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Lule Lapland: Gammelstad

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Gammelstad means simply "Old Town" in Swedish, and in the context of Luleå refers to a location about 10 km away from the modern Luleå. It is not an "old town" in the sense you would see some cool medieval stone buildings; rather, it’s a church town (kyrkstad), which is quite a particular kind of place. Church towns of this kind mostly existed only in Norrland in Sweden, although some were also known in Ostrobothnia, Swedish-speaking part of Finland on its west coast, and in Sami areas in Finnish Lapland and North Norway.

Church towns consisted of small and quite basic cottages, clumped around, well, a church. They were meant to house churchgoers who lived too far from the church, and could not attend a service and return back home on the same day. This explains why they were only necessary in remote and thinly populated (at the time) areas, such as Luleå. Cottages were mostly privately owned, so in other words everyone had their own cottage. (Attending church was kind of a big deal, yes.) A particular subtype of church town was a Sami church town (lappstad, Sami town); the semi-nomadic way of life of Sami people naturally meant it was difficult for them to attend churches. The Gammelstad of Luleå however is not a lappstad; Luleå has always been a Swedish, not a Sami settlement. The best surviving lappstad is located in Arvidsjaur in Ume Lapland, farther south. It’s still however an order of magnitude smaller than Gammelstad.

Most church towns didn’t survive to this day for a few obvious reasons. People don’t really saw any obvious need to preserve a bunch of rather ordinary shacks, and they were usually torn down and replaced with new buildings, when these church towns became no longer necessary. And of course "a bunch of closely standing wooden cottages" is basically a synonim for "a huge fire just waiting to happen"; many of these church towns burned down.

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Lule Lapland: Luleå

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Luleå is the regional center of the Norrbotten Country of Sweden, and by far the biggest Swedish city north of Umeå.  Its population is 44,200 as of 2018; the population of the entire municipality is 77,800. It is located on the northwestern coast of the Bay of Bothnia, and is a relatively important transport junction; this is where the Ore Railroad (Malmbanan) across the mountains to Norway begins. I’ve been a bit curious to visit Luleå for quite some time, and this trip presented a good opportunity. So I dropped by.

The name "Luleå" means, quite simply, "Lule River"; Luleå is located at the mouth of the Lule river (which we’ll explore further in later posts), and å means "river" in Swedish. This is a common pattern for many cities all along the Swedish coast of the Bay of Bothnia: Umeå, Skellefteå, Piteå, Luleå, Råneå, Torneå (more commonly known as Tornio, as it’s now a Finnish city) and probably some more smaller ones. As Luleå is located not too far from the Finnish border (130 km by road), it also has a Finnish name, which in my opinion sounds far better: Luulaja. Curiosly, all these -å-city names were Finnicized in completely different ways; Torneå is Tornio, Råneå is Rauna, Piteå is Piitime (Piitime? really, wtf?), and Umeå is Uumaja, at least following the same pattern as in Luleå-Luulaja.

Luleå was founded in 1621 by the order of Gustav Adolf II, one of my favorite Swedish kings, the Lion of the North and the Snow King. However for a long time its growth had been hampered by the particular Swedish regulation (Bottniska handelstvånget) that forbade the cities on the Bay of Bothnia to conduct any international trade directly; they were only allowed to trade with Stockholm, and thus Stockholm merchants made big money at the expense of both Westrobothnians and Ostrobothnians. Indeed, the regulation is also the same reason why the growth of the Bothnian cities which are currently in Finland (such as Vaasa, Kokkola and Oulu, all founded in the beginning of the 17th century as well) was similarly hampered for a long time. The regulation was struck down in 1765, and it was largely the effort of Anders Chydenius, a Finnish-Swedish statesman mostly associated with Kokkola, who was an early proponent of the freedom of trade.

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Lule Lapland: Kalix

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It is the year 2019, and at the end of May I managed to make my first trip to the north this year, to Lule Lapland in North Sweden.

The trip was actually a largely unplanned one. I’ve been living in Finland for over 1.5 years now, but I still have difficultly remembering public holidays, especially since many of them are in fact church holidays. This time I forgot the Ascension Day. It takes place 40 days after Easter, and thus its date may vary but it always falls on Thursday (it is called helatorstai in Finnish, "Holy Thusday", where "holy" (hela-) part is borrowed from Swedish). Thus it’s a very convenient time to take Friday off too, and go on some short vacation.

In my case, since I hadn’t budgeted for this mini-vacation before, and would also have my move from Vaasa to Helsinki/Espoo just a few weeks later, I basically looked for the cheapest possible accomodation I could find, and started from there. There were also practical considerations; you probably don’t want to go that far away on a four-day vacation, and the end of May is still too early for a trip to the Scandinavian Mountains, much as I would love to go there (still a ton of snow up there). In the end I found a nice cheap home rented out on Booking.com in the village of Nattavaara in North Sweden. The village itself is kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I quickly came up with a few places which would possible to visit from there or on the way there, including Muddus National Park, the mining town of Gällivare, and Luleå, the center of Swedish Norrbotten.

In the end I ended up exploring Lule Lapland, the area of North Sweden along Lule river valley. Well, technically only a few places where I’ve been belong to what is properly called "Lule lappmark" (that is, the lands of the Lule Sami people), but let’s stick to Lule Lapland name for these posts, it rolls of the tongue rather nice :)

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Salamajärvi National Park

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Salamajärvi means "Lightning Lake" in Finnish, and you’ve got to admit that’s a really cool name. It refers to one of the 40 Finnish national parks, located at the border of Central Finland and Central Ostrobothnia regions. Salamajärvi lies in Suomenselkä (Finn. Finnish Ridge), the watershed of the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Bothnia, a forested, hilly, boggy, sparsely populated area, which is noticeably different in its vegetation and climate than the surroundings (Finnish Wikipedia page claims that it’s sometimes referred to as the "finger of Lapland"). The national park is relatively far from any major cities (Jyväskylä and Seinäjoki would probably be the closest ones), and it’s almost exactly 200 km by road from me. I visited it twice so far, in May 2018 and January 2019, and here I’ll be showing the late spring and the winter pictures interspersed.

Salamajärvi is particularly known as one of the location where the Finnish forest reindeers live. Those animals, known as metsäpeura in Finnish, are a distinct subspecies of the regular reindeer; they are somewhat bigger, darker in color, prefer forests to tundra and fells, and are wild animals. All the regular reindeers which are so common in Lapland are domesticated; in Nordic countries some wild tundra reindeers survive only in the mountains of West Norway. Russia and Canada have much bigger wilderness areas, and thus there vast herds of wild tundra reindeers still exist. Wild tundra reindeers were hunted to extinction in Finland, and the metsäpeuroja nearly were as well. A tiny population still survived in Kainuu region (and in the adjacent Viena Karelia in Russia), and over the last decades they’ve been reintroduced in some areas of West Finland, particularly Suomenselkä and particularly Salamajärvi. It’s been quite successful and apparently they’re thriving there, but the absolute numbers remain not that high, and these reindeers are rather shy unlike the domesticated Lapland ones, which generally just don’t give a shit. So I’ve never seen one so far. But anyone a metsäpeura is on the national park logo, seen above. You can also try looking for some on a live video feed from WWF though! They don’t show up there all that often either, but sometimes they do. That feed is not from Salamajärvi though, but rather from Lauhanvuori area, in another national park.

There are quite a few day hike options and shelters available in Salamajärvi. There is also a multi-day hiking trail passing through it, which appropriately enough is named Peuran polku, "Deer Trail". The trail proper (one-way) is 77 km long, and its circular variant (Hirvaan kierros, "Reindeer stag ring") is 58 km long. It allows you to see more of the same Suomenselkä terrain. I haven’t tried that one yet, of course.

You can read more about Salamajärvi at the official nationalparks.fi website.

And so let us just look at the beautiful Finnish woods and mires. There will be a lot of pictures in this post.

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Aavasaksa Fell

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Finland is not a mountainous country, but if we still try to make a list of its more notable mountains, then Aavasaksa should certainly be on it. This low (242 m) but prominent and easily accessible lone fell stands near the border of Finland and Sweden, by the great Torne River. The rather famous fell, chosen as one of the 29 national landscapes of Finland, in particular was almost visited by two Russian tsars, Alexander II and Alexander III.

The mountain by the important river and land route to the north has been well known through the ages. It stands about 80 km north of the town of Tornio, a port on the Bay of Bothnia. The area surrounding Tornio is known as Sea Lapland (Meri-Lappi); it is mostly flat, like the North Ostrobothnia region farther south, and is also the only area of Lapland where reindeer husbandry is never practiced. So Aavasaksa marks a sort of a border of the "proper" Lapland.

Aavasaksa is also the southernmost place in Finland where it is possible to see the midnight sun on Midsummer. It is located about 25 km south of the Arctic Circle, but the fact that it is a mountain allows you to see a little bit farther, which is supposedly just enough to catch a glimpse of the midnight sun.

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December at the Quark

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January 2019 has come, and these are some picture from two days ago, when it was still December 2018. I went to check out again the place which by now is pretty much my favorite spot in the Kvarken Archipelago and in the vicinity of Vaasa in general, the Vikarskat-Finnhamn trail. It ended up one of those times when the nature and light is so good that even pictures taken from a phone (as I still don’t have a new camera yet) look pretty neat.

The trail is a short one (2.5 km, non-circular), and is located on the same Björkö island as is Svedjehamn fishing village, Saltkaret observation tower and Boddvatnet runt trail, which all are pretty much the most advertised places of Kvarken. Vikarskat trail in comparison is rather obscure, and I’m not sure it is mentioned anywhere other than Korsholm Municipality website. Getting to the trailhead is easy by car, just drive almost all the way to Svedjehamn via Road 724, Replot Bridge, Replot and Björköby, and turn right onto Vikarskatvägen road right before Svedjehamn. Follow the signs for fish harbor (Fiskehamn) for about 4 km of gravel roads, you’ll have to turn left at a crossroads in the middle of the forest shortly before the end. You’ll indeed reach a small fish harbor, with ample space to park a car, and there the trail starts. The beauty of the trail is that you get a lot of views of the open sea, and keep hearing its roar throughout the hike even inside the forest. There’s also an open wilderness hut and a campfire place at the end.

The weather on 30.12 was mostly sunny (for the third day in a row) and not especially cold. Rivers, lakes, sea coast in Vaasa and within archipelagoes in general have frozen over, and icebreaking season has started a few days ago in the Bay of Bothnia, with icebreaker Otso, followed by Kontio, moving there from Helsinki and assisting at the northernmost ports of Tornio, Kemi and Oulu. Here in the open sea of the Quark (Kvarken Strait) there are still not many sights of sea ice.

1. A small frozen bay near the beginning of the trail.

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Vaasa prisoner of war discipline camp

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The city of Vaasa on the west coast of Finland stayed far from any frontlines of the Winter War of 1939-1940 and the Continuation War of 1941-1944 (although it still saw six Soviet bombing raids in Winter War). However there still is a number of grim reminders of the past war, and one of the less obvious ones is the monument to 75 Soviet prisoners of war who died in the 24th Vaasa discipline camp in 1942-1944. It is located at the small Kappelinmäki Orthodox Cemetery at the very edge of the city. Although I’ve seen this cemetery once, I didn’t notice the actual monument then (it looks a lot like a regular grave, especially in winter and from afar), and read about it only very recently in the Vaasa ennen ja nyt (Vaasa Before and Now) blog about Vaasa, maintained by Vaasa Inner City Residents Association (Vaasan kantakaupungin asukasyhdistys ry).

The camp no. 24 was initially set up on 25.6.1942 in a completely different part of the country, at Riitasensuo Mire near the town of Kerimäki, rather close to the city of Savonlinna in East Finland. However in early 1943 it was moved to Vaasa. Camp barracks were built in the Court of Appeal Forest (Hovioikeudenmetsä) in the Old Vaasa (Vanha Vaasa) area on the outskirts of the city, an old wood which has seen quite a few events over centuries. The camp was designated as a discipline one, meant for “hooligans”: prisoners who had attempted escape, had refused to work, politruks and suspected spies and saboteurs. From the initial population 427 of the Old Vaasa camp and its branches in Helsingby/Tölby and Isokyrö its number of prisoners rose to over 1000 by 1944, and made a short quick leap to 3500 in the last months of the war. As a discipline camp it was meant only for actual prisoners of war and only for adult men; women and underage boys were never sent to such camps.

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Museum train in Vaasa

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Today (well yesterday) a museum train visited our city of Vaasa. It came here because of the upcoming Christmas, although I actually didn’t see anything Christmas-related on the train. We don’t get such fancy trains here often, and I learned about this one by accident from an announcement on an ad display in a city bus.

The train belongs to the Haapamäki Museum Engines Association, Haapamäen Museoveturiyhdistys ry. This is quite a serious organization; it owns about 110 rolling stock pieces, of which about 50 are in a railroad-worthy condition. It is based in Haapamäki, a formerly important junction station in the middle of nowhere in Central Finland which is nowadays not as busy because modern railroads mostly bypass it. The train in question seems to be dated to around 1950s, both the steam engine and the passenger cars. I’m not really a rail expert but to me it seemed quite genuine.

The train made two trips from Vaasa to each of the nearby stations, Vaskiluoto and Laihia. The next day it will do the same at the nearest city of Seinäjoki, with Lapua and Kauhava stations.

1. Waiting for the train at the Vaasa central station. I quite like how the museum trains are properly a part of the schedule.

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Pilvilampi Lake and Vaasa water supply

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The biggest (I think) recreational forest immediately next to Vaasa is the one at Pilvilampi (Finn. Cloud pond), which can even be easily reached by foot from the Ristinummi residential area of Vaasa. Unlike for example Öjen at Sundom to the southwest, Pilvilampi is not a protected nature area, just a commercial forest (and there are quite a lot of clearings of various age in it).

There is a relatively dense network of forest roads and trails in the Pilvilampi woods, with several laavus (lean-to shelters), kota huts and one day hut on Storhälleberget Hill. In winter most of these turn into skiing tracks, and in fact the tracks, the laavus and the day hut are maintained by (Vaasan Latu ry) (Vaasa Ski Association). It is possible to hike or ski all the way from Vaasa to Skatila village, on the west bank of Kyrö River that forms the natural eastern border of the Pilvilampi woods.

Storhälleberget Hut
Storhälleberget Hut

The name Pilvilampi of course refers to an actual small lake in those woods. It is just a short distance from the parking lot on Vaasa side of the woods (on Kappelinmäentie Road, pretty much across the Uponor plant).

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Finnish-Swedish and Finnish-Norwegian border

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A few days ago we had a look at a small piece of the Finnish-Russian border. Let’s now explore the Finnish-Swedish and Finnish-Norwegian ones! I have a lot more material here, so this will be a long (ish) post.

The entire length of the borders of Finland with Sweden and Norway lies in Lapland (Lappi), the biggest region of the country by far, the northern 1/3 of its entire area basically. Despite the very low population density in Lapland, it has quite a few roads. There is a total of six roads from Finland into Sweden, and six more from Finland into Norway.

Finland, Sweden and Norway all belong to the Schengen Area, which means it is allowed to move between them freely, even in the wilderness. This however doesn’t mean you are free to move any goods between countries. All border crossing have customs, usually open on workdays, where you can declare your goods (although a tourist would hardly ever need to). As far as I remember, these days all of these 12 border crossings have shared customs buildings used by both countries at once. Sometimes (quite rarely) they can do random spot checks, and stop and demand your ID and/or to look at what you have in your car. It’s worth noting that Norway is not an EU country, and as such the limits on moving goods between Finland and Norway are much stricter than between Finland and Sweden. For example, you’re allowed to bring no more than 1L of hard liquor, 1.5L of wine, 2L of beer and 200 cigarettes into Norway.

1. Tornio-Haparanda; Road 29 (E4). Let’s start from the Baltic Sea. The Finnish-Swedish border begins almost at its northernmost point at the Bay of Bothnia (Perämeri), at the mouth of the Torne River, and follows it upstream. Torne is called Tornionjoki in Finnish and Torneälven in Swedish, and the city at its mouth, Tornio (from Swedish Torneå, which again means simply "Torne River"), is the oldest city of Lapland, although when I visited it I found it a bit disappointing. Nonetheless it’s the only border crossing of these 12 with a border city of any size. The Tornio region is also known as Sea Lapland (Meri-Lappi). Despite technically being Lapland, the landscape here is rather flat and relatively boring, reminding more of North Ostrobothnia, and this is the only part of Lapland with no reindeers. The city is known for its huge metallurgical plant and for the (rather meh) Lapin Kulta (Lapland Gold) beer, which has been brewed here for many years but eventually they moved it somewhere to the south.

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