Back in late August, I found myself aboard a very plush and modern Finnair plane to Helsinki, Finland. A last minute change of plan saw Lou staying at home with the family, while I stepped in to visit Finland’s newest National Park, Hossa. Finland is a country that I hadn’t expected to visit, and yet now that I’ve been, I can’t stop thinking about how soon I can get back.
Helsinki sits on almost the most southerly tip of Finland. From the air, the coastline seems to have shattered and strewn the sea with tiny islets and islands. From Helsinki, I flew another short hop 570km further north to Kajanni – roughly central Finland. The land is peppered with lakes of all shapes and sizes, winding rivers, forests and little clearings of marsh land.
The new Hossa National Park was a gift to the nation, and was chosen from a short list of viable sites. The park signifies a commitment to safeguard Nature and the Environment and coincides with Finland’s first annual ‘Flagging Day’ for Nature. On a Flagging Day, its customary for people to raise the Finnish flag. Finland claims to have created the first ever national day to celebrate Nature.
If you exclude Helsinki and the urban areas – the primary reason for visiting Finland is to enjoy the outdoors. And yet, Helsinki itself is surrounded by The Viherkeha, an unbroken ‘Green Ring’ of nature reserve that connect the city by foot directly in to the countryside. Walk out of Helsinki and reach the coast, through woodland, along rivers and streams. Residents and visitors enjoy almost complete freedom of the land due to Everyman’s Right.
In the UK countryside we are well used to being restricted to footpaths and bridleways. We’re confronted by fences and signs saying ‘Private’ or ‘No Trespassing’. In Finland these sorts of signs are illegal.
It is a constitutional right for anyone to walk, cycle, sail, row and even camp and cook practically anywhere they like.
So, in a country larger than France, with a population of just 6 million, there is a very real possibility of having a wild and remote adventure – where you hardly see another soul. There’s very little true wilderness left in the world, and Finland was the closest thing I’ve felt to experiencing it. I’ve never been to Canada, or remote Russia for that matter, but with Finland so close and easy to access from Europe, I can see myself getting my near-wilderness fix here more often.
Finland is home to some fantastic big mammals. Bears, Wolves, Wolverine, Lynx and Reindeer. While reindeer seem to be almost as common as sheep – Bears, Wolves and Lynx are more difficult to spot. We spent an afternoon in a purpose made photographic hide on the border with Russia, and watched bears and eagles feeding. The facility has a variety of hide locations dotted around the woodlands, swamps and lakes. The bears are fed with bits of salmon every day in order to bring them in close to the hides. There’s accommodation and catering back at the base, and they regularly host wildlife enthusiasts and documentary film makers. Watching the enormous bears, I’m in awe of their formidable strength. Their brutal reputation fills me with a cold dread, but at the same time I have an urge to give those cute little ears a tickle.
At 6am on the morning of our third day, I dressed in cycling gear, collected my hired Cannondale mountain bike, and met with two others at the the Hossa National Park visitors centre. We rode a loop around rivers and lakes and across bridges and boardwalks. We passed a little stand of tents in the woods, whose occupants were still snoring away on the soft heather carpet of the forest. Further down the trail, two swimmers warmed themselves by a small fire and sipped on tea. I picked handfuls of blueberries and slurped water from the crystal clear streams, when ever we stopped for a breather. We were back for breakfast by 8.15, then on our way for a boat trip starting at 9am and an 8km hike at 10.30… and then Kayaking after lunch.
Our hike led us to the Varikallio rock paintings, estimated to be around 4000 years old. The paintings depict people, animals and Shaman leaders. They’re painted in some sort of red oxide paint and seem to show hunting scenes. Some theories say the paintings helped the Shaman communicate with the dead. The lake water is clear and velvety smooth, and when there is no breeze the water reflects the rocks and paintings like a mirror. The water level in the lake remains approximately the same today as when the paintings were made – so unless the painters were in a boat or hanging from the cliff face by a rope, they must have been created during the winter when the lake was frozen over.
Discovered as recently as 1977, the paintings are beautifully well preserved and on a human scale that made the hairs on my arms stand up in wonder. To date, there are 104 such rock paintings discovered in Finland. 7000 year old pieces of clay pots have been found in the region. The nomadic hunter gatherers would have had very few possessions, and most would have been made from their natural surroundings or prey.
Our morning boat trip had taken us through a 50m deep gorge and while standing in front of the cave paintings, our guide tells us to imagine hunters driving prey over the edge of the cliffs and in to the water. She reminds us that the water in the gorge was as deep as the rocks are high – 50m deep! Popular with divers, apparently. There are 130 lakes in this park. Many connected by rivers and streams – that’s 60km of canoe routes. The adventure possibilities have set my mind racing with ideas. 80% of the woodland in the the Hossa national park is natural boreal forest.
We finished our hike on the beach of an enormous lake, with lunch cooked on an open fire (Reindeer and Potato stew). We chatted to a couple in their mid-seventies who landed their kayak on the beach next to us. They’d just finished a three week trip carrying their gear and fishing rods in a kayak and sleeping under the stars in a tent or in lean-to camping structures. This is the 25th consecutive year they have taken their three week trip. Many of the lakes are stocked with Rainbow Trout, and you can eat what ever you catch. Fishing permits are easily obtainable, even for over-seas visitors. Wild edible mushrooms are prolific in the forests, too. Depending on your route, you might not see another person for days. Or you could plan a route so that you’re never really that far from civilisation if you need help.
At the end of my four day trip, I felt a calmness and energy that I hadn’t realised I’d been missing. These two near-octogenarians are both high achieving professors, and keep coming back for their annual three weeks of nature. Its hard not to envy them. Unsurprisingly the thing they’re most looking forward to is a sauna.
Wood fired Saunas are a serious business in Finland. The first night’s programme featured a Sauna at the Kalevala hotel, near Kuhmo, and the next day started with a Peat Sauna and a swim in the lake. Members of our group claimed to feel and look ten years younger – not a bad way to start the day.
On our final morning in Finland, we visited a Husky centre, where 180 dogs have been bred to train and pull sleds. The noise of so many excited dogs was overwhelming at times, but one bark from the alpha dog or a cry from the handlers, brings the pack back to silence. So its relatively easy to silence the dogs, but getting rid of the smell is another matter. It gets a bit chilly when the sun goes in, but at the end of August its still too warm for the dogs to train. It seems everyone here is looking forward to winter, and I can only imagine how beautiful the place would look then. Winter in Finland would be a completely different experience, to summer.
Since returning from Finland, I’ve spent hours on my bike in the woods, spent a morning walking the East Mendip way and taken the family for a hike around the Quantocks. At this time of year, its a pleasure to eat blackberries from the hedgerow. The stain of blackberry juice left on my finger tips and the palm of my hand reminds me of picking wild blueberries from amongst the heather in Finland. My own personal flag for Nature.
Collaboration Note: This post was written in collaboration with Visit Finland. All words thoughts and images are by Dan Taylor. Thank you for supporting the posts that make this post possible.