In March 2014 I travelled to the Kola Peninsula in the far north of European Russia. The logistics of day 1 were interesting as it involved leaving Prague at 12.30pm, flying to St Petersburg before arriving in Murmansk at 2.30am. I repacked my bag and managed to lie down on bench for 45mins before I went outsode to get the bus to the city centre. There I sourced some petrol for my stove whcih wasn’t easy as I had to ask a motorist to buy it for me as 5litres is the minimum buy and I just wanted 800ml! Then I took a bus, 2 hours to Olenegorsk, followed by a smaller bus to Revda one of the final settlements before the tundra wilderness extends east, arriving there at 12.30pm. After a short walk around and a visit to the local shop I met a local man with whom I spoke in Russian for several minutes.Hhe was surprised that i wanted to go alone to Seydozero lake and he gave me a good tip which was to take a taxi to the factory marking the start of the trailhead. It cost only 100rubles and was a good idea for the walk was uphill on a boring asphalt road for 8km….
By 2pm I had signed myself in at the office as going through to the tundra and I was soon folowed by a few dogs as I walked through the factory and upwards toward the pass some 7km away and several hundred metres higher. I soon put the snowshoes on and made good progress, reaching the pass within a few hours. The wind was blowing hard but I was well equipped. I was slightly concerned about finding the route down but in the end it was not a major challenge although I noted that the descent seemed more favourable than coming the other way.
Gradually I made my way down and bushes started to apppear, then a few trees. By 7pm it was getting gloomy and I was tired, deciding that I had made more than enough ground for day 1. I pitched the tent, melted snow and cooked, then soon I was fast asleep. that marathon first day or 2 had taken it’s toll and I the next day i was unable to open my eyes until 9.30am due to tiredness. I got away at 11.30 and made good progress for an hour and a half. Then I decided to follow the main stream of the frozen river to the southeast before trying to take one of the tributaries that led through the Taiga. After some time it became too difficult to get through and I returned. Shortly after I crossed what seemed like a small frozen lake but I couldn’t tell as there was such a lot of snow. The air temperature was around zero and the sun was shining, completely different conditions here in the valley compared to up on the pass. I tried to get through the thick taiga but it was no use so I retraced my steps and again troed to follow another tributary. I knew that the lae was only 1 or 2km away but i was already worried due to the sunshine, warm temperatures and the site of open water. In fact, again I had to turn round. I had now spent 2.5 hours without making any headway. I decided that I must try the northern shore as there was some kind of route there. Then I met a group of Russian skiers who assured me they knew the way to Seydozero so I joined them. We found a path through the tundra and after 2 more hours we reached the end of the taiga and finally the lake. I left the Russians at this point and went to inspect the lake. It didn’t look good as where I was standing there was open water and no way across. I looked around for a bridge. a few kms away to the north I could see the snow scooter of a fisherman. I dropped my pack and went to investigate the area, searching for a crossing point. I found an ice bridge but it was a metre or so short of the other side. There was a bush to grab onto. I weighed up the situation and decided to try it. The ice gave way and soon I was up to my waist in the icy water. In a split second several things went through my mind as I simultaneously cursed outloud. AS I said I was well equipped with goretex trousers and waterproof boots. I knew that I would be ok due to the proximity of the Taiga and ironically the mild weather that which had casued the problem. So I didn’t panic but simply extracted myself slowly and deliberately and went back to my bag. I assessed the situation and decided that I must make the 15min trip to the Taiga forest for safety. I got the tent up and changed clothes before getting a fire on. At this point I met the Russians again and ended up camping with them for that night. It is worth mentioning that due to old legends about the man “Kuyva” who appears to be stuck in the side of a cliff the local Saami people don’t like to visit Seydozero lake. For the record Kuyva was visible when I went through the ice and I am sure I shared a moment with him!
The next day I had a look again at the lake, but wisely chose to make my way back to Revda. The wind was blowing fiercely and it was very intimidating to travel alone in the conditions but I just kept telling myself, “reach the pass and it will be ok.” It took several hours but finally I made it to the pass, straight up the couloir and then a traverse, technically it wasn’t difficult but it was steep. many hours later and I had found a Taiga forest outside Revda where I made my camp. Now I relaxed somewhat and visited the local museums and the furthest reachable outpost of Lovozero including a corral that could hold several thousand reindeer.
The second part of the trip started when I got to Murmansk for the winter swimming competition and really deserves a longer article of it’s own. It was absolutely fantastic, amazing hospitality and a very well run event. The water in the frozen Semenovske lake was cold and just right for winter swimming. There was no super marathon and instead we swum all distances up to 500m. I surprised myself and won a silver in the head up breaststroke and another silver in the 500m freestyle before our relay team took a bronze. I’ve had longer more extreme swims but on this occasion I won medals which was a great feeling. A truly magificent experience and I even managed a few more adventures as we gtried to take a car to a remote outpost called Teriberka only to be halted by a blizzard. We also sampled the local nightlife with our new found friends, the group of young interpreters who were both excellent company and very good at their jobs. Murmansk is a smashing venue for winter swimming and the welcome is very warm from the local people. They are hosting the first 1km IISA world championship in March 2015 and it will surely be a great event.