– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Category Archives: Wilderness Guide School

Done and to be done

It has been silent here for a long time. But I’m not dead. Sorry. 😉

I thought it would be good to brush some of the dust and cobwebs away and shortly tell what I’ve been up to and what I’m planning to do. And also to remind you that: the rivers are flooding, days are warm and sunny, mosquitoes are few and you should be out playing rather than reading this!

Excuses and explanations

During the last few weeks I’ve been quite busy with the Wilderness Guide School. Luckily in a positive way i.e. we’ve been a lot in the outdoors and I haven’t had an access to computer to blog. First we were on a white water raft skipper course at Jongunjoki, Ruunaa and Haapajoki rivers (all class 2 rivers in Eastern Finland).

The water on lake sections was still very white in early May.

But water was also available in liquid and quickly moving form.

And there was also mixture of liquid and solid water to play with…

Then we were kayaking and canoeing on Vaikkojoki (nice small river, good going with the flood, mostly class 1) and Kermankoski (not a river but a bigger class 2 rapid for doing white water stuff).

I managed to do also some packrafting! (Vaikkojoki, Myllykoski, class 2.) Pic by Jukka.

Swamping a canoe at Kermankoski (class 2). Airbags would have saved the day.

Kayaks don’t get swamped. I love those old Corsica kayaks! (J paddling one in the pic.)

And the last week we’ve been outdoors learning about geology, birds and plants. And this week we’ll be training and doing our exams on köysitoiminnanohjaaja (instructor for top rope climbing and rappelling) and melontaohjaaja (Paddling Instructor) so it’ll again be a busy week…

And when at the school I’ve preferred spending the evenings outdoors instead of blogging. I feel a bit quilty for this as I’ve promised to write about several things, and still hope to, but if I can choose between being outdoors or sitting behind a screen… It’s a no brainer! I’m lucky to have this chance to spend my time outdoors and I’m trying to use it as well as I can.

And during the previous weekends I’ve been packing and moving again (as I won’t have time to do it later this month). If I can choose between spending time outdoors and having an apartment… Well, it’s a lot harder but I’ve made my decision for the summer. I decided to be homeless for few months. An apartment would be nice to store all my gear and other stuff but luckily I can store them at my parents place and I can live in a tent…

This all means that I have to slightly reconsider my blogging. I like to write long and thorough trip reports and reviews but it seems that even more I like being outside on trips and putting the gear in use. This means that I’ll try to change my style a bit and write fewer words and instead use more photos. Have to see how it goes…

Future hiking plans

I’m planning to do a little speed hiking trip at the end of the month to see if I like it. Me and another guide student J plan to walk the 133km Karhunpolku trail in three days, meaning about 45km a day. It’s not especially long trail or fast pace but if I’ll get it done it will be the fastest hike I’ve ever done. I’ve been putting together a light kit list for this one and will later share it for comments and ideas.

Me after walking 105km in less than 24 hours last October. Hopefully the Karhunpolku will feel better…

about 45km a day. I’ve been putting together a light kit list for this one and will later share it for comments and ideas. In mid June I’m planning to do about two weeks hiking trip to North with my girlfriend N. At the moment the plan is to start from South-East part of Muotkatunturit wilderness, walk through the area to North-East and cross a road to Paistunturitwilderness areas and continue from there towards East and the next road.

This makes some 200+km of walking trough very nice and wild but gentle tundra and fjells. Should be a great trip – if the hordes of mosquitoes just stay at bay.

After the trip I have to do some work to get money to buy food and get back to wild place. But after the two weeks of work I might do a canoeing trip or maybe head to Northern Sweden to hike. Have to see how things turn out.

A little bonus trip report

And the third point of the post: Rivers are still flooding (at least in Eastern and Northern Finland), the days are already very warm and the are no bugs (well, not many anyway). So it’s great time to spend time outdoors! Especially paddling the little flooding rivers runnable only for few weeks each spring.

It doesn’t even take too much time. The last week I kayaked Kuuttijoki with my coursemate Huck. It is about 15km of little flooding river in Tohmajärvi municipality in Eastern Finland. The trip took about 6 hours all together: an hour of packing, about hour of driving there, three hours on the river and the drive back. The river was unfamiliar for us but with some beta we thought it would suite well for our skill level and should be easily doable in flood. And it was.

Unfortunately Huck had some family man and house owner duties to do and we were not able to start before 18:00 or so. We drove to village of Tuupovaara, checked the place where we would end up and left my car there. We checked the river from two bridges on the way to the starting point and noticed that the water level was high, as it was supposed to be. This was a good thing. We found our starting place, donned drysuits and head into the water.

One of the bridges from a different perspective.

The river was quite nice mixture of small lakes, calm sections and class 1 and 2 white water. The beta wasn’t very helpful with the high water levels but most of the rapids were easy and rocks well covered under water. Only harder part was at Kalliokoski (class 2-) where we intentionally chose the not-recommended right braid of the rapid (probably class 2) and I ended up back first into a sweeper (a tree hanging above the water) and swimming from there. After hitting my helmet to the rocks a couple of times I managed to get out of the kayak  and into a small eddy, emptied my kayak and got back to the business. So no problem but it serves as good reminder about not to be too confident in moving water!

A little drop and bridge not mentioned in the beta…

The rest of the river was nice and varying, on some parts there were a lot of summer houses but some parts were wilder. We saw numerous birds including two swans. And after the last 700m long rapid a beaver tried deport to us away from it’s nest by splashing the water loudly ahead of us. We left the next to be and paddled to the last lake a bit after sun set. It was a great ending for the trip.

The river was really nice and it was a bit pity that we were in such hurry (running out of daylight because of late start). And it’s not the only nice little river in the world. There are myriads of nice little rivers to paddle and this is the time of the year to do that. And also big rivers can be nice for those with the skills required, just read about two guys who had done a 100 km at Ounasjoki in 7 hours 37 minutes, thanks to the high flood. (The flow was 1250 cubic meters per second, we had about 6m^3/s at Kuuttijoki…) That’s epic!

Huck somewhere on the Kuuttijoki.

So, as a closure for this post: Remember to go out and enjoy the nature! It’s great.


Monthly highlights of January: -38,5C!

Monthly highlights” is a series of post concentrating on a 10-month wilderness guide course I am taking this year at Niittylahden opisto near Joensuu in Eastern Finland. These posts try to summarize the best parts of each month and are naturally published at the end of each month (or few weeks after…) Hopefully you enjoy it!

The lesser highlights of January: snowmobile course and hare hunting

The school started in the mid January after a six-week internship period (of which I spent four weeks at a small husky farm at Taivalkoski). The first week was filled with entrepreneurship lectures and exercises in the classroom that didn’t get especially good participation. On the second week we had two days snowmobile course in Nurmes but as I see snowmobiles as tools and don’t support leisure driving and the course wasn’t especially good either, it didn’t make it to the highlights of the month. The course was more like a short snowmobile safari followed with a longer safari with no special emphasis on teaching how to use the snowmobile as an efficient tool in different situations. But after the snowmobile course things got better…

Early start for the longer snowmobile safari.

The snowmobile course was followed with a hunting course that gave enough the information to participate to a Finnish hunting license test on the following week. But as I already had a hunting license I was just hanging on the lectures and learning some new things and recalling a lot of things I had already forgotten as I haven’t been actively hunting. The information about animals and legislation was very useful even if one is not intending to get the hunting licence. On Friday, at the end of the course, we went for a hunting trip to hunt some hares. Our teacher, few local hunters and one of the students were equipped with shotguns while the rest of us skied through forested areas driving the hares out of their hideouts. We didn’t get any hares from the first three drives but from the fourth one we got two big European hares. We disemboweled the hares on spot, skinned them on the following week, put the meat into freezer and prepared a tasty dinner later.

Our teacher returning with the first European hare.

Preparing dinner...

The highest highlight of January: My coldest trip yet

On the last week of January we were to have a four-day hike in the woods. The hike or course is known as “Talvierätaidot” meaning winter wilderness skills and concentrates on hiking in forested areas in winter. I was very excited when the meteorologists were forecasting temps below -30 C. Then it changed to much milder but luckily it changed back to even colder just before the trip. And cold weather was what we got!

The hike took place near Patvinsuo National Park near the Eastern border of Finland. To be able to build fires (which are big and important part of the Finnish hiking and wilderness tradition) we didn’t camp in the national park but did a round trip from the North-Western edge of the national park. The plan was to ski a little bit every day and spend most of the time in camp concentrating on surviving in the cold and having good time. We skied about 2-3 hours every day covering about 3-5 km in the soft snow and occasionally dense woods. Everyone was hauling a sled and everyone else was skiing with traditional Finnish “metsäsukset” (I was using the Altai Hok 125 fastshoes).

We started the trip with sun shine, blue skies and relatively mild temperature of -24 C or so. After few hours of easy skiing we got to our planned camp spot on a small lake. The first night was to be spent in tents. Most of the people pitched their tents on the ridge as the air up there is slightly warmer because of inversion. Me and my buddy T pitched our tent on the lake ice to get most out of the cold weather as the first night was forecasted to be the coldest night. Most of the people spend their time sitting and cooking by fires while me and T spent most of our time in my Hilleberg Keron 3 GT warmed with white gas stoves in the expedition style. We had hearty dinner followed with some Ben&Jerrys icecream and generally had good time. Surviving in the cold is easy with the right kind of equipment. We also participated in fire wood gathering and hanged out with the other people before retiring to our sleeping bags. While going to sleep the temperature was already below -36 C on the lake ice and -32 C up on the ridge. To make most out of the cold we opened all the tent doors making it effectively only a tarp. During the night I woke up being uncomfortably warm and sweaty and decided to check the thermometer which was showing -38,5 C! I removed two pairs of woollen socks and went back to sleep.

We woke up at 07:00 and started the stoves to get the tent warm. I had a little problem with the pump of a MSR XGK as it was too cold for the standard O-rings (they fail around -40 C) but I got the other stove (MSR Dragonfly) running without pumping and when the tent warmed up the other pump stopped leaking and we got on with our morning chores. It also became obvious that in temperatures near -40 C you can’t work for long periods in thin fleece gloves. Morning chores outside were executed in 30 second intervals of working nad then warming fingers on the neck or groin. After breakfast we got news that two students were to be evacuated because of the cold (no cold damage  and we would stay in the camp untill noon. After the two students were evacuated from the road side we continued with a short skiing with sun and -25 C or so. The second night was to be spent under tarps by a fire so we pitched our 3×3 m Erätoveri tarp and found a good place for fire with plenty of firewood available nearby. During the evening the thermometer crawled back towards -30 C and below. We made a big pot of popcorn to share with the group and went to sleep after some chatting by the fire.

In the morning we got the fire going ans started to prepare breakfast in -32 C. Me and T were acting as the day’s guides with me orienteering in the front and T skiing last checking that everyone stays with us. We departed from the camp a bit after 09:00 and saw fresh wolverine tracks just after few hundred meters of skiing. It’s a wild place! Maybe it was bad navigation or just simply bad terrain but the terrain was occasionally challenging until we arrived to snow-covered gravel road and as the hares and moose were also using the road, so did we. We continued along the road to a sunny lake ice were we had lunch break in relative warmth of about -24 C before crossing the little lake to our next camp.

In the camp we piled snow for quenzees and while the snow settled we learned to make a fire from fresh birch. This was new to me and though I knew the technique in theory it was nice to see that it worked also in real life. it’s good to know that usually when you make fire you’ll get warm: you walk around in snow gathering and chopping fire wood and then you get a big nice fire. You stay warm during the whole process. When making a fire from fresh birch you sit on your butt snapping and sorting little twigs and in the end you have a smoking and hissing pile of twigs that can boil water… But it works!

After the fire making exercise we gathered some first class fire wood for a proper fire, carved the quenzees, had dinner and made some improvised brownies on frying pan. I walked to the lake ice to admire maybe one of the best full moons I’ve ever seen. Standing there alone in the bright moonlight breathing crisp cold air under the starry sky was quite an experience! Then it was time to retire to the quenzee for the night. Inside me and T had cups of tea and ate the rest of the ice cream. Outside the temperature was once again plummeting  below -30 C but the inside temperature was around – 10 C meaning that it was nice and warm.

We had decided that we’d make the breakfast inside the quenzee instead of getting out and making a fire. After good nights sleep we punched a hole to the side wall and placed the roaring MSR stoves under it and prepared breakfast. Not very smart if you’re going to use the quenzee for several nights but in this case with cold outside temperatures it was a good move in my opinion. After packing all gear we tested the durability of our quenzees. The roof hold over 100 kg weighting T easily. He went through the roof on his first jump but only made a whole to the roof and was not able to collapse the thing.

After playing destruction derby on our shelters we started the last short skiing session back towards the road and the cars. We ended up in some pretty fucked terrain with dense woods and little rocky cliffs, generally a bad place to be with a pulka. The progress was so slow that my toes got cold despite wearing Sorel Caribou boots and I didn’t get them warm until we got on easier ground and I got to ski in the point with good pace.

When we arrived to the cars everyone was probably very warm but the cars were not. It took some time to charge the car batteries and warm the cars with a generator we had with us but after an hour or so we got both cars running and headed back to civilization. It was my coldest trip yet but very enjoyable none the less. I would have liked a bit more skiing but who cares when you have great weather and beauty of nature surrounding you.

Few words on gear

For this trip I had mostly my typical tried and true winter kit. It was mostly the same stuff that I had for the Ultima Thule 2011 expedition. Few things were different or performed differently so here are couple word about them:

For the whole trip I wore military surplus synthetic fill puffy bib pants instead of the typical Goretex. They worked very well: warm enough for the camp and not too warm for the short daily transitions because of good ventilation options. And I started to think if a synthetic buffy overall with good venting options, good hood and a drop seat would actually be near the optimal shell clothing for this type of trips…

I was using the Altai Hok 125 short skis, or fast shoes, instead of the 2,5 meter long traditional Finnish “eräsukset”. The Hoks were a lot more maneuverable and doubled also as snowshoes in camp but they were slower on easy ground. More of my initial impression here.

Because of the X-Trace universal binding I could use my Sorel Caribous, the warmest footwear I own but even they were not warm enough towards the end of the trip when energy levels were low and progress was slow. They also caused small blisters to my heels. The good thing is that they doubled also as camp shoes. Maybe I should have tested vapour barrier socks with them.

The 168 cm long Fjellpulken pulka was a bit of a trouble in the dense woods just as I had expected. Probably the optimal system for long trips in dense woods would be the Altai Hoks (145cm long ones for soft snow), a small pulka with crossing shafts (or an incredible rulk?) and a small backpack if more capacity is needed.

Just before the trip I had changed my incredibly warm Cumulus Alaska 1300 based down bag to lighter Marmot Couloir bag. I wasn’t sure if it would be enough when combined with my Carinthia Explorer Top MF XL synthetic topbag but the combination was easily warm enough down to the -39 C we had. But because of changing to thinner sleeping bag the 10 mm CCF and regular Ridgerest combination wasn’t warm enough anymore and I had to use my puffy pants as an extra insulation between the pads though that wasn’t a problem when recognized and fixed.

Even though sitting by a fire in the middle of a silent forest lighten up by the pale moonlight is an incredible experience, I prefer the expedition style warmed tent in harsh winter conditions. Nothing prevents you from sitting by the fire even when hauling the tent and stove with you but having them makes life a lot easier. And for prolonged trips and expeditions in challenging winter conditions I see it as the best way to go. Not ultralight but ultra-well-working.

Technique regarding snow shelters

I have few posts about building snow shelter from the last winter. They seem to have quite some typos and the series is still missing the posts about building a snow cave (the superior snow shelter if snow conditions are favourable) and an igloo. The posts seem to be full of typos and I’m planning to polish them at some point when completing the series. But as I consider snow shelter building as an essential winter skill (and training it to be a lot of fun!) I’d recommend checking them anyway before I get them polished for “re-blogging”.

For fun and safety
Simple emergency shelter

Please, share your experiences and ideas about snow shelters!  I’m very interested in the topic, especially about experiences about building an igloo (not the one with the box-tool but cutting the block from hard snow).

– – –

There are no overnight trips or hikes for February but we already had a nice animal tracking trip in school and we will be doing some winter fishing on the next week which should be interesting… I’ve been quite busy with the preparations for the Vatnajökull expedition and by working hard you get results so things are looking quite good. But there might be some quiet time in the blog because of preparations and upcoming exams. Hopefully you’ll tolerate it and I can make it up later with nice photos from the Europe’s biggest glacier.

Season’s Greetings from Taivalkoski!

For me it doesn’t quite feel like it, but it’s the time to wish you all dear readers: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Glogg on an overnight pre-Christmas retreat. Merry Christmas!

And to add some content into this post here’s a quick update about what’s going on…

Preparing the cafeteria for the Christmas dinner.

As regular readers allready know I’m doing my wilderness guide school internship period at the moment at Husky Center Kolmiloukko at Taivalkoski. Usually I’ve spent the Christmas with family at my parent’s place but this year it’s very different: I’ll be working. For Christmas Eve I didn’t have much to do, only to take care and feed the dogs, which takes few hours as there are 60 dogs. Next we’ll have a Christmas dinner with the owners and then sauna. And tomorrow, on Christmas Day, we’ll wake up before 06:00 and head to the Syöte skiing center with the dogs for a full day of work. So, happy holidays for those who have a holiday! 😉

A Christmas dinner for the 60 huskies.

It’s nice and winterish here in Taivalkoski: There’s over 30cm of snow and more is coming slowly but steadily. It’s been quite warm for the whole week with the temps hovering between +1C and -3C but the weather forecast promises colder temps and more snow.

Hopefully the weather forecast is correct...

N skiing ahead in the dark.

At the end of the week I had two days off with my girlfriend N who is also working here (and is actually working i.e. gets paid for it) so we went for a little overnighter in Syöte National Park. This time of the year the Sun rises around 10:30 and sets at 13:40. So headlamps see a lot of use, specially as it’s been mostly cloudy and snowing for the whole week. We decided to spent the night in Ahmatupa rental hut as there was also a sauna. A bed in the hut costs only 10 euros per person per night so it’s not too expensive. After checking that the hut was vacant for the night we went to get the key from the Visitor center just before it closed at 16:00. We skied some 8km along ready made skiing track to the hut. We warmed up the hut and sauna, bathed and rolled in the snow, had some Christmas food for supper and enjoyed the silence and the fire while surrounded with tall thinny spruces covered with snow.

The Ahmatupa. The hut has two sides: open side and rentable side.

After sleeping in long the next morning, we decided to continue along the snowmobile tracks of the park maintenance. We planned to ski to Toralampi widlerness hut but the tracks didn’t go there and it was getting dark so after a lunch on a fire place weturned around and ventured back to the main track and back to the Visitor center, again, few minutes before it closed for Christmas at 16:00. It was a nice trip and a good start for the winter season. Hopefully there are more trips to come but now I’m feeling ready for dinner…

Skiing back in typical Northern spruce forest.

So, Merry Christmas to you all!

Monthly highlights of November

Monthly highlights” is a series of post concentrating on a 10-month wilderness guide course I am taking this year at Niittylahden opisto near Joensuu in Eastern Finland. These posts try to summarize the best parts of each month and are naturally published at the end of each month (or in the beginning of the following month as it seems to be now). Hopefully you enjoy it!

Highlights of November: Advanced First Aid and Safety Management Courses!

Enjoying the sunset at Niittylahti instead of sitting in the class listening entrepreneurship lectures.

My November started with an additional week-off from the school that was spent packing stuff in my apartment and moving it to my parent’s place where I’ll be crashing for a while. During the week I missed some lectures about multi-culturalism and customer service but I don’t think those were especially crucial for my future professional skills. The second week of November was one of the best weeks of all the autumn period: Wildmed’s Wilderness Advanced First Aid course. The third week was filled with lectures and exercises about entrepreneurship which were quite familiar to me already. And the fourth week we spent in the woods on safety management & leading course.

Year's last morning swim in Niittylahti for me in snowfall at November 16th. It was cold.

The Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA) was possibly the best course we’ve had in the school during the autumn period. It was a very intensive no-nonsense four-day first aid course specializing in wilderness context and held in English by Wildmed. There are two WAFA courses held in Finland annually in November. These are open to anyone interested and in addition to our guide student class there were four other people participating on the same course. In addition there is also an annual Bridge course to upgrade a WAFA certification into Wilderness First Responder certification, something I’m intending to do in the future. I won’t go too much into details about the course content as it is well presented on the Wildmed’s course description but I’ll write a few words about my personal experiences about the course.

Learning to inject epinephrine to treat anaphylaxis.

The course was very intensive: the days were filled with lectures and exercises from  08:30 until 18:00 or so and for the evenings we had 50-60 pages of reading to do. I believe that the intensity actually helped learning and enabled learning a huge amount of useful information and skills. Both the lectures and the hands-on exercices were good and in my opinion it all culminated to the often asked question “Makes sense, right?” And it made sense. Wildmed teaches a simple and effective assessment system for wilderness first aid and medicine that really makes sense, benefits learning and probably works very well also in real life situations. The teachers, Brad and Eric, were both experienced EMTs with outdoors, ski patrolling and SAR background meaning that they knew what they were teaching but in addition they were also good teachers and great dudes.

H cleaning a wound (on a chicken breast).

According to the teachers in USA the WAFA is seen as a good first aid skills level for someone doing trips to remote areas and I do agree. But for people taking customer groups to remote areas the Wilderness First Responder level is recommended and it sounds about right to me. Comparing this course to the first aid courses by Red Cross is somewhat pointless as in my opinion the WAFA is way superior. Mostly because it really makes sense. If you have the four days and about 400 euros to spare, go and do this course next year. You won’t regret it!


Yours truly assessing a patient with a TBI in a multi-patient exercise.

The safety management & leading (i.e. “Turvallisuusjohtaminen” in Finnish) was a lot discussed, rumored and anticipated course. There were some wild rumors concerning the six-day course but in the end it was a lot easier and more relaxed than I anticipated. I won’t be telling too much about the course so that the next years students can enjoy the uncertainty and intentional lack of information but in a nut shell: We spent six days in the woods with the Lumo11 course (a two-year vocational school program somewhat similar to our wilderness guide course) doing different tasks and exercises related to basic wilderness skills, first aid skills, leading and safety management.

Spending two minutes in the lake to get wet and cold...

We slept under tarps, we made a lot of fires. Sometimes we were cold, often we were wet. We didn’t get a full nights sleep every night, we didn’t always know where we were, neither did we always know what would happen next. Sometimes we walked longish distances, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes someone got lost, lost motivation or got sick. Sometimes we had big multi-patient first aid cases. (Where the WAFA skills came very handy!) It was quite a good exercise though I see also a lot of room for improvement. For me it was relatively easy and in the beginning I was occasionally bored. But one gets what one wants. For example after deciding to make all the fires (We made a lot of them!) with a fire steel and without any special tinder instead of using matches and tinder carried with me, making fires started to be an interesting challenge. The weather was quite challenging as the course started with snow and temperatures below -5C but in the halfway the temperatures rose above freezing and occasionally it rained heavily. My kit worked out pretty well though it wasn’t the optimal kit for the conditions and tasks: over 2kg weighting serious winter down bag, Inov8 Rocklite 390s without gaiters, a traditional puukko (I want a big full tang blade now!) and so on.  But I wanted to use my typical hiking kit to see how it manages and a lot of my kit worked really well like the Haglöfs Flexable softshell, PHD Minimus down vest, Fenix Hp10 headlamp, Evernew Pasta Pot (Btw. it’s also great for coffee as the holes in the lid act as a filter!) and so on. It was an interesting experience to camp and tarp almost a week in such conditions. Occasionally a bit miserable but mostly very enjoyable.

In a summary it was a nice exercise though it could have been even better if it would have been more challenging and better planned regarding the first aid cases. It was a nice experience and I learned some new things, honed some old skills and it was very interesting to learn to know the Lumo people a bit better.

... before, once again, making a fire.

As I wrote earlier the autumn period in the school is now done from my part and I’ll be having few weeks of before starting my internship period in Husky Center Kolmiloukko. Because of this there might not be a post about the highlights of December but a summary post about the whole internship period later in January. And when school starts again, I’ll start again with the monthly posts at  the end of January.

At the moment temperatures are well above freezing and it’s been occasionally raining quite heavily. Seems like a depressing start for December with no sign of snow. I hope that the winter would set in soon so I could start skiing. Meanwhile, I might take my packraft and drysuit for a final paddle before the lakes freeze…

Monthly highlights of October

Monthly highlights” is a series of post concentrating on a 10-month wilderness guide course I am taking this year at Niittylahden opisto near Joensuu in Eastern Finland. These posts try to summarize the best parts of each month and are naturally published at the end of each month (or in the beginning of the following month as it seems to be now). Hopefully you enjoy it!

Highlights of : Orienteering exams passed, cooking on open fire, climbing stuff and water rescue & survival!

When first watching our schedules I thought that there wouldn’t be much to write about October as we had one-week autumn holiday and no big trips coming up. But luckily I was wrong. The month was full of very interesting stuff and here are the best parts. One of the definite highlights is the 24-hour walking challenge where I covered 105km with few classmates. It is not included in the highlights post as there is a separate thorough report available.

Happy faces after passing the day orienteering test

In the beginning of October we had our orienteering exams. Even though most wilderness guides never have to navigate off-trail in unfamiliar terrain with customers I still consider orienteering as an elementary skill for every wilderness guide and it is also required to qualify as a wilderness guide. During the autumn we had quite a lot of orienteering training in preparation for the orienteering tests. I found the training quite useful and I believe that my orienteering skills got better, especially with the accurate 1:10000 maps that I rarely use for anything else.

To prove our skills we had two separate tests: a day orienteering test with a 4-5km course (measured as straight lines from marker to marker) and a night orienteering test with 3-4km track. To pass the test you were required to complete each course in less than two hours. In my opinion the requirements are actually quite easy. You don’t need to be an especially good orienteerer to complete the tracks well under an hour! But then again, wilderness guides don’t have to have the skills of competitive orienteerers and fulfilling the minimum requirements is enough to prove that you wont get totally lost in the forest. I played it safe and walked passing both tests easily with times around 70 minutes. So, from now on I don’t have to know how to orienteer any more. 😉

Catching the food...

... and cooking the food

Repe the duck on his way to the pot

The second highlight was the open fire cooking course. It started on Sunday so I was a bit pissed because of the short weekend but the course made it up: Basically four days of cooking tasty treats outside on open fire – and of course eating them all! We catched some small fish from the lake but also had salmon, pork, duck, chicken and many other nice ingredients that we cooked, fried, barbecued, smoked or blazed. I think I put up a few kilos during the course… As usual the teacher was a nice guy and very proficient: a chef and entrepreneur who had done the same wilderness guide course in 2008.

Rappelling at Heinävaara. Fun. And possible even with a fucked up knee as shown by S here.

Training at school's wall. Your's truly playing the role of a stupid customer in trouble.

Teacher demonstrating a rescue technique.

We also had some climbing and rope training during the month. To qualify as a wilderness guide in Finland you don’t have to know a thing about ropes or climbing but in Niittylahden opisto we can also get a KTO qualification by SKIL as a part of the guide course. (The same applies to the paddling instructor courses, white water rafting and many other things.) The KTO is an abbreviation from the words “Köysitoiminnan Ohjaaja” literally meaning “Rope Activities Instructor”. The training doesn’t involve any actual climbing but provides the skills and knowledge necessary to arrange safe top rope climbing and rappelling for customer groups. Special attention is paid on safety and solving possible problems. As a KTO instructor you are qualified to arrange/lead top rope climbing and rappelling on artificial walls and on rock but you are not technically qualified to teach your customers how to climb which I find to be somewhat weird…

Well, we are not qualified yet as we just had the two two-day modules both including one day inside and one day outside building anchor points and training rescue techniques. Almost everything was new to me so I learned a lot and it was mostly really fun. And now that we have passed the training modules we can freely use the school’s climbing gear for independent training, so I guess I’ll be doing also some climbing during the rest of the year in Niittylahti. In the next spring we will have a full day of qualification tests including written and hands-on parts. After passing the KTO test and fulfilling some other requirements one can attend a course and test to become a qualified SCO i.e. Sports Climbing Instructor (thus being also qualified to teach how to climb, including lead climbing) and after that even a RCI i.e. Rock Climbing Instructor.

Search and rescue exercise in Wednesday evening.

For me one of the most interesting things of the whole year is probably the water rescue and survival course held in the end of October. As a preview we had a day of search and rescue training related to Volunteer Rescue Service. During the day we did search & rescue exercises in the forest as a big group and in the evening we visited the local volunteer lake rescue association the Joensuun Järvipelastajat for some water search and rescue. We search some islands to find a missing person, used search lights and night vision goggles to find PFD floating in the water and did some rescue swims. The first part in the woods was a bit boring but the evening was really interesting!

Training in swimming hall. Lights off and cold water sprayed on us.

J turning the life raft.

The water rescue & survival course itself started on Friday morning and lasted the whole weekend. First we had some theory in the classroom but quite soon after it we went to the local swimming hall to train swimming and floating techniques and the use of a life raft. The training in the pool continued in Saturday morning with three of the local lake rescuers joining us as students while few of them acted as security crew. After the pool sessions we had information for lunch. The information was that we were not going to have a lunch. Nor a dinner. Nor a supper. The next meal would be the breakfast on Sunday after finishing the course. This meant about 24 hours without food and to make it even more realistic I decided not to have much water to drink during the rest of the course. I think I drank some 2-3dl of water during the last 20 hours of the course. In the beginning I felt hungry but it eased out after the first ten hours or so but towards the end I was quite thirsty. In saturday afternoon we continued training in open water with dry suits: swimming, huddling, getting into the life raft, moving a hypothermic or injured person into the raft, etc.

Security boat Pärske and the life raft. For the night the raft was towed further out.

Around 6:00 pm we put away the dry suits for maybe the most interesting part of the course: a hypothermia swim! This meant performing certain tasks as small group in +5C water wearing only swimming pants and PFDs. We have been doing morning swims nearly every morning at the school so I knew that the water would feel very cold but the sensation eased off after the first minute or two in the water. For our group of four the compulsory tasks took around 5 minutes 45 second and towards the end I was feeling quite good: I had lost sensation from my toes but the water didn’t feel that cold anymore.

After the tasks we decided to stay in the water floating on our own in HELP position waiting to get really cold. The rescue crew was regularly checking our conditions and told the time we had spent in the water. Somewhere around seven or eight minutes I started to shiver slightly and after 11 minutes the shivering started to be quite intense affecting a bit on talking and body control. After 12 minutes we were called out for safety reasons. While climbing to the wharf I was shivering vigorously but felt otherwise good. The paramedics took electrocardiogram from S and it shoved some extrasystole and heart skipping some beats while heart rate was around 137 (while standing still after floating still for 6+ minutes and climbing up a ladder). According to the paramedic these are clear symptoms of hypothermia and after some five more minutes in the water we would have lost most of our ability to function.

Ice cream - after 12 minutes in +5C water!

After the swim I offered everyone an ice cream (our teacher allowed it as he has a good sense of humour) and we went into the sports hall to warm up. Some took a hot shower and some did physical exercise to regain body heat. I did both first training until the shivering stopped and then showering hot water on my  feet to regain sensation and normal blood flow to my toes. The latter lead to some more shivering and it took about an hour for me to feel normal again. Even though the 12 minutes we spent in the water was longer than any group had previously done, I would have wanted to stay there even longer, long enough for the shivers to stop and to start feeling warm but as that would not have been safe I have to settle with the experience that I had. It wasn’t maybe the most pleasant experience I’ve had but one of the most interesting ones.

A night in the life raft.

After warming up we donned the dry suits again and prepared ourselves for a night in the life raft. The raft was towed further out to the lake and we swam there as a group to find the raft full of water. Emptying the raft with the standard fabric bailer took some time but the work kept us warm. Quite soon after emptying the raft we spooned up on the rubber floor in hope for some sleep. During the night we were regularly woken up by the instructors asking how we were feeling on the radio. We also had a couple of pee breaks with the help of the rescue boat Pyörre and during the night some people decided to leave and end the exercise for their part. (A free tip: the best way to pee while in the raft is to pee into the bailer. Peeing over board is quite a tricky task to do safely.) One of the best moments of the weekend was to stand at the deck of Pyörre and watch the starry skies above.

I got some sleep in short snippets but probably spent most of the night awake because of either being cold, not finding a comfortable position to sleep or because of the waves rolling the raft. The night wasn’t especially fun but it wasn’t really miserable either, only uncomfortable. Towards the morning my toes got really cold and lost sensation at some point but quite soon after it we were told to untie the anchor and get to the shore with the life raft. Luckily the wind was plowing straight to the shore so we detached the raft and just floated to the shore enjoying the morning while H played his mouth organ. It was a really nice way to end the exercise. After cleaning and sorting up the kit we had a breakfast and sauna and that was it.

After the exercise I felt quite tired because of the lack of sleep and food. I ate some more, had a nap and drove back home, ate a pizza and slept some 11 hours. I was also quite dehydrated because even though I drank well over five liters during Sunday I was still about one kilo lighter than usual in the Monday morning. Now about two days after the exercise I’m feeling about normal. The instant flu I got after the hypothermia swim is almost gone and body is again hydrated but for some reasons my calfs are stiff and sore… And now I have a huge respect towards the MS Estonia survivors – every one of them is a sheer miracle! And I also consider taking my dry suit with me if I go to a cruise…

– – –

In November I’ll have a week off for personal reasons and we will have one week of entrepreneurship lectures which probably isn’t the most interesting topic on the course. (Though I hope it to prove useful.) But to compensate these we will have the Outward Bound’s Wilderness Advanced First Aid course which is said to be excellent and a six-day safety management & leading course out in the woods – hopefully with coldness, darkness, sleet and appropriate amount of misery. I’m really looking forward to these courses!

And in the beginning of December we will start our six-week internship period but more about that later…