Monday, June 11, 2001

Ranua, Finland

Friends: I'm closing in on the Arctic Circle. It is just 75 miles away. I have reached the northern extremity of the Baltic Sea, just below the 66th parallel. I have bicycled over 500 miles since I left Helsinki six days ago. It is just 150 miles to Sodankyla and the Midnight Sun Film Festival.

The skies were bright and sunny my first three days out of Helsinki. The past three have been heavily overcast, and it has been raining off and on. I've avoided a drenching from the few hard downpours, as I've always had the good fortune of being near some shelter when they have hit. The drizzle has often been just a bare mist, not even requiring my poncho. I'm almost getting used to it. If it doesn't get any worse than this, I ought to be able to push on to the northern most point in Europe, about 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Last night I had my first challenge finding a place to camp, as the terrain has turned boggy, like the tundra of Alaska. Up until then, it was a snap to find a place anytime I wanted in these unfenced forests that predominate along the roads. Few people live outside the occasional small towns I pass through. And by virtue of "the right of common access," anyone can camp anywhere he pleases as long as he's 150 meters from anyone's domicile. The non-stop daylight takes away the pressure of finding a place to camp before it gets dark, as it doesn't get dark.

Even when I discovered the ground was squishy, making the camping a challenge for the first time, I was still able to find a suitable spot just minutes after I decided to curtail my cycling at 8:30. I saw a radio tower on a side road that I figured had to have solid ground around it. But just barely. I pitched my tent right up against its adjoining shed, right on the fringe of mushy ground. I entered the tent with one foot soggy from having sunk into the muck as I was setting up. Fortunately there was no hum from this tower. It was also the first night it was too cold for mosquitoes.

I saw my first reindeer yesterday morning, a cluster of three not far off the road. They showed no concern of me whatsoever. I feared the first reindeer I might spot would be roadkill, as so happens with deer in the US, but there has been no road kill at all along the road, partially because there is so little traffic and also thanks to the 24 hours of daylight. With no night time, animals aren't blinded by and frozen in their tracks by headlights. I've been able to stick to secondary roads with minimal traffic--no more than five or six cars per hour. This is logging country. I see stacks of fifteen-foot lengths of logs piled up along the road every few miles, but I encounter no more than two or three logging trucks a day. Pick-up trucks are also rare. This is terrain similar to the north woods of Minnesota or Alaska. But unlike the United States, none of the signs warning of moose and reindeer are riddled with bullet holes.

I had my first shower two days ago. Until then I had been bathing in the plentiful lakes. But with the thick cloud cover the past few days there has been no sun to warm myself or the surface waters, making the coldness of the water beyond my tolerance. It was also my first night at a campground, though I didn't camp. The owner offered me a cabin for the same price as setting up my tent, as he had many empties and he was concerned that my tent might not be adequate to withstand an impending storm. Shortly after I was showered and had hung my clothes to dry, we were pelted by a hard downpour for about half an hour. It was six dollars to camp, pushing my daily expenses over ten dollars for the first time.

The occasional cafe I find in the small towns I've been passing through offer various varieties of hamburgers for a little more than two dollars. Most of my eating has been from the supermarket--sandwiches and such. Just as in the US, my most frequent meal has been a pound of potato salad mixed with a can of baked beans. I've barely made a dent in my peanut butter, as most of my sandwiches have consisted of cheese and some sort of sausage or sliced meat. One of my sandwich options is onions and eggs squeezed out of a tube. As I head north and the temperatures become colder, I won't be inclined to be eating outdoors so much. I'll need the warmth of whatever cafes come along.

For the first time I had to zip up my sleeping bag last night. If it gets much colder, I can always resort to my wool hat and extra clothes for added warmth. I am hoping to camp during the film festival. There is a 150-site campground less than a mile from the festival. It could well be the place to be.

I met a guy yesterday while I sat under an overhang at a gas station waiting out the rain who proudly mentioned that he attended high school with Peter Van Bagh, the director of the film festival, and a much-respected cinephile. Van Bagh was a film fanatic even then. I asked if the tourist literature was correct that the average Finn only sees 1.5 movies a year. He thought that figure low, but as an indicator of the popularity of movies in Finland, we couldn't find any advertisements for movies playing in the nearby city and university town of Oulu in the Sunday paper or Saturday's or Friday's either. The TV listings, though,  showed plenty of movies, new and old, even some Chaplin.

I saw no theaters in my wanderings around Helsinki nor any in the small towns I've passed through. I was surprised that the tourist literature did not include the film director Kaurismaki brothers in its list of 25 famous Finns. These are all questions to be pursued at the film festival. Two more days and I will have five days of nothing to do but watch movies. Since it never gets dark, movies are scheduled around the clock in three different venues. I can see as many as a dozen movies in any 24-hour period. The opening film is "Fast Food, Fast Woman," which played at Cannes and Toronto a year ago. No word if its star Anna Thompson or its director Amos Kolleck will be in attendance.

The cycling has been superb, but I have yet to encounter another touring cyclist since the gnome on my second day. There is a special film festival train from Helsinki. Maybe there will be a cluster of cyclists bringing their bicycles aboard it.

Later, George

No comments: