As the darkness of autumn approaches, I occasionally find myself reminiscing about the canoe trip I took with a friend last summer. There was abundant sunshine, blue skies, and warmth on our trip. Here, I like to shed some of this sunshine and warmth with a few pictures and words about my canoeing adventure to brighten the autumn for others.
In August, my outdoor buddy and I planned to go on our traditional hiking trip to Norwegian Lapland, close to Kilpisjärvi in the Northwestern corner of Finland, as we had done for the past seven years. However, due to circumstances beyond our control, we had to change our destination from Lapland to something else with just one day’s notice, as we couldn’t alter our schedules any further, and it was not easy. Luckily, we discovered an intriguing canoe route along the Koitajoki River in Ilomantsi in eastern Finland, close to the Russian border and decided to embark on that journey instead. Our starting point held a historical significance; it was near a location (and a memorial) where the Russian soldiers had attacked Finland and tried to break through during the Winter War. However, they never succeeded due to our strong resistance. Before setting off, we stood silently by the memorial for a long time, contemplating how much we all owed to our war veterans.
However, when we pushed the canoe into the water, the weather was beautiful, and our spirits were high. The route began at Lake Mekrijärvi, and the Koitajoki River meandered like a long snake until it reaches Lake Koiterejärvi. I’ve paddled many rivers before, but never one like this. Throughout dozens and dozens of kilometers, the river was surrounded by vast marshlands. Often, the river felt more like a ribbon of various lakes, filled with mazes, small peninsulas, lagoons, and islands, than a river. Now and then, the river’s wider sections, which I call the “lakes,” were so large that they almost hindered us from finding the right path. However, the river’s “islands” were not islands but clumps of reeds surrounded by water. Whenever we attempted to disembark for a break, our feet would get wet almost immediately. Some of these “islands” had a bit of solid ground, with small bushes and even small trees, but landing there was challenging. Once, we managed to land on one such island, and it felt like entering an impenetrable mangrove forest, with water everywhere here too. However, we found a small, approximately 10-square-meter patch of dry, level ground and took a short break there, that is an hour-long nap.
When we woke up and stood up, suddenly, not far behind us, there echoed a loud series of 10-15 shots, scaring the living daylight out of us. We had learned that a bear hunt had started in the area the previous day, and we thought, “What if we’re in the line of fire?” However, with the new shots, we recognised them as the sound of shotguns. Nevertheless, we had no interest in getting accidentally hit by shotguns either, so we hastily resumed our journey, paddling vigorously to the sound of the shots fired behind us.
Throughout our journey, we thought the river landscapes were beautiful, perhaps even more beautiful with each passing day. Along the way, there were several well-maintained rest and grill spots with firewood ready for us, and we stayed and spent the night in these places. We even spent our first night in a grill hut. Though in hindsight, I can say that if the nights are cold, as they were here, sleeping in the grill hut was like sleeping in a refrigerator. We had to get up several times throughout the night to relight the fire.
Nevertheless, it is good that these spots exist, and even better if you can find them, because everywhere else, making fires was prohibited. We once accidentally passed one when the evening had already turned dark. Despite the swamps and river currents, we also found a few nice swimming spots. Of course, we had to search a bit, but as they say, “Seek, and you shall find.”
The water surface was generally calm on the “lakes” within the river. However, in the narrower parts of the river (which were still quite broad), the river’s current was occasionally quite strong, and we saw many underwater whirlpools, some quite large. At times, the powerful underwater currents tilted the river markers almost horizontally. In such places, it often crossed our minds that it maybe wasn’t a very good idea to go swimming right there. It could very well be the last swimming trip. In the river’s current sections, the canoe picked up quite a speed, and if we paddled a bit on top of that, we moved even faster. However, all in all, the river route was completely safe. There were no major, intimidating rapids or dangerous areas. There was one slightly faster rapid along the way, but even that could be safely passed along an old log driving channel with the canoe. Right at this point (probably intentionally), there was a pier and a grill hut, so we went ashore, made coffee, and admired the magnificent river rapid landscape in front of us. In the evening, we set up our tent slightly off the side.
On the second-to-last day, the river led us to a large lake. Now, I’m not anymore talking about the large, wide spots in the river, but an actual large lake. We were in the middle of the lake when we noticed treetops above the surface. It was a slightly strange feeling as we paddled between the treetops. In the middle of the lake, the phone networks from both of our network providers disappeared. With a little more fog and darkness, it would likely have felt a little like out of an Edgar Allan Poe horror story. It was nice that the sun was still shining at that moment. We concluded that this was probably the beginning of an artificial lake, even though the actual, larger artificial lake marked on the map was still ahead.
From this point on, accompanied by river stretches, the lakes’ sizes started to grow. Now, we had to be precise in our navigation to ensure we didn’t head in the wrong direction, as the lakes already opened up in various directions into different water routes. We realised we were starting to approach Lake Koiterejärvi, a massive lake with a hundred islands. We spent our last night on the tip of a beautiful peninsula before heading into the final leg of our trip towards Koiterejärvi. When we finally arrived at Koiterejärvi and began paddling on it, we realised it truly was a big lake; sometimes, at least sitting in the canoe, it was even difficult to see the opposite shore in some directions. Here, you wouldn’t want to head in the wrong direction accidentally. We had to cross a large open expanse in strong wind and quite a bit of waves. We were perfectly safe with our life jackets on, but the canoe didn’t seem to move forward, no matter how hard we paddled. After paddling at full speed for 1.5 hours non-stop (we couldn’t stop due to the waves), we finally reached shelter behind an island. From this point onward, it got easier, as the wind direction no longer hit us as strongly after we passed the island. A couple of hours later, we reached our destination at the end of our journey.
Every day of our trip, the sun shone from a clear blue sky, and it was warm. A slight mist often rose from the river in the evenings, creating a beautiful sight on the calm water surface. Although the nights were cold, as soon as the sun rose, the air warmed up quickly. We spent four days on the river. We encountered no other paddlers at the rest stops or elsewhere, so we had peace and quiet throughout the journey. After our canoe trip ended, we headed to my friend’s summer cottage by Lake Keitele, a large 85-kilometre-long (500 square kilometers) lake in Central Finland, where we saunaed, grilled, and enjoyed a couple of beers.
If you enjoy canoeing, I wholeheartedly recommend Iisalmi. Whether you want to go on a two-day paddling trip or a week-long adventure, the area offers beautifully tailored water routes for every preference. If you want to make things easier, I recommend you contact a local company called Koihu Adventures. They provide advice, trip ideas, route maps, and canoe rental for a small fee. Our car was safely parked in their yard throughout the trip, and they transported us with the canoe to the starting point and picked us up at the end of the journey. It truly was a fantastic journey once again!