As the fireworks exploded over Kalajoki Finland, I reflected on the past two weeks of travel, how easy it had been, and how far away CoVid-19 had felt.
The Finn’s don’t wear masks, they don’t queue outside of shops, and when I asked them about social distancing and the two meter rule, they looked at me curiously and ask if that means they need to stand closer together. Finland felt like the ‘old normal’.
Reindeer and the Open Road
I entered Finland from Norway in the far north with not a soul in sight, and a long straight empty road pointing south, the wild all around, but impossible to be lost. Reindeer lingered on the main highway, oblivious to my van, some moving out of my way, and others jogging alongside; with the windows open it almost felt like I had joined the herd. Welcome to Finland I thought, this is going to be fun!
I hadn’t purposely driven to Finland to escape CoVid-19, and after entering and exiting over ten countries during the pandemic, I still wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I arrived, every country pretty much has different rules. The Finns had an open border to Norway and not a checkpoint in sight, were it not for the reindeer I would have entered without ceremony.
My first plan was to cross the country almost to the Russian Border, through thick forests and lonely roads in the hope of seeing wild brown bears. The second, and possibly the main event, was a visit to Kalajoki, famed through Finland for its long sandy beach and particularly friendly welcome to tourists. Kalajoki was to celebrate Venetian night, but more on that later.
Bears, not CoVid-19, Are Treat Here
I arrived excited at the Wild Brown Bear Lodge and was told the bears were in the forests close by and that I should not walk too far from the lodge. As a rule when I’m told not to do something, instinct tends to make me more curious, and admittedly a little delinquent. The threat of bears however locked me firmly to the lodge reception until my guide arrived and gave me a safety briefing.
I would be spending the night with my wife Tara in a hide located in the forest on the edge of a lake. Silence was key to the experience, the bears are wild, and any noises would spook them. Leaving the hide was absolutely forbidden, no matter what. A bag and bucket were provided for bathroom breaks, this was serious stuff.
The Bear Hide
It was a half mile hike to the hide, a primitive hut painted in camouflage green, with a small four inch glass slit across the front where the bears could be viewed from. There were camera socks stitched into the side of the hide where I could poke my lenses through and a couple of plastic chairs to sit on, on the back wall a very rustic bunk bed just in case I got sleepy and wanted to rest.
With the door securely locked I sat down and waited. And waited. yep, you guessed it, and I waited some more. I began counting trees, the sun started to set slowly, the shadows grew longer and the forest sounds calmed to a zing in my ears. And then, breaking all the rules, My wife whispered, “over there, there’s a bear”. “Where!” I said, and she said, “there, over there”, to which I almost said “is it on the stair? does it have clogs on??” But, a bear wandered from the forest so my dull wit would need to wait until a bit later.
It was massive. I mean, thank goodness the door was locked and the viewing slit was just four inches high.
I watched bear number one for about 10 minutes until he wandered off, then returned to tree counting and taking photos of the same patch of forest in different lights, until a second bear was spotted in the distance, and then a third. This was a success, a great success, and I loved every single minute of it! With the exception of a few hours of sleep in the dodgy bunks I stayed up all night waiting and watching. I got to know that stretch of forest pretty intimately, and when the time came to unlock the hide and head back to the lodge, I truly felt privileged and thankful to have spent the evening in the company of the brown bears.
My next stop was Kalajoki. Now, if you don’t know much about Finland, then you definitely won’t know of Kalajoki and it’s mega sandy beach and summer calendar packed full of festivals and events. Finland of course is home to the famous wife carrying contest and world air guitar championships, sadly neither of them are in Kalajoki. Kalajoki does however, offer the world sand shoveling contest, the country’s biggest midsummer festival, and the Venetian night extravaganza, a festival that I was to visit.
At the end of each summer Kalajoki throws one final party, and this, the year of CoVid-19, was certainly no different. No chance the Finns were capitulating a good party to a global pandemic. And so, at the end of August, just as the evenings become dark early enough to see the twinkles of candle flames, the celebrations begin. One last hurrah before the leaves fall from the trees.
KAAABOOOOOM!!! Not really a word I would necessarily associate with fireworks, perhaps not pretty enough, but they were certainly large enough to merit a kaboom! A display that complimented the 10,000 candles that lined the 3km of sandy beach. Tara and I waded out into the shallows of the sea to stand on a lonely sandbank in the gathering darkness as the sky lit up above me in a truly dazzling display. It was in that moment that I felt such a sense of immense gratitude that my 2020 summer had been one of such adventures. But, what I really cherished, was my two weeks in Finland where CoVid-19 had felt like a distant memory, a horror story set firmly in the past where we’d all be delighted to leave it.
CoVid-19 and Traveling Takeaways
It got me wondering. In this time of travel uncertainty, quarantines and fit to travel certificates, will a new breed of travel break emerge? One centred entirely on trying to find places where the old normal still exists. Where a level-headed and sensible approach keeps everyone safe, but where freedoms remain and wings have not been clipped. Well, I reckon Finland should be the top of that list. It was true balm for the soul.
When You Go:
Written by: John and Tara Newby
John and Tara got married in Antarctica, by a penguin. With a baby on the way they are currently traveling through Europe in a self-converted camper van. John has independently travelled to 163 countries, with highlights including horse riding in Afghanistan, a 32 state USA road trip, and swimming in the Congo River. Tara is Zimbabwean and her heart is in Africa, safari is in her blood. Since getting married, Tara has joined John on this life long adventure, their promise to each other; that lines across a map are more important than numbers. So, ticking off the whole world (193) can wait a while, until more lines are joined up and adventures have been had. The most exciting adventure of all, how to fit a newborn into a rucksack!
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