Northerly latitudes and vast swathes of untouched wilderness make summertime in Finland a 24/7 haven for lovers of the outdoors. Often overlooked in favour of neighbours Sweden and Norway, Finland, in fact, holds its own on just about every front – particularly its water ones: 188,000 lakes and a rugged coastline, deeply indented with bays and inlets. The Archipelago National Park on its southwest coast is a jewel in the crown; its more than 40,000 islands make it the biggest archipelago in the world, and with “everyman’s right” you can roam wherever you like, free as a bird.
A few years ago, I rowed 4,800km across the Atlantic Ocean with three friends; it took us 48 days. I was keen to recreate the waterborne adventure in a more modest (though still challenging) weekend form; an exploration of the Finnish archipelago on a never-ending midsummer’s day was my chance. The plan: to kayak through the day and night, without sleep, covering some 60km in around 18 hours.
It’s the final call for my Finnair flight to Helsinki – just time to cram a fistful of cookies from the business-class lounge into my bag; I’ve a feeling these will come in handy on my expedition.
Touchdown. I catch a train to Helsinki’s main station, then another to the city of Turku, two hours due west. It’s one of Finland’s busiest seaports – largely with passengers bound for Stockholm – but it’s also the launch pad to the nearby Archipelago National Park.
Peter Nylund, my guide, collects me from the station. I’m relieved to hop into his air-conditioned car, as it’s upwards of 30 degrees in the blazing sunshine. By day Peter works in IT, but his passion is kayaking and he’s one of the region’s top guides. We swing by some outbuildings, housing dozens of kayaks, to pick up our gear. I’m told it’s crucial that a kayak fits well – a bit like a running shoe. After three tries, we find the perfect one for me and strap it, along with Peter’s, to the roof. Then it’s 40km due south to Granvik, a port on one of the larger islands at the beginning of the Archipelago National Park and the start of our adventure.
We’re readying for launch, stuffing the hatches of the 5m kayaks with provisions – water, food, dry suits, head torches. Conditions could not be more perfect. It’s cooler on the coast (about 25 degrees), there’s a very light breeze and clear blue skies and the sea is like a millpond. Peter arranges his marine charts on the ground and talks through the plan. For the first few hours we’ll be heading southwest, then turn in a more southeasterly direction. For every two to three hours of paddling, we’ll take a break for half an hour to an hour. It’s real now – and I can’t wait to get going.
I’m surprised at how quickly I feel stable in the streamlined kayak, and confident that I can avoid capsizing. It’s a wonderful state too – smooth motion and total connection to the water, travelling at the perfect pace to take in the surroundings. It’s also incredibly peaceful – tiny islands in all directions, but not another boat, person or manmade object in sight. Common terns fill the air and we glide by a pair of whooper swans, Finland’s national bird.
We’ve just completed our first leg. As we pitch up on a small island, I’m feeling good – technique, strength and mind are all on form and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it. I sit down on the pebble beach and ask about our progress. Peter is direct: “We should pick it up a bit.” Glancing at my watch, I realise that despite my optimism he’s right – we’ve covered just 10.5km in two-and-a-half hours. After 15 minutes, Peter calls time on our break, so I stuff down a second energy bar, top up my water and it’s time to get back to it.
The last glint of sunshine vanishes below the horizon and the four-hour twilight part of our adventure begins. Peter tells me it will remain light enough to navigate all night – there’ll be no need for head torches. The clear sky is shades of orange and purple. Kayaks pulled safely ashore, we’re sat on another slightly larger rocky island to enjoy dinner: smoked salmon on rye bread with freshly picked chives, washed down by tins of ice-cold beer. After a quick walk around the island – covered in trees, with large swathes of thick, dry moss underfoot – there’s just enough time to boil up a fresh coffee. Revived, we pack up, settle back into our kayaks and continue southwards.
Paddling, paddling. I’m fixated on the silhouette of a small island on the horizon, lining up my bow as best I can despite a vexing crosswind that’s come up, pushing me off. I find my rhythm – counting my strokes in batches of 50, ticking off one landmark after the next. Which isn’t to say that after five hours of paddling, I’m not feeling my lack of conditioning and then some. A blister worsening on my right hand means a loosening grip; it’s affecting both my technique and my efficiency.
At 30km in, I’m relieved to be back on terra firma for our third break. The last leg was gruelling by the end – around two-and-a-half hours of hard paddling in a light but constant breeze. My clothes are now wet, too, a combination of water trickling down the paddle, some spray and no small amount of sweat. I peel my gloves off to reveal shrivelled, soft skin. I cup my hands close to the Primus gas stove in an attempt to dry them out. Peter boils up some water for a hot chocolate. I’ve been looking forward to this, and I know just the accompaniment – those all‑butter business-lounge cookies. I rummage in my bag and proudly share my spoils with Peter. Then it’s time to hit the water again.
“It’s the hour of the wolf,” shouts Peter. I don’t reply, just give a nod – I need all the breath I can muster. The sky is becoming noticeably lighter now, and I’m relieved. Eyes locked on the next landmark to reel in, I keep paddling.
“Check it out!” I yell. Peter is paddling about 20m to my left-hand side; we haven’t spoken in over an hour, but the sight’s too good to keep to myself. The sun, cresting the horizon, has cast the whole sky in a psychedelic wash of orange and deep blue. It’s an amazing moment, but it gets fleeting appreciation from us; I’m physically and mentally shattered at this point and focusing all my energy on the scene, and the task, ahead.
The tiny pinpricks I saw on the horizon about an hour ago have turned out to be huge wind turbines. We’re now paddling right alongside them – they’re set just metres back from the shoreline – and the quiet sound of their power as they swirl round is hypnotic. Though it doesn’t seem to affect the wildlife; there’s a symphony of birdsong. Sleep deprivation is playing tricks now too. The ripples on the water’s surface make me dizzy, and I’d swear a few times that I’m moving sideways.
The crosswind has picked up, so we cruise just metres from the shoreline, seeking shelter. But inevitably, as we leapfrog from one island to the next, we break cover and are buffeted again. It’s frustrating as hell; I struggle to keep on course, but the wind bats the kayak about like a toy. So, like the novice that I am, I let frustration get the better of me and deploy some brute force, paddling like fury until the next sheltered section – where I then slouch for some time, panting and totally exhausted. My upper back and shoulders are searing now; fatigue on many levels is setting in. Peter looks at me, a bit bemused but with Nordic composure intact. “You OK, Fergus?”
It’s the home stretch now – I can see where we’ll be landing, just a few hundred metres ahead. As the waters calmed, I have had to fight sleep (regular quick, hard shakes of the head just about did the job), but now adrenaline kicks in as we glide towards the slipway of the picturesque island of Rosala – a millennium ago home to an important Viking settlement. Peeling the spray deck off for the final time, I step out of the boat – almost capsizing it in the process – and stagger towards Peter. We give each other a huge hug, despite being thoroughly drained, with nothing left in the tank.
Time for a restorative sauna and a huge, delicious traditional lunch – several variations on salmon, pickled fish, mashed carrots and swede, and coleslaw – in the recreation long house of the Rosala Viking Centre. Then we’re on our way back to Helsinki. Within minutes of climbing into the car, I’m out for the count.
I check into the Scandi-chic Hotel St George and immediately head to the spa for the most justified, and necessary, upper-body massage of my life.
After a five-course dinner at Ultima (a brilliant restaurant downtown), a sleep as deep as I’ve ever had, and the 8am flight from Helsinki, I’m back at my desk looking at my blistered hands. What a journey. It certainly puts the working day’s challenges into context.