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Visiting The Russian Border

by Ari Saarto (see photos)

Early bird catches the worm...

Seems to be, that after the God had created the continent here, He found something itching and struck under His nails. After some furious scratching and picking with a toothpick He dropped the found remains to the sea and finally, the archipelago of the Finnish Gulf was born: thousands if islets, small, low islands full of rocks, birch and dry pine woods. Large islands with groves and round cliffs. The Ice Age grinded edges off the cliffs and brought the rocks, varying from the size of your head to the size of your carage. Anyhow, it is not pure wilderness and it is not very virginal here: you can find everything noisy and irritating between jet-skis and power-boats, but it gets calmer and calmer, nicer and more quiet, more you go to the east.

It is very comforting to find out that the tradition of building traditional wooden 18ft boats: slow going, heavy and solid, is not completely lost here. They are low, open, wide and heavy, possibly have a small cabin, but nevertheless they are beautiful, carefully varnished and do make me think that the speed and efficiency dont always count so much. Even if you dont use them for fishing so much anymore, they are safe and very much fun for trips, which actually makes them even more worth of their price. Just go to Summa, east from Kotka and find out by yourself...

My original plan was to cover the whole southern coast of Finland t w i c e: visit the Eastern border solo, return to Helsinki and paddle together with Rita, my SO to Hanko, SW peninsula, and return again. Well, it seemed so that the SW expedition would have been too hard for her, so we finally had to give up that plan. On Monday, July 7th at 7 am, after a restless night I put my Nordkapp on water. I had woken up at 4 am and been packing the kayak furiously more than a hour: I had this travelling fever again and wanted to go around the capital and the peninsula it lies before heavier traffic would hit the boat routes. The sun had risen early, 3.30 am, and the weather was warm, smooth and safe.

Somebody else was also an early bird: after paddling the very first 20 minutes a 30ft boat suddenly emerged behind a pier. Ooops! No fun. It passed very close and besides waves, it raised cold sweat to my precious neck. Gotta listen more carefully, because I do not have x-ray eyes and being like a sitting duck in front of a speed boat is just not very much fun. Ears can be sometimes more better than your eyes - I will return to that conclusion later...

It was almost calm as I had hoped: the wind rises here mostly after 9 am if the weather is nice. Took the first gulps of water to avoid dehydration, passed the Sveaborg fortress and continued towards the east. The wind was behind my back, only a slight breeze. My first aim was to reach an island of Onas, where from I could easily start tomorrow morning passing the town of Porvoo using the natural route, formed by a chain of islands near the open sea. Unfortunately that meant paddling solo 25 miles: much more I had meant to start with, it takes a while to get used to the natural rhythm of early rising and doing long hours during an expedition. It was going to be monotonous paddling, though enjoying the views and discovering a new route: last summer we did it with Rita more safely nearer the coastal line.

During the first lunch break at a narrow and small beach on a rocky island I noticed few people feeding some swans from a boat, actually there was a full family on water: Mr. and Mrs. S. and five tiny brownish gray youngsters. I ate few sandwiches watching them and the they started swimming nearer. Maybe they tought that I had more to offer - unfortunately I had finally started packing my kayak and was planning to leave the beach. I raised my eyes suddenly from the aft hatch, and found Mr. Swan watching me behind the stern with cool and unfriendly eyes, from a distance of about 4ft. He hissed to me. There seemed to be some obvious safety problems, concerning his offspring getting too close to me - but why hiss to me? Take care of your own kids! I started hissing back, and there we were, two guys with serious territory problems, staring and hissing to each other. As always, it was up to women to solve the problems created by the men: Mrs. S. got bored and slowly swam away, followed by her kids, and finally by the head of the family who seemed to have serious insulting thoughts in his mind. Maybe it was their beach, I do not know... I am glad he did not attack me.

My purpose was to reach the border within six or seven days, mainly using the familiar routes to Kotka ("Eagle"), my home town, taking the final route to the border from there within two days. I was planning to take care of my safety "hopping" from an island to an island, enjoying the narrow crossings of few miles at the outer border of the archipelago, not too far at the open sea. This was my first time to do a such long solo expedition, 400 kilometres (250 miles).

It took me three days to enter the island of Longoren (Long Island) at 6pm, some 110 kms (68 miles) east from Helsinki. Going had been fast: the weather was extraordinarily fine and I could have reached Kotka before the evening (last 22 kms), enjoying the 9 m/sec (19+ knots?) western wind. I had all this testosterone burning in my body, after dancing with my kayak twice in standing waves in narrow passages, paddling with full speed in following seas, but instead of ruining my back I decided to have a break for a day. Longoren is one of my favourite islands: the area around the island is quiet, even though there is a camping area just a mile towards the continent and a few summer cottages miles away. Islands there are forming some kind of a calm lagoon, diameter of 5 kms between the two large islands facing the open sea and the smaller islands facing the continent. Longoren is almost a mile long and less than 300ft wide, low, sandy and at that moment the flora was wild and flourishing in its greenness amidst the sand and rocks. There are remains of an unknown old building, some birch, lots of small pines and beautiful long narrow beaches at the both sides of the island, forming a funny tail of sand and large rocks facing north. The bottom of the sea drops suddenly from three ft to 45ft near the beachline. It can make you feel really dizzy to paddle there, only few meters away and seeing how suddenly the clear water, rocks and sand turn to bottomless green and black. At the southern end of the island there are rocks in the water: from a distance they seem to be small, but if you go wading there you do suddenly notice that the rocks are as high as you, standing at the 1ft deep water and sand. Most beautiful, fertile island I do know, and worth of spending a day.

Walked around a little and found remains of a hawk, a scull of a loon, and tried to read a book about zen buddhism before the sunset, when three loon families passed me swimming along the shoreline, just few meters away from my Nordkapp. The hypnotizing sight of them, seen through my tent door just filled my sleepy head and I fortunately forgot everything I had read. Like a drunken beaver I passed to sleep, happy and smiling like an idiot. I slept my tiredness off, woke next day at noon, had a breakfast and dozed off again for hours. Went skinny dipping and considered practicing self rescues with my new spare paddle. At the evening it was again similar magical situation, but then it was two swans flying low, so close I could clearly hear the noise their powerful wings made amidst the silence of the coming night. Some things are just not for readind and studying. I almost did quit reading that zen stuff completely, poor Mr. Alan W. Watts: The Way of Zen (1957 Pantheon Books Inc.) was not really a huge success during that trip...

Actually, there seems to be something in zen-buddhism which interests sea kayakers. I found later, when a fellow kayaker was landing the jetty of our club after a short trip, that he was carrying the very same book with him. And the guy standing beside me mentioned that he had it in his book-shelf too. Maybe it has something related to kayaking - or maybe it is that the Nordkapp owners happen to be representatives of some romantic and fatalistic species..? (Stupid? Well, maybe one has to be, if you own a narrow Nordkapp, often blamed to be tippy...)

The weather turned bad and the next two days I did spend in Kotka visiting my parents. Paddling to Kotka, crossing few three mile openings against the rising 9 m/sec eastern wind was frustrating and I was finally glad to get to a hot sauna and wash my clothes. My folks had been very concerned about me and the text messages I got through the cellular phone had been quite annoying, as were the comments, when I was continuing my journey on the July 13th: "aww, it looks quite tippy" and "does that mean, that every time, when you are landing and building a camp, you have to take ALL that STUFF out?" (Etc. etc. - Seems that they have adopted the common habit of believing that your kids are teenagers forever...I am now 37 -sigh!)

Coffee and pie at Maija's

The town of Virolahti lies practically almost at the border, along the banks of a river who runs its waters from north to a long, narrow bay and finally to the Finnish Gulf. To get there from the sea you have to paddle 15 kms (9 1/2 miles) and partly through the border zone, which divides the mouth of the bay in two: the Finnish and the Russian side. A permission to enter the zone is needed: one can get it from the Hurppu Frontier Guard station, lying at the mouth of the bay, facing the official boat route to north and Virolahti. The officers at the station were friendly and curious about me, even though some clubs in Helsinki are arranging every summer expeditions to east, or from Virolahti to west, along the coast. Knowing the sea and local topography very well, they were offering me detailed information about water supplies and where to raise my tent.

It had been quite easy to reach the mouth of the bay in two days, even if during the first day I had wind against my face and had to paddle around the town of Kotka and cross two very busy fairways, which all seemed to last forever. There just was not an easy way to go around one of the most rushed harbours in the whole country. The channels and fairways were wide and full of traffic: from traditional wooden boats to carriers and fast moving frontier guard and navy vessels. A huge cargo ship passing raised some large waves, which I would earnestly call i n t e r e s t i n g. Fortunately I was facing them and the wind - and lucky not to be anywhere in the neighbourhood of shallow waters which would have caused them to break.

I paddled 24 kilometers to S/E to a group of beautiful islands called Ulko-Nuokko, at the edge of the open sea with a view from high cliffs towards the southern horizon. I did raise my tent and was able to spot from there the blue silhouettes belonging to some large islands (among them Suursaari, "Great Island") lying in the middle of Finnish Gulf, which had passed from the hands of Finnish government to the Russians during the WWII. The familiar sight of these "forbidden" islands is quite magical to the people living along the S/E coast, the tops of the huge cliffs being more than 100 meters high (over 300 ft). I do remember watching the silhouettes on a clear day from high towers of my hometown as a child.

After the first 10 minutes of paddling on the second day at 6.30 am a sudden fog raised surprisingly fast from the continent. It took only some 5 minutes and I was not able to see anywhere, besides the rocks of the nearest island. Ahead was a fairway I was not familiar with, so I gave up paddling and landed to have a comfortable nap in my sleeping bag on the beach, the alarm of my wrist watch on the deck of my Nordkapp set to wake me up after 45 minutes. The fog gave up after an hour and I continued, doing some mental marks for possible camping sites for the returning trip. Fortunately there was not so much heavy traffic.

Suddenly the waters seemed to be full of fish, few of them bouncing to air from the calm waters in front of me. I am not really a minimalist when it comes to expedition equipment and packing, so there must be still some salmon and pikes laughing heartily to me, because for this special expedition I had not taken my fishing rod along...

The wind rose from the west and helped the travelling, though I was worried about the next day, when I should be returning. The forecast had been warning that it would not be so pleasant tomorrow, and most probably the wind would get worse. After getting the permission to enter the border zone I enjoyed the admirable sights (well, few houses, three smelly fish farms on the Finnish side and empty and unbuilt coast at the Russian side of the bay...) and paddled along the boat route towards north. The Hurppu Frontier Guard station is probably the most eastern point of the southern coast of Finland, but somehow all the kayakers reaching the border are continuing paddling up to Virolahti, just to be sure that they are going so far as they can. Maybe it is about showing guts and trying to achieve perfectionism: last summer a couple did cover the w h o l e coast of Finland in some 36 or 40 days, but the guys at the Hurppu station teased them to continue the trip up to Virolahti, just "because everyone else does". So did I, and promised the guards to get a beer at Virolahti, after spending the night in an island which is facing the mouth of the river and delta, just three kilometers out of town. Actually I was mentally exhausted, trying to get used to the idea that I had really made it - and there was still 200 kilometers/over 120 miles to get back! I did spend this evening of July 14th looking for hours for a suitable place for my tent: paddling in the middle of mud-smelling delta, amidst of bulrushes, too tired mentally to be able to make solid and straight decisions. I did 41 kilometers (25 miles) with three short breaks that day, but it surely felt like I had done 80. To be earnest: the border-zone and the bay were boring and a slight disappointments to me.

I woke up next morning at 7 am near public beach and after morning coffee went and paddled to the center of Virolahti, which is divided by the river running below two small bridges. The river is narrow and idyllic, floating peacefully, guarded by banks full of alder, birch, small houses, mostly wooden and boats of various sizes. I saw only one powerboat lying there and felt very lucky, it had been so peaceful so far: two powerboats within two days. There are two small visitors´ berth, other equipped with a refuse bin and a freshwater tap. It seemed that I was the only wisitor that particular day, so I proudly parked my kayak in the middle of the berth, and left the other one downstream for minor explorers. Walked around, got some supplies (candy bars, bananas and duct tape for emergency repairs) and drank two divine cups of coffee at the local bar, Maija´s, which was full of pensionairers chatting peacefully. The coffee tastes sooooo goooood when someone else makes it, after few days of washing coffee pot, cup, plate and spoon with cool salt water. No beer this time.

When I finally left the town at noon the expected (more than10 m/sec, 21 knots) wind had risen and I was facing it blowing from south along the bay with almost full force, plus waves packed to the delta. Not fun: I had a good reason to believe that the situation outside the bay would be worse, because paddling to west the waves would hit directly the side of my kayak. Besides getting wet I felt concerned about my safety, paddling alone among shallows and possible breaking waves, force of the wind rising, so I finally decided to paddle the remaining kilometres to the camping site next to the Hurppu station, raise my tent there and check the weather again tomorrow. Next day I decided to have a full day´s break, which seems to have been a fortunate decision: I think we lost one kayaker at the open sea amidst the gusty winds of that day. I heard he was doing a solo expedition and planning to visit some lighthouses at the outer S/W waters. The kayak was found floating at sea and if I do recall it correctly, I got the depressing news from my FM radio few days later. The wind rose to 13 m/sec, which gives some height to the waves here, especially at the western and S/W waters, where the northern and southern winds have hundreds of miles free space to blow and the waves to reach their full power. I did spend that day having a sauna at the camping site, chatting with a former frontier-guard officer who kept the place, listening the weather forecast several times, and checking the sights from a bird-watching tower . The sea was foaming and at the Russian side of the border there was rain and depressing murky black clouds. I did visit and inform the officers at the Hurppu station that my leave would postpone for a day. I left the Virolahti area on next day, June 17th at 6 am. It was still blowing from south and the waves were irritating two-footers, but the wind was supposed to wear itself down during the morning hours. After three hours of safe kayaking behind islands I decided to have a full break: lunch, a nap and maybe some FM radio listening. I did sleep really well - I woke and found out that the wind had almost died and I had actually slept two hours... Yup. The early bird really catches the worm...

After some continuous paddling I did again put my feet to the shores of Ulko-Nuokko, raised my tent to a new place, and went out for a peaceful paddling at the sunset time. A familiar looking boat passed me in a channel. Though I was not able to see the face of the skipper I was sure it was a friend of my sister - a guy doing some tourist boating during the summer season. His boat has a fully licenced bar (yes!) so I did start to paddle furiously, chasing him 45 minutes in the channels of the Nuokko islands. Every time I got a sighting of his boat and tried to guess on which side of some nameless miserable island he would pop up again I did choose the wrong side. Finally I saw him leaving the islands at the distance of at least 5 kilometres. No beer at that time...

The weather forecast was promising hard winds for the next day, so I did woke up again early and entered the waters of Kotka with the wind behind me before noon. At some shallow waters before a channel and a fairway I did notice five flags, telling me that supposedly there were three nets in water. Now, five flags do also mean that there is supposed to be a sixth flag. Where is it? Where is the e n d of the third net? An essential question, when following seas are driving you towards the nets, some shallows and breaking waves. I felt really alarmed, trying to choose my route through the nets - there was no turning back - until I did see the missing flag. I had chosen correct route between the nets, guessing by the size and colour of the flags which of them would belong to the same net. The missing sixth had such a short pole (maybe two feet) that it remained unnoticed until I was quite near. It was just hiding behind the crests when I was scanning the area. That was really an alarming discovery, because the flag was bright red and relatively large. So many things can remain unnoticed when kayaking in rough waters - whatever their colour is... No fun.

The winds got harder and harder so I had to stay with my parents again and have a two day´s break. Quite irritating. I felt that a break lasting more than a day was ruining the natural rhythm of my paddling: early rising at 5 or 6 am, a good break of two hours at noon, including short nap and camping before 6 pm when there was sunlight left plus time to explore my camping island for more than five hours.

I was getting anxious.

Thirsty kayaker in heat of July, yellow ants and fog...

The 13m/sec, 26 knot western wind continued two days, but it was again supposed to wear itself down towards the evening of the third day. I left Kotka paddling against the wind at 5 pm on June 21st, hoping it would get easier before sunset, there was three crossings of about 4 to 5 kilometres (2 1/2 to 3 miles) waiting me before I could reach Longoren again. I had lucky cards: everything went as supposed, the weather turned nice after an hour of paddling and building my camp to a familiar place was very pleasant.

Next day I did 42 kms/26 miles in almost nonexisting winds and was able to make safely long crossings via outer routes quite far from the coast. The Navy Engineers were stopping me onroute bacause they were blowing up some old mines underwater, but when I stayed for half an hour to see the spectacle nothing happened. I met the only fellow sea kayaker of this trip just after I had got onshore to my next camping place, Brokholmen, an island which has a sand-pit from the 20´s and a spring with really excellent tasting fresh water. We had almost similar routes and the guy had actually been following me the whole day, I had just not noticed his presence few kilometers behind me. His plans were to paddle the whole coast down to town of Hanko, to the most SW corner of the coast. He had a nice small teddy bear on deck - a gift from his daughter. I did make a camp but he continued, because the weather forecast was again promising unpleasant western winds for the next day when I was supposed to do a crossing of 8 kms/5 miles.

I had to stay onshore. I became really anxious. I was hoping to get to home during the next two days and this lousy wind was keeping me bound to this island. A woodpecker was waking up early and staying up late in the woods nearby and it made me irritated. The giant blueberries started also tasting sour in my mouth.The wind was finally dying to the end of the day and the forecast was promising really good weather for the next day so finally I made a decision: I would cover the last 70 kilometres/44 miles in a day. It would be Friday, so my local pub "Double Moon" might be the last harbour of this expedition...sigh..

It was 24th of July. I woke up at 3.30 am and after drinking coffee packed my stuff in haste. The sun had risen shortly after me so there was no time to waste. Everything was calm and quiet and I paddled the first three hours pleasantly, doing the crossing an dmeeting only few boats, before fog surprised me at 8.20 am. I was watching the open sea on my left, when I did notice the odd yellowish colour in horizon and that the closest buoys were starting to vanish from sight. I had barely time to check my route to the nearest cape and get the correct direction using my compass, before everything around me was covered by the fog. It took 10 mins to paddle to the nearest buoy, one kilometer away to the north and I reached it in time - to the cape it took another 10 minutes and another kilometer. Keeping time with my wrist-watch helped checking my progress, there was no landmarks visible, though the sun was shining to the middle of the fog. Very odd situation.

I cooked some coffee on some rocks, waiting the fog to leave, but in vain. Finally I decided to navigate to the west from the cape with the help of my charts and compass, even if there was a fairway and a crossing of 4kms (2 1/2 miles) waiting for me. I had to trust my ears: fortunately the waters were familiar to me because I had paddled there during the last summer expedition with my SO and I knew that there would be very little traffic - if at all. Only few tankers per day sailing to the oil refining area of Neste Company in the north, near the town of Porvoo. I did take the risk of crossing, because I did also knew that the fairway was there only less than kilometer wide before the first landmark, which was a tall buoy. I could reach the buoy very fast, in less than 10 minutes, trusting my ears and compass.

The crossing went perfectly, I paddled from buoy to a small island and from there to the island of Onas, the place I camped in after the very first day of my trip. Navigating was actually great fun that time: there were only very modest one-footers and practically no wind at all, I was able to keep my direction easily. After the crossing I felt the nature calling so I decided to walk aroud a bit after reaching the coast-line of Onas. It became a very short walk: after spending few minutes onshore in an unfamiliar bay I was wondering about the funny, continuous rustling noise the leaves kept around me. It turned out that the place was full of blood-thirsty yellow ants - larger than I had ever seen before! I ran to the water near my kayak with my pants hanging in my knees, trying to brush the biting beasts away from my diver´s socks and legs. What an experience - you can never know what an expedition brings in front of you...

I continued my paddling towards more civilized surroundings. It was turning out to become a really hot day, almost dead calm and no clouds in sight. the fog finally vanished somewhere between 10 and 11 am.

It took me finally 15 hours to paddle to Helsinki. I was taking the outer route, avoiding the busier inner fairways because of the weekend traffic - people were going to visit their summer cottages and camp in the islands near the capital. Going back around the peninsula was now more painful, there was so awfully many boaters and also the Stockholm ferries leaving the city at 6 pm. A huge tourist boat passed me in a narrow passage like a coach, from a distance of 30 ft without slowing down. I entertained the tourists with starting to paddle at full speed, flashing my lunatic grin, beard, reflecting yellow mountain-climbers sunglasses and beating the 4 ft wakes with my kayak head high, splashing the bow over the crests.

The last two kilometers were the most painful ones. Mentally I had already finished the trip and the last two bananas and candy bars were not helping me anymore. My back was aching. I started eating pain-killers which were packed in pockets of my PFD for such an occasion. I had feeling that all would have been much easier if there wouldn´t have been so many breaks during the trip - I would have got more familiar with my natural travelling rhythm and also had more time to develop my strenght to make reasonable and effective 40-50kms/25-31miles per each day.

Finally, I reached the jetty of our club. All my strenght was gone, it seemed to take endlessly long time to go home the normal 10 mins walk with dirty clothes inside my backpack, take a shover and make some really tasty espresso. The fridge was empty, but the blue night was warm, sky was still full light, streets were looking like everyone had left the town for holidays and the basswood and the air smelled fresh, smooth, and nice. I walked out to a park where local restaurant kept it´s terrace. Needed a beer.

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