The Magic of Nature in Soomaa
You don't have to search too hard to find peace and silence in Estonia – just a short drive is enough for you to find yourself in the middle of forests, fields and bogs, away from the tedious hustle and bustle of the city.
ALTHOUGH there are plenty of natural and unique places in the small country of Estonia, there is one special place amongst all this rich nature, which also sweeps the Estonians themselves of their feet – this place is Soomaa National Park in central Estonia.
The nature of Soomaa (which literally means “bog land”), also nicknamed the Amazon of Estonia, is clear in the name of the region – bogs make up as much as 80 percent of the territory of the national park.
In the spring, Soomaa surprises with a natural phenomenon that is considered unique in the whole of Northern Europe – the fifth season. Namely, water from the melting snow, which flows down from Sakala hill towards the sea, does not fit in the shallow riverbeds running through the bogs. With the first warm spring weather, the snow begins to melt quickly, and the river banks of Soomaa flood, covering the area evenly with water and giving the impression that instead of forests and bogs, there is a large lake.
According to the locals, the biggest floods hit Soomaa in the early 1930s, but the 1950s and the beginning of the 21st century have also brought waters the area of Tallinn in size, usually at the end of March and early April. However, flooding is not an annual phenomenon, and whether nature offers this spectacular sight and memorable experience depends on a number of factors. For example, how much snow has fallen during the winter, how fast the temperature rises, and whether the night's cold temperatures freeze the water that has melted during the day. Sometimes, however, the fifth season does not arrive in the spring when the snow melts, but rather in the summer or early autumn, when heavy storms also flood the river banks.
CANOEING IN THE FOREST
During the floods, the most popular means of exploring these expanses of water is the canoe. Several local businesses offer the opportunity to rent a canoe and go on the water covering the bogs and forest floors. However, it is best to experience the floods with a guide who knows where the most beautiful views of the plains are and which forests are most interesting to look around. Nevertheless, canoeing in Soomaa is not an extreme sport filled with adrenaline, but rather a pleasant glide through the fields and forests, occasionally pushing yourself forward with the oar. A nighttime canoe trip on the bog is also a memorable experience.
When canoeing around in the high water, it is not rare for curious adventurers to end up in the yard of a local farm or glide across a road with the road signs sticking out of the water, showing the way in these unusual circumstances. Although tourists are fascinated by Soomaa's spring nature, for many locals the floods are a challenge, because the water might reach their houses and cars must be left several kilometres away. The only way to move around at this time is by boat, like Robinson Crusoe on a desert island. The doors of Soomaa farmhouses, unlike the rest of Estonia, also usually look towards the water, so that the people living there would be able to get home by boat without difficulty in wet weather. In the old days, the locals prepared for the floods ahead of time; for example, extra bread was baked in advance, and firewood was tied to the fence so that this expensive heating material would not float away with the floodwater.
Today's canoeing is a tradition born out of need in Soomaa. The skills to make boats from the large aspen trees in order to move around the high water dates back to the Stone Age. Such boats are named after the tree and the tradition of crafting the boats has been preserved in Soomaa.
One of the charms of Soomaa's nature games is that the floods cannot be predicted precisely, and no matter how much you try, it is not possible to plan a trip there to be sure to see the great flood. So a lot of tourists have made their first visit to Soomaa and returned with dry feet, and only later, when the floods have taken over the national park, went back for a second visit to enjoy this unique spectacle.
So don't be sad if you visit Estonia at a time when the bogs and forests of Soomaa are not under the water. Instead, you might enjoy skating on a wintery frozen bog. Another unique winter experience is a snowshoe hike on the otherwise wet and springy bog surface. It is worthwhile taking a hike on a crisp, frosted bog with this wide mode of footwear too. However, this trip is also much better taken with a guide, who knows the local nature and safe paths through the bog. If the spring allows – when the ice has melted and the floods are over – you can just go for a hike in the bog along a marked route and on a safe boardwalk.
Article was published in Nordica´s in-flight magazine Time Flies (winter-spring 2019).