Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
Northern Finland was an uncharted wilderness with a scarce population living off the land until gold was found in 1836. Rumours about the discovery were fast to spread… If the quantities extracted have been little, even after state-sponsored expeditions and heavy investments, the precious metal has changed Lapland to this day, with the development of infrastructures and later tourism facilities to observe the Northern Lights and enjoy the vast wilderness whether snow Mo biking, cross-country skiing, hiking or mountain biking.
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We are driving south along Highway 4 leaving Inari behind. The road gently winds it’s way amidst beautiful fall colours: the ruska as the Finns call it with affection. Between Ivalo and Tankavaara, the highway is nicknamed the Golden Road, and unexpectedly this has nothing to do with fall foliage that has turned the forest in fire with its hues of yellow, bright orange and red. The route follows the original cart track cleared by gold prospectors over a hundred years ago. Signs of gold mining activities along it are still visible.
To dig for more (pun intended), it is better to leave the road and go deeper into the countryside. The Gold Route hiking and mountain biking itinerary is ideal for the purpose. Winding through pine forests, amongst reindeer herds, and crossing tributaries of the Toloajoki River, it passes by mining shafts, ruins of buildings and heaps of waste rocks and gravels. Remnants of long sluice box lines used to separate the dense gold from the rest – gold is 7 times heavier than gravels and 19 times heavier than water – lay in the colourful arctic vegetation. The quantities of gold recovered are far from matching the investments that have been made to dig for it, even after finding decent-sized chips in the 1870’s in the Ivalojoki River and gold nuggets in Tankavaara. The industrial mining has been long gone in this area and a few caravans here and there signal individual gold hunters prospecting the creeks and rivers. Conditions are much easier than in the old days, but remain quite Spartan.
Spartan is quite the antinomy of the Wilderness Hotel Muotka, only a few miles away. Lost in the wild, there seems to be a lot more gold these days in tourism than in the creeks and streams of northern Lapland. The luxurious and exclusive log-house lodge is the ideal base to explore the area. East of it, the most beautiful mountain biking track of Lapland crosses the Urho Kekkonen National Park. Signs marking the bike route as well as the winter snowmobile tracks lead to the desolated landscapes of the open fell with Russia in the background. Reaching it requires pushing hard on the pedals to conquer the elevation, the rocky trail and the strong and biting wind. Luckily, several huts – all with a fire place – dot the route to warm up and rest, or even to grab a munkki, the yummy local donut that in one bite gives a fat-and-sugar boost to conquer a few more miles on bike. The best part of the route is a flowing and fun single track in the challenging terrain, crossing rivers. Even if it is still early in the fall, the day temperatures are already low. As I feel the water splashing along my biking pants as I cross, I try to envision what it feels like to be panning for gold in these cold streams. Biking back towards Muotka, I am climbing the uphill fast to warm up, already looking forward to the warmth of our private sauna cabin once back in our charming and comfortable log-house, lost in the forest.
A few days in Finland experiencing traditional Finnish saunas has made us sauna-confident: after such an outing, we thoroughly enjoy the warmth before we relax by the fireplace overlooking the forest through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Maybe we will see a glimpse of the Northern Lights tonight, if we manage to stay awake after such a day!
For now, we are looking forward to dinner… Foraging for food was essential for prospectors, and today, it is a local’s favourite activity. For us, it is a real luxury to enjoy wild forest mushrooms to accompany a delicate whitefish from the Inari Lake, a lingonberry sauce to enhance a delicious and gamy reindeer filet or the precious cloudberries superfood along a tartelette dessert.
The high hopes of the prospectors who braved the northern wilderness have turned into broken dreams for most. However, the gold days of Finland are not over yet. Beyond the individual prospectors, and tourists who can take their chances at the annual panning contest at the Tankavaara Gold Museum, there are still five active gold mines in Finland. In Pahtavaara in Lapland, cyanide extraction is used to extract the gold trapped in the mine. A closed-processing loop protects the environment from these extremely toxic wastes.
Indeed, the actual gold is now in the arctic environment: these luxurious log-house accommodation, forest lodges and aurora cabins attracting tourists to experience the Northern Lights and Lappish winter or the beautiful ruska season. One can only hope that this new gold will be more sustainable in the energy-glutton* country that still has the purest air and water in the world.
* The cold climate, individual homes, sparse population, long distances and highly industrialized economy put Finland in the top 10 countries per-capita energy users, just behind the USA.
- Mountain bikes, including electric ones, can be rented at the Wilderness Hotel Muotka (as well as all the winter toys).
- The Kulta Museo is very informative and describes the gold history not only of Finland, but the world.
- A stop in Inari to visit the Siida Sami Museum and take a hike up Mount Otsamo is quite worth it.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!