Lake on the Russian border
A walk on the Russian border - Finland
If you heard that an apocalyptic disaster was on the way, the cities of the world were about to be overrun by cows that turn into fiendish killer bears, for instance, then my advice would be to flee to the North Eastern forests of Finland and find wilderness guide, Sabrina Logeais.
Sabrina is the sort of woman who can make a roaring fire with a penknife and birch bark in seconds; tell you if wayside tracks belong to a wolf or a Lynx and how long ago they went past. She can find you berries to eat and spot grouse in the trees that aren’t visible to the average person’s naked eye. And she always has a good quality chocolate biscuit in her rucksack.
When disaster strikes, inept city dwelling characters like me will definitely need the Sabrinas of this world to survive.
Sabrina has spent thirteen years studying and guiding through the forests in the area of the Russian border known as the Karelia. A walk in the woods with her is a revelation about nature, Finnish history and culture.
In fact, if the particular apocalyptic disaster that was troubling you did turn out to be an onslaught from cows turned into fiendish bears, this might not be the best part of the world to come to, despite the availability of an excellent wilderness guide. The Karelia district is the source of stories and songs of Finland’s national epic poem the Kalevala, where a notable instance of cow turning bear unpleasantness occurs.
The Karelian people, hunting and fishing for most of the year, had built up a store of myths to while away the endless winter nights. In the nineteenth century, the district health officer, Elias Lonnrot, started collecting the stories and shaped them into the Kalevala. The heroic and often tragic figures of the story told of a distinct Finnish identity, invaluable to the rising nationalist movement of Lonnrot’s time.
From early in the nineteenth century Finland was under the control of the Russian Tsar. Finland’s fight for independence descended into civil war at the time of the Russian revolution. The Whites, supported by Imperial Germany, were against the Reds who believed communism was their way forward. Although the anti communists won, the truce was uneasy and the country didn’t really unite in spirit until Russia attacked, beginning the Winter War of 1939.
Russia had more soldiers, more equipment – more everything - but the Finns had their forest skills and ability to conduct fast skiing guerrilla warfare in the snow.
The Finns were also far more ferocious than the Russians had imagined. The national quality of Sisu is hard to translate. Most favour ‘guts’ as the closest English word.
This war ended with both sides exhausted and no real winner. Part of the Karelia was given away to Russia who withdrew from other territories, only to return later in World War Two. With no-one else to turn to, Finland took help from Germany and paid heavily at the end of the war.
Today, a seemingly remote forest path is suddenly marked with signs warning you that you’re approaching the frontier. There’s no fence but there are cameras in the trees, motion sensors and tracker dogs to stop anyone feeling they can just saunter into Russian Karelia.
The splitting of this vast forest between Russia and Finland can make conservation efforts hard to coordinate. In both Finland and Russia there is a fiercely defended tradition of hunting for bear, lynx, moose and wolves. The animals have more unpopulated forest on the Russian side but there are fewer hunting restrictions. Conservationists in Finland have to take into account that local dairy farmers and foresters find bears, moose and wolves a danger to their livelihood.
Learning all the time, as I walked by streams and reindeer grazing on elegantly coloured lichen, I tried to imagine this as the landscape of bitter wars in freezing conditions. A climate so harsh there was a famine in the nineteenth century that killed fifteen percent of the population.
To balance the unsentimental attitude of people who’ve always had it tough, the Finnish affinity with nature favours conservationists. Just as Elias Lonnrot left his job in the city to wander the woods collecting stories, today’s city dwellers regularly escape to the forests, making simple camps and hiking in the fresh air. The retreat to nature is as much part of the culture as the Sauna. And there’s a great deal to be said for it. Even if you’re not driven to it by some apocalyptic cow turned bear shenanigans.