The last weekend N and I had a rare overlapping weekend without other projects and an overnighter was soon planned…
I wanted to do some more packrafting and found the Ruokolahden melontareitti, a 110km paddling route with some shelters and fireplaces along the way. As is the case in South-East Finland the route is mostly on the waters of lake Saimaa. But there was also a short river section, Lieviskänjoki, which was of interest for me as a packrafter.
The plan was simple: drop bikes to a shelter at Hiekkaniemi cape, drive to Pieni Jukajärvi lake and paddle 18km along the river and lakes to the shelter, spend the night at the shelter and cycle back to the car on Sunday.
We started the Saturday by dropping the bikes near the shelter and happened to meet some amateur archaeologists who had been searching the area as people have lived and traveled there also on the ancient times some 6000 years ago as the ice sheet had given up the area. The waterways were the natural routes before the time of roads that nowadays, sadly, reach almost every corner of Southern Finland. It was nice to think that we were about to follow an ancient waterway and sleep next to ancient campsite or settlement. There would be also some rock paintings on the way and we planned to take a look, but things don’t always go as planned.
After some more driving we were at the Pieni-Jukajärvi lake and found a good put in to start paddling. Thanks to sleeping in and spending some time chatting with the archaeology enthusiasts we were about two hours behind the planned schedule. But it was only 18 kilometers and we had nearly six hours before sunset and good possibility for a back-wind on the lake so we were confident…
To keep things interesting we had chosen to share an Alpackraft Explorer 42 instead of having separate boats. We hadn’t tried that ever before but it seemed possible. With the two of us and the gear we were probably close to the recommended maximum load of 200 kg and despite being quite big people we did fit in surprisingly comfortably. (We’ve also paddled sections of rivers in a single Alpackraft Llama with plenty of gear but that was far from comfortable…)
The river started as a small ditch but had enough room for the packraft and even a little flow to help us. We passed the first lean-to on our route, populated by a friendly group of men spending quality time in the woods with plenty of booze and car camping equipment. As we were on tight schedule we soon continued on the river taking breaks one at a time while the other was using the paddle as a two-bladed kayak paddle instead of two canoe paddles.
The flow was low and the river was quite densely vegetated, especially under the surface, which slowed us down and instead of the planned 4km/h our speed was around 2km/h and thus the 6 kilometer river took us some three hours leaving less than three to the sunset. As the wind had died we had no hope for packsailing across the lakes so it seemed we’d have to paddle in the dark… It was sort of “all in” situation as the waterway was the shortest route available because of the broken shoreline that was protected and thus without summer houses and roads. And to be honest, a long walk on the gravel wasn’t very inspiring idea either.
So we kept on paddling. 2,7 kilometers across the Lieviskänjärvi lake followed by a short and late lunch break at the mandatory portage around the ruins of an old mill. Then 4 kilometers along the narrow Lieviskänlahti sound. We passed the site of rock paintings in the sunset not having time to stop to search for them and rushed to cross the 6 kilometers of open waters at Muikunselkä and Rajakivenselkä. “Rushed” at what seemed to be 3 km/h as we started to be little tired and uncomfortable in our tiny raft.
It got dark and we had to navigate by the close-by shorelines and the horizon lines against the darkening night sky where stars started to appear. I was cursing myself not checking the time of the moon rise as I had been counting on some moonlight to help us but there wasn’t any available yet. We followed a marked boating lane as it would lead us by the little sandy cape we were aiming for. We paddled without headlamps to preserve our nightvision and to better see the little of the surroundings visible in the distance.
I was getting cold and N wasn’t too keen on paddling on the open lake in the dark.
The latter wasn’t helped by a boat heading to the opposite direction on the lane. We hadn’t seen any boats earlier the day but now heard a boat from the distance and then saw its lights and paddled out from the way towards a nearby island. We continued again, until we heard a second boat approaching. This time we didn’t see any light but heard the boat closing in fast and hastily paddled again out from the way. The boat passed us from a safe distance with high-speed – and without any lights. We decided to take the headlamps at hand to signal our existence and location in case of more boats.
Luckily, there were no more boats and we soon saw the horizon line dropping against a more distant horizon line marking the cape and the end of our night-time paddling. Seven and half hours after the start we had covered the 18 kilometers and were happily ashore on our planned campsite. We wobbled out from the boat with numb toes and stiff feet. To be fair, it wasn’t too bad taking into concideration the time we’d spend paddling in the tiny boat.
We put on more clothes and changed the wet and cold neoprene socks to dry woollen socks and trail runners and started a fire to get warm. Proper packrafting stuff. I noticed I was actually more cold than I had thought while paddling. Something you don’t think too much while you’re concentrated on navigation and making progress… +5 C night-time temps were forecasted and I had been only wearing two thin layers and Anfibio Buoy Boy vest which is not as warm as a typical foam filled PFDs. No wonder I was cold.
About immediately after we got on the shore the moon rose behind our back lighting the scenery. Soup, toasted sandwiches and hot chocolate tasted very good. Actually, even better than the cold beer. I spend some time taking photos of the moonlit mist on the lake before retiring to the warmth of my sleeping bag, once again sleeping on the thickest airbed I’ve ever taken on a trip: the packraft.
I woke occasionally to admire the misty moonlit lake and later the sunrise over the waters but always fell asleep after a short glimpse at the scenery. No ghosts of ancient travelers or hunters bothered our sleep. After sleeping in late the day was started with porridge and local lingon berries, smores (we were too tired to eat them the previous evening) and grower’s cup coffee (Quick verdict: Good coffee but little pricey and the trash would be a problem on longer trips.)
I hadn’t spent much time planning on lashing the gear on my bike and thus ended up with just some gear on the beam rack and most of the odd but lightish kit in my trusty HMG Porter pack. After some iterations and re-lashing I was good to go for the 30+ kilometers back to the car. I had sketched the route roughly on map by following the smallest continuous roads back to the car. I hadn’t payed any attention on the contours and was surprised by the amount of hills on our route. There were plenty. It made good training but would’ve been more fun with less equipment on the back… No surprise there.
We took it easy admiring the forest, rocks and ponds on the way following small winding gravel and sand roads up and down towards East. After a lunch break and couple of hours of pedaling we were back at the car and soon on our way back home for pizzas and beverages. A weekend well spent, though not exactly in the way we I had planned.
The small river provided an interesting adventure and the scenery on the lakes was good with plenty of rocky shores without summer houses or forestry roads, thanks to the conservation areas. The paddling route is worth another visit but next time I’ll take a kayak or canoe and paddle most or all of it. In my opinion packrafts just aren’t much fun on long lake crossings, though this time the darkness gave it a special twist keeping it interesting. But if I have to do extended lake paddling with a packraft the two person variant is a viable option: it’s little faster, you can take breaks in turns and easily socialize while paddling. I’d love to try the Alpackraft Gnu for trips like this. Maybe I’ll just have to buy one…
Special thanks for the Packrafting Store for the equipment I had in for testing!
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Footnote on photos: In addition to my trusted combination of Canon EOS 6D body and the EF 24-105 4 L IS lens I also took my old and nearly forgotten EF 50 1,8 lens and it was great fun to use it in the dark with a Gorillapod. I should keep in mind that DSLRs are systems as the name says and not get stucked using one lens only. It’s not good for inspiration. Now I found myself looking for reasonably priced high aperture lenses around the 24-35mm range. Any suggestions?