Adventure Profile – Mark O’Connor
Friend of the site, Marko spent 6 days canoeing in northern Finland’s Hossa National Park
Who are you?
My name is Mark O’Connor, I teach Outdoor Education for ‘Field Studies Council Ireland’, and have been a member of 23rd Antrim Scout Group for 23 years.
Tell us about your adventure to Finland
In 2017, 6 friends, and myself decided to go on a canoeing expedition to the north of Finland, where we planned to immerse ourselves in the wilderness, avoid altercations with bears and have a bit of craic along the way.
Initially, the Finland idea was floated when a friend’s wife asked for birthday present ideas for her other half, and like a lot of outdoor folk, we were only too happy to use any excuse for an adventure. Before we knew it, one lad was onto his cousin in Finland to start planning what would become 8 bearded men’s awesome canoe adventure through Hossa National Park.
Was canoe the best way to see the country?
Well, imagine a huge expanse of wild woodland in the crisp autumn, with log cabins and lean-to shelters in the middle of nowhere, all connected by rivers and lake systems and numerous canoe trails all conveniently outlined on the National Parks map….
Canoe was absolutely the best way to explore Hossa in the late autumn or early winter. We had all 8 lads in 4 boats, so we had some flexibility to split up or naturally spread out as needed. As well as canoes being able to handle heavy loads and plenty of kit, they are pretty much unrivalled in allowing us to journey in silence when we decided to stop waffling. I was teamed up with Stevie Millar in the canoe, and with our deep water paddles we were using we naturally used the ‘Indian Stroke’ when underway. This is a method of forward paddling without ever taking your paddle out of the water, which in turn avoids splashing and allows us to travel in silence. This way of paddling, and also the fact Stevie was barely paddling at all, allowed us to have less of an impact on the wildlife, and allowed us encounters with reindeer, beavers and eagles. No sightings of bears or wolves, but I am sure they knew we were there!
Could anyone do this trip or did you need any specialist training?
7 out of 8 of us had trained in canoe skills over the years, and half of us were various levels of canoe coaches, so as you can imagine this removed much stress about our personal ability to take on a trip like this. One fella, Bishop Len, was the least experienced paddler of the group; he was an Irish man from County Louth who was living in Finland. Despite having less experience, he was super keen to get his bum in a boat and get going. He picked up plenty of skills along the way and held his own on the rapids and endurance paddling on flatwater.
The other side to the trip was the wilderness living, which entailed lighting fires to cook breakfast/lunch/dinner each day, and of course sleeping out amongst the thoughts of bears, wolves and snoring men. This is perhaps the part of the trip that some people may struggle with a little more, as the nights can get cold, I mean real cold. We had all the kit, had no issues around warmth and also ate like lords, but I think it is the outdoor living part of the trip that people might underestimate. Fail to prepare, prepare to get rescued (or worse).
On the whole trip we only had one capsize, which was on some technical rapids on day one and resulted in a couple of swimmers. I wouldn’t like to name names, but I will say that bishop Len looked like he was in a shampoo advert while he swung his long wet hair around like some sort of hipster model.
In reality though, two wet group members in cold, cold wilderness meant we had to change our plans and get to a location where we could get warm and dry fast. A quick paced 5km paddle provided us with just that. The fire lighting kit that I kept in my buoyancy aid, paired with the feather sticks a previous traveller had left for us, meant we had a fire going in no time. Planning and experience pays off.
Talk us through your kit list. What did you bring, did you rent anything there?
A 6 day canoe trip, in sub-zero temperatures and with no shops or other modern conveniences on route meant we had a quite a bit of kit to bring. I have packed for plenty of canoe/kayak trips before, but when you have to fit everything on a plane, careful planning is required.
The photo below is pretty much what travelled with me from Ireland; I had to ditch the tent due to space but managed to keep the Bushmills. I must admit I was dreading the questions at check-in, regarding if I had any sharp objects in my luggage. Thankfully the 7 knives and axe/saw made it aboard the flight.
When we landed in Kusammo (60min from Hossa), Len brought us to the supermarket. This was the only chance we had to buy what we needed for the next 6 days, a little stressful!
Len and his partner Maija run an amazing chalet/camping area in the National Park. Its called ‘Hossan Lumo’ and they looked after everything else we needed. We rented canoes, paddles and watertight barrels and used ‘Hossan Lumo’ at the start and end of the trip. I cannot recommend this place enough, it was great to have a local contact that understood our needs.
Each canoe carried two large humans, two large dry bags with each person’s kit, one watertight barrel full of food, all rubbish we accumulated and a fine supply of beers. For those of you who have canoed before, you might be aware that these boats are built for their durability and ability to carry heavy loads and multiple humans on waterways, but are perhaps not best known for their speediness on flat water. We still managed to clock up 25 odd kilometres per day even with heavily laden boats.
What was the accommodation like on the Canoe Trail?
Hossa National Park has an array of lean-to-shelters and the odd log cabin along the canoe trails. We planned all our journeys based on where we could stop for lunch and where we wanted to end up. The map below aided in this decision making, and while the text didn’t make much sense, the logos were pretty clear.
If you are traveling recreationally, use of these locations are totally free, which is just amazing. Each spot comes with readily chopped wood and a drop toilet. Interestingly, the ‘Fins’ have a rule that the last group to arrive at a shelter/cabin have the right to stay there. This means that if a group arrived after us, we would be expected to move on. Makes sense I guess, so that people (e.g. fishermen) cannot just hog one site.
Our trip was actually 8 days long, as the first and last night were spent with Len and Maija at Hossan Lumo in one of their incredible chalets. This was beyond ideal as it gave us the time and space to pack properly, while also making ample use of the sauna.
Talk to us about the food…
Before the big shop in Kuusamo we each took responsibly for a lunch and dinner and created a group shopping list. Breakfasts were agreed as a group and snacks of course followed suit. The usual ‘do you think we have enough cake’ panic set in when in store, so we bought extra everything and we ended up having no shortage on the expedition.
We had steak, beef chilli, bacon and sausages etc over the first few days to ensure the meat didn’t go off or get robbed by wolves. The rest of the week saw veg stews, pastas, chorizo etc. Cake was thrown between moving boats at least thrice a day.
At each camp spot/shelter we found a fire pit with an adjustable pot stand. These were incredible and removed the stress of having to make our own fire/cooking space while also trying to Leave No Trace.
We had a hot breakfast, lunch and dinner each day, which along with the cake kept us going. Food was all stored in large watertight barrels which were kept away from the fire so they were always cool. Thankfully no one got poisoned.
When it came to making room for the next meal, there was a drop toilet around 50-100meters from each of the shelters. These were a wooden shed with a ledge at knee height and a hole. We brought our own toilet paper, and once you were done, a sprinkle of saw dust down the hole completed the job. It wasn’t bad at all…. Honestly!
Tell us a story from your adventure
I think we can all agree most of what happens on expedition stays on expedition, and other stories can only be spoken when sitting around a campfire.
However, as you can imagine not everything on a trip like this goes to plan, and there was certainly one ‘incident’ that had a knock on effect on the next couple of days….
So, one morning we woke up and the early birds started the plan the day’s canoe route. We had paddled around 30km the previous day against a headwind and realised that we were way ahead of schedule. We decided stay local for the day and chance be able to stay another night in the same place. Some people chose to go for a walk and others for a nap. I decided it would be a nice idea to go for a solo paddle with my camera, so I emptied the canoe and packed light for my solo excursion.
Before setting off, another group member decided they would like to carve a spoon, and asked to borrow my crook knife. This is a curved knife shaped like a hook. I wouldn’t like to name him, so let’s call him ‘John’. I found my knife and asked John if he would like me to show him how to use it, but he seemed happy enough so we both ventured off in separate ways.
Around 2 hours later I returned from my solo paddle (which was incredible) to what seemed to be a bit of drama. You might have guessed it, but John had accidently cut a lovely curve into his hand, on the meaty bit beneath the thumb. With 6 highly qualified first aiders inaction, and first aid kits being thrown around like cake the situation was under control, and John had steristips/dry stitches in one hand and a beer in the other hand.
We played the rest of the day out and kept an eye on the wound to decide how we should proceed. It was fairly deep and the main concern was whether we could keep it dry for the next few days.
Since we had taken a day off paddling, the following day was already expected to be a long one, and we added another 5km onto it when the decision was made to get John to a road so he could get himself stitched up in hospital. Not the easiest of tasks when you are in the middle of a national park, nowhere near a road, but it was the right thing to do and no one minded doing it.
To cut the story short, we paddled like mad across open lakes for a day until we reached roadside, where we dropped off John and the Bishop and continued onwards with some people now soloing the boats to our next spot.
The long paddle route meant that we were short on day light, and with a good few kilometres to go the sun was already setting. No stress at this point though, we had the cameras out catching the sunset, we observed a beaver for a while and gently paddled along with what was strangely, no sense of urgency.
Darkness fell, and we were still on the water with a couple of kilometres to go. For the days previous we had always kept an eye on the maps and guide book for any mention of rapids or local information, but on this occasion we missed a rapid warning.
Less than 1km from our campsite, finding our way only with head torches in the pitch-black, we approached a bend, and in the darkness the sound of fast moving water got louder and louder. We were debating what grade the rapid was from the sound, with 2’s and 3’s being shouted out when suddenly the head torches ahead started travelling forward into the distance very quickly. At this point we would only hear the frantic voices of the people beside us, and had no choice but to put the heads down and power straight through the rapids with almost no tactics or idea of what was ahead of us.
We all came out the other side still afloat, with a few of us fairly soaked. We regrouped at the campsite, got the fire lit in no time and soon debated what grade the rapids were and how crazy that was. I think we all agreed they were some of the biggest we had encountered on the trip and we all did well. Len and John later arrived on foot, to hear the stories of our adventures around the fire. John got his wound glued by a lovely Finnish doctor and was back in action.
We camped out beside the river banks, and could hear the intense sound of the rapids all night. When morning broke, we went for a look at the rapid we had encountered…. and well, we can only assume the water levels dropped significantly over night, as there was barely anything there.