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An Ode to Wilderness

Wilderness and falling down, theoretically, have nothing to do with each other.  In my case, however, they are intimately intertwined.

I slipped and fell straight out of the dooJim in Laplandr of the Kalamakaltion wilderness hut north of Nunnanen, Finland.  I hit my head on a rock and felt dizzy.  I fell again five minutes later and cut open my hand on a rock.  The wet had turned the ATV trail to glistening mud, slick as ice.  The rain fell in a steady drizzle.

I passed through stands of dwarf birch, partly colored for autumn.  The land was swampy and moist, cut by intermittent ridges of glacial till.  There were thousands of streams and ponds that interspersed velvety turf and dark Arcadian copses.  The ground was covered in alpine clubmoss, mountain bearberry, downy willow, common butterwort, several saxifrage species.  I passed a number of small lakes and the ATV trail ploughed through swamps and streams, as if nothing could get in its way. It stretched all the way through the Puljun Wilderness area and into the western wilderness of the one thousand one hundred square mile Lemmonjoki National Park five miles to the north.  It was used by the reindeer herders, whose camp was beyond the Peltotunturi.

I slipped and fell several more times, once face first into a shallow brook.

The Peltotunturi was a long, low table situated above the tree line.  It ran northwest-southeast extending into Norway, only five miles distant. The wind was fierce there and on top I got caught in a squall of rain and snow.  The visibility dropped to just a few feet. The rain actually hurt when it hit my face. I saw a mountain plover and was sure it was shivering. Fearing I might lose the trail, I pulled out my maps and compass to take a bearing on the Wilderness hut where I hoped to spend the night. That was dumb. The wind tore my 1:50 000 topo map from my hand, launching it into Norway. It also took my general 1:100 000 area map, but that, I recovered, torn, wet and shredded, from a reindeer fence a half mile across the rocks. I stuffed it in my pocket and made for the tree line below and to the north. I was soaking wet when I arrived at the reindeer camp.

It was abandoned. Dozens of kota skeletons mixed easily with the birch. The kota is the Sami tee-pee. It looks exactly the same as a North American tee-pee. There was a long fence surrounding the encampment, which covered several acres. It looked like a motocross rally arena. It had been terribly overgrazed and the ground pounded to dust by ATVs and motorcycles. The trails spread out like a cobweb. Plastic sheeting blew in the wind, shopping sacks caught up in the birch, beer and cola bottles rolled in the wind. There were plastic buckets, gas and engine oil jugs and several vehicle batteries.

The detritus of modern transhumance.

I ate lunch huddled in a kota with a plastic sheet wrapped around my body.  Reindeer came and stood and watched me, then moved on, bored. I packed and moved on behind them.

From there, the trail was not as well used, but it was clear. My thinking was that Metsähallitus must re-supply and repair the four back country huts on occasion, no matter how remote. I saw no other way to do it than by ATV and the ATV trail I had followed went to within three miles of the hut on the map that had blown away, so, I figured, they must use the same trail to get to the hut, right? Wrong.

The ATV trail continued to the north when it should have turned east. It never did go east. I fixed my position, took a bearing on the hut using the 1:100 000 map and left the trail toward the east. Down a hill I ran into a swamp – into which I fell face first.  I sat and wiped the mud from my face and tried to add up the number of spills I had taken that day.  I counted nearly two dozen.

The swamp was only a few hundred feet wide but deep and wet. I had to detour one mile south to get around it. But I misjudged my pace. I misjudged the landscape. I ran into several more swamps. I got confused in a grove of willows. I got tired. I got lost. The rain continued to fall and I begin to think: ‘I have a wife at home. A child on the way…what in God’s name am I doing out here?’ I climbed up over a hill and came face to face with a large moose. Literally face to face. We scared the hell out of each other. I went right, she went left.

That’s when it struck me how very far from home I was. I was surrounded by hills with names such as Kotaojanniemi and Vaskonkelkä. By rivers with names such as Repojoki and Positjoki. Reindeer ran in front of me, a moose had just tried to eat me, there were swamps everywhere and the rain hadn’t stopped falling for over twenty-four hours.  This was nothing like New Mexico.  I was desperately homesick.  I’d read somewhere that homesickness is the tool that tells the ape in us all to go home. The tool that tells us to go to what we know. It’s a preservation mechanism and that mechanism was kicking in full force.  Wilderness was where I had wanted to be since I’d come to Finland.  Now I was there and wanted to be somewhere else.  I sat down in the rain and ate some food, drank some water and took a deep breath.

One of the anthropocentric values of Wilderness lies in the opportunity to become lost.  The value of Wilderness lies in the opportunity to encounter insecurity and the opportunity to find security and stability from that uncertainty.  The value of Wilderness lies in the opportunity to live and to experience life and all its extreme ups and downs.

Cars and TVs and DVDs and café life offers avoidance of all the things that don’t quite work in life. Wilderness does not offer such options.  Wilderness presents the opportunity to come face to face with the things that aren’t working out – as well as the things that are. It offers the opportunity to recalibrate.

Wilderness is the ultimate icon of democracy because Wilderness is opportunity.

I couldn’t afford to avoid the challenge before me, so I calmed down. I walked back south and climbed a hill. I found an opening in the deep foliage and the clouds cleared just long enough to reveal a couple of peaks. I used the tops of Tupalaki and Repovaara to triangulate my position. Then I took a new bearing on the hut and went straight along the bearing for an hour. The forest was thick. I scared up capercailliea and pyy. I fell twice – which made more falls in one day than in the rest of my life combined. At the end of the hour I came out of the forest at the shore of a small lake. I turned and walked due east for a hundred yards. There was the hut. Night was coming.  I had been lost for four hours.

I hadn’t seen another human being for two days, but the hut was warm. There were still red embers in the stove; the rain fell all night.

There was peace there on the northern edge of the taiga.  There was no pinkish glow of cities beyond the horizon, there were no cars growling by.  The sky was bare of airliners and fighter jets.  It was peaceful.  I realized that you couldn’t find such purity, even in the deep woods of North American wilderness.  In southern Finland, in Europe and in the USA, such peace was no longer considered essential to life and as a right to be enjoyed by each individual. In that peace, I fell into a deep sleep.

In the early morning I woke from the cold. It was still raining. I got up, lit a fire and went back to sleep.

On the second day the air was warmer but it smelled like snow.  It didn’t snow however.  By 10:00am the sun was breaking through and there were little bits of blue sky.  The weather held all day.  Despite the scent of snow in the air, there was no rain, little wind and enough sun to warm me.  But I was walking without a map.  The topo map I needed was in Norway and it was probably the most important map of the whole journey.  All I had was my compass bearing.

The land rose and fell in waves.  It was incredibly symmetrical.   Low, dry forested ridges intermittently cut across running east-west.  Between each ridge was a low-lying swamp two-hundred to three-hundred yards in width. The forests on the ridges were overgrown and thick and the swamps wet, deep and soft and heavy with the clean laundry smell of the suopursu.

I saw a large moose at about fifteen yards.  A fox ran just feet in front of me.  There were hundreds of reindeer sporting heavy copper bells.  They moved about in groups of four or five.  They were nervous and awkward.  The bright fairy forest of the day before had given away to woods more haunted, dark, dismal and troublesome.  It was a forest that ghosts might inhabit but you couldn’t feel any.  In fact, unlike in New Mexico, the land felt clean of ghosts.  Clear of a history of death and violence.  The Lemmenjoki Wilderness was nothing if not peaceful.

On top of a low rise I sat and ate lunch on a rock.  I scanned the wilds with my binoculars.  I had hoped for bears and wolves and wolverines but found instead at my feet a light butterfly sitting in a puddle of water.  There was time to watch a droplet slip down from a birch leave and into the puddle.  The butterfly flapped its wings once but didn’t move.

Finding the hut was no problem.  Inside it was cold, no one had been there in over a week.  It sat along a sweet, narrow stream that had cut deep into the grasses.  Leaving my bag in the hut, I took my fishing pole and followed the stream to a wide shallow lake where I caught a small trout.  That all took about fifteen minutes.  Then it began to rain.  Again, it poured rain all night.

Two days later, the sun shone and I could see the broad, flat top of the Morganmaras.

I climbed a treeless fell named Vasarova and cheered myself. I could see far into Norway to the west and all the way back to Pallas-Ounas to the south.  North and less than a mile before me were Lemmenjoki National Park and the miner’s camps at Isola.  I knew right where I was and I hadn’t taken a fall in three days.  I felt all-powerful.  Invincible.  As if I could do anything.  I strutted around with a massive grin on my face and shook my hands in the air.  The previous four days had been four of the very best days in my whole life.  I felt complete.  Clean.

I began climbing down into the Miessejoki Valley and fell.  I rolled over a small cliff and into the bushes below.  I cut my hands and my legs, bruised my hip and tore the sleeve on my jacket.

I fell six more times before I reached the river.

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