Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve

Karelian Isthmus; Priozersk District, Leningrad Oblast, Russia

Last weekend I visited the Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve, in Leningrad Oblast, Russia; on the Karelian Isthmus 100 km north of St. Petersburg. I do not often make posts about Russia (where I happen to live), and even less commonly, about Russian nature. Nothing wrong with it of course; it’s just that Russian nature isn’t particularly accessible. It’s not like Finland, where you have national parks, various trails ranging from municipal jogging trails to long-distance ones hundres of kilometers long, excellent topographic maps of the entire country, and a dense and well-maintained road network which make reaching even quite remote locations easy (assuming you have a car, of course). In Russia you’re basically on your own. Designated hiking trails only really exist in major nature reserves and national parks few and far between (which often have entrance fees and/or require getting a permit to visit them), maps are very hit and miss depending on the region, and only the major federal roads can be really relied upon; secondary roads may be in terrible condition, while logging or mountain roads are generally passable only on a 4WD car. Arguably, of course, this only makes the experience more genuine, as you don’t have anything pre-made for you. And Russia, being the biggest country in the world and all, does have some stunning nature. The “stunning” part however isn’t really uniformly spread. Most of Central Russia and Western Siberia really looks very uniform and bland. And for the most part so is Leningrad Oblast, which is the St. Petersburg region.

Finland, my favorite destination, is a very beautiful country — especially if you’re into forests and lakes! — but truth be told, it doesn’t have much variety too (unless you’re really familiar with it and begin to spot lots of minor details). However its landscapes actually do look a lot more interesting than Central Russia and most of Leningrad Oblast. The reason for that lies in basic geology: Finland is located on really ancient bedrock (Fennoscandian Shield), only thinly covered with soil; the bedrock was cut up by a great glacier in the Ice Age, resulting in innumerable lakes in depressions that the glacier scoured, rocky outcroppings where it scraped off the topsoil, boulders that it moved a great distance, and so on. Central Russia on the other hand is covered with a very thick (3+ km) cover of sediments (Russian Platform), which are very flat and remained very flat even after the glaciation. The boundary between the Fennoscandian Shield and the Russian Platform cuts across the Karelian Isthmus, fairly close to the Russian-Finnish border, approximately following Vyborg (Viipuri)-Priozersk (Käkisalmi) line. Most of the Karelian Isthmus, and the vast majority of the overall Leningrad Oblast lies south of that line, in the “boring” Russian Platform area.

Still of course there are some beautiful places, and Väärämäenselkä Nature Reserve is one of them. It’s located on the Karelian Isthmus, and I’m not sure whether it lies north or south of the geological boundary; most probably south of it. It’s still beautiful, with low but steep sandy hills and ridges covered with pine forests, and small rivers and lakes among the hills. So after much deliberation about my day trip destination I chose this place. I knew essentially nothing of it but it seemed fairly easy to reach at least.

The name “Väärämäenselkä” is Finnish; the nature reserve has no Russian name. The name is transribed as Вярямянселькя into Russian, although Вяярямяэнселькя would be more precise. It means “Crooked Hill Ridge”. It can be found in old Finnish topographic maps and texts, spelled as Väärämäen-selkä, and sometimes also as Väärämäen-harju. The regional nature reserve was officially established in 1978.

1. The nature reserve can be easily reached by car, but I chose a suburban train (elektrichka) because I actually like using public transport instead of driving, and tend to do it all the time whenever feasible. I took a tram from my apartment at Petrogradskaya Storona in St. Petersburg to the Finlyandskiy Vokzal (Финляндский вокзал, Russ. Finnish Terminus) railway station, bought a ticket for Petäjärvi station in a ticket machine for 223 rubles (~3.3 €, that’s one-way), and boarded a train.

The most importait railroad on the Karelian Isthmus goes northwest from St. Petersburg to Vyborg and then Finland, but another one is the St. Petersburg-Hiitola Line going north via the town of Priozersk. The railroad was originally built by Finland in 1917 (early 1917, before its independence) to connect St. Petersburg to Viipuri-Sortavala-Joensuu line. After Finland proclaimed its independence in late 1917 the railroad then was crossing the new international border, and during the Finnish Civil War the railroad was blown up and the part going across the border was physically dismantled; until World War II, the Soviet (fairly short) part of the railroad ended at Lembolovo station, and the Finnish one at Rautu (now known as Sosnovo). After the World War II the Soviet Union got the entire line on its own territory, all the way up to the junction at Hiitola (a village in Ladoga Karelia), and the connection was resumed.

As of today, there are numerous suburban trains (some 30 pairs per day) using the railroad. The farthest station they go is Kuznechnoye (Kaarlahti), a few stations after Priozersk, nearly on the border with the Republic of Karelia region; this is where the electrification of the railroad ends, and the remaining part to Hiitola and onwards to Sortavala requires diesel engines. Not all trains actually go as far as Kuznechnoye of course. The only long distance train currently using this line is St. Petersburg-Kostomuksha, departing twice a week and going quite deep into Karelia. The line is also commonly used to ship crushed stone and gravel from open pits in Karelia, and a brand new connecting line (Losevo (Kivisalmi)-Kamennogorsk (Antrea)) meant for freight trains from Finland is nearly complete.

As for me, I was going to Petäjärvi (Петяярви) station, one of the few ones still keeping their original Finnish names. The nearby village is now called Petrovskoye (Петровское, Russ. Peter’s Village); as I originally assumed it was probably because Petä- part of the Finnish name sounds like the Russian name Petya (Петя), which is the diminutive form of Pyotr (Петр, Peter); that would be quite coincidental, because Petäjärvi actually means something like “Deceit Lake” in Finnish, certainly nothing to do with any Peters. However the village is actually named after a Soviet nurse Yelizaveta Petrova, who was killed in action in the vicinity of the village in the final days of the Continuation War.

The trip lasted almost two hours, although the distance from St. Petersburg Finlyandskiy Vokzal by rail is only about 80 km. The suburban train just makes a lot of stops, and goes really slowly between them as well. I should have probably just used my car really.

2. I didn’t have a good map of the area. For some reason it is nearly impossible to buy a detailed up-to-date topographic map of the Leningrad Oblast. I guess the companies actually doing land surveys are not obliged to publish their maps for general use, and Leningrad Oblast is indeed considered too boring to bother (as compared to the nearby Republic of Karelia which does have good maps available).

Nonetheless the roads and trails in the nature reserve were mapped in OpenStreetMaps, and I used this map for navigation. OpenStreetMaps isn’t meant to be a topographic map and isn’t very useful for hiking but the trails were indeed mapped quite thoroughly and I was in no danger of getting lost. Going there without any map at all is a bad idea; there are a lot of trails and no signposts at all, apart from “you’re entering a nature reserve” signs.

The nature reserve is indeed located right by the railway station, a five minute walk at most. Dirt roads going there are blocked with trenches, so as to deter 4WD enthusiasts. Cycling in the nature reserve is on the other hand allowed and quite popular. The nature reserve is fairly narrow but long, stretched in west-east direction for over 25 km.

3. The trails and roads are mostly in fairly good condition, dry and easy to walk on. I think this might have to do with sandy ground which doesn’t turn to mud easily.

4. Quite soon, two or three kilometers from the railway station or so, the hilly part starts. There is little grass on the ground here, probably because this place seems to be used extensively for camping in summer season. It was not the case on a wet cold October day when I was there of course.

5. One of the numerous campfire spots in the area. Signs at the entrance to the nature reserve actually seem to forbid camping and campfires outright.

6. And this is like a poor man’s laavu (Finnish lean-to)!

7. Near the camping area you can walk down a steep valley slope towards Volchya River (Волчья, Russ. Wolf River; originally Saijanjoki). Volchya River valley is, unlike the sandy hills above, quite wet, and there are duckboards on the path to the river bank. They look really old and unmaintained though, and are very slippery and require great care when walking on them. The sign on the tree to the left warns that the water from a nearby spring is to be used for drinking only, and any washing should be done in the river.

8. Volchya River itself. A fairly small but beautiful river. It’s a pity the weather was overcast, making most of the pictures poor and boring-looking. This place should look really beautiful in the right lighting.

The most interesting thing about this river is that in fact it used to be a section of the ancient Russian-Swedish border, the first Russian-Swedish border ever actually formally described, by the Treaty of Nöteborg of 1323! The relevant part is (quick and dirty translation mine): And the divide and the border is: from the sea the Sestreia-River, from Sestreia a mire, a mountain in that mire, from there the Saia-River, from Saia the Sun Stone… etc, etc… and from there Kajano-Sea. The “Saia-River” part is fairly unambigously identified as the Volchya River; Saijanjoki, as it was called then.

It’s funny that I stumbled upon this border (I had no idea about it at the time) because I actually stumbled upon another part of the very same border just a week before, when I was walking on the sea coast near the town of Setroretsk and crossed the mouth of Sestra River with a foot bridge; Sestra River is where the border of 1323 started (“from the sea the Sestreia-River”). Someday I really should visit the place where it ended, then; that place is more difficult to identify but according to the most common interpretation it is the mouth of Pyhajöki River at the Bay of Bothnia (“Kajano-Sea”, Каяно море, as it is called in the treaty). (Yes, a curious feature of that treaty was that it apparently left the entire Northern Ostrobothnia and Lapland on the Russian side of the border; probably because pretty much nobody cared about these lands at all in the 14th century.)


10. There are in theory a few foot bridges over Volchya in the nature reserve, but reports on various websites reveal that they are unreliable and often damaged or destroyed by spring floods. The only more or less solid bridge is this one, upstream of the old power station.

11. Which brings us to the old power station! It was built over Saarniaistenkoski Rapids in 1928, by some Leonard Sääksjärvi, and was supposedly the largest privately owned hydro power station in pre-war Finland. Still extremely small by modern standards, of course. The power station used to power a sawmill and the nearby villages; electricity in villages was still a rare thing at the time. It was destroyed in the war, but eventually rebuilt afterwards.

The information above is repeated on various Russian websites with no clear sources, and I couldn’t Google anything about the power station in Finnish (which is usually more reliable for Karelian Isthmus pre-war history). So it’s possible that it’s not exactly correct. Anyway, by now the power station is obviously long abandoned; I couldn’t find out for how long exactly. Power station and sawmill buildings were not preserved, and there’s currently a holiday village there; the house on the other bank in the picture belongs to this holiday village.

12. Upstream of the dam.

13. And downstream. I sat down on the bank and had some snacks and a beer, enjoying the view. While I was sitting there a few small groups of people passed by, each with an identical piece of map; all of them appeared to look for something in the roots of one of the trees. Perhaps this was some sort of orienteering competition.

The nature reserve was far from deserted, despite an unfriendly season. I occasionally encountered lone people, couples, and families, hiking or cycling, and apart from these orienteering guys there also were two huge groups of people (15-20 in each) with big backpacks, obviously returning from a multi-day hike. I wonder where they had been. Of course I could have, like, just asked, but for some reason that only occurred to me as I was writing this post.

I also found it mildly interesting that I in fact could not remember ever seeing such big groups of people hiking in Nordic countries. There are many places where you can meet “serious” hikers with big backpacks with sleeping gear and so on on trails there, but groups of these hikers tend to be no bigger than a single family. Really big crowds are extremely rare. Of course that might have something to do with the fact that St. Petersburg population is more or less equal to that of entire Finland (or entire Norway, which is nearly equal to Finland in population).

14. Väärämäenselkä forests don’t have many boulders (proving again that this isn’t Fennoscandian Shield surface yet) but very occasionally there still are some.

15. Littering is a ubiquitous problem in recreational forests of Russia. However it doesn’t appear to be particularly bad here. I spotted maybe two small piles of trash like this one, and occasionally some random beer cans and plastic bottles along trails. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some volunteers actually doing the cleaning; it seems very unlikely that the authorities do it.

16. Orange peel fungus. It’s really called this in English. There are lots of these cute tiny bright mushrooms in the forest. They are edible but lack any flavor whatsoever.

17. Pretty soon I walked out to the shoulder of a big highway, the Sortavala Route (A-121). Another section of this excellent road (2+2 lanes, not an official motorway but of near-motorway quality, with raised speed limits on some sections), 15 km long, from Sosnovo to Yagodnoye, had been finished and opened for public with great fanfare literally the previous day.

Sortavala Route is pretty much the best road in the entire Leningrad Oblast, and by now it’s gotten quite long, over 70 km long. The newest section doesn’t seem to differ from any of the previous ones. Only a rather short section is still unfinished near Losevo village; between Losevo and Priozersk the old 1+1 road will not be improved for the foreseeable future, but it’s mostly adequate as it is anyway. The section between Priozersk and Sortavala (mostly actually in Karelia) used to be very hilly and curvy, with some gravel stretches, but it is being gradually improved too (the new road there is still 1+1 but really straight).

18. The bad news however is that the new road really isn’t built with the nature reserve in mind. It cuts right across it, which is possibly bad for the ecosystem or something; but more importantly, it cuts the old trails and dirt roads in the area in two, and a hiker or especially a cyclist will have great difficulties crossing it. You can wait for a lull in traffic and sprint across it, but the concrete median barrier is high and difficult to hop over. There are some places where it sort of splits in two (one of them can be seen in the previous picture), allowing safer crossing, but these are few and far between and do not align with any trails at all. There is in theory also at least one rest area with a pedestrian overpass, but again it’s not located conveniently at all. As a final option, you can walk under road bridges and overpasses, which is what I did here (although I nearly got stuck in the mud). I wish they just had built small pedestrian tunnels under the highway like it’s usually done in Finland.

19. They actually bothered to build an official entrance to the nature reserve, of sorts. Of course it’s pretty much useless, as there is no parking lot, and I doubt you’ll want to park on a shoulder of such a road (although as it’s not a motorway this is allowed in theory).

20. One of the places where the new huge road cuts across an old small dirt track.

21. Still, a new road is always great news. Perhaps we’ll see the day when it will be possible to drive all the way to Ladoga Karelia (or to Finnish border crossing checkpoints there) on good roads. The road was built by VAD (ВАД), which I believe is the only remaining major road construction company in St. Petersburg (a few others were wiped out by the latest economic crisis). VAD’s pretty cool though. They’re currently building Scandinavia, Sortavala, and Pskov Routes simultaneously, and their quality record is spotless. They are also now busy building a huge (253 km) new motorway in Crimea, named Taurida Route.

22. Hilly trail on the other side of the new highway.

23. Walking down a hill to a beautiful forest lake. It is called Tammilammit in Finnish, meaning “oak ponds” (it was considered a chain of small lakes rather than a single one). The Russian name is a literal translation, Dubovoye Lake (Дубовое озеро, Russ. Oak Lake).

24. It does look a lot like Finland!


26. Although I didn’t really walk all that far from the railway station, I didn’t set out very early in the morning either, and the days are getting fairly short now. So I had to turn back, having explored only a rather small part of the nature reserve; wandering in the woods after dark isn’t my idea of fun.

27. The way back was uneventful, except for the moment when I noticed a fresh-looking pile of shit on the track. It looked a lot like bear shit (although I wasn’t completely certain, being really no expert in bear shit) and it made me feel really on edge. I even kept singing (horribly) a song on my way through the rapidly darkening woods. Still, I reached the railway station without encountering any bears, or in fact any other living beings at all.

As it turned out, the latest train had left 20 minutes ago, and I had to wait for over an hour for the next one (I should have consulted the timetable before… or actually, I should have just driven). It wasn’t particularly fun to wait for my train on this platform and I got a little cold, but at least this station has lighting. Almost two hours on a suburban train through more dark woods (reading Hacker News on my smartphone because what else is there to do), a tram trip back, and there I was again in my bed.

Väärämäenselkä overall doesn’t really have anything special, but it is certainly a great place if you want to just wander in the woods a bit, without getting really far from St. Petersburg. So, highly recommended as a day trip destination.

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