2017/07/24 (Monday; Kokkola -> Vittangi)
The promised rain finally arrived in the middle of the night, and continued for some hours. But at 6 in the morning sun was streaming into my tent, and I couldn’t help but get up, so excited was I to be on the road. It took me some time to have my breakfast, break down the camp, and pack up. I was eventually rolling by 8. This should be getting quicker as I got back into the swing of things.
One thing, among many, that a solo motorcycle trip blesses you with is the opportunity to make decisions. Every day you must decide what direction to go in and how far to go, and the choice you make has a substantial and meaningful outcome on how the trip goes and what you get to experience. The presentation of these choices, and the lack of constraints on making them, is one of the things that contributes most to the overall feeling of freedom you get when you’re on the road. Today was unusually extreme in this respect though, and the choice I was going to make would affect the entire nature of the trip.
My original plan had been to go to Nordkapp — a place on the northern coast of Norway with the distinction of being the furthest north in Europe you could go by road. It was actually neither the furthest north point of Europe, islands existing further up, nor was it the furthest north point of mainland Europe, because it was actually on an island itself, just one that happened to be reached by a bridge rather than a boat. Somehow the northernmost mainland point never received much attention — there weren’t even any roads to get there — and no one really cared about the islands except a few fisherman and a bunch of birds. At any rate Nordkapp represented a destination that would take me through spectacular terrain and into the realm of the midnight sun. Furthermore my motorcycle itself was called the “Caponord”, Italian for Nordkapp, representing what was doubtless a remote and romantic-sounding destination fit for an adventure-style motorcycle, particularly one made in southern Europe. Indeed, remote and romantic-sounding even to me, who lived already in the far north of the continent.
But on the other hand the weather yesterday had sidetracked me west. I was now much closer to another, even more spectacular destination that I’d long been eying on the map: Lofoten. Lofoten was a sawtooth chain of mountains jutting up out of the water running in a 300-kilometer long arc off Norway’s northwest coast. A road actually went out to nearly the very end, weaving in and out along fjords, bridging across from island to island, and tunneling through solid rock when that was the shortest way to the other side of a mountain. Just looking at the map, it looked like a motorcyclist’s dream. The only reason I’d chosen Nordkapp was that my wife had made it clear she wanted to come visit Lofoten too, so I figured I’d better save it for another time.
But now I was out on the road, and the reality of the here and now trumped all other considerations. I pored over maps, plotting possible routes. I measured stages and counted days. I got on my iPad and studied weather reports, for various points along the road on the various dates I expected to be there. The reports for both areas looked quite good, absolutely rare and incredible for Norway, subject to so much dropping of rainfall from the moist Gulf Stream Atlantic air meeting its high mountains. But while both were good, the ones for Lofoten looked absolutely spectacular. Full sunny days with temperatures reaching up to 24 degrees. Nordkapp, while mostly sunny and absent of rain, was promising only up to the low teens. Furthermore there was rain predicted along my route back from there, while from Lofoten it looked to be smooth sailing all the way home. Not that one could put TOO much stock in forecasts from a week out, but the one for the northwest just looked SO strong and clear that it was clear that the odds were going to be better there.
That stacked up against my wife’s wishes. I knew that regardless of whether I went now, I would be bound to go to Lofoten with her again in the near future, probably before even seeing Nordkapp once. I decided I was willing to accept this, and when I made it clear to her that my going now wouldn’t affect us going in the future one bit, she gave me her blessing as well. And so it was decided. I got on the bike and pointed northwest.
The first part of the ride traced along the coast. The promised rain had hit hard and long last night, and it seemed it was still finishing up further north. I rode through a couple of showers, but in each case I was able to see some hint of lightening sky up ahead when the drops started coming down, so I declined to stop and put on my rain gear. My decisions were rewarded, since the rain wasn’t that heavy, and I soon dried on the stretches afterwards.
I stopped in Tornio for lunch and wolfed down a full pizza. I’m not sure why but I got the craving and all the riding seemed to be giving me an appetite. It’s a more physical activity than one might think, just sitting there on the saddle, but in reality you’re needing to provide substantial input to take the bike around curves, and you’re always leaning against the wind. Mentally it consumes energy as well, since you’re needing to maintain a continuous high level of alertness.
After lunch I crossed over the mighty Tornio River on a bridge, and just like that, without even so much as a stop, I was in Sweden. The Scandinavian borders are a wonderful display of what polite neighbors can be like. And yet, despite the lack of formalities, the change in character was swift and thorough. On the Finnish side the country was mainly forest, punctuated by the occasional isolated settlement. You could never see very far in any direction. But on the Swedish side we had open farms and grass fields broken only occasionally by small stands of trees. It was quite refreshing and felt great especially in the afternoon sun being washed by warm winds coming down along the river. The latter was a deep, bright blue under the sunny skies and being chopped up by the wind.
I made smooth progress up along Highway 99 although the speed limit was not that high and the road was rough in places. I stopped a couple of times to relax and get pictures of the river. Many of the place names, I noticed, were Finnish rather than Swedish. For example there were names ending in “-vaara” (hill), “-järvi” (lake), and “-joki” (river), as well as the ubiquitous “-nen”, that made up the ending of some 80% of Finnish surnames. Finally, I came to a small clearing next to the road with a Finnish “kota”, a conical-roofed structure based on the traditional wide-teepee-like tents used by the Sami in Lapland. Two flagpoles stood in the clearing, flying the Swedish and Finnish flags. I made a stop and found that it was possible to spend the night here, though one apparently needed to reserve the shelter with some kind of association. I noted it was NOT in particular a Swedish-Finnish “friendship” association, so the presence of the Finnish flag must have reflected something else.
(Later on, I read that this whole area had traditionally been Finnish, before Sweden lost the rule of its eastern territory to Russia in the Finnish War of 1808-09 during the time of Napoleon, and the Tornio River was used as the border. Starting around 90 years later the Swedish government began a concerted effort to “Swedishize” the population, outlawing the use of the Finnish language in schools. The campaign, continued in the century since, has been largely effective, but the place names remain.)
My plan was to follow the Tornio when it turned northwest from the Swedish border and camp for the night at Junosuando, where my map showed a campground. Unfortunately when I showed up there the campground appeared to have been closed for many years. I managed to find out from a cottage accomodation proprietor that my options were either to go back 40 km to Pajala, or continue another 55 km to Vittangi. It had been a long day and I wasn’t particular fond of the idea of riding another 55 km, but the way back wasn’t much shorter, and who wants to go back anyway, so I continued. I told myself I’d just find something on the side of the road if Vittangi didn’t pan out.
Fortunately it did, however, and I ended up staying there for free to boot. The manager wasn’t in the locked office, but I found him driving around the grounds in a minivan. We spoke briefly, but when I turned down his offer of a cottage and said I’d prefer to camp in my tent, he simply said, “You are welcome,” and that was the end. He didn’t see fit to charge tents, apparently, though I would have been more than happy to pay if he had asked.
An Austrian man on a BMW GS rolled in soon after myself. He too spoke with the manager and when he came up to me to say hello afterwards, he reported also that he had not been asked to pay. He was about my age, with a beard and longer hair in a ponytail, and the twinkling eyes that often go along with those. He wasn’t entirely comfortable in English, and my German being nonexistent as it was we did not speak long, but we did manage to trade a few of our stories and plans. He had just come from Norway, where I was heading, and said he’d been to both Nordkapp and Lofoten on a 2-week trip. I tried to ask him how Lofoten was, but he mainly wanted to talk about his whale-watching trip from Andøya there. That was all well and good, but I only had a week and was here to ride motorcycles, not to sit on boats and watch whales which may or may not show up. Tomorrow he’d head south towards Stockholm, and planned 750 km days on “all highways”. This was often the way of it — as I was doing now — to put in big mileage days at the start and end to get to the destination area, and then slow down once there.
At any rate we were here now, and the fact that I hadn’t paid anything wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying a swim in the branch of the Tornio flowing by the campsite, and a shower afterwards. Both of these I proceeded to do, and the swim in particular was quite refreshing. The water was just the right temperature to be bracingly cool when first getting in, but warm enough to stay in for a while without being too warm to refresh. It was a perfect summer temperature for a warm and sunny day.
I went to bed around 10 as before, and also as before had no trouble getting to sleep. As long as neighbors are not too noisy, sleeping is quite an easy matter when on a motorcycle trip. We’d come up to around three or four hundred meters in elevation, and the temperature dropped a fair amount during the night, down into the 40′s where my sleeping bag was on its borderline (for me, at least). I woke up and pulled on my hat and socks.