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
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
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.
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.