The next few day’s of our journey across the forests are the reason why we come all this way to Russia. The track from Monchegorsk to Verkhnetulomsky starts five kilometres to the north of the City of Monchegorsk; it is 150km long and very, very challenging.
The beginning of the track seems easy enough as it disappears into the forest. The only obstacle is a mound of earth that we cross to get onto it, then the rocks begin. Easy at first and then over the next few days they become more numerous and bigger; concentration is important so as not to get stuck on them. Every so often the track drops into a small valley to cross a stream or a river providing us with an extra challenge of slippery rocks in the bog. We worked our way through the forest in brilliant sunshine, with magnificent views of the lake to our left that kept us company all the way to Kivorsk. Towards the end of the first day I had to don my waders and guide the cars through the water avoiding a drop off the rocks into a deep pool.
Our night’s camp was on the track set in amongst the trees with a view of a small lake and a field of boulders dumped by the last ice age glaciers. I walked to the river that we had crossed earlier to filter some water. I stood there immersed in the utter stillness of the forest with the beautiful music of the river bubbling its way down to the lake. Later as we sat beside a warm log fire and chatted about the day’s challenges and the ones to come tomorrow, a harvesters moon sat above the trees to the east.
Day two on “The Track” was going to be the most challenging as there were deeper bogs with larger rocks to cross. I set off with the view of getting to the lake for lunch! On the way we had to winch a couple of times as the Impala Range Rover forged a route across the forest and through the bogs. Right on cue we popped out into sunshine and space beside the lake in time for lunch.
In hot sunshine we enjoyed lunch and the view across the lakes blue waters before heading off into the lake. Yes, INTO the lake because the track beside it is impassable for a few hundred metres. It is imperative not to stray to far out into the lake itself because it plummets to great depths very quickly; so with Steve sat on the bonnet to guide me we set off to find the “Impala Log Road”.
The Impala Log Road is now an infamous track we laid down a number of years ago in order to cross a bog. It consists of over 100 trees that the ‘crew’ felled and laid them out across the bog thus creating a way across without sinking into the mire. The Russians even sent a message via Frank from Kola Travel to thank me and the crew for laying this road.
We crossed the log road with ease although I had to just winch for a few feet as my wheels broke through some rotten wood at the beginning of the track. There was now only two kilometres of very challenging track which we passed with a winch or two for Rob’s Toyota before emerging onto the main track from Olenegorsk to Kutskol, which looked like a motorway after two days in the forest and bogs.
Ahead there was still challenges: river crossings where the bridges had long since succumbed to the ravages of time and winters and also some very challenging rock sections which everyone drove well so that by 17:00 we had arrived at the spot where I had wanted to camp on some land fifty feet or so above the lake.
Some rain had passed through during the afternoon but by the time we camped things had settled down so the evening was bright but a little cold so the camp fire was very welcome. I fancy that mosquitoes were going to become even less of a problem as the nights got colder. In fact we had seen very few because of the hot summer. The sun had dried up so many pools so that there was nowhere for the insects to breed so their numbers were very low.
Moon over the forest
Just as we turned in the rain started to fall. We had been watching some ominous black clouds running up the valley on the other side of the lake for an hour or two and expected it to wander over to us in due course.The chat around the camp fire was relaxed and there was an air of achieving something exceptional, which is exactly what everyone had done over the last two days.
During the night the wind blew but our camp in amongst the trees remained relatively calm and by morning the rain had stopped although a cold NW wind that was whipping up white horses on the lake necessitated a blazing camp fire to keep us warm. The track would get progressively quicker today and our goal was to camp somewhere between Kutskol and the last two river crossings which are big ones all set for the finale on the penultimate day in Russia.
We set off in a howling gale onto a very technical series of rock crossings before plunging into some deep mud which had rocks conveniently placed by nature to catch you out if your concentration wavered. As the day progressed the sun came out and the wind dropped, it seemed in conjunction with an improvement in the track. The rocks became less and the challenges changed into river crossings that got wider and wider.
At the end of the lakes sits the village of Kutskol and just before here we began to see the tracks of bears- one set was of a mother and her cub whilst the other set were large, suggesting a male. As the sun came out more strongly we came across five Grouse just sitting in the sun. They let us get very close, close enough to take some good pictures before one of them could not take the suspense anymore and started heading back into the forest, with the others following soon afterwards.
As we arrived at Kutskol a Russian came over to us and indicated, by making a roaring sign and holding his hands claw like above his head, that the bear and cub had not long passed this way (the ubiquitous demonstration of a bear). We heading off expectantly but alas we did not see them. The noise of the cars would keep them ahead of us and our chance would come probably tomorrow morning if we went for a walk around dawn.
Just after one of the river crossings we made camp on some flat land between the river and the forest. Chainsaw in hand we all headed off into the woods to fell a dead tree for the evening’s fire. Later while we were sat around the fire chatting twenty or so pink feet geese flew over our heads and I did wonder if they would also be in the sky in Norfolk much later in the year. Over to the north of us a pair of cranes called as they do before they settle down for the night.
As we slept a gentle rain fell from the sky, always very conducive to sleep. In the morning I was woken by the sound of a greater spotted woodpecker thumping away at an old pine in search of breakfast. I arose and stood outside to watch him at work. He was very happy to let me just stand observing for ten minutes or so before he flew off into the forest.
Land Rover Defender winching on little used track
Our goal was to get to a magnificent campsite set in amongst pine trees, a lichen covered forest floor with a small lake in the middle of the valley. On the way is a series of checkpoints and I was surprised when I slowed down for the first only to see that it was only a derelict barrack from four years ago.The last day on this track was a mix of fast sand tracks, some rock crawling and three long deep river crossings. These crossings are a grand finale to this adventure and are often approached with some trepidation but Steve and I know them well so could guide everyone past the hidden rocks that can snare the unwary. Once or twice in the past we have had cars stuck on rocks for an hour or so and had to use high-lift jacks as well as winches to carefully extricate them from the river. Today we had no such problems as both Rob and Kevin drove extremely well and each challenge was achieved with a practiced ease and a little aplomb.
It was 19:00 before we settled into the campsite. The wind that had blown strongly all day was not at all evident in this sheltered valley so we sat a little further away from the fire this evening.
Tomorrow was going to be a late start as we only had 30km or so to get to the border posts.
One of the memories that most people take away with them is the utter stillness of the forest that is the norm up here above the Arctic Circle. It gets entrenched in one’s mind; everything is very, very quiet and relaxed. This last morning in Russia was one of those so everyone woke up and walked and talked gently so as not to disturb the stillness of it all.
Eventually we set off to the first checkpoint to be greeted warmly and saluted by the young guard; he checked our passports and let us through to the customs post. A few minutes later we arrived at a very friendly customs post where the guards and officials were more interested in our cars and where we had been than in slowing our progress through. Before we knew it we were away and driving towards Finland with a cheery wave and a smile from the Russian team at Lotta.
Getting back into Finland is a little surreal; the roads are very smooth, the parking places clean and the houses painted with gardens of mown grass and flowers. It was such a contrast to the villages that we had seen in Russia. It always takes a while to accept the normality of Europe once more and Russia seems a very different culture and time from what we know. But what an adventure it is and I was already looking forward to returning next year to the utter wilderness of the Russian Forest and The Kola.