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Pia Rousku is an artist who lives on Korpo, an island next to Nagu. She curates an annual outdoor exhibition of art in the woods near her home. The pieces are shown along a path that is supposed to be walked without shoes. ‘I wanted people to feel nature under their feet,’ she says. ‘It’s something they’re not used to.’

Being barefoot does somehow make you more vulnerable and receptive to the art. The moss feels spongy and cool underfoot. Discreet signs shepherd you between a dozen artworks which you come upon unexpectedly. Arja Maarit Puhakka’s Once Upon a Time is a doorway made out of columns of unbound books. I think it must be about the power of books to transport the reader, but it also alludes to the paper’s previous life in trees.

Another of her installations illustrates the geological history of the island. Blue lines around tree trunks indicate the sea level 2,000 years ago. A small cairn of white stones shows all that would have been visible above the waves.

The archipelago is still rising from the sea – a slow-motion reaction to being compressed by glaciers for millennia in the last ice age. In Swedish, there is a dizzying number of synonyms for the word ‘island’. A helpful local jots down a partial list for me – ö, holme, kobbe, skär, grynna – and quickly comes up with 14 different words. Whether or not this is the biggest archipelago in the world depends on whether you count each grynna or sunken rock as a separate island. But what is undeniable is that there is more than a lifetime’s worth of islands to explore here.

‘It took me a long time to realise how special this place is,’ says Kaj Arnö, as he paddles a kayak across the bay of Pensar Syd, in the south of Pensar, an island six miles from Nagu. Kaj is an internet entrepreneur who spent much of his childhood here. He’s also a kayak enthusiast who organises events around the archipelago.

He leads a group of visitors out from the beach at Pensar Syd in rented kayaks. The sea water is dark jade in the sunshine and turns navy blue when the sun goes behind a cloud. After an hour or so of steady paddling, we reach an uninhabited island called Duvholm and eat a picnic on its sandy beach: salmon from the smokehouse on Nagu, pickled herring and the distinctive island bread – a soft, dark rye sweetened with malt.

The short distances between many of the islands make it perfect for this kind of day trip. But, on the way back, the wind has freshened and the swell is bigger. I’m a fairly confident kayaker, but my boat suddenly seems unstable in the water. I hurry ahead to get to the lee of Pensar, then realise I’m all alone. I paddle back 500 metres. Two of the kayaks have capsized. Luckily, the water is warm and, with some assistance, both of their occupants are able to get back in. Later, back in Pensar, sitting around a table piled with crayfish and with their mobile phones drying out in bags of rice, they laugh about their mishaps. But it’s a reminder that the sea can’t be underestimated.

Reminders of an unusual past
Each day in summer, a car ferry called Östern crosses back and forth between Nagu and Hanka, a small ferry stop just across the channel. Transport links are so vital that the ferries are considered to be extensions of the road network, hence why many of them are free.

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