In a sense this whole venture described in this book was born out of a blunder.
Leka’s brother had told him to check out a potential paddling route he had traced out on the map, but due to the inattentiveness or perhaps inability of Leka to properly read charts his finger landed on an entirely different spot.
But as the eternal optimist he is, Leka didn’t let this slight problem deter him, but rather proceeded with even more enthusiasm to trace out the route he had now come about. By the end of this exercise he was convinced: It would indeed theoretically be possible to paddle from the White Sea to the Gulf of Finland. The question that now demanded an answer in Leka’s mind was was this possible in practice too.
The photographs that follow gives you a glimpse into what ensued when this attempt was made.
The thing that amused our friends the most during the preparation for our grand journey was that Leka, instead of doing any actual preparing, spent his time cutting up fabric and designing a flag for the mission. This way Leka spent the last precious moments prior to to our departure while the other worked hard on securing more pertinent equipment like, say, charts.
But truth be told, any expedition worth its name needs a flag to fly, and rarely are they as cool-looking as ours! So while Leka’s contribution might have been meager, it was nonetheless essential.
In this photo we are standing on shore of the White Sea, and from here our adventure would begin. Seen in the picture, from left to right, are Leka, Ea, Antti and Kaisa. The flag we so proudly display reads “Kem”, being the starting point for our journey and, in what at this point felt like an undue sense of optimism, our goal, “Pitr”. (Pitr being how the locals refer to the great city of St Petersburg.)
Upon our departure the sea was fortunately calm, providing us with a sense of hope. Perhaps our idea was executable, something we had seriously come to doubt during the spring that preceded our departure. One Russian kayaker we had gotten in touch with did his utmost to discourage us from an undertaking of this sort, citing many quite good reasons for why it was a bad idea to start with. But no one who listens to good advice has ever made history. Or at least that was how Leka interpreted these words of warning.
At this point you can see that all of our kayaks were packed to the brim, with additional bags stored of the deck. While this solution is in no way ideal, the prospect of not having enough food or drink with us was a much more daunting one. Especially since we all knew how cranky Antti would get, should he be deprived of a meal.
What is also evident from this photograph, is how alone we were out on the sea. Rarely did we encounter anyone else, and even when seeing someone, they were usually too far away from us to speak to. It seems, that at least in early June, the White Sea is a perfect place for those seeking solitude and peace.
Cooking outdoors can be a lot of fun. Provided a few things are in place.
1. That the gods of weather smile upon the cook.
2. That the ingredients for the menu are all in place.
2. That the stove works without any hickups
This time all the stars aligned as hoped for. A beautiful and warm day on the rocks of a small island, with just the slightest breeze around.
With Leka as our designated chef, we usually ate lunch at around 12 o’clock, and dinner at around 6 pm. Breakfast and snacks was something everyone cared for for themselves.
A usual lunch would be pasta with a tomato sauce completed with soy chunks, and dinner a stew made out of lentils and rice.
The stove Leka used was a Primus Omnifuel, which is very open-minded when it comes to what types of fuel it accepts. Only at the very end of our journey did it begin to display some fatigue with burning the Russian gasoline we kept feeding it. But even then a good clean-up and a diet of propane gas for a while had it happy and content for the remainder of our adventure.
We might not have had a common language, but the love for the sea is universally understood.
Which is true, but also not the entire truth. In actuality Kaisa often came to our rescue, being the one of us who had actually studied Russian for a few years at this point. And when Kaisa was unavailable or uninterested in participating in conversations we had another trick up our sleeve.
Prior to leaving we had had small neat cards printed out in which we told about who we were, what we were doing and where we were going in both Russian and Finnish. These card we then handed out to anyone and everyone we met. The man in the camouflage pants can be seen reading the card in question in this photograph.
This group of Russian fishermen took an immediate interest in seeing our brightly coloured vessels pulled up on the rocks on a small island far from everything. Curiosites such as this do not apparently come around all too often in this neck of the woods, and thus the trio wanted to learn more.
Here Ea and Antti are engaged in a lively discussion conducted with a surprisingly limited vocabulary on both sides, but in the end all participants seemed content and continued their respective journeys.
In Indian philosophy an example of a frog living in a well is often cited. The idea of the story is that the frog tries to comprehend what an ocean is like based on its experience of its well. A task that anyone can understand is doomed from the get go.
The idea of the fable is to highlight the error of trying to make sense and say anything definitive about what is possible in the world around us solely based on our own invariably limited experience.
While the story at first glance might seem simplistic, it conjures some real wisdom. And as most wisdom, this wisdom too is one best learned the hard way.
Coming from the shores of the Gulf of Finland tides really never play any real or meaningful role for sailors. The variation of depth between high and low tide is usually measured in inches.
But here too the White Sea was different. And just how different it was we learned on the third morning of our voyage when to our horror we realised that the sea had disappeared. Where still yesterday the waves had happily splashed the shores was now a vast field of mud.
Reluctant to wait for the six hours it would take for the water to return we decided that drawing our vessels to where they would float was a better idea. There was only one problem: Kaisa being amputated on both legs found it difficult to walk on this sticky ground. Which is quite understandable, as it was quite the chore even when equipped with meat feet (as Kaisa likes to refer to our organic extremities).
The solution was simple. Tie some straps around Kaisa’s kayak, have her sit in it, and drag it to our point of departure. If you have ever come across the painting “Barge Haulers on the Volga” done by the Russian master Ilja Repin you can probably see the parallels to this scene.
And if you look really closely, you will be able to see that Antti’s right hand side is all muddy and icky. That is because during the operation he fell flat as one of the straps Ea and he pulled from came loose. Not the most attractive outcome to be honest.
Still, in due time we were able to continue towards our first big milepost, the city of Belomorsk, from where were were to leave the White Sea and enter into the canal system.
You have not really known cold until you’ve experienced the frigid winds of the White Sea!
Seen here is a scene where the four of us had to take to land and run around this small village or just a while to get the blood flowing again in our deep-frozen fingers.
Also seen here is a ship that looks like it is in less than ideal shape and in our estimation might never sail again. But as we are in Russia, you never know – it just might be out on the high seas by tomorrow. And that is one reason why paddling in these waters is so rewarding, one never knows what new exciting thing lies behind the corner.
As one of our friends once commented “traveling in the western world has for me become predictable and boring, as everything is so over-produced that it offers no real joy any more.”
While we might not go as far as to be quite as blunt as our friend we willingly concede that travelling in the Russian part of Karelia is very much free from these defects. Every day in these waters is an adventure!
If you are looking for the perfect travel companion Ea most certainly comes close. Hardworking, happy and not prone to complaining, she paddles on for as long as it takes.
Often times a small rift would appear in the opinions of the sailors, with Ea and Leka pushing to keep paddling for an hour or two more, and Kaisa and Antti stating that evenings were to be reserved for reading and relaxing.
This photograph is also a good example of an image to display when trying to convince someone to join a kayaking journey as ours. The sea is calm, the sky the most perfect subdued hue of bluish grey and pink, and the wind close to nonexistent with an open horizon to serve as the cherry on top.
And in all honesty this image is just as good a representation as the horror photos that can be seen further on. There will always be good days, just as there will be bad days, and the key is not to get too attached to or distracted by either, but just keep going.
Everyone of us in our team of four had a special skill that he or she brought to the table. Antti’s number one skill was to serve as our fire starter. And while this might not seem like a particularly impressive skill from the comfort of your warmth of your home, things are different out in the bush!
It is also with pointing out that the fire serves multiple purposes, a point often lost if one has not had the privilege of outdoor life. First of, and quite obviously, fire provides warmth. This is important as all the time some portion of our gear will be wet. Not to speak of cold being a constant companion when being as up North as we were.
Secondly fire provides a boost in morale. This is more difficult to explain in any coherent way, but this does not take away from the fact that fire makes us feel good.
Thirdly, and this is true especially in areas such as these, fire (or to be more exact the smoke, but you really cannot have one without the other) keeps the mosquitoes away. The fire is thus a great source of better mental health and happiness for everyone involved.
In the previous caption we complained about the cold being something of an austerity. But cold has nothing on the millions of blood-sucking mosquitos doing everything in their power to drain you of the very last drop of your blood.
Therefore fire and smoke are the best friends of a paddler, and the person who provided us with fire was Antti. We are forever grateful.
Perfection is when nothing can be added or subtracted from something without making it less.
This particular day we had some longer crossings of open water to navigate across. A task difficult in itself, close to impossible if the conditions are not right. But that day we were in luck. The sea around us was dead calm, with not as much as a ripple visible on its surface, save for those created by the four of us.
Upon us paddling along the shore one particularly beautiful day we came upon this beautifully dilapidated old church hidden away in the shrubbery and unanimously decided that this was a building worth further acquainting with. Externally it looked abandoned with the door wide open.
Upon entering Leka told Antti to take his hat off as a sign of respect toward this sacred house. But Antti, being as stubborn as he is strong-willed announced that he would do no such thing. So the hat stayed on.
To our surprise there were still signs of worship to be seen once we entered. A small altar of icons was meticulously laid out, and the air still had a faint smell of incense in it. The most exiting part was that the small tower had a ladder leading up to it, an opportunity quickly seized upon by Leka, who moments later could be seen waving to the entire crew from the somewhat rickety construction.
The next day we encountered the worst storm of our entire trip. Something Leka was quick to attribute to Antti’s disrespectful attitude. So remember: Always take you hat off when stepping into a place of worship!
From Leka’s personal notes:
Examples of when cooking outdoors is not that much fun:
1. When caught in a rainstorm
2. On an island with no real shelter
3. It’s cold outside
4. And you are stranded there for god knows how long because the wind just won’t die
Add to this that just when I was about to finish my shift in the kitchen I accidentally knocked over the pot, spilling a quarter of the stew on the sandy ground. Not my finest hour.
There are times when you do everything right, and it turns out all wrong. And the only way you navigate yourself out of the mess you found yourself in is by pure luck.
We were really looking forward to the day off in Petrozavodsk. After a good two weeks or so of camping it is safe to say that we were ready for the fresh bedsheets and flushing toilet that a night in a hotel would afford us.
Still we were far from reckless. Arriving at the strait we took to land, checked the most up to date weather forecasts and visually estimated the best route to the city on the other side. The sky at this point was not completely cloud free, but neither was it menacingly black.
We made the collective decision to go for it, equipped with all the knowledge we had at our disposal at that time.
Without wasting any time we paddled on in a tight formation. Upon reaching the very middle of the strait we ran out of luck. Heavy winds began blowing and the water around us went berserk. The sky above us turned dark in color. And more heavy clouds kept rolling over the hills ahead of us. The simple crossing had in a moment turned into a real battle with us being on the loosing side. With all our power we were only just capable of advancing with a pace of a tired snail. The wind was right in our face.
Turning back was not an option, as turning the fully loaded kayaks under such circumstances felt unadvisable. Over the heavy wind we shouted instructions to each other and tried to figure out what to do.
(To give you an idea of the seriousness of the situation we can offer one example: This was the only moment when Leka had to leave his camera untouched, as going for it might have proven fatal. Thus there are no photographs from the moment when things were at their bleakest.)
Our salvation came in the form of grace from above. For as soon as the ordeal had started, so quick was it to die down. Or if not die down, then at least calm down to the point that we were able to make it to the shore.
It is curious how long one nautical mile can be when caught in a storm. There is no distance we know of that is equal to it in length.
The luxury of dry clothes, a delicious meal and a soft bed can only fully be appreciated when preceded by a week of suffering.
The hotel Fregat next to Lake Onega was kind enough to accommodate not only us but our kayaks as well. For a reasonable fee that is. Still, we were not complaining. Rarely if ever would we discuss plans for the future as cozily as in this image, where our chief navigator Ea outlines the route for the following days, all while Kaisa attentively watches and listens.
Those interested in the diary Kaisa kept during the entire voyage will be happy to note that she is seen here finishing the first of the four booklets that eventually were turned into the book this site is speaking about.
But as with all luxury of the world, it is here one day, and gone the other. That is to say, it is better no tot get too attached to the comforts provided, as leaving them behind will be all the more painful the more attached one is. A sage of steady mind thus accepts what she is provided with, without trying to cling to it when it is time to relinquish it.
There are things only fellow paddlers will pick up on when viewing a photograph such as this one. The main thing that one who has eyes to see sees is that either the route planned is now a much easier one or the waters much warmer or both.
Which is the clue that gives all this away? Well, in this case it is simply a question of attire. Seen here, Kaisa is sporting only a normal jacket, albeit gore tex, instead of the dry suit she had been wearing up to this point. Also the spray skirt she is wearing is not attached to the brim of her boat.
This tells a kayaker that the waters now sailed are safer and offer little foreseeable danger.
The Outfit of the Day -image that could have been shot any given day during the first half of our journey.
Seen here Leka is sporting his trademark long johns (that had two gaping holes in the crotch area!) and a long sleeved merino shirt that he both paddled and slept in. The boots, which already at this point of the adventure smelled like death, are a key piece of his wardrobe.
The cap he is wearing is one that drove Kaisa to the brink of madness. Not because she did not like it, but rather the exact opposite. Kaisa could not for the life of her bring herself to understand why anyone in their right mind would bring such a nice pristinely yellow (of all colors!) cap to conditions such as those our team was facing. And in all honesty the cap took a hit or two during our weeks out at sea. But what it lost in appearance it more than gained in experience. Much like the person wearing it.
Visible in the back hanging from a tree is his trusted dry suit.
A common question asked is if we don’t start to get on each others nerves on a long journey such as this. And yes, there are times when the company of others becomes too much. But these moments are far fewer than one would expect.
In the end, we all rely on each other, and have to place the welfare of the team ahead of our own. And should one long for some solitude, it is easy to allow for some distance between the kayaks, and a small personal space is created.
In addition to this, the fact that the team was made up from four Finns who are quite comfortable with long stints of silence probably also played a part in how well it all worked our in the end.
The world renowned kayak car!
As we were making our way across a system of locks connecting canals and lakes there were times when we had to walk around the locks with all of our gear. (The locks at least in this part of Russia had a set of rules so strict and complex that there was no way a simple kayak could ever fulfil the requirements posed.)
To make transitioning from one body of water to another across land as painless as possible, we devised a plan of rolling our ships from one side to the other instead of carrying them. This set of wheels made for an engineering masterpiece, lessening our burden as well as shaving of precious minutes from the duration of the task.
Another small thing to take notice of in regards to this photograph:
The orange patch on Antti’s boot came from an earlier outing he had been on. While chopping wood, Antti apparently mistook his own leg for a log and gave it a good whack. Still, after some mending, the boot was once again good to go, as was his leg. Though it took a while longer to heal.
As June turned into July and our journey took us further South the days also became warmer and sunnier. Gone were the freezingly cold waters of the White Sea, and most days the sun blessed us with her presence.
It felt like every day we wore one item of clothing less. The bulky dry suits had since long been replaced by more nimble attire, heavy boots were stored away and sneakers took their place on our feet. And when winds permitted, the spray skirts were kept off to ensure better air flow.
If not by kayak then by truck!
On occasion the distance between the locks proved too long to be traversed by foot, and in these cases we organised for alternative means of transport. Like in this photograph, were Kaisa and her trusted ship are packed into the one vehicle that most perfectly epitomises Russia, the UAZ!
It is a car as clunky as its appearance, but what it lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for in reliability and stamina. Which we felt to be a befitting parallel to what we were attempting. We might not at all times have looked as professional as we would have liked, but every day we got up and did our thing.
The only downside of this ride was that some of the exhaust fumes leaked into the cabin, making the four kilometre drive in this van an experience to be cherished as a memory but perhaps not one longed for once back on the open waters.
Mandrogi is a most curious place. It is a village constructed after the fall of the Soviet Union by a Russian millionaire. The place can best be described as a mix between a museum (in that it tries to show what life was like in the 18th and 19th century in Russia) and Disney World (in that much of that which is seen is to one extent or the other idealised fantasy).
One nice thing about the village is, is that it hosts a wide array of artisans, who open up their workshops (and perhaps sell some of their art) to the cruise ship passengers who pop by.
When we arrived at Mandrogi the local artists took an immediate liking to us, and once all the hustle and bustle of the day was over and all the tourists had left the grounds, they invited us to an evening of song and dance with them at the studio one of them kept.
In a perfect display of Russian hospitality tea, cookies, and vodka for those who were inclined to drink more spirited stuff, was passed around in a merry array. We communicated in three languages and seemed to understand each other just fine. Even Leka, a person averse to all things fun, seemed to enjoy himself among this motley crew of artists.
With the river Svir running right outside the open doors we had found a most wonderful place to recuperate at, and ended up staying for an additional night.
Save for Kaisa’s rotomolded kayak and her carbon fibre paddle there is little indication that this photograph wouldn’t be from the 1950’s. Everything in this scene is a testament of lazy summer days of the Russian countryside. And these words are written in admiration, not in jest or out of derision.
The lady wearing the scarf was responsible for operating the bridge, meaning she sat guard in a cabin no larger than four square meters. Once a boat (or in our case four kayaks) arrived, she would get up, walk over to the hand operated winch, and start cranking. Resulting in a very slow sideways opening of the bridge, creating a gap just big enough for us to fit through.
Our estimation is that no more than five ships would pass her bridge a day, based of the number of boats we encountered during any given day in the canal, making for quite a leisurely pace of work for the operator. If that is not the perfect summer job, then we do not know what is!
And then there was rain. Lots of it. The fun part was that there was no place to get to the shore in the Ladoga canal, as it was all overgrown with reeds and various other shrubbery. So no getting any rain gear on.
Even finding a place to camp became an ordeal at this part of the journey, with landing spots few and far in-between. At times we even had to skip lunch, as cooking on the deck of a plastic kayak would be a decidedly dumb idea.
Lucky for us we had the company of kilometer posts to keep us company for the duration of the canals all 169 kilometers. One down, 168 to go!
Even now, two years later, we still evoke the term “Ladoga canal” when we wish to refer to an arduous task that just needs to be patiently completed. A phrase coined and most often employed by Ea, no stranger to boring tedious tasks.
It felt absurd to suddenly sail past all these insanely big apartment blocks still under construction after having been out in nature for such a long time. Villages with small huts was what we had gotten used to and anything with more than two stories high felt out of place.
Seeing these tall buildings also signified that our journey was at its end. We were quickly approaching Northern Europe’s largest city: St Petersburg!
As much as we had looked forward to this moment during our time out at sea the reaching of our goal felt more overwhelming than filled with relief. Such a multitude of impressions going on all at once, so much traffic, so many people all around. For the longest time on our journey seeing someone fishing or a bird taking flight constituted an event worth sharing, here the constant bombardment of information was par for the course.
And while we could still recall with ease the first paddle strokes out in the White Sea, the frigid winds howling around us, it seemed that all of that belonged to another journey. Or perhaps even another lifetime. The place from where we began our adventure and the place where we ended it could not have been more different.
A part of us looked back with longing on those early days, as they were filled with the anticipation of the unknown. Here relief from toil was promised, but with such a promise comes predictability and boredom.
In this world every feeling of happiness has a speck of sorrow that goes along with it. Perhaps the city around us also served to remind us of the return to our worldly duties – the adventure was now over.
Here we are, the four of us proudly (or at least a bit amused) flying the flag for one last time during our expedition! No more pooping in the woods, no more fighting hoards of mosquitos while trying to enjoy a lackluster breakfast, no more aching muscles (or in Kaisa’s case wrist).
Standing in front of the local yacht club are four raggedly-looking paddlers who have just sailed from the shores of Kem to the city of St Petersburg. This disheveled bunch of sailors is now eagerly awaiting a hot shower and a shave. Not to mention all the wonderful vegetarian food this grand metropolis has to offer!