The rugged forest wildernesses of Kuusamo, with their hills, gorges, rushing rivers and foaming rapids nearly take one's breath away. Many have been charmed by these landscapes so indelibly that they have to get back every year, to experience the magnificent colour display of autumn or the exuberant verdance of early summer.
Kuusamo is where one finds Europe's last forest wildernesses, just south of the Arctic Circle and the treeless wildernesses of Lapland. It is the westernmost place in Europe where one can find many of the features of taiga forest. Located 300 metres above sea level, Kuusamo has the flora, climate and annual precipitation amount typical of the taiga. The tall, narrow-branches "candle spruces" that grow there have evolved into that shape to allow them to bear an enormous snow burden in winter. Only 50 kilometres further west, both the spruces and the terrain are completely different.
The Oulanka National Park (area 27,000 hectares) is unique in its landscapes, soil and plant life. Many place names are reminders of ancient Sami culture (the word Oulanka itself is Sami for "flood"). The River Oulankajoki and its tributaries have carved steep gorges from the bedrock and in places rush through sets of rapids, which fall as much as 14 metres in a hundred. True to its name, the river floods in spring, and it is then that the rapids foam most spectacularly. Once the waters have receded, the flood meadows become glowing seas of yellow globeflowers.
The national park has an impressive variety of habitats. Dense spruce forest on rich, moss-blanketed soils alternate with pine stands on barren land, river valleys and rocky fell slopes with mixed forests and various types of bogs. These and microclimatic factors in many places create favourable conditions for a rich variety of plant life. More than 500 plant species have been identified, many of them rare. They include several splendid orchids, such as the Dark Red Helleborine Epipactis atrorubens, the Calypso Orchid or Fairy Slipper Calypso bulbosa and...
...the Lady's Slipper Cypripedium calceolus,
often described as Europe's most beautiful orchid.
The fauna in the park is likewise rich and includes the three biggest predators in Finland: bear, wolf and wolverine. The most visible mammals are reindeer, which anyone hiking in the park is pretty sure to come across, as well as elk and hares. The 100 or so bird species that nest in the park include rarities like the Red-flanked Bluetail and the Little Bunting.
The best way to see the park is to hike through it, for example following the clearly marked 80-km trail called the Bear's Ring. A favourite with hikers for over 40 years, the trail takes 4-5 days to cover and leads hikers on an adventure through gorges, ancient forest and along the edges of hills and rapids. Along the way is the most spectacular scenery. Despite the name, one does not encounter bears along the trail and, except in the peak season, one could well hike for a day without seeing another person. At fairly short intervals along the way, there are wilderness cabins where the hiker can sleep overnight or pause for a rest. There are also several shorter trails in the area, including the 9-km Little Bear's Ring.
The most popular hiking tours are those in autumn, when the trees and the ground-hugging plants erupt in a riot of yellows and browns and V-shaped formations of cranes migrating south glide across the sky. With a little luck on a dark autumn evening, you may see the Aurora Borealis flickering mysteriously in the heavens. Spring comes late to Kuusamo, but the last of the snow has usually melted away by the last week of May or the first week of June. Then the wilderness pulses with life, the landscape resounds to the spring songs of migratory birds and the swollen rivers foam as they flow. Then when spring turns to summer it is time for an invasion of hordes of mosquitoes and other stinging insects, and most hikers quickly leave. However, effective repellents and suitable garments make it possible to survive these pests.
With the assistance of a skilled guide, the hiker can also shoot the rapids in safety. There are several routes, everything from fairly tranquil family ones to thrilling experiences for the really daring. The landscape can also be admired from canoes and her too the range of routes suits all levels.