Hiisi's Elk 2019

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The smell of pine tar on wooden skis and hot coffee in a kuksa will reach your nose as you read this story of tracking the largest game animal in Finland.

A hunter in the woods looking out with binoculars.

After spending a jolly Christmas together with a Norovirus, it was finally time to head for the final elk hunt of the season. We had made two hunting trips already with no sightings of the animal. After snowfall the tracks would be easy to find and easier to follow. Solid reasoning! Expectations were high as we started our car in Espoo the morning after Boxing Day. In the evening in Sodankylä we decided against ever driving to Lapland in one go again: covering over 1000 km in just one day is far from enjoyable, very numbing. At any rate, we arrived to the cabin at Lake Orajärvi, Sodankylä, before midnight.

Another hunter beside a road with a sledge and skis getting ready.

The morning consisted of preparing some coffee into Thermos bottles, pack the last things into the sledge and drive for one more hour. Closer to the hunting area we took some time figuring out the route, as forest roads are ploughed rather selectively. We got close enough to the shack where we'd spend the following night and pulled the sledge on skis for the final leg into the wilderness.

A hunter skiing through a snow filled scenery with oulling a sledge behind him.

We had so much equipment with us, so a sledge made much more sense compared to a rucksack. The previous time I had hauled a sledge on slushy Lake Saimaa ice which was terrible to say the least. The Paljakka fibreglass sledge from Savotta followed me with ease, and even knee-deep snow wasn't a problem.

Two hunters admiring the golden skies in snow clad woods.

Already on the way to the shack we got to witness the beauty of Lapland. The sun coloured the sky and a flock of black grouse fluttered up into the air as we passed too close to them. We inspected some tracks on the ground but quickly deemed them to be left by reindeer. Before getting to the shack we had a small river to cross. Following it upstream led us to a suitable frozen section to get across, as reindeer had done before us.

Light coming from a window of a small cottage in the dark snow clad woods.

The shack was in a neat condition with feather sticks whittled, as is customary. The temperature was ten below zero and the warm stove felt good. At these latitudes and time of the year it gets dark at three in the afternoon already. We spent the night chopping firewood, cooking and planning the next day's elk business.

We woke up in the morning before sunrise (well, it comes up pretty late) put on the stove and made some coffee. The weather forecast promised snowfall and moderate winds. Not exactly the best conditions for following trails, but we didn't let it bother us. Filled up the Thermos bottles, geared up and hopped on skis!

A hunter skiing across on opening on a grey winter day. A beautiful afterglow in the woods and a hunter skiing.

We floundered for half of the day around bogs and bushes. Given the season snow wasn't too plentiful, but the beautiful northern landscapes made skiing pleasant. Finally we were down to business, tracking on skis. It took us a couple of hours to find the first elk track. A cow and calf had crossed a large open. We estimated the animals to have been there the day before, so it wasn't exactly steaming fresh, but cause for a slight excitement. This time, we lost the trail in a spot where a herd of reindeer had rootled for food under the snow. As daylight was diminishing, we decided it was time for lunch: camping food and sausages with an open flame.

A hunter at a campfire in the woods.

After the campfire we made it back to the track which we had used on the previous day to head to the shack. A ready-made ski trail is much faster. We arrived right before dark and soon a local reindeer herder came to visit on his Summit snowmobile. He had been following a wolverine's trail and actually saw this rare beast. Between some cigarettes and swigs of brandy we heard wild stories about snowmobiles, wolves, reindeer, helicopters, elks, dogs and what not! This herder was nice enough to write our number down and promised to send us a message, should he spot a fresh elk trail on the way home.

Footprints in the snow.

The second night at the shack we spent enjoying a heavy bacon pasta and photographing northern lights. Solar winds lit the sky with amazing visuals. With memory cards full of gold we crawled into our sleeping bags with light minds.

Sky filled with green northern lights.

The next day we went back to the car on skis. It was almost new year's eve and the third member of our group, Juho, would go on to join another party. Before returning to base we drove around the area as much as the snow-plough had cleared, but saw nothing. A lonely willow grouse posed us for a long time, despite the car. Time to press the shutter button again.

A white willow grouse on white snow.

On the last day of the year 2018 Saana and me headed to Peurasuvanto, where we rented a cabin for four nights. The site was in hunting areas, not too expensive and had a sauna with a wood stove. We got there early enough to make a scouting trip on skis in an area that seemed promising and suitable for elks to graze in wintertime. A local dog hunter we know had also recommended it to us. No signs of elks this time, either, but plenty of birds. We ate dried meals and had a kuksa of coffee each, surrounded by silence. After the sauna in the evening we made plans for the following day and went to bed. It felt like the first days of the year 2019 would be amazing.

A break in the snowy woods with gear off and a hunter peerin at the distance.

We skied along our previous trails as long as we made on the day before and went a similar leg beyond. Again no elk trails to be found. Except for a couple of birds it was a day without anything worth a special mentioning, but skiing and sitting at a campfire in itself is satisfying. While driving to the cabin, we stopped over on a side road, where we did find elk trails, but too old to get excited about. The plan for the next day, however, started to find its form.

A hunter checking the map on a mobile phone next to a camp fire.

The trip started to remind the saga of Hiisi's Elk from Kalevala. The largest game animal in Finland just wouldn't reveal itself. The best clue so far was the pine saplings we saw before, where we found discarded elk horns, scats and grazed saplings. We had dismissed this location before, as it would mean skiing in deep snow for 10 klicks from the nearest road. As options were getting fewer, we decided to point the ski tips there on the next day.

Skiing in untouched snow. A golden yellow, ping and purple sunrise on a field.

At the beginning of the task we were greeted by a rather beautiful sunrise. It was cold as hell and the crust wouldn't carry us, so advancing was closer to floundering rather than proper skiing, but the landscapes raised spirits through the roof. After a few breaks to take pictures it was noon and we arrived to a small river. Hidden under the snow was a layer of slush, which stuck to the bottoms and sides of skis and froze over almost immediately. Crossing the river was followed by a lunch break.

As the dried meals were being hydrated we used sporks to scrape ice off the skis. While chipping the ice I mangled one of the strap attachments and it wouldn't work anymore. To add insult to injury I had put my meal into the pocket of my loft jacket, where the bag had opened and spilled part of its contents into the pocket. Oh well, food is food even if you eat it from a pocket and the strap attachment was soon fixed with a utility strap. Fortunately, we weren't too close to the target area at this point, because the scraping sounds would have scared the elks away for sure, and some traditional mighty words might have been uttered here as well.

We skied almost until it was dark and made it to about one kilometer from the objective. It was certainly not in vain, as the trail we had made would serve us well on the next day. We hurried back to the car lighting the way with headlamps and went to heat the sauna.

A skier at dusk with a crescent moon in the sky. A hunter on a ski track at dawn with a puffer jacket on and a frosty scarf covering her face.

On the 3rd of January 2019 the morning temperature was -27 degrees Celsius. Fingers were freezing cold within minutes from getting out of the car. Gliding fast along the ready-made ski trail warmed us up soon and the sun came up to warm the day. The trail of the previous day came to an end and we were getting close, the silence was only slightly broken only by the creaking snow and squeaking boot straps. We were barely in the bush as a deer walked towards us. Unfortunately, it was of the wrong species. A herd of raindeer made their way along, until they spotted us and turned away. This wasn't promising for sure, but we continued until a familiar intersection where we stashed our skis and extra gear. The bush was easier to penetrate by wading in the snow rather than trying to make way with long forest skis.

We combed the saplings with stealth, but this winter there had only been reindeer. The sun came above the horizon for the first time in a while. Looking at the colourful sky and campfire eased our disappointment and the call of the sauna put some speed to our skis.

Sun shining at the horizon, a skier in a snowy wilderness. Storing the gear in the dark.

The final day would feature driving along the last ploughed road and beginning the way home. Willow grouses and reindeer were plentiful, just no elks. We skied a bit and sat at a campfire. The last elk hunts of this season were now behind us. Seeing an elk or even a fresh trail would have been swell but you can always dream.

During wintertime, elks have a habit of gathering in small areas, where they find food more easily and are generally left in peace. Finding these spots requires local knowledge. Tracking elk on skis is most successful when the snow crust is strong enough to support a hunter on skis, but not the elk. The deep snow and crusty edges of footholes make it difficult for animals to move. This time the conditions were favourable to the game, not us.

A skier at a campfire in the woods.

Despite good tips and previous reconnaissance, we couldn't find what we were looking for. However, a large portion of Lappish nature helped reset our brains. Overall it was a neat journey and we did all that we set out to do: try to find elks on skis.

27.12.2018Roadtrip from Espoo to the cabin at Lake Orajärvi in Sodankylä
28.12.2018Final packing checks, to Pomokaira by car and skiing to the hunting shack
29.12.2018Skiing east towards Pulterinkummut hills
30.12.2018Skiing back to the car, driving tracks and skiing back to the shack in the evening
31.12.2018To Peurasuvanto in the morning, rent a cabin and skiing towards Pulterinkummut hills
01.01.2019Finish the route at Pulterinkummut and driving tracks
02.01.2019Making a ski trail to Härjänpaskantama
03.01.2019Skiing to Härjänpaskantama and sneaking around
04.01.2019Driving the last tracks, small skiing trip and a roadtrip to Oulu
05.01.2019From Oulu to Espoo
06.01.2019Deer hunting

Clothes worth a special mention

Särmä TST Woolshell

On this trip, me and Saana were wearing Särmä TST Woolshell jackets and trousers virtually all the time. The outfit is warm, breathes when you move, repels some wind and doesn't mind a bit of moisture. The pockets are outstanding and reinforcements are in their correct places.

The jacket has a functional and upstanding cut with a size range for smaller users as well. The trousers are especially ducky thanks to the high waist and adjustment. You don't need a belt, which could be uncomfortable under the hip belt of a rucksack or backpack. You can squat in these without making the seams creak. This will most likely be our go-to outfit for the whole hunting seasons from here on. Can we get this in white?

Särmä TST L3 Loft trousers

Winning bottom for breaks and static hunting! Being able to don and doff these without touching your boots is extremely handy. Any extra hassle is especially annoying up in a tree, for example. Lightweight and packable, but pass as an outer layer as well. No pockets, though.

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