Peering out of the upper storey of the train as it trundled out of Helsinki and then sped through mile after mile of pine forests, I wondered what our chances were of seeing any big wildlife. We were heading for a reserve close to the Russian border not far from the Arctic Circle so surely the animals would be scarce and scattered? And how voracious would those midges be?
On arrival the little Martinselkosen hotel at Eräkeskus, Riina asked us whether we had any dietary requirements and, as I tend to eat anything when I’m travelling, I said no and she looked relieved. Rural Finns are meat and two veg people. They were clearly relieved we were not vegetarian.
Our first outing was a boat trip with Markku, a suitably weather-beaten, bearded woodsman who soon proved he knew his forest and its inhabitants. He talked fondly of hunting and shooting trips and of the satisfaction of killing your own meat, though he did say that he didn’t understand people who shot bears or wolves just for the thrill of it. It felt significant that there were no ducks on the tranquil, forest-fringed lake. He told us that Finnish forest contains only three kinds of trees: black pine, spruce and silver birch. It is the pine that is most valuable and on the train we’d seen lots of clear-felled areas. The local technique is to leave a few pines standing to allow reseeding – of the species that will fetch the highest price. This means that the forests become ever less and less diverse.
The spiky dark green pine horizon was perfectly reflected in a mirror-like lake. White waterlilies bobbed on inky blue water. Mayflies danced and dipped. A merlin flew over. A couple of sandpipers ran around at the shoreline. It felt as if there should be more birdlife.
‘Mind if I fish?’ He asked us.
I kind of read in his face, ‘These two are probably namby-pamby vegetarians.’ He was probably used to fussy sentimental Brits.
‘No, by all means – go ahead,’ I said.
He chatted at length about how the Fins had hunted out their bears, dammed their rivers so salmon could no longer use them, decimated the elk population, eradicated their wolves but conservationists have been heard and now bears, wolves and elk have been allowed to come back (mainly from Russia) and were partially protected. These days there are about 5.5 million people and 3500 bears in Finland. There is gun licencing and in order to shoot wild animals you have to join a hunting club and each club has a quota – they are licenced to kill 1% of the bear population every year, though I’ve no idea how effectively this is policed. It feels a long way from anyway here. Markku went on, ‘Last year a bear was found dead in this part of the forest. Autopsy concluded that it had been shot by Russian border guards – they aren’t very good shots – and he had come into this part of the forest to die.’
His fishing line twitched then was pulled into an elegant curve as the creature on the other end fought for its life. Markku played with it, waiting for it to tire. He reeled it in, it fought back. Mud-brown fins broke the water surface. Shiny belly scales glinted as the fish writhed and thrashed. Finally he reeled it in and a magnificent pike hung by the hook piercing its mouth.
I wondered how many more Brits would become vegetarian if they had to witness their meat struggling like this before it died. I used to share a flat with an arachnophobic who felt butchers shouldn’t be allowed to hang dead rabbits up in their shop windows. She bought her meat in neatly packaged, plastic wrapped slabs that didn’t look like bits of dead animals. She also tried to incite me to murder the spiders that so scared her, not being satisfied with a simple eviction into the garden.
Markku said, ‘The pike fought well and she is only young. She gets to live.’
He cut the hook out of her mouth and threw her back in, and with a splash and flick of her tail she was gone.
He prepared another lure, restarted the quiet little engine and we chuntered on. He told us how Fins go stir crazy in the winter and do mad stuff when the sun returns to the land. There are trials of endurance. Men strip naked and sit on ants’ nests. The winner is the guy who stays longest. Finnish ants are large. Their jaws are large and because of the formic acid they produce, bites hurt like hell – especially if they are on the nether regions. Other men compete to see how long they can stay in a super-heated sauna. One guy covered himself in wax to help keep the heat off him. He ended up badly burned. Another took medicines so he wouldn’t feel the heat so badly – and died of heat stroke. ‘It is part of winter craziness,’ Markku explained.
The line arced again. ‘Wow this is a really big one!’ It fought harder and longer. Markku reeled it in. It managed to swim away. He reeled in again. It swam away again. I saw a big mouth and teeth.
‘I need to let her tire,’ Markku said. And tire she did eventually. This pike was huge. ‘The kitchen will be happy with me,’ he said. Eventually he was able to bring her aboard and cut out the hook while she thrashed and fought.
He said, ‘You don’t need to watch the next part.’ He pulled out something like a screwdriver and plunged it into the pike’s brain, perhaps a dozen times. Blood splattered around his end of the boat as the fish continued to thrash. Slowly the life ebbed away from the creature although over the next quarter of an hour or more she gave another flick or paroxysm. We probably looked somewhat horrified so he told us another tale. The border is well patrolled by Russians soldiers so that Russians can’t escape. There are Finnish border guards too but they have very little to do. A year or two back though there was a fad whereby young men sneaked into Russia for fun. For excitement. The idea was to see how far they could get before being picked up and some of them ended up an awful lot further into Russia than they ever imagined. The Russians of course wanted to make an example of them and sent them to Siberia. It took quite a lot of Finnish diplomacy to get them home.
The fashion for this prank became a lot less popular when it was realised that the Russians didn’t find such hijinks amusing. Perhaps this was another bit of Finnish winter madness.
For a little more on this trip and some bear photos click on Finnish wildlife (2)
| Markku felt that the middle finger was deliberately drawn longer on this border warning
|There are plenty of places to wild swim in Finnish lakes