Hotelli Utsjoki was my home for the next four nights in the Finnish far north. From the hotel you can see the new Saamensilta, or Sami Bridge. This bridge, which spans the Teno River, was built in 1993 and links Finland and Norway. The island in the middle of the Teno River belongs to Norway, BTW. Before this bridge was built, the nearest land link to Norway was 43 km east in the village of Nuorgam. However the nearest link crossing the Teno was another 27 km east of that, at Tana, Norway. The locals told me that they never had problems crossing the Teno to Norway before the construction of the Sami Bridge, as they would either boat across in the summer or walk or drive across the frozen river in the winter. The road connecting Utsjoki and Nuorgam is itself quite new, and before its construction people would drive along the frozen river.
On my first day in Ohcejohka (the town name in Sami), I biked six km south of the town to the Kivikirkko (stone church) and Kirkkotuvat (a rough translation would be “church huts”). This church was built in 1853 and was one of only a few buildings in Lapland left standing after World War II. I climbed the bell tower to get a bird’s-eye view of the town and landscape. Climbing the tower was the most claustrophic experience of my life, as I had to climb two ladders standing perpendicular to the floor in what was more or less a dark chimney.
The Kirkkotuvat are 150-year-old cabins, smitheries, saunas and kotas (=conical Sami huts–here I am adding an English plural to a Finnish word), located across the road from the church. Two of the cabins now serve as a café and a Sami craft store. I purchased some handmade mittens with a Sami pattern plus a dozen postcards.
Then I headed north to the Saamensilta. I was going to bike to Norway the hard way. By that I mean crossing into the northernmost district of Finnmark on a bicycle versus the more elegant and convenient way of arriving into the nation (i.e., via airplane in Oslo). The Sami Bridge spans the narrow Teno, and the water is so clear that I could see the riverbed the entire length of the crossing.
Once in Norway I said goodbye to the familiar blue and white road signs of Finland and hello to yellow and black. The temperature was 22°C, four degrees hotter than in Helsinki, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. I biked westward along the road which hugged the northern Teno cliffline. “Shoreline” may give the idea that the road was at river level just metres from the water. Not so. The road was on an extremely sheer cliff with no guardrails: one extra-long look at the gorgeous scenery and down the cliff through the trees and into the river you go.
The Teno has to be the most beautiful river I have ever seen. The frequent curves meant a new captivating view every time I rounded a bend. (Keep this in mind when you read about my winding Teno bike trip from Utsjoki to Nuorgam!) Among the most awesome sights were the dripping black rocks on my right side as I headed west: for kilometres all you see are tall black rocks, towering at ninety degrees to the roadside, over the surface of which water cascaded like a thin veil of liquid glass. Trees clung to these rocks as if by nothing more than a hair’s breadth and I saw quite a few emasculated electricity poles which had succumbed to erosion and gravity.
Fishermen would boat up and down the river, setting their salmon traps. Throughout each of my three Teno River shore rides, I could hear the metallic clanking of the fishers as they hammered their traps into place. The river was sprinkled with pyramid- and fence-traps. Long fishing boats lined the stony Teno shore and sometimes when the cliffside levelled to shore level I would hike down and see the boats and traps up close.
Back at the Hotelli Utsjoki restaurant I spent quite a memorable evening with four drunken fishermen. Well at least they weren’t drunk when I sat down with them. But as dinner progressed I had the charming experience of being serenaded to by a sozzled fisher crooning Roy Orbison oldies in my ear. I have also never had to shake so few men’s hands so many times. My neck and shoulder have recovered from the bear hugs they would spring on me (which was often). Only in Utsjoki.
More to come in instalment three, which will include some discussion about the Sami languages.