Pöyrisjoki and Ounasjoki watershed
Pöyrisjoki river is often listed as one of the four great wilderness rivers of Finland. Like the rest of the great wilderness rivers (Lätäseno, Näätämö and Ivalojoki rivers) the Pöyrisjoki in situated in Lapland high over the Arctic Circle as that’s where’s most of Finland’s wilderness and free-flowing rivers are. The Pöyrisjoki river flows South from Pöyrisjärvi lake through the Pöyrisjärvi wilderness area to Vuontisjärvi lake and later joins the Ounasjoki river. The Pöyrisjoki river is about 60km long (some references state the river being 43km in length but the 60km is closer to reality) and drops over 110 meters on the way with rapids ranging from class 1- to class 4. It was the destination of my main trip of the summer.
Vuontisjärvi lake, the end of Pöyrisjoki river.
If you’re interested in the Ounasjoki watershed, there is a great information page about it at www.ounasjoki.fi. Unfortunately it’s in Finnish only but the map with white water classifications is very informative and you can easily translate the short descriptions of rivers and rapids. Please note that even though there are GPS coordinates for each rapid we didn’t find them completely accurate so normal caution is still needed when traveling on rivers.
Proksinkurkkio (class 2), one of the many shallow and rocky rapids.
After packrafting the spectacular Valtijoki-Poroeno-Lätäseno continuum in 2011 and not having done much packrafting in 2012 (but still some) I was looking for a proper wilderness packrafting trip for this summer. A friend, fellow wilderness guide and generally awesome outdoor’s guy Antti was also getting a packraft this year so we decided to do a trip together. After some planning Pöyrisjoki was chosen as the destination but unfortunately Antti was too busy in early summer for us to raft it in the spring flood so we had to go in late July and just hope for enough water…
Because of schedule restraints a fast (and lightish) approach for the trip seemed appropriate as we had four days for the 140+km round trip. The plan was quite simple:
- drive to the end of the paddling section (Vuontisjärvi), a very long drive from the South
- bike from Vuontisjärvi to the end of the road (Näkkälä), 60km
- hike from Näkkälä to the lake (Pöyrisjärvi lake), 20+km
- paddle the river from the lake to the car, 60km
Ugly but illustrative. Grey = bike, green = hike, blue = paddle.
After paddling we’d pick up the bikes with the car. The Pöyrisjärvi wilderness area would make also great bikepacking but because we had little tight schedule we decided to bike on the road to save some time and as we didn’t want to paddle big white water with bikes on the packrafts we leaved them at the end of the road. But interesting options exist for the interested and skilled.
Day 0 – Very early start
One of the schedule restraints was that I was working for the weekend prior the trip. This meant I had to pack a couple of days in advance and travel with extra luggage, especially as the forecast was on the wet and cold side. As my work ended around 2.00 a.m. on Sunday morning Antti came to pick me up and we headed North. I mostly slept the first half of the long drive to North and Antti also had to take a longish nap to stay awake which lead us arriving to Vuontisjärvi quite late in the evening despite our early start.
As it was late and we needed to sort the kit one more time, we decided to spend the night at Vuontisjärvi. The river flows down to the lake Vuontisjärvi by a little public beach and there is a rental sauna and an open “kota” shelter that we happily utilized. Gear was tweaked and packrafts tested. I was especially interested to test the new Anfibio Thigh Straps I had installed just before the trip and hadn’t tested them yet. They were awesome! (More on them later as a separate post…)
The evening was relatively cool and mosquitoes very few so we slept really well in the shelter.
Day 1 – Hard biking and great walking
The morning was beautiful: sunny and warm. I was slightly worried about biking with a 20kg backpack so I strapped the packraft to the handlebars and paddle to the frame to lighten my load. After this my HMG Expedition felt actually quite good. I was even more worried about Antti’s backpack: he had quite a lot of kit stuffed in and strapped around his 40 liter Hiko Trek Backpack. But as Antti’s backpack for an approach hike of a climbing & skiing trip to Kebnekaise the last autumn had got the better of a 40kg scale – before adding telemark boots and skis on top of it – I was convinced he knew what he was doing…
After gathering the wind blow river notes from all over the beach we started pedaling. We were both riding slightly too small 26″ MTBs sporting a clip-in pedals, and we were having trail runners. But it was all good and we were eager to get going.
After the first 20km of biking we arrived to the town of Hetta and had a break at the local bakery. Antti was starting to feel his saddle little too well so we tried to cushion it with my PFD.
After turning towards North we had a thickening cloud cover,headwind and something that felt like a constant uphill… Clouds and wind were welcome to keep us cool but headwind and uphill neglected the effect quite well.
The seat cushioning didn’t work out too well and to save Antti’s ass we improvised a rack from paddle and straps to take some of the weight. It worked surprisingly well but failed couple of times towards the end scattering the kit on the road side…
After some reindeer dodging we arrived to the end of the road at Näkkälä. We chained the bikes into a tree, had lunch, repacked our rucksacks once again and headed towards the hills. It was still cloudy with a breeze and little on the cool side. No bugs. Walking was great and we decided to take a high route on the hill tops instead of following the ATV trail.
Once off trail and on the hills there was a real sense of wilderness and adventure, especially as we didn’t have any maps with us. (Yes, yes, it’s bad. Don’t do it.) But navigation on the hills was easy, and we had a GPS as a back-up. There were ripe cloudberries, a Golden Eagle soaring above the horizon, heards of reindeers and good scenery. Some of the best outdoors moments for me this summer.
Golden Eagle, first time I’ve seen one at Finnish fjells.
Reindeers, I’ve seen plenty of them on Finnish fjells.
Antti, you can meet him occasionally on the Finnish fjells.
From the top of Jierttisvaara we spotted a possible camp site by one of the little lakes (Jiertisrovanjärvi). As we descended down the cloud cover broke and sun started to shine. Swim, fishing and photography followed. In the camp the bugs started to get up to annoying levels but eased out a bit after the sun set and air got little cooler.
Day 2 – The beauty of lake Pöyrisjärvi
The next morning was hot! The clouds and breeze were gone and sun was blasting from a clear blue sky. A morning swim was needed and breakfast was had walking in circles (to keep the bugs away from you mouth) instead of sitting in the now sauna-like tent. We packed up and headed to the ATV trail as we wanted to check the open wilderness hut by the lake. We knew the trail would take us there so we didn’t need to use the GPS.
The ATV trail was an ATV trail but still quite a nice one as the tyres had broken the surface soil and revealed the fine sand. We walked barefooted all the way to the wilderness hut enjoying the fine soft sand and occasional easy water crossing.
At the hut we had lunch and checked the likely launching site for packrafting: A perfect shallow and long sandy beach! As the lake was mirror calm, sun blasting and water in the shore was relatively warm (+15C?) we didn’t bother to start paddling quite yet but continued the barefoot walking at the water’s edge towing our gear in packrafts. There weren’t even bugs to bother us!
Even though the conditions at the time were heavenly we had a grim reminder that it’s not always the case: A boat with police officer and specially trained dog was out on the lake searching for a body of a man drowned in a storm a week earlier. A group of four man had gone to the lake with a boat in stormy weather and capsized. Two younger man had been wearing PFDs and managed to swim ashore but two older men had drowned. A serious reminder that one should always respect the water and the weather.
All good things come to an end and so did our beach walk. We jumped into our boats and started paddling towards the Eastern corner of the lake and the river. Going was good and according to the GPS we were paddling around 4km/h with little help from a gentle backwind. Once at the river we found another perfect beach (which would’ve also made an awesome camp site). We took a swim and spent some time admiring the grayling swimming in the river. The fish were not in a mood for catching Antti’s lures so we set our packrafts on the river and started paddling.
Quite soon we arrived to the first rapid, a class 1- Laulunivat. Easy in a way but rocky and shallow. After some paddling the 1+ Suomaniva followed. Again rocky and shallow. Then a long flat section followed. But paddling the flat felt actually quite good. But mentally I had been prepared for faster and more splashy going. We were happy that we hadn’t done the dry suits as we were toasting even in our normal clothing.
Good camp sites were scarce along the river but there was a nice little meadow at Proksinkurkkio. We pitched tent and changed into our Ursuk MPS dry suits as Antti wanted to test his packraft in the class 2 Proksinkurkkio.
There started to be a very unpleasant amount of mosquitoes, black flies and no-see-ums so we paddled down the rapid with head nets on… The rapid was quite long but again very rocky and shallow. It was easy run but as avoiding all the rocks was impossible it was also little frustrating: No matter what ninja moves you pulled, you’d hit a rock more often than not.
After the rapid we did some more testing with the Alpacka Gravity Grip and Anfibio Thigh Straps. Both enable incredible control compared to unrigged packraft making bracing actually possible and useful. We also tested wet exits and found them easy as always.
The paddle is not in the bottom. Antti testing bracing with the Gravity Grip.
Antti testing wet exit with Gravity Grip.
But as the rapid wasn’t very inspiring we returned back to camp after the run. Antti was dying for some fishing (he hadn’t caught any yet) and while he went back to the rapid I wandered around the camp eating cloudberries and picking some mushrooms (Leccinum versipelle) for a side dish. As long as I maintained a good pace the bugs stayed behind my back and I managed without a head net.
Antti had luck with the graylings and so we had two dinners: first a full pot of couscous and then fried mushrooms and grayling. This was welcome as we had found our standard dinner a little too small. After the dinner it was well past midnight and time to sleep. Even though the day had been hot it cooled down quickly in the evening.
Day 3 – A boring river
The wake up on the third day was one of the most unpleasant I’ve ever had while camping.
I woke around 6.00 a.m. with very dry mouth and feeling little weird. The sun was hammering out tent from the clear blue sky again and it was quite hot so I thought that to be the reason. Few minutes later I felt very nauseous and had to bolt out from the tent to vomit. Not the most pleasant of wake ups, specially with the hordes of bugs eating you alive at the same time! After emptying my stomach I had some water and went back to the shelter of our tent. I was still feeling sick and soon had to go out again.
All sorts of thoughts were going around my head: A food poisoning in the middle of nowhere? I was very sure of the mushrooms I had picked but what if I was wrong? Would this be the end of the trip? What would be the best way to get myself out from here? Float down? Walk out? Call a pick up?
After some time Antti woke up as it was too hot to actually sleep in the tent. I told him the situation and that I needed some time to recover before being able to continue. Antti was feeling okay and decided to go fishing while waiting. After couple of hours of carefully hydrating and resting I was starting to feel better and we had breakfast, broke the camp and continued down the river with the hordes of bugs following our packrafts. I was still feeling little week and let Antti lead the way.
Note: I’m very positive I picked the right mushrooms, but… Most or all of the mushrooms of the Leccinum family require thorough cooking to be edible. This is something I knew even at the time and I thought we had done it right but apparently we hadn’t. I got, in my opinion, quite a strong reaction but Antti had just a slightly upset stomach. But even a mild case of food poisoning can be dangerous, especially in the backcountry. So, always be carefull with mushrooms and remember to cook them in a proper way!
There were some technically easy but again very shallow and rocky rapids to navigate. Occasionally they were fun but quite often they started to feel just like work: avoiding all the rocks was impossible and sometimes pushing with paddle and hands was required to get over rocky ledges. But we still run every meter in the packrafts. There were also long stretches of flat water that were not very entertaining, especially as it was a hot day, we had plenty of bugs and I was still feeling weak after the mushroom episode…
Rocky and shallow at its worst.
Late in the afternoon we passed by some cottages and meet the only person on the way from Pöyrisjärvi to Vuontisjärvi. The older local lady was spending time at the cottage and picking cloudberries. We had a little chat floating by ans she said that the water level was about 0,5 meters higher than usually as the summer head been very rainy. We were very happy for the rains as with half-a-meter lower water level we would’ve had to walk down most of the rapids.
It’s a paradise for Grayling fishers!
We paddled some more flat sections and couple of easy class 1 sections, of which Purnunkoski and Lumikoski had adequate water level to be actually fun and not just plain rocky. We camped at the mouth of the Lumikoski. I pitched tent, took a swim and sheltered myself from the bugs inside the tent continuing the re-hydration process. Antti went to do some more fishing and prepared the dinner. This time it didn’t include mushrooms!
Day 4 – The best bits saved last
As our camp spot was shaded by the brich we were able to sleep long despite the merciless sun and also enjoyed the breakfast in the tent sheltered from the bugs. We had high expectations for the last day as there was bigger and more difficult white water to come! We were both feeling good and the morale was high despite having a longish lake-like section to cross.
The “lake” turned out to be very shallow and dotted with small islets and vegetation with occasional views to the hills so it was actually very nice. I noticed I had forgotten my sunglasses at the camp but as we had been coming down stream for an hour, I decided to manage without instead of the laborious upstream paddling or bushwhacking up and down the river banks.
The faster section started with the normal shallow and rocky stuff. Safe and relatively easy with a packraft but not very rewarding boating. The class 2+ (3) Pahtakoski started to be already proper fun: enough water not to hit the rocks all the time and some big waves and little drops/slides.
The lower (and the better) half of Pahtakoski (2+).
Pahtakoski (2+) from a different perspective.
After Pahtakoski we arrived to the main course of the day: the Kuirinkurkkio rapid (4-). The rapid starts with a short fast flowing slide with some waves next to a bit of undercut rock (class 3). Then follows a calm pool section followed with two options: left branch is a narrow but pretty straight forward swift run (class 3+) and the right branch is a proper 1,5 meter rocky drop with a bit of hydraulics (class 4). We scouted the rapid and were little intimidated by a broken canoe in the forest after the last drop.
A warning sign?
But despite the canoe we felt confident and decided to first run the thing. While one was paddling, the other one was providing safety from the shore with the Anfibio Throwbags, and the camera! The upper part turned out to be easy and fun, but short.
The upper part of Kuirinkurkkio (3).
Then we proceeded to run the lower left branch which was again fun and fast but also short and quite shallow (basically just a water slide) on places. Not much options there: just avoid hitting the rock wall on the right and enjoy the slide.
The start of the lower left channel of Kuirinkurkkio (3+).
I wanted to try also the bigger drop and as I managed just fine Antti soon followed and we run the drop some six times all together trying different lines and styles. The Kuirinkurkkio would be very demanding, if not impossible, for long vessels. But for a short white water kayak or packraft it is a good run – as long as you know what you are doing!
The lower right channel of Kuirinkurkkio (class 4).
More of the good stuff…
…and some more.
After lunch by the rapid it was time to continue. The class 2 Kirkkokurkkio has some nasty undercuts but with packrafts and the flow we had it wasn’t really a problem. We were little lazy and didn’t bother to scout it by foot but run from eddie to eddie scouting a section at a time from the boats. Same followed at Laakakurkkio (2+). The drop and hydraulics mentioned in the river notes were not bad at all with the flow we had. The rest of the rapids were again shallow and rocky but this time also quite fast and long. They would make great boating with higher water level.
The start or Kirkkokurkkio (class 2). Later there is a big undercut rock wall on the right.
More rocky, splashy and shallow stuff.
After the second to last rapid we had two options: either to paddle couple of kilometers of mostly flat river or pack the rafts, bushwhack to a nearby trail and walk to the car. We decided to boat all the way. The boating wasn’t actually too bad. Going was laborious, as flat water with packraft tends to be, but the spirits were high and we were almost done.
With thunder roaring in the distance a big sandy ridge with the familiar tree silhouette appeared and we arrived at the beach. We enjoyed the warm drinks reserved at the car and felt good. 140+km in little over three days.
Quite soon Antti left to get the bikes, I spread our gear drying in the sun and started to walk from house to house in search for the key to the rental sauna… Finding the key proved little difficult but the friendly locals helped and we happily paid a whole three euros per person for the sauna! Th only little set back was the rain that arrived when I was heating up the sauna – with all the gear spread around the beach…
I had requested Antti to visit the grocery on the way and the evening was spent with sauna, grilled sausages and some more beers. The last night in the shelter turned out to be the worst of the trip (save for the wake up of the day number three): the shelter was hot after the warm days and us having a fire going, mosquitoes were plenty and hungry and the night was restless…
Next morning an early start was required for Antti to pick her girlfriend from airport and for me to catch Mark Roberts of Backpacking North for a Brovernigther but that’s a different story…
Note on the water level
There is no official water level or flow measurements from Pöyrisjoki but if you’re planning a trip to Pöyrisjoki the measurements from Ounasjärvi (a lake draining to Ounasjoki above the Pöyrisjoki) and Ketomella in Ounasjoki (downstream from Pöyrisjoki) might be helpful. During our trip the water level at Ounasjärvi was around 287,1m (discharge 3,5 m^3/s) and at Ketomella 261,9m (flow 25 m^3/s).
The long flat water sections are paddlable around the year at any water level but as the rapids are shallow and rocky, I think majority of them would be not be paddlable with lower water level or at least they wouldn’t be any fun. On the other hand, we found all the rapids expect Kuirinkurkkio to be easy with this water level (and Kuirinkurkkio wasn’t difficult either, just exciting) but with higher water level the nature of the rapids may change dramatically and they may become difficult and even dangerous.
If planning a trip with canoe, kayak or some other boat the special characteristics of packraft are also worth noting: Packrafts are very agile, don’t need much water and are very stable which makes constant rock contacts more irritating than dangerous. For a longer vessel the flat sections will be more fun but the rapids will be more challenging or even impossible.
I hope to return to Pöyrisjoki one day, but probably only for the lower half (as packraft enables hiking in were ever you want to) – and definitely during the spring flood!
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As usually, more photos in my gallery.