It is February 7th, 2008 in the small town of Ekenäs west of Helsinki. At 10pm and dark most citizens prepare for bed as I walk down the empty streets from the train station to Södra Viken harbor area for leisure boats. Never before since the ice-age twenty thousand years ago have we experienced open waters all from early spring in April previous year until mid February. No boats are afloat anymore.
I am going to paddle home this night, a familiar distance of 5km. I’ve done this paddle distance hundreds of times in many weathers. But this night is like taken from 60’s Hitchcock horror film. Heavy mist transforms everything into shadows. Nobody wants to stay out any more than necessary.
My paddling companion from todays 30 kilometer paddle from Ekenäs to Hanko has been kind to transport my kayak to the shore. Shadows of a couple walking their dogs is passing. As I’m redressing and handling big black bags it is no wonder that the dogs start barking vigorously at that shadow that is me. I start eeling into my gear and like magic they are gone. This milky jug of mist dampens all sounds and light. Chips of ice have washed up on the shore by previous winds forming a fragile and slippery pile steeping into calm, cold, black water. While balancing the boat on top of the pile, I close the compartment lid, tighten up my life west, positioning myself on the seat while still balancing to avoid sliding while working my legs into the kayak. I leave them outside of the rim. A tender rocking and I’m sliding towards the water. There is no options for reversing now to reorganize gear that should have been within reach. Legs in, close the spraydeck and start paddle! I am quickly swallowed by the misty darkness like Jonah was by the whale. Finding me would be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Any sound or light coming in or out is be dampened into obliviousness. The harbor peer that was visible 30 meters away from land has been passed.
The shore of island Ramsholmen gives directional indications with a few lights. Oops – I am almost in the reed, have to turn slightly to the right, but not too much to loose contact with this new light to stay on track for the next 500 meters. The harbor lights are strong. I will use them as leadlights to keep direction. Next landmark is the Ramsholmen pier that I reach by following the reed. From there I need to choose a 30 degree angle off the direction of the pier and paddle a straight line into the mist for 1 km. I expect to arrive at shadows of the next island after 15 minutes and 40 meters from them. Then a couple of island hops and I should see some blinking lights ahead. My home bay is nearby the lights.
Darkness is bad for crossing a channel 1 km wide to most people, not to mention the addition of fog. This is a challenge to me too: Paddle all the way without following the shores or using technology like a compass. I’m constantly keeping the lights in the correct familiar angles until they disappear to some faint general light evenly filling the space around me. From now on success depends on the success of journeying in a straight line. Straight line paddling is required for the beginner paddle certificate. I can hear a distant train, some cars but mostly nothing specific except for the water splashes at each stroke. Sounds from land will help me navigate I think.
By now the time paddling should have taken me to the expected island, but yet there is nothing to guide me. No shadows, no traffic sounds and no light sources. This exercise has failed. My focus was lost somewhere on the road and now when a sound is heard my brain cannot match it to where I’m expecting to be! Time to use some technology, a compass. Despite being miniature in size it was reliable until now. Signals from the compass do not match the data in my brain! I twist the compass around in my hands and hang a ledlight over my shoulder. Now I can spot a bubble inside the compass. Bubbles are known to disturb. A little more compass twisting, and its pointer settles to its most comfortable direction. Meanwhile doing this also my kayak is turning, or was it the compass? Can’t tell since I do not have any fixed reference point in the surrounding. I decide to try keeping the direction using the compass and arrive at a high shadow of some island, much higher than expected. I’m mentally placing myself in a location some 20 degrees to the right of where I wished to arrive, in front of another island. Paddling slightly closer a high hill appears. Not the kind of hill I expected. Land is known to look different in the dark, so I paddle along the island shores with confidence. Planning to round this island anticlockwise from the right and then following the reeds southwards towards the Island I was originally targeting. Now I should arrive there from its backside.
About ten strokes and a second surprise! Reed straight ahead and misplaced branches of a tree against some distant light-source. I’m switching on flashlight again and point at an even more weird compass. It tells me to go the wrong direction! Now these waters are not too big to cross many times but not knowing exactly where I am and not trusting the compass is not uncommon. Would you like to experience this spooky midnight yourself perhaps?! Time for a re-cap.
I had lights in the Ramsholmen park constantly in the right angle slightly behind me. Exactly where they should have been on a normal night. The town lights disappeared at the time expected. Faint lighting ahead would be expected on a deviation of 20 degrees to the right as it did. Sounds however are not where they should be. The rock, or hill was not the kind and shape expected, neither the height of the island shadow. The reed in front of me was unfamiliar. Looking more closely around, to the right, I could see the shape of a familiar and majestetic oak, but it was misplaced, or had I deviated to the left and not to the right. Could not be completely sure, so at this point I started digging in my left hand arm-pocket and pulled out a GPS, tapped a few buttons and found a waypoint marked ”HOME”. Selected it with a ”Go To” function. Lighted the led light on my shoulder, placed the GPS under the light and started paddling home along the southern shore of this wide stretch that I originally planned to cross straight past. 2 km left to home and no further problems ahead. In case the GPS battery would get empty new ones were in the packing, and also loosing the shore was nearly impossible. Nearly; after one look into the dark mist and seconds thereafter I did not know if the light-source I saw now was the first or the second expected out of two along the stretch. Had to resort to trusting the GPS. A bubble in the compass adds to the confusion in a brain that already lost track! Soon I could see the channel light blinking, or rather a blinking mist as a sign of arriving home. This was a great exercise that makes me try navigating without tools again until I succeed. I will also double my compass for the serious tours and make sure the GPS batteries including the spare batteries are fully charged and easily available.
Cheers! Jöns Aschan
tel: 358 400 411992
ps. Sorry for lacking photos of the scenery.