Friday, 25 November 2011

Imatra: Mellonlahti nature trail

The Mellonkoski nature trail (3 km) starts right next to Imatran Valtionhotelli (Imatra State Hotel) which was built in 1903, financed by Finnish Senate. The architect Usko Nyström must have had fun designing the jugend style building with its stylish details. I've never dared to count how many different window shapes there are! I spend a while studying the nature trail map at the Kruununpuisto park before setting off; I left the trail map leaflet (borrowed from the city library) behind. It is best to take a snapshot of the route so that if necessary, I can check it from my camera to make sure I won't take a wrong turn. At the start, I can't fail however, so a lazy stroll round the impressive hotel building is a good way to start my walk.

Nature is present on the stone walls of the castle-like building, but also in the cute hand-crafted image on the wall, next to the main entrance to the hotel: this must depict the start of the Imatrankoski rapids when the water still ran wild next to the hotel.
The Imatrankoski rapids with its dry riverbed is a strange sight, revealing the harsh rocky bottom. The large dam behind the bridge was built for the hydroelectric plant which made the Vuoksi river even more useful for man but gone was the free-roaming water; Imatrankoski rapids was history. In the summertime the floodgate is however opened daily for the tourists for about 20 minutes and you can get an idea of what the rapids used to be like.
Walking down by the riverbank, you can see lots of engravings on the rocks - better slow down to read at least some of them, because there is history. The ancient graffiti displayes memories of visits by both ordinary people (I suppose so at least) and monarchs who all visited the area to admire the famous rapids. Pedro II, the king of Brazil, came over with only three companions in 1876, but the most famous visitor was probably the Russian empress Catherine the Great who came down with her large entourage in 1772.
The sun catches me by surprise when I'm at the simple pavilion by the riverbank. In November, such light feels rare in Finland because the days are getting shorter and shorter...
The trail passes an empty outdoor theatre venue - in use during the busiest summer months only - and descends closer to the water. Vuoksi river now follows the canal next door built for the hydroelectric plant and it is as if the river is trying to reach its former route from this direction. In vain.
The trail is marked with blue paint and numbered cone symbols and it is pretty easy to follow. I gather that the moss-covered rocks on the side of the narrow road must have been at the bottom of the ancient Vuoksi riverbed.
When I pass a large rock on the left, next to the Vuoksi river, I notice a small metal "button" on it. What on earth could this be?
The trail takes me to a dyke way which these days connects some small islands and allows you to cross to the other side of Mellonlahti bay. The pier with its four wooden tables is used for washing rugs when the water is somewhat warmer than now... like in the summer months. However, these days such washing places are being moved on the shore more and more, to prevent the fish getting soap in their eyes. Better for the environment that way. Otherwise, the tradition of scrubbing your rugs clean outdoors is simply great!
I arrive at the other side of the Mellonlahti bay and turn back to follow the nature trail. Vuoksi river runs on my right, and Mellonlahti bay, now separated from Vuoksi by the dyke road, is on the left. In Mellonlahti bay, fishing is forbidden, but I see a solitary fisherman on a small boat to my right.
On my return I turn to the left to the wooden pedestrian bridge which takes me to Kuukansaari which used to be a proper island before the dyke road was built. Unfortunately I haven't carried logs with me to make a campfire at the shelter (it's an absolute NO to take firewood from the forest!), so it's better to keep moving along the narrow, winding paths to get back to the nature trail on the other side of Kuukansaari.
The nature trail turns to the left and shows Mellonlahti bay in the bluish afternoon light, almost asleep. A man is turning his rowing boat upside down for the winter, and I go to him to ask if he needs help. - Oh no, I'll manage, he says, and shouts thanks for the offer when I turn away. Twenty seconds later I hear a thump. The boat has turned back to its original position. Oh well, I did offer...
On the right, a row of tall spruces at the top of the ridge guards the path. I climb up the trail, then take the wooden steps down to the shore and wonder why the arrows pointed this way. As I look into the shallow water, I notice continuously bursting bubbles here and there: tiny natural springs. The brook is nearly dry, but water comes from underground.

The path soon leaves the forest and meets an asphalt road. On the right, you can see Mellonmäki hill which is the end of the trail, so it is quite easy to find your way there. After crossing the road, the blue trail marks appear again, and the trail turns left before winding its way to the very top of Mellonmäki.
Mellonmäki is about 108 metres high, but you can climb even higher if you go up the wooden ski jump tower. The smoke in the distance comes from Svetogorsk, Russia - from one of the biggest paper mills in the whole country. I am indeed very, very close to the Russian border. Svetogorsk has a Finnish history; the town was originally called Enso (part of Jääski) and it was part of Finland until taken over by the Soviet Union in World War II.
Looking over the border area at Russia from here, I see only a huge, never-ending forest in late autumn colours. Seen from this ski-jump tower, it looks like a quiet neighbour. I feel the wind in my ears and take a stronger grip of the rail. Time to descend from the slightly swaying (or am I just imagining?) tower and the Mellonmäki hill back towards the town. The narrow path takes me down to the road and it's easy to figure out that by turning to the left I will easily get back to where I started, at Valtionhotelli Hotel and its park.
I am already very close to Valtionhotelli hotel when I see an square rock by the side of the road on the right.
As I step closer, I realise that it is an old boundary mark: the engravings say Ruokolahti and Joutseno. Ruokolahti is still an independent commune, but Joutseno is these days part of Lappeenranta city. Ruokolahti and Joutseno both contributed land to Imatra when the town was born in 1948 after World War II, on the ruins of the large Jääski commune which mostly remained on the eastern side of the border of Finland and Russia.  Glad to see this landmark is still there, reminding Imatra of its history.

For a November walk, this nature trail may not offer spectacular views and colours, but the route combines both nature and man-made landmarks and at least gives you a peek across the border to Russia.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Imatra: Ancient Vuoksi nature trail

I am standing now at Imatrankoski rapids, or rather, the ancient rapids, because the water no longer runs wild but has other things to do, like produce power. Guess what? Kruununpuisto park surrounding the rapids is also the first nature reserve in Finland, following the order of Russian Czar Nicholas I in 1842 when Finland was still a Grand Duchy of Finland, part of the Russian Empire. The nature reserve was founded to protect the surroundings of Imatrankoski rapids, the first and foremost tourist attraction of its time in Finland. However, after the first World War environmentalism gave way to growing needs for electricity, and a dam was built for the hydroelectric plant in the 1920's.
A marked nature trail (Muinaisuoman luontopolku) walks you through the area where the ancient Vuoksi river used to roam free. The nature trail is marked with blue paint / pine cone symbols and it begins on the side of the hydroelectric plant of Vuoksi river, returning to the Imatrankoski rapids ravine. The signs are only in Finnish, but the trail is only 1,5 km long and easy to follow. Note that some areas may be wet or muddy.
The trail passes the hydroelectric plant and then enters the forest, climbing on the ridge. Beware of the wide-spread roots of spruces!
At the far end of the trail is the meeting point of the man-made canal through which Vuoksi now runs, yielding power on its way (hydroelectric plant above), and of the original Imatrankoski rapids route.
Vuoksi river is a favourite of fishermen, and a solitary fisherman is rowing his boat nearby in the hopes of catching something for dinner.  November sun alights the path - a pleasant surprise - which starts to wind back towards the dry ravine.
Since there is no water flowing from up above, the downstream area of the natural Imatrankoski rapids has hardly any water. The rocks seem a bit lost without it. Soon the trail takes me higher, on surprisingly even ground, where vegetation is (still) scarce. This area was formed when the power plant canal was dredged in the 1980's and it was cheapest to dump the load here. I wonder if the nature reserve area reached this far those days, and was part of it buried underneath? Money ruled over the environment then, but I suppose nature will take over in the end...
On the shore there is something red, a spiral shaped work of environmetal art. Wish I knew what it was, and who made it, but there are no clues.
The trail descends and reaches duckboards over a damp area. A bunch of typhas are taking it easy and basking in the sun.
However, if the water in the canal above the hydroelectric plant ever overflows, this is where the rushing water will land, following the overflow canal from the right...But that would be an extremely rare occurrence.

The spruces are protecting a growth of polypody (kallioimarre in Finnish) covering the rocks. Polypody has maintained its green colour although it is already November. Very soon they will turn yellow.

Very soon it is time to turn your eyes to the ground, and not just to watch your step.

In places, there are giant's kettles (potholes) which have the currents and rocks have co-created when the ancient Vuoksi river flowed right here.
The path then arrives at the Imatrankoski rapids ravine, and on the opposite side you can see the magnificent hotel Imatran Valtionhotelli, originally Grand Hotel Cascade. The jugend style hotel dates back to 1903.  Vuoksi river was born about 5000 years ago, and at first it was shallow and wide. The water however managed to crack an opening to the rock beneath it, and Vuoksi plunged into the narrow area, creating Imatrankoski rapids.
I am almost back where I started from. Imatrankoskentie road is looming above me, but to follow the trail to the other side I don't need to cross it: the path turns to an old tunnel beneath the road through which logs were floated downstream in the old days.
At Patopuisto park (Dam park), the statue Imatran impi (Imatra maiden) by Taisto Martiskainen (1972) looks forlorn: you just can't bathe without water! Sorry darling, but it's almost winter time and you wouldn't like to be bathing in ice anyway. This is Finland.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Tampere: Art in electricity cabinets

I stand next to the railway station at Tampere, Finland, and fold open a crumpled sheet of paper, a map of an art exhibition. This is not just any art exhibition but an open air one: Taidetta jakokaapeissa 3 is displayed on the electricity distribution cabinets in the Tampere city center. Similar art exhibitions are getting increasingly popular; this is the third one in Tampere, and right now there is one on at Turku as part of its European capital of culture year.

The exhibition was put together by Tampere Museum of Contemporary Art and the local energy company Tampereen Sähköverkko Oy. There are 20 works of art on display, and I decide to walk a full circle following them, and not stroll by numbers. First I encounter Sanna Kauppinen's photograph with a maiden disguising herself behind birch bark, then study a black and white drawing by Kristian Tuomainen the glossy surface of which is tinted by the reflections of coloured city lights.

The third artwork is practically hidden behind construction work so I can't get a closer look at Hans Viebrock's Circle. Luckily, this is just a temporary roadblock.
I cross the Hämeensilta bridge to the other side of the magnificent Tammerkoski stream which splits the city centre in half and is right now illuminated by horses dancing in the air. At this time of the year, Tampere is boldly fighting against the darkness with a vast number of decorative lights hung about town - it's the 46th Tampere Illuminations which runs until early 2012.

After the bus stops bathing in blue light at Keskustori square, I take a left to Aleksis Kivi street. If you know Finnish language, don't forget to look about you to read the texts on the pavement, a work of art commemorating major Finnish writers who lived in Tampere. 
The beautiful red flowers by Anna Alapuro create a Christmas feeling, especially because the store next door is decorated for Xmas and tonight there are candles burning on the lanterns placed outside the door.
Up on the wall, Finnish writer Lauri Viita's words are inscribed on a piece of rock; a rough translation: A light appears on your window/ You are home again / I've missed you there. 

When I reach Laukontori market square, I am confused. Where is number 10, by Janne Laine? Oh no, another renovation work going on... The electricity distribution cabinet is covered behind a tarpaulin, like most of the building. Well, it won't be hidden for ever - I can see it another time.
Next, I stop to examine the colourful piggy trainers (Jaakko Himanen) before returning to the main street, Hämeenkatu, where Anne Lehtelä's Matka (Journey) and Harri Rauhaniemi's Hatakambari are in delightful contrast with each other, like night and day. Rauhaniemi's cheerful colours simply make me feel cheerful also! Going round the street corner, I take Johanna Havimäki's button-eyed mouse Eila by surprise. Sorry...

Halfway of the artistic walk, I arrive at the long Hämeenpuisto park which hosts two pieces of art as part of this project, but there are many more besides. There is Tessa Ojala's tender photograph In Granny's shoes but I wonder what is worrying Hannamari Matikainen's Raven who seems a bit downcast. A few more steps, and I am at Kauppakatu street, where my first thought is that Petri Niemelä is displaying a misty photograph of an iron bridge, but is it so really...
More splashing psychedelic colours can be seen at Tommi Musturi's Speed Gun, close to the department store Anttila, just off the pedestrian street. When I arrive at Satakunnakatu street, at the gates of red brick Finlayson area, I am taken to a more peaceful yet disturbing world by Satu Syrjänen Tai (Or) which makes you wonder, what the web structure really is about.
On my way back to the other side of Tammerkoski rapids, well under control of the power station, I stop to gaze at the dark, gently flowing water in the beautiful moonlight. Hotel Tammer looks quite neat, and right in front of it there are more lovely reflections of water by Marja-Liisa Torniainen, only it is not easy to distinguish the gentle tones when it is this dark. Next, I feel embarrased because I look for Vera Arjoma's artwork (n:o 13) for a while without success. Am I blind? (Yes! I must admit that I had to return the next morning in daylight to find is on the corner of Rongankatu and Aleksanterinkatu streets).
However, Petri Niemelä's Paradoxal at Pellavatehtaankatu street cannot go unnoticed. The pink picture has unfortunately been discovered also by competing street artists who have started scribbling on it. Jealous people, or the statement just works. Two small blocks from here, Tuula Alajoki gives a glimpse of Annin baari, (Anni's Bar - decorated with bright colours).
Kirsti Tuokko has carefully selected the venue for her Blue-eyed Bratz which is stuck right next to a sex shop. Thought-provoking for sure. I am now at the end of my evening walk and soon close to the Tampere railway station where the last work of art is waiting: a young girl poised on a chair, holding a bright red book with a wolf disguised as Granny lurking behind - Big Bad by Kristiina Sario. Not bad at all, I say! This was a very pleasant evening walk at Tampere.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Petäjävesi: Syrjäharju trail

When I look down on the Pengerjoki river at Petäjävesi, Central Finland, it's almost as if November was on a mission to kill the colours. November blues in the air. I have taken the Syrjäharju trail, about 8 kilometres north from Petäjävesi.
I am in the middle of the countryside. There are horses in the neighbouring houses, and you can see someone has been riding on this narrow road. I hope the horseshoes nailed on the outbuilding by the side of the road will bring me luck. In a moment, I hear cars approaching; one, two, three,... I lose count. Glad I'm wearing a bright red jacket today because these guys have been hunting, and it seems they've been lucky.
For a while I don't feel especially lucky in the greyish weather, especially because the trail follows a road instead of taking a turn to the woods. Nature trails are often narrow tracks - let's hope that it's not going to be like this for the full 4 kilometres.
However, close to a turn of the marked trail I stop to study my map and take a side step to find a nearby kota (a tipi-like hut made of logs) - and discover a ready-made fire which the hunters have left behind. Did they know I was coming? Thank you anyway! There are just enough flames left for my brief stay for a cup of tea and a snack.
The short stop revives my spirit and I continue the trail much happier. The forest around me looks different than in the beginning of the trail. The ridge area must be getting closer.
In the meanwhile, I can listen to the sound of silence around me. Or my footsteps on the rustling leaves. Is that a blue tit singing?
Finally a sign welcomes me to the left and there is a proper narrow path, my favourite kind. The path climbs up to the Syrjänharju ridge (harju = ridge) which actually consists of a 7-kilometre long area, not just this ridge top I'm standing on right now.
The ridge area is an important ground water source for the region. Syrjänharju has for hundreds of years provided local people not just berries, mushrooms and fresh water; the hunting tradition still continues today.

The ridge got its shape in the end of the ice age about 10,000 years ago. The moss-covered slopes are quite steep! I wish the trail continued on the ridge for a longer stretch. Only too soon the trail turns to downwards to the right and meets the country road again.
Tervahaudat sign greets me after the wide powerline opening. Terva = tar, hauta = grave. In the old days, the locals used to burn tar here, and there are still remainders of those tar burning areas left, although it is not very easy to spot them; if I get it right, the ditches among the trees mark the edges. 
The rest of the trail continues to follow the gravel roads before arriving back to Penkkalantie where the trail starts. The traditional pistoaita fence that surrounds a house by the road is something you don't see in cities. Oh no, the light is beginning to I won't be able to visit the bird watching tower close by in daylight after all.