Force of Will

This was not the trip I had imagined.

For these two weeks in Lapland and Varanger, at the top of the world, I thought I would sleep during the day and enjoy the midnight sun to take pictures and watch the abundant bird life. Alas, the weather was not on my side, and I mostly saw clouds above. That’s not necessarily bad per se, for an overcast day brings soft and even light on my subjects. The problem is that, two weeks of cloudy weather, that’s long. And frustrating. Alone in a cold land, it would have been easy to give up.

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Finnish word of the day: saaristo = archipelago

In the middle of summer, my family came for a visit to Finland. This time it wasn’t about skiing, it wasn’t about figure skating, it was about sailing. Usually, it’s difficult to gather the whole family, because my brothers always have a sailing competition here, a sailing competition there… and in the end, there’s often someone missing. This time, everyone was there! That’s a growth, from my usual solo/duo trips.

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On July 1 and 2, I went to Rauma, a lovely town on the Western coast of Finland. My friend Bjørn was visiting from Denmark for a few days, but I wanted to do something else with him than visiting Helsinki (I’ve done that a few times already).

So I took him on an adventure. We went there by bus (Onnibus ❤ via Turku, but without transfer) for a few pennies, a tent and a pair of sleeping bags in our luggage. We were lucky, for that weekend was very warm. We arrived on Saturday in the middle of the day, the sun was shining when we “checked-in” at the camping. Unfortunately, it was not a very tent-friendly camping: there was plenty of room available for camper vans and caravans, but tent campers were only given a gentle slope with trees, rocks and roots aplenty… We found a spot that was kinda flat, raised our shelter and set sail to Rauma itself.

We walked, we didn’t steal the truck

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The advent of spring

When I came back from Hungary, I found Finland somewhat warmer (warmer than before, not warmer than Budapest). It was the month of May, which means the owl chicks had left the eggs. Therefore, the adults would be outside the nest, but close, guarding the area against unwanted guests. My friend Karri, who was my guide around Hämeenlinna the summer before, has a nesting box in his garden; he invited me to check it.

He picked me up at the bus station, but first took me to Ahvenisto. There’s a beach and a swimming pool there, and both were cramped in this warm afternoon (can I use the word “torrid”? There were more than twenty degrees!); there’s also a motor race circuit, but that’s not what we were interested in.
Ahvenisto has woods as well, and a small protected area, crossed by nature trails. We were looking for Greenish warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides) and Red-throated flycatcher (Ficedula parva), but we dipped badly, without even hearing one. Karri told me that, after this long winter, forests were unusually silent.

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Anatomy of a Finnish sunset

I had spent the whole day inside, working on my computer. I went out before sunset, took my bike and rode along the shore to a place north of Hietaniemi. I tried some shoots, see how long of an exposure I could use, but it was cloudy, and I expected the evening to be very boring. I walked a bit to the south, to the marina I had noticed the day before. Suddenly, the clouds were lit from beneath, they seemed incandescent. I stopped, tried to make some pictures but the moment didn’t last.
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Orava avenue

Finnish word of the day: orava = squirrel

In Pallas, after finishing our hike and hitting the Visitor Center’s shop, we walked a kilometer to reach our last shelter. The weather was great, there was no wind and we chilled there, proud of our accomplishment. Along this easy kilometer, we discovered small sculptures representing squirrels in accoutrements from different cultures. The explanations from the artists were quite vague: he said that there was not much meaning to that work of art, that sometimes things pop up in your mind, y’know… In any case, it was fun to see 😉

Do you like these squirrels?

Atop the fells

Lapland. A land of fantasy far far to the north, inhabited by reindeers, covered in snow and lit by Nordic lights. Or a land of neverending days, when summer comes. Or none of this.

Our story starts on Facebook. I’m chatting with my friend Vincent, telling him I’m going to stay in Finland for the month of August. “Hey, I may pay you a visit”, he said. And me: “hey, from France, Helsinki is not so far north, what about we go hiking in Lapland?”. I knew he was keen on hiking in the wild, and I wanted to try something longer than what I was used to. I had high hopes for birds there, although I feared we would be too late in the season.

There started our quest: quest for information on the hike, the weather (tip: never trust the Finnish weather forecast), the facilities, transportation… Quest for equipment also, as I didn’t expect my sleeping bag optimized for 15-10ºC to be warm enough. We settled on the Hetta-Pallas trail, in the (repeat after me) Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park: 55km in the forest and atop the fells (tunturi in Finnish). The highest “summit” in the “mountain” range is 800m high (notice the quotation marks, that’s nothing scary for two people born in the Alps), and we would climb it on our last day.

Backpacks heavily loaded (I left at home the book I had bought especially for this occasion), we set sail on a long and expensive trip accross Finland, to reach Hetta (Enontekiö), our starting point. A lengthy journey that almost never happened: the first bus was late and slow, so we missed the connection that would lead us to the railway station. I am happy I know Helsinki, for I was able to improvise a plan C on the go and get another bus. We arrived on time to take our train… which itself was late, thanks to some work on the tracks. Our connection in Oulu was threatened, but an announcement stated that the train to Rovaniemi would wait for us (and I understood the announcement in Finnish! Yaay!). On the way, I had time to admire small flocks of Common cranes (Grus grus). In Rovaniemi, we visited a shopping center: for the sake of my back, I had got rid of everything unnecessary in my photo bag, and also of something that was much necessary, a spare memory card. Quand on a pas de tête…

The hike felt long, especially carrying so much on our backs. We saw vey few birds, as everything was silent most of the time. We saw very few humans too, which was great, and some reindeers!


Vincent and the reindeers

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Around Hämeenlinna

Finnish word of the day: järvi = lake

Last week, I went birdwatching around Hämeenlinna, a town situated approximately one hour of driving north of Helsinki. The bus left the capital at 06.15, arriving at a comfortable 07.30. There, I met Karri, a birder from the region I had met on BirdingPal; even though July is a very quiet period in the region, he offered me to visit a few birding spots, an offer I quickly accepted, as you might guess 😉

Until 3 in the afternoon, we toured the region, watching lakes, rivers and forests in quest for birds. It’s interesting to note that there are many bird towers there, and we used them extensively, especially in the morning. I have made a map that shows our peregrinations, with the car parks and the towers, click here.

Our first objective was Katumajärvi. Located next to the town, it is used for leisure activities and is surrounded by buildings, but one part of the shore has been preserved by a keen landowner, who asked the birdwatching association to build a bird tower. The reedbed we crossed was still wet from the night’s condensation, but the sun was shining. In the trees, a Wood warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix) sang, but we never managed to see it. Karri is very knowledgeable about bird voices, and he spotted Long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) before we could even see them. I listened to him carefully, trying to remember all this information. On the lake, gulls rested on some rocks, soon to be joined by a lone Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus).

The Whooper swan is the official bird of Finland, it’s featured on the Finnish one-euro coin. A winter visitor in Denmark (I’ve seen it in Staunings Ø or Vestamager, for instance), it is rather common here, and aggressive: Karri told me that, when the local pair of Whooper swan would fly to the lake, the brave Mute swans (Cygnus olor, national bird of… Denmark!) who had ventured in the area could be seen flying away, fleeing the menace. In recent years, the Whooper swans have increased in numbers. They mostly live on lakes, while the Mute swan favors open waters; baby Mute swans take so long to grow up that they can’t be raised on waters that freeze durably during winter; that is not the case of Whooper swans, which are therefore present in more northern latitude than their more common (globally, not in Finland) cousins.


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