Åland, land of dragonflies

This is no ordinary blogpost…

You wanna fly
So you drag on flies
Drag on dragonflies

No, this song doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of this post. No, it’s not a masterpiece either. But I like it, and seeing so many dragonflies in Åland this summer made it pop into my mind. When I came home, I knew I had to include it in my road report. This is presumably a song denouncing the abuse of drugs, especially heroin. However, for most of the song, the lyrics do not make any sense. Then again, it’s an Edguy song!  Remember, drug is bad.

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Road trip

As you may already know, I moved from Finland to Denmark this August (for those who didn’t know, well… had you followed this blog seriously, you would have known). The problem I saw? I had a lot of stuff in Helsinki I didn’t want to get rid of, like my vacuum cleaner or my bike. Moreover, my computer had arrived via Fedex, for a price I estimated a bit too high. So, after a lot of thinking, it was decided that I would take the car in Grenoble, drive through Germany, take a ferry to Helsinki, load the car, drive to Copenhagen, unload the car and drive back home. Fortunately, my brother Kevin would be here to help me driving, loading, cooking, laughing… in short, to keep me company. I could not do this alone.

The added value? A visit to the Åland archipelago, between Finland and Sweden. The original plan was to go to the north of the country, and then south through Sweden or Norway, but the schedule proved too tight for that. To make it sound like an epic adventure, we settled on camping in the wild (it’s way cheaper, too). In Finland, just like in Sweden and Norway, exists “everyman’s right“, which allows you to camp, collect mushrooms and berries or boat and swim anywhere, as long as you don’t bother the inhabitants (for instance, you should not camp in a garden house). Of course, you must not alter the place where you settle, and should not stay longer than one or two days. While we were on the first island, we discovered that the rule was slightly different in Åland, as one needs the authorization from the landowner to camp. We decided to keep to the original plan and be quiet, hoping that no one would disturb us. No worry, everything went smooth! The only problem we had was to find a campsite. Sometimes, especially on the first evening in the wild, in Vuosnainen, it seemed like every road led to a mökki (and we actually ended up near next to a cottage).

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The map

I have indicated the main things we saw.

On the road again

Just like it’s not recommended to write track-by-track album reviews, I won’t write a day-by-day article. I’d rather focus on some interesting points.

It was the first very long driving trip without my parents, and, as I spent a lot of time behind the wheel, I became very intimate with German and Swedish highways. The first ones are really awful. The fantasy of highways without any speed limit is, well, a fantasy. First, there are a lot of ongoing construction works, and with them come long traffic jams. Because yes, of course, there are a lot of people on German highways. Some are very slow, some are very fast, which puts you in a difficult position when you want to overtake but you see a missile darting in your side mirror. Thus, hilly terrains, like north of Hanover, are a true trial. I must confess I got frightened more than once.

In Sweden, the speed limit is 110 km/h. And when you’re crossing empty farming plains in a straight line, it seems really slow (which doesn’t prevent huge accidents, apparently). Turn signals and speed limits seem however to be an option for the locals. And there are more waves on these highways than on the Baltic sea! However, the worst ones are the Finnish roads: dug by studded tyres during winter, there sometimes appear ruts like on countryside paths. And because the studded tyres bite in the surface, even if the road is still flat, it’s incredibly noisy. Finally, when you leave the main roads to drive in the forest, you understand why “Flying Finns” are so good at rallying: bumps, hollows, hills, blind turns, for sure you can’t fall asleep there!

Apart from traffic, German highways are still not free from blame: they are often made of juxtaposed concrete blocks. It’s annoyingly noisy, and often made me concerned about a problem on the car. I guess they are replacing that, hence the various works.

All this makes a striking contrast with France, where the road surface is usually smooth as a billiard. It also feels like French drivers are more guided than abroad: I realized that when I discovered that there was no speed indication on exits from the highway in Sweden. In France, you seen the signs 90, 70, then 50 if applicable, whereas you have no information in Sweden. I had the feeling that, besides the “legal” role of these speed limits, they help the driver by giving him or her an insight on what is coming, how sharp the turn is, in short, how much should he or she slow down. Thus I had the feeling that French motorways were safer. Of course it comes at a cost: France have tolls, whereas all these countries I talked about offer free highways.

One last thought, about radars: we saw none of them in Sweden or Germany, but Finnish roads struck me as really vicious. From Riihimäki to Turku (around 150km), I think I saw maybe 10 or 15 of them! There’s always a sign indicating that a tax collector is waiting for you, but it can be very tricky: on roads limited to 100km/h, some crossroads are taken down to 80km/h. I remember well this grey cabin that almost caught me, when I thought that I could simply let the car slow down by itself. Shortly after, maybe 500m after the speed was reduced, the limit was 100km/h again. Incredible.

A short introduction to Åland

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Åland archipelago is a region situated between Finland and Sweden, at the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia. While they belong to Finland, these islands have an autonomous status, and the parliament of Åland rules on health, police, education and cultural matters. The inhabitants exclusively speak Swedish, therefore all the signs are in Swedish (unlike in the mainland, where everything is bilingual Swedish/Finnish). The archipelago appeared some 10,000 years ago, thanks to a phenomenom called “post-glacial rebound“. During the last glacial period, glaciers covered this part of the Earth. Very heavy, they caused the crust to sink into the asthenosphere (isostatic depression). Now that the glaciers are gone, the crust comes up again, and islands appear. This phenomenom is also visible in the mainland: Pori was a harbour founded in 1558 at the mouth of river Kokemäenjoki. Now, the sea is 12km away!

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But enough of these barbaric words: Åland is a peaceful (and mostly empty) region, which gratified us with a clement weather for most of our trip. Besides the main island (Fasta Åland), more than 6,500 islands and skerries form the archipelago; about 80 are inhabited.

Memories & sceneries

So the car was loaded, and we had rested for a little while: it was time to start our adventure. We slept on Vuosnainen, near the sea, in a rocky area where pines were scattered unevenly. Some flat areas were covered by a soft layer of moss and soil, enabling us to set our tent, but not to fix it to the ground.  The night was not windy at all, so we were not scared. We witnessed a fantastic Finnish sunset.

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The day after, we took a ferry to Brändö, the first island in Åland. Actually, we should speak of a bunch of islands linked with bridges. The grass, the trees, everything was green, and empty.

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Very few people live on these islands, and, by the time we visited, school had already started for Finnish pupils. We met some turists, including a lot of Germans in camping-car, but not as many as one could expect during summer holidays. The main road saw a influx of cars when ferries landed, but otherwise it was quiet. Not that it was a bad thing: we enjoyed this tranquillity, feeling the wind on our faces while the sun was warming flagstones of gneiss and granite, a typical scenery of this region, or swimming in the invigoratingly cold sea.

Our second day saw us land in Lappo, a small and lovely harbour hosting several sailing boats. The ballet of departing and arriving travellers mesmerized us for quite a long time, especially after we had visited by bike almost every single road of this very small island. While biking, we bumped into hundreds of dragonflies resting on the road.

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The sun was shining, and a confident wagtail showed me its best profile while standing on a low roof.

White wagtail (Motacilla alba)

White wagtail (Motacilla alba)

The second stop of the day, where we slept, was Kumlinge. Another very peaceful place, although it rained a bit. We set the tent in a harvested field in the middle of nowhere: it was humid and cold, but again very quiet. Neither there nor anywhere were we bothered by an angry landowner.

Then we travelled to the main island, to meet civilization again. Oh it was not too hard, we didn’t feel overwhelmed, but we found a supermarket open on a Sunday (a thing very common in Finland, but we didn’t see any supermarket in Kumlinge, for instance.), and a camping, recommended by the almighty Guide du routard (famous French travel guides covering many countries). To be honest, it was not phenomenal: the site was lovely and relaxing, but the facilities were a bit disappointing: no freezer, sanitaries too small and dirty, with a toilet smell sometimes engulfing the whole area. Oh, and you have to pay for the shower: 1 euro gets you four minutes during which you can have warm water, otherwise it’s cold.

I would recommend the road south of Mariehamn, to Järsö: the sea is never far, it’s gorgeous, especially when it’s sunny.

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The harbour of Hamnsundet is equally tranquil, but that’s no surprise given how far it is from anything else.

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In Eckerö, we witnessed the arrival of a ferry from Sweden.

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In Bomarsund, we visited the remains of a Russian fortress destroyed by the French and the British in 1854.

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Finally, after three days of wandering and a vain quest for a birdwatching tower, we elected another field for our final campsite, near the airport.

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Operation Merikotka

Finnish word of the day: kotka = eagle

Of course, I was not going to visit a new place without trying to see a few birds. Prior to the trip, I visited the website of Åland Fagelskyddsforening, which is the local birdwatching association. Although completely in Swedish, I managed to find a contact page, and maps. I got nice information from Johan, a member of the board I guess, maybe the president (remember, I did not understand anything when I was surfing!), who even offered to join us to show some spots. We did not manage it, but it was a very kind offer. Generally, the few people we met were always very friendly.

Our main target during this trip was the White-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). A cousin to the famous Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), it’s a fishing eagle, and it’s quite giant compared to any other bird in the area. Its geographic distribution is widespread over Europe and Asia, but it remains quite rare anyway. I remember looking for it in the north-western fjords of Iceland, without success. I also remember that I saw one from the bus while coming back from the university, in the middle of the Finnish winter (I still wonder what it was doing there, the sea was frozen). Anyway, the bird was supposed to be common in Åland islands, so the plan was simply to keep our eyes open (and pointing to the sky).

White-tailed eagle (picture by Phil Fiddes, https://www.flickr.com/photos/philjose1878/17193277600/in/photolist-scj3qG-5WsymQ-q3M9ek-89yCPR-mT3ywi-mT7yRs-mT5ezX-dbDbe4-8jBNtz-mT5zyc-mT5QDH-mT56cV-6AnpGp-59Gswd-mT7SmY-mT7YE9-pzN9Xb-cp28rY-9zqsfQ-mT7r31-mT5kec-scqZP4-mT5jm8-mT7D33-mT5PZM-mT5D8X-mT727L-mT5R9F-dWPVqR-oNLtTM-pqQ9vY-pgFAnS-dwgWqy-e86u9a-aerTTu-nP9PiK-owy8pC-pXypuS-e4TCfQ-72mGJZ-kMDKfz-6BsHqw-qTQbfG-df4wJC-mT7xpj-mT5TrX-mT3CK6-mT5HeT-mT5j4X-d9VYn6)

White-tailed eagle (picture by Phil Fiddes, under Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic)

I saw one young bird from the boat bound to Brändö, but it was far and flying away from us. I saw one adult near Torsholma: I was driving, so I stopped (in the middle of the road, basically) to grasp my binoculars. Remember, there was no one on these islands. Obviously, that was the moment when another car came from behind. By the time I had put the car to the side of the road, the eagle was long gone behind the trees.

In Lappo, on the opposite side of the island, is a small dock with a ferry going to Björkö. From there, we could see a rocky islet seemingly favoured by the eagles: two young birds were standing on it when we observed them for the first time. One or two hours later, at least three of them were on the very same skerry, including two adults. I deeply regretted not having a scope, because they were a bit far for the binoculars, and it would have been amazing with it. Anyway, that was a great observation.

Finally, while we were enjoying the sun after swimming in the sea in Finnö, a magnificent adult flew over us. I ran to catch the binoculars in the car, but it was gone before I could think of taking my camera. Too bad, but what a blast!

Compared to the Bald eagle, which I saw in British Columbia, the White-tailed eagle is not as common, by far, at least in Åland islands, in this period. All things considered, it was quite a poor time to go birdwatching: apart from the common gulls and cormorants, swallows and wagtails, there were very few exciting things. I noted one Hobby (Falco subbuteo) hunting sallows in Torsholma (or was it chased by them?), probably one Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) at dusk, in Brändö, and two Common cranes (Grus grus) in Starvik (unsure). Oh, and two seals during the first boat crossing!

I did not take much time for bird photography there, so this eagle pic is not mine (source). If you want to see gorgeous pictures of this species (among others), I warmly recommend Sindri’s page, on Flickr!

Conclusion

What an adventure! I’ve really enjoyed it, even if I was really stressed sometimes (especially before the car was loaded, since I was not sure everything would fit). I think we drove a bit too much, especially on Fasta Åland; we should have spent more time enjoying the moment. But yeah, as I said, it was the first trip I designed and “performed” on my own. I can’t wait for the next one!

As always, you can visit Flickr to see the full gallery.

Useful links

Ålandstrafiken – to plan your ferry trips.

Visit Åland – everything else 🙂

Photo-bonus

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4 thoughts on “Åland, land of dragonflies

  1. Pingback: Helsingør | Eiwawar

  2. Pingback: A walk in the mountains – Pas de l’Œille | Eiwawar

  3. Pingback: Bomarsund | Eiwawar

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