Six Ermines

Interesting places and facts about Nordic countries, particularly Finland, and particularly its Ostrobothnia region (which has six ermines as its coat of arms).

Salamajärvi means “Lightning Lake” in Finnish, and you’ve got to admit that’s a really cool name. It refers to one of the 40 Finnish national parks, located at the border of Central Finland and Central Ostrobothnia regions. Salamajärvi lies in Suomenselkä (Finn. Finnish Ridge), the watershed of the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Bothnia, a forested, hilly, boggy, sparsely populated area, which is noticeably different in its vegetation and climate than the surroundings (Finnish Wikipedia page claims that it’s sometimes referred to as the “finger of Lapland”). The national park is relatively far from any major cities (Jyväskylä and Seinäjoki would probably be the closest ones), and it’s almost exactly 200 km by road from me. I visited it twice so far, in May 2018 and January 2019, and here I’ll be showing the late spring and the winter pictures interspersed.

Salamajärvi is particularly known as one of the location where the Finnish forest reindeers live. Those animals, known as metsäpeura in Finnish, are a distinct subspecies of the regular reindeer; they are somewhat bigger, darker in color, prefer forests to tundra and fells, and are wild animals. All the regular reindeers which are so common in Lapland are domesticated; in Nordic countries some wild tundra reindeers survive only in the mountains of West Norway. Russia and Canada have much bigger wilderness areas, and thus there vast herds of wild tundra reindeers still exist. Wild tundra reindeers were hunted to extinction in Finland, and the metsäpeuroja nearly were as well. A tiny population still survived in Kainuu region (and in the adjacent Viena Karelia in Russia), and over the last decades they’ve been reintroduced in some areas of West Finland, particularly Suomenselkä and particularly Salamajärvi. It’s been quite successful and apparently they’re thriving there, but the absolute numbers remain not that high, and these reindeers are rather shy unlike the domesticated Lapland ones, which generally just don’t give a shit. So I’ve never seen one so far. But anyone a metsäpeura is on the national park logo, seen above. You can also try looking for some on a live video feed from WWF though! They don’t show up there all that often either, but sometimes they do. That feed is not from Salamajärvi though, but rather from Lauhanvuori area, in another national park.

There are quite a few day hike options and shelters available in Salamajärvi. There is also a multi-day hiking trail passing through it, which appropriately enough is named Peuran polku, “Deer Trail”. The trail proper (one-way) is 77 km long, and its circular variant (Hirvaan kierros, “Reindeer stag ring”) is 58 km long. It allows you to see more of the same Suomenselkä terrain. I haven’t tried that one yet, of course.

You can read more about Salamajärvi at the official website.

And so let us just look at the beautiful Finnish woods and mires. There will be a lot of pictures in this post.

Continue reading “Salamajärvi National Park”

Finland is not a mountainous country, but if we still try to make a list of its more notable mountains, then Aavasaksa should certainly be on it. This low (242 m) but prominent and easily accessible lone fell stands near the border of Finland and Sweden, by the great Torne River. The rather famous fell, chosen as one of the 29 national landscapes of Finland, in particular was almost visited by two Russian tsars, Alexander II and Alexander III.

The mountain by the important river and land route to the north has been well known through the ages. It stands about 80 km north of the town of Tornio, a port on the Bay of Bothnia. The area surrounding Tornio is known as Sea Lapland (Meri-Lappi); it is mostly flat, like the North Ostrobothnia region farther south, and is also the only area of Lapland where reindeer husbandry is never practiced. So Aavasaksa marks a sort of a border of the “proper” Lapland.

Aavasaksa is also the southernmost place in Finland where it is possible to see the midnight sun on Midsummer. It is located about 25 km south of the Arctic Circle, but the fact that it is a mountain allows you to see a little bit farther, which is supposedly just enough to catch a glimpse of the midnight sun.

Aavasaksa area was declared a “crown park” (kruununpuisto) in 1877, and Alexander II, one of the greatest Russian tsars who was also extremely fond of Finland, intended to make a visit to Lapland in 1882. For that specific purpose, a small but beautiful Emperor Lodge buiding (Keisarinmaja, in the picture on top), meant to be used just for a single overnight stay, was designed and built for him on top of Aavasaksa by the architect Hugo E. Saurén. Unfortunately it came a little too late, as Alexander II got assassinated in 1881. Alexander III, his son and successor, intended to visit Lapland and this lodge, but ultimately never did either. The lodge nonetheless has been preserved and is currently open for public in summer, and this is the oldest existing tourist building in all Lapland. Over the years other tourist infrastructure appeared on Aavasaksa, including a 13 m observation tower (1969), road to the top, cafeteria, designated observation spots and a camping a bit lower on the mountain. While Aavasaksa was at some point one of the most accessible Lapland destinations, now that there is a good road network and airports all across the north of Finland and Scandinavia it is perhaps visited less often and more briefly.

Aavasaksa was also visited by scientists and explorers in past centuries. In the 18th century Pierre Louis Maupertuis, a French astronomer, visited these lands to make measurements of the shape of the Earth, and later Giuseppe Acerbi, an Italian explorer, climbed it on his way to the North Cape. Maupertius’ experiment was repeated in a much greater scale in the 19th century by Vasili Struve, a German-Russian astronomer who constructed a huge chain of geodetic points all the way from Barents to Black Sea, using mostly various prominent terrain features for them. This allowed to measure Earth size and shape to a ridiculously high (for the 19th century at least) precision. Aavasaksa is one of the relatively few points of the Struve Arc that have memorial plaques.

The fell’s name is a little weird, because it means something like “open Germany” or “vast Germany” in Finnish. The name supposedly exists since Middle Ages, when German Hanseatic League merchants made trips up the Torne River past the prominent hill to the village of Pello. But this is not certain; the name might have Sami origins also. In Finnish language the hill of such type would be called vaara (and the more precise name for this mountain itself is Aavasaksanvaara); this word means a hill that is prominent and usually rocky but still completely or almost completely forested over. Vaara-hills are extremely common in East and North Finland.

Some more pictures of Aavasaksa and its surroundings:

Continue reading “Aavasaksa Fell”

January 2019 has come, and these are some picture from two days ago, when it was still December 2018. I went to check out again the place which by now is pretty much my favorite spot in the Kvarken Archipelago and in the vicinity of Vaasa in general, the Vikarskat-Finnhamn trail. It ended up one of those times when the nature and light is so good that even pictures taken from a phone (as I still don’t have a new camera yet) look pretty neat.

The trail is a short one (2.5 km, non-circular), and is located on the same Björkö island as is Svedjehamn fishing village, Saltkaret observation tower and Boddvatnet runt trail, which all are pretty much the most advertised places of Kvarken. Vikarskat trail in comparison is rather obscure, and I’m not sure it is mentioned anywhere other than Korsholm Municipality website. Getting to the trailhead is easy by car, just drive almost all the way to Svedjehamn via Road 724, Replot Bridge, Replot and Björköby, and turn right onto Vikarskatvägen road right before Svedjehamn. Follow the signs for fish harbor (Fiskehamn) for about 4 km of gravel roads, you’ll have to turn left at a crossroads in the middle of the forest shortly before the end. You’ll indeed reach a small fish harbor, with ample space to park a car, and there the trail starts. The beauty of the trail is that you get a lot of views of the open sea, and keep hearing its roar throughout the hike even inside the forest. There’s also an open wilderness hut and a campfire place at the end.

The weather on 30.12 was mostly sunny (for the third day in a row) and not especially cold. Rivers, lakes, sea coast in Vaasa and within archipelagoes in general have frozen over, and icebreaking season has started a few days ago in the Bay of Bothnia, with icebreaker Otso, followed by Kontio, moving there from Helsinki and assisting at the northernmost ports of Tornio, Kemi and Oulu. Here in the open sea of the Quark (Kvarken Strait) there are still not many sights of sea ice.

1. A small frozen bay near the beginning of the trail.

2. Days in Ostrobothnia are very short in December. The shortest day of the year, winter solstice, was just 4 hours 40 minutes long (it got over 10 minutes longer since). The sun rises only 3.7º over the horizon. It’s not Arctic, of course, but feels close enough. Each year the Finns are eagerly awaiting for the permanent snow cover to arrive, as it makes the ground and everything else look a little brighter at least. In Helsinki they are always concerned about whether there will be a “white Christmas”, as there is very little snow in the south in December yet, and these days Christmas is more likely to be muddy than snowy. “White Christmas” is a lot more common in Ostrobothnia normally. This year the entire country got “white Christmas” in the end, but in Ostrobothnia snow cover was and still is rather thin, just a few centimeters (it normally rises to over 50 cm by the end of winter, although most inland locations in Finland are even more snowy).

Continue reading “December at the Quark”

The city of Vaasa on the west coast of Finland stayed far from any frontlines of the Winter War of 1939-1940 and the Continuation War of 1941-1944 (although it still saw six Soviet bombing raids in Winter War). However there still is a number of grim reminders of the past war, and one of the less obvious ones is the monument to 75 Soviet prisoners of war who died in the 24th Vaasa discipline camp in 1942-1944. It is located at the small Kappelinmäki Orthodox Cemetery at the very edge of the city. Although I’ve seen this cemetery once, I didn’t notice the actual monument then (it looks a lot like a regular grave, especially in winter and from afar), and read about it only very recently in the Vaasa ennen ja nyt (Vaasa Before and Now) blog about Vaasa, maintained by Vaasa Inner City Residents Association (Vaasan kantakaupungin asukasyhdistys ry).

The camp no. 24 was initially set up on 25.6.1942 in a completely different part of the country, at Riitasensuo Mire near the town of Kerimäki, rather close to the city of Savonlinna in East Finland. However in early 1943 it was moved to Vaasa. Camp barracks were built in the Court of Appeal Forest (Hovioikeudenmetsä) in the Old Vaasa (Vanha Vaasa) area on the outskirts of the city, an old wood which has seen quite a few events over centuries. The camp was designated as a discipline one, meant for “hooligans”: prisoners who had attempted escape, had refused to work, politruks and suspected spies and saboteurs. From the initial population 427 of the Old Vaasa camp and its branches in Helsingby/Tölby and Isokyrö its number of prisoners rose to over 1000 by 1944, and made a short quick leap to 3500 in the last months of the war. As a discipline camp it was meant only for actual prisoners of war and only for adult men; women and underage boys were never sent to such camps.

The conditions in the camp were extremely harsh, as expected for a discipline camp. Prisoners weren’t tortured or killed indiscriminately, but nasty public beatings (25 lashes over the back, with a bundle of copper or steel wire at the end of a stick) were commonly dealt for the slightest misbehaviours, like hiding a piece of bread or not saluting an officer. Care was generally taken to ensure no one gets actually crippled in this way; prisoner labor was used to build an airfield nearby (which nowadays is the Vaasa airport) and roads in the area. Only 12 people were shot, but many more died of hunger, sickness and exhaustion from the back-breaking work, most of them in 1942. Some prisoners however managed to get work as farmhands with the local farmers though; this was a very lucky lot, and the conditions of such work were hugely better.

Continue reading “Vaasa prisoner of war discipline camp”

Today (well yesterday) a museum train visited our city of Vaasa. It came here because of the upcoming Christmas, although I actually didn’t see anything Christmas-related on the train. We don’t get such fancy trains here often, and I learned about this one by accident from an announcement on an ad display in a city bus.

The train belongs to the Haapamäki Museum Engines Association, Haapamäen Museoveturiyhdistys ry. This is quite a serious organization; it owns about 110 rolling stock pieces, of which about 50 are in a railroad-worthy condition. It is based in Haapamäki, a formerly important junction station in the middle of nowhere in Central Finland which is nowadays not as busy because modern railroads mostly bypass it. The train in question seems to be dated to around 1950s, both the steam engine and the passenger cars. I’m not really a rail expert but to me it seemed quite genuine.

The train made two trips from Vaasa to each of the nearby stations, Vaskiluoto and Laihia. The next day it will do the same at the nearest city of Seinäjoki, with Lapua and Kauhava stations.

1. Waiting for the train at the Vaasa central station. I quite like how the museum trains are properly a part of the schedule.

2. And here it arrives from Laihia. This is a Tk3 model, a passenger steam engine manufactured in 1947 at the Tampella factory in Tampere (in Finland of course). It is nicknamed Pikku-Jumbo (Little Jumbo), as opposed to Tv1 the plain Jumbo, a cargo train steam engine.

Continue reading “Museum train in Vaasa”

The biggest (I think) recreational forest immediately next to Vaasa is the one at Pilvilampi (Finn. cloud pond), which can even be easily reached by foot from the Ristinummi residential area of Vaasa. Unlike for example Öjen at Sundom to the southwest, Pilvilampi is not a protected nature area, just a commercial forest (and there are quite a lot of clearings of various age in it).

There is a relatively dense network of forest roads and trails in the Pilvilampi woods, with several laavus (lean-to shelters), kota huts and one day hut on Storhälleberget Hill. In winter most of these turn into skiing tracks, and in fact the tracks, the laavus and the day hut are maintained by Vaasan Latu ry (Vaasa Ski Association). It is possible to hike or ski all the way from Vaasa to Skatila village, on the west bank of Kyrö River that forms the natural eastern border of the Pilvilampi woods.

Storhälleberget Hut

The name Pilvilampi of course refers to an actual small lake in those woods. It is just a short distance from the parking lot on Vaasa side of the woods (on Kappelinmäentie Road, pretty much across the Uponor plant).

Continue reading “Pilvilampi Lake and Vaasa water supply”

A few days ago we had a look at a small piece of the Finnish-Russian border. Let’s now explore the Finnish-Swedish and Finnish-Norwegian ones! I have a lot more material here, so this will be a long(ish) post.

The entire length of the borders of Finland with Sweden and Norway lies in Lapland (Lappi), the biggest region of the country by far, the northern 1/3 of its entire area basically. Despite the very low population density in Lapland, it has quite a few roads. There is a total of six roads from Finland into Sweden, and six more from Finland into Norway.

Finland, Sweden and Norway all belong to the Schengen Area, which means it is allowed to move between them freely, even in the wilderness. This however doesn’t mean you are free to move any goods between countries. All border crossing have customs, usually open on workdays, where you can declare your goods (although a tourist would hardly ever need to). As far as I remember, these days all of these 12 border crossings have shared customs buildings used by both countries at once. Sometimes (quite rarely) they can do random spot checks, and stop and demand your ID and/or to look at what you have in your car. It’s worth noting that Norway is not an EU country, and as such the limits on moving goods between Finland and Norway are much stricter than between Finland and Sweden. For example, you’re allowed to bring no more than 1L of hard liquor, 1.5L of wine, 2L of beer and 200 cigarettes into Norway.

1. Tornio-Haparanda; Road 29 (E4). Let’s start from the Baltic Sea. The Finnish-Swedish border begins almost at its northernmost point at the Bay of Bothnia (Perämeri), at the mouth of the Torne River, and follows it upstream. Torne is called Tornionjoki in Finnish and Torneälven in Swedish, and the city at its mouth, Tornio (from Swedish Torneå, which again means simply “Torne River”), is the oldest city of Lapland, although when I visited it I found it a bit disappointing. Nonetheless it’s the only border crossing of these 12 with a border city of any size. The Tornio region is also known as Sea Lapland (Meri-Lappi). Despite technically being Lapland, the landscape here is rather flat and relatively boring, reminding more of North Ostrobothnia, and this is the only part of Lapland with no reindeers. The city is known for its huge metallurgical plant and for the (rather meh) Lapin Kulta (Lapland Gold) beer, which has been brewed here for many years but eventually they moved it somewhere to the south.

The Swedish town of Haparanda across the border is arguably more interesting, despite being several times smaller (Tornio has population of 22,500, while Haparanda is only 5,000). Haparanda rose rather spontaneously soon after Tornio actually became a border city; in Swedish era the (regional) border between Sweden proper and Finland was considered to lie along the next big river to the east, Kemi (Kemijoki), and Tornio’s location was not as notable until 1809. Now there is an Ikea store greeting you literally 200 meters from the border, which looks a big amusing really. I read that the late Ingvar Kamprad personally greenlit an Ikea in Haparanda, despite the population density here being too low for an Ikea store by their own standards. And the Ikea became quite popular. After all, people in the north are used to long road trips. It is the closest store to the cities of Oulu (in Finland) and Luleå (in Sweden), both of which are major regional centers, and I read people come here from as far as Murmansk in Russia — a 800 km trip.

Continue reading “Finnish-Swedish and Finnish-Norwegian border”

Finnish Air Forces monument is located by the road to Vaskiluoto Island in the city of Vaasa, West Finland, overlooking the Eteläinen Kaupunginselkä (Finn. South City Expanse) bay. It is built in a shape of a sea eagle, and was put there in 1969. The picture above is taken in March 2018.

The location of the monument is no accident. Finnish Air Forces (Suomen ilmavoimat) are considered to have been born on 6.3.1918, when Count Eric vos Rosen, a Swedish aristocrat, gave the young Finnish state its first airplane. Finland was in the middle of the bloody civil war at the moment, and Vaasa was the place of the White Guards command. The plane in question was a Morane-Saulnier Parasol. It was flown from Umeå (on the Swedish side of the Gulf of Bothnia across Vaasa) to Vaasa by Nils Kindberg, with Count von Rosen as a passenger, and landed on the waters of Eteläinen Kaupunginselkä not far from the present location of the monument. The airplane was indeed taken into use by the White Guards, but did not have a long life; it crashed on 16.4.1918 near Tampere already. 6.3 has since been declared the official Finnish Air Forces day, and the replica of the airplane is currently on display in the aviation museum in Tikkakoski near Jyväskylä:

Picture from Wikipedia

Count von Rosen’s personal insignia was a swastika, and the blue swastika was adopted as the official insignia of the Finnish Air Forces. This swastika bears a lot more similarity to the Nazi one than the design used e. g. in the flag of the President of Finland or in the Finnish Order of the Cross of Liberty. Nonetheless its origin, of course, is completely unrelated to the Nazis, who didn’t even exist in 1918. (Curiously enough, Count von Rosen eventually did indeed became one of the biggest Swedish Nazi supporters and the best pal of Goering, but naturally that happened much later too.) Still, after the war the Finnish Air Forces switched to a more neutral-looking insignia, but the old swastika is still used in some of its flags (e. g. of the Air Force Academy), as can be seen in the picture from the parade in Vaasa in February 2018:

Parade commemorating the 100 years anniversary of the return of Jaegers into Finland, Vaasa, 24.2.2018

This post opens the Six Ermines blog, which is intended to be about highlights from various places, rather than boring travelogues which are basically impossible to write anyway. I have already quite a few posts for this blog already published, but only in Russian, in my Telegram channel and on (a Reddit-like Russian discussion board). I intend to copy the old content here, along with publishing new posts of course.

Along the entire Finland’s border with its “Eastern neighbor” (itänaapuri), as Russia is commonly called in the Finnish media, there is a border area, forbidden to visit without a special permission. This area is far narrower than the similar border area on the Russian side; it is just a few hundred meters to a pair of kilometers wide, possibly a bit wider in some places, and its shape is set in such a way that it doesn’t block any state or municipal roads, and doesn’t interfere with access to local sights near the border (which are mostly various nature spots). (In Russia this zone may be tens of kilometers wide, and some villages and roads are entirely located within this zone.) The roads to border crossings are also specifically excluded from the border area, thus unlike in Russia you can drive up to the very border guard booths without having to present any papers to anyone.

Apart from border crossings, there exist also two more places where you can legally walk very close to the border without getting a permit; these are locations where the border itself is a sight. The first one is Muotkavaara hill in Lapland, the place where borders of Russia, Finland and Norway meet. The second is a small lake named Virmajärvi in Finnish North Karelia, the easternmost point of Finland and the entire continental area of the EU. I haven’t been to Muotkavaara yet, but once (in October 2016) drove to Virmajärvi out of curiosity.

The nearest village to Virmajärvi is Hattuvaara (Finn. Hat Hill) in Ilomantsi Municipality. This remote region is the only area in Finland with significant Karelian population (with their Orthodox faith) remaining in the country since the war, and there is an Orthodox chapel in the village. The paved road (Regional Road 522) ends in the village, and from there on you have to drive 19 km to the west on a good gravel-coated forestry road. Funnily enough, all signs there say simply “Easternmost point of the EU”, which technically isn’t true. The easternmost point is actually in Cyprus, and this is merely the easternmost continental point.

The road to the border crosses several hiking trails and passes by a monument to a small Hattuvaara battle, which took place there on 30.7.1944; towards the end of the Continuation War Soviet troops reached the North Karelia areas within the present border, and there is a number of war memorials in the vicinity of Ilomantsi. At the end of the road is a logging truck turnaround loop, where you can leave you car and walk a little bit to the shore of the lake. In 100 m from the shore there is a tiny island where you can clearly see the blue-white Finnish and the red-green Russian border markers (slightly right of the center on the picture above). It is forbidden to move outside of the area within the “handrails”, and also to swim in the lake or to walk on lake ice in winter.

Beyond Virmajärvi lies the wilderness of Russian Karelia. As remote as this part of Finland is, the area over the border is far wilder. There are no roads or villages for tens of kilometers from there, and it would be barely possible to reach this site from Russia at all, even with a proper border area permit.

Virmajärvi Lake is the point where the areas ceded to the USSR after the war end. The border farther to the north still follows the old Stolbovo peace treaty of 1617. The border south of this border marker no. III/277/577 and up to the Gulf of Finland was set by the Moscow peace treaty of 1940.

A few more pictures of the area:

Hattuvaara Village with its Orthodox chapel
Road from Hattuvaara to the border
A memorial plaque to the Hattuvaara battle (or rather to a regiment that fought in it)
Some history about the battle has been translated into English and even into (a bit poor) Russian