*** FINLAND 2015 - WEEKS 6~7 ***
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CAMPING IN FINLAND 2015 - Ilomantsi, Petkeljärvi and Patvinsuo National Parks, Hattuvaara and the remote easternmost point, Ruunaa Trekking Area, Lieksa and Kuhmo Winter War battlefields:
Eastwards to Ilomantsi: the morning we left Joensuu, the sky was leadenly overcast and rain still pouring; it always seems to rain whenever we come to Joensuu, and the city gave no better impression than the last time we were here (See Log of our 2012 visit to Joensuu). In the city's northern outskirts, we pulled into a commercial park, seeming to take longer than ever to shop for provisions among the hypermarket's hectares of aisles. Further north on Route 73, we turned off at Eno onto Route 514 towards Ilomantsi, pausing to photograph a further section of the 1944 Salpa Linja defensive line where rows of granite tank-traps marched in columns across the shallows of a lake (see left). This lonely road continued eastwards through deserted forest landscape, the only signs of life being an occasional farmstead, bus stop or sign-post pointing off the road to unknown distant villages. Today's heavily overcast sky gave the terrain a dull, monotonous appearance. 50 kms further we approached the outskirts of Ilomantsi. Having been totally razed by Russian bombardment during the 1939~44 Winter and Continuation Wars and rebuilt post-war, the town's buildings are featurelessly modern, but it does boast of being Finland's easternmost municipality with significant Orthodox population, proud of its Karelian dialect, culture and traditions.
Ilomantsi's impressively helpful Tourist Information Centre: we made first for the TIC operated by the Karelia Expert Oy organisation, and were welcomed by the same lady who had been so helpful in 2012; she had then organised for us to be shown the Orthodox Church, and today arranged for the Lutheran pastor to show us the Ilomantsi Lutheran Church with its famous wall-paintings later in the week. She had an impressively stocked file-library of brochures from all around Finland, and answered our questions with an encyclopaedic knowledge of North Karelia; she confirmed we could still camp at the Taistelijan Talo (Fighters' House) at Hattuvaara but added that the village's little shop had now closed; the former shop-keeper now managed Taistelijan Talo. We also discussed with her our on-going travels and she warned that Route 522 north of Hattuvaara, despite being designated the Via Karelia, was now in a badly damaged state.
Ilomantsi's Orthodox Church and war cemetery: after a brief re-visit to the Orthodox Church of the Prophet Elias at the edge of the village by the lake, we paused at Ilomantsi's war cemetery where some 400 war graves from the Winter and Continuation Wars are laid out in rows (see above left) along with a memorial to the 1918 Civil War dead. Behind the railway station on the southern side of the village, sidings were filled with loaded logging wagons alongside stacks of cut timber awaiting loading. From the railway bridge, the single track railway could be seen stretching away in a perfectly straight line into the distance through the forests.
Bardic Village of Parppeinvaara: the so-called Bardic Village of Parppeinvaara, a skansen of rustic wooden buildings set on a hillside just outside Ilomantsi, is intended to preserve some of Karelia's cultural heritage, particularly the oral tradition of bardic singing accompanied by the zither-like stringed instrument, the kantele. These epic song-poem recitations had inspired Elias Lönnrot's compilation of the Finnish epic Kalevala from his journeying around remote rural Karelia in the early 19th century collecting such bardic folk-songs (Click here to learn about the Kalevala). The Parppeinvaara skansen village is named after Jaakko Parppei (1792~1885), a bardic singer and kantele player from Ilomantsi and one of Lönnrot's sources of oral traditional epic verse on which the Kalevala was based. We had no interest in seeing the skansen's rather uninspiring collection of wooden huts, but we did want to hear again the kantele being played, and headed for the Kalevala displays. Here we were greeted by the same young lady whom we had met on our 2012 visit, and who today sang for us some of the Karelian folk-songs to the accompaniment of her kantele playing (Photo 1 - Karelian kantele player) (see left). She seemed not at all surprised at our awareness of Finland's national epic, and discussed with us Lönnrot's composition based on his folk-song collecting and Tolkien's plagiarising of Kalevala themes including basing his wizard Gandalf on Lönnrot's fearsome hero, the kantele playing Väinämöinen. It was truly delightful to hear again the sweet-sounding, tinkling notes of the kantele.
Ruhkaranta Camping: a short way along Route 5004 from Ilomantsi into the eastern forests, we turned off to Ruhkaranta Lomakeskus. This small campsite was set on a forested hill-top overlooking 2 lakes, but the rough grass camping area had limited space and sloped dramatically down towards Nuorajärvi with little chance of levelling. We managed however to back in to a flattish spot between pine trees further uphill just within cable's length of a power supply (Photo 2 - Ruhkaranta Camping), and settled in looking out through the pines across the lake with the midges swarming worse than ever (see right). The sky cleared later in the evening and the sun set over the forested hill-side beyond Nuorajärvi producing a spectacular display with sun-tinged clouds reflected in the still waters of the lake (Photo 3 - Sunset over Nuorajärvi) (see below left).
The former iron mining village of Möhkö: the following morning, with a brisk wind keeping the clouds moving and bringing alternating showers and sunny spells, we continued eastwards through the lonely forests passing several 1939~44 war memorials. After crossing a wider channel of Nuorajärvi, a further 4 kms brought us to the Koitajoki river bridge and Möhkö, Finland's easternmost village. A peaceful place now, in the late 19th century it was a major industrial centre of iron production. Möhkö iron smelting works (Möhkön Ruukki), and the village that had grown up around it, was built in the 1830s in this forested wilderness by the Möhkönkoski rapids to smelt and refine lake iron ore. Lake iron occurs when iron compounds leached from the bed rock precipitate on grains of sand on the beds of shallow lakes to form granules or coin-shaped nodules of ore pellets. Industrial scale smelting developed in this remote location at Möhkö because of its proximity to rich sources of lake iron ore, ready supplies of timber for burning as charcoal to fire the smelting furnaces, water routes for transporting both ore and smelted pig-iron, and fast-flowing rapids for driving water wheels to power furnace bellows. Möhkö developed during the 19th century as the largest ironworks in Finland employing some 2,000 workers. The ironworks closed in 1908 when Nobel's invention of dynamite made mined iron ore more readily available and lake iron became uneconomic. During the 20th century logging and timber-rafting from the forests around the village became Möhkö's main source of employment; timber trucks still drive through the village. During the 1939~44 Winter and Continuation Wars, the Soviets occupied Möhkö and the River Koitajoki became the Ilomantsi main front line. The decisive battle of Ilomantsi in August 1944 was fought along the line of the forest road at Möhkö when 2 Soviet divisions attempted to break through along the road. The narrow line of the Soviet advance was broken up by the Finnish 21st Division using the well tried and tested Motti tactics, of which more later. Separated sections of the Soviet line were encircled and harassed by Finnish guerrilla attacks, and the Soviets were forced to withdraw with over 2,000 casualties. The Finnish victory at Ilomantsi in August 1944 halted the Soviet advance, but in the subsequent peace treaty of September 1944, the territorial losses of 1940 were made permanent diminishing, the Ilomantsi municipality area by a third. As a result, the Russia border now lies just 2kms beyond Möhkö.
Most of the ironworks was demolished after the 1908 closure, and the village and its farms were totally razed during the 1939~44 Soviet occupation and battles fought around Möhkö. But parts of the workshops, 2 of the blast-furnaces, and the ironworks canal have been conserved as part of the Möhkö Ironworks Museum whose displays are housed in the former Pytinki manor house. We walked around the remains of the blast-furnaces and along the river bank by the Möhkönkoski rapids, but gathering heavy cloud warned of the next rain squall; we hurried back to shelter in the camper. After 10 minutes of lashing rain, the gusty wind brought the next sunny spell enabling us to explore the huge reconstructed water-wheel, driven by a side-channel of the canal to power pumps and bellows for the ironworks blast-furnace, and alongside this the reconstructed canal locks where ore was delivered and pig-iron ingots transported away (Photo 4 - Restored canal locks at Mökö ironworks) (see above right). The locks emptied into the main River Koitajoki which in turn flowed into Nuorajärvi. Beached down on the river bank a large barge (see left), which in the 1950s had served as a floating hostel for lumberjacks, was now converted to the Möhkön Manta café, and alongside this a bonfire had been stacked ready for Saturday's Midsummer celebration here at Möhkö. But the next downpour threatened, causing us to hurry back over the bridge to George.
Petkeljärvi National Park: back across the Koitajoki river, we turned off onto the 6kms of dirt road which led through the pine forests, across narrow glacial esker-ridges and around lakes to the Petkeljärvi National Park Information Centre, which is managed by Metsähallitus, the Finnish Forestry Authority (Photo 5 - Gravel road to Petkeljärvi National Park). The small camping area set in a pine woods clearing was to be our base for the next 3 days (see right). We were greeted with an unparalleled hospitable welcome by the jovial warden who recalled our 2012 visit; perhaps he had so few English visitors. We pitched nose into the prevailing wind and rain under the tall, ancient pines with the sliding door facing into the forest and settled in, purging the camper of the swarming midges; it was so good to be back here at Petkeljärvi, one of our favourite Finnish national parks, looking forward to our day in camp tomorrow at this wonderful forest site.
A day in camp and camp-fire at Petkeljärvi National Park: it was a chill night considering that Midsummer was only a few days away, and the following morning the air was still cool with a forecast day of gusting wind, showers and sunny spells. For a remote national park campsite, facilities at Petkeljärvi are second to none: the WC/showers are modern and clean, with a drying room for drying kit after a wet day out, and the kitchen/wash-ups are thoughtfully laid out with 4 individual kitchenettes each with dining table, ideal for tent campers in bad weather. After a productive day in camp catching up with housekeeping and web editing, we put to full use the site's other excellent facility, a covered camp-fire hearth. Carrying our supper materials over to the camp-fire hut, we gathered birch-bark kindling and logs from the log-store and soon had a fire going in the grate for grilling our sausages over the glowing embers (see left). After eating, with the stoked up fire again roaring in the chimney, we sat around the camp-fire enjoying the peace of the evening (Photo 6 - Camp-fire supper at Petkeljärvi National Park).
The esker-ridge paths of Petkeljärvi National Park: the following morning we woke to warming sun with yesterday's wind now dropped. We kitted up for our day's walking on the esker-ridges of the Petkeljärvi National Park, the most essential items of equipment in our day sacs being our midge-nets. The maps printed from the Metsähallitus cartographic web site proved a real boon clearly showing both footpaths, contours and topographical features (Click here for map 1 - the Korkeasärkkä esker path); we therefore had a clear visualisation of both route and nature of terrain. Turning off from the campsite onto the Taitajantaival footpath around the head of Kokkolahti, there was much photographic potential looking through the trees with the cloudscape reflected on the lake (see right) and bright sunlight picking out the fresh green birch leaves and silhouettes of dark pines. Around the head of the lake inlet we passed a deep kettle hole (suppa in Finnish) formed when a residual huge nodule of ice was left suspended within a moraine field as the glacier withdrew, leaving the kettle hole when the ice-block melted. From here we turned off southwards onto the Korkeasärkkä esker path, which soon began to gain height up onto the narrowing ridge, covered with bright green-leafed Bilberry, spiky Crowberry, and leathery-leafed Lingonberry, and peppered with white Labrador-tea flowers. Click here for description of glacial esker formation. The path descended to a wooden bridge across a narrow gap in the esker and climbed steeply on the far side over a hillock. Where there were no pine needles covering the path, the sandy, gravelly moraine material deposited by sub-glacial rivers forming the esker showed clearly. The Korkeasärkkä path climbed along a narrow section, the sun now breaking through brightening the line of the path for classic esker photos with the land falling away steeply down to the water on each side of the narrow ridge crest (Photo 7 - Petkeljärvi glacial esker-ridges) (see left). The combination of sun and cloud gave magnificent cloudscapes reflected in the lake's still waters (Photo 8 - Petkeljärvi cloudscape ). After further descent, the path again gained height along the highest and narrowest crest of the long esker ridge, the ground falling away with unnerving steepness some 30m on both sides. This section of the ridge showed preserved trenches and machine gun nests from the defensive line established by the Finns at Petkeljärvi at the outbreak of the Winter War in November 1939 to stall the Soviet advance towards Ilomantsi. The path clung precariously along the sloping side of the esker just below the ridge-crest with the land falling steeply down to Valkiajärvi way below, and at the far end descended towards a stagnant bay enclosed by the forking end of this section of the ridge. All during the esker walk, the monotonous call of a distant cuckoo had resounded across the waters but disappointingly nothing was heard this year of Petkeljärvi's emblematic Black Throated Diver; we had hoped to hear again its plaintive wailing call echoing across the lake. The path continued onto the left hand fork as the esker's low tail tapered down to its ultimate tip where the ground was covered with bushes of Bog Bilberry with its distinctive pink, white-fringed bell-shaped flowers (Photo 9 - Bog Bilberry flowers) (see right); this year with the growing season seemingly running late, the tiny flowers were still in deep pink bud, growing profusely in this isolated location at the esker's tip. Across the watery gap of Lohisalmi, and now disconnected from the esker-tip where we stood, the ridge continued into the inaccessible distance. Having taken our 'End-of-the-Esker' photographs, we sat at the tip by the water's edge to eat our lunch sandwiches (Photo 10 - Tip of Korkeasärkkä esker-ridge) (see below left).
With cloud now gathering, we returned along the Korkeasärkkä high-sided esker-ridge with our midge-nets pulled down, back to the paths junction for the start of the 3,5km Harju-polku (Esker Path) circular walk (Click here for map 2 - the Harju-polku esker path). The path initially undulated through pine woodland passing a small, shallow pool (lampi in Finnish), and narrowing to a tapering esker between Savulampi and an enclosed arm of Kaitajärvi. Here on the moist ground towards the esker's tip we found this year's first specimens of Bog Rosemary with its pendant clusters of elegant pink globular flowers (Photo 11 - Bog Rosemary) (see below right). Across the wooden board-walk spanning the water gap, the path shelved along the side of a densely forested esker, and at the northern end dropped steeply down to cross an area of marshland on a board-walk. It was here in 2012 that we had encountered Bog Rosemary for the very first time. And the plants were here, to be greeted like old friends, and this time with our longer length lens we could photograph them without having to lean gingerly over the board-walk's edge with risk of toppling into the marsh. Steeply up onto the hillock on the far side, the path passed an even deeper example of kettle-hole and continued through dense forest, shelving around high above Ruunulampi to reach the junction with the Taitajantaival long-distance path which would lead us back to the campsite. The path crossed a now forested area of what had once been the flat delta of residual sandy moraine spread out from the retreating glacier; we rounded the head of what was now an elongated marshy depression extending down towards Savulampi, but once had been the course of a fast-flowing river of melt-water coursing from the retreating glacier's tail to erode the valley in the moraine delta. The whole day around Petkeljärvi was like walking the pages of a geology text book, witnessing at close hand such perfect examples of post-glacial topography. The on-going path wound every-which-way through the pine and birch forest eventually dropping down to our start-point by Kokkolahti from where it was a short walk around the head of the lake back to the campsite.
Ilomantsi Lutheran Church and its wall paintings - the 'Church of a Hundred Angels': the following morning was heavily overcast and humid, perfect weather for midges, and they were about in swarms. Today we returned along the forest track towards Ilomantsi for our appointment with the Lutheran Pastor to see the Church renowned for its Hundred Angels wall paintings. The Swedes had colonised the remote wilds of Karelia in the early 17th century and the first Lutheran church was built at Ilomantsi in 1653 in an attempt to convert the local Karelian population from their Russian Orthodox faith. The present wooden Lutheran church was built here in the early 19th century replacing earlier predecessor churches which had burnt down struck by lightning. Quite out of keeping with the normal dour restrictions of Protestant Lutheran traditions, with their starkly plain and unadorned churches untainted by any trace of images or idolatry, the huge cruciform interior of Ilomantsi Lutheran Church is decorated with brightly coloured wall paintings by Samuel Elmgren in 1830~32 (see left). The painting portraying images from Lutheran doctrine were intended to educate illiterate Karelian peasants in the ways of the Western faith, at the same time competing for congregation numbers with the iconic imagery of the nearby Orthodox Church.
Today we had arranged to meet the Pastor at the church; he was clearly an educated man who had studied art history, and now told us more about the history of the church and its florid paintings which covered the upper part of the interior (Photo 12 - Ilomantsi Lutheran Church). Most intriguing of all however was the painting which decorated the church's former weapons room, where those attending services would once have left their guns, now a parish meeting room: despite the Biblical strictures against portraying images of God, the artist had covered the rear wall with a august figure of the Almighty sitting aloft in the heavens on fluffy clouds, his hand resting on a small planet Earth, all of which he had just completed in his 6 days of work. Superimposed over the painting was the inscription in Finnish Alussa jumala Loi Taivaanja Maan (In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth) (Photo 13 - Portrayal of God the Creator) (see right). The Creator was accompanied on each side by pairs of classically featured winged shoulder portraits of cherubs. Portrayals of the 4 Evangelists decorated the upper sides of the nave together with Old Testament heroes such as Moses and King David and New Testament notables like Saints Peter and Paul, John the Baptist, and the 4 Evengelists (see below right). Paintings portrayed parables to reinforce articles of Lutheran faith, and at the east end above the altar the figure of Christ sat holding his chalice and wrapped in a towel surrounded by clouds of steam as if in the sauna. Mingled among the paintings, almost as secondary accompaniment to the main themes, were disembodied winged heads of angels (see left); the numbers of these had given the church the tourist literature moniker of 'Church of the 100 Angels'. Unlike Orthodox icons or Catholic Madonnas which have doctrinal symbolism for believers, these paintings had been intended as instructional teaching material for illiterate peasants in Lutheran articles of faith. And unlike other decorated Lutheran churches where elaborate wall paintings dated from pre-Reformation Catholic times, and had been painted over by the Lutherans at the Reformation, to be restored in the 20th century, the remarkable thing here at Ilomantsi was that the paintings had been created in the 19th century at the height of Lutheran bigotry almost to outdo the rival artistic attraction of Orthodox iconography. Given the Lutheran tradition for lack of adornment, we discussed with the Pastor the significance of these startlingly bizarre paintings, and thanked him profusely for the time he had given us and for the frank and interesting discussion.
Camp at Taistelijan Talo (Fighters' House) in Hattuvaara: leaving Ilomantsi, we headed north on Route 522 towards Hattuvaara, and just beyond Lake Mekrijärvi near to Kallioniemi we paused at a Winter War memorial by the bridge crossing the wide Koitajoki river flowing from Nuorajärvi. It was here in late November 1939 that a scratch battalion of lightly armed, ill-trained Finnish troops faced the initial wave of massed Soviet forces by the former Kallioniemi ferry crossing; one wave of the Soviet invasion tasked with reaching Joensuu was stalled here, the other along the Ilomantsi road at Möhkö. We continued northwards, the road crossing between islets over a broad area of marshy fens. A further 20kms brought us to the outskirts of Hattuvaara, another contender for the title of Finland's most easterly village, and pulled into the parking area of Taistelijan Talo (Fighters' House). The distinctive grey wooden building with its small WW2 museum and restaurant was originally intended as a memorial to those who had defended Finland against Soviet aggression in 1939~44; we had camped here for a couple of nights in 2012. Today we were greeted by the charmingly welcoming and jovial lady who had previously kept the now closed village shop (kylä kauppa in Finnish) in Hattuvaara and now managed the Fighters' House. Yes we were welcome to camp by the power supplies in the parking area at €10/night, but the WCs/showers in the basement WW2 museum would be locked when the restaurant closed at 5-00pm and all day tomorrow, Midsummer Day. Could you not leave it open for us? Hmm ... uncertainty. Eventually her reluctance yielded, and she agreed to lend us the key; but be sure to lock up and return it on Sunday, she said with a smile. Having paid for our 2 nights' stay, we gladly settled in (Photo 14 - Taistelijan Talo (Fighters' House) in Hattuvaara) (see left). The military mannequin in the basement museum had been disarmed so that this year we were not faced with a pointed rifle on entering in semi-darkness; but the racks of machine guns were still there by the wash-up. At least we had access to WC and shower for our stay, albeit amid all this military paraphernalia.
Midsummer Day at Finland's remote easternmost Point: the reason for our stay at Hattuvaara was to re-visit Finland's and mainland EU's easternmost point, 19 kms along a lonely gravelled lane through the forests leading to the Finnish~Russian border; until recently a permit was needed from the border guards' post in Hattuvaara to travel out to this point in the patrolled border zone. The following morning opposite the now closed Hattuvaara shop we turned into the lane with our sat-nav set at N 62.90934 E 31.58139, to begin the drive out through the forested wilderness to reach the Easternmost point (Itäisin Piste in Finnish). The weather remained overcast making the forest seem even more dreary, and we progressed at a steady 30 kph as the gravelled lane became stonier and rougher (Photo 15 - Forest road to Easternmost Point) (see right). Just over half way, Sheila suddenly let out a whoop: there's a bear by the road-side! and sure enough a mid-brown Wild Bear was foraging in the grassy ditch. We slowed to a halt, but on hearing our approach, the bear bounded into the forest and paused standing upright in that typical bear pose looking back at us. Sensing we were not following, he scampered more slowly deeper into the forest. It moved all too quickly for us to raise a camera, but we had seen it without doubt. The Brown Bear, one of Finland's indigenous carnivores, is a reclusive animal which avoids human contact, and this was the only occasion we had actually seen one totally in the wilds, other than at the Martinselkosen bear-watching hides (see our 2012 log). Scouring the forests each side for further bear sightings, we edged forwards more gingerly now, but the noise of George's tyres on the rough gravel would have scared away any other bears.
Thankful for our sat-nav's reassuring guidance and the Itäisin piste (Easternmost Point) signs at crucial junctions, where logging tracks disappeared into the otherwise featureless forest, we pressed on, crossing the Koitajoki river which here meandered across the nearby border into Russian territory to re-appear into Finland further south at Möhkö; in Eastern Finland's wilderness landscape, with its ubiquitous patchwork of lakes and interconnecting network of water-courses, the water flow's direction was unpredictably difficult to follow even on a map. The gravelled lane became even rougher, undulating over glacial ridges, and at a turning 3 kms from the end-point we passed the former border zone barrier now, cast aside in the undergrowth with border zone permits no longer required out here. 1 km from the lane's end, we began to see the yellow-topped posts marking the permitted line of the border-zone with 'Stop' signs forbidding access beyond the line without permission (Photo 16 - Border Zone warning sign) (see left). The lane's final km was rougher than ever, and we were thankful to reach the parking area at lane's end. With the weather now gloomily overcast, we made a first foray along the final 200m of pathway. Rope barriers lined the path, delineating the permitted access to the short board-walk and wooden platform at the water's edge of Lake Virmajärvi, with its bizarre Rotary Club marker sign perhaps symbolising the freedom of democratic West as opposed to the political and social restrictions of Putin's Russia. The light was simply too poor for photography at this point and the first spots of rain began; without cagoules or midge protection we dashed back to the shelter of George to eat our sandwiches and wait for the rain to stop.
With the worst of the dark rain clouds past and sky brightening, we returned along the pathway, fascinated by the political significance and curiosity of standing at this remote and isolated spot marking the Easternmost Point of both Finland and the whole of mainland EU; only the island of Cyprus lies further to the east. In fact this projecting salient of Finnish territory lies 70kms further east than St Petersburg. The northward border here was defined by the 1617 Treaty of Stolbow between Imperial Russia and the Swedish Empire; but more relevant to modern day history, the southward line of the border signified Finland's revised border forcibly imposed by Stalin's USSR by the 1940 Treaty of Moscow ending the Winter War, with the loss of huge areas of Finnish territory seized by Russia (Click here for map of Finland's Easternmost Point and Russian border). Gaps began appearing in the cloud and a few moments of sun enabled us to take photos at the wooden platform by the symbolic Easternmost Point marker-post (Photo 17 - Easternmost Point) (see above right), and long lens shots of the actual border-posts set on an island 150m out in Lake Virmajärvi - blue and white posts on the Finnish side, maroon and green on the Russian (Photo 18 - Border-posts) (see left).
But today it was the wealth of wild flora that attracted priority of photographic attention: large clumps of Labrador-tea in full bloom flourished on the moist ground around the lake shore (see below left), and by the water's edge at the border platform Bog Rosemary with its beautiful clusters of delicate pink globular flowers, Bog Bilberry with just an occasional remaining flower, and a new plant for us, Leatherleaf with its elongated leaves and rows of pendant, tiny white bell-shaped flowers unfortunately mostly over. We were soon down on hands and knees among the lakeside undergrowth photographing the flora and, despite our midge-nets, attracting swarms of midges. Back up the trackway, we spent more midge-infested time photographing banks of Lingonberry with tight clusters of bud and early flowers still showing a deep pink colour (see right), and a low mound covered with masses of flowering May Lily. This area was a paradise garden of floral photographic opportunity, but the midges were also having a field day feasting on our blood: with heads down into the undergrowth concentrating on photography, we were sitting ducks and were both badly bitten. We had been fortunate to have this remote spot at Lake Virmajärvi to ourselves, sharing the peace and isolation only with a distant cuckoo calling across the waters. The drive back along the rough gravel lane to Hattuvaara was taken steadily, but there was no further trace of bears.
Hattuvaara: back at Hattuvaara, we walked over to the tiny wooden Orthodox chapel (tsasouna in Karelian) dedicated to Sts Peter and Paul; the oldest such Karelian Orthodox chapel in Finland, it is said by tradition always to have been here, but by more authoritative sources to have been built in 1792 (Photo 19 - Hattuvaara Orthodox chapel). A poster advertised the forthcoming festival of Petrun on 29 June with its traditional Praasniekka procession. With the midges now worse than even, we settled back in for our second night at the Fighters' House. The following morning a lady from the village brought round sets of equipment for a traditional Karelian village game played on a gravel pitch in the Fighters' House parking area. In the game of Kyykkä or Karelian Skittles, each team has 40 100mm high wooden cylinders which are stacked in pairs around the marked out squares of the gravel playing-pitch; the game's objective is to knock the opponents' skittles out of the playing square by throwing heavy 850mm long wooden sticks. We stood chatting with the lady about the game and about life in Hattuvaara village: only 80 mainly older people still live in the village, the younger ones now having moved away to school and college or in search of work. With the former shop now closed, the Fighters' House had clearly taken over as the village social centre, and this morning several locals had gathered here for coffee and chat as the jovial lady arrived to open up the restaurant; we thanked her for her hospitality and waved farewell as we departed the Taistelijan Talo after our memorable stay.
Recycling in Finland: before we could move on northwards, we had to shop for provisions for our stay in the remote Patvinsuo National Park after the Midsummer supermarket closure. So back the 38kms through the forests to Ilomantsi, where to our relief the S-Market was open on the Sunday morning, and in fact doing a busy trade, not the least with customers queuing with bag-loads of with empty cans and bottles at the deposit-returns machine in the foyer. Being a highly recycling-conscious society, the Nordic countries charge a small deposit on drinks cans and bottles, and you retrieve your deposits using posting-machines in supermarket foyers. With Finland being dual language, beer cans carry details of the deposit, the word for which in Finnish is pantti and in Swedish pant, giving much opportunity for puerile ribaldry about pantti-pants; we carry our empty return bottles and cans to the pants-machine in a pants-bag, and if cans happen to have fallen in the mud, they are dirty-pants, and so ad nauseam ... ! You regularly see vagrants rummaging through litter bins for empty cans or bottles to retrieve the few pence of deposits. This morning, after the Midsummer holiday of party-drinking, the pants-machine was busy and we queued along with Finns with our pants-bag, before re-stocking with provisions in the supermarket and taking our pants-ticket for reimbursement at the check-out. All part of daily living in Finland!
Northwards on Route 522 Via Karelia to Patvinsuo: leaving Ilomantsi for the final time, we headed northwards again on the lonely Route 522 through the forests, and for 10 kms beyond Hattuvaara the Via Karelia road was well-surfaced even if narrow (see above left). The road-sides were lined with occasional stacks of cut timber awaiting collection (see below left). As expected, the asphalt then ran out but the gravelled surface was generally well-compacted and smooth going. This was indeed a lonely wilderness road, and for the next 30 kms we passed scarcely one other vehicle (Photo 20 - Via Karelia) (see right). On a Sunday afternoon, even the logging trucks which usually thunder up and down this road were missing. We paused several times for photographs along this deserted dirt-road through the forested wilderness with the roadside stacks of timber (see left). Just after crossing the Haapajoki river, we reached the Lieksa municipality-boundary where we recalled from 2012 the tarmac began again. But in the intervening 3 years even this stretch of asphalt, pounded daily by the passage of timber trucks, had been much neglected despite being signed as part of the Via Karelia. Road signs with the warning alert Päällystevaurioita (Damaged road surface) said it all. This was the section of badly damaged, much neglected road that the TIC lady at Ilomantsi had warned us of: sharp-sided, large pot-holes, areas of totally crumbled asphalt, equally treacherous loosely gravelled cost-conscious patching, all to be steered around to avoid damage to tyres and suspension. With Sheila on pot-hole watch, we cautiously wove a way at 20 kph through the damaged road surface for the next 15 kms. Then 5 kms before the key road junction at Kitsi, the asphalted surface began again, not just renewed but fully lined, and we were able to pick up speed again. We had mapped the coordinates for all the key junctions on the approach roads to the remote Patvinsuo National Park, and now set the sat-nav for the first of these 14kms along Route 5202; although a minor back-lane, this was better asphalted than the entire drive north from Hattuvaara, and we soon reached the turn-off onto the rough gravelled track leading to Patvinsuo Information Centre at Lake Suomunjärvi. The warden was more than happy for us to camp at the grassy clearing here, and we settled in by a patch of sweet-smelling Kielo (Lily of the Valley) under the birch trees amid swarming midges and black-fly (Photo 21 - Wild-camp in Patvinsuo National Park) (see right). The Suomu Information hut had earth-privvies and a water pump, but of course no power-source for our Bagon. But this year we had another anti-midge weapon to make life tolerable in this delightful wild-camp spot, a 12v Bagon whose emissions were just as potent in killing midges; in no time at all we had George's living space purged of the little monsters.
Patvinsuo National Park - Mäntypolku Nature Trail: the plan for our day in Patvinsuo National Park (also managed by Metsähallitus), the Finnish Forestry Authority, was to walk the 4.5km Mäntypolku Nature Trail which circled around past Lake Suomunjärvi, hoping for more wild flora photographic opportunity (Click here for map of Patvinsuo - Mäntypolku Nature Trail). The way-marked nature trail began immediately by the clearing at Suomu Information Hut, initially passing through dark pine woods. On the far side a wooden foot-bridge crossed the stream which connects the small Sihvonlampi pool into the main Suomunjärvi lake. The path now followed the narrow sandy peninsula of Kuikkaniemi whose tip projected into Suomunjärvi and was lined with a wealth of wild flora: rich ground-cover of Bilberry and Crowberry, Lingonberry just coming into flower (Photo 22 - Lingonberry flowers), flourishing patches of Labrador-tea, and down by the lake-shore at a similar location as at Petkeljärvi banks of Bog Bilberry laden with tiny flowers. The sandy peninsula of Kuikkaniemi did indeed provide the anticipated photographic opportunity, but returning along the northern side, the board-walk across the marshy lake shore produced today's floral highlight: growing on both sides of the board-walk amid the sphagnum were flourishing patches of Cloudberry, the first seen this year. Some male flowers still had full white petals and pollen-bearing stamens (see right), others just had the pink sepals remaining; but most significantly female Cloudberry plants, which had flowered earlier and had lost their petals after being fertilised, now bore the early developing fruit which was just visible in the top gap of the green enclosing sepals (see left). The Cloudberries now monopolised our photographic attention, and having to lift our midge-nets, the midges had a feast on exposed necks and faces! After this Cloudberry photographic field day, the return loop through the pine forest was something of an anticlimax, as we plodded endlessly through the featureless woodland. After passing a reconstructed charcoal-burning stack, the path dropped down to cross marshy ground on board-walks, around the shore of Sihvonlampi, and eventually emerging back at the Suomu Information Hut clearing.
North to Lieksa: after another midgy night, we were both nursing sorely bitten necks and faces; we hoped our photographic results from yesterday would have made being so badly bitten worthwhile! Patvinsuo had been a delightful wild-camp but this year the mossies had been unduly bothersome. Back along the approach road, we returned to Kitsi and turned north towards Lieksa. Route 522 passed through isolated villages and wilderness forest-land which stretched away as far as the eye could see, eventually leading to the junction with the main Route 73 and across the wide Pielinen waterway into Lieksa. Bemused at being back in an urban environment after the peace of the wilds, we parked at the busy K-Market supermarket to shop for 3 days' worth of provisions for our forthcoming stay at Ruunaa Trekking Area. We eventually found the public library some 3 kms in the forested outskirts to use their wi-fi network to consult the weather forecast; our time at Ruunaa looked disappointingly cloudy with some rain.
Ruunaa Trekking Area: at Pankakoski we turned off through desolate forested landscape across the wide Ruunaa watercourses for our stay in the Ruunaa Trekking Area. This extensive tract of pathless wilderness spanning the Finnish~Russian border is crossed by the mighty Lieksanjoki river which drains from a complex area of lakeland across in Russian Karelia, and zigzags a winding course through a sequence of linear lakes and between these, over a series of 6 spectacular white-water rapids before ultimately flowing into the huge Pielinen waterway near to Lieksa. The hydrodynamics of Eastern Finland's lakes and waterways defies comprehension! Finally turning off along the single-track lane which ended at Ruunaa Retkeilykeskus (Trekking Centre), we booked in at the campsite, to be greeted with friendly and helpful welcome from the staff at reception. The price remained the good value €18/night as in 2012 which included free wi-fi and camp-fire hearth well-stocked with chopped wood. The midges seemed less bothersome since it was now markedly cooler with a stiff breeze and rain beginning; we selected the least sloping pitch in the camping area under the pine trees (Photo 23- Ruunaa Trekking Centre) (see left). The hot showers were particularly welcome after 2 days of sticky, midgy wild-camping! Despite its wilderness location, Ruunaa is one of those campsites which seems to attract the very worst of city dwellers in their ostentatious caravans and camping-cars with all their materialistic paraphernalia; their inconsiderate behaviour shows them seemingly incapable of any respect for the silence of wild, forested natural surroundings or others' wish to enjoy this in peace; why they come here to this remote place is one of life's mysteries.
Canoeists at the Neitikoski Rapids: after suffering so badly with midge bites at Patvinsuo, this morning we doused arms, neck and forehead with DEET, as well as ensuring we had packed midge-nets in our day sacs. But before setting off for today's venture across wild country to the Marinkangas Hut, we walked down to see the Neitikoski Rapids just below Ruunaa campsite where the distant noise of the rapids was just audible at the camping area. We followed tracks downhill to board-walks which linked across a chain of islets where fast-flowing side-channels of the main river surged around the feet of birch trees under the wooden bridges. Fishermen were enthusiastically casting from the wooden platforms but no one seemed to be catching anything. We followed the board-walk around to its furthest point, which looked out across to where the main river flowed past at a formidable rate, erupting into the turmoil of the Neitikoski Rapids with the water boiling up into a swelling, churning mass. We had timed it well: canoeists in their short, stubby rapids kayaks were in turn paddling into the raging white-water at the most turbulent heart of the rapids (see left and right). The surging water hurled the tiny boats around as the canoeists fought against the river's foaming current to hold an upright position in this maelstrom, skilfully riding the crest of the churning white-water; it was an unbelievably impressive performance (Photo 24 - Canoeist at Neitikoski Rapids). The challenge was to maintain their position at the heart of the surging pit of water for as long as possible, twisting and turning, sometimes rolling and, with deft handling of paddles, somehow reappearing in an upright position, until the raging waters finally spat them out at the far end of the rapids. Then another of the canoeists would take over prime action spot at the heart of the rapids for a repeat performance. We kept our cameras trained on the canoeists as in turn they battled with the raging waters, and with our long-length lens got a series of dramatic action shots (Canoeing on the Ruunaa Rapids). Finally they all paddled at speed down the river, doubtless to repeat their challengingly skilful performance at the next stretch of rapids.
A walk to Marinkangas via the Paasikoski and Haapavitja Rapids and the Karsikkosuo marshlands (Click here for map of Ruunaa - Marinkangas Trail): after this exciting start to our day, we set off for our planned walk by the Paasikoski and Haapavitja Rapids and along a section of the Karhunpolku long-distance path out over some of Ruunaa's wilderness marshland terrain to the Marinkangas Hut on the distant shore of Lake Ruunaanjärvi. A 3 km drive along the gravelled forest road brought us to its end at a parking area for the start of the path. The path dropped down through the pine forest with its lush ground-cover of Bilberry already showing some green, unripe berries. A board-walk led across a short stretch of marsh where the moist sphagnum supported flourishing patches of Cloudberry (Photo 25 - Marshland board-walk); the only plants were male, many still in flower (see below left), some their pollen producing work done, with just their pink sepals remaining. But where were the female plants? Their total absence suggested that this would not be a good year for Cloudberries. We continued down through towards the Lieksanjoki river with the sound of the rapids becoming increasingly loud. Reaching the river-side path, we followed this alongside the Haapavitja Rapids which surged past with alarming speed to reach the wooden Haapavitja suspension bridge (see right). From the bridge we had the perfect view looking upstream to where the fast-flowing waters rushed from the more placid wider river through the Paasikoski Rapids to be channelled into a rocky-bedded gullet and on under the bridge into the sudden turbulent fury of the Haapavitja Rapids which continued for almost 1km downstream (below left). It was a mesmerising sight.
Crossing the bridge, we followed the start of the Karhunpolku long-distance path which ran for 45 kms ultimately to Patvinsuo passing through the most isolated wilderness terrain, the first section of which we were to sample today. The first 300m as far as a lean-to shelter was densely forested with a lush ground-cover. The path now turned sharply eastwards through dark pine woods, the tall trees more scattered. Amid the Bilberry ground-cover here there was more Lingonberry in attractive white flower. Emerging from the far side of the woods, the path dropped down to cross the wide area of waterlogged and utterly barren sphagnum of the Karsikkosuo marshland (see right). Care was needed on the narrow board-walk, since any false step would mean a soaking, and who knows how deep the sodden marshland was, too sterile to support any other plant life but the sphagnum. In today's dreary light, this was indeed an utterly barren wilderness. Thankfully reaching the dry land of a low hillock on the far side, the path now entered a further area of open pine woods from where the distinctive 'kettle's boiling' crescendo call of a Curlew could be heard across the barren marshland. Through the woods the path thankfully was clearly way-marked and dropped down to a further area of marshland where a sign board marked the boundary between the Ruunaan Retkeilyalue (Trekking Area) and broader area of the Ruunaan Luonnonsuojelualue (Protected Nature Reserve) which stretched away into utterly desolate wilderness towards the Russian border. We started off over the board-walk which crossed the marshland, here less wet and barren and on raised mounds of drier sphagnum supporting a wealth of bogland plants. Here at last we found the female Cloudberry plants, gathered as if in socialising clusters. The pollination had clearly been successful since these plants each had an upright head of a ripening fruit enclosed within the protecting calyx case (Photo 26 - Cloudberry fruit). Closer examination showed that the fruits were already ripening to a red colour. But today's treasure was yet to come. On the tufted mounds of drier sphagnum standing clear of the deeper sterile standing water, we found tiny pink buds of Cranberry with just a few of the elegant pink flowers fully open, always turned away and seemingly camera-shy (below left and right). They were so tiny and insignificant that they might easily have been missed, and we were soon sprawled out on the board-walk to photograph them (Photo 27 - Cranberry flowers).
Safely across this section of board-walk, the path climbed into further pine forest with banks of lovely pink Lingonberry flowers. Reaching higher ground, we could now see through the dark woodland the distant waters of Ruunaanjärvi. The way-marked Karhunpolku path threaded its way the forest reaching a junction where an indistinct sign pointed down to the Marinkangas hut-shelter on the shores of the lake. The plaintive 2-note call of the Curlew echoed through the woods from across the marshland. We dropped down to the lakeside to reach Marinkangas, our goal for today; beyond here across the lake, the empty wilderness of the Ruunaan Nature Reserve stretched away into the eastwards distance towards the Russian border, and the Karhunpolku long-distance path continued southwards. We refilled our water flask and began our long return walk across the marshland board-walks and through the forest where midge-net protection was more essential than ever (Photo 28- Midge-net protection essential in Ruunaa forests).
Today had been a thoroughly rewarding 8 km walk with its Cloudberry and Cranberry floral highlights. But more memorably, these had been the loneliest, most isolated and remote wilderness lands we had ever walked, with not another soul to be seen and just the silence of the desolate marshlands punctuated by the melancholy calls of the Curlew for company; what could be better. That evening back at camp at Ruunaa Trekking Centre, we enjoyed another supper of sausages grilled over the camp-fire.
The Siikakoski Nature Walk: the following morning before moving out for day at Siikakoski Rapids, we again walked down to Neitikoski Rapids just below the campsite to see if any other canoeists were riding the rapids today. A lone 'paddler' was out battling with the torrent in the vortex of the Neitikoski maelstrom, in the most skilful manner holding her position at the intake of the rapids in seemingly perfect control without being sucked down into the maw of raging waters. It was a true master class of elite white-water canoeing technique, holding her position against the rapids' powerful current, then plunging and twisting into the seething morass of water but seemingly in perfect control (Photo 29 - Steady nerves and skill on the Neitikoski Rapids). It was the same girl as we had photographed here in 2012 and again our high speed shots captured her focussed concentration and sheer skill in overpowering the turbulent waters of the rapids. And after another masterly performance, she paddled round in her stubby rapids canoe, collected her normal kayak from the shallows and with this in tow, paddled off down-river (see left).
After this second episode of canoe watching, we drove from the campsite back along to the Ruunaa road and turned off at the Naarajärvi bridge along the 10kms of lane to the Siikakoski parking area. With having to pull back our midge-nets for close-up flora photography, we again smeared heads and necks with DEET and set off on the signposted path, meandering through pine and birch woodland parallel with the fast-flowing Lieksanjoki river (see right) (Click here for map of Ruunaa - Siikakoski Nature Walk). The rich ground-cover of Bilberry was already developing its green, early-formed berries which still showed traces of the now lost flowers. As the path moved closer to the river bank, we found a small patch of this trip's first Twin Flowers, having first noticed the creeping stems of distinctive leaves. May Lilies grew in unprecedented profusion, along with Chickweed Wintergreen, Kielo (Lily of the Valley), and Stone Bramble its flowers mostly over. Approaching the suspension bridge, the raised river-side provided a sunny position for a bank of Lingonberries, their white bell-shaped flowers almost fully out; and nearby we found several lovely specimens of Yellow Flowered Wintergreen (Pyrola chlorantha) with its distinctive 'lampshade' shaped pendant flowers, again the first seen this trip. This short section of river-bank path, just 1.5km long which could easily have been walked in 20 minutes, had today with its fascinating variety of wild flora taken us an hour with stops for photography every few steps, and scarcely a sideway glance at the wild river rushing past!
We at last reached the bridge with its views along the Siikakoski rapids of the Lieksanjoki river (Photo 30 - Siikakoski rapids), and continued along the forested river-bank passing a lean-to shelter and camp-fire hearth set on a small river-island with its connecting causeway. At that point one of the tourist rafts rushed through the Siikakoski Rapids with a party of terrified looking tourists clinging on for dear life (see right). Just beyond at a sign-posted junction, we turned inland away from the river gaining height through more open pine-forested heath-land. Here the Bilberry ground-cover had masses of green developing berries and even an occasional residual flower now seeming strangely out of place at this time of year. As the path crossed a hillock in the open pine forest, rain began falling more determinedly as we dropped down to cross semi-forested marshland on a board-walk. The shower passed and we moved slowly across the board-walk examining the sphagnum closely for Cranberries which we had found here for the first time in 2012. We were not disappointed: with their trailing stems and tiny leaves, we found some flowers but mostly the Cranberry was still in bud. We spent a back-achingly wearying time crouched low on the board-walk trying the photograph the tiny Cranberry flowers which were frustratingly difficult to get into sharp focus. But our reward was another real gem: almost hidden among the sphagnum were tiny plants of insectivorous Round-leafed Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), the globules of sticky insect-attracting liquid clearly visible at the tips of leaf hairs (Photo 31 - Insectivorous Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)) (see right). There were more Cloudberries, again mostly male plants with just the residual pink calices, but a few female plants with red ripening fruit. From the end of the board-walk, the path continued ahead over a low hillock, dropping down to cross another short section of wooded bog and turning back to the parking area. Again the DEET had done a good job in protecting exposed flesh from mosquito bites.
We returned around the lanes for our final night at Ruunaa Trekking Centre, after 2 thoroughly fulfilling days in the Ruunaa Trekking Area with excellent wilderness walking, a wealth of flora photography and the additional spectacle of seeing the dramatic displays of white-water canoeing skills on the Neitikoski Rapids. So rewarding had the photographic opportunities been that we have this time included two extra photo galleries: Wild Flora of Eastern Finland and Canoeing on the Ruunaa Rapids
A forested back-road north to Kuhmo: after a re-stock of provision at the supermarket in Lieksa, we headed north towards Kuhmo. Instead of taking the main Routes 73/75 via Nurmes, this year we planned to follow amore easterly by-road, Route 524 through Nurmijärvi. Our sat-nav however had other ideas, resolutely refusing even to acknowledge this route, and insisting that the fastest route was via Nurmes and the two main roads. We pressed on forward on with the minor road, eventually persuading the sat-nav against its better judgement to give us a timing for what the map showed was the shorter 80 kms route to rejoin Route 75 just before Kuhmo; the sat-nav insisted that this route would take us almost 4 hours! There was only one conclusion: the central section of this route was on unsurfaced roads. How far they lasted, and what condition they were in we had no idea, the sky was now gloomily overcast, the road surface even at this early stage not of the best, and timber trucks pounded past the other way; it did not augur well, but we pressed on feeling increasingly nervous. Were we being foolhardy?
After 25 kms we reached Nurmijärvi, more a cluster of semi-derelict wooden shacks and closed shop than a village. The map showed a minor, unsurfaced lane ending at the Russian border 17 Kms eastwards amid utterly desolate terrain, and dotted with a number of war memorials; clearly this area had been one of the Soviets' 1939 Winter War invasion routes and scene of intense fighting as the Finns struggled to resist the invasion of their homeland. We pressed on beyond Nurmijärvi across a short causeway spanning lakes. Rather than the expected start of 60 kms of unsurfaced road through forested wilderness, the tarmac not only continued but the road seemed unexpectedly newly constructed, well-surfaced and lined. But how long would it last? The newly upgraded asphalt ribbon of road stretched away across rolling, forested hills which extended away to the horizon in a wilderness of trees utterly devoid of any human presence. The map apparently showed named villages along the length of Route 524 but we passed no trace of habitation. The clouds thinned and sky brightened, making this wilderness panorama seem slightly less unnerving. We pressed on more optimistic now as the remaining kilometres to the Route 75 junction slowly ticked down - 60, 55, 50; if the newly asphalted road suddenly ended, 50 kilometres of remaining dirt road seemed less formidable. But no, the ribbon of tarmac stretching across this forested wilderness continued; 30 kilometres left to the junction. And we suddenly noticed that the sat-nav's time estimate for the remaining journey had reduced to what might have been expected for normal tarmaced roads. Perhaps therefore we had now passed the middle section formerly unsurfaced, gravelled road, and the sat-nav's map now showed tarmac all the way to the Route 75 junction. The uncertainty had passed, and in brighter light we could now relax and enjoy the desolation of this forested wilderness.
Part-way across this uninhabited stretch of road, we crossed the boundary from North Karelia into the province of Kainuu, and began to notice distinctive sign-boards with the inscription Valtion - Metsää (see above left); clearly it had something to do with forest (Metsä was a word we knew as in Metsä-hallitus - Forest Authority), but at this stage we could only guess at the meaning; we later learnt that the sign means 'state forest', delineating public-owned from private forest land given the Finnish passion for hunting. As we came closer towards the Route 75 junction, the terrain although forested became less severe with the occasional forester's shack. We passed the junction with a narrow unsurfaced lane leading into the wilderness towards the Russian border where the map showed more war memorials; this must have been part of the Kuhmo Front along another of the 1939 invasion routes, perfect terrain for the Finns' highly successful Motti tactics of breaking up and separating columns of Soviet troops and armour strung out along narrow lanes through otherwise impenetrable forest and bog. We also passed the turning into the Saunajärvi road, one of the key Soviet invasion routes of November 1939 which we planned to explore while at Kuhmo; here at least the lane was wide and tarmaced, and at this stage we took note of the turning's coordinates in readiness for our Kuhmo Front day when we hoped to learn more about Motti tactics during our stay at Kuhmo. Finally reaching the Route 75 junction, having enjoyed 60 kms of newly asphalted road all the way from Nurmijärvi across the deserted forested wilderness, we turned towards the southern outskirts of Kuhmo. Through the centre of the town and around the far side of the bypass, we reached the Petola Wild Carnivore Centre managed by Metsähallitus, with first class exhibitions on Finland's four surviving wild carnivores, the Brown Bear, Lynx, Wolverine and Wolf.
Lentuankosken Leirintä (Camping), a hospitable, family-run and beautifully located campsite: across the Lamnasjärvi bridge and some 12 kms north of Kuhmo, a lane leads out to Lentuankosken Leirintä (Camping) which was to be the base for our time at Kuhmo. This straightforward and welcoming campsite, in a beautiful shore-side setting looking out across Poroselkä Lake a side arm of Lamnasjärvi, has been run by the same family since 1965 (Photo 32 - Lentuankosken Camping). This was the first time we had camped on such lush turf since the Åland Islands and probably the last for a while, and that evening we lit the barbecue also for the first time this trip; we were looking forward to tomorrow's day in camp in this glorious location. The following morning, an early clear sun soon faded and the forecast cloud gathered, but we spent a productive day catching up with household jobs, writing and editing photos. Despite an overcast evening, we cooked supper again over the barbecue and although there was no flaring sunset, the pink late sky reflected on clouds and the still waters of the lake with an evening fisherman in his boat gave softly lit evening photographs (Photo 33 - Soft evening light on Poroselkä Lake).
The 1939~40 Winter War battlefields of the Kuhmo Front: our plan for today was to explore the key locations of the battlefields and memorials along the two roads leading in from the Russian border towards Kuhmo which were the main routes of the November 1939 Soviet invasion at the start of the Winter War. In late 1939, with events in Europe becoming increasingly unstable and USSR's stance towards Finland more belligerent, the Finns began to fortify their eastern border and to train their reservists. On 30 November, a division of the Red Army crossed the Finnish border, but given the impenetrable forested terrain, the only routes for the Soviet attack were along the valleys of Saunajärvi and Hukkajärvi. The Soviet plan was for their columns of troops and armour to advance along the two valley roads, capture Kuhmo and continue rapidly across the width of Finland to the Bothnian coast, taking Kaajani and Oulu and cutting the country into two at its narrowest point. But things went very differently: although vastly outmanned and without the tanks, heavy artillery and aircraft that the Soviets had mustered in great force, and lacking anti-tank guns to halt the Soviet columns of tanks, the Finns were defending their homeland; they knew the forested terrain and how best to use it to advantage, and were used to operating in severe winter conditions.
Motti tactics: at first the Soviet invasion went as planned and advanced along the two roads overcoming Finnish resistance. The Finns withdrew to prepared defensive lines and dug in at these strong point as bases from which to counter-attack: Jyrkänkoski on the southern Saunajärvi road and Tyrävaara on the northern Hukkajärvi road. At these two points just 10 kms from Kuhmo the Soviet invasion was brought to a halt in late December 1939 and in the 105 days of the Winter War, the Red Army were never able to advance further into Finland. In late January 1940, the re-grouped and reinforced Finnish forces began the counter-attack, cutting road connections along the two invasion routes and encircling trapped columns of Soviets troops; and after that the war continued through that harsh winter until the armistice of 13 March 1940 as a series of bitterly fought Motti battles along the invasion roads. Despite the apparent advantage of the Soviets' vast superiority of troop numbers, tanks and heavy artillery together with air supremacy, the boggy, forested winter terrain of eastern Finland was against them: troops and armour were compelled to advance slowly along the two narrow forest roads, and the Finns used this to advantage in their counter-attacks, developing and exploiting the so-called Motti tactics. The Finnish word Motti literally means a cubic metre measure of stacked timber left in the forest to be gathered later as fire-wood. The Finns used the term as military slang for an encircled detachment of enemy troops and tanks, trapped and isolated in bite-sized units to be dealt with at will later; hence such trapped units were called Mottis. The tactic was particularly effective against mechanised units of the invading Red Army which, because of the impenetrable forest and bog, were restricted to advance along the narrow forest roads with no way other than forward or backward; once committed, the Soviet troops and tanks effectively were trapped, and the slow pace of advance inevitably meant columns becoming divided into isolated pockets. Unlike the enemy mechanised columns, the Finnish troops could move quickly through the snow covered forests on skis, well-equipped and camouflaged for winter survival; they knew the terrain and were well-motivated in defending their homeland (the Finnish word sisu meaning sheer guts became another byword). By felling trees, the slow-moving Soviet columns were split into smaller, weakened pockets (Mottis) and the light, mobile Finnish ski-troops could strike at will from within the forest, concentrating forces on all sides and overwhelm much larger units of encircled, trapped armoured forces. If the encircled enemy unit was too strong, or if attacking would entail unacceptable cost of life, the trapped Motti could be left to stew until supplies of food, fuel and ammunition ran low, and the weakened enemy eliminated.
Civilian casualties and evacuation; impact and aftermath of the Winter War at Kuhmo: when the invasion began, most civilians in the Kuhmo area were still at their homes and farms. Evacuation started after the invasion and border guards went round outlying farms, many several kms from a road, to organise evacuation of civilians. The first casualties of the war occurred at Laamasenvaara farm just 5 kms from the border when a young border guard sent to evacuate civilians was killed along with the farming family's 13 year old son, and the family taken as POWs into Russia. There was no time to evacuate farm animals which had to be shot, and houses and farms destroyed to deny use by the enemy. 8,250 people in total were evacuated form Kuhmo and district of which 127 were killed; they were moved westwards to Kaajani, Oulu and Western Bothnia for the war's duration. Kuhmo was bombed and shelled 48 times, making it the 5th most bomb damaged locality in Finland with 327 buildings destroyed. A cease-fire was declared on 13 March 1940 and peace confirmed by the Treaty of Moscow. The war had lasted 105 days, and in the Kuhmo area had resulted in zero territorial gains for USSR: the border remained as it had been for 400 years. On the Kuhmo Front, the Soviets lost more than 10,500 killed compared with Finnish losses of 1,348, in addition to so many homes and farms destroyed and civilian life utterly disrupted. After the Red Army withdrew back across the border, Finnish troops began clearing the battlefields so that civilians could return home. The Soviets had buried some of their dead, but when the winter's snow began to melt, unburied corpses started to emerge. The Finns buried over 10,000 Soviet dead in mass graves but the true figure of Russian losses is not known. Clearance of Battle zones of weapons, ammunition, vehicles and horse corpses continued. The first evacuees returned to Kuhmo in April~May but only in late summer were they allowed to return to the eastern area to rebuild destroyed homes and farms, too late in year to plant crops. Farms that had lost livestock were compensated with replacement cattle evacuated from South Karelian territory seized by the Soviets. Food supplies were short and good-will packages were sent from Sweden and Finnish émigrés in USA. The Swedes also contributed prefabricated wooden houses to help replace homes lost along the Saunajärvi road. Military funerals were held in April and war dead were buried in mass graves in Kuhmo. 400 Soviets soldiers were captured in the Motti battles and were held as POWs and returned to USSR in April 1940.
Our visit to the Winter War battle fields and memorials around Kuhmo (Click here for map and commentary on the Winter War Kuhmo Front): we set off to explore as far as the state of roads along the modern equivalents of the two invasion routes of Saunajärvi and Hukkajärvi would allow; we wanted to find monuments and memorials, but more importantly to get a feel for the terrain along the two valleys' narrow forest roads on which the heavily outnumbered Finns in 1939~40 had employed Motti tactics to good effect to halt the unprovoked invasion of their homeland. We returned south through Kuhmo and Route 75 and reached the site of the crucial Finnish defensive strong-point at Jyrkänkoski to which the Finnish troops had retreated in mid-December 1939,having fought tenacious delaying actions along the Saunajärvi road. Here the Soviet invasion was halted, just 10 kms from Kuhmo; although no major battles took place here, the position became a base from which to launch counter attacks against the Mottis trapped along the narrow Saunajärvi forest road. Despite the ferocious midges, we walked around the remains of the defensive strong-point with its granite and barbed-wire tank-traps (see above left), restored trenches and dugouts and pieces of military hardware, trying to imagine what this would all have been like in the winter of 1939~40 (see above rigt). We drove on to the road junction at Rasti, another scene of fierce fighting, and turned into Route 524. The Soviets had captured this key road intersection and Finnish attempts to dislodge them from Rasti were fruitless until the January counter-offensive which splintered the Soviet advance into Motti encirclements along the length of the Saunajärvi approach road, The Motti at Rasti was the largest in size, and remained encircled and pinned down by the Finns until the end of the war.
The Saunajärvi road 1939~40 invasion route and its memorials: 5 kms along Route 524, we reached the turning into the fateful Saunajärvi road which ran from here some 30 kms to the Russian border. We had paused here on our drive over from Lieksa and established that, at least for the early part of the road, it was asphalted. 5 kms further a memorial stone stood by the roadside commemorating the Finnish soldiers from Taivalkoski who were killed on the Kuhmo Front. This area around the Klemeti farm was the scene of 2 Mottis which remained trapped for the duration of the war despite Finnish attempts to capture them. A little further we reached Luvelahti where in January 1940, with the invasion stalled, the Soviets set up their divisional HQ on the shore of Lake Saunajärvi . The battles here claimed many lives on both sides and split the Soviet forces into 3 Mottis, 2 of which were captured after the Finns brought heavy artillery to bear. Just off the road a memorial stood to the Soviet troops killed in these encirclement battles; ornate wreathes had recently been laid at the monument. A little further we reached the area of Kannas and Niska where a large Motti of Soviet troops was isolated and trapped when the Finns captured the section of road just east of the Kannas farm; despite fierce fighting, the Motti remained uncaptured until the war's end. Nearby a section of trenches and dugout has been restored (Photo 34 - Saunajärvi road trenches and dugout), and a bird-cage shaped memorial topped by an Orthodox cross now stands by the lake commemorating Russian troops killed here (see above left) (Photo 35 - Russian war dead memorial). Some distance further, Löytövaara was the location of the final and bitterest fighting on the Kuhmo Front. When the invasion stalled at Jyrkänkoski in December 1939, what had been planned as a lightening panzer attack became totally static; the Soviet forces, trapped in Mottis along the Saunajärvi road began themselves to construct defensive strong-points at strategically advantageous points of terrain. One of these well-equipped defensive points was built at Paloaho near to Löytövaara; the Finns counter-attacked and after severe fighting and heavy casualties on both sides, captured the strong-point in early February and held it until the end of the war. A memorial, burial ground and restored block-house now stand here. A short distance further, we reached the memorial at Kilpelänkangas topped with a Finnish helmet (Photo 36 - Kilpelänkangas Finnish memorial) (see above right). It was here that the Finns faced the severest artillery fire of the war, forcing them to retreat west to Löytövaara and completely destroying entire areas of forest.
End of the road at the Russian border: earlier we had passed a road sign with the word Rajavartiolaitos which we later translated as Border Guard surveillance. As we now moved on from the Kilpelänkangas parking area, a Border Guard patrol van drove past; we thought they would stop and question our presence here so close to the border but they continued without stopping. Shortly beyond this point, we passed the Laamasenvaara farm where the war's first casualties had occurred; the asphalted road then ended, but we decided to venture ahead on the smoothly gravelled surface to see how far the road extended and whether we could get as far as the Russian border. Tentatively we edged forward for another 5 kms before the road ended at a large Border Guard post and barrier with warning sign Pääsy ilman lupaa kielletty - unmistakably clear in any language - Access without permission prohibited (Photo 37 - End of road at Russian border). We stopped to take our photos by the barrier, beyond which was the forbidden-entry border zone cordoning off the actual line of the border (Photo 38 - Finnish~Russian border zone); the map showed a dirt road leading up to the border on the Russian side but there clearly was no border-crossing here.
The Hukkajärvi road 1939~40 invasion route: we retreated back along the Saunajärvi road, passing an enormous Motti (in its true sense) of cut timber which awaited collection by the logging trucks (see left), and reached a turning which seemed from the map to link through to the northern invasion route along the Hukkajärvi road; it would clearly save a lengthy drive back trough Kuhmo, but would it be passable? In fact the road was asphalt right through to the junction at Korkea at its northern end; we turned eastwards passing Kiekinkoski where the few Finnish defenders had retreated after being driven back by the invading Soviets on 2 December 1939 who had crossed the border at Hukkajärvi. We continued as far as we could to where the road ended some distance from the border with nothing now to be seen. There was nothing for it but to return the 30 kms westwards along the Hukkajärvi road to the memorial at Tyrävaara farm; this was the furthest westward point that the Soviets on the northern invading route had reached before being halted and driven back, forced to retreat eastwards by the Finnish Christmas Eve counter-offensive and obliterated in the decisive battle at Kiekinniemi on 28 December 1939.
After a barbecue supper and further night's camp at Lentuankosken Leirintä (Camping) (see above right) (Photo 39 - Lakeside barbecue), the following morning was bright with a brisk breeze to keep away the midges so that for the first time in weeks we were able to sit out for breakfast (Photo 40 - Breakfast at Lentuankosken Camping) (see above left). From the highly detailed Kuhmo winter War Museum web site and the excellent multi-language information panels at the battle sites and memorials, we had been able to piece together yesterday's battlefields tour and as a result had learned much about the 1939~40 battles on the Kuhmo Front. Before moving on north this morning, we called in at the Winter War Museum hoping to supplement the understanding gained yesterday about the Winter War's impact on Kuhmo. But at €5 entry with no seniors' reduction, the museum itself was a disappointment: the attendant could speak no English to answer our questions and the displays consisted mainly of poorly presented photos. As always however we had gained so much more of a feel for the conditions of the Winter War by 'treading the ground' of the actual battlefields of the Soviet invasion route along the Saunajärvi road, and seeing for ourselves the sites at which the ill-motivated Soviet troops, poorly equipped for surviving and fighting in the harsh conditions of a Finnish winter, had been trapped and butchered by Finnish guerrilla troops in the Mottis.
We should now continue our northward journey into Finnish Lapland, to learn more about the impact of the Winter War at the battlefields around Suomussalmi, and enjoy some excellent walking and see Palaeolithic rock-paintings in the Hossa Hiking Area; north to Kuusamo, we shall again camp in the remote Oulanka National Park (another of our favourites) to enjoy the walking trails with their unique wild orchids, and explore the eastern borderlands around Salla and Savukoski. But that's a story for the next edition.
Next edition to be published shortly