Gold Medalists in Kuusamo:  Midnight Marathoners & River Rapid Rafters

There’s never a dull moment in Kuusamo, even if it is just a sleepy little town in northern Finland nestled next to the Russian border. Why, as I have already shown you, there’s lakes to be swam in, fish to be caught, saunas to be heated, berries to be picked, friends to be visited, nightless nights to be experienced, fresh air to be breathed, lush forests to be explored. And if that get boring, then you can always add in a marathon forest run at midnight in the fells, and rafting on untamed rapids. Who knows? Maybe a wolf might start trailing you on your midnight run, or your kids might mistakenly run into the Russian side of the border just to add a little excitement to your day. All things are possible.

You may remember I told you that Ashlee signed us up for a 9K run. The funny thing is that I am the worst runner in the world. With some luck I might be able to crank out one mile…..but 9 km of forest trail running? That’s crazy! I don’t know who I was kidding when I agreed to this run, but it did sound like fun at the time. If I were to tell you that I will go on to win a medal would you believe me? I wouldn’t!

So this is the deal. Apparently this is the first year this race is being held. It’s called the “Nightless Night Run”, probably because it’s the summer solstice and the run starts at midnight. The place where the race is being held is interesting in that we are very close to the Russian border, not so far from the arctic circle, and it’s on a forest trail that goes to the top of Iivara fell. This part of Finland has many big rolling hills, known as fells.

When we arrive in Iivara we pick up our numbered race vests. Interestingly enough we have numbers 1 through 6, even though Ashlee signed us up only a week ago. The vests are super stretchy so they fit over our bulky clothes. I guess they reuse these vests, hopefully washing them between uses. That seems like it’s good for the environment. Yay, Finland. Aundrea is not signed up, so she plans to set off walking the trail with Minnie right away. My guess is that no one will stop her even if she is not wearing a numbered vest like we are. Luckily she has a mosquito net over her head, because I have a feeling she will get eaten alive.

Well, actually, all the kids have mosquito nets over their heads.

Minnie doesn’t have a mosquito net. I hope she will be okay!

The goal posts look well used, considering this is the first time this nightless night run is being held. 

The trail map looks not too bad…..

Sure enough! It is a nightless night! Look at the sky! The run starts at midnight as scheduled.

So what do you know? It ends up being that there’s only about 23 runners that signed up! And we must have been the first ones to sign up since we have jersey numbers 1-6. All the runners look far more fit than I do. I stretch a little and jump around a bit so I look like I know what I am doing, although I am actually just doing it to loosen up my creaky bones.

Finally the race is on. Ashlee takes off running like a hooligan. Ville is long gone….he is taking this run pretty seriously. It’s all uphill for the first couple of km. Actually it’s really steep. My legs feel like jello. I am pleasantly surprised that there are hardly any mosquitoes in this forest. That’s amazing. Maybe if I stop moving the mosquitoes will attack me, so I keep on keeping on just to avoid being eaten. The burn is agonizing.

I huff and I puff as I place one aching leg ahead of the other as I climb. Up and up I go. When I get to the top of Iivara fell I am greeted by an amazing sunset. No wait. Is this a sunrise or sunset? I dunno! Whatever the case may be, I feel exhilarated. The air is so fresh, the views so beautiful, the midsummer night sky so intense….it takes my breath away…..what little breath I have left after climbing that huge hill! The feeling is almost intoxicating, although I don’t actually know what it feels like to be intoxicated. 

The trail then leads gently downwards for the rest of the run. The forest is incredibly beautiful. And quiet. And serene.

I come across a beautiful natural spring, which is the starting point for a huge river Iijoki. Luckily I stop to look at this spring, because otherwise I would surely have missed an unexpected turn in the trail. If I would have gone straight it seems to me that I would be in Russia. I hope the kids didn’t miss this turn. They are somewhere far ahead of me.

After admiring the spring I pick up my pace again. By now my hips are killing me, but I keep plugging away. I have to stay incredibly focused on the trail to avoid tripping or stumbling over rocks and tree roots. In some places the trail is barely wide enough for my feet to pass one another as I run. I really have never done any trail running, per se, and this is pretty technical. I can feel something funny happening in my knees. I place my feet down gingerly at about kilometer 7 to prevent blowing them out.

I don’t think there are very many people behind me, although I know there is one woman for sure. I left her at the top of Iivaara hill where I stopped briefly to watch the sunset/sunrise and take a rare selfie. I am motivated to beat her. With each step my creaky bones are complaining. Don’t ask me why I am so stupid that I thought I could do this. Run. Run. Run.

As I am running I begin to wonder if I will encounter some wild animals. You know how it is when you run….you have lots of time to think about random things. It eases the painfulness of the moment, too. I did some running in the past and every time I did I would be off in la-la-land thinking about a story line for a book I want to eventually write. Not today, though. I find myself wondering what kinds of animals might be here in this northern forest of Finland? Surely bear is a possibility. Oh, and wolves….is there a wolf tracking me? Those sly creatures…’s totally possible that one is following me. I seem to sense it’s keen yellow eyes trained upon me as I hobble along this forest path. It must be thinking I make easy prey….a weakling….there is no one else around. I pick up my pace.

What about the kids? They are somewhere ahead of me. I didn’t even have the brains to think that maybe I should have told them we need to stick together. What if they lose sight of the trail and get lost here in this vast wilderness! With any luck they will end up in Russia and Putin will detain them as spies. If you got lost out here it really wouldn’t take long to get chewed up by mosquitoes….or worse yet eaten up by a wolf pack. It’s kind of spooky here in this forest by myself at 1 a.m.  Who does this? Running alone in the woods at this hour? Maybe I should be more worried about illegal border crossers than wolves….although the Finnish border patrol agents do a pretty good job of patrolling and protecting the border hereabouts.

Now you may remember that Aundrea took off walking the trail with Minnie before the race started. I finally catch up with her only to discover that she is limping. She has a huge blister on her heel from her shoes. I tell her to take her shoes off and walk in her socks, which she does. I don’t tell her about the wolf that might be trailing me. She has Minnie with her to warn her about wild creatures, although maybe a wolf might be more interested in a little dog than in me. I run on ahead and leave Aundrea finishing the last 1.5 km in sock feet completely unaware of the potential dangers about her. I would offer her my shoes, but her feet are bigger than mine. 

As for me, I limp towards the finish line, bone weary. Oh my achin’ hide! Everything hurts. I wipe the grimace off my face, and as nimbly as possible pass the finish line. I can’t tell if the race coordinators are relieved to see me or not. Maybe they had been thinking about sending out a search and rescue team. The kids are all waiting for me, safe and sound. They did not wander off into Russia, or get attacked by the big grey wolf, or twist their ankles in the forest terrain. I find out that Ashlee ran with the kids the whole way, so they were perfectly safe the entire time.  Once the runners have all returned, the event coordinators begin handing out medals. You would not believe this! Each of us is a winner!!!! Kristoff won first place for the boys aged 14-16 category, Bjorn and Annika won for their age and gender, I won for women for my age, Ashlee won for her age and gender! We each get a medal. And then to top it all off they have drawings for prizes. I guess the people who planned this event had expected a much bigger turnout, and as a result they have tons of prizes. The kids get many bags of candy and other treasures.  I get to pick out a cool wooden mug. Our prizes are by far more valuable monetarily than what we paid for participating in this race. Score!

I really have to laugh like crazy. Since when would I ever win a running race? Oh yeah….when I am the only participant in my age bracket. I sport my gold medal proudly, and the wooden mug that I won in the drawing!

I might add that the next week we find a story about the race in the local newspaper. The author writes about how the race participants included “a family vacationing from the United States”, and lists us all as winners in our respective categories. That’s a first, and most likely a last, that I will ever win in any kind of a race, so I will just bask in it. I can hear the small town folk remarking about how amazing it is that people came to the “Nightless Night Run” all the way from America! Next year I think they will have a much better turn out once the word gets out about this incredibly awesome running event…..oh and once all the locals hear that even a bunch of Americans came to take part in this awesome race! 

When we return to the cabin it is well past 2 a.m.  A mist silently looms above the little lake. The tree tops are painted gold by the early morning sun. I love it. My heart is happy. I lower my aching carcass gently into my bed and allow sleep to heal my body. Tomorrow this pain will be gone.

Not so many hours later another beautiful day dawns upon our northern paradise. So what’s a gal to do on a beautiful day? Why, go white water rafting, of course!

Ashlee has never been rafting here in Kuusamo even though she has lived here for 5 years, but the word on the street is that there’s great rafting around here on the Kitkajoki. We meet up with our friends, put on some rubbery rain pants and off we go!

There are three sets of rapids to traverse. The first is a Class II, then a Class III, and the last is a Class IV. Just so you know….normal people don’t go on Class V rapids. Before we make our way into the rapids we raise our paddles and yell, “Hurrah!”

Do you dare to enter those rapids?

Thanks to our fearless leader we make it out of the rapids safely. If we had gone a few feet farther we would have gone off a high waterfall. I guess some pro kayakers have gone over the falls, but I am not too interested in that kind of craziness!

Apparently we got the cheaper version of the rafting excursion which does not include transportation back to base camp, so we have to hike back. It ends up not being such a bad thing, because we walk along the famous “Karhunkierros” trail, which is incredibly beautiful. The weather is impeccable. As we walk back we get a good view of the rapids that we just traversed.

Well, now, actually I don’t know if we went down these rapids….that looks pretty wild, but this picture was taken in the same area a couple weeks after I was here.

Hope you ladies had a good time! Yep!

My time in Kuusamo is winding down. When I first got here I thought I was going to do a lot of relaxing, but I have to say we kept pretty busy. Oh well, there’s always time to relax later on in life, I guess. I am going to miss this beautiful, peaceful place here in this vast wilderness in the far northern reaches of Finland.  As for the kids, they will get to spend the rest of the summer here. I hope they realize how lucky they are to have two sisters who will take care of them here, and give them the opportunity to spend another summer in Finland.

Aundrea is going to head back to Oulu today with Minnie.

Ashlee loves Minnie and really wants to get a little puppy herself, which would bring my grandpuppy count to three.

It’s a gorgeous day for some games on the porch.

One thing that is really amazing is how incredible the wildflowers are in Finland. The roads are lined with an amazing display of flowers throughout the summer.

We are back in Kuusamo town now, but before we go there is one more job that needs to be done. The boys don their work clothes.

Annika has dish duty this time. Don’t worry, we don’t discriminate. The boys do dishes too, and the girls do bush work as readily as the boys.

See, I am not lying! Ville is doing the dishes this time! Goodbye Ashlee and Ville, thanks for everything! We will be seeing them again in a week.

I didn’t rent a car for myself here in Finland, but instead I am depending upon the charity of others. Lucky for me I have this great friend, Hanna. She is giving us a ride from Kuusamo to Oulu today. It’s about a three hour drive so we have plenty of time to catch up.

On our way we stop at the Jalava Village Store in Taivalkoski. Unfortunately, very unfortunately, the store has just closed before we arrive. Now you may wonder why I am so bummed that this store is closed. This is the town nearest to where my father was raised. You may know that my father had been evacuated to Sweden as a young boy during the war against Russia, leaving his mom and dad and siblings behind as he was sent to a secure location so far away in the neighboring country. Someday I will write his story about how he was evacuated to Sweden, and how they crossed the sea in the hull of a ship, and how the ship nearly capsized, and how he feared he would never see his family again, and how he forgot how to speak Finnish, and how the Russians rained bombs around his home. It’s a heartbreaking story indeed, full of suspense and excitement and wonderment.

When the child evacuees came back home from Sweden a year later, they stayed overnight here at this store in Taivalkoski before making their way back to their homes in the woods. My father was just telling me about sleeping the night on the floor of this store so many years ago. How excited he must have been to be so close to home, to see his family again after a year way, and after believing in his child’s heart that his family was long since gone having been killed by the enemy. What were the thoughts in the little boy’s head as he tried to sleep that night? What sounds did he hear? What scents filled his nostrils? Did he have hunger pangs as he lay awake? Was the floor hard and dusty? Did he long to select some items off the shelf to bring home to his mom?

Another little interesting site along the way is the new log school that has been built in Pudasjarvi. This place is really cool!

Of course we can’t go in, but I did steal this picture off the web so you can see how incredible this place is!

When we get to Oulu, Hanna brings us for a quick visit of her cute apartment.

And then it’s time to head off to Aundrea’s place in downtown Oulu. Thanks for the ride, Hanna! I owe her now. She is coming to Arizona in October, so it’s payback time then.

When we arrive in Oulu I know I am home. This is my town.