Finland stakes a fair claim to being the world’s most northerly nation, with a quarter of its territory north of the Arctic Circle. Winters are long and dark, relieved by the unearthly brilliance of the Northern Lights, but summer days are endless. Finland’s northern regions are thinly-populated yet well-serviced and accessible, and the Finns know more than most about making themselves comfortable whatever the conditions. In the vast northern spaces, wolves still prey on the reindeer herds.
One of Finland’s most popular hiking trails is the Karhunkierros, or Bear’s Trail. This runs for most of its 80km length through Oulanka National Park, which exemplifies the northern landscape of forest, crag and waterfall. Brown bears still forage in the deeper recesses. Summers explode into flower and autumn is rich with berries and fungi; thanks to ‘Every Man’s Right’ (Finnish: Jokamiehenoikeus) these can be freely picked.
Karhunkierros can be walked in either direction, but is more commonly taken north to south. It divides naturally into three sections, with road access in between. Strong walkers could tackle each section in a day, but it’s more usual to spread the trip over four or five days. Wilderness huts, shelters and camping places are spaced along the trail.
The northern starting point is Hautajärvi, just a few kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. The opening stretches run through dry, open pine forest; in lusher patches the ground-cover flames red in autumn. In the Savinajoki gorge the trail passes the natural rock sculpture of Rupakivi, reminiscent of an Easter Island statue. About 15km from Hautajärvi the Savinajoki meets the Oulanka river at the lake of Savilampi. The steep-walled Oulanka Canyon is just upstream. The Savilampi wilderness hut is a good place to spend the first night, lulled to sleep by the ceaseless river.
An hour downstream the river is re-crossed on a swaying suspension bridge overlooking the Taivalköngäs rapids; there’s another wilderness hut nearby. It’s another 8km along the river to the Oulanka Visitor Centre, where there’s a choice of campsites (with cabins). If the bustle’s too much you can push on downriver about 6km to the next wilderness cabin at Ansakämppä.
Climbing away from the visitor centre, there’s a bird’s eye view of the foaming Kiutaköngäs rapids. From here the trail follows cliff-tops. After Ansakämppä there’s a great view of the Oulanka’s tortuous windings before the trail climbs into the Kitkanniemi uplands, dotted with patterned swamps called aapa mires. There's a good lunch spot, or possible campsite, on the shores of the lake Kulmakkajärvi. Soon after this the trail drops to the Kitkajoki river, and threads a way upstream, first below the cliffs and then along their rim.
Now there’s a choice as the main Karhunkierros Trail meets its baby brother, Pieni Karhunkierros, which loops out from Juuma. The northern branch is shorter but involves a steep climb on wooden steps to the fine eyrie of Kallioportti. The southern arm is a little longer but takes in one of the finest sections of gorge on the whole trail. The waterfall of Jyrava is not high, but full of boiling malevolence. Above this is 1.5km of continuous rapids at Aallokkokoski, a favourite with rafting parties.
The two arms rejoin near the rapids of Myllykoski and then it’s a couple of kilometres out to civilization at Juuma, though you could skip this slight detour and press on; 7km of fairly easy going through mire-dappled forest gains the next hut at Porontimajoki.
The trail now rises into bald, open fell country, warming up on the ridge of Kumpuvaara and then climbing onto the steep shoulder of Konttainen hill. There’s one final climb onto the long ridge of Valtavaara, its highest point 491m above sea level. After the days of forest and gorge the expansive views are intoxicating. Eastward, the forests roll off, almost uninterrupted, into Russia. Out to the west is a classic Finnish panorama, splashed with innumerable lakes. (Or not strictly innumerable: someone has counted, and there are officially 187,888 lakes in Finland).
The last descent may be tackled eagerly, or with reluctance; either way there’s a sharp change of scene with the infrastructure of the ski facilities preceding Ruka itself. But there’s beer, and pizza, and even, if you can handle it, a karaoke bar.