Finland, and More of The People We Meet

July 21, 2022

Leaving Norway and entering Finland, the differences are very noticeable immediately. The two countries may share a border, but each has its’ own distinguishing beauty. While Norway has the fjords with the majestic mountains and waterfalls, Finland has much less elevation change. It is almost entirely forest, with small gentle rises of very little height. Riding through the middle of Finland, with all of the lakes and trees, reminded me of the area around Hot Springs, Arkansas, and to a somewhat lesser extent, deep East Texas’ Piney Woods: beautiful lakeshores, sometimes with small summer cabins or even small villages, and thick pine forests. The two lane highways through here look nearly identical to the roads in those places in the States. The only real things that tell you that you are here and not there are the road signs: the names and words that I can’t begin to pronounce (lots of double vowels, like aa, ii, uu…it almost looks Hawaiian sometimes), and the ever-present “Moose Crossing” signs. We’re still on the trail of the elusive moose, and the total score is still Zero.

The kitchen area at our campground in Alta, Norway. This is a bit nicer than most of the others, but similar in concept: you may be in a tent, but you are welcome to use an entire kitchen to prepare your meals. I can’t recall seeing anything close to this in our US travels.

Fully stocked with untensils, pots, pans, dishes, glasses, etc. Sadly, this concept probably wouldn’t work in the States; most of this stuff would be pilfered in a matter of days if not less, including the toaster, kettle, etc. And the cleanliness of these places is hospital-grade as well. People use the equipment, wash it, put it in the dishwasher, and return it to its’ place. Remember, this is a CAMPGROUND, not a hotel or B&B.

I stopped at a roadside rest area to use the restroom, and this sign was attached to the underside of the toilet lid, reminding people not to flush things other than toilet paper. Things like hygiene products, syringes, wedding rings…

Really?? Who has to be reminded to not throw their diamond ring in the toilet?

We left our campground outside of Alta, Norway headed south to the Finland border. Within the first twenty miles, it began raining, and didn’t stop for the rest of the day. We rode through LapLand in the rain, stopping only for fuel, and arrived about 300 kilometers later at our destination for the evening: Harriniva Hotel and Safaris near Muonio. This hotel specializes in winter tours to see the Northern Lights, and does it by dog sled. The place has 365 Husky sled dogs that it houses and trains year round. In the summertime, in order to keep the dogs fit and trained, they pull ATVs instead of sleds.

The Harriniva Husky Lodge.

A result of too little planning, something I am rarely accused of: we arrived on a Saturday night, and Sunday is the only day that Harriniva doesn’t do guided tours of their dogs. So even though we had come six thousand miles to see the Huskies, this is as close as we could get.

Except for this one, that insisted on patting Diana on the head.

From Harriniva, we spent another two days riding, mostly in rain, continuing south and east through Finland, camping in Iisalmi and Joensuu, before eventually arriving in Lappeenranta.

We stopped in Rovaniemi at the Arctic Circle point in Finland, since I forgot to buy an Arctic Circle sticker for the bike in Norway. So this is our third different location to cross the Arctic Circle in less than a year.

It turns out Santa Claus doesn’t live at the North Pole. He actually is from Rovaniemi, in Lapland. For real. Google it.

We found his residence, but it was closed. I think he was doing some Quality Assurance visits at some of his other factories at the time.

We’ve found Google Translate to be handy when grocery shopping. We use it to identify which milk is skimmed, low-fat, whole milk, etc, and which meat is which (Google translated one package of ground beef as “Meat Dough from Norwegian Cow”), as well as to translate the cooking instructions on some of the packages. I have no idea what all the other items are on this aisle of the grocery store, but TexMex is universal, and there are plenty of Old El Paso products on the shelves.

Our campground outside of Iisalmi had a couple of old motorcycles parked around the reception area. No idea why, but it was still kinda cool.

In Joensuu, we arrived the day after a huge 3-day rock concert next door to our campground. There were upwards of 70,000 people in attendance the day before. It apparently poured rain on the last day of the concert, as there was standing water and mud everywhere. We found a small patch of less standing water and pitched our tent, and thus began our introduction to the mosquitos. We had been warned about them — Lukasz from Poland referred to them as “Fast and Furious” — but up until now we had managed to miss them for the most part. But there was no avoiding these aerial attackers. Still, the tent did its’ job of keeping them out, and we managed to get a good night’s sleep.

We awoke to sun for the first time in many days, and it was looking like we might have a day without rain. We even got to ride about twenty miles of nice dirt road through the forest as a shortcut between small two-lane backroads we were taking on our way south. However, true to form, within ten or so miles of our destination, the rain started, and we were once again riding in the rain. Along this eastern side of Finland we were within just a few miles of the Russian border at times.

Just south of Lappeenranta the rain let up briefly and we turned off onto a nice, newly paved road and headed into the forest. Eventually the road turned to dirt and several miles later we turned down a mile-long gravel drive, eventually arriving at our friends Tehri and Harri’s summer house.

We had originally met Harri and Tehri at the campground in Flåm, Norway. They insisted that if we were coming through Finland that we should stay with them. Harri had to return home to work before we arrived, but Tehri and their daughter Aina were waiting to welcome us as we rode up.

Terhi, Aina, and Turo the cat greeted us as we pulled up to their summer cabin.

Harri and family built this beautiful summer home by hand over several years. Now they’re finally getting to enjoy it.

Their summer house is built on land that has been in the family for generations. Terhi’s father was born just up the gravel road from here, and her mother’s childhood home is just a couple of miles away. Her parents built a summer home here a little more than 30 years ago, near a small lake. They also built a sauna, which is almost a requirement in Finland. It seems like everyone has one. Theirs is right on the lake, and we were invited to try it out. The girls went first, Terhi, Aina and Diana stripping naked and sitting in the 80 degree C (175F) steam room. After several minutes of working up a sweat, they emerged onto the dock of the lake and jumped into the 20 degree (68F) water to cool off. They repeated this process three times, before dressing and returning to the house. Then it was my turn to join Terhi’s brother Antti for the ritual.

Terhi and Antti’s parents, Asko and Kaija, on the porch of their summer cabin on the lake.

The sauna at the lake.

Once you hit spontaneous combustion temperatures, you run from the sauna and leap off the end of this dock butt-naked. It’s an experience I won’t forget, and actually look forward to again.

Within a few minutes in the sauna, I was sweating intensely. Then came the real heat: Each time Antti tossed water onto the furnace in the sauna, the steam would bounce off the walls. It felt like a blowtorch on the back of my ears and arms, After a couple of times of this, I had to cry Uncle and run for the lake, which of course felt like it was freezing cold at first. We returned to the sauna — and the lake — twice more. Antti told me I should be thankful that their father didn’t join us, as he relished the tradition of beating you with a switch made of Birch leaves and branches. This apparently makes the heat even more intense.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m not that into heat. But it was a great experience, and one I’m glad I didn’t miss.

While Antti and I were enjoying the sauna, Terhi was preparing a traditional Finnish meal for us. We had Särä (slow roasted lamb), boiled potatoes, and fresh Chanterelle mushrooms in a cream sauce with onions. For dessert we had bread cheese with strawberries and cloud berries. It was a fantastic meal, and I’m not ashamed to say I went back for seconds. And thirds. Diana has already researched the recipes and planned for more.

The next morning Tehri again fed us some traditional Finnish breakfast items, including Karelian pies (karjalanpiirakka) with rice pudding filling, and perunarieska, or Finnish potato flatbread smeared with egg butter.

Karjalanpiirakka and perunarieska. Yum.

Turo the Ragdoll cat. He was so cool I wanted to take him with us on the bike.

We really didn’t want to leave, but we had a house-sitting commitment outside Helsinki, about three hours away, and needed to be there by noon.

Salpalinja: The Salpa Line, or Finland’s Latch

Not long after arriving to Tehri’s, she asked if we’d like to see a bunker on her grandmother’s property.

History? Heck yeah!

We jumped in the car and Tehri drove us just a few miles up the road to where her mother was born. Her aunt now has the property, and sure enough, there is a lot of history on the property. Keep in mind that we are approsimately 20 kilometers, or about 13 miles from the border with Russia.

In November of 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Finland in what became known as the Winter War. It lasted just three and a half months, and the Soviet military suffered substantial losses. In March of 1940 Finland and Moscow signed the Moscow Peace Treaty, with Finland ceding 9% of its’ land to the Soviets. Adolf Hitler was encouraged by the weakness of the Soviet forces and in June of 1941 attacked them, starting what became known between Finland and the Soviet Union as the Continuation War. During the interim peace period in 1940-41, Finland built the Salpalinja, or Salpa Line, a 1200 kilometer long series of concrete installations, trenches, anti-tank obstacles, ditches, infantry shelters, and more on the eastern border with Russia.

Sign pointing to the bunker on Terhi’s aunt’s property: “Accomodation for two machine guns and 40 men.”

Walking down into the bunker.

Entering the bunker. Amazingly, after 80 years, the latches on all the doors still slide like new. Terhi said she and her friends played in this bunker as kids. And why not, when it’s right next to your grandma’s house on her property? Better than any home-made fort!

“Accommodation for 40 men” is relative, obviously. I guess it’s a bit like living in a submarine. You get used to it.

This is the machine gun turret, and that is the family barn (red building) and family home (yellow) in the background. Really brings it home, doesn’t it?

A closer look at the machine gun ports.

More than anything, we learned how much we personally don’t know about the nuances of World War II and the other actions that were going on at the time. Now I want to learn much more.

5 thoughts on “Finland, and More of The People We Meet

  1. Did you not see the tank restraints? Several iron girders stacked to resist invading Russian tanks. Finland was fierce in resisting the invaders. Bunkers were everywhere. We spent a lot of time down in the woods for ISDE check points and that is another world in tough courses.

    • Yes, we saw many different versions of anti-tank devices, from the concrete versions to large rocks and big sharp-edged trenches.
      A lot of history in those woods.

  2. Very nice writing about your first experiences in Finland. We met in Aurland Norway and I warned you that after Geiranger, Lofoten and Nordcap Finland might not offer much. But as you wrote the and of lakes and forest, nice people and interesting history are here to be found. It just requires more effort than simply taking the bike up to a fjord view point. Drive safe.

    • Hey Jonni! Man, you were absolutely right about Finland after the spectacles of Norway, but the people (yourself included) made it a great experience. We hope to return as there is so much more we haven’t seen yet, and certainly more people to meet!

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