Oulanka Downhill Swim

Swimming through Oulanka National Park

In the final days of October, the river Oulanka is still flowing.

A light mist floats over the river and frozen droplets sparkle like diamonds in the first rays of the morning sun. Some rusty leaves still remind of the fall, but the proximity of winter can already be felt.

Jäätä Oulankajoessa

The hundred-kilometer-long river Oulanka originates in Salla, flowing through the rugged canyons, shaping the sandy shores of Kuusamo, and finally merging into Russia's Lake Paanajärvi. In the 1950s, there was a desire to dam the Oulanka and Kitka rivers for hydropower. However, the determined residents of Kuusamo understood the value of nature and nature tourism back then, so the rivers were left free and unharnessed. Oulanka National Park's ancient forests, floodplain meadows, swamps with endangered species are among Finland's most valuable conservation areas and have been officially designated as a national landscape.

Joen kuohuja Oulangan kansallispuistossa, kuva Salla Karhumaa

oulanka Downhill Swim

It’s nine months until the next Downhill Swim takes place, so there is still plenty of time to challenge ourselves for this fourth time organized swimming event. Registration starts on 30.10.2023 and like previous years, places are expected to fill up quickly. There are two journeys on offer, 12 and 24 kilometers long. The swimming time on the longer journey is from 4, 5 hours to eight hours, and the shorter journey from two and a half to five hours.

Downhill Swim is swum as a pair. Among the swimmers, there is a safety team with SUP boards and kayaks, but when swimming in pairs, it is ensured that the other swimmer notices if the other swimmer's strength starts to run out. Swimmers get out of the river a couple of times during the swim to monitor their condition and refuel.

Oulanka Downhill Swim, kuva Salla Karhumaa

Cold-blooded or hot-blooded?

The summer weather determines the pace of the next swim. The height and temperature of the water in July depends on the rains and the heat. When the water is high, swimming is easier, while in low water, one must wade every now and then. 

– The thickness and flexibility of the wetsuit affect wading. You move more smoothly in the water by swimming than by running, says Maria, who completed the full 24-kilometer distance for the first time last summer.

Choosing a wetsuit is challenging, because the temperature of the water cannot be predicted in the spring. In the hot summer of 2022, the water temperature was over twenty degrees, while last summer it was between fifteen and eighteen degrees.

Freestyle swimming is the best swimming technique. When the technique is mastered, it is the lightest and most body-saving swimming sport. Cold resistance and technique are acquired by ice-swimming and practicing open water swimming immediately after the lakes have melted.

– I swam in the lake all summer, but river swimming was a different experience. There is certainly more speed in the river, but rocks, sunken logs and changing currents bring their own challenges to swimming. I had planned to take breaks by floating on my back, but that wasn't a good idea. A couple of times, I bumped into rocks lurking underwater, Maria recalls, reflecting on her encounters.

Oulanka Downhill Swim, kuva Salla Karhumaa

Home of fish

The regular inhabitants of the river Oulanka, such as trout, grayling, and perch, watch the swimmers just as swimmers watch them. Observing the underwater world during the journey is fascinating and helps keep swimmers going. Maria, who spent a full working day in the river last summer, says that you can certainly enjoy the scenery if you swim peacefully without aiming for victory.

– Watching the sandy formations on the riverbed and the fish darting here and there is fun. Incredibly clear water also provides a sense of security. When you can see the bottom, there's no need to panic. In some places, it feels like swimming in an aquarium and touching the bottom with hands, Maria laughs. 

Oulanka Downhill Swim, kuva Salla Karhumaa

Equipment and preparations

In addition to the wetsuit, mandatory swimming gear includes a swim cap, goggles, and a buoy, as well as neoprene boots. The brightly colored buoy serves as a marker and contains a space blanket, a whistle, and a pressure bandage. The most daring swimmers swim in sleeveless suits, while others pull the neoprene hood of their suit over their chin, leaving only their nose and cheeks in the water. Chafing is prevented with kinesiology tape, which should be applied to the neck and shoulders before swimming. Rest point teams also tape swimmers along the way if needed.

Cold tolerance varies from person to person, and every year, a few swimmers experience mild hypothermia. In such cases, the journey is interrupted, and the first aid team wraps the swimmer in a space blanket and transports them away from the river. Generally, almost all swimmers cross the finish line with smiles on their faces, heading for the warm embrace of their cheering supporters at Jäkälämutka, known as 'Kuusamo Riviera,' and the tent sauna.

Oulanka Downhill Swim, kuva Salla Karhumaa

The Flow

At its best, downhill swimming is a euphoric and adrenaline-filled experience that can be undertaken by a moderately fit swimmer. Most swimmers still have the energy to sprint across the finish line in a state of exhilaration, even though their legs feel like cooked spaghetti when they emerge from the water. Tears of joy and exhaustion flow from swimmers' swollen eyes as they are finally welcomed into the warm embrace of their cheering supporters.

Read more and come along, registrations start on Mon 30.10.2023

Published: 24.10.2023
Text and photos: Salla Karhumaa, Ruka-Kuusamo Tourist Association

Oulanka Downhill Swim, kuva Salla Karhumaa