Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Sarkasvuori rock painting, Juva

The ice-covered, winding roads force me to drive extremely carefully to my destination at Juva, southern Savo, Finland. I take a free mini-cruise on on ferry (1-2 minutes, there is no bridge) to Hirvensalo before reaching Uimasalo and Ristilampi lake. The spring hasn't arrived here just yet although it is on its way; it is still the ice age of winter 2013 and the lakes are frozen which means that I don't need to follow the marked path to the rock paintings. I pick up my snowshoes...
Or should have bothered to take the snowshoes with me at all? There seems to be so little snow left on the ice that I really don't need to wear them when walking on Ristilampi lake. Oh well, they might come in handy later.
I wonder if that rock has something to do with the rock paintings?
As soon as I leave the lake the snowshoes come in handy. There is still plenty of snow on the ground. I walk up to the rocks by Ristilampi lake and find out that this is a prehistoric quartz quarry, not yet a place to discover rock paintings.
In this distant place there have been people hard at work such a long time ago! Just imagine - quartz from this very rock has been used for knives or arrow heads in the Stone, Bronze or Iron Age and the tools used in the excavation weren't exactly modern.
I follow the arrow sign and the occasional red ribbons tied on trees to head for the rock paintings. The ravine between the rocks offers plenty to see around me: there are gorgeous icicle formations both on my right and left. I keep following the red ribbons as long as I can but when there are no further ribbons, keep on walking, in the hopes of arriving at the right place. However, when I reach a lake, I quickly realize that it is a whole lot bigger than the one I have memorized on the map before arriving here so I'd better head back and try again.
Yes, it is indeed interesting to be out walking without a printed map, trying to memorize the map from an online service that doesn't seem to be available when I'm on the spot. Wonder why I prefer to carry a printed map with me whenever I can instead of relying always on my cell phone? But no, it isn't really a problem because this is such a small area and I remember which way the right lake was supposed to be. Very soon I am walking on Sarkaslampi lake and start scanning the rocks for a rock painting. It goes on for a while... without success. I should probably have followed the trail (that is somewhere high up) instead of walking on the ice because there might be a sign leading me to the rock painting at this end of the lake.
I keep on walking slowly on the ice and lose my hope of spotting the first rock painting. However, as soon as I have passed the group of guys who have been winter fishing on the lake (and who are enjoying their break by an open fire) I spot an interesting looking rock and a sign beneath it. Once I'm there, it doesn't take long to find the  Sarkasvuori rock painting - it is clearly an elk! The rock painting is a couple of metres from the ground - the water level was much higher earlier - and the elk dates probably back to 3300-3700 B.C.
This is how long-lived artwork was made before spray cans took over. The red paint has survived surprisingly well over the years, telling its greetings from the days gone by so long ago. It is very easy to see the elk but the shape above it could be whatever. A human? I'm glad that the water level in lake Saimaa is exactly where it is now so that it is not possible to reach the elk painting and it can stay as it is, protected by law but unguarded here by a small lake in the middle of nothing. Almost.

The fishermen return back to the ice and sit down on their stools to continue fishing on this beautiful, sunny day. I wave a hello and walk past them to find my way back to Ristilampi. I feel a pang of sadness; this may well be my last snowshoeing trip this winter that is clearly turning to spring.

Map of Ristilampi - Sarkasvuori, Juva

Monday, 8 April 2013

Laukaa: Scenic Hyyppäänvuori

I just can't imagine a more beautiful day for a snowshoeing trip! My destination is a hilltop which some have claimed to be the equivalent of the famous Koli (of North Karelia) in the province of Central Finland. Hyyppäänvuori hill is located on the southwestern shore of lake Lievestuore in Laukaa and it rises to 171 meters above sea level. There are more than one path leading to its top; I select the shorter, unmarked one via Ruoholahdentie, being lucky in finding a place to park (for there really isn't parking available) by the side of the road only a little distance away. Also, finding the unmarked trail is easy because there are some footprints in the snow leading to the right direction.
Climbing to the top of Hyyppäänvuori is very good excercise. The path winds up the steep hill slowly but surely and I feel almost sorry for the cross-country skier who has also gone up the same way. When I am close to the top, I also encounter the marked trail which joins my path from the west.
Parts of Hyyppäänvuori area are also parts of a nature reserve maintained by Metsähallitus. As I'm out here without a map, having arrived here by following instructions only, it's great to see where exactly I am on the map as well as where the marked trail would have been (had I known about it!). Good to know for the next visit which might well take place when the snow is gone.
Well, I must say the view isn't too bad. Not bad at all. The view must be one of the best in Central Finland. And  there is no need for an observation tower because there are no trees blocking the panorama and there is a sheer drop right in front of me.
The lonely, grey pine tree strikes a weary pose for me. I stand still in the snow for a long time, gazing the blue-tinted view around me, and hear no sound, not even from a distance.
The other handsome, already grey or slowly greying pine trees may not be hundreds of years old but they are charming just the way they are. Let me think - there was also supposed to be a cave around here. It must be somewhere beneath me.
I take care in descending the rocky slope in my snowshoes and hope that I won't miss the cave; I have no idea how big or small it could be. Once I'm safely down, I start following the rocks and it seems pretty promising. I wonder if that can already be labeled a cave?
A couple more steps and... No doubt about it, this is a proper cave and it's easy to enter it, without needing to wriggle in through a tiny hole. I can well imagine someone must have slept here, safe from the wind and the rain. I guess these days this is not meant to be used for spending a night here... and making a fire in this area is forbidden.
I climb back up the hill and rejoin the trail that goes round the scenic Hyyppäänvuori, giving a view to almost every direction. If you are visiting Hyyppäänvuori and don't want to go down and visit the cave, you can also get a temporary shelter by sitting under the large rock by the path. Again, making the fire is forbidden and there is no fireplace offered here, unlike in many other nature trails. It is quite understandable because this gorgeous area had better stay as it is!

I walk down the hill with a light step, choosing a different shortcut to the road in my snowshoes now that I know the way. Hyyppäänvuori may not be the equivalent of Koli, and Lake Lievestuore doesn't exactly equal the huge lake Pielinen in North Karelia, but to me Hyyppäänvuori is now definitely among the most scenic spots in Central Finland. I hope to return here in the summer!

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Tornio: Nivavaara hill

Karunki, Lapland, by Tornio River and E8 road. Close to a roadside car park there is a black sign Näköalapolku (Panorama Path). We cross the railroad tracks and wonder should we walk straight on or turn left. We keep on walking straight uphill, with the sun behind us, until I realize the road is turning the wrong way, towards the right.
Guess we missed the panorama path but that's no problem; we're well equipped. A quick check of the map on the cellphone - and it's snowshoe time! We will make our own trail to the top of Nivavaara hill. If we manage to find it, that is.
The shadows are creating new shapes on the crisp, windswept snow.
It is totally quiet around us but we are not exactly making a lot of noise. However, the Black Grouse (if that's what it was) manages to hear us approach and takes off to the top of a nearby tree, leaving a snow angel behind him or her.
We march on with our snowshoes and try to keep going in the right direction. It isn't exactly easy because the land rises very gently and there are quite a few trees; perhaps that's a bit higher, and that...As if it were hard to find a hilltop!
This piece of grey wood is what is left of an old tree. A work of art in itself, and probably untouched by human hands. Even mine. It feels good to choose exactly where to go instead of following cross country skiing tracks or a ready made path, even if that would be easier. After a while we however meet snowmobile tracks but that's ok; it seems we're still heading in the right direction.
And here we are: on the top of Nivavaara hill where there are some signs of humans in the form of masts and even a little cottage, albeit a deserted one. Down below is the Tornio River thanks to which it is very easy to not get lost - you only have to keep it on your left!
My guess is that somewhere under this pile of snow there are the remains of an old triangulation tower so this is probably the very top of Nivavaara hill: 124.4 meters above sea level and a guaranteed lookout spot. Nivavaara was visited also by Pierre Louis de Maupertuis in 1736 when this French astronomer and mathematician and his team were conducting their measurements to confirm the shape of the earth. Back then they could see Tornio church tower in the south as well as Aavasaksa hilltop in the north.
Either the scientists' eyesight was far better than mine or they must have carried a telescope with them. I really can't spot Tornio, looking south. It is far too bright... Anyway, I am quite happy with just enjoying the fabulous view from the top of the hill; a true panorama. How about a cup of tea from a flask? Yes, please!

Apparently there is a place where you can make a fire somewhere quite near us but we don't bother to look for it seriously. No need. From here we simply need to choose our own way down as we can't miss the road which runs parallel to the Tornio River. There are not too many footprints on the snow, not even by animals...
We meander downhill through the woods, again ignoring the 'official' trail that must be somewhere close by, under the snow. Soon we arrive among young pines among which there is something taller. It really is a single pine tree but from the distance, counting the tree tops, you could think there are four growing extremely close to each other! No wonder they let it grow... Hope it's gonna stay there for many years to come.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Ylitornio: Panoramic Aavasaksa

Oh Aavasaksa beautiful! And thy sky so blue! Aavasaksa and the its neighbour Tornio River valley are among the 27 national attractions in Finland and the site has been famous for centuries, mostly because of Midnight Sun. The hilltop offers great views - also across the border to Sweden - so it is well worth a visit. I plan to take over the hilltop on snowshoes, but put them on only after entering the Aavasaksan kruununpuisto (Aavasaksa's Crown Park - the name dates back to the days when Finland was not yet a democracy). One of the marked routes on Aavasaksa will take me up, around the hilltop and back down to the holiday village.
I step on the pure, white snow and locate the marked Kruununkierros (Crown Tour) trail; more by the footprints of the previous walker than by the trail marks which are almost totally buried under the snow. I might even attempt to follow the trail without snowshoes but as they give me the liberty to step off the track, I prefer to wear snowshoes. Very soon I spot footprints, or hoof prints by some other creatures. And some fresh droppings. A flock of reindeer must have just passed by!
Aavasaksa hill is not very steep on this side. However, the gradual ascent soon takes me high enough to get a good view to the south although I am not even close to the hilltop. A sign by the path informs me that there were ancient trees here until Pierre Louis de Maupertuis and his expedition came to Aavasaksa in 1736-37 to conduct their measurements, having determined it a great place as a triangulation point when they were examining the shape of the Earth. To be able to see well enough to the next triangulation points, they needed an open view and thus demanded the trees to be cut down from the hilltop.
The wind has created interesting formations of snow around some pine trees which typically may grow to a funny, slightly curly shape in a place like this. However, the sun is doing its best to destroy the natural snow hut.
Aavasaksa's hilltop was never buried underwater like many of its neighbours; after the Ice Age was over and the ice started melting, the hilltop was an island in the ice-cold sea which reached 208 meters higher than the sea level is today. So...the waves were splashing against the rocks not too far from me. Down below is Tengeliö River which goes round Aavasaksa hill before it meets the great Tornio River. I walk a bit further - and over there the fantastic view opens to the north. If the sun is not hidden behind clouds at Midsummer, you simply can't miss it from this hilltop.
I look to my left and see a statue between the trees. Annikki Kariniemi (1913-84) was a Finnish author whose work focused on her native Lapland.
There are several marked trails that circle on Aavasaksa - the yellow one is called Sun Tour, the brown one Imperial Tour, the black one Crown Tour. The blue line marks a cross country skiing track. I step off the trail and climb to the top where the buildings are, among them the observation tower from where you get the best views. When I reach the tower, I hear that a flock of reindeer has indeed just passed the hill - did I see them? A close shave. Just their droppings.
After I brush away a bit of snow, the interesting looking caged rock turns out to be a memorial for Pierre Louis de Maupertuis and the expedition of L'Académie Française that came here in mid 18th century to do their measurements. The Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius - who we are to thank for the Celsius thermometer - was also part of this expedition. Based on his measurements along Tornio River, Maupertuis managed to prove that the Earth is flattened near the poles.
Maupertuis may have been the first to conduct such significant measurements atop Aavasaksa but about one hundred years later another astronomer Friedrich von Struve had the triangulation points marked permanently. Aavasaksa is part of the Struve Geodetic Arc which is on the Unesco World Heritage list, as one of the six protected such points in Finland. Struve was also measuring the shape of the earth and he came to Aavasaksa in 1845. The triangulation point is on the highest point of Aavasaksa, at 242 meters above sea level, which is right under the observation tower.
To my delight, the observation tower is open also in winter! The steps are inside the tower so you can climb up without being exposed to the wind.
From the observation tower the views are breathtaking on this sunny day which is so bright that my eyes almost hurt. Behind the Imperial Lodge the view extends across the Tornio River which marks the border between Finland and Sweden. So yes, on the other side of the river there are Swedish mountains.
Tourists and travellers have come to Aavasaksa to admire the views especially in the summer for centuries. One of the people who planned a visit to Aavasaksa as part of his trip to Ostrobothnia and Lapland, was Alexander II, Czar of Russia and Grand Duke of Finland. The Imperial Lodge was built in his honour in 1882 but unfortunately, the Czar never came here. Luckily, the building is still there and it has been restored.
The Imperial Lodge combines many different styles and different types of ornaments. The Lodge is only open in summer but this is nothing new; I am used to finding closed doors on my winter trips, especially now that the schools' winter holiday season is over.
So naturally it is not possible to shop in the Jugend style kiosk (1912) either.
I leave the hilltop and start the descent but instead of heading straight back to the marked trail, enjoy my freedom trail on the pure white snow. There is no fear of getting lost; I can focus on enjoying the sun, the view to Tornio River, the silence around me. Only occasionally do I hear a motor somewhere in the distance. 
Finally, I end up back on the Crown Trail and check out the shelter - very few logs left for making a fire but I'm quite happy without it now - before heading to the holiday village where I started from.
Goodbye to all the snow-covered trees and the gorgeous views of Aavasaksa!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Kemi: Fantasy SnowCastle

I'm dazzled. There is so much light! The sun is so bright and the sky so blue - this is Kemi, Finland, and the SnowCastle. This SnowCastle hasn't been built by children; it was sculpted by professionals. The snow castle tradition goes back quite a few years: this is the 18th consecutive snow castle built here. I walk along the frozen seashore towards the monstrous entrance to this winter landmark of Kemi.
Once inside the snow castle, and especially in the SnowChapel, time stands still. The green light behind the altar is soothing, there are a couple of lit candles to which I add mine. The miniature ship is something that is typically decorating the churches and chapels in the coast and archipelago of Finland.
There are clear blocks of ice - I wonder if they are pieces of ice from the Gulf of Bothnia - at the end of chapel benches. Very simple artwork. Some couples get married in the chapel of the SnowCastle every year. The atmostphere in such events must be both pretty cool and pretty warm!
Right next door to the chapel, there is a hall where you can sit down for a hot or cold drink by long tables made of solid ice. If you fall short of conversation topics, just have a look around you - there's plenty to watch and talk about!
Like the fantastic creatures around you, standing on the floor,  or sticking to the ceiling. The theme of the SnowCastle 2013 is Fantasy. 
There are ethereal maidens, fantastic animals but also a huge, gentle looking monster. Who's got his eyes glued to a lovely young ice maiden.
However, the Ice Maiden doesn't wink an eye but stays cool and keeps her pose.
I walk from one hall to another, moving from one atmosphere to another. In the Space Gallery there is an eerie blue light, as if it were night time, there are stars and planets in the sky. And some birds. Silent, but angry.
If it weren't such a bright day and if it were much later, I might feel tempted to stay on and spend a night in the SnowCastle, lie down on the furs
and fall asleep in the snow hotel room, under the snow fresco with a kid riding on a polar bear...
But no! I want to get back to the sunlight! On my way out, I pass quite a few gorgeous works of art: more sculptures made of ice or snow, on every room or hall. Hello, ice penguins! How are you doing, Mr Snow Fox? Oh, you just pulled a snow rabbit out of a hat!
At this time of the day, there are no live performances on the outdoor stage so I head up to the top of the building to get a view of Kemi seashore. All frozen, of course, and the Gulf of Bothnia is all white, with quite a few people either walking or cross country skiing on the ice. What a great view and a great snow castle -  Kemi SnowCastle was definitely worth a visit!