After our detour to Estonia, we jumped back on a ferry across the Baltic Sea to Finland. We had been visiting cities for the last couple of weeks and now we wanted to escape the crowds for a while so we charted a course North with our destination being Rovaniemi, a town on the edge of The Arctic Circle. Instead of heading straight there though, we decided on more of a zig-zag route to take in a few more locations.
We headed out of Helsinki into the Finnish Lakeland area. Lakeland is about 200 miles in length and a similar distance wide. There are an astonishing number of lakes here, the amount depends on what definition of a lake you use. There are 55,000 greater than a hectare in size and over 188,000 if you include the smaller ones. Either way, it’s more than enough to keep us busy for a week or so.
The first thing we did was seek out Route 62. Regarded by many as the most scenic road in Lakeland, it twists and turns as it makes its way through pine forests and between lakes. Often the road disects one of the lakes with the tarmac only a couple of feet above the waterline.
We drove the first half and then found a small cabin on a campsite close to a lake and stopped for the evening.
The following day we finished off Route 62 and both agreed it was incredibly scenic but, as we were to find out, the whole area is almost as good. We then headed for the town of Savonlinna, one of the major attractions in Lakeland. Our route took us further East and as we followed our progress on GPS we noticed we were inching closer and closer to the Russian Border. Finland shares a border of over 800 miles with Russia, the vast majority of it being unpatrolled forest and forest track. At one point we had to take a swift about turn when our GPS showed us to be right on, or maybe just a little bit over, the border!!
Our wandering along the border put us in the location of one of many quirky sites that Finland has to offer. Often in the middle of nowhere, and with little our no advertising, are strange pieces and collections of ‘art’. This one, near the Russian Border, was a collection of over 250 life-size figures most of which are in yoga positions.
The figures have an almost menacing look about them which makes you feel they would be quite at home in some zombie horror movie. Just to make it even more strange the artist has left them to be covered over time by the forest, so most of them are starting to be covered by moss and tree roots.
After leaving the Russian Border and the army of ‘moss covered zombie yoga statues’ behind, it took us a few miles to clear our heads and before long we were pulling into the beautiful town of Savonlinna.
The sun was out, the sky was completely clear, and it was lovely and warm. Not really what we had expected of Finland. Little did we know what was to come.
Savonlinna is home to the most Northerly intact Medieval Castle. It is perched on its own island in the centre of town and is a majestic sight. The town also has a beautiful waterfront promenade and a small beach, which was very popular with the locals trying to cool down in the heat.
Next on our tour of The Lakelands was Kuopio. It was a beautiful scenic drive from Savonlinna, and although Route 62 had been exceptionally scenic, the three hour drive up to Kuopio was comparable. There were endless lakes connected by bridges which gave you a bird’s-eye view, and roads which skimmed the water and gave you a duck’s-eye view! Whenever the road dragged you away from the water it was lined with purple and pink lupins and a covering of buttercups thrown in for good measure. All the time the backdrop was thick green pine forest and overhead the sun shone down from a clear blue sky.
We have done road trips in many many countries and this one was right up with the best.
Kuopio is the largest town in the area and is set in the heart of the lakes. We were there during Midsummer Holiday Weekend, which is a big thing in this part of the World, so we booked ourselves onto a campsite on the edge of town for three days and settled down to enjoy the hot weather.
The campsite was on the edge of a lake. But I suppose with 188,000 of them, everything is on the edge of a lake. It had a large grassed area with a small beach and it was mobbed. The thermometer was pushing 30 degrees and it was mobbed. It looked like a mini Bournemouth Beach on a hot Bank Holiday. We pitched ourselves up in the middle of it all and soaked up the atmosphere.
At this time of year Kuopio only gets a couple of hours of darkness. So with the heat staying in the sunshine and the holiday feeling in plentiful supply the beach area was still busy until after we left at 10.30!
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Kuopio but we had to leave as we had an appointment elsewhere in Finland that we just did not want to miss.
Our route to Rovaniemi and the Arctic Circle was North West from Kuopio but Steve had found something we really wanted to do which meant heading North East instead and back towards the Russian Border. While doing some research he had come across a Wilderness Centre that apparently organised bear watching trips. This was something we had to investigate.
On our way we passed another of those ‘out in the middle of nowhere’ Finnish art collections. Strange, quirky, weird? Call them what you want but you can’t help but look.
This particular one was a field with 1000 figures made from a pair of crossed sticks, dressed in old clothes, and given a piece of turf for a head! We wandered about in the field trying to make some sort of sense of it all, but failed. We did get a few photos though!
A couple of hours further down the road we were still discussing the ‘stick people field’ when the asphalt ran out and we found ourselves on a dirt road. On and on it went and we had to be really on the lookout as reindeer were regular pedestrians here and didn’t like to get out of the road very quickly.
After 45 minutes on the dirt road we finally arrived at the Wilderness Centre. We quickly pitched our tent and realised we were the only ones camping. We had some food and at 5pm we set off on our bear watching trip with six others and Marco, our Finnish guide.
Marco drove us deeper into the forest until the dirt road ran out. Then we continued on foot until we reached the ‘hide’, which was pretty much the same principle as a bird watching hide.
Steve checked his GPS and once again found we were only a couple of hundred metres from the Russian border.
We entered the ‘hide’, took our seats and started our wait. We had been briefed by Marco with regards to staying as quite as possible. Essentially, only breath if you have to!
Sarah had brought along some snacks, which we had been advised to do, as we could be there for several hours. However, maybe a bag of pretzels wasn’t the best choice. You could have heard the bag opening in Moscow. Six heads snapped to the right, in Sarah’s direction. If looks could kill!!
After an hour of waiting we had seen ….. zero bears. Steve dozed off and the clock ticked on. After two hours we had seen …… zero bears. Steve dozed off again and the clock ticked on. After three hours we had seen ……… so many bears we had lost count!
About two and a half hours into our wait, something could be seen moving in the trees near the start of a clearing. Out into our view wandered a big brown bear. He looked massive to us but was apparently only a four year old juvenile. He stopped, had a sniff around, looked over his shoulder, and two more bears came out of the trees and joined him.
It was amazing to see them so close up. You could hear them breathing and munching away as they wandered around looking for food. We were mesmerised as they hung around for about five minutes and then disappeared back into the Forest. Only a couple of minutes later a huge female appeared preceeding two cubs which were only six months old. They were so active, running around, fighting each other, standing up on their back legs and climbing up trees.
For the next couple of hours it was a procession of bears, females, juveniles and cubs. There were no big males, apparently they do a lot of sleeping now the mating season is over. But we saw well over 20 different bears, come and go throughout the evenin. Marco said was quite unusual as the most he has ever seen is 21 and the least was five, so I suppose we were quite lucky. We both agreed that it was one of the best wildlife experiences we had ever had.
The time flew by and it was 10.30pm before we knew it and time to leave. It was then that it dawned on us as to why we were the only campers at the centre! We were staying in a tent only a few kilometres from a big old family of bears. “Don’t worry”, said Marco, “You will be fine, they only ever come close to the centre in The Spring”. “Let’s hope these bears are pretty good with their knowledge of the seasons”, said Steve as we zipped into our sleeping bags!
The next morning we emerged unscathed, packed up our gear, and headed back out onto the dirt track. “Where to now”, said Steve. “I know”, said Sarah, “Let’s go and see Santa Claus!”