On a trip to Finland, Lucy Oates tries to get up close and personal with the country’s wildlife.
It’s 4.30am and I’m with a small, bleary-eyed group of wildlife enthusiasts who have trooped – in total silence – into dense forest in the Satakunta region of Finland. Huddled together around a group of rocks, we sit like statues listening as Finland’s self-styled moose whisperer makes an almighty noise somewhere between a moo and a bellow. The only light is from an almost full moon, and the occasional rustling of leaves and snapping of twigs is a reminder that we’re not alone; many of the forest’s inhabitants are most active at night. In a country where wolves, bears and other large mammals still roam, it’s a little nerve-wracking but, at the same time, terribly exciting.
Our guide, nature expert Esko Inberg, can accurately mimic the sounds of a variety of birds and animals. As day breaks, vast flocks of ducks and geese rise from misty lakes and a tremendous barking sound starts up close by. In whispered tones, Esko informs us that it’s a male roe deer.
We wait for more than two hours in all and it’s an absolute privilege to be in the forest as the sun comes up. Unfortunately, the moose never return Esko’s calls and we leave without seeing them. He texts later in the day saying that he’d tracked the moose down to an area just over a mile away on the other side of the river; it turns out that we were just unlucky on this occasion.
The Satakunta region is located in the west of Finland and its coastline borders the Baltic Sea. The interior is covered in thick forest and thousands of crystal clear lakes, and along the picturesque coastline there are hundreds of tiny islands. Not surprisingly, Finnish people love spending time outdoors and most families have what’s known as a ‘summer cottage’, where they spend as much time as possible during the warmer months. These cottages are almost always located by water, and usually feature a sauna and outdoor barrel bath (a traditional type of hot tub), both of which are integral to Finnish culture. It’s very much the norm to retire to the sauna with friends and family after dinner, or enjoy a barrel bath under the stars. There’s no light pollution so the clear night skies are a sight to behold.
Moose spotting is just one of a host of activities that visitors can enjoy in Satakunta, and we also tried our hand at salmon fishing on the River Kokemenjoki. Although huge salmon were leaping from the water all around us, we novices somehow only managed to catch a couple of small rainbow trout and a pike. I suspect that those with more fishing knowledge would have no problem catching salmon.
The meat-eaters in our party relished the opportunity to try game – deer and moose – when we enjoyed lunch at a beautiful, remote location in the forest, where visitors can enjoy wildlife spotting or hunting. Thankfully, salmon is pretty much always on the menu in Finland, which suited me just fine. The traditional cooking method is to lightly salt a whole side of salmon, attach it to a wooden board and roast it over an open fire, which resulted in the best salmon I’ve ever tasted.
There was one activity in our itinerary that I’d been dreading; church boat rowing across Lake Joutsijrvi. I’m not exactly known for my rowing prowess and church boats are extra-long rowing boats in which more than a dozen people sit in pairs, moving their oars in sync with one another. At first I really struggled to get the hang of it and felt like I was letting the side down. I don’t know if it was the coffee and pancakes that we cooked over a campfire in the forest at the other side of the vast lake that boosted my energy levels, but on the way back I finally found my rhythm.
By this time I was more than ready for an afternoon of pampering at Villa Grankulla, a beautifully restored 19th century country house. A wonderful massage was followed by a divine afternoon tea in an exquisite dining room with views down towards the sea. There are a wide range of accommodation options – I stayed in a farmhouse in the forest that had been sensitively converted into B&B accommodation; a family-friendly log cabin equipped with all the mod cons and a super-stylish modern holiday cottage by the sea. It’s also possible to stay in a traditional Finnish summer cottage, with no running water or electricity (and a compost toilet). I visited the eco-friendly Green Team Viherranta on a tiny island that can only be reached by boat.
It was here that I spent my last evening in Finland and, whilst enjoying a soak in the outdoor barrel bath, I heard mooing sounds coming from the forest. I asked my hosts if there were any cows nearby and was informed that it was moose. Although I didn’t quite manage to see them, it was pleasing to know they were nearby.
Driving back through the forest late that night, there was a brief glimpse of something even more thrilling; a light coloured dog-like animal was caught in the headlights for a split second.
Although there’s no way we can be sure, Janna – my host and an avid wildlife spotter – felt the most likely explanation was that we’d just seen a wolf. It was a perfect end to a truly memorable trip.
• Flights: Lucy flew to Tampere in Finland from Stansted with Ryanair, but you can also fly from Manchester with Finnair. Lucy travelled to Stansted Airport by train from York, changing at Peterborough.
Accommodation and activities: This online guide to nature tourism activities and accommodation in Satakunta features many of the places Lucy visited: http://issuu.com/satakuntaliitto/docs/naturetourism_web