IWG Exped 01: 9 Day Trek – Paanajärvi National Park, Russia

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The trip to Russia was a whirlwind of temperatures, laughs, some dubious cooking, beautiful views and a smattering of wildlife. We spent 9 days trekking through the old growth taiga forests just outside of Paanajärvi National Park. Old growth means the woodland has not undergone any major unnatural changes (such as logging) for more than 100 to 150 years, contains young, mature, standing dead trees and provides a home for a diversity of flora and fauna. A taiga/boreal forest is made up of mostly pine, spruce, birch and aspens (as well as many others). It’s the largest biome in the world and can be found in the northern latitudes between roughly 50°N to 70°N.

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My visa arrived only 2 days before the trip, as did several other people’s, so making it over the border felt like a real accomplishment. Once in Russia we were greeted with a firm muddy handshake of a road, possibly one the bumpiest and muddiest main roads I’ve ever seen. The tutors commented on how smooth the road compared to previous trips. In reality, at times it felt like we were screaming down the uneven cobbled streets of a medieval village holding on for dear life in the back of a creaky old wooden cart being pulled by a panic stricken donkey. We bounced off along this dirt track, for several hours into the national park with an eclectic musical backdrop that spread from Culture Club to African drumming to Kenny Rogers to Elton John to Sting to sounds of the desert. We dodged seemingly endless amounts of diggers working on the road, their buckets swinging absentmindedly in and out of passing traffic. Was also good to see some ladas navigating the roads. Usually full of wooly hat wearing, camo clad, rosy faced, strong jawed Russian men smoking cigarettes, who would grin and wave at us as we passed.

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The Walking Begins

After parking the vans we began walking at around 2pm, with a short day to a nearby lake planned. The map below shows the route we took. We would be taking it in turns as pairs to guide the rest of the group throughout the trip. Me and Johannes guided on the first day. It wasn’t without it problems, and we overshot the lake we were meant to camp at, having to turn around and camp on the opposite side of the shore. We arrived at dusk and everyone went about setting up camp in their pairs. This involves finding a suitable camping spot, erecting your tents, collecting firewood, making a fire and then cooking dinner.

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My camping partner, Johannes, happened to wake up in the night, luckily so, as he noticed my sleeping bag was poking out of the tent, covered in snow! Not ideal. I brushed it off, tucked them back into the shelter and fell back asleep, waking in the morning to a blanket of snow all around. The shelters were sagging under the weight – with not much room for kit or to sleep underneath.

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It was a cold wet start, and after the snow there was an icy rain all day. A shock for everyone, but a great introduction to why you need to be prepared for all eventualities. We were soaked through, and it was certainly a wake up call. Lunch time was a welcome break and we all gathered round a big fire to warm our icy fingers and eat. Despite the weather, spirits were high and several of us were singing Molly Malones in terrible Irish accents as we walked. The second night setting up camp was already smoother. Things were starting to click and camp was set up quickly, fire wood chopped, fire made, food prepared and even some time to lie down and warm your feet and attempt to dry clothes before the usual nightly group meeting.

The next day me and Johannes had an interesting morning encounter. We were walking to meet the others at the main fire and happened to stumble upon one of our colleagues (who I shall leave nameless) going for a morning dump. Instead of being shocked, he looked over with a smile on his face, shouted good morning and gave us a cheery wave, carrying on with his business nonchalantly. Nervously smiling back, we didn’t know where to look.

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The rest of the trip was a range of walking paces, different guiding styles, getting lost quite a lot, adapting to situations at hand, different terrains, a few minor injuries, a hell a lot of laughs, some sun, some wind, a bit of rain and a bit of continental nudity of course. Each day we cooked all of our meals on open fire – breakfast, lunch and dinner. This took a while to start with, but by the end of the trip we all could find dry wood in any weather condition, and get a fire going in a matter of minutes. One of the tips for getting dry firewood was to find an old pine or spruce stump (pine is better as it doesn’t spark when you burn it). Kick the stump over (if small enough) and proceed to split the stump with an axe. 95% of the time there will be dry wood underneath laden with resin. The resin helps the wood to burn. Our tutors told us this after the third day, letting us struggle slightly in the wetter conditions before that.

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The walking and camping each day was the best I have ever done. Being able to roam free through old growth forests like these and camp where ever you wish is a special experience. There are no tracks to follow other than those of animals, the ground is as it is meant to be, covered in a range of plants, lichens and mosses. Each day we were treated to views of dark lakes, autumnal hues of undulating forest all around and the occasional cries of a raven or the siberian jay. It felt as if you had really managed to find a piece of untouched nature here.

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Rest Days

On the rest days we were able to fish, mend gear, or explore the area if we wanted. These days ended up being some of the most adventurous parts of the trip, both involving small treks up nearby fells (shown on the above map). On the first rest day, we actually got slightly lost and didn’t quite make it to where wanted to. It was a good walk and we were treated to several good views between the trees of snow capped fells in the distance. If anything it left me wanting more, to climb higher.

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Luckily, on the second rest day (Day 7) we climbed the fell Пердеара 443.8m and the view lived up to expectations. We thought we were at the top 3 times, each time climbing higher then turning round to see a bigger peak nearby. Clouds were expanding and morphing miles away, slowly trundling by like distant juggernaughts, the sun was shining hard from the South and the wind stung our faces from the North. It was perfect, we gaped at the rolling forested hills of deep greens injected with patchworks of dusty orange and burnt yellow gently folding off as far as the eye could see or diving into the still blue lakes. Never have I looked over so much wilderness visually untouched by man. Walking not on footpaths, but where our maps, compass and intuition direct our feet. Great day. Saw many elk, reindeer and bear tracks, but still yet to see a live one. We are far too noisy.

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Last Night

There were mixed emotions on the last night, many wishing they could stay longer and many longing for a wash and a warm bed. So much had happened over the previous 9 days. Walking, chopping wood, making fires, cooking and surviving out here is a full time job, plus some, and it felt like we had been out here for months rather than days (in a good way). It’s nearing the end of a trip like this where you look back fondly at the lessons learnt along the way, quickly forgetting about those cold toes and remembering warmly all the good times, wishing they could last just one day longer.

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It was a bitterly cold clear night, stars crowding the sky greedily. After a huge group fire and some origami from Kimmo (the guides for the day do an evening activity) we set off to bed. Then whilst brushing our teeth someone noticed a glow through the silhouettes of the trees – the northern lights! We all ran excitedly to a better viewing spot on slightly higher ground. We stood in silent awe at the subtle light show of whitey green haze that slowly flickered like a lazy flame across the sky. An unbelievable end to a action packed week. We all came back wiser and more knowledgeable, a glint in our eyes, a smile on our faces. The trip allowed us to learn as a collective and individually what our strengths and weaknesses are as guides, giving us much needed knowledge to be able to lead groups in the future.

Northern Lights on the Last Night - Photo by Johannes Kormann

More Photos from the Trip

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