January 1-8, 2019
Before the winter is over, I feel a need to finally put in lines our coldest adventure so far.
As all families with school age children, we are bound to the calendars that are dictated by the process of education. This year we’ve split winter holidays in two parts and spent one warm week in Portugal and one cold week in the Baltics, thus giving a share of attention to our closest relatives. Taking advantage of the fact that kids were enjoying their time in Lithuania without us, we went (as usual) wild and crazy. White Baltic winter? Minus temperatures? Strong wind? Let’s take this adventure and go camping! Our aim – three Baltic countries and their cold winters.
Lithuania was our starting and finishing point because of the obvious reasons and had a bit more civilized visit. But we went wild with the other two.
January 2 is usually a very lazy day, when people are trying to get back to their everyday reality that didn’t really change with a New Year. While others were leaving to their offices, we were setting off to our trip.
The plan for the day:
- do some basic shopping for food and other camping supplies that were still missing
- reach Latvia
- set a campsite before it’s dark.
Doesn’t sound too complicated.
The distances were not very long, but winter roads forced us to go slower and spend around 4 hours driving. Even though I have visited Latvia before, I didn’t know many places around so we used mammadaba website to look for possible places to put a tent. Latvia, as well as Estonia, is friendly for nature lovers and campers. Even though you can’t put a tent anywhere you want like in Scandinavian countries, it has a lot of official wild camping places to offer. They are taken care of by LVM in Latvia and RMK in Estonia, and usually have a simple table with a bench, a fireplace and some space to drop a tent. That’s more than we need!
We arrived the first camping spot by Daugava river already way after 3 pm. And you know what? It gets dark at 4pm!!!! So, first things first – put a tent!
Then, build a snowman! I don’t know why, but snow has this miraculous effect of bringing out a child in you and calling for a play.
Now, it’s time to make a fire that would keep us warm. We gathered some wood from the forest, but it was all so wet that it was impossible to make a fire out of it. The strong wind in an opened campsite (you have to “pay” for the nice views) didn’t help either. In the morning I was smart enough to buy some dry wood in a gas station. Just in case… And of course it saved our buts. Kind of…
The wind was so strong that it blew all the warmth away faster than it reached our cold bodies. Yet we did have something burning, so the hope not to freeze to death was still there.
Dinner time!! We had a gas stove for this purpose. Again, kind of…
We traveled only with cabin bags so we didn’t risk taking our good gas stoves on the flight. Instead, we got the cheapest one available in Lithuania. If you ever have to camp in winter – don’t make this mistake. Good camping stoves have a system to warm up the gas before burning it, thus making your stove much more efficient. This first evening we couldn’t make the water boil with gas!!! Thank god we still had our fire burning. Even if it wasn’t strong enough to keep us warm, it had enough heat to cook our dinner.
The temperature was dropping fast and once the fire was over we decided to hit the sack. It was still early for our standards, but we wanted to rest as much as we could before another long day.
The night was cold. The temperature was showing -4 degrees (Celcius), with the wind chill of -12. We weren’t really cold in the sleeping bags as we were well prepared, but the mornings are always somewhat challenging. The most daring part of winter camping is to leave your sleeping bag, change your clothes and go for the morning pee.
We didn’t have any dry wood left for the fire and after yesterday’s disaster we didn’t even try to cook anything with the gas, so we skipped our breakfast and hit the road as soon as we packed the tent. The plan for today was to reach another camping place in the north of Latvia, in the beach and finally do some hiking there.
The roads were much better this morning as it stopped snowing and in a couple of hours we were greeting the Baltic sea. What a beautiful and dear view! We chose a spot to put a tent but left it for later and set of for the hike in the beach. The temperature was still showing -4, with the wind chill decreased to -13. The forecast wasn’t showing any improvement of the weather during the day.
It was a cold but very beautiful hike. The Baltic sea is usually quite calm and has golden sand beaches all over. Yet this part of it was mixed with some big stones (thus even named a rocky beach). We hiked 11 km in the shore, stopping by for some photos and a quick snack lunch. We wanted to hike even more but were forced to turn around when we came across the river that we couldn’t pass without getting wet. Probably not very wise to get wet at these temperatures…
We got back to our campsite still with the light. We’ve decided to put the tent, have a hot drink and go for another hike the opposite direction already in the dark, so we wouldn’t have to spend a long evening getting cold standing by the fire.
The evening hike was equally nice and easy (although very dark). A 7 km walk kept us warm and made us starve again. The second evening we didn’t even try to cook our dinner with gas. On the contrary, we adapted the fireplace to our not very suitable pots and cooked pasta with canned meat again. Nothing tastes better in the wildness!
The second night was even colder than the first one. The temperature kept dropping and reached -8. I don’t even want to remember the wind chill temperature… Still confident about our sleeping bags we went to bed quite enthusiastic. And the sleeping bags didn’t disappoint us at all! Yet, my sleeping mat failed me… For whatever reason it deflated at night and I was having pain all over my body trying to sleep on the rock hard icy ground… No clue what happened that night with my mat as the next night it was working perfectly well again.
A quick packing exercise in the morning and we hit the road again heading even more to the north.
The plan for Estonia was quite intriguing – a night in a smoke sauna in a small island in one of the biggest bogs in Europe, in Soomaa National Park. Or to be more exact – quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
The road was awfully bad due to a snow storm and it took us ages to reach a tiny bar in Estonia where we met with Algis, an amazing local guide from the park whom I knew from my earlier trips in the Baltics. He helped us reach the sauna, which, otherwise would be hard to find, especially in these weather conditions.
We had a good laugh that kept our spirit high when we saw his car loaded with a canoe at this weather!!! And yes, it was meant for us!!! Just in case the river is not frozen enough (and the first river we saw in Estonia was definitely not!). You see, the fastest way to get to the path, that leads to the sauna is by crossing a fairly wide and deep river. The only bridge that crosses it in a civilized way is private and closed. Thus, you have to use your imagination to get there!
Lucky for us, the river at the crossing place was covered with ice. The only question was if the ice is strong enough to hold us. Algis quickly checked the ice with an ax and concluded it was safe enough to walking on it. We only had to trust him…
After crossing the river we had to walk through the forest surrounded by the bog for a bit more than 2 km, carrying all our stuff. While we were carrying our backpacks, Algis was carrying an electric saw. It would have been a creepy experience if I didn’t know the guy!!! 😀
The path was unmarked, but quite straight as some 50 years ago it used to be a tiny local road. Some parts of it were more thrilling with improvised bridges for rivers to cross. In general – it was an absolutely beautiful walk in a winter saga.
The island, or the peninsula to be more exact, used to have 7 farms some 50 years ago. Now most of the buildings didn’t exist anymore and the ones that were still standing were quite in a bad shape to say the least. Right there, in those old farms, RMK has a tiny public smoke sauna to enjoy for whomever reaches it.
I don’t think I have ever felt being so far from the civilization. Right there, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the forest and the bog, you are all on your own.
Algis stayed with us until the evening came, helping us to prepare the sauna and the fireplace. His electric saw was surely useful!!! Once he left, we stayed alone in a complete silence and peace, something we forget about living in our everyday rush. It was charming.
The sauna building wasn’t much behind from those old farms that were falling apart. A burned corner, some holes in the walls, a window that doesn’t really close… perfect for a fun night!! We managed to get sauna to a reasonably warm temperature and went for a real Estonian winter experience which, of course, included rolling on the snow after getting warm in the sauna. After such SPA procedures we slept like babies.
After enjoying (finally!) our warm breakfast, we packed and walked all the way back to the car through the beautiful forest and the river. Surprisingly, the river had lots of holes in the ice made by fishermen. They were not there the day before!!
We crossed the river with confidence this time and got back to the car, which surprisingly was still there. We drove around the bog and went to check it from another side where the official paths are. It is outstandingly big bog with tiny tiny trees that date hundreds of years… the conditions for vegetation are harsh around the area to say the least.
Soomaa National Park is interesting in all seasons, but it becomes probably most extraordinary during the flood when water level suddenly goes up. The signs of water level at different years on the sides of the path let you realise how impressive it gets!
With our bodies a bit tired of being cold we’d decided to take advantage of a day without a storm and head back to Lithuania – a nearly 8 hour trip that you don’t want to do in an icy and dark road. The wild part of the adventure was over.
Lithuania greeted us with the coldest weather of all three countries, day temperatures dropping to -10. We didn’t camp here as we were offered a warm bed and a shower that was quite appealing after few nights in the wild winter. But we did go for a 12 km walk by the river.
On the way back to the car we passed through the old town of Vilnius, visiting the Christmas market on its last day. Did you know, that while other countries sell hot wine in the Christmas market, Lithuanians sell hemp tea? They say it’s good for relaxation and sleep!!! 😊 Of course, there’s also plenty of hot wine and local goodies that taste like my childhood… I couldn’t resist having some before getting back to the land of sun and jamón serrano.
All in all, our Baltic Triple adventure was fun and full of different experiences. Even though we didn’t hike as much as we are used to (probably only reach around 30 km in total), we’ve learned a bit more about the cold, we’ve enjoyed the silence and beauty of winter, we’ve pushed ourselves a bit out of a usual comfort zone and stayed alive!
Our sincere THANK YOU for these experiences go to:
Diana and Nerijus, for lending us their amazing tent that kept us safe from the wind and snow.
Algis, for using his saw only for cutting wood, for hours of talks on the way and cranberries from this same bog that tasted amazing in our breakfast.
And finally, The Baltic Triple on the rocks, that kept our bodies warm when the fire couldn’t:
Next destination – somewhere warm please!!