Monday, 31 December 2012

Leppävirta: Orinoro gorge

Orinoro Gorge at Soisalo, Leppävirta makes a great destination also in wintertime. However, at this time of the year you may need snowshoes, depending on how much snow there is and whether there have been other visitors before you to keep the path open (if you're really lucky!). There are two alternatives routes to visit the gorge. The longer route starts at Mustinmäki school (3.3 km to the gorge) and the shorter one at Hanhiahontie road (900 meters to the gorge). My pick today is the shorter route because there just isn't enough daylight left to make it back before the dark.
I check the start of the path before hitting the trail and find that there is no need for snow shoes today; someone has been walking there recently, and the path is open. The nature trail signposts - in Finnish only - tell more about the flora and fauna. However, the cuckoos that typically live in this forest are long gone somewhere in the south for the winter...
I wonder what creature of the woods has crossed the path, leaving its own trail in the snow? There are no prints because the trail is under a thin layer of snow that has fallen in the last few days. Perhaps it was a fox.
The Orinoro trail descends down to more dense forest with the snow-covered fir trees. This is a winter wonderland.
The two spruces that are standing guard right by the trail, watching over the passers-by must be twins.
Rauhoitettu luonnonsuojelualue means that we are now entering a protected area: a nature reserve. The first large rocks appear close to the path so the gorge is already near.
The icicle season has already started at Orinoro gorge, thanks to the recent cold but sunny days or the occasional warmer spells.
There are even larger icicles higher up the rocks. In my eyes they bear resemblance to teeth - those of not-so-nice fairytale creatures.
The trail that leads to up the gorge has railings for safety. On one side the cliff is very steep, on the other side the rocks slope up more gently.
The gorge gets even narrower. Orinoro gorge is about 100 meters long and at its tallest point about 20 meters deep; it is considered one of the seven wonders of Savo. I get flashbacks of my visits to Hitonhauta at Laukaa and to Helvetinkolu at Ruovesi.
To help walking, there are duckboards at the bottom of Orinoro gorge. Because of the snow, it is hard to tell how rocky and hard to walk the ground is but we opt for walking along the duckboards which can just about be discerned under the white layer of snow. However, it is good to walk slowly to avoid slipping.
The different sides of the gorge behave differently: the other side has gathered quite a bit of snow whereas the other is almost snowless.
I think I prefer the snowy rocks and the icicles here and there to bare rocks. The Orinoro gorge is gorgeous and makes you feel small even if it isn't one of the largest in the world. Time to say goodbye to it, unfortunately.
There isn't that much snow (less than 30 cm) so we decide to make a small detour before returning to the car. Nobody has walked before us in the snow so we need to make our own path, following the green trail marks painted on the trees; there are not an awful lot of them but the trail is still fairly easy to follow. I'm glad to wear gaiters so snow doesn't get into my hiking boots.
There is a small shelter - for firewood, not for spending the night - at Orkonen lake as well as an outdoor toilet. Time for a snack and some hot tea from the thermos flask! A poem by Kaisa Laitinen reveals that Orinoro gorge got its name (ori= stallion) after a stallion that fell into the gorge from the cliffs.
The small, frozen Orkonen lake is silent and doesn't show any signs of life. There are no prints on the surface of the snow. Where is everyone? The trail to Orinoro gorge exists thanks to the local villagers whose volunteer work made the construction of the trail possible in 1997-98. The trail was officially opened in May 1999. Even today the villagers take care of it and bring firewood to to the shelter; this is a meeting place for local nature lovers. There are lots of these fantastic, similar volunteers all around Finland who maintain trails and shelters for the benefit of their local community and for all of us.
So... Let's do our share and honour the volunteers' work as well as the nature. No more ripping birch bark from living trees: bring your own kindling if you want to make a fire. The distance from Orkonen lake to Mustinmäki school is only 2.5 km but we turn back to follow our own trail to Hanhiahontie where we started from. Some more of Savo's winter wonderland to see on the way!

Monday, 24 December 2012

Snowy Xmas at Jyväskylä

I don't mind cold weather. It's usually only a matter of getting dressed for it - and then you can go and enjoy the beauty of snow that sometimes covers practically everything. On a day like this the ridge overlooking Jyväskylä, Harju, is like from a fairytale.
There are lots of narrow paths criss-crossing the slopes of Harju; not everyone wants to take the wide footpaths that are kept open all year round by the city. It is nice to make a track of your own. Well, well. Someone must have been snowboarding over there, and those are definitely the marks of a sled that has dashed down the hill.
The half moon is shining its freezing cold light, to make sure that the frosty trees above my head stay the way they are. 
There are strange colours on Harju Ridge; the unnatural shades of light paint the trees and the scenery to an even more eerie fairytale land. Nature shakes hands with the urban world: this is Jyväskylä, the City of Light.
When I arrive at the Nero Steps, or Harju Steps as they're often called locally, the view is breathtaking. The gorgeously lit tall trees make it an enchanting walk to the top of the ridge. I am so happy I didn't mind the temperature (something below -15°C) but kept on walking... 
However, there are not many of us walking the granite steps of Harju. This is a time of silent walks, together, or on your own.

I descend back to the city centre. Merry Xmas, Jyväskylä!

Monday, 3 December 2012

Jyväskylä: Xmas in the air at Toivola

Toivolan vanha piha or Toivola's Old Yard is a new attraction in Jyväskylä that only opened a while ago: lovingly restored old wooden houses that form a closed yard at the corner of Hannikaisenkatu and Cygnaeuksenkatu streets and that are again full of life. The yard has received its name from its former resident and owner, blacksmith Herman Toivola who had the main building built there in 1897. His smithy was built there in 1890. Two of the buildings are old craftsmen's houses from the 19th century that were first moved from their original locations in Cygnaeuksenkatu and Vaasankatu next to the Museum of Central Finland before being finally transferred to Toivola in 2010; they house museums.

Currently Toivola is full of Xmas spirit. Luckily, the snow arrived in Jyväskylä on the eve of Dec 1! I visit the yard for the second time this weekend, having sampled the goodies at the cellar café already on Saturday. There are Xmas gnomes wishing visitors welcome at the gate.
In addition to the usual array of Toivola's shops and workshops, there are a couple of stalls selling handicrafts, textiles, handmade jewellery, tinned lake fish, fruit juice made of berries, honey - you name it.
Naturally, there is a Christmas tree on the yard - and it is not overloaded with tons of colourful fairy lights but very simpy decorated, in true Finnish style.
I smell something adorable - salmon that is being smoked on open fire. Pretty fresh, isn't it! Lassi Ruuska from Kalmukoski rapid at Saarijärvi is busy at work smoking fish and selling other fish products.
Marko Poldsam's stall is for those with a sweet tooth: roasted almonds with honey, apples dipped in chocolate and decorated with nuts.
Toivola's current master, Margo Saxberg has laid his woollen mittens on top of his small barrel organ and is playing music, to the delight of children especially. You don't often see barrel organs these days.
The main building houses a couple of workshops and shops. Inside the old "maternity ward" (Synnytyslaitos) - the main building actually served as one for about 20 years in the early 20th century - you can meet Father Christmas, if you're lucky. He is no Santa dressed in Coca-Cola red but an old country Santa in more traditional colours.
You can find also smaller Xmas gnomes hiding around Toivola yard, both inside and outside. They have been carefully made by doll artists.
In the red storehouses there are also indoor stalls selling handmade chocolate, felt hads, jewellery, berry jam and woollen products.
For a more quiet Christmas moment, there is a handmade nativity scene, carefully built by Katariina Pentikäinen between the storehouses. No touching, please...
If you feel cold you can step inside the cosy cellar café, Kellarikahvila, a few steps down from the yard.
The café is crowded when I enter it - no change to yesterday. However, I find a seat easily and sit down on a bench covered with a handmade rug. The freshly baked cakes both smell and taste delicious. Later on, there will be a bigger café called Muisto at Toivola but it is still being built which is why this temporary café was opened for the Xmas season 2012.
It seems like Toivola yard has been warmly welcomed by Jyväskylä; the flow of visitors seems constant during the weekend. In December 2012, the outdoor stalls and café are open on weekends and during the last week before Xmas until Dec 21 and there are also other activities, besides which the regular shops at Toivola are open normally from Monday to Saturday. Merry Xmas, Toivola!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Muurame: Muuramenjoki nature trail

Muuramenjoki nature trail is located in Muurame, Central Finland, only about 13 km south from the centre of its neighbouring city Jyväskylä. Before arriving here I was sure to meet a tiny, slowly flowing river so when I step down to it from Muurame's civic center by Virastotie street, I get a pleasant surprise. Is this really Muurame river or Muurame rapid?
Very soon I meet the first, slightly dirty nature trail sign which tells about the area's cultural heritage in Finnish. The buildings in front of me belonged to a furniture factory which started here in 1910. The red brick building housed a steam power plant in the old days but is today only used for storage. The white building behind it was originally taller, but its two top floors were destroyed by a fire in 1970 and only the ground floor remained. Today, the building is part of the fire station. 
I find an old, big millstone that has retired from active service decades ago and is now resting on the green grass in front of the former furniture factory. The mill was located on the other side of Muurame river but the building was torn down at the end of the 1950's. The building which housed the mill had earlier served also as an umbrella factory and a dairy.
The riverbank is steep and partly collapsed to the river; therefore there is red and yellow caution tape to stop anyone stepping too far. When I enter the footbridge to cross the river, I smell a bit of smoke. There is a fading fire close to the offical start of the nature trail, perched on a rock that could well be another millstone as this is where the mill used to be; the two fishermen have apparently had a break here. They have been fly fishing - with not too much success so far - and are getting ready to move to another spot further down.
The nature trail (luontopolku) sign indicates that I should head off the riverbank. However, I am not ready to leave Muurame river just yet but decide to follow another footpath that will lead me further upstream, to the bridge that I see in the distance. I'm simply so pleased to be walking by this beautiful stream that I don't want to leave it just yet.
This autumn has been very rainy in Central Finland, just like previous year. The water level in lakes normally goes down in the autumn but for two consecutive years now it's been the opposite. If there are also heavy snowfalls in the winter, it means that the water levels will remain very high also next spring. When I look at white water in Muurame river now, I can imagine this is what it could be like on a normal spring. The river flows from Muuratjärvi lake to Päijänne, descending 12 meters on the way, so it is no wonder the water flows pretty fast. The shallow river doesn't seem fit for kayaking because of the rocks but it is very popular among fishermen.
The path takes me up to Muuramentie road and right next to the bridge across the river. The large windows reveal that the wooden building must have been a shop earlier. Today it is home to Piano Jylhä.
The engraving on the stone bridge dates it back to 1898 when Finland was still part of Russia.
When I look upstream from the bridge towards Muuratjärvi lake the river seems to flow very gently.
However, immediately after the bridge the river seems to catch speed so there must be a bit of a drop already. The wooden construction on the right has been used for guiding floating logs downstream - no idea when that ended here. So glad I walked up here to get a good view of the stream from above!
I return downstream and follow the nature trail for a while through a now barren meadow - with all leaves having already fallen down - but hear the river calling me again. The opposite shore reveals the former furniture factory building I passed earlier. Fly fishing continues in this spot; the river is mostly very shallow but right in front of me the water is 5 meters deep, giving a better chance for catching fish. However, it seems that the fish are not in the mood for the elaborately made flies today.
If the fast flowing water has attacked the sandy riverbank a bit too fiercely, these poor birches have been victims of unthinking humans. If you want to make a fire, bring some kindling with you. There are shops only some hundred meters from here if you come unprepared. Never cut birch bark from a living tree! It doesn't grow back quickly but the trees stay like this.
Behind the old birches the water is totally still, reflecting the trees like a huge mirror. A total change of atmosphere from the more noisy white water only a little distance away! I slow down my step and find it is a wise decision because the duckboards are even more slippery than I anticipated. Watch your step!
The quiet waters have risen very high here. Some of the duckboards and part of the wooden bridge across to the other side of the river have suffered somewhat...
Despite the bridge being even partly under water, it is great to cross it and admire the scenery on the way. Some ingenious soul has kindly brought a wide board here as temporary help, to enable us to to walk across without getting your shoes wet.
A meadow, then a swamp. Such a great place - so many different faces to it within such a short distance from each other!
Walking a bit further along the path, the water is wonderfully still and here it looks like this is a small lake.
Therefore I get another surprise when the path reaches another bridge. The white water flows down so fast! Earlier, the dam blocked access for the migrating fish that would have wanted to swim upstream but then a fishway was built on the right side. In the fishway, the water doesn't flow as aggressively and even fish which are not as strong swimmers are able to get upstream. How kind!
I listen to the rumble of the white water which soon fades away as I return to the still waters. The nature trail is a circular route and very soon I arrive where I started from. Before that, there is a bit of a damp patch which indicates that if the water level keeps rising, the trail will need to be moved a bit higher.

Muurame river nature trail is a real gem that is worth a visit any time of the year. I can hardly wait to see it when the snow has fallen and the river is at least partly frozen, or in early summer, surrounded by the fresh shades of green, or in September-October when the leaves are turning yellow!