10 INTERESTING FACTS FROM THE LAND OF A THOUSAND LAKES
For a long time, I used to long to escape into the wild. Then one day I learned about Finland, the land of endless forests, tranquil groves, numerous tourist shelters and thousands of lakes. Finland is largely a flat country with an extensive network of side roads where there is hardly any traffic. It seemed to be the perfect destination for a (recumbent) cyclist. What is more, my friend Kuba was as excited as me. All we needed to do was to buy our flight tickets, pack our gear and set off to see this country for ourselves.
Contributed by Marek Liška
There weren’t that many times we had an opportunity to speak to passing natives. The Finnish are quite a reserved bunch of people who do not often like to venture outside their personal space. And where we did manage to strike up a conversation, one of the first questions that bombarded us was: “Why did you come to Finland? There’s nothing here…” Well, in a way, they were right. Apart from a few towns with a distinct lack of any interesting monuments, there was “just” nature. But it was precisely the nature that made us decide for Finland. The endless beautiful forests, tranquil gravel paths snaking around lakes and excellent tourist shelters all over Finland are simply exceptional. Not to mention that in most places you will hardly spot any movement at all. And if a car does happen to pass through, the driver will be extremely cautious. It is no surprise that the Finns are considered to be the best drivers in the world.
The land of silence
We discovered how silent the country can be as soon as we left the picturesque village of Fiskars, the headquarters of a world famous gardening tool company. In this region, we rode through one of the most beautiful stretches of our whole trip. We covered fifty kilometres of wilderness with dozens of lakes and on a wide tranquil gravel road. Far and wide, there was not a soul in sight, just us, our bikes and nature. We were so enthralled with one of the lakes we were passing that we decided to stop and spend the night there and also enjoyed one of our first evening dips in the lake. Anything resembling a swimsuit was, of course, completely unnecessary. After dinner, we lay down outside our tent and revelled in the beauty that was all around us. For the first time ever in my life I experienced absolute silence. It was almost unpleasant to hear nothing outside. It felt as if one had gone deaf for a while
If you like wild camping, you will certainly love Finland. Why? Finland is one of the few countries where wild camping is legal. There is even a “law” which the Finnish call Everyman’s right, whereby you are free to put up a tent anywhere as long as you stay within a certain distance from a dwelling. In addition, you are free to collect blueberries and mushrooms of which there is a great abundance. You can also take advantage of a Laavu (you shall read about them shortly). In return, you are expected to respect the nature as well as all the living creatures that share your space, and other person’s property. You mustn’t leave any waste behind and you must respect the regulations in the national nature reserves. You can usually find them on notice boards when you enter the parks. In some places, it is forbidden to camp away from designated areas, in others you must not drive any motor vehicles, etc.
Comfort above all
We set off for Finland with our not so ordinary bikes. We took our recumbents, namely one full-suspension recumbent trike and one full-suspension recumbent bike. For both me and Kuba it was our first long-distance experience with recumbents and I must say we were more than happy. To me, riding a recumbent bike was like getting panoramic views while sitting on a comfy sofa. There was no backache, no pain in the shoulders and no bruised bottom. Every time I would ride an ordinary bike, after a couple of days, I would feel that getting on was a necessary evil that I had to survive in order to see something new. Riding a recumbent felt like the very opposite, I looked forward to getting on every morning! Of course, everything has its advantages and disadvantages. The biggest problem for me was probably the deep gravel which caused the tyres to sink in and many a times I ended up on the ground. Nevertheless, I think this would have been a problem with an ordinary bike as well. And Kuba’s trike had to be nearly completely taken apart to get it on the plane. It doesn’t take that long really, but it is quite hard to pack the trike well enough so as it doesn’t get damaged during transport. You know what they are like at airports…
Laavu – charming tourist shelters
Laavu is about 3771 tourist shelters all over Finland. You can download the Laavu database as a GPX file at www.laavu.org. For example, you can upload the file to your smartphone and use a GPX Viewer to find the Laavu you need. Did you know that each of them have a person assigned to care for it? It means that most of them are in perfect condition! A typical Laavu is a shelter with one side open and a raised sleeping deck. In most cases there is also a fire pit with a grate, an axe and a saw. We even came across some that had a pile of logs ready to use, a chemical toilet and a water supply, once we slept in a tepee with the fire in the middle. Overall, we used Laavu in Finland quite often. At times, it was the goal of our daily stretch, simply because there were no other places to aim for. And it was quite an adventure to look for one, I would compare it to Geocaching. Instead of using GPS to look for treasure, in Finland we looked for Laavus. It might sound like a piece of cake, but even with GPS, it is quite easy to miss a small hut in a deep forest. There were many times we actually ended up setting up the tent.
A student’s dream
In the student city of Jyväskylä, we were able to visit our friend Lukáš, who is studying there. We arrived at the time of preparations for a new semester. Lukáš offered us a night at the student dorms and for a few days he became our “guide”. I must say that as soon as we entered the dorm, I was surprised by the quality of accommodation. Everything was modern, clean and undamaged, and even the apartment itself was very comfortable and well equipped. It seemed like a dream for many students who live in dorms. And what’s more, it was the first time for us we tried the Finnish sauna. Everyone has a sauna in Finland. Why not, the Finns stick to a rule to build a sauna first and the house later. Here, at the students dorm, they stuck to this rule too, although not quite literally. The sauna was located on the top floor of a multi-storey building. Although there was no cooling pool, you could get onto the roof via the balcony. So we sat on the roof and cooled down while watching the city go around its business almost as if it were lying at our feet. In the evening, we were invited to the first meet and greet party of students who came to Finland to spend a year as a part of the Erasmus exchange programme. Most people were running around trying to get to know as many people as possible. Not us. We just kept saying that we were only having a beer there, that we had recumbent bikes parked downstairs and that tomorrow we were heading for Helsinki. You should have seen the people’s faces. 🙂
Outdoor activities are very popular in Finland, especially canoeing, fishing, hiking, cycling and tramping. If you are so inclined, you will be able to carry out all these activities in the many national parks. The parks we visited were not so different from the rest of the nature around, apart from the fact they had an extensive network of hiking trails and beautiful rest areas. We saw people kayaking, fishermen waiting for their catch, tourists walking around and even some guys on FAT bikes. One evening, we met a Finnish Scout group who arrived at the Laavu we were near to. These kids, aged about 8-18 years, came to spend the night playing some kind of a night adventure game and camp in tents… Finns definitely know how to enjoy life.
Mosquitoes and flying “ticks”
Mosquitoes are your number one enemy in Finland, so we were expecting huge swarms that would bother us at every step. However, we did not experience anything like that during our trip. Apparently it gets worse the more north you go. Of course, there are mosquitoes in the south of Finland, but certainly not in quantities that would require putting up a mosquito net and bathing yourself in an insect repellent. What worked quite well for us was a Raid mosquito coil. Every evening, we would light a couple of them around our tent and sit outside without being bothered by the pesky things. Nevertheless, one thing that did surprise us was the deer fly, which we unfortunately encountered every single day. It is a small fly that stings and sucks your blood, therefore nicknamed a flying tick. When it landed on our skin, even while we were riding our bikes, it really did give us hard time as it is able to hold onto human skin very firmly. The bodies of these bloodthirsty parasites are very flexible and resilient so we had to grasp them hard between two fingers and flatten them between our nails. It was particularly bad when they got under our helmets, we had to stop then. Anyway, deer flies are not found just in Finland, you can come across them in the Czech Republic as well.
The cruel north rain
We visited Finland in August which is supposed to be one of the wettest months of the year regarding rainfall. In reality, it wasn’t that bad, but I am not going to lie, we did get wet. Every day. The worst and heaviest rain fell mostly overnight, though at times things did not work out and we would spend half a day riding through relentless rain. A good waterproof jacket and overtrousers are an absolute must. I personally appreciated my cycling legwarmers and glasses with clear lenses. When it stopped raining, it was often overcast and cycling didn’t seem so much fun as it is when the sun is out. On the other hand, this type of weather makes for a pleasant ride. We could count days when the sun was out in all its glory on the fingers of one hand, which in turn motivated us to enjoy these days to the full and squeeze in as much as possible. 🙂
It seemed as if time stopped in Finland. Nobody was in a hurry, nobody was stressing about. Although I really despise going to the supermarkets, in Finland replenishing our stock and filling our water bags every day was more than pleasant. After a couple of days, the atmosphere literally swallowed me up. I calmed down, and I was not so restless and gung-ho. Staying away from civilization has been really good for me, it felt as if everything around us was telling us not to hurry, since there was nowhere to hurry to anyway. And we listened. We practically did not feel the need to set a destination, we enjoyed relaxing rides, often staying in some places longer than we had planned. We just decided to ride and see where the particular trip would take us and thus the main motto for us was “the journey is the destination”.