Nature’s treasure

By Angela Corrias Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-14 5:03:06

An ecological adventure in amazing southern Finland

Berry-picking in Hartola's wetlands Photo: Angela Corrias

Chalet for the smoke sauna in Kammi near Vierumäki Photo: Angela Corrias

Fishing as a way of meditation in Tainionvirta River near Hartola Photo: Angela Corrias

This week's destination

In the wilds of southern Finland, the watchword is silence. Great sweeps of pine trees are interrupted by golden barley fields. Limpid lakes and fast-flowing rivers are the main features of the unspoilt Häme region, a charming blend of nature, tradition and the legendary Finnish rule of "everyman's right," under which people of all nationalities can enjoy the countryside, limited only by respect for nature and the locals.

With this in mind, I embarked on an ecological adventure around southern Finland, reveling in a crisp autumn breeze and the tangy scent of pine. I savored scrumptious traditional dishes and delighted in rejuvenating outdoor activities.

Our adventure kicked off in Hartola, a cozy village located on the placid shores of Lake Jääsjärvi. From here, after taking a quick canoeing lesson with Helena, our guide for the day, and being amazed by the magical reflections of the lush vegetation on the waters, I went on my first canoeing trip along the Tainionvirta river. This entailed two hours of serene paddling surrounded by low-flying water birds, the opulent greenery typical of mineral-rich wetlands and the all-encompassing quietness that never fails to bring peace of mind.

After navigating two small rapids that made us feel like experts - even if just for one afternoon - and being rewarded with a delicious Finnish snack of fresh berry juice and a traditional cake, a peat-soaked hike back to our hotel awaited us.

Subjected to harsh weather conditions for most of the year, Finland marks the northernmost European border with Russia. A province of Sweden for some 500 years and part of Russia for little over a century, it declared its independence in 1917, following the Russian Revolution. The country's stormy past and severe climate might as well be the defining point of today's Finnish lifestyle: essential, frill-free and nature-oriented. Blessed by a rich natural heritage, Finland has made ecological treats and outdoor activities its main strength.

Letting off steam

After soaking in, sometimes literally, Hartola's marshland, our guide Johannes thought the best way to round off a long but rewarding day was with the most typical of Finnish traditions: a sauna. After being advised against it by my doctor due to my low blood pressure, and since I hail from a country where it's not very common, my first sauna couldn't have taken place in a better environment. More than just a spa treatment, a sauna in Finland carries the charm of ancient tradition that has never shown any sign of cooling.

A feature of Scandinavian culture for thousands of years, only in Finland has the sauna kept its traditional purpose as a community-bonding custom.

"During a sauna, men are bound to reveal all their secrets," our Finnish co-host Laura told us, unable to stifle a sudden giggle. Regarded for centuries as the best place for closing a deal, an appropriate space for giving birth, the perfect area for social ceremonies and last but not least, an effective way to detox one's body and clear one's mind, today it remains such a cherished habit that most modern houses still have their own sauna.

Sitting on the wood-paneled benches of a small, dimly lit room, the sauna started with a couple of löyly, a huge ladle of water thrown on the hot stones of the stove by Johannes, who, as a proper Finn, would not miss his daily sauna for anything. A löyly causes a sudden, short drop in the temperature, immediately followed by a delightful wave of hot moisture pervading the air, penetrating your breath, opening your pores and enveloping your body from head to toe. The more löyly, the moister and better the sauna. While at first sight the löyly ritual may seem quite straightforward, this essential operation is not as simple as you might think. The repeated, and rather unsuccessful, attempts of each member of our group to hit the stove made that quite clear.

During the sauna, the full purpose of our earlier hike was revealed. Tottering through Hartola bog, in fact, didn't just involve berry-picking and nature-watching, but represented our introduction to local peat, a deposit of mineral-rich plant material that gradually piles up beneath the surface. Right before the sauna a good amount of peat was spread all over our bodies to enhance the purifying and detoxing activity of the sauna itself.

Tired and happy, our first day in Finland was nearing its end, but only after a succulent traditional dinner of reindeer stew, deep-fried fish, roasted fresh cheese on toasted rye bread, and vegetables, fruits and berries, served at the quaint Linna Hotel, a 200-year-old former cowshed revamped into a cozy inn.

Medieval experience

Our second day was one of contrasts, starting with the thrilling activities of Vierumäki's Flowpark, an adventure-themed park specifically designed to test your fitness level and puzzle-solving abilities across different tracks. Each track presented a challenge, which ranged from swinging bridges and high-rope courses to zip wires, among others. Built on live trees without putting pressure on Mother Nature, the Flowpark is designed for children and adults alike.

As soon as we arrived, the staff provided us with the mandatory equipment along with a safety briefing and a quick explanation of the philosophy of the park. With my best efforts, I reckoned that going through the easiest track would be fulfilling enough for me; besides which enjoying the performances of the rest of the group would prove gratifying enough. I didn't know it yet, but I was unconsciously saving my energy for our evening appointment.

By the time the sun's last light was flecking the calm waters of nearby lakes, we reached what would soon prove to be one of the most fascinating experiences of our trip. As soon as we arrived at the longed-for spot, we realized we were in for an enchanting evening, enveloped as we were by the kind of mythical scenery one would find in a Finnish folk tale populated by elves and fairies. From the first minute, our sauna of the day looked atypical. Inside a wooden chalet, an inviting smoke sauna had been readied for us. The smoke sauna is not used much nowadays because it takes many hours to prepare, but when it's ready you are in for a truly unique experience. We topped it off with a piercing cold dip in the beautiful Lake Mustajärvi alongside two swans, Finland's national bird.

Dug out of a rock cave and nestled between a soft-rolling hill and Lake Mustajärvi, the smoke sauna was located beside Kammi restaurant. Entering it involved stepping over an ancient threshold and being whirled back in time thanks to a scrumptious medieval dinner based on simmered spelt with beetroots and garlic cooked in wine, pork shank simmered in Laiskajaakko beer, roasted lamb, richly seasoned fresh salmon and frosty sour cranberries in caramel sauce flambé with cognac, all served on a candle-lit table from yesteryear.

Kayaking in the wild

If asked to guess, I would have probably ventured that my first kayaking experience would be in a small pond. Little did I know that I was to learn how to paddle the sleek boat on Finland's second largest body of water, the forest-edged Lake Päijänne. To make us feel more confident, our guide Johannes provided us with some necessary tips on how not to capsize or, in case of actually falling in the water, how to get back into our kayak.

Shaking off the last of my fears, I began gliding languidly around the islets on the lake's peaceful waters, stopping on Kalainsaari Island for a snack of traditional karelian pie with a top of egg butter, and smoked salmon on traditional rye bread.

For as much as we were getting used to water activities and stunning landscapes, the last stop of our adventure was no less engrossing than the rest of the trip. Equipped with trekking shoes, we embarked on a scenic hike in Lapakisto Nature Reserve around the Sammalisto and Lapakisto lakes, part of Nastola municipality.

Nestled in one of the wildest areas in southern Finland with a tree-lined boulevard that separates the road from the otherworldly Finnish woodland, signs of modernity are seldom seen here. Overwhelmed by the strong scent of pine trees and enchanted by the endless view of evergreen shrubs punctuated with red berries, this is the perfect spot for daily meditation, yoga or taichi. There are even shelters specifically meant for hikers to set up a bonfire and enjoy snacks and coffee in the cleanest of environments.

Surrounding you is nothing but silence, only occasionally breached by the sounds of nature.

Rules of thumb

Practical information: The currency in Finland is the Euro. Public transport is very efficient, but in order to reach the less accessible spots, your best bet is to rent a car. Many Finnish people speak fluent English, so communication should not be a problem.

What to wear: The Finnish winter can be very cold, with temperatures reaching -20 or -30°C. Pack accordingly. If you are traveling during summer, while temperatures can be warm, a light jacket is still recommended.

Where to stay: In Hartola, Linna Hotel is walking distance from Lake Jääsjärvi, as well as Koskenniemi. Near Vierumäki Flowpark is Scandic Hotel, a cluster of chalets in Vierumäki leisure center. Around Lake Päijänne is a camping site where you can either set your tent or rent a cottage. In the Padasjoki, there is the Kiuasniemi Villa Jolla, a luxurious villa on the shores of the lake.

Excursions: The canoeing route on Tainionvirta river depends on your experience and the trail you choose, and can take from a two hours to four days. The equipment for kayaking in Lake Päijänne is provided by outdoor association Suomen Latu.

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