Finland’s final frontier

Where the Arctic Circle and the vast Russian borderlands meet, there’s a land known to locals as one of the world’s final frontiers. Remote, vast and untamed, Oulanka National Park in Finland is the ultimate adventure and nature travel destination – and it needn’t cost the Earth to visit, writes Naomi Tolley

This is raw Finnish wilderness in all its rugged glory. Here in the world’s largest Taiga biome, where the north-south climates collide, edible blueberries, lingonberries and cloudberries carpet the forest floor like a colourful rug while roaring waterfalls carve and cascade their way through ancient water courses.

During a hike we stop for coffee served from flasks in old kuksas (cups) and spot a reindeer slinking past, almost unnoticed, to drink from a pure stream, which trickles towards a network of endless rivers, mires and falls.

The water, in fact, seems to drip, gush and gather in every perceivable corner of this lush part of Finland, leaving no wonder why the indigenous Lappish Sami people call it the inaccessible “flooded land.” And why it is proving so popular for those, like us, who are seeking some of Scandinavia’s most dangerous white-water rafting routes.

“Welcome to Lapland, welcome into the arms of Mother Nature,” bellows our guide, Keijo, as we hurtle towards a grade V rapid, one of the most dangerous descents in this part of Europe. “Left break, right break,” he shouts, instructing us to avoid toppling into the cauldron of white water, which is shifting at great speed beneath our rubber-clad feet.

We are tackling the Wild Route that links to the Long Route, a five- to six-hour rafting journey through several grade I to IV rapids, running through rarely visited wilderness to the Russian border.

“This is the last civilisation,” says Keijo. “That way, there is Russia,” he says, pointing a strong forearm towards the east. “Then, there is nothing.” We are completely alone, and it feels fantastic.

Remote it may be, but today, with thanks to improved transport links and a unique, family-run and award-winning eco-project in the par – the Wilderness Hotel at Basecamp Oulanka – there is no reason why the modern traveller can’t get here year-round, with little effect on the planet or their pocket.

As we settle down around a campfire to a lunch of locally sourced elk stew and lingonberry jam, Keijo enthuses about our time here: “These activities bring you deeper into nature, you are embraced by nature,” he says. And he reminds me of Scandinavia’s own Sitting Bull, a holy man by nature’s standards, carefully sharing and leading people through his own dearly loved, wild backyard.

This ‘backyard’, which stretches from Salla across Kuusamo and to the national border with Russia, is home to an area of 277 sq km of verdant, preserved terrain where rare golden eagles, brown bears, reindeer, otters and other Taiga animals roam, along with those who know how to access the country’s Karhunkierros hiking trails, Big Bear and Little Bear, which subtly snake their way through the landscape.

“That way, there is Russia,” says our guide, Keijo, pointing a strong forearm towards the east. “Then, there is nothing.” We are completely alone, and it feels fantastic

In recognition of the Oulanka National Park’s prime environmental qualities, it became part of the European PAN Parks network in 2002 and last year was united with the neighbouring Russian Paanajärvi National Park under a joint PAN Parks certificate.

The Wilderness Hotel sits in the armpit of the park, founded in the 90s with an aim of creating a “true sustainable destination” alongside the Karhunkierros Hiking Trail and on the edge of Juuma Lake. It is surrounded by remote, unspoilt wilderness where wild elk, European hares and reindeer wander freely around the grounds.

In the “time of running water,” the camp offers rafting on the crystal clear waters of River Kitka on either family-friendly or wilder routes, or on longer tours to the Russian border. There is also paddling for beginners on a trip on Juuma lakes and the sand beaches of Lake Yli-Juuma.

During the “time of snow and ice,” when the lakes are frozen, guests can simply marvel at the winter wonderland or snowshoe and ice-climb their way through this remarkable landscape. There is also the option to learn the ancient art of quinzee building – fashioning a hollowed-out mound of snow to make sleeping quarters.

“Very quickly we noticed that the old ways (of tourism) are not the future,” says Keijo, the only member of staff still working at Basecamp Oulanka since its inception. “Nature is our future and we started a sustainable project. It took six years to find the place, to study the concept and build the first service building.

“We are proud of our concept, our guides, our camp and our guests. We pride ourselves in sustainable activities and real life: together with tour operator Exodus and our customers, we have donated more than 60,000 Euros to wilderness protection work during the last six years,” he says. “This is the true sustainable destination.”

The activities they offer are based on the Sustainable Tourism Development strategy of PAN Parks, with accommodation in a lovely, simple complex of wooden buildings housing 17 comfortable and cosy bedrooms, built entirely from logs sourced on site. The sauna, hot tub and heating system are run on sustainably sourced wood pellets, making their electricity 100% renewable.

Staff here also work closely with Metsähallitus, the Finnish National Park service, to help maintain historical agricultural traditions along the River Kitka and in the Kärpäskelhä area of the park. They have also founded their own education system to help licence wilderness guides, working alongside universities in the education of flora, fauna, socioeconomic systems and sustainable tourism.

“Nature, activities, art and tradition are very important here in our camp. Our goal is to change the attitudes of our guests,” says Keijo. “We hope to change their life so that unspoilt and unharnessed areas will stay the same and new wilderness areas will be there in the future.

“Small decisions made by many people make huge effects: eating, shopping, travelling. We talk about these; it is a journey, an education,” he says.

Rarely do you find such a truly unique, perfectly preserved place where nature goes hand-in-hand with tourism. It is not just about staff delivering a service and visitors gaining an experience, but rather an holistic approach towards everyone playing a part in pioneering the preservation of this corner of the planet.

From being soaked through to the skin on one of the country’s most dangerous white-water descents, to swimming in the crystal-clear waters of Juuma Lake after a session in the smoke-sauna, our visit to this corner of Finland’s final frontier left me forever changed. As Keijo would say, you have not lived or travelled until you have been “right into the arms of Mother Nature.”

Scandinavian Air flies to Helsinki with further connections to Kuusamo, where a Basecamp Oulanka representative will meet guests. All equipment for activities is provided at the camp.