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Baltic Adventure Part 2

We left Tallin on a beautiful Sunday. At Amari airfield the British Typhoon force was packing up to leave and a squadron of US Warthog Ground Attack fighter bombers were in residence. There is something sinister about the Warthog, as ugly as its name implies.

The Gulf of Finland that leads up to St Petersburg is  narrow – only thirty miles across to Helsinki and it was inky calm. We were heading up the Finnish coast to get as far north as possible that day. The Gulf of Bothia, the top half of the Baltic, is just short of the Arctic Circle. From Turku, at the bottom, an archipelago of 6000 island stretches out to the Aland Islands.


 What you realize quite soon is that Finland, even in these southern regions, is empty: it is flat and forested and towns on the relatively metropolitan south coast are few and far between – and tiny – and provincial. Vaasa was billed as a university town. We tried to get lunch, in August on a Sunday and found only one bar on the water’s edge where a beer and sandwich were being served alongside rock music that made Black Sabbath sound like the Carpenters. Apparently everyone was still away at their summer houses.... 

Oulu, pronounced Owe-lu, is at the head of the Gulf and the largest town in this part of Scandanavia. It is the silicon valley of Finland with a fine university that feeds it talent – and unlike most of the towns of this latitude it has kept some of its heritage with Russian style wooden buildings; nearly all the others have suffered catastrophic fires at some time either by accident or as a result of one or other of the invasions and wars that have been part of Finland’s melancholic history. And what a grim history it is. A famine at the end of the 17th century killed a third of the population and, hard on its heels, the 'Greater Wrath' of the early 18th century, wars involving Sweden and Russia, killed an entire generation of men. 

Oulu's populationIt is certainly young with an average age that seems about twenty-five – but is, apparently, thirty-six. Being so far north the evenings are still long with twilight at 10pm even at the end of August . 

 Oulu at 10m

If Finland had appeared empty until then, as we struck north into Lapland there is nothing except trees, lakes and bogs – though what was remarkable was how, when you saw nothing else as far as the eye could see from 2000ft, you would suddenly fly over a collection of wooden houses round a lake, or see a corn or hay field and a tractor. 


The ‘gallant little plane’ now has a Ballistic Parachute System. As we headed north across the Arctic Circle, there was almost nowhere where any successful forced landing would have a chance of a happy outcome other than by parachute. 

It certainly felt like one of the better insurance policies and never has filing a Flight Plan felt such a good idea. By this time we were considerably further north than Iceland and only a hundred miles south of the North Cape – the most northerly point of Europe. 


Murmansk in Russia and on the Berents Sea is the same distance away. Above the arctic circle is where, in winter, the sun goes down in mid-December and doesn’t appear again until mid February. It is, and it feels, like the edge of world.

 Crossing the Arctic Circle

We arrived at Ivalo airport at about 7pm. It has one flight a day but there seems to be a new terminal underway. Why?  Despite this, it was deserted and we were locked in. Luckily we had not put on too much weight after all the dinners we had enjoyed in Sweden and Estonia….

 

The aim of making it up this far was to canoe down the Ivelojoki  river – a two day trip staying overnight in a wooden hut by the river: if  you a have ever used a Scottish hiking bothy you will get the idea – not the Ritz but better than the camping alternative which when you have a combination of midges AND mosquitos. 

Ivelojocki river

Our launch pad for this was a desultory settlement which billed itself as a ski resort – and there was a hill of sorts – there are larger in Wiltsire - and a ski-lift, though the appeal of skiing in temperatures that drop to -40 and skiing in the dark rather missed us by. You don’t come to Lapland for the architecture either.

 The reason is historical. Finland only gained its independence in 1917 after centuries of either Swedish or Russian rule. Stalin invaded Finland in 1939 but, having purged all his generals, suffered a humiliating defeat in the ‘Winter War’ where the Finns outmaneuvered and outfought their vastly bigger enemy. The ultimate result could never have been in question and in the ensuing truce the Finns lost a huge chunk of territory opposite St Petersburg and suffered one of the forgotten ethnic cleansings of the 20th century. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 the Finns joined in what they call the ‘Continuation War’. Given their geography and recent history this was understandable - but not obviously something that Finns like to talk about much. At the end of the war they changed sides and, as the Germans retreated through Lapland, they behaved with their customary brutality and burned down, tore up or blew up every building, road and bridge along the way. The suffering that this must have inflicted in such a hostile environment doesn’t bear thinking about. The consequence is that you don’t go to Lapland for the architecture but for the natural environment.

 We pushed off our canoe in pouring rain – but undaunted as we had our drysuits from the plane which were being used in anger for the first time. The Scotland comparison was front of mind – think of the Tweed and extract any sign of humans other than an occasional hut – and on the first day we saw only two or three and no humans at all. 


It was very beautiful with stretches of calm water like a lake interspersed with rapids some of which were challenging. 

Not a challenging rapid

By the second day we were getting cocky and, after a rapid where we had gone through without bumping into any rocks, I was thinking we had it nailed. After hubris, nemesis: and at that very moment we were rammed sideways between two boulders  and ejected into the mighty Ivelojoki. The force of the water was huge and it took us ten minutes to work the canoe free and nurse it into the bank. Luckily all the important stuff was in waterproof barrels and we managed to recover the spare paddle and sundry unsecured items further downstream. My phone on the other hand…

 The hut turned out to be perfectly civilized with a wood burning stove and mattresses on the beds. 


The mushroom soup and pasta dinner tasted better than anything we’d eaten for months after seven hours of paddling. Some huts (not ours) have a sauna with them. 

There was a gold rush here in the late 19th century and there was a dredger from those days.

 

The weather on the second day was much better - but due to change, so we were keen to get off before we got closed in. 


The airfield was as deserted as on our arrival but when we went to refuel, the automatic credit card system failed to work. The plane may be small but it does have its advantages in that it only burns 16 litres an hour and it prefers Mogas (unleaded car petrol) to Avgas (leaded) and we always carry two lightweight 20 litre jerrycans with us for just this sort of occasion.  Slightly delayed, but ahead of the weather we had a spectacular flight into Lulea in Sweden on the opposite side of the Gulf of Bothnia from Oulu. 


From there we aimed to make our way south to the Åland Islands which lie in the middle of the Baltic. We took off in this……

….but as we approached our half way stop, the clouds pressed down and it began to rain. We diverted to Ordivikolvik  and landed in this….

….. the only bad aviation weather we have had yet. But thankfully all was better the next day.

 

 The Åland Islands lie slap in the middle of the Baltic and, though Finnish, are almost entirely Swedish speaking and semi autonomous. It would appear to work pretty well and though there have been some murmurings of separatism and some voices wanting to join Sweden, neither have much traction despite the lingual issue. There has always been a sizable Swedish population in Finland and as, traditionally, the Swedes have been of aristocratic descent – the legacy of historical colonial rule – the result is that the chippy element, so apparent in Scottish nationalism, is missing. 


 The main town, Mariehamn, is a pleasant enough port but even by the end of August the season was clearly over with many restaurants already closed. We bicycled for twenty five lmiles through the main island which is a mixture of agriculture and thin soil and heather. It could have anywhere around Beauly or the Black Isle – though the architectural vernacular is more attractive with wooden painted clapboard houses. Cycling south the next day was heavenly in the early autumn sunshine between islands connected by roads, with views of rocky coves, holiday houses and sailing boats.  


One thing we remarked on was the public remoteness of the people we met along the way. In Britain, a cheery ‘good morning’ and a remark on the weather would be normal social interaction – at the very least a smile and a nod as you pass along a footpath. The Swedes (and we are assuming that they are Swedes) just look straight ahead. Michael Booth in his ‘The Almost Nearly Perfect People’ – an insightful and entertaining  portrait of the Nordic countries, remarks on this apparently famous Swedish national characteristic. As a Brit married to a Dane he says that it is especially obvious in Copenhagen which is connected to Malmo by a bridge and so is somewhere one can observe national behaviors in laboratory conditions. Apparently, when a commuter train is disgorging and accepting its passengers, the Swedes are noticeable in barging on before the disembarking have got off – despite the obvious disapproval of the Danes. Apparently the public coolness that we observed is the norm – which is strange as certainly, once you have made eye or verbal contact, the Swedes that we have met have been helpful and charming. Funny, these things.

 

Swedish is not such a difficult language to understand....

When we left Mariehamn  the airport was closed. The code for the gate didn’t work so we honed our airport entry technique….

Gotland is big island – nearly a hundred miles long – just off southern Sweden. It was once very rich and powerful as part of the Hanseatic league, a string of allied trading ports that stretched through the Baltic and North Sea which included Hamburg, Lubeck, Rostock and even Boston in Lincolnshire. This mediaeval wealth has left a beautiful legacy, firstly in Visby its main port and the capital and secondly in the scores of exceptional churches strung across the island. 

 Visby must be one of the most beautiful and charming towns in Europe. 


In the height of summer, as in most of the beauty spots all over the world, it would be overrun with tourists disgorged from cruise ships and herded by guides with flags. In the early autumn sunshine we had it almost to ourselves. 


I have never seen anywhere with so many ruined churches – a result of the Hanseatic League’s decline over the past half millennium: when fire or some other disaster occurred there simply wasn’t the money or, after the Reformation in the case of monastic buildings, the inclination to rebuild. 


In the countryside this lack of money had the opposite result: the magnificent mediaeval churches were preserved - as there wasn’t the cash to build anything new.


 

Today we fly to Lithuania  and the Curanian Spit – and, visas permitting, a visit to Kaliningrad.   

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