It’s summer; so follow the geese, go north!


Exhausted with the pressure of  work, the bustle and clutter of city life?  Then don’t head for the crowded beaches of  the Mediterranean,  follow the geese; go north to Finland.     

Arola farm is in the region of Eastern Finland known as Suomussalmi, just south of the Arctic Circle and within sight of the watchtowers of the Russian Federation.   It lies on the edge of Martinselkonen National Park,  a Tolkienesque wilderness of dark lakes, vast open forests of spruce, pine and birch, and broad expanses of grassy bog; a magic land of moss and lichen.  Here, over a hundred miles away from the nearest town, you can wander all day in complete solitude, your every step monitored in the tree top conversations of Ravens, the laughter of woodpeckers and the mocking call of the Cuckoo.   

Suomussalmi is on the migration route.  Many of the birds that overwinter in England, such as Whooper Swans, White fronted and Brent Geese pass through here en route to their breeding grounds in Siberia. Others such as Fieldfares, Redwings, Brambling, Waxwing and Golden Plover breed up here but are much more colourful, extravert and  flambuoyant than they are at home.  Bramblings,  small dull finches with stripy wings and narrow white rumps when glimpsed flying up from Cambridgeshire fields on dark wet winter’s, stand sentry in their smart black and red uniforms and announce their presence in long drawn out whistles. And one morning while canoeing up river, we came within a few feet of a Red Throated Diver,  late for the wedding in his light grey morning suit, black and white striped shirt and crimson cravat.  A few Siberian species have also taken up residence in Suomussalmi; Bluethroats, Cranes and Siberian Jays.    

But Eastern Finland is not just for the birds.    If you go down in the woods, you’ll, be sure of a big surprise. Martinselkonen is a refuge for the few remaining really large European mammals. There are Brown Bear, Elk, Wolves, Lynx and Beaver in the forest.  It is just like being in Canada.  Arola has its own bear hide, at the side of a forest clearing a few miles from the farm.  Every night, Eero, our host, leaves 100 kilos of fish and elk meat out under a log.  With their own five-star restaurant,  the bears, normally shy, venture cautiously out of the forest in the long light nights often bringing their cubs with them to feed, play and even make love.  European Brown Bears are enormous creatures.  The male weighs in at over 200 kilos and stands over ten feet tall.   The female is not quite that size, but when they make love, the earth really moves!    But this is no zoo; these are wild animals.  In the hide we speak in whispers and cover our skin to disguise the smell.  Bears have a very good sense of smell.  The slightest whiff of human presence and they gallop off into the forest.  

Bears are not the only creatures to come to Eero’s restaurant.  Occasionally a Wolverine, a kind of large polecat, will venture out for a snack if he thinks the coast is clear.  And a pair of White Tailed Sea Eagles balance on the topmost branches of a spruce tree, fending off attacks from the gulls and waiting until the bears have gone to grab some fish. 

The Sappinen family have farmed in Arola for generations, even throughout the chaos of war when this region was occupied first by the Russians and then by the Nazis.  In 1939 it was Eero’s mother, Lempi, who bundled her children in a blanket, put them on a sledge and escaped across the thawing river to warn the people of Juntusranta that the Russian soldiers had come across the border.  In Finland, as in many parts of Europe, life for small farmers has become increasingly difficult.  And so Helena, Eero and their son Jeru gave up the farm just two years ago and decided to open their farm for tourism.  Visitors can stay here at any time of the year.  Helena once worked as a nurse in Plymouth and speaks English fluently.  She can accommodate up to 11 people in two houses; the old farmhouse and Hevonkuusa,  a lovely log cabin, 500 metres down the track by the lake.  The latter comes with its own smoke sauna and diving platform.

A week in Arola will broaden your mind.  All you need to bring is a love of the wilderness and a sense of adventure.  Children will love the excitement of it. There is so much to see and do.  Trekking in Finnish National Parks is very easy.  The trails are well maintained  and marked,  the traverses across the swamps are dry and boarded and there are comfortable huts equipped with stove and fuel and clean toilets, where you can stay  overnight at no cost at all.  In the summer you can canoe up river to the rapids, trek all day in the forest, watch the wildlife and return for a wonderful sauna and nerve-tingling dip in the river. But in the long winter, when the forest is transformed into a wonderland, you can ski all day along forest trails and return to your log house, warmed by a stove constructed from the local dark soapstone.  Or perhaps you would prefer to go by sledge, pulled by teams of eager huskies. 

Self catering is an option,  but it would be a mistake not to enjoy Helena’s wonderful traditional Finnish cuisine.  Locked in by snow for half the year and with the nearest store 5 miles away, self sufficiency is the by-word.    So berries picked late in the season are boiled and bottled; the delicious dark crimson blue berries swollen with sweetness,  the creamy cloudberries with their subtle hints of butterscotch,  cranberries from the bog and my favourite, the wonderful combination of sweet, sour and bitter flavours of the lingonberries.   Mushrooms are also stored over winter.  Some need to be boiled twice to remove the toxins and then dried.  Others are pickled in brine. Made up into a sauce, the rich earthy flavours are a delicious complement for the tender sweetness of fresh pike or the meatiness of Elk.  Fish is caught locally all the year round.  In the summer, swarms of roach can be caught by net, cleaned and cooked slowly in salt, onion, olive oil and lemon and bottled with tomato.  In the winter, pike can be caught by rod and line through a hole drilled through the thick ice of the lake.    Elk is shot during the brief hunting period in October and kept frozen overwinter.  It tastes like beef, but does not have the fat content.   Reindeer is smoked and salted and is lovely as midday snack in the forest between two slices of freshly baked rye bread.  Beetroot, cabbage and potatoes grow quickly during the light nights of the Finnish summer and can be pickled and stored through the winter. 

To book a holiday at Arola, visit the website at or write to Helena Sappinen at Arolantie 5, FIN 89920 RUHTINANSALMI. (Tel/fax  +358 8 734 403 ). Travel is remarkably inexpensive.  Flights from various airports in England to Helsinki can cost around £200.  Then take a flight to Kuusamo (£80 return), from where Jeru will collect you and drive you the one and half hour journey to the farm.