Saturday, 14 July 2012

Kvarken Archipelago, Valsörarna Nature Trail

Taking a walk at UNESCO World Heritage site at the Kvarken Archipelago at the Gulf of Bothnia, Finland, isn't actually that easy without a boat, but luckily I spot an advert for day cruises that include a walk along the nature trail at Valsörarna islands (Valassaaret in Finnish). There is hardly any wind and seven people have signed up in advance so we are in luck; the cruise is on. The experienced captain starts navigating us through the shallow, rocky waters and the moraines that are so typical of this area.
The journey from Svedjehamn harbour, Björköby village is an experience in itself. At the Kvarken, the land is continuously rising (greetings from the Ice Age!) - amounting to about 8 mm per year. It may not sound like much, but the islands are slowly growing together and once open bays are closing in. Our guide Roland Wiik notes that after ten year's time the boat won't be able to follow the same route anymore.
I watch the narrow islets that have been forming here and there. The Baltic Sea is giving us a smooth ride. What a glorious day! It is very hard to imagine that the Kvarken is still going through the strange transformation process that began thousands of years ago, and that eventually it will lead to Finland and Sweden being joined by land at the Kvarken area. However, that may take as long as about 2000 years...
There used to more separate islands at Valsörarna islands but some of them have already grown together. As our boat approaches the jetty at Ebbskär harbour, two beautiful cranes take off from the shore. The tiny harbour is these days deserted; the Coast Guard station was closed in 2009.
Our guide Roland Wiik is proud to say that Finland's oldest and largest private nature reserve was established at Valsörarna islands already in 1934. The nature trail (2.8 km) begins right next to the old Coast Guard station.
The symbol painted on the wall of a nearby building is a remnant from the first lifeboat station established at Valsörarna in 1904. However, despite the Kvarken being such a tricky area to navigate in, there is no longer a lifeboat station on the island. Saving costs, yes; saving lives...?
A small viper hides quickly when our group approaches its resting place. The small red house was originally built here for the "lifesavers" but these days it serves bird-watchers as a biological station. There is an abundance of different birds in the islands.
For the first part of the trail the vegetation is very low, consisting mostly of cranberries and heather. However, the trees will very quickly take over the land unless the traditional archipelago methods are used: in many islands, people used to burn the ground once in about every 40-50 years (to enable new growth on more fertile soil) or let sheep roam the land, eating whatever they could find. Either of those helped in making the land provide you with more food, such as wild berries.
After a bunch of  birches and small aspens, we meet a group of fir trees. Our guide stops to show us that this is a family spruce.
A family tree? Yes indeed. The tallest spruce in the middle is Mummy, and her children, the baby spruces, have sprung up from the low-hanging branches that have first crawled on the ground and then started growing upwards. But they still haven't cut the cord with Mummy!
Further along, we take a side step to Käringsund which used to be a proper bay but over the years, as the land has risen, it is now a flada that is only linked to the sea by a narrow brook. As years go by and the connection is broken, it will eventually become a lake.
The rocky patches by the side of the nature trail indicate that the seashore used to be up there. The rowntree grows in the middle of some rocks that are laid out like a shelter for fishermen - which is what it used to be. Today, such shelters are made of logs. Wow, the rowntree is still in bloom although it is already July!
I walk up to the rocky monument which has a sad history. In March 1809, the Russian General Barclay de Tolly led his troops across the frozen Kvarken from Finland to Sweden and managed to conquer Umeå city, but was told to turn back. The trip was hard for his men in the freezing conditions and as a result, hundreds of the soldiers died on these islands. In 1930's the last remains of these soldiers were gathered under this pile of rocks.
We are now walking on a stone bridge that was built and used to connect the Ebbskär island with Storskär island - but that was back in the 19th century, during the construction work for the lighthouse... There is absolutely no water in sight anymore, and the two islands have grown together long ago.
Some wild white orchids grow among the low bushes. The forest type is once again changing. Oh no, I can hear more and more mosquitoes...
The grove feels like a mosquito heaven but I try to walk slowly and take in what I can of the absolutely beautiful surroundings. Waving my hands like mad, though. Go away, mosquitoes!
I breath in the gorgeous greens. It is as if it was spring again, the colours are simply magical. A paradise, except for our tiny friends that keep circling us for fresh blood.
Lunchtime! We are almost at the end of the tour, arriving at the bright red lighthouse and the former lighthouse keepers' dwellings. The original plan was to build the lighthouse at Ebbskär, where we just came from, but to build a lighthouse properly you need very solid ground, and this was nearest to finding a good foundation. Thus the road. I don't envy the workers who had to move the stuff here from the original building site on the other side of the islands.
Storskär lighthouse was completed in 1886 and the steel constructions were designed by no other than Henry-Lepaute engineering company in Paris, France. One of their next projects was a certain Eiffel tower in Paris.
Blades of cotton grass are swaying in the air, as if waving us goodbye. We walk to the shore to meet the boat and complete the nature trail feeling very happy. There is yet the boat ride to enjoy! And after this trip, if I happen to hear the shipping forecast on the Finnish radio, it will feel different because now I know exactly where these unique islands are and what they looked like in the summer of 2012. This is truly a place that will never look the same again!

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