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From the trailhead lookout on the high fells near the region of Kuusamo in Finnish Lapland, the golden browns and fiery reds of birch and spruce forest stretched as far as the eye could see. The autumn air was clear and fresh. Golden eagles drifted high overhead and the only sounds were the guttural calls of capercaillie birds and the far off braying of geese. Olli-Petteri Help, a wilderness guide from tour operator Base Camp Oulanka pointed out the snaking Oulankajoki River, which at one point divides Finnish Lapland to the west and Russia to the east, glistening in the warm afternoon light. The feeling of total immersion in primordial, unspoilt wilderness was overwhelming.
Few people would associate such a feeling with Europe, or suspect that this crowded continent is home to a chunk of the world’s largest forest -- the Taiga. This belt of tundra and towering trees straddles the extreme north of the Earth from Norway, spreading across Sweden, Finland and Siberian Russia, breaking at the Bering Sea before continuing across Alaska and Canada.
“The Taiga is the world’s largest biome, home to an incredible array of wildlife including wolf, brown bear and lynx,” said Steve Banner, director of the nature-based tour company Wildlife and Wilderness. “Yet incredibly, the region is largely ignored even by Europeans who travel all over the world in search of untouched wilderness.”
Banner’s love for the European Taiga inspired him to become a leading figure in the forest’s conservation as a consultant to the Pan Parks Foundation - dedicated to the preservation of the continent’s core ecological areas and fragile ecosystems.
“In a Pan Park, nature is left to its own devices,” Banner said. “If a tree falls, it stays where it is, and humans interact with the landscape only as observers.”
Finland’s Kuusamo region and Russia’s neighbouring Karelia region are home to the largest area in Europe protected by the Pan Parks Foundation, which is split between two national parks – Oulanka in Finland and Paanajärvi in Russia. Together they protect some 130,000 hectares of boreal Taiga forest, rushing whitewater rivers, lakes and fells. The wildlife watching, adventure activities and hiking are world class, especially in Oulanka, where access is easy from Salla or Kuusamo towns, the latter of which has an international airport, and where operators like Base Camp Oulanka and Wildlife and Wilderness offer trips.
Oulanka is also home to the Bear Trail (Karhunkierros Trail), a stunning 80km circuit running along the Aventojoki River and cutting through the heart of the park. The circuit can be walked in whole or in part (there are numerous jumping-off points along the way), hikers can sleep along the route in comfortable cabins surrounded by forest, and a trek can be combined with canoeing or white-water rafting. Wildlife is abundant, though it takes patience and time to see.
“There are 40 or 50 bears in the park,” Petteri Help said. “I’ve seen them on several occasions -- usually in the late evening taking fish from the river. You can sometimes hear wolves howling at night too, or catch a glimpse of Oulanka’s fiercest predator – the wolverine.”
Wolverines are feared and loathed by locals, especially the reindeer herders. The animals are only the size of a small dog, but they have huge broad feet that work like snow shoes, enabling them to ambush trapped deer that are many times their own size and literally eat them alive from underneath.
Oulanka is home to some spectacular plants too – wispy lichens (which grow only in completely unpolluted air), delicate pink saxifrages and campions, wild strawberries and reedy sedges, which offer a hiding place for tiny songbirds. And the landscape is transformed throughout the year by sharply marked seasons. The dark, snow-bound winters are lit by spectacular flashes from the Northern Lights, the spring sees the landscape blossoming with flowers and summer sees 24 hours of daylight, fading to an eerie crepuscular during the midnight sun. But in autumn, the forest is stunning, with vivid colours that rival New England’s changing leaves.
“From late August through September, the mossy forest floor is redolent with ripe cloud, blue and cranberries,” Banner said. “And the leaf colours are as spectacular – brilliant reds set against fiery yellows, the light greys and greens of the wispy lichens, the browns and blues of ripening fungi. Siberian Jays and northern hawk owls flit silently between the trees and the afternoon light is rich and golden. It’s magical.”
And despite the beauty of the landscape, Oulanka is a quiet and contemplative space reserved for nature; even on the Bear Trail you will only meet a handful of fellow hikers at any time of year. For while tourists crowd Europe’s cultural capitals and claustrophobic cities, the Taiga forests of the continent’s north remain unknown and empty.
Oulanka national park is 800km north of Helsinki. The nearest airport is in Kuusamo town, fewer than 10km from the park, and flights from Helsinki to Kuusamo take 70 minutes. Base Camp Oulanka and Wildlife and Wilderness both offer organised tours to Oulanka National Park. Prices depend on season and duration.