|*** FINLAND 2012 - WEEKS 6~7 ***|
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CAMPING IN FINLAND and LAPLAND 2012 - North Karelia, Kainuu, easternmost point of Finland/EU, and bear-watching at the Russian border:
Our last news report from Finland was dated 24 July at Joensuu, and since then the whole of our time within Finland, Lapland and Arctic Norway has been so filled with unprecedented travel experiences and learning that our customary practice of publishing 2-weekly editions of web-updates has perforce had to be abandoned in favour of retrospective reporting. This unforgivable break with tradition will not have gone unnoticed by regular readers, some of whom have been kind enough to email with expressions of concern as to our whereabouts. With apologies for the hiatus, we shall now pick up again and resume the account of our journey up through Eastern Finland, with the promise of continuity of regular reports for what has been the most satisfyingly rewarding of trips.
The morning we left Joensuu, we discovered its best feature - Route 6 northwards out of town. Beyond Eno, we turned off eastwards passing more anti-tank stone obstacles of the WW2 Salpa Defensive Line on lonely Route 514 through deserted forested countryside to reach Ilomantsi. This easternmost municipality of Finland still has a significant Orthodox population reflecting its Russian history and its own Karelian dialect. People still refer to the village not by the Finnish word kylä but the Russian loan-word pogost; even the local newspaper is called Pogostam Sanomat. The Ilomantsi TIC is operated by a private concern, Karelia Expert Oy and was impressively helpful, providing not only local information but also brochures on distant areas and a detailed map for our visit to the Petkeljärvi National Park and eastern border region.
Set on a hillside just outside Ilomantsi, the so-called bardic village of Parppeinvaara preserves a collection of traditional wooden Karelian rural buildings (Photo 1 - Karelian wooden cottage at Parppeinvaara), and is named after a local 19th century bard-singer and player of the kantele stringed zither-like folk instrument whose oral tradition verses inspired the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala - more of that later. The bardic-village was all rather low-key and we were about to give up on it as something of a tourist trap, albeit deserted today, but the museum proved the highlight of an otherwise unmemorable visit: a youngster in Karelian dress not only played the kantele for us but sang traditional songs accompanied by this beautiful instrument which we had seen last year in the Baltic States but never before heard played. She was a student in folk-music studies at Joensuu University and explained to us the history of 19th century collection of traditional Karelian bardic songs (Photo 1 - Traditional Karelian bardic instrument, the Kantele, played at Parppeinvaara).
Late afternoon we drove out eastwards along Route 500 through the forested wilds to find the Petkeljärvi National Park Information Centre. The small camping area in a pine woods clearing was to be our base for the next 3 days despite the horrendous midges; the national park warden was welcoming and provided us with details of walking routes. BBQ-ing supper wearing a midge-net helmet was a novel experience
The following day, with exposed flesh liberally smeared with DEET against the midges, we set out on one of Petkeljärvi's way-marked walking trails, which threaded its way along the spectacularly narrow wooded crest of a classic esker-ridge between 2 of the lakes (Photo 3 - Esker glacial-ridge in Petkeljärvi National Park). Both sides of the ridge dropping away steeply to lake level were covered with bright green-leafed bilberry, spiky crowberry and leathery-leafed lingonberry, and peppered with white Labrador-tea flowers. We continued southwards along the high crest of the esker-ridge, passing frequent remains of wartime Finnish defensive trenches and gun emplacements. The path followed the line of the ridge which tapered down gradually losing height to the very tip of the esker, ending at a watery gap beyond which the esker continued southwards (Photo 4 - Tapering end of Petkeljärvi esker-ridge). The ground at the esker tip was covered with beautiful pink-fringed white bog-bilberry flowers (Photo 5 - Flowers of Bog-Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum)); we were so looking forward to the berry picking season in a couple of months. On the return walk along the narrow ridge, the sky cleared to give perfect light for photographing the esker, the wooded sides falling steeply down to the lake on both sides. It was like walking between the pages of a geology text book, witnessing at close hand such perfect esker topography. And part way along, we heard the characteristic plaintive wailing shriek echoing across the lake of the Black Throated Diver whose image forms the Petkeljärvi National Park emblem (see left)
Despite the ferocious midges (even lighting the supper barbecue meant wearing a midge-helmet), the Petkeljärvi Information Centre had been a memorable place to camp with welcoming warden and excellent facilities, and we spent a day in camp catching up with jobs and updating the web site in the forest clearing with sunlight filtering down through the 120 feet high ancient pines under which we were camped. Returning along the lane under the towering pines to Route 500, we turned along to Möhkö, a scattered village close to the Russian border. A peaceful place now, in the late 19th century it was a major industrial centre of iron production. A small museum gave the history of the development and decline of smelting at the Möhkö iron works deep in the forests. Uniquely iron ore here was not mined but dredged from lakes and swamps. Iron compounds leached from the bed rock was precipitated onto gravel on lake beds to form large granules or coin-shaped nodules of 'lake iron'; we were able to handle samples of such heavy rust-coloured lake ore at the museum. Industrial scale smelting developed at Möhkö with the fast-flowing river driving water-mills to power huge blast furnaces. Lake iron working continued until 1908 but with the invention of dynamite making possible large scale mining of ore, extraction of lake ore became uneconomic and the Möhkö iron works closed with timber logging taking over as the local industry. On a lovely sunny morning we walked among the remains of the iron works and its blast furnace kilns alongside the canal, a fascinating piece of Eastern Finland's industrial history.
Returning to Ilomantsi (pronounced with the stress on the first syllable), we topped up our provisions at the S-Market supermarket and arranged to meet the Orthodox priest's wife for us see the Church of Elijah the Prophet which this year was celebrating its 125th anniversary (Photo 6 - Russian Orthodox church at Ilomantsi ). The ochre coloured church with its green domes and gilded baubles housed one particular treasure, the Icon of the Tikhin Virgin brought from Russia (Photo 7 - Icons in Ilomantsi Orthodox church). We tried also to visit Ilomantsi's Lutheran Church built by the Swedes when they colonised this area in the 18th century. They had attempted to convert the predominantly Orthodox population by decorating the church interior with inspirational painted images of angels, giving the church its name of the Church of 100 Angels. Today no one was available to open the church for us, so we were unable to see the pictorial results of Lutheran proselytising zeal. Instead we wandered among the old Orthodox midge-infested graves down by the lakeside and found the war cemetery where the dead from the 1939~44 Winter and Continuation Wars are commemorated.
Passing the railway station where wagons loaded with timber from the local forests filled the sidings, we left Ilomantsi to continue northwards on Route 522 to Hattuvaara, Finland's most easterly village. We camped for a couple of nights at Hattuvaara in the car park of the distinctive grey wooden building of Taistelijan Talo (Fighters' House) built originally as a memorial to those who had defended Finland against Soviet aggression in 1939~44 (Photo 8 - Taistelijan Talo (Fighters' House) at Hattuvaara village). As well as having a small WW2 museum, the place now functions as a restaurant owned by the same personality-challenged individual described by Margaret and Barry Williamson in the account of their visit in 2010 (Magbaz Travels). He was with some difficulty made to understand that in return for paying to camp in his car park, we expected access to toilet and showers; he eventually opened up the basement facilities in his WW2 museum, and it was a novel experience washing up amid racks of machine guns and, on entering the toilets, being greeted in the semi-darkness by a mannequin pointing his rifle!
Our reason for staying at Hattuvaara was in order to visit Finland's and mainland EU's easternmost point, 18 kms along a lonely gravelled lane leading to the Finnish~Russian border. Until recently you needed to obtain a border pass from the border guards' post in Hattuvaara to travel out to this point in the patrolled border zone. We were assured that the border pass requirement had now been dropped, and with some uncertainty set off along the dusty lane through the forest (Photo 9 - Forest dirt-road leading to Finland/EU's easternmost point) with our satnav set at N 62.90947 E 31.58114, passing on the way several blue EU signs at crucial junctions. Some 3kms from the border the former control barrier now lay on the ground, but yellow-topped posts indicated we had now entered the border zone and very formally worded signs warned that leaving the road was forbidden without a pass. The lane ended at a small car park from where a board-walk path led a further 200m to a wooden platform at the water's edge of Lake Virmajärvi, with rope barriers marking the forbidden entry border zone (Photo 10 - Boardwalk to easternmost point border-zone). A wooden marker post indicated the accessible point of Suomen ja Euroopan Unionin Mantereen itäisin piste (Finland and EU Easternmost Point), but 150m out on an islet in the lake, official border posts (blue and white for Finland - red and green for the Russian Federation) marked the actual line of the border, defined southwards by the 1940 Treaty of Moscow and northwards by the 1617 Treaty of Stolbov (Photo 11 - Easternmost point of Finland and Mainland EU at Russian border). This was the furthest east we had stood in mainland Europe, further east than Narva in Estonia, the Thracian~Turkish border on the River Evros in Northern Greece or the Croat~Serbian border in Eastern Slavonia. Today we had this curious spot to ourselves, seeing no sign of the Finnish border guards who previously inspected passes as they patrolled the border zone.
Returning slowly along the lonely dirt-road raising clouds of dust behind us, we paused in Hattuvaara at the remarkably well-stocked kylä-kauppa (village shop) for a few food items, arousing much curiosity from the group of elderly locals sat drinking coffee. Nearby the village's small Orthodox chapel (tsasouma), said to be the oldest in Finland built in 1790, was surrounded by delightful flower gardens (Photo 12 - Orthodox Chapel (tsasouma) at Hattuvaara). The chapel was unfortunately locked but a poster advertised the forthcoming festival of Petrun on 29 June with its traditional Praasniekka procession. Back in camp at the Fighters' House car park, we chatted with the charming Estonian lady who was running the restaurant's catering; she was pleasantly surprised to hear that last year we had visited her home city of Tartu in southern Estonia and proudly told us she had sung in the song festival there.
The following morning, we continued north along Route 522 through desolately empty forested terrain stretching away in all directions as far as the eye could see, with not even an isolated farmstead in sight. By cleared areas of forest, great heaps of cut timber were stacked by the roadside drying or awaiting collection; back in Hattuvaara, the only traffic passing our camp had been the occasional timber truck. Despite being designated as the Via Karelia, Route 522's tarmac soon ended and we made slower progress for the next 30kms along gravelled surface until the asphalt began again after crossing the Lieksa district's border. Beyond here we reached the crucial turning for our next stop, the Patvinsuo National Park. A further short stretch of dirt road led to the national park's Information Centre where the helpful warden provided details of local walks and readily agreed to our wild-camping that night in the pleasant grassy clearing by the centre. That afternoon, again well-doused with DEET as protection against the midges, we walked the Patvinsuo Mäntypolku nature trail, a way-marked circuit through pine and spruce woodland and along lake shores with the path lined with beautiful Lingonberry flowers (Photo 13 - Lingonberry flowers - Vaccinium vitis-idaea). The route continued across bogland on sturdy board-walks and here we found today's floral treasure, flourishing clumps of Cloudberry with their large strawberry-like leaves and delicate white flowers which shed their petals when you simply pointed a camera at them; again we were looking forward to August to taste the orange cloudberry fruit (Photo 14 - Cloudberry flowers - Rubus chamaemorus at Patvinsuo). Along this stretch we also found beautiful specimens of Bog-rosemary with their elegant pink-tinged globular flowers (Photo 15 - Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) at Patvinsuo). That evening's wild-camp, without power for our faithful insect-repellent Bagon-vaporiser, meant a trying time with midges; the only consolation was the sweet scent of wild Lilies of the Valley wafting over.
We resumed our northward journey along Route 522, diverting into Lieksa, a small town set on the shore of the huge Lake Pielinen, to re-stock with provisions; the entire town population seemed gathered at the supermarket, attracted perhaps by the free coffee and cakes. Even the midges of Patvinsuo were preferable to such crowds and we beat a hasty retreat to find rural solitude again, this time in the Ruunaa Trekking Area. This extensive tract of pathless wilderness spanning the Finnish~Russian border is crossed by the mighty River Lieksanjoki which zigzags a winding course from across in Russia passing through a sequence of linear lakes and between these a series of 6 spectacular white-water rapids before finally flowing into the Pielinen waterway. Our camp for the next few days was at the Ruunaa Retkeily Keskus (Trekking Centre). A board-walk led from the well-laid out camping area down to a major set of rapids, Neitikoski, where the wide river's foaming current, flowing at a formidable rate, spilled over into the most horrendous set of rapids with the white water boiling up into a swelling and churning mass. Did foolhardy souls really attempt to negotiate such a maelstrom in canoes? The following morning we learnt that the answer was Yes! Returning down to the water's edge to photograph the surging rapids in bright sunlight, we witnessed brave canoeists paddling into the heart of the rapids and skilfully riding the crest of the churning white-water; it was an unbelievably impressive performance (Photo 16 - Canoeist on Neitikoski rapids on Lieksanjoki river). Our pursuits were however more mundane and we set off to follow marked walking trails along the river banks past more of the Ruunaa rapids between the lakes. From a wooden footbridge at a point where the fast-flowing waters were channelled into a narrow gullet, we had a bird's eye view of the rapids (Photo 17 - Rapids on Lieksanjoki river in Ruunaa Trekking Area). The path followed the river bank and negotiated marshy areas on board-walks lined with a treasure trove of botanical gems like Cloudberry and Cranberry flowers (Photo 18 - Cranberry flowers - Vaccinium oxycoccus) at Ruunaa) and the first of this year's berries, Crowberries still green and unripe (Photo 19 - Green, unripe Crowberries - Empetrium nigrum), providing us with a rival attraction to the rapids (Photo 20 - Board-walks crossing marshy land in Ruunaa Trekking Area).
After such a rewarding time at Ruunaa, we continued north on traffic-free Route 73 towards Nurmes. Founded in 1876 by Tsar Alexander II at the NW tip of Lake Pielinen, Nurmes is a quiet and unassuming little town which still shows its imperial Russian origins. The old part of the town retains its original wooden houses built along a grid of streets across the length of a steep-sided esker-ridge linking the 2 lakes of Nurmesjärvi and Pielinen (Photo 21 - Nurmes Old Town's Imperial Russian era wooden houses). We parked by the centre to wait for the TIC to open at 2-00pm. The lady was delightfully helpful on practical issues such as location of supermarkets and details of weather forecast, but seemed surprisingly reticent when asked what she would advise we visit in Nurmes: well there was the Old Town with its wooden houses, and ... yes the museum, ... but that was about it really. What about the churches? we prompted; M'mm, the Orthodox Church is only open by arrangement, and ... well, that was about it really. Believing there must be more to Nurmes than that, we walked through the Old Town admiring the wooden houses along Kirkkokato (Church Street) along the top of the esker, an attractive avenue lined with birch trees. At the far end the esker-ridge tapered down through a formally laid-out war-cemetery from 1939~44, but scattered among the trees were 19th century metal crosses marking the graves of those who had died of starvation after failed harvests. The TIC lady's reticence was apt: when you had seen the esker, birch-lined Kirkkokato and the Old Town's wooden houses, that indeed was about all of Nurmes. But Nurmes' attractiveness was its modesty; we liked it for that, and agreed with Rough Guide's description - a little gem. The nearby over-promoted Bomba village, a reconstruction of a Karelian log mansion up-sticked from Suojärvi now in Russia and reassembled here appealing to the Finns' nostalgia for lost Karelia, was a sordidly over-commercialised hotel complex, scarcely worth a glance. And the nearby Hyvärila Camping was a noise-ridden building site, so overwhelmed by diggers and lorries that we demanded a refund; the girl at reception did her best to be gracious saying she hoped we should return when the work was finished; I doubt it was our departing response.
Setting off northwards again on the quiet Route 75 through yet more forests, we stopped to eat our sandwich lunch at a picnic area. Somehow this spot seemed to epitomise the civility of life in Finland: they may have a high cost of living and high taxation, but public money is spent well on first class public services. As an example, this lay-by was provided with 2 sets of picnic tables, one open-air, the other covered, and a set of WCs. As we eat our lunch, a truck arrived and workmen began removing rubbish, picking up the small amount of litter and cleaning the toilets. We had witnessed earlier in Nurmes another example of Finland's caring society: on the counter at the bank, several sets of reading glasses were available to help fill out forms. We have been so comfortable in Finland as a truly enviable and civilised society; the comparison with today's yobbish Western Europe goes without saying.
An hour's drive, passing from North Karelia into the province of Kainuu, brought us to the outskirts of Kuhmo. Our reason for coming to this quiet little logging town was to find the Juminkeko Centre, the country's leading authority on everything to do with Finland's national epic, the Kalevala. The Juminkeko Foundation is dedicated to the collection and preservation of Karelian oral traditions of bardic folk-poetry and music which had inspired the Kalevala's composition. Arriving at Juminkeko's modern wooden building, we were given a knowledgeable background on Kalevala's origins and its author Elias Lönnrot (1802~84). Lönnrot was a country doctor and scholar from Helsinki who in the early 19th century made several expeditions into the wilds of what is now Russian Karelia collecting and documenting the ancient runic folk-poetry passed down by oral tradition and sung by bards often accompanied by kantele music, the stringed zither like instrument we had heard played at Parppeinvaara. Lönnrot assembled his collection of poetic material into his own work which he entitled Kalevala. The first edition published in 1835 was a conglomeration of collected material; in a second edition published in 1849, the version of Kalevala read today as Finland's national epic, Lönnrot rearranged his source material into a more coherent epic tale; in his own words, he wanted to compile an epic half the size of Homer, and it was - 22,750 lines of verse in 50 chapters. Set in an unspecified past age, Kalevala's plot centres around the continuous wars between the mythical land of Kalevala, often identified with Karelia, and Pohjola the land of the North, over possession of a golden talisman called the Sampo. Many commentators have interpreted this traditional folk-tale at the centre of Lönnrot's epic as a symbolic representation of ancient territorial conflicts between the original Finno-Ugric Sámi immigrants and later arriving Finns who pushed them northwards. Lönnrot's compilation incorporates ancient creation myths, wedding songs, tales of epic journeys, duals, spells, and fables of the struggle between good and evil. The principle hero is Väinämöinen, a shamanistic wizard-like aged bard who charms his opponents with his spells, incantations and kantele playing (see picture right). The epic poem tells the tale of his struggles and the many colourful figures he encounters on his journeys. Kalevala concludes with Väinämöinen upstaged by a counter-hero (whose mother had become pregnant by eating Lingonberries - be warned!) and sailing off into the sunset leaving behind his kantele, with the prophetic promise of "I shall return".
Published at a time of the awakening of Finnish awareness, Lönnrot's Kalevala gave inspiration to the Finnish Nationalist movement and an influence to generations of Finnish artists, writers and musicians, including of course Sibelius with his 1901 Karelia Suite and Pohjola's Daughter (Daughter of the North) which accompanies this edition. The resemblance of plot and characters between Kalevala and Lord of the Rings is also no coincidence: JRR Tolkien learnt Finnish in order to read Kalevala and based the runic language of the Elves on Old Finnish. The yarn of the Golden Ring with magical powers buried under a mountain echoes Kalevala's Sampo talisman, and Gandalf the wise, old, spell-binding wizard battling against evil is almost an exact plagiaristic recast of Lönnrot's Väinämöinen.
At the Juminkeko Centre, in Kuhmo, we were shown their collection of Kalevala translations into some 60 world-wide languages. We learnt more of the background, plot and characters of the epic, listened to part of an English rendering in the metre of Longfellow's Hiawatha, and watched 2 of their excellent English-language films about Lönnrot's journeys through Karelia collecting verses and the vagaries of Kalevala plot. The Centre's Chairman, a gentle giant of a man, told us more about surviving bard-singers still living in remote Karelian villages and even offered to arrange for us to visit one. This had been a thoroughly educative visit, meeting learned people and learning for ourselves much about Finland's still popular national epic, another piece in the jigsaw of understanding the ethos of our host country.
On the outskirts of Kuhmo, we found the Finnish Large Carnivores Visitor Centre (Petola Luontokeskus) operated by Metsähallitus, the Finnish National Forestry Agency whose comprehensive range of detailed national park brochures had been such a help to us. The centre provides detailed presentations of Finland's four surviving wild carnivores, the brown bear, lynx wild-cat, wolf and wolverine, a curious long-furred creature related to badgers but resembling a small bear. We were late arriving but the girl helpfully stayed on after official closing time to allow us time to study the excellent exhibits and information panels.
Kuhmo's over-promoted and over-priced tourist attraction with the misnomer of 'Kalevala Village' has nothing to do with the national epic; it is in fact nothing more than a Karelian theme park; we imagined log-flumes, pine wood roller coasters and all the fun of a money-spinning fair-ground, and gave the place a wide berth, moving on 15kms north to find tonight's campsite. At Camping Lentuankosken Leirintä, we received a warmly hospitable welcome from the family who own it. Despite being the Midsummer holiday weekend, when Finns head out into the country to sit by a lakeside, fishing and drinking beer, this remote campsite was peacefully quiet; it was a delightful place to take a pause in our travels, and on this the longest day of 2012, we photographed George our camper in perfect daylight at 10-30 in the evening (Photo 22 - Full daylight at 10-30 in the evening); in fact there had not been a single moment of darkness during the whole trip so far. Much later that evening we were treated to a fine sunset across the lake as wood smoke billowed from the campsite's traditional lakeside smoke-sauna (Photo 23 - Sunset over lake at Camping Lentuankosken).
We continued north making good progress through North Kainuu on Route 912, a lonely road with surrounding forests stretching away into the remote distance totally uninhabited other than a few isolated farmsteads. Despite concerns about increased traffic over the holiday weekend, out here in the remote uninhabited wilds of North Kainuu we passed virtually no other vehicles. At one isolated hamlet, we paused at a little general stores cum filling station for a few items of food; the shop was universally stocked with foodstuffs, car parts and electrical goods. Life in these isolated areas must be particularly tough, especially during the permanent darkness, lasting snow and freezing temperatures of winter. This utterly deserted wilderness of endless boreal coniferous forest was eerily unnerving, with a feeling of approaching Lapland especially when we crossed a road-grid with a sign warning of entering reindeer-herding territory.
As Route 912 approached Suomussalmi, we paused at what seemed another WW2 monument with burnt out tanks and field guns rusting by the road side. This was the Raatteen Portti (Raate Road) Museum, sited on one of the main routes followed by the invading Red Army in November 1939 at the outbreak of the Winter War. Fierce battles had been fought along the road in this region, and despite heavy losses, the poorly equipped Finns had halted and repulsed the invading Soviet tanks and heavy artillery during the harsh winter of 1939~40. Just beyond the museum, a modern memorial took the form of 1000s of scattered boulders symbolising the war dead; in the centre, a wooden trestle monument named Avara Syli (Wide Embrace) looked out over the field of stones hung with 105 bells which tinkled in the wind, one bell for each of the 105 days that the Winter War lasted (Photo 24 - Stone-field Memorial to Winter War dead at Raatteen Portti). And as we walked back to our camper, we saw our first reindeer casually trotting down the road, scampering off into the forest at the approach of traffic (Photo 25 - Wild reindeer by roadside approaching Lapland). This sighting and the bitterly cold wind were further reminders that we should soon be entering Lapland.
Approaching Suomussalmi, one of North kainuu's main towns which had suffered badly from the German scorched earth policy in their 1944 retreat from Finland, we turned northwards again onto Route 843. This was an even more lonely road and for the next 30kms, we saw not one other vehicle. An endless and deserted forested wilderness stretched away in all directions. We reached our turning signed eastwards for 10kms along a dirt road to Pirttivaara and the Martinselkosen Eräkeskus (Wilderness Centre), just 2 kms from the Russian border. This is a commercial venture which for several years has organised overnight safari-sessions in hides to watch wild Brown Bears which still inhabit these remote forests. Our plan was to camp out here using the centre's facilities and do some walking, but we were unsure about the bear-watching given the high cost. When we arrived, that night's party of bear-watchers were just gathering, and the following morning, we were woken by them returning and talking excitedly about their overnight experiences of seeing wild bears at close hand from the hides. Still uncertain about the cost, we mulled over the bear-watching: it was a unique experience, and after talking it over with the organisers, we were persuaded and signed on for that night's session.
After a morning's walking in the nearby forests, DEET-ed up and wearing midge-nets (Photo 26 - Midge-helmets necessary for forest walking), we prepared for our overnight bear-watching, anticipating a long, cold and midge-ridden night, and at 4-00pm the group gathered for briefing from Tuumpi our guide. We were transported in 4WD's several kms into the forests where border guards still patrolled perhaps expecting a belated Russian invasion. A 1.5km walk further through the forest and across swamps on board-walks brought us to the hides on a low hillock overlooking a forest clearing. Earlier, staff from the centre had scattered food, salmon fish and dog food pellets, to attract bears. We settled into our viewing places in the hides, positioning cameras and binoculars, and within a half-hour the first bears appeared. From 5-30pm until gone midnight, we were treated to a thrilling and at times comical 7½ hours of continuous appearances of wild bears (Photo 27 - Wild Brown Bears in Eastern Finland). They ranged in colour and size from a huge almost black male, a number of smaller buff and chocolate-brown females, and up to six 18 month old cubs. The cubs wandered around sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, but always warily looking around for adult bears. They entertainingly stood up on back paws, and if an adult was spotted they scampered off or clawed their way high into trees. It was almost like a choreographed series of one-act drama: one or two bears would approach, pick at food or grub around under rocks for insects then wander off, and after a while the next act would follow with another group of bears entering at stage right. Through binoculars, we could see clearly their huge claws and despite the bear fur's padded thickness, midges were buzzing around causing them to rub against rocks or scratch with their hind paws. They seemed totally unaware of our presence and approached within 15 feet of the hides, despite the constant clicking of camera shutters. We could see their huge heads and jaws and actually hear their breathing and occasional grunts. Late into the evening there was still sufficient light for photography and in addition to watching the almost continuous display of bears feeding, we were also treated to the rare spectacle of white-tailed eagles soaring overhead and black kites swooping between trees.
Although expensive, the venture was well-organised: coffee and sandwiches were provided, and the hides were well-appointed with comfortable viewing positions, and equipped with bunks and sleeping bags for later when the last of the bears ambled away as the light faded. The following morning we were woken at 6-30am; the new day's sun had been up most of the night, and with all the food long gone there was no trace of the bears as we emerged from the hides into the clearing. It was a curious sensation standing outside the hides to take photos where last night the bears had been feeding (Photo 28 - Martinselkosen Eräkeskus bear-watching hides). The only sign this morning of last evening's beers feeding was a few remaining fish bones. After the return walk through the forest, we were transported back to Martinselkosen for an early breakfast.
After our extraordinarily thrilling night of bear-watching, the morning's mundane jobs of preparing to move on seemed almost surrealistic. Martinselkosen Eräkeskus had proved a worthy and welcoming place to camp, and although the bear-watching had been expensive at €145 each, to have missed this unique opportunity to see at first hand one of Europe's last remaining wild carnivores would have been a lasting regret. Visit the Martinselkosen web site for further details. As it was we had a wealth of unbelievable memories of our night of watching wild brown bears at close quarters, and hopefully a few reasonable photos to prove it, which we have added as a separate gallery - see our Brown Bear Photo Gallery
Next week we continue ever northwards along the Via Karelia to spend time at the Hossa Hiking Area and Oulanka National Park, and cross the Arctic Circle into Lapland to visit Kemijärvi, Sodankylä and Ivalo. Join us again shortly
Next edition to be published in 2 weeks or so