Terhi Saari: “I’m proud of my 1,200-km journey, but even more so of the fact that I did something I really wanted”

Have you ever dreamed of doing something epic but decided against it because of your lack of experience or expertise? Previously a complete novice to trekking or backpacking, Terhi Saari set out alone for a journey on foot thatd take almost three months and cover 1,200 kilometers. Her crazy plan of trekking along the Finnish eastern and northern border all the way from North Karelia to Western Lapland resulted in an unforgettable experience. Terhi, a fourth-year student of general linguistics at the University of Helsinki, kindly agreed to tell us about her experience and the many lessons learnt by daring to chase your dream.

 

This summer, you trekked along Finland’s eastern and northern border for three months even though you had little previous experience. Why did you decide on such an adventure?

Simply put, I had no reason not to go. I wanted to do something that I’d remember for the rest of my life and the idea of a journey seemed appealing. This summer, the timing was ideal because I wasn’t bound to any specific place: I didn’t have a permanent job or my own flat, I was in a long-distance relationship, and my studies were at a stage where taking a break was easy. I didn’t have anything to complain about in my life, but I felt a strong need for a change of place. As for the type of journey, my biggest source of inspiration was Tero Pylkkänen, wilderness guide and adventurer, who has trekked along all the borders of Finland, around the whole country, but also social media and YouTube were full of people who fueled my interest. Besides my wish to connect with my Finnish roots, traveling alone in the Finnish nature fit my introvert personality better than backpacking abroad.

How did you prepare for your journey in terms of equipment or skills?

Although I understand the appeal of spontaneous travel, I wanted to minimize any risks or obstacles during the journey and would recommend others to do the same. Before this trip, I’d only done one small hike and didn’t have any survival skills to speak of. This just increased the importance of good preparation, and I planned my journey for nine months, ever since I first decided on it. I taught myself everything useful relating to backpacking that I could find online. When planning my journey, I came to see the good sides of social media from a completely new perspective. Without the help of the internet and Facebook’s discussion groups, I’d never have been able to do this. I planned my route making sure I wouldn’t walk anywhere that hasn’t either been marked on the map or been mentioned in someone’s travel log. Not owning any backpacking equipment from before, I spent ages comparing online reviews for camping foods and gear as well as lists of what to pack. I kept recalculating my budget, looking up prices and lurking in online second-hand stores and gear stores. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have time to test the equipment and had to pay the price on the road. I tested my camp stove, tent, sleeping pad and bag only once, and didn’t have time to break in my two pairs of boots.

Did you at any point doubt or hesitate to go? How did your family and friends react to your plan?

The only big moment of hesitation was on the day of departure. I remember standing in square one with a way too heavy backpack, thinking about all that might happen. Luckily, my mother was with me to encourage me. Half an hour into my journey I realized this was the best decision I’ve ever made, and I had to call my mother to tell her everything was OK again. Overall, everyone close to me was a huge help to me. My whole journey would’ve been doomed had it not been for my wonderful partner, who besides emotional support sent me food and gear packages, keeping me alive. Even though I walked alone, this was everything but a one-person journey. Even my parents were OK with the plan when I told them, although my father later told me that he hadn’t initially understood the full extent of the journey. For some reason, he had been under the impression that I was just going for a week-long hike! He was a nervous wreck for the beginning part of my journey, but he calmed down when he saw I seemed to be doing just fine.

What was the journey like as a nature experience in terms of the weather, wild animals or scenery?

My three months included a historically long and dry heatwave. On one hand, I stayed dry, but the constant forest fire warnings made cooking a bit tricky and the heatwave made traveling quite a bit more difficult. As for wildlife, I saw very few wild animals. The only truly memorable encounter, besides some bear tracks, was with a wild fox and even that was through a cabin window. I’m a bit surprised I didn’t go completely crazy for nature even though I really enjoyed being in the forest. I’m already planning my next longer trip, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the wilderness.

How did you find the energy to push through even when the journey seemed hard?

Having rested a bit after the first week of bloody blisters, I knew I’d get through any emotional downhill. Attitude is key. It’s important to stay optimistic and focus on the good things even during bad moments. On a journey like this, you can’t keep sulking in your own misery: if you want to survive you just have to continue, set up camp, cook and sleep. I kept a travel blog on Facebook partly to share photos and videos with my father, my brothers, my partner and some friends who might be interested in hearing from me. I wanted to publish on an interactive platform because I knew that the time would come when I needed outside inspiration to keep going and to feel less alone. The encouragement from people I met and my friends on Facebook kept me going and helped me realize what an amazing journey I was on.

Many would consider your journey quite dangerous, especially for a woman traveling on her own… Were you afraid at any point?

Even I was surprised by how I never felt unsafe during my journey despite my inexperience. But it’s important to be serious about preparing for potential risks such as injury. For example, I had Garmin’s inReach device that I could’ve used to call for help even in areas without a mobile signal. At first, I was a bit nervous about whether the camping spots or wilderness huts would have the kind of drunk troublemakers I’d read about, but fortunately, I spent most of my nights alone. In fact, the kindness of the people I met on the road was very touching and there were many who offered me a lift or a coffee. It’s a shame how even today women have to fear traveling alone more than men do. Fortunately, the internet is full of stories by women traveling solo and proving that it’s possible and not as dangerous as people might think.

Even though you did travel 1,200 kilometers, you ended up finishing your journey a bit earlier than originally planned. How did you know this was the right decision?

From quite early on, my travel was more about going with a pace that felt good rather than racing towards a certain goal, so I decided to walk only for as long and as far as I wanted. After two months I started to think about going home. I missed my friends and family and traveling started to take second place. After three weeks of feeling that way, I knew I had more and better reasons to go home than to continue. I haven’t regretted my decision. I realized this didn’t have to be a once-in-a-lifetime journey. I could easily build my life to allow for more in the future. There were also some practical considerations involved. I’d stopped keeping an eye on my strict budget, so I was running low on money, and since my mother was joining me for a week, I had a lift sorted out. My knees hadn’t been in a great shape since my first week with my way too heavy backpack, and I was afraid of breaking them completely.

Sorsatunturi, Eastern Lapland

What did your journey teach you?

Concrete things like chopping wood, lighting a fire and making feather sticks. But also things about myself and my philosophy of life. I’m proud of my journey, but even more so of myself and the fact that I did something I really wanted from life without caring about the opinions of others. My self-confidence has improved and I learnt to trust that everything will be OK in the end even if you weren’t in full control all the time. In one wilderness hut guestbook, I found a new life motto: a plan is the foundation for making changes. I think this nicely sums up the importance of both making plans and being flexible.

To whom would you recommend this kind of a journey?

I recommend reaching for dreams that seem too big to everybody. I recommend a break from daily routine or a lifestyle change to everybody who feels they need one. This kind of a long travel alone I recommend for everybody with any interest in it, no matter their age, physical condition, personality or level of experience, although the less experienced you are, the better prepared you need to be. But with my journey I proved myself that lack of experience doesn’t have to stop you from reaching your dreams – willpower, a hunger for knowledge, perseverance and an open mind will get you to go a long way, even all the way to the goal. Anyone of us can do even greater things than we think are possible if we have the will.

All images © by Terhi Saari