Fires, River Crossings and Sheer Determination
Battling the wilderness and solitude in one of the world’s great nature reserves proves an eye-opening experience for Justine Gosling as she taps into determination she did not know she had
On this expedition I wanted to challenge myself in a number of different ways, not just physically. Trekking the Kevo wilderness trail added distance and time to my (Bringing Down the Iron Curtain) expedition as it diverts from the most direct route. I’d read about how incredible it was and therefore decided that it was worth the extra time and effort, and it certainly was.
Kevo Strict Nature Reserve in Northern Lapland meanders through mountain birch forests, open fell areas, pine forests and the Kevo Canyon. The trail descends to the bottom of the canyon several times over its 63km long distance. It’s a challenging route and it’s recommended you dedicate three to five days to it, however I was told two days would be ﬁne which I agreed with looking at the distance. How poorly informed I was!
I wanted to experience being completely alone in the wilderness. I wanted to be in the slightly vulnerable position of being alone and away from the support car, navigating myself and coping with the challenges that this trail would throw at me. It wasn’t about the physical challenge for me, it was about coping with the remoteness, making decisions about sleeping, eating, ﬁnding shelter and ﬁnding the safest river crossing. I wanted to have the experience of having life’s basic necessities taken away from me, such as shelter and rest to see how I would cope. Would I make wise decisions whilst tired? Would I get scared or lonely on my own? Would I get lost?
My family were not happy about me doing this but accepted it was something I needed to do. I would not have a phone signal but had my satellite tracker with emergency call button if needed. I set off in the rain with just my day backpack with three litres of water and snacks of tuc biscuits, nuts, cheese and chocolate bars.
The route immediately ascended until it reached a plateau with many large lakes. The ground under foot was boggy or ﬂooded, rocky and muddy. In 10 hours I had only covered 18 kilometres and was soaked through. As I was descending through the forest in the rain at around 8 pm I thought I could smell smoke. I was convinced I was imagining this until I viewed a hut ahead. I approached the hut and opened its big wooden door via the reindeer antler door handle; to my surprise and delight it was a large room with a log burner in the centre that was only just still alight. I quickly added some more wood and managed to get it burning again. To ﬁnd this place was such a comfort and lift to my spirits. I removed most of my clothes and boots to dry off and soon warmed up.
It was here by the ﬁre that I evaluated my progress, or lack of. I made the decision then that I had to just keep going if I was going to get to the end on time to meet the support Land Rover. If I was late they may set off alarms unnecessarily and I didn’t want to worry anyone. A couple I met told me this idea was mad. The guide book recommends you take three to five days to complete the trail. This scenic wilderness trek just turned into a real race against the clock and a test of my mental strength and perseverance.
There were only meant to be three river crossings but because it had been so rainy recently there was actually seven. On all the crossings I actually had to take my boots and trousers off the water was so deep. Three of the crossings had ropes to support and guide you across. Even so the rocks I were treading on were lose and slippery whilst the river bed level was uneven, meaning a single step could be much deeper than the expected. I guessed that the water temperature was also a chilly five degrees! I also had to contend with the mosquitos. They weren’t too bad when I was moving, but if I stopped for just 30 seconds there would be swarms of them around me, making getting dressed and undressed to wade through the rivers therefore very quick, but unpleasant.
By 1 am it was still daylight but I was tired and my left knee was really starting to hurt. I was beginning to stumble around and misplace my feet, it wasn’t long after I slipped and ended up on the ﬂoor and there were many more near misses. Again, I thought I could smell smoke. I told myself that this was just wishful thinking as I really needed somewhere to rest for a couple of hours. A few steps further and I could see smoke through the trees! The smile of my face was as wide as the river I’d just waded through.
This time when I opened the door I was not only greeted by the ﬁre but also two friendly Finnish women, one of whom had previously worked in the same London hospital as me! I tried to catch a couple of hours sleep on the bench but it was impossible with my big toe joint throbbing with pain and with the mice crawling around everywhere! I set off again at just after 3 am and was immediately faced with another river crossing just down from a huge waterfall. My heart sank, I thought I had done all the river crossings. There was no guide rope with this one and the current looked really strong. Apparently mosquitos don’t sleep either. I warily began the crossing. My feet were slipping, the rocks I was stepping on were moving and I wasn’t even half way before I fell to the side. I managed put my right arm down on a rock so that I didn’t fall in completely. My right arm was submerged but luckily I still held up my left arm which was carrying my boots and my back pack was still dry. I did a left sided crawl to the river bank and was very grateful I hadn’t slipped and hurt myself. I gave a few mozzies a feed getting dressed again and staggered off to re connect with the trail.
I spent a very fraught half hour or so desperately trying to ﬁnd the trail, marching along the river bank through the bog and swarms of mosquitos. I knew that I could not afford to get lost out here alone and had made the sensible decision to cross the river again and go back to the hut just as I located the trail.
I paused there to enjoy the relief of not having to cross the river again or lose more time. I also had a stern word with myself. I had fallen in the river and gotten lost because I had mentally accepted my tiredness and given in to the prospect of mistakes. I was being weak. I had no longer been ﬁghting determinedly along the trail as I previously had been, I’d been allowing it to slowly defeat me. Time for a mind-set change! I would not be beaten! I marched forwards again with my head high and at pace. Not only would I refuse to feel tired but I was going to enjoy the spectacular scenery and embrace the challenge.
From this point on I honestly loved every second. The sun came out, the mosquitos disappeared in the refreshing breeze out on the fell and I was even treated to a mini sunrise. The view of the Kevo Canyon was well worth the trek with the tiny sunrise in the distance and the lush green ridges. I paused to close my eyes and just appreciate the complete silence. I could also now take pictures for the ﬁrst time without the mosquitos attacking!
After 66 challenging, hilly kilometres, seven river crossings and 26 hours without sleep I arrived at the ﬁnish two hours before my cut off literally skipping in the sun. David, always dependable, was there waiting for me with the Land Rover and treated me to a drink and a reindeer and mashed potato lunch.
I loved the freedom of being in the wilderness and its tranquillity. Its deﬁnitely the most alone I’ve ever been but that didn’t scare me. Many people are afraid of being on their own but don’t be! You will realise your own strengths when you have to depend on yourself. I impressed myself with my blinding determination to get to the ﬁnish before the cut off time. This was a determination I didn’t realise I had. Going forward I now understand how quickly I can reverse my mind-set to completely change a negative mood into creating a positive outcome. When I was accepting fatigue I was committing myself to misery and injury through carelessness. Having completely the Kevo trail in 26 hours without sleep I’m now wondering how far can I push myself.