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The meetings of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) were in Oulu, Finland, this year, and I was involved in a symposium at the University of Oulu on traditional ecological knowledge. My presentation was on the Maya land use conservation. The week of the conference was preceded with a tour to the Lapland and followed by a visit to the forest research station of Olanka.
Experiencing life in the north in a land of midnight sun was amazing. How often do you have an experience to see the far north? Remarkably, we were walking in short sleeves and sandals at 68 degrees north above the Arctic Circle. It was warmer, in fact, than Santa Barbara!
Our first day here, we walked around the islands that make up the city of Oulu near on the edge of Bothnian Bay. We lunched on Pikisaari (saari meaning island) with its historical buildings related to the pine tar production, important in the ship sealing in the 1600s onward. That was followed with the city walking tour featuring historical buildings, art celebrating 400 years of the city inaugurated with the conquest by Sweden, and onto other islands past the museums and toward the dam that was established after World War II and eliminated the bountiful salmon runs of the Oulujoki. At city hall, we saw the interesting statuettes that make a history of the area in characters of the past.
From this first day I got a feel for the core of the city.
The next day we assembled with some 25 others for the ecology field trip to Western Lapland. We rode to Tornio and crossed into Sweden to gain an understanding of the binational commission that governs the free River Tornio that separates Finland and Sweden and runs free, as they say, its whole distance from the convergence point of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Rushing down from 69 degrees north, this river has salmon runs and traditional life revolves around fishing. Sadly, at Kukkolaforsen, we learned that the water has become too warm for the salmon; many are dying not far upriver and it is perceived as a disaster. Recall that they do not eat on the trip upriver to spawn.
On the way north, we crossed the Arctic Circle near the village of Juoksengi in Sweden. This was commemorated with a group photo in the warm sun beside the River Tornio. We traveled over the river back into Finland at Pello.
We stayed the first night in the south in the Ylläs (the “y” is pronounced “u”) area of the Ylläs Yllastunturi National Park and the next two nights in Pallas, in the middle of the park. It is at 68 degrees north, and near 400 meters where boreal forests of pine, spruce, birch and juniper grow with a low heath of mosses, lichens, berries and ferns underneath. The tree line ends only 100 meters higher.
We have learned about the binational management of the River Tornio, the clean air monitoring by the national park system boasting the cleanest air in Europe and the world. Threats loom on the horizon: an increase of oil explorations in the Barents Sea, mining of gold and ore, and yes, the expansion of tourism with its impacts. There are also tensions with the reindeer herders and the hereditary rights that have been maintained regardless of private property, public lands and even national parks. Since the borders have been fenced, the traditional movements of Finnish herders have been particularly limited. Cooperatives have been established and herds are managed, but there is disagreement between the herding co-ops and the national parks.
Tourism in the far north of Finland, and I imagine Norway and Sweden as well, is focused on winter sports, remaining undeveloped for the summer. I would think that the Palkas-Taivas-Laukukero nature trails and the remarkable scenery of the Fjells, forests and bogs would be attractive. Camping, hiking and biking are all easy. This made our visit notable.
We were there for the nature, our group walked trials, visited monitoring sites, stopped at lakes, saw the reindeer. We enjoyed long days: Even in August, this is a place with no sunset, only dawns and dusks — obviously different in January, yet then you would be regaled by the curtains of the aurora borealis.
The visitation in the far north of Finland is largely Finnish. More than 70 percent of the 2 million visits to the park a year are national, the rest mainly from Europe. The visits are mainly snow related. There is little doubt that it would be spectacular, and there is the ubiquitous sauna!
The summer movements of visitors are enhanced by the “everyman rights.” These are a tradition and custom of Scandinavia and found in Norway and Sweden as well. People can move across private and public lands, camp where they like and collect berries that mature in the summer. You will not see “No Trespassing” signs, and the only places that are excluded are the homes yards. If you have your camping gear, you can drive anywhere, and once there, you can stay and take in the nature of the place in the woods, by a stream or on the lake.
The days were stunning, temperatures in the high 20s Celcius, into the mid 80s Fahrenheit, and the landscape remarkable. The forests are low, maybe 10 to 12 meters high. There is little understory, and the blankets of mosses and ferns are counted not as cover but as the understory. Above the tree line, the once smoothed hills exposed after the retreat of the glaciers have turned into broken boulder skree fields with expansion and contraction of ice and water — terrible walking conditions but beautiful vistas.
Our drive back was an all-day affair back from Pallas. What an experience traveling from a place so remote almost as far from the urban as one can get. Forests, fjells, reindeer — it was beautiful. Surely as we traveled back south things changed — more cut areas, more houses and open spaces, and ski resorts.
We passed through Levi, and it was as if we were in a place like Mammoth, and from there things transformed more rapidly. We went from narrow roads in the park to two lanes. Soon we went from two lanes to four lanes, and a fueling point with the local equivalent of a convenience store. The tabloids were in Finnish — this celebrity couple got together, this person was found with his hand in the till, this sensation is important! How crazy is our life!
After the first three hours, we arrived in Rovaniem, the capital of Lapland and situated at the Arctic Circle. In a short time we were invited to see the Arktikum Science Center! Impossible. Most interested in the history and of the Sami — my focus was on the cultural — it was insufficient to get any idea of what the museum wanted us to know. Information on the Sami issue is very troubling and not clear in presentation; it seems occult. We learned things, but not a complete picture. Who are the Sámi and the Laps? Who herds reindeer, and who are the indigenous? We will have to learn more from afar. Still, Sami traditions are visible, like the beautiful Sami drum. This has been a window into this new world.
After another three hours we were back in Oulu, where biking resolved 20 percent of the transport year-round. The city announces that there are 4 kilometers of bike paths for every inhabitant (190K of the city of Oulu). The hotels have bikes to borrow — a convenient way to get around. We rode to the sea, where the water tasted little of salt. There are special trails shared with pedestrians — but not cars! — that link all places around the city. They are wonderful and inspiring for alternative transportation.
We could learn something from Oulu.
— Anabel Ford Ph.D. is the director of UC Santa Barbara’s MesoAmerican Research Center and president of Exploring Solutions Past. Ford, UCSB’s resident expert on Maya archaeology, discovered the ancient Maya city-center El Pilar, which bridges Belize and Guatemala. By decoding the ancient landscape around El Pilar, she is creating a sustainable model in conservation and agriculture that can regenerate the threatened Maya forest. With investment and support, her model can assist environmental efforts worldwide. Click here for more information on El Pilar. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.