artists with a passion for the Arctic

It’s hard to care for something you don’t know

Interview with outdoor enthusiast Jaakko Heikka

Jaakko Heikka – known as “Korpi-Jaakko” – is a professional wilderness guide and diehard outdoor enthusiast with a special interest in lightweight backpacking, arctic expeditions and outdoor photography. Jaakko has spent much time journeying through the wilderness of Finnish Lapland and Svalbard. He shares stories and thoughts from his expeditions in his well-visited blog, and shares his photographs through an online gallery. He says of his blog and gallery, “I have got so much from the outdoors related Internet communities that it is now time to give something back.”

Jaakko Heikka on Greenland icecap, 21 April 2014. Photo by Matias Utriainen.

Jaakko Heikka on Greenland icecap, 21 April 2014. Photo by Matias Utriainen.

In this post, artArctica team member Heini Ernamo gets Korpi-Jaakko’s thoughts on being in Svalbard, climate change, Arctic guiding, and creating a more sustainable future.

Heini: When was the first time you went to Svalbard and what were your first impressions on the place?

Jaakko: I did my first trip to Svalbard in April 2011. I still remember the first view of the vast glaciers and mountains stretching below us before landing. For the first-timer, Longyearbyen had the romantic feeling of a frontier village. The latter has since disappeared, but the nature is still magnificent.  I feel privileged to be able to return there every now and then.

H. Do you have a specific favorite place in Svalbard?  If yes, why?

J. There are many awesome places in Svalbard, but if I’d have to name one it would be the mouth of Gipsdalen valley, near the Templet mountain. It’s probably a personal preference due to good memories, but the area also gives you a nice overview of the island: sea, big valley, mountains, wildlife etc. and great views over the Isfjord. Although nowadays there is unfortunately also a hut…

15-04-18: Svalbard reindeer at the mouth of Gipsdalen.

15-04-18: Svalbard reindeer at the mouth of Gipsdalen.

H. What kind of feelings and thoughts do you have while you are in Svalbard? Do you end up with an empty mind? – a zen state of being?

J. My trips have been three-week ski expeditions so the thoughts have a lot of time to change, fluctuate and go around in circles inside my head. Sometimes my mind is completely empty.  Sometimes I’m just awed by the surrounding nature.  Quite often my mind is occupied by more mundane things, especially when guiding a group.

H. Have you been to Svalbard in seasons other than winter/spring? How does the nature change through the seasons?

J. Not yet, but I will be going back this summer.  Since the ski tours are in April, there is already plenty of light (the sun doesn’t set after mid April).  I assume the summer will be even lighter and different.  There should be less snow, more flora, more birds, harder light and so on. Of course it also depends on the trip: where in Svalbard you go and what you do. It’s a big archipelago. After July, I’ll know better.

H. Why do you keep returning to Svalbard?

J.The main reason is the arctic nature. Then, of course, a sense of adventure! The relatively easy access (compared to many other places in the high arctic) plays its role as well. Guiding expeditions is now my work, and there is a demand for tours in Svalbard. It’s a job I chose to do because I enjoy it. I’m always happy to have the chance to return.

H.What are your thoughts on global warming? Is it caused by us humans? Do you take measures to prevent it?

J. The fast change in the environment is apparent in the areas where I travel: Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland, etc. It seems that the average temperatures are rising, glaciers are retreating, sea ice is declining and so on. I think it’s caused by us, at least partially. Even if it wasn’t due to our actions, wouldn’t it make sense to do something about it? Just in case? The effect may  irreversibly change places loved and venerated by myself and many others; not to mention how it might considerably hinder our chances of survival on this planet.

So, wouldn’t it be wise to do something? Just to play it safe?

I try to do my share of living ‘small and modest’ and compensating emissions, but with my lifestyle (which includes quite a lot of travel) it’s not enough. I’m not the worst, but not good enough either. I’m consuming more than is sustainable, as are almost all people living in well-off western societies. That is a big built-in paradox in my way of life:

Going to places I love may gradually destroy the places I love.

H. Do you feel that your work and the publicity you get help to bring awareness of global warming?  Perhaps even help to slow it down?

J.It might, though that’s not my objective at the moment. Maybe it should be? I can raise awareness on an individual level among my clients – I feel that the trips like the ones I guide leave their mark. Maybe those people will stop and think, and then change their way of life to try and minimize their impact on nature.  I hope so!

H. Are there a lot of guides organizing expeditions in Svalbard?

J. Yes and no. Tourism is a growing industry in Svalbard, but once you’re out in the wilderness you don’t see many – if any – people. Most of the tourism is ship-based and takes place over the summer. In winter, snow scooters are the big thing.  Luckily motorized tours rarely reach the big glaciers and more remote parts. I’m definitely not the only one guiding tours there: far from it!

H. What are the downsides of expeditions? What human traces remain visible after the expedition is finished?

A responsible expedition leaves only a fading ski track or diminishing whirlpools from paddle strokes. If you go to a place to experience (relatively) untouched nature, you should leave it that way.

15-04-13: At the terminus of Tryggvebreen glacier. We found both polar bear and snow scooter tracks from here.

15-04-13: At the terminus of Tryggvebreen glacier. We found both polar bear and snow scooter tracks from here.

J. You can see lots of snow scooters and their tracks close to the established routes.  There are huts here and there, and some waste drifted on the shores. Once you’re in the remote, snow-covered parts of Spitsbergen, the traces of man are few and limited to an occasional scooter or ski track on the snow. Then there are effects we don’t see directly: getting there uses resources and causes emissions. All human activities have risks for the vulnerable nature of the North.

H. The arctic areas are terribly vulnerable.  How much tourism do you think can or could take place in these areas without causing harm to the environment?

J. Thinking strictly from a conservation point of view, any human action is bad (based on the assumption that natural is defined as something without human influence), but I think this is an unreasonably strict guideline. Also, I think that knowing about the beautiful Arctic nature motivates people to protect it.

Personal connection helps – it’s hard to care for something you don’t know.

15-04-19: Sun rising from the Northern end of Gipsdalen in the middle of the night.

15-04-19: Sun rising from the Northern end of Gipsdalen in the middle of the night.

Of course there is a reasonable upper limit for the amount of tourism, but I can’t  say what it would be. The majority of tourists visiting Svalbard do it by ship, and land only shortly in few places which already have heavy human-influence.  It seems pretty safe. Responsible human-powered travel also seems fairly harmless due to the modest direct effects and the limited popularity. What I am worried about are the snow scooter tours, especially those without a responsible and professional guide.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more limitations to the, but that might be just my biased view. It doesn’t feel fair to limit other people’s chance of experiencing the magnificent nature when I do it every year…

Pictures © Jaakko “Korpi-Jaakko” Heikka, taken on Svalbard expedition in April 2015.


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