Arctic Nights and the Last of the North

April 9, 2015

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

We spend three days at Nordnes Camp and Bygdesenter, a little slice of heaven just south of Røkland. It feels like a northern town should; remote, lacking options in just about every way and, even in August, quite cold. We’re north of the Arctic Circle, farther north than any mainland point in Iceland and, if we draw an intersecting line straight north from our home back in Canada, we’d be somewhere in the wilderness that comprises Nunavut’s extreme north-western edge.

The latitude game is fun.

After spending much of the last few weeks in tents, the offer of a cabin from the friendly campsite staff feels too good to pass up. The rates here are also some of the more reasonable we’ve seen, perhaps due to its location though we can’t be certain. In fact, the cabin is far cheaper that our tent site at Sjøsanden Feriesenter on our first night in Norway.

The man who checks us in greets us with a broad smile and mentions that dinner’s available at a cafeteria located in the main building and that breakfast can be purchased from The Croatian at nine every morning. We’re not certain who the Croatian is, but we can’t wait to meet them.

We opt for the most basic cabin available which, while small, proves to be very comfortable with a sofa that Nita and I can curl up on at night. It feels like an age since we’ve had something other than a bunk or a sleeping mat to sit on. To our left, two young riders arrive and seem quite, uncertain about being here. A group of lads to our right have come here for the fishing and impress us with their early-to-bed and early-to-rise approach to harvesting the nearby rivers. In the north, leisure seems a serious matter!

The first nights’ quiet and well-stocked buffet dinner contrasts sharply to the mayhem of the second where finding a seat borders on the impossible. Tour-busses stop here every couple of days resulting in something akin to a tornado; the masses appear without warning, devour everything in their path and disappear in a wake of chaos and destruction. Having found a place to sit, it’s intoxicating to watch.

The Croatian who missed breakfast makes an appearance for dinner and does not disappoint. Short and stalky, wrestling a till surrounded by over-zealous diners breaks his calm, and it’s not long before he throws his hands into the air, retreats to the kitchen and starts churning out meal after meal, all the while muttering for all to hear. It’s comedy gold.

Nordnes becomes a place to catch up on work, to relax and to breath in the Arctic air. The closest gas station and CO-OP sit ten minutes to the north, but beyond that, there’s nothing but rolling mountains dressed in stunted trees, sectioned by a single road and malnourished river. This is as far north as we’ll go for now – leaving Nordcap as one of a million reasons for us to return to Norway. Our time in Europe is fast running out, and we’ve plenty to see before it ends.

After the third night spent in our tiny cabin, it’s time to hit the road. Today we’ll cross into Sweden for the first time and find a spot to camp near Arvidsjaur, a small town half-way between where we’ve been and where we need to go. First, we head to Røkland to fill the tanks, then backtrack about thirty minutes to HWY 77, waving to our friends at Nordnes as we pass.

It’s a sharp left off the highway followed by another that rises along a steep rock-face towards the sky and into Junkerdal National Park. The road continues to narrow until it seems little wider than an average car, but there’s little reason to imagine traffic being a problem of any kind here. The climb remains dramatic through the next few turns until we level out along a tree-lined tarmac flanked by dramatic and bulbous mountains to either side.

Counter to our belief that we’d have this road to ourselves, a group of tourists wave as we pass their bus which has parked itself along a roadside pull-out. It’s the last vehicle we’ll see for most of the day and the warmth of their smiles stay with us for a while.

We continue to wind our way through this plateau, amazed by the lush greens that fill the valley floor which lay in defiance to the severity of the rock above. As the corners lessen, the road begins to straighten along the Luonosjåhkå river and reveals a wall of near-vertical rock which appears to fade far-off along the horizon, forcing the tarmac to yield a curve once again.

There’s one last climb before we’re deposited on the high altitude tundra, who’s barren plains look magnificent against an uncertain sky and the rain-soaked path. This backdrop welcomes us into Sweden, and it takes our breath away. If I’m honest, we both hope the undulating landscape with it’s muted reds and greens will last the rest of the day. Unimpeded by trees the raw beauty of this place reveals itself to us for miles in every direction.

As the trees grow in stature, we begin a long and steady descent toward Hornavan Lake where we’re met with 30 km of a deep and muddy gravel mixture. It’s a surprising challenge as the concrete-like slush tugs at our front wheels with an unexpected violence. At the end of the construction, we’re thankful to arrive in the small town of Arjeplog, stomachs rumbling and fingers frozen from the chill and rain.

A Shell station along the town’s main street makes an easy stop and, while we make a quick trip to withdraw some Swedish Krona, the owner pours us both a warm coffee and preps a couple of Fransk hotdogs to tide us over until dinner. He refuses any offer of payment and encourages us to help ourselves to more coffee or hot chocolate should we need it! He talks for a while about life in the north, asking about our journey and tops off the visit by stuffing Ferrari keychains in our pockets before sending us back on our way.

Hello, Sweden.

The remainder of the landscape into Arvidsjaur reminds us of our journey into northern Manitoba. Stunted trees line a decaying tarmac pocked with frequent dark circles from eager burn-outs. Indeed, as we talked with the station owner in Arjeplog, a smoke-show broke our conversation for a moment. “It happens here a lot!” And, from the lofty number of rubber scars along this road, we can see he’s right.

We find a tent spot at what’s an almost empty Camp Gielas. Dotted around the facilities’ massive grounds, cozy-looking cabins provide comfort to the few guests who’ve arrived here tonight. The temperature has dropped over the past couple of days, and the constant drizzle brings the temperatures down towards zero. We ride to that farthest point from reception where we’re welcomed by an empty, treed field and a spot next to a glassy lake. We set up camp in record time and don’t hesitate to change into our warm, comfortable clothes.

The reception area in Gielas doubles as a sports complex and the grounds themselves cater toward teams and athletes, hosting a track, gymnasium and spa all standing ready for the buses to show up. There won’t be any today, though; we’re too far out of summer and much too soon for winter which is how we like it.

Nita and I decide to take a walk into Arvidsjaur along its main street in the hopes of finding a place for dinner. We wander by a small lake and try the door at a little café with a waterside frontage, but an under renovations sign nixes that idea. On the hill across the street, there’s a restaurant that seems a little too posh, so we keep heading into town. Along the way, we notice Lindqvist’s, a store that resembles The Bay back home. With dropping temperatures, the hoodie I’ve worn since Fareham needs replacing and it doesn’t take long for me to find something that fits the bill: cosy and cheap!

With our stomachs now in full rumble, we pick up the pace and find a great little spot towards the edge of town. Walking into Aphrodite, we almost turn around to leave; it’s an oven in the central sitting area, and in mere moments we’re starting to break a sweat. Only the smells that float through the air delivering oregano, rosemary and meat to our senses stop us from leaving. A mix of Italian, Greek and Swedish food, this place turns out to be a jewel of a find.

Feeling quite sated, we head back towards camp, stopping along the way to grab an ice cream and to watch the locals making their way around the lake from the comfort of a park bench. As the light fades, we return to our tent, passing a cabin lit with a soft orange glow and two big adventure motorcycles parked in front before crawling into our cosy sleeping bags. Heaven.

The next morning we notice a feature of Camp Gielas that we’ve not seen before: this camp has its own gas station! We use it to fill the bikes after packing at a pace that would make snails seem quick. A slow rhythm of packing allows us to drink the worthwhile views in; pack, sit, look, breathe, pack, sip, look, sit, look, breathe. Just before our bikes rumble to life, I place my hoodie on the camp table as an offering to the gods. It’s seen the farmlands of France, the deserts of North Africa, the Alps and now the Arctic. It’s tired of travel and sit’s waiting for a new owner as we make our way towards Umeå and tomorrow’s early-morning ferry to Finland.

It’s another day with few signs of life as we head for the Gulf of Bothnia and our home for the night at Umeå Camping – Bella Vista. The sights of the day struggle to compete with the past few weeks if I’m to be honest and the arrival of heavy rain near Skellefteå comes as a welcome distraction from tarmac, trees and a straightforward passage. Even with a carefully chosen coastal route, the views of the Baltic’s most northern arm remain few and far between.

The rain stops just outside of Umeå and it’s not long before we pull into Umeå Camping, an industrial-feeling place sporting a few cabins on a large gravelled patch of land. Spoiled by Scandinavian grass beds, the thought of tenting on rocks isn’t very appealing, but it turns out there’s no need to worry about where to set up camp; inside, the young girl at reception gives us a cabin for the night! It’s the most basic lodge we’ve stayed in so far, but it’s perfect for us. We unpack our sleeping bags onto the bunk beds and drape our damp gear over anything that will take its weight.

We’re told that wifi is available but we’ve purchased enough dodgy internet access to question if it’s worth buying – and at about $10 for the night we check with our host about its quality. “If it’s working, it’s definitely not worth the fee!” We appreciate the honesty!

Located in the manufacturing part of Umeå, the camp inhabits an area with few sidewalks and plenty of heavy vehicles. There’s a well-designed shopping centre just up the road, and we set our sights on a walk to it just before dinner. It feels great to stretch our legs and to see the sun breaking through the clouds at long last.

There’s not a lot to keep us interested at the mall, but we do grab a burger for dinner before returning to our cabin. It’s a quiet night along the shores of the inlet, and the warmth of the cabin makes for an excellent time watching movies on our laptop.

At about midnight, with the sun long gone, a different light fills the night sky. Putting on a beautiful show, the aurora borealis provides us an amazing last night in Sweden. We stand outside in complete darkness except for green waves of light pulsing and surging overhead as they make their way east before fading into oblivion. We couldn’t ask for anything more. Inside, we fall asleep feeling quite blessed.

The next morning we’re up early and eager to get going on what’s turned out to be a bright, cloudless day. There’s a crisp chill in the air and a Wasaline ferry sits ten minutes away waiting to take us to Vaasa, Finland. After a couple of quick lefts, it’s just a short jaunt before pulling up to the ticket booth where a quick scan of our tickets has us moving to our waiting spot behind Brit on a KTM Super Duke (That’s now for sale). At first, we notice his Kriega bags (which aren’t that common but excellent in both design and construction) and wave with no response – though he looks like he may be sleeping on his feet.

We wait for our ship to arrive in relative silence, the morning feels peaceful, and there’s a real joy in just taking in the moment. Breaking our zen-like state, the unmistakable sound of an enduro bike turns our heads and, as it pulls up, the rider cuts the engine, drops the kickstand and coasts to a stop with all the confidence of a pro. I mention this because the bike’s owner, Robert, has ridden for just over a month!

He jumps off his bike and walks straight over to chat, getting his gloves off just in time for a handshake. The commotion brings over the other rider, and he looks knackered. “I slept right here last night.” Nita, Robert and I listen as Ian tells us about his marathon (and spur-of-the-moment) motorcycle journey that’s seen eight weeks of riding with little-to-no rest. Unable to find lodging in Umeå last night, he opted to camp on the dock which has left him quite dazed today. He apologises for not coming over sooner but, with a story like that, we can understand!

Robert chose Nordkapp for his first attempt at travelling by motorcycle and, as his story unfolds, Nita and I fall in love with his grand sense of ambition. He has an irrepressible spirit and DIY sensibility that we seem to have misplaced in North America and all without ego or sense of wanton polarisation. For him, it’s about having fun and working hard. Filled with pride, he shows us his headlight hacks and even the spot where his exhaust melted his camping mat after a home-made nylon brace failed. For Robert, it’s about learning as he goes and he has all the respect I can muster.

It takes about twenty minutes for the ship to arrive and we load the bikes before settling into the lounge for our four-hour crossing of the Gulf of Bothnia. We while away the time looking at pictures of Roberts journey so far which includes a couple of shots that show his bike laying in a stream beneath a log he’s attempted to use as a bridge. Have I mentioned that I like this kid!? One month on two wheels and he’s trying a log crossing! The conversation passes the hours, and soon we find ourselves geared-up and working our way through the process of detaching our motorcycles from the deck of the ship.

As the ramp lowers and sunlight fills the deck, we say our goodbyes before wheeling our bikes onto Finnish soil for the first time. It’s not long before we make a right turn in Vaasa and wave to our friends for the last time as we begin our journey south towards Ikaalinen.

With a surprising predictability, the flat ribbon of tarmac unfolds between wide open fields until we disappear into wooded forests populated by trees which still appear far too short. Then, just as the shadows begin to envelop our path, the firs fade as we emerge onto plateaus that resemble the tundra we witnessed on our arrival into Sweden. However, farmers fields and the occasional small town are never far away.

We turn down a road that welcomes us as though we’re the first travellers it’s seen in years. It’s surface, covered with cracks and potholes, delivers us to Toivolansaari Camping, an excellent spot just outside of Ikaalinen on a peninsula connected by the most tenuous thread of land imaginable.

The sky has remained blue all day, and the chill in the air keeps us honest. We check-in and find a spot along the water near a protective line of trees which lead onto an arm of land that extends into Lake Kyrösjärvi. Hidden amongst the trees, a fire pit with rotting benches and a breathtaking view across a narrow band of water provides a comfortable spot to take everything in. The sun’s warm light drapes a golden blanket over us, and we feel as though we could spend a lifetime here.

Time moves slowly along the water in Ikaalinen, and each step exists as a unique moment of contemplation. The fresh air blows over the water, bending the tall grass and rustles through the trees before filling our lungs. We move along the shore, stop, breathe and move again before wandering along the waterfront as far as we can.

At the far-end of the peninsula, our stomachs ache and dinner calls. Rather than ride, we continue our meandering of Ikaalinen by foot; along the narrow slice of land that brought us here, up the steep hill into town and past the old wooden church that once stood as the centre of life here. Almost everything is closed – not that there seems to be that much here outside of peace and quiet. The smell of something delicious draws us further up the street until we happen upon Deniz Pizzeria, an innocuous looking eatery which, from the outside, shares more in common with an office building than a dinner destination.

But what a place Deniz turns out to be! Up a long flight of stairs, we emerge into an unconsidered dining room, and a sea of families gathered around tables where an endless line of fantastic looking pizzas make their way to eager mouths. The owners talk with us between servings, and when our food arrives, we’re not disappointed. This is, hands-down, the best pizza we’ve had since Camping La Pineta in San Vito lo Capo, Sicily.

Feeling quite full, we make our way back to our campsite just in time to watch the sun disappear over the horizon. In our tent, there’s little to hear other than the occasional rustle of branches and birds in the distance. Soon, we’re fast asleep.

We take our time getting ready the following morning. There’s coffee and treats in the main building though the more substantial breakfasts offered have now stopped. The young woman behind the counter lets us know that the campsite may close for good soon and it makes our hearts a little sad to think that this gem may no longer exist.

As is often the case, with the bikes packed a lone woman emerges from a nearby camper and begins talking with us. “I thought the girl (Nita) was alone and we were so worried about her last night!” We talk for about ten minutes when, finger raised to the sky, she tells us to wait here while she runs to her home. When she returns, she’s holding a towel and some money.

“I’m not sure how much this is worth, but my husband and I brought it back from Hungary – maybe ten euros? Also, this is a towel that I made – it’s customary to give something to travellers.” The tea-towel is adorned in a beautiful pattern, and we’re both surprised and grateful for the gifts. She hugs us both before heading back to her trailer, and we wind our way back through the camp, across the narrow band of soil and through Ikaalinen on our way south again, this time toward Lahti in the south.

To be honest, today’s riding keeps us wanting. We’re in the heart of lake country, and it is very pretty but perhaps the epic and raw beauty of the Arctic has us yearning for more. Roads lined with ever-growing pines offer brief glimpses of the water, frequent wheat fields and the occasional industrial complex. It’s beautiful to be riding through this wonderful country and, with the exception of Tampere, we spend much of the day alone.

It’s a short day in the saddle, and in just a few hours we make our way through the streets of Lahti before heading north, left down a long, private road and into Mukkula Camping, our home for the night set against the glimmering backdrop of Lake Vesijärvi. After checking in, we find a spot in a communal field along the water and set up camp with no-one else in sight.

In fact, a group of ducks and a lone swan who make their way towards our tent looking for a handout remain our only company for the night. The birds close any gap, waddling into a circle around the tent which, while cute at first, begins to feel like mob-bosses running a protection racket in Jersey. The Swan remains kept at bay by the mallards, but we can’t help but feel that any break in feeding will have them unleashing the White Terror upon us.

Beyond the militant birds and breath-taking scenery, there’s another reason we’ve chosen to stop here for the night; Ace Corner Finland, an off-shoot of the famous London bike-stop, Ace Cafe and it’s motorcycle museum sit a ten-minute ride from our camp. With our site set and some certainty that the birds won’t destroy our tent while we’re gone, we hop on my bike and make our way into town.

It’s quiet at the café when we arrive. There’s a couple of motorcycles parked in the lot, but for the most part, Nita and I have the place to ourselves. The restaurant provides a spot to grab dinner, and it’s while we’re sitting down enjoying our meal that we meet Timo, a terrific man who has an undeniable passion for motorcycles and travel.

Timo, it turns out, manages IT for Japsistarat, a twelve-hundred-strong vintage Japanese motorcycle club in Finland. His pride and excitement in the organisation culminate in the story of a group journey to the Yamaha factory in Japan.

After years of trying to organise a factory visit with little success, a letter explaining that the brother of deceased Yamaha Motorcycle Grand Prix Champion Jarno Saarinen would be joining the excursion as part of the club met with an unexpected response from the corporation. First, Yamaha approved the tour, and on their arrival, the president of the company met the group as honoured guests along with a greeting line of employees.

Our conversation lasts about an hour before Timo bids us a fond farewell and we begin to make our way through the museum. It’s intimate, but the collection is well-worth the visit. We take our time weaving from room to room between the vintage Harleys, Indians and some stellar choppers. There’s even a Finnish-built Solifel 50cc Skootterit which had made its way around the world in the 1960’s, hammering home once again that it’s not the bike, it’s the person’s heart that makes an adventure possible.

We look for a memento of our visit to the Ace Corner, then make our way back to camp where the sun, now low on the horizon, bathes us in a fantastic light. The duck’s return, and the Swan threatens to flank us from the right but the impending night keeps them at bay. We sit in our chairs taking in our second-last night in Finland and, while it’s all feels a bit too quick, returning here to spend more time is a happy thought.

It doesn’t take long for us to fall asleep in the silence that envelops the camp and, in just a few short hours, we’ll be on our way to Espoo before catching a ferry to Estonia and the former Soviet Bloc.

 

 

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About

I’m a Canadian writer, adventure motorcyclist and world traveller of British and Libyan descent. I’ve spent the past two and a half years travelling the globe by motorcycle as one-half of We Love Motogeo, following a route that makes little sense to anyone else, while supporting our non-profit organization, the Lost for Good Project. I’ve been chased by all manner of animal, detained as a spy in North Africa and waited out a hurricane in the bowels of a ferry. While I’m no spy (honestly), I am a lover of decent coffee and great yarns sewn around a campfire.

9 comments

  1. Comment by Jan Thain

    Jan Thain April 25, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    Well your post could “ALMOST” make a camper out of me! Those stunning views, the peace, quiet and times of reflection seem to have been perfect timing for both of you. Had quite the giggle over the Tourist buses! Just when you think you have the world to yourself and what?? Interesting to sit back and enjoy the onslaught or as you did find another venue!! Thanks again for another great read and beautiful pics. Travel .vicariously thru Issa.Nita/ Loved it! xoxo

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish April 25, 2015 at 11:20 pm

      Thanks! It’s been a beautiful journey through the north and we’re sad to leave. Hopefully we’ll be back at some point soon…

  2. Comment by Mark Robinson

    Mark Robinson April 25, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    Hi Guys, great post as always. Not sure about the cold though!

    Maree and I have just spent 10 days camping and mountain biking in The Flinders Ranges South Australia. This is near to the town of Hawker were we chatted to you outside the cafe in Hawker almost 1 year ago to the day! Hope you are both well. Safe travelling – Mark

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish April 25, 2015 at 11:24 pm

      Hi Mark – we’re great thanks – can’t believe it’s been a year since we ran into you in Hawker. Time really does fly… camping in the Flinders sounds like heaven – we wish we were with you both! Hope you’re well and keeping life interesting…

  3. Comment by Kyle Wang

    Kyle Wang April 25, 2015 at 11:15 pm

    Reading your posts always excite me to plan for the next camping adventure!

    Great writing style too! Loved the interesting people and conversation you guys have along with the beautiful scenic views described. Safe riding!

    Cheers,
    Kyle

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish April 25, 2015 at 11:27 pm

      Kyle – thanks so much for taking the time to leave a note – it means a lot! Really glad to hear the posts get you fired up for your next adventure, that means the websites working :) Keep us posted on your plans!

  4. Comment by maaike rawcliffe

    maaike rawcliffe April 25, 2015 at 11:16 pm

    Love the motorcycle galleries! Especially the ones hanging on the wall like framed art…and the part where you left your hoodie behind, love it!

  5. Comment by maaike rawcliffe

    maaike rawcliffe April 25, 2015 at 11:16 pm

    I just finished looking at your map…reading your blogs and losing hours to photo-gazing, it seems you’ve been everywhere, and then on the map, there is so much more left! What a wonderful and amazing world we live in that such a giant journey reveals how close we all really are, the people you meet and talk to, all the signs in different languages, but how we are all just people, connecting around the world. I love this blog!

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish April 25, 2015 at 11:29 pm

      Oh Maaike. Thanks so much – what lovely things to say and beautiful insights into our world. Yes, we’ve been travelling for so long – for so far – and yet we’ve seen only the thinnest slice. It keeps us inspired to keep on going! And, contrary to what you’d hear on the news, we’ve met the most wonderful people along the way :)

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