water, hopefully not the reindeer), and stumbled out into the light snowfall in boots and undies. I felt awful, and managed to fall over 3 times on the 50m walk to the toilet. The last time I think I was lying on the ground for a minute or two totally out of it, but I managed to get up and get the door open. It was a smelly and uncomfortable night. I also managed to flare up a nerve problem in my neck, so as we packed up in the morning I was making myself generally useless. We decided to head back to the visitor centre instead of attempting the 15km hike to the point where we were intending to catch a bus the next morning.
Once back at the centre, we asked about buses, but there wouldn’t be one until the next day. We checked with our Airbnb host if we could arrive a night early, and when he said yes we decided to try hitchhiking again. Tanya asked a few people in the carpark, and then eventually managed to convince a couple of teachers to find room for us on one of their two coaches packed full of teenagers. That got us back to Ruka, where we hung out in the school staff room while waiting for the school bus to Kuusamo. We got chatting with the English teacher, who was about to head home to Kuusamo for the day. She was happy to take us. She ended up being a pretty cool lady, and was celebrating both her 63rd birthday and her final week before retirement.
Those pieces of good fortune mean that we’ve been able to spend a few days resting in Kuusamo (Tanya also got the stomach bug later that night). It’s still snowing, even though summer starts today. Our next move is still up in the air, but we will tell you what we ended up doing next time we have a story to share.
T & T