Sunday, 26 February 2012

Snowshoeing at Koli: Ukko-Koli - Mäkrä

In the winter, you can best enjoy the gorgeous scenery from Koli's highest point Ukko-Koli by taking the snowshoeing track that starts right next to the Koli hilltop hotel and Visitor Center Ukko. The idea really is to wear snowshoes! "The summits' snowshoe trail 1.5 km. Please, do not walk on the snowshoe trail without snowshoes."
I'm glad to find a well marked snowshoe trail because the summits' path is buried under a thick layer of snow, currently about 60 centimeters. It feels right not to leave your own snowshoe footprints outside the trail when we're this close to the hotel and naturally, it is lighter to tread on a ready track.
However, a marked trail doesn't mean that it equals to a wide highway, despite the fact that there is a hotel right next door and guided snowshoeing tours are also organized here. Thanks to the blizzards, the track can be quickly covered in snow and you will then appreciate the bright pink route marks. Following them, you can easily find your way even if you're the first to walk on the fresh snow.
During the the first part of the trail we walk in the shadow of tall spruces that are covered by thick layers of snow and ice. This is typical to Koli area.
On the right side of the path I get a glimpse of bare rock on which the winter sun has already managed to melt a row of icicles from the snow above. That can only happen on a sunny day!
The way the snow behaves here is extraordinary and it has a special name in Finnish: tykkylumi (snow=lumi). Tykkylumi snow doesn't fall off the trees but it sticks to them, and the combination of snow and ice is pretty heavy, often making the trees and branches to bend and break. This kind of snow also sculpts interesting shapes in the nature and you can find whatever creatures around you. Also a slightly unhappy snow angel.
Today the scenery is painted by different shades of white and grey, but what can you expect when the weather forecast only promised more and more snowflakes to fall from the sky!
Above one pink trail mark there's a tiny spot of colour: a polypore the brown cap of which resembles one of my favourite mushrooms, cep.
If you take a peek under one of the tall spruces and look above, you get to see how beautifully the branches are outlined by the snow. That's something you can't see any other time of the year. And what a neat hiding place and shelter there is under the cover of those branches that reach onto the ground!

The summits' trail crosses another trail that nobody has yet today walked or skied on. If I were to continue the summits' trail, it would soon turn back to the hotel, following the eastern side of Koli hill... I don't feel like going back just yet, so I turn right and make my footprints on the hidden, wide snow-covered track leading downhill.
The trail descends to Mäkränaho clearing on the other side of which there is an old grey barn which hasn't been used for storing hay for decades. I'm on familiar ground; beneath my feet is  Herajärvi trail, popular among hikers when the snow is gone - but very few attempt to do the whole 40-60 km route in the winter.
The traditional, unpainted barn has aged beautifully and when you look at the details, you can see that no nails have been used in its construction. The barn welcomes visitors who are seeking for shelter from the weather or have a snack but you are not allowed to spend a night here or make a fire; there are other places reserved for that purpose at a bit further.
Should I turn back or go further? The trail continues downhill, with only a solitary skier's ski track printed on the snow. I decide to snowshoe a bit further (being careful not to trample on the skiing track) towards Mäkrävaara hill, or at least to Purolanaho clearing which isn't too far. I know I'm going to pay for the now easy descent when returning to Ukko-Koli hill...
Purolanaho is another small clearing in the middle of the dark evergreen trees. I discover a snowshoe track from before the last blizzard. Should I follow it to Ikolanaho and its outdoor fireplace, keeping me at more level ground, or choose a scenic spot up at Mäkrä instead? The solitary cross-country skier has not given up although the terrain is getting harder...
Despite the fact that there is a fairly long ascent ahead before reaching Mäkrä hilltop, I go for it. The map tells me that the cross-country skiing track is marked black, being the most difficult kind, and I suddenly remember a skiing trip here, and how hard it was to get up there. So, better take it easy, stop every now and then and breath deeply. At least I'll have plenty of time to watch and listen to the frozen nature around me - the snow and ice-laden spruces make eerie sounds in the wind.
Finally I reach the first scenic spot at Mäkrä hill! The highest point of Mäkränvaara (307 m) is very close by but I'm content (and out of breath) enough right here. The February sun is still hiding behind the clouds but some silvery light filters through them to brighten the scenery around me, if only for a while. Behind the trees, you can get a fuzzy view of the large, frozen Lake Pielinen. The long, narrow islands become visible for a second, then they disappear under the blizzard. I am visiting a very quiet winter wonderland.

The return journey to Ukko-Koli offers first an enjoyable descent from Mäkrä to Purolanaho but after that the snowshoes feel heavier as I climb back up to the Summits' trail. It was just a little detour to Mäkrä... Although forbidden here, someone has dragged his or her skis up here and gone off piste down the rocky Koli hillside. Another blizzard seems to be approaching from a distance.
I meet a fellow walker, of a silent sort. The tykkylumi snow covered trees are swaying and creaking in the wind, talking winter Koli language. The views from Koli hills are not as magnificent on this grey-whitish day as they would be on a clear day but I don't mind. There's something about Koli, labeled as one of the national landscapes in Finland, that simply touches you, no matter the weather.

To end the snowshoeing trip I enter the visitor center Ukko for a cup of warming, local herbal tea and to enjoy Tea Karvinen's great photos she took in different national parks over one year. The photography exhibition will move on from Koli to other visitor centers of Finnish national parks over the next years.

P.S. Koli is stunning even in a blizzard but visiting the hilltop two days later on a sunny day the landscape looks even more magnificent...

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Snowshoeing at Koli: Ryläys

One of the most beautiful hiking trails in Northern Carelia is located in Koli, Lieksa. In the winter the Herajärvi trail (60 km total, as of 2011) offers special challenges so I'm quite happy to do only a small stretch with my snowshoes. My eyes fall on Ryläys which can be reached from the roadside parking area close to Jero lake. It is already afternoon but there should be enough daylight left!
We've got a good map with us, plus I've hiked here in the summertime, but I'm relieved to see footprints by other snowshoers. It has been snowing somewhat during the past days and we're now sure to be on the right track. Earlier today at Ukko-Koli, we spotted two snowshoers returning from a longer trip and I'm pretty sure they've come this way.
The trail enters the beautiful white forest. It is a pleasure to walk in the shade of the tall, snow-covered trees. The blue trail marks can be seen in places, but if nobody had walked here before us, it might have been more difficult to stay on the trail because the well-worn path underneath is of course totally covered in snow.
Mörkövaara hill is guarded by a large, dead standing tree, and behind it you can just about make out the Koli landscape. However, the snowy weather means that visibility is limited so today is not the best day for admiring the Koli scenery.
I wonder if that is Mäkrä, one of the Koli hills, in the distance? I feel like I'm looking at a black and white photograph.
The branches of the trees are under a heavy load; the snow pulls everything down. In places, either I need to bend my head down or be ready to accept a shower of snow from above. It doesn't take much for snow to fall down by itself, either.
The woods are filled with nature's art, curvy, soft, white sculptures. When I look around me, the virgin snow carries no animal footprints. I reach the spring (lähde) by the rocks but it is totally covered in snow as well, and no wonder: the water was last tested to be undrinkable. Better carry your own drinking water in this area - unless of course you want to melt it from the snow, this time of the year!

The trail to Ryläys is fairly easy, with only one steep ascent just before arriving there.
When we reach the small bog next to Ryläys, the landscape is dreamlike, and perfectly still. The signposts and the map are covered with snow and frost. Entering the log shelter, the guest book confirms that two snowshoers have spent the previous night here. Thank you for opening the trail for us!
From the log shelter, there is a 100 metre climb to the top of Ryläys hill on which there is a wooden observation tower. The tower may look worn out but it is in fine shape, and it is at its most beautiful when covered with frost.
I take off my snowshoes and climb up to the tower. Snow, snow, and snow all around me. The colours are scarce: I see only different shades of white and grey, and can hear nothing but the sounds of silence, and the wind that carries the lightest of snowflakes with it.
Some years ago, when I visited Ryläys in June, I remember listening to another hiker's tale of his adventures here in wintertime, on snowshoes. He was unlucky and caught fever during his hike, and it was really cold weather, which didn't sound so great, but still his story left me with a wish to come here on snowshoes. And here I am!

We take a break at the log shelter, enjoy some tea and sandwiches before heading back. It would be nice to make a fire, as usual, but unfortunately it is getting late (considering the weather conditions) so we need to get moving.  We can hardly see the track when we get down to the bog. The snowfall continues steadily...

A wood grouse takes off right next to the trail and me. I can only hear it, but don't see it; my beanie almost covers my eyes. This bird is the only other living soul besides us on the trail just now. I chose Ryläys trail to avoid the crowds today and definitely got that right!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Kuopio: Kauppakatu street

Lake Kallavesi at Kuopio is beautifully and definitely frozen. To prove that, quite a few people are out there, skating or skiing on the lake as I leave the harbour area and start walking towards the market place.
On Kauppakatu street, I stop to look at the wonderful photo postcards displayed at a bookshop window. Wow! Have to get some of those! The bookshop, Rosebud, is fairly new in town but when I’ve stepped inside with care (Varo askelmaa - Watch your step!) I feel already at home. There’s a coffee maker at one corner, a good selection of new and second hand books (mostly in Finnish but some second hand ones in English as well) and the music comes from a real record player behind the counter. Plus you can find the best Kuopio postcards by photographer Jukka Gröndahl right here. Welcome to Kuopio, Rosebud!
Kuopio Museum further up on the same street is a delightful jugend style building. Unfortunately museums are not on my agenda today, maybe next time!
I enter the Snellman Park next to Kuopio Cathedral. Is the green net tent a work of art that’s perhaps illuminated in the evening? Apparently not, it is just sheltering some delicate trees from the hazards of snow.
Joh. Vilh. Snellman on the statue stands for Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-1881), a famous Finnish statesman, writer, and philosopher who, among other things, fought for Finnish language. Snellman lived in Kuopio for some years. He’s simply delicious in the snow hat and collar! Hommage à photographer Jukka Gröndahl who has captured the same statue with similar snowy decorations in his great postcards, for sale at Rosebud....
The door to Kuopio Cathedral happens to be open so I step in. It is Saturday but there are no wedding parties about, however, there’s music playing inside. Is there a concert at this hour? Hesitatingly, I enter the church but there is nobody there. Except for the organist who is evidently practising wedding music! I feel priviledged, getting a free private concert... The sound is absolutely fantastic.
Behind the pews of the cathedral, a solitary candle is burning, keeping company to a bible, a pen and some paper. I suppose if you’d want someone to pray for you, you could write it down right here. It is a beautiful thought. I leave the organist to practice more wedding music and return outside.
Kuopio market place is undergoing a major renovation, with a larger underground parking under construction beneath it. Goodbye to the old Fish Market (a later addition to the original Market Hall; the original part stays intact, luckily!)... A pedestrian bridge crosses the construction site and it is decorated by artist Markku-Jussi Komulainen . The artwork has been there for months and it’s nice to see it still in place: among others, lake landscapes and flowers that make you think about the slowly approaching summer! 
The Market Hall (Kauppahalli) is surrounded by the fences of the construction site but the hall is still open as usual. The Market Hall, a Jugend style building, has lovely decorations on its outer walls, mostly animal shapes. The frog that is guarding the eastern entrance is almost totally covered in snow.
The Market Hall in Kuopio is simply inviting. I take a deep breath - the fresh smells of organic rye bread, Carelian pasties and shrove buns (laskiaispulla, filled with whipped cream and jam, above) float in the air, and I can’t pass by the fish or meat stalls without getting something. Kauppakatu street (direct translation: Shop Street) is true to its name. I leave the Market Hall with bags full of local delicacies.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Snow, art, snow in Helsinki

More snow is landing on the streets of Helsinki, with the wind blowing sideways on my face. I draw the hood over my face and continue walking. Normally a busy street, Keskuskatu street is now practically empty of people.

Two blocks away, at the main railway station, it is also getting more quiet, although the flow of people rushing to the trains is still steady. On the western wing, a work of art is stopping some of the passers-by.
Kaarina Kaikkonen's Where's my home (Missä kotini on) consists of old bags and suitcases, all piled up on a house-like structure. When I look at the bag-house from this side, for a moment I see in it a serious shape, like a tiny chapel. Travel size?
From the other side, the now colorful pile of bags has collapsed and no longer resembles a house. It is just a messy pile of miscellaneous bags, stranded in this large hall. A different story from this angle.
Above me, the beautiful lamps are like illuminated scrolls of paper, held together by golden bands. I suppose architect Eliel Saarinen designed the lamps as well, not just the railway station building...

I step outside, to face the wind and the snow. Across the street, another one, and another one...

...until I step inside, to walk through Forum shopping mall. Right in the centre of it, there's a work of art that you may not even realize as one: a huge bluish structure called Hopeiset sillat (Silver bridges) by artist Kimmo Kaivanto

When you look down, it seems like it is growing from the ground... And next to it is a square pool on which there is a smaller sculpture by Kimmo Kaivanto. A recent newspaper article speculated that the 15-meter tall Silver bridges may face problems once the renovation project of the mall enters the central square...It is not easy to move it around!
Outside again, I take Yrjönkatu street and pass hotel Torni. I see a glimpse of colored lights from the yard and get curious...
Hotel Torni's snowy back yard is decorated with fairy lights and bright-coloured lanterns in funny shapes. And that's not all.
Is this actually an outdoor bar or just a mock-up? The stools are wearing furry covers and it looks genuine enough, although there's no bartender in sight. Perhaps this weather isn't the best for sitting down for a drink outside, with the steady fall of snow continuing. At least the drink would have to be a hot one!
I walk down to Esplanadi park that leads to Kauppatori, the market square. The park is beautifully lit, with fairy lights covering some tall trees. The memorial for writer Zacharias Topelius, close to the Swedish Theatre (Svenska Teatern) depicts two young maidens looking in opposite directions. The one with her hand pointing to the sky is wearing a yellow bracelet - knit graffiti!

Close by, I hear someone blow into a whistle. After that, something heavy falls onto the street. And again. And again. What is it? A policeman? No. Just someone making sure that nobody will be injured by snow! Now that the streets are more quiet, it is a good time to go up on the roof and shovel the snow down from there safely, before it accidentally falls down by itself and injures innocent passers-by by landing on them with a thud.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Restaurant Day walk in Jyväskylä

It's close to 10 am in Jyväskylä and the temperature is freezing -30°C. No idea if others are dying to go out for a walk unless they have to but for me there's no choice: have to leave the house as soon as possible to be among the first in the city center for the Restaurant Day. I've got one sure destination in my mind and don't want the last yummy cookie to disapper right in front of my nose.

I don't know how many pop-up restaurants are set up in Jyväskylä on this Saturday, Feb 4, that marks the 4th ever Restaurant Day in Finland. The Restaurant Day concept originates in Finland, and the idea is that anyone can set up a restaurant or a café for a day!
We take a brisk walk across the deserted-looking town to get desserted - at Poppeli, a wool shop at the back of which a round table will serve as a café table today.  Poppeli is located at the first pedestrian street in the history of Jyväskylä (more of a residential than shopping street, but with some shops), at Keskustie 18, between Gummeruksenkatu and Kilpisenkatu streets. The Restaurant Day café at Poppeli is run by Hooked On Sweets.
Normally, the choice of yarns, knitting needles, and crocheting hooks etc. are the main thing here but now there is heavy competition: the wonderful smells from the back of the room draw us to look at the baked goodies. The first café customers look very pleased...
There are different kinds of cheese cakes (e.g. blueberry), three kinds of banana bread, cookies, muffins, domino truffle balls. Wow!
This must be the best display of North American baking in Jyväskylä. The Canadian baker Dominique has done a fantastic job in baking all this. It's difficult to choose what to taste - you can't possible sample them all - but luckily we are three and can share a plateful. I'm especially happy to bite into a Santa's cookie (dried cranberries, dark and white chocolate, crushed almonds), among other delicious things. So glad there's also takeaway!

After visiting Poppeli, I try to find the locations of other Restaurant Day places in Jyväskylä by going online, but unfortunately that's exactly what others are trying to do as well, and I can't access the restaurant list due to the overload. I manage to get only one exact address, and besides that know that there should be pop-up restaurants on two streets not too far.

However, no matter where I look at Väinönkatu street, there are no signs guiding to a Restaurant Day restaurant. Next, I walk to the quiet Yrjönkatu street a bit further, but the result is the same. Apparently they don't have a need for advertising for casual passers-by? Also, silly of me not to write down the addresses before I left.
Finally, my luck turns at the corner of Yrjönkatu and Kyllikinkatu streets where Ravintola Sovinto (Restaurant Reconciliation) is set up for the day, and dares to advertise itself outside. Welcome! Who's the guy in the poster? Well, this pop-up restaurant is run by the local Green youth and students, in support of the presidential candidate Pekka Haavisto.
Inside, the atmosphere is peaceful, and the musicians are setting up their acoustic equipment. There's also a free concert for us customers. The restaurant menu is simple: two kinds of tortillas, fruit salad for dessert, tea, coffee, juice. Simple but good.
The restaurant tables are decorated by the presidential candidate's campaign material - after all, the election is only one day away on Sunday, Feb 5. I enjoy my tea and Seitan kebab tortilla, listening to the folk music singer.
I've already given up hope of how to find more Restaurant Day destinations by accident, and the temperature doesn't allow spending too many hours outside... When I see smoke coming up a chimney on Pitkäkatu street, my only thought is: wish I had stumbled also on a pop-up restaurant with an open fireplace!

P.S. Hooked on Sweets bakes for Poppeli once a week - visit Poppeli wool shop on a Friday to see what's available...