Day 1 / 7 km. Rolling with the iron rooster.
This was technically the first day of Fall Dirt 13. Despite the fact that I only rode seven kilometers. From the garage to the railway station that is. Yes, I took the train with the bike along with me. I was happy with this plan, as it gave me the opportunity to visit the arctic for the third time this year. Also, now that I was all by myself, I could hit some of the trails more suitable for lighter bikes.I arrived early at the car loading area and checked in. They let me ride right into the upper level of the double decker transportation car. The railway crew was super friendly and there was a jovial mood as they instructed me how to tie down the war horse. I ended up tying the front end from the top tubes and the tail from the luggage racks. It was bomb proof.
I took what I needed for the thirteen hour train ride and walked back to the railway station in Pasila. It would be another hour before the train arrived from Helsinki to Pasila. I tried to find some food unsuccessfully and ended up sitting on the platform, eating carrots in my riding gear. I was a pretty strange sight, I’m sure.
Once on board the train, I slipped into my sleeper cabin. I was happy to get my MX boots off and decided to lie down just for a second. I woke up over four hours later with the train well under way. I toyed with the idea of venturing into the restaurant car for a glass of wine but couldn’t be bothered. I tried to get some sleep but ended up tossing and turning restlessly. I was too excited about the four four day ride ahead of me to sleep. There was a specific trail that I wanted to ride, but it involved two boggy river crossings. Trying to assess the risks involved in riding it solo resulted in an endless mental tug of war.
Day 2 / 529 km. Long awaited crossings.
I woke up to my alarm at 0650. The countryside outside was passing by my window in darkness. I noted with with pleasure that all of the foliage had not yet fallen. The dark tones of pine and fir back dropped the cheerful yellows of the last birches, till clinging to their summer outfit. Where the leaves had fallen, the roadsides were yellow, red and orange. Wetlands were clad in earthy tones of rust and subtle yellows. Also displayed in a dark backdrop of dark browns and lush greens.
It was getting close to the arrival time so I washed and kitted up. Promptly at 0750 my the train eased off to a halt at the Rovaniemi railway station. Picking up my gear I exited the train and headed back for the car unloading area. Everything went without fuss and once again the staff was incredibly friendly. Before too long I was out of the train with coffee and fuel on my mind.
I pulled over to the first petrol station and filled all five fuel containers I had to the brim. As I was alone, I was carrying some extra fuel. In addition to the 12 liter main tank and 4.5 liter Rally Raid rear tank I was carrying a five liter plastic canister and two one liter aluminium bottle. A total of 23.5 liters of fuel on the bike. After a quick coffee and a tyre pressure check, I took off at 0850.
The bike felt strange. All the weight of the fuel in the back was making the front feel very light and nervous. I was armed with MX tyres for this trip, which added to the nervousness of the front on tarmac. I pulled over and dropped tyre pressures to 1.5 bar in the front and 1.6 bar in the back. I also shifted the aluminium bottles from the back pockets of the Magadan panniers into the front pockets. The bike felt better immediately. The only irritation was the five liter canister sitting very high and very far in the back of the bike. Luckily, according to my plans, the canister would be empty for most of the trip. But not today.
The ride from Rovaniemi to Kemijärvi involved tarmac in each end with nice gravel roads in between. I ended up adding layer after layer of clothing but couldn’t seem to get warm. The thick glove layers were making the riding feel a little sketchy. After passing Kemijärvi I hit gravel again. The magical scenery of Lapland was truly magical. I even caught a glimpse of the sun just after midday. It was very low. It was such a contrast to the days of endless sunshine three months ago. Now everything was preparing for the long dark of winter.
At this point I was dying for a cup of coffee but decided to wing it until Savukoski. That was be the last opportunity to get fuel for a while so I filled up to the brim and went inside the petrol station for a cup of coffee. I also asked some locals abut water levels, which they told me were low. This was good news, as it had a crucial effect on the odds of me making it over the river crossings. Having said that they immediately got into telling horror stories of people getting stuck and injured on the trail in question. My worst case scenario was stalling the bike in the middle of the river and taking a fall and drowning the engine in the process. I was getting more and more convinced that I would not make it across but decided to go and have a look anyway. I’d make a decision at Kuttusoja, which apparently was the worse one.
Arriving at the crossing in Kuttusoja I almost laughed out loud. Apparently all the videos and horror stories had grown in my mind. I found a nice underwater sand bank between two banks of wet turf. There was not even a drop into the river and no more that 30 cm of water. I crossed it without incident. Elated, I whacked the throttle and went skidding all over the wonderful soft sand trail that followed. Sporting an idiotic grin I rode on.
The Dunlop Geomax MX-71 I had at the rear was working very well. I found it to be a very predictable tyre with consistent characteristics. Compared to the TKC-80 and Enduro-3 I had had before, the MX-71 gave much smoother wheel spin grip. I found it quite enjoyable to power slide out of corners. I would have never had the confidence for this with the previous tyres. Unfortunately the Michelin AC-10 in the front was still all over the place. I could feel the heavy fuel canister doing its’ tricks in the back and giving me a hard time. It was rocking the bike from side to side in the power slides. I would definitely have to rethink the fuel issue.
The old Kemihaara trail I was on follows the Kemi river. It snakes north with several streams joining into it. Some of them have bridges and some are almost too narrow to notice. However there was one bigger one left; Uuraoja. When I arrived at its’ bank I knew that it would be the last obstacle on this trail. It was a lot more serious than Kuttusoja, which I crossed earlier. Uuraoja had steeper clay banks on both sides with long deep ruts form previous crossings. Luckily the water was not deep. I scouted a nice sandy bottom and decided to take another route, away from the ruts. The banks were steeper and higher, but there would be less risk of getting stuck in the ruts. If I could get enough speed on the sandy bottom, I could power right over the bank.
I made my way through a short marsh to the river. I carefully steered the front over the lip of the bank and eased it into the river. Keeping my balance, I also dropped the tail into the river. The shallow sandy bottom felt solid but the other side looked a lot higher and steeper from the bottom of the river. This was it. I would have to make it out of the river. No use thinking about it, just decisive action and don’t stall the engine. I reved the engine and let the clutch out slowly to avoid wheel spin. Once I was off I gave it more gas and leaned back. Just before the other side I whacked the throttle and hit the bank. The front was light and the suspension compressed as the wheel went over the bank. I kept the throttle on and the rear followed with a roar. As soon as I was over I hit the rear brake as there was a fallen birch trunk just after the bank. I stopped just before it and sighed with relief. I was over. I had done it. I was happy.
After some victory shots I took off again, heading north. The riding was pure joy. To me the 690 had proved that it would deliver when commanded with confidence. My trusty war horse.
After a while I arrived at the empty Kemihaara cabins. I turned right and headed south east to Tulppio. I had read somewhere that there was a track from there to Tuntsa, where I was headed next. I explored two promising leads, which both ended up as dead ends. The first one just faded out in a forest and the second one took me to a swamp where I ended up getting stuck for a while. It was getting late and I had no idea where the swampy track was going so I doubled back and took the gravel roads to Tuntsa. It was a longer but quicker route.
On the way to Tuntsa I was stopped by fellow in an SUV. He was lost and wanted to get to Naruskantie. I was headed that way and told him to follow me and I’d point him the right direction. When we got there I gave him some last instructions and, after wishing him a nice weekend, sent him on his way. I turned left and headed north towards Tuntsa. On my way there, I was met by oncoming traffic. Several quads and 4X4:s. I wondered where they were coming from and continued to Nuoluskuru. I arrived at the wilderness hut in Nuoluskuru and started to unpack the bike as I would spend the night there. Apparently the guys I met on the way had left from here as there was still a fire going. I added some wood to it and roasted sausages. There was no cell phone coverage. The wilderness was quiet.
Day 3 / 504 km. New friends and wet trails.
I woke up at 0700 and relit the fire for heat and lighting. These classical wilderness habitats are very dark as there is only one small window on the door. It was getting light outside while I boiled some water with my MSR Pocket Rocket. That stove and the discontinued MSR Soloist pan set are probably one of the best pieces of equipment one can carry. Just remember to put the gas cartridge into your sleeping bag in cold bivouacs.
After sipping some instant coffee and packing my stuff, I was ready to take off to the Nuolusoiva circuit. I had read about this interesting trail on another forum and decided to have a look. I was a little concerned with fuel as I had gone to reserve ten kilometers before stopping for the night yesterday. I still had the extra seven liters of fuel that I poured into the main tank. If I wasn’t too heavy on the throttle, that would give me a range of 140 km plus another 50 km from the reserve. The 190 km would be enough to do the circuit and still make it to Salla to refuel. Additionally, there was still the odd chance that I could score some fuel with one of the local residents. I had unsuccessfully tried to make arrangements during the previous week.
The Nuolusoiva trail was beautiful. It had two or three river crossings which kept the riding interesting. Other than that there were no technical difficulties. Not that the crossings were difficult either. The both had shallow banks and a hard rocky bottom with low water levels. Essentially a nice gravel road in wonderful scenery. I was happy to have the five liter canister now empty. The bike felt a lot more balanced and predictable. All good thing come to an end and the circuit was done all too quickly. All in all I had expected the trails in Tuntsa to be more challenging. That was the impression I got from the Finnish forums. The trails were nice but, on a KTM 690, not exactly challenging. Good fun though.
Riding back towards Salla, I was met by the same group of hunters as on the previous evening. Lots of quads and 4×4:s. I decided to visit Naruskan Retkeilymaja, in case they had fuel. They have received rave reviews on the forums and I was eager to check the place out. Arriving there, the place was busy. A group of hunters had just finished breakfast and were ready to hit the trails. It almost felt like a cheerful guerrilla camp or something. I found the friendly owner, Kari “Ukka” Santala, and asked if he had coffee and/or fuel. He said he had both and immediately asked me to sit down and help myself to the breakfast buffet. In the meanwhile he went to make another pot of coffee. I was grateful for the warmth and the coffee as I had gotten a little chilly on the morning ride. I had a chat with Kari and was convinced that this would be a very nice place to stay, should I be here for a longer time. A nice enduro camp perhaps. The are has several options for other activities too and Kari can arrange transport. I was taken aback with the genuine friendliness that filled the house. Naruskan Retkeilymaja definitely has earned its’ place on the highly recommended list.
After refilling, armed with 18.5 liters of fuel, I paid up and thanked the owner. I now had the chance to have a look at Karhutunturi or Bear Fell in English. The ride up it was nice. A dirt track snaking up the eastern side getting progressively rockier. The views were great and I finally had some cell phone coverage. No one had missed me.
The views were magnificent and reluctantly I descended back to the river. I decided to take one more detour before my ride towards the south. I had devised a route that was not exactly bomb proof and was curious to see whether it would let me leave the clutches of the Tuntsa wilderness. In the end my route connected with a bigger road further south. Feeling a little melancholic I left the wilderness of the north behind and headed south. I was already very far behind in my schedule and needed to get a move on. I was headed for Kuusamo on dirt roads and I had never been on these.
The highlight of the trails to Kuusamo was a no access sign accompanied by another sign stating that the bridge was dismantled. True enough, only a few concrete blocks lay as evidence of a bridge ever having stood there. I got off the bike and had a look around. The section where the bridge had stood was impassable as the band were steep and the water deep. However, ten meters downstream I found some quad tracks and a shallow crossing. There were also some deep 4×4 tracks in evidence of someone getting properly stuck here. This was where I had to cross so I got on the bike and rode to the edge of the turf.
I took care with the throttle. The surface was soft and an wheel spin would have shredded it, burying the rear up to the swing arm in no time. I got over the marsh and powered over the stream. Keeping the throttle on, I was quickly over the soft stuff on the other side and cleared the bank up to the road.
I was in a good mood, riding awesome tracks in beautiful scenery. Unfortunately just before Kuusamo came the rain. I was also getting low on fuel and energy. I decided to take a faster route to Kuusamo and did the last leg on tarmac. For some reason I always feel guilty about riding on tarmac.
In Kuusamo I stopped to refuel and have a very late lunch. Apparently there weren’t a lot of bikes around at this time of the year because I got a lot of quizzical looks while I kitted up and went back out into the rain. I got out of Kuusamo and made my way to a southbound dirt road. It was getting dark and the rain was increasing. As much as I love the 690, I must say that the headlight is truly pathetic. Not only it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to but it also hit my eyes when standing on the pegs. I have to put some shader on it or something to cut the light from spilling upwards. My visor was fogged from the inside and wet on the outside which didn’t make the riding any more enjoyable than the headlight.
It just kept raining and after two hours or so in the darkness I decided to call it quits. I had a look at the map and located a wilderness hut maybe twenty kilometers away. I decided that it would be my home for the night. Finding the footpath leading to the hut wasn’t exactly easy in the dark wet forest but I did in the end. I found a dark and empty cabin in the middle of the forest. It was a little creepy but I parked for the night and took in my gear. Luckily there was plenty of dry firewood and candles, and the warm presence of fire always buoys spirits. I was feeling very toasty amidst the wet riding gear I hung to dry. I wasn’t too hungry either so I just had some nuts and crawled into my sleeping bag.
Day 4 / 673 km. Various obstacles and unexpected shortcuts.
I woke up just before the break of dawn. I crawled out of my sleeping and lit some candles for light. It was still relatively warm in the cabin so I didn’t bother lighting a fire. I as amused at how much of a mess one person can make inside a small hut. Riding gear strewn everywhere to dry and everything else I had with me on benches and pegs. The gear was pretty grimy from the ride in the rain on gravel in the previous night. I just hadn’t noticed it in the darkness.
I brought some water to boil on my stove and made a cup of coffee. Holding the cup in my hands for heat, I stepped outside to have a look around and sniff the air. I always find it interesting to wake up in a place that you arrived in at night. It kind of already feels like home but you have no idea what’s waiting outside. The cabin was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was on a gentle slope, surrounded by a mixed forest. The slope gave to a marsh which obviously had some planked trekking paths. The air was saturated with water but the there was only a light drizzle. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to put on my rain jacket or not.
I was roughly 200 km north of where I was supposed to be, so I quickly finished my coffee and packed up. Once the bike was packed, I geared up and tidied up the cabin. It’s the code of the wild to leave any place you visit, in better condition that you found it. Well the place was in impeccable order when I got there, so I cleaned it up, stacked up fresh firewood and left a Rolling Hobo sticker for decoration. We were even.
I ended up putting on the rain jacket and took off. I remember riding down a slope on a footpath the previous night. It turned up to be a pretty slippery and rocky ride back up. Proper enduro. I was happy, as the rocky trail warmed me up. I really needed to move, to make it back home in two days. After about ten kilometers on gravel, I was back on my original route. The drizzle subsided and I was in a very good mood, making good progress on the nice gravel roads. There were some sections of tarmac in between, but I knew that I would have to ride some tarmac today to make it far enough south for the day.
After about 40 minutes of riding my good mood was about to be dented. I came to a river crossing, and the bridge was gone. I hopped off the bike to explore, but the water was deep and the banks high and steep. There was no way to cross here. I would have to double back eight kilometers and then find another route. I hate turning back. It’s humiliating and feels like defeat. That’s why I’d do pretty much anything to avoid turning back. I had crossed a railway 600 meters back. I checked my map and it connected with my route two kilometers south of the crossing. I rode back to the crossing to have a look. The railway looked pretty unused and there was just enough room to ride by the sleepers. I decided to take railway south.
I kept a watchful eye on the mirrors, as being caught up behind by a train was my worst case scenario. The railway was on a steep embankment. If I had to bail, I would end up into a bog at the bottom of it. Well, it was only two kilometres and there was no railway traffic. There was a different kind of problem though. All the previous railway crossing had been on a same level. Unfortunately the crossing, where I wanted to get back on the road, was on a bridge, ten meters above me. The walls leading to the bridge were vertical and there was no way to get up there. I checked my map, which showed another crossing further south. I did not want to turn back, so I kept riding for another two kilometers, before finding an exit. I felt relieved and made it back to my route, but I had lost a lot of time faffing about with the “shortcut”.
The roads were absolutely beautiful. I had come further south so all of the foliage had not fallen yet. Instead, it gave a cheerful yellow checkerboard effect to the roadside forest. The roadsides were covered with dry yellow leaves, giving it nice highlight. I wish I had had a riding partner to see the leaves swirling around in the wake of a bike.
After staying on the route for another forty kilometers, I decided it was time to move. I took a detour to tarmac and headed for Kuhmo, refueling on the way in Suomussalmi where we had stopped in the Arctic Dirt Tour 13. It was funny to be back there as everything looked so different from three months back. I had a quick coffee, before hopping back on the bike and heading towards Hyrynsalmi on tarmac. It was another thirty kilometers or so and after Hyrynsalmi I was back on the good stuff.
I was happy to be back on gravel. I was in one of the magical moods where everything seemed to click. It was probably the coffee, but I felt very confident. The roads were nice, with enough twisty stuff thrown over lots of hills and valleys to keep it interesting. These are the moments that deserve to be shared with friends, but I was equally happy sharing it with my 690.
I always love the feeling of progress on trips. A telltale sign of progress is the change of terrain over days of riding. As I said the foliage had partially moved back up to the trees, but also the terrain was different. Gone were the rocky roads on the fells of Lapland, and the vegetation built to endure the harshest of conditions. They were replaced by gentler roads on sandy hills, housing stout pines and bushes of blueberries. The sweeping views of the north were replaced by short glimpses between trees on hilltops.
The riding was as good as it gets and after about 60 km there was a little extra cherry on the cake. I stumbled upon a very large area with sand banks. I was in a military area and there were distinctive marks of tracked vehicles on them. It was open so I decided to have a look. I spent a quarter of an hour going up and down loose sand banks. The MX-71 gave surprisingly good traction, even with my bike fully loaded up for the trip.
After messing about in the sand banks I headed for Kuhmo and refueled at around 1100. After Kuhmo I rode another 20 km section of tarmac to catch up with my schedule. I was headed southeast as my intention was to ride down the eastern border. Three months ago I had ridden up the eastern border north of Kuhmo, but the border on the south side was new to me.
The eastern border was a nice ride. I like the presence of the warning signs and the remoteness. The roads are mainly for border patrols of the frontier guards, but I ran into none. It was a shame as they are usually a nice bunch to have a chat with.
I decided to stop in Lieksa to refuel and have lunch. It is impossible to ride down the eastern border there anyway as it is a protected area with lots of lakes and rivers. After lunch I headed back for the border and the scene just got more remote. It felt absolutely empty and void of human beings. Kind of eerie actually.
I had been careless with my route planning and my route would have taken me into restricted areas. I would have ended up in the border zone and I had no intention of finding out what that would have resulted in. Despite what I said earlier about my feelings concerning turning back, I’d take my chances with a train any day instead of banging heads with the government.
In the end I made it to Ilomantsi, which was my goal for the day. Despite the 550 km of riding, I still felt okay to continue. I think the sheer depressiveness of Ilomantsi was a key factor for the decision to keep pushing on. This was where my route turned southwest and it felt like the road home.
I really had no plan where to stay as I made my way in the last light of the day. The weather had improved and I was treated by a nice sunset. I rode the last leg in darkness, ending up in Kitee. I couldn’t find a wilderness hut nearby, so I opted for a hotel. Taking the first shower in three days was luxury. I thought about venturing into the bar for a drink, but couldn’t be bothered and dozed off.
Day 5 / 496 km. An abrupt finish.
I woke up early after sleeping restlessly. I packed up my stuff and waited for the breakfast buffet to open. When it did I had a quick bite and checked out. I didn’t have my helmet or plugs on when I started the engine. It made a racket. It sounded like the cam chain doing bad stuff. I felt the usual paranoia creeping in the back of my head. It had been gone for a long time and now it was back. It didn’t stay long though because the racket was actually from the registration plate. the bottom nylon bolts had become a little loose and the plate was rattling against the back plate. The paranoia was gone and I was happy again.<
After refueling I took off southwest and did a boring stretch on tarmac until Kesälahti. I had totally lost track of weekdays and passed the town while people were scurrying to work and kids slouching to school. I was pretty happy to be on the bike and was soon out of the town and on tarmac
The eastern border was incredibly scenic. I wondered what it had been like to live here during the cold war. Or right after the Second World War, when the border with the Soviet Union suddenly was a lot closer. It seemed to me that the fields were large, and houses had foundations of stone. Up north it had all been more or less wooden buildings.
I had a route planned out to take me back home on small gravel roads. When I arrived in Virolahti, where the border meets the Baltic Sea, I knew that the ride was over. I had now seen more or less the whole eastern border of Finland. I had done over two thousand kilometers in under four days, mostly on dirt or gravel. It was time to head home. So I slipped into a highway coma, and was back in my garage in two hours.