Six Ermines

Interesting places and facts about Nordic countries, particularly Finland; originally mostly about its Ostrobothnia region (which has six ermines as its coat of arms) but not really anymore.

Luleå is the regional center of the Norrbotten Country of Sweden, and by far the biggest Swedish city north of Umeå.  Its population is 44,200 as of 2018; the population of the entire municipality is 77,800. It is located on the northwestern coast of the Bay of Bothnia, and is a relatively important transport junction; this is where the Ore Railroad (Malmbanan) across the mountains to Norway begins. I’ve been a bit curious to visit Luleå for quite some time, and this trip presented a good opportunity. So I dropped by.

The name “Luleå” means, quite simply, “Lule River”; Luleå is located at the mouth of the Lule river (which we’ll explore further in later posts), and å means “river” in Swedish. This is a common pattern for many cities all along the Swedish coast of the Bay of Bothnia: Umeå, Skellefteå, Piteå, Luleå, Råneå, Torneå (more commonly known as Tornio, as it’s now a Finnish city) and probably some more smaller ones. As Luleå is located not too far from the Finnish border (130 km by road), it also has a Finnish name, which in my opinion sounds far better: Luulaja. Curiosly, all these -city names were Finnicized in completely different ways; Torneå is Tornio, Råneå is Rauna, Piteå is Piitime (Piitime? really, wtf?), and Umeå is Uumaja, at least following the same pattern as in Luleå-Luulaja.

Luleå was founded in 1621 by the order of Gustav Adolf II, one of my favorite Swedish kings, the Lion of the North and the Snow King. However for a long time its growth had been hampered by the particular Swedish regulation (Bottniska handelstvånget) that forbade the cities on the Bay of Bothnia to conduct any international trade directly; they were only allowed to trade with Stockholm, and thus Stockholm merchants made big money at the expense of both Westrobothnians and Ostrobothnians. Indeed, the regulation is also the same reason why the growth of the Bothnian cities which are currently in Finland (such as Vaasa, Kokkola and Oulu, all founded in the beginning of the 17th century as well) was similarly hampered for a long time. The regulation was struck down in 1765, and it was largely the effort of Anders Chydenius, a Finnish-Swedish statesman mostly associated with Kokkola, who was an early proponent of the freedom of trade.

Even after the repeal of that regulation Luleå’s growth had been fairly slow, until 1888, when the Ore Railroad from Malmberget near Gällivare to Luleå was constructed. The great treasure of the Swedish Arctic, the iron ore of Gällivare and Kiruna, was first discovered in the 18th century. But its transportation had been extremely difficult (it was literally carried on reindeer-driven sledges at first), and thus, at great effort and expense — given the harsh northern conditions — the Ore Railroad was born. Soon it was extended to Kiruna and to Narvik in Norway, across the mountains. The possibility to ship ore from Narvik somewhat lessened the importance of Luleå; Narvik is an ice-free port, and Luleå is most definitely not. Indeed, Swedish iron ore mines, the Ore Railroad and the port of Narvik had tremendous importance in the World War II; Nazi Germany occupied Norway largely to safeguard its access to Swedish ore, and Sweden, while technically neutral, never dared to object.

And yet, the Ore Railroad assured the development of Luleå in the 20th century. It is the home to a huge steel mill of the SSAB company, which consumes a large part of the iron ore from the mountains. Hydro power projects on the Lule river also made the area more important for Swedish economy. Currently LKAB, the iron ore mining company, and Vattenfall, the Swedish hydro power company, are both headquartered in Luleå. A university was established there in 1971. Recently Luleå attracted some attention as a site for a Facebook data center, chosen specifically for its northern location to save on the cooling costs.

So let’s have a brief look at Luleå as well! I quite liked this city, although to be honest there aren’t really any major sights in it.

Continue reading “Lule Lapland: Luleå”

It is the year 2019, and at the end of May I managed to make my first trip to the north this year, to Lule Lapland in North Sweden.

The trip was actually a largely unplanned one. I’ve been living in Finland for over 1.5 years now, but I still have difficultly remembering public holidays, especially since many of them are in fact church holidays. This time I forgot the Ascension Day. It takes place 40 days after Easter, and thus its date may vary but it always falls on Thursday (it is called helatorstai in Finnish, “Holy Thusday”, where “holy” (hela-) part is borrowed from Swedish). Thus it’s a very convenient time to take Friday off too, and go on some short vacation.

In my case, since I hadn’t budgeted for this mini-vacation before, and would also have my move from Vaasa to Helsinki/Espoo just a few weeks later, I basically looked for the cheapest possible accomodation I could find, and started from there. There were also practical considerations; you probably don’t want to go that far away on a four-day vacation, and the end of May is still too early for a trip to the Scandinavian Mountains, much as I would love to go there (still a ton of snow up there). In the end I found a nice cheap home rented out on in the village of Nattavaara in North Sweden. The village itself is kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I quickly came up with a few places which would possible to visit from there or on the way there, including Muddus National Park, the mining town of Gällivare, and Luleå, the center of Swedish Norrbotten.

In the end I ended up exploring Lule Lapland, the area of North Sweden along Lule river valley. Well, technically only a few places where I’ve been belong to what is properly called “Lule lappmark” (that is, the lands of the Lule Sami people), but let’s stick to Lule Lapland name for these posts, it rolls of the tongue rather nice 🙂

Here is the map of the places I’ve visited. Vaasa is where I started from, and Nattavaara is where I spent two nights:

You might notice that it’s not the northernmost part of Sweden but kind of the second northernmost. The northernmost one is Torne Lapland, which I’m already familiar with, including Abisko National Park, and the cities of Haparanda and Kiruna. When you drive along the coast of Sweden, on the highway E4, from the Finnish border, Haparanda is the first city you’ll see, immediately at the border. The next one, 50 km farther, is Kalix. It’s a rather minor city but I decided to stop there nonetheless. So this post will be about Kalix.

Continue reading “Lule Lapland: Kalix”

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”