After my stop into two Utsjoki craft stores, I stopped into one of my favourite places: the post office. From there I mailed a few Utsjoki postcards that I had already written. I had to ensure the Utsjoki postcards had an Utsjoki postmark 🙂 I was still saving a stack of seventeen of them, written within the last fortnight in Helsinki, to mail from the northernmost post office in the nation, in Nuorgam.
On Monday 31 July at 11.30 I started my bike ride east to Nuorgam, on the narrow road alongside the Teno River. The road in Norway was two lanes wide and was separated by a dividing line; yet the Teno road in Finland was narrower with no painted lines. Nuorgam was 43 kilometres away. Fortunately the weather was not like it was on Saturday. When I embarked on my Norwegian bike trek it was a cloudless dehydrating uphill scorcher, yet today I was pleased to wake up to an overcast sky. The day’s weather forecast was thunderstorms but I did not care one single bit. I was so motivated to make this journey on my bicycle that I would have attempted to ride through a rainstorm if I had to.
I dressed in jeans, T-shirt, long-sleeve shirt which I left open, and my winter jacket. I am so thankful to have my bike gloves with me! Without them, my hands would have frozen from the cold. I know this is true; when I started to feel warmed up I took off the gloves but could not withstand the cold slicing at my fingers.
The road signs throughout northern Norway and Finland posted distances to towns at ten-kilometre intervals. After the initial sign in Utsjoki which stated that Nuorgam was 43 km away, I soon passed a sign saying that the town was forty kilometres off. It was just after passing this sign that I rounded one of the Teno’s countless curves and came face-to-face with a reindeer, standing in the middle of the road.
The Teno road is just that: a road. There is no paved shoulder, no soft shoulder, and no clearing on either side. The road simply cuts through the trees and you can see nothing coming at you from around the curves. On average three thousand reindeer die in road accidents each year, and one reason for this high number must be because of there being no advance warning that reindeer might be just around the bend.
Another reason for reindeer fatalities is the animals’ stubbornness, or as Finns would put it, stupidity, for not moving from the centre of the road, regardless of who or what may be approaching. I am quite certain that many motorists are careful drivers who see the deer standing there yet do not put on the brakes, under the wrongful impression that the animal would surely move out of the way in time. By the time the car does brake though, it is too late.
My first reindeer encounter made me ashamed to be a Fennophile. I am embarrassed to have to tell you all that I was scared of this animal. I know better–I have read enough about reindeer (poro in Finnish, boazu in Tunturi Sami) to know that there is nothing to fear, just don’t taunt the creatures if you know what’s good for you. But there I sat, on my bike by the side of the road, trying not to make the slightest move, just waiting for the reindeer to go far, far, far away.
It however was quite happy where it was in the middle of the road.
The thought actually went through my head: Will my entire bike journey be like this? Dodging reindeer for the next forty km? Should I turn back?
Yes! I considered riding back to Utsjoki. Coward.
I either was going to wait for the deer to move or I was going to move. Fortunately the deer did get up from the middle and walked to the other side of the road, at which point I hopped on my bike and sped away. But I had not lost this deer by any means. The animal insisted on trotting behind me for I don’t know how long. It was a toss-up between looking out in front of me for any more deer (or the rare car) around the bend, or looking behind me to see if I was still being pursued. At least I had the sense as I was pedalling away to realize that this animal could outrun me even if I was racing downhill with the wind at my back. Therefore I never even attempted to outrun the thing.
Throughout my entire ride to Nuorgam, I came across reindeer. On one occasion there were four of them halfway through crossing to the other side of the road while another small group was waiting for them to cross. I swerved out of the way and passed them all, not even having time to think and let myself get all scared again. I did not see this small herd even on my bicycle; that is how treacherous it can be on this narrow road with endless curves and nothing to prepare you for who or what might be around the bend.
My reindeer encounters were many yet I only managed to get one photo. Blame that on my cowardice. I was so scared to even move that my camera stayed slung around my neck. And that midroad encounter with the herd happened so fast that when I looked back they were all so far away and standing deep within the trees.
The ride to Nuorgam was uphill, and by the time I arrived three hours later, my legs were so exhausted that I gave thought to asking around town for a lift back or even hitching a ride. Surely someone in this town of 250 was heading west to Utsjoki (there’s nowhere else to go west), and I could ask the whole township if I had to. This was just an impulsive reaction of mine that I quickly rejected. The ride there was all uphill, fine, but the ride back–take a flying guess.
I propped my bike against the town sign, proclaiming Nuorgam and its Sami name Njuorggán, and took a photo. Then I rode into the village along its sole road. There are no addresses here, as with most small towns. So it was difficult at first for me to find places such as the post office or general store, since I had no house numbers to go by. But with a town of only 250 you can’t possibly get lost, and I just asked one person who told me where everything was.
The post office was initially difficult to find because it is housed inside Samimoottor Oy, which for the most part is a mechanics shop/gas station. Once inside the place you see that it is also a café, travel agent, general store and post office. The Sami language took priority, and the official sign Poasta was listed above the Finnish Posti. I mailed my postcards from there, and the postal worker/auto mechanic thought that they were all rather amusing. I always like to address postcards wherein I state the country of destination in both the destination country’s native language as well as the sending country’s native language. Hence my cards to the United States are always addressed United States under which I parenthetically add (Yhdysvallat) when I mail cards from Finland. I left a line blank on these seventeen cards because I could not find the Sami names for Canada or United States in any dictionary. I would have gladly written these names in Tunturi, Inari or Skolt Sami if I only knew how 🙂 When I asked the gentleman in the Poasta what the Sami words were for these two countries, he looked at me rather strangely and figured out Canada was probably Kánada (note the accent). Unfortunately he had no clue what United States was, so I succumbed to the secondary language and wrote it hurriedly in Finnish instead.
Nuorgam’s postal code is 99990, the highest number in the nation. Well, almost. There is a 99999 but that is merely a contrived code for the Santa Claus Post Office just north of Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle line. In Finland, the higher the number, the further north you travel. I suppose the post office and Santa Claus theme park publicity department thought that by having such a high postal number, visitors would think (or postcard recipients would believe) that they are practically at (or were the recipients of mail sent from) the North Pole.
In Canada, where we also lay a claim to having the North Pole within our borders, Santa Claus’s postal code is H0H 0H0, which would give the impression from the starting letter H that the North Pole is within the province of Quebec 🙂
BTW, postal codes in Finland do not start at the southernmost point in the nation, in Hanko, but in Helsinki. The lowest postal number is 00002. 00001 is not assigned.
More to come about Nuorgam and the Finnish/Norwegian land frontier in instalment five.