The Urho Kekkonen National Park covers a huge area: 2,550 sq km (980 sq miles)
It is the second-largest protected natural area in Finland
It is the second oldest National Park in Finland – founded in 1983
It is home to rare wildlife such as bears, wolverines, eagles, and plants that need tundra conditions.
Urho Kekkonen background
The Urho Kekkonen National Park, extending from Saariselkä all the way to the Russian border, is by far the most popular trekking region in Finland. It is essentially a network of excellent wilderness huts, with a varied landscape between them, so there is no single trekking path to follow. If you have walking in mind, come in the summer.
The National Park was established in 1983 with the purpose of protecting the original forest, mire and fell nature of north-eastern Finland. It is the second-largest nature protection area in Finland, and offers the most majestic views of forested Lapland. The round summits of the gently sloping fells are barren and treeless. Between the fells, valleys and gorges grow sparse Scots pine and lots of lichens. The rivers south of Saariselkä run through wet bogs and thick willow bushes between low hills of spruce. In the south-eastern valley of the Nurttijoki (joki = river), the vegetation can be downright lush in places.
Traditionally the area was used by the Lapp villages of the Forest Sami people. Pit-trapping of deer was the usual hunting method. When the Finnish settlers spread to the area, the wild deer disappeared. In the 1870s the Fell Sami people arrived with their large reindeer herds. Gold panning, pearl hunting and forestry have all left their marks on the area, but today the most important uses of the park are reindeer husbandry and recreation. More than 20,000 reindeer live in the park, which offers excellent winter grazing. Hikers must avoid disturbing and chasing reindeer at any time, especially during the calving period in April and May. Other than the reindeer, it is estimated that about 20 bears and half a dozen wolverines inhabit the park. Wolves are regular visitors, especially near the eastern border. There are also otters, eagles, owls, and a host of other interesting things. So, plenty of reasons to visit.
Saariselkä is basically a ski resort. According to the Lonely Planet Guide – the village is now one of the busiest yuppie resorts in the whole of Lapland. Real estate prices here are second only to those in Helsinki, big companies have luxurious log houses in the village and hotels are expensive. Fortunately, this was mid-June – the end of the offseason, so there were few facilities and even fewer people to be found here. This suited us and we were able to enjoy a week of solitude and nature watching. Apparently by mid-summer’s day, that would all change.
For the first couple of days, the temperature was only a few degrees above freezing and the sky remained cloudy. The mostly grey buildings of the village seemed dismal and uninviting. The Scots pine logs traditionally used for building turn grey with age, and that seemed to be an excuse to paint all other buildings grey too. We had a pretty luxurious cabin, with two double-bedrooms, and four more single beds in the loft. It was all triple/quadruple glazing, and the heating was permanently on – Finnish buildings are always kept warm! As well as more mod-cons than we could wish for, we had our own private sauna.
Just outside the cabin we saw a mountain hare and a reindeer – perhaps a good omen. Then there were Siberian tits, chaffinches, bramblings – the first time I had seen them in breeding plumage, fieldfares, redpolls, siskins, willow warblers, pied flycatchers, hooded crows, ravens, little ringed plovers and wood sandpipers by a small lake, and the ubiquitous house sparrow.
Highlights of a week there in mid-June
During the next week, we explored the area on foot, sometimes along waymarked routes, sometimes just following roads or animal tracks. The going was easy – no big hills or deep valleys – so long as you avoided the boggy areas. Daylight seemed to go on forever – it was mid-June in the land of the midnight sun. The variety of birds taking advantage of the short nesting season included some species we hadn’t seen before, and others we had seen only in winter plumage in the UK.
We followed signs for ‘Luontopulka’ (nature trail) through the forest and out into an open area on the fell at Iisakkipaa. The size and numbers of pine trees dwindled, and there were dwarf birch trees with hardly a leaf bud showing. Ground cover was heather, crowberry and lichens. Meadow pipits, redwings, and many other birds were singing. A male bluethroat did the rounds of song perches in his territory, stopping whenever he got near his prospective mate to woo her by fanning his tail in front of her nose (sorry, beak).
Every so often we came across piles of droppings that looked like cylindrical wads of tobacco, typical signs of game birds. The larger ones with pine needles were probably y certainly belonged to game birds, these were from a hazel-hen.
A shallow valley with snow in the bottom offered some shelter from the cold breeze. Then there was a golden plover in song flight – a wonderfully haunting sound in this wilderness; a whimbrel vigorously and noisily chasing a raven from its territory; a pair of ptarmigan sitting on rocks near a snow patch – we could easily have missed them if they hadn’t called; arctic redpolls flitting about amongst the heather and dwarf birch, calling loudly but eluding our binoculars until one pair eventually obliged by sitting out in the open for a few minutes; more bluethroats, and a male northern wheatear perhaps still on migration.
We met a Finnish family with three noisy kids. This was the start of the school vacation (they go back in mid-August) and they had just come from Helsinki. They had been here before, but only in winter to ski.
Most of Finland’s forests have been felled and replanted over the years, so there are few old trees – and few old growth forests. Here in the national park there were a few larger pines, snags and dead wood, but it would need another century or two of being left to develop by itself to become old-growth forest again.
This is Scot’s Pine Pinus sylvestris forest left to nature.
Arctic terns hunted over the lakes. Whimbrels, snipe, and other shorebirds perched on top of small trees (looks an uncomfortable place for a shorebird) between song-flights in the boggy areas. Bob found some fresh frog spawn – something we would have seen in February back home. And here, instead of the tadpoles turning into frogs in their first summer, it could take two or three seasons, and even longer for frogs to reach breeding age/size.
One morning I crumbled a slice of bread onto the table on the deck to see what would happen. As we finished our breakfast a red squirrel suddenly appeared, jumping confidently onto the table then skidding on the plastic. It took a lump of bread and chewed it up, then another. I got my camera ready and took a few pictures through the triple glazing. Then I opened the inner part of the patio door, the squirrel took no notice. I tapped on the window, the squirrel ignored me. I opened the outer door, still the squirrel kept eating. As I set up the tripod, the squirrel jumped off the table and came over for a closer look. In fact, it came in the door and sniffed at the tripod, and at my hand. Not wanting him to come inside, I tapped him on the nose, and he went back up onto the picnic table! This must be a dream . . . . .
Then there were Siberian tits, bramblings, fieldfares, redstarts, a female pied flycatcher who was being rather aggressive towards two great tits, a house sparrow and a willow warbler trying to land in her tree, and a mountain hare crossing the ski trail not far away.
Amongst the other sounds were the thin whistle of the hazel grouse – the kind of sound that is almost impossible to locate, the go-bak go-bak call of the willow grouse, and another call that Bob said was a black grouse.
One day we took the bus to Ivalo, the regional capital. It was a tiny place, even the Lonely Planet Guide referred to it as a village – population 3,500. It had a couple of supermarkets, banks, a post office, several tourist shops, and some restaurants/hotels. This was the second day of sunshine and we could almost see the leaves bursting on the birch trees.
Tankavaara and Sompio
About 25km south of Saariselkä is the village of Tankavaara, with a visitor centre and access to the Sompio Strict Nature Reserve. And, like Saariselkä, it is conveniently on the bus route between Ivalo and Rovaniemi.
Three nature trails started at the information centre, and we elected to take the longest (5km) one. It took us through spruce forest, as opposed to the pine forests we had been in previously. There were two kinds of spruce here, the ordinary Norwegian Spruce and the Siberian Spruce. The latter is taller and thinner, and is also known as candle spruce. Apparently it is a further adaptation to heavy snowfall – all the snow slides straight off the slim shape – in theory anyway, though some trees had broken crowns from snowfall that was just too heavy.
The route we took was designated the Siberian Jay trail. Our information had suggested that Siberian Jays were common, and were very tolerant of people – they are a sign of good fortune and it is bad luck to harm one. The woman in the centre was surprised when I asked if we would see one, yes, of course, she said as if they were everywhere. After a while Bob caught a glimpse of one flying from one treetop to another, but it was another hour or more before we got a good look at one. In fact, it lived up to its reputation, and even came over to investigate us! It is a very attractive bird, a smallish jay with a russet red tail and orange shoulder patches. We only saw the two.
The trail went slowly uphill, above the spruce forest into birch scrub, and to an observation platform on the top of the Tankavaara Fell. From here the view stretched into the distance across the forest and lakes to other fells, and to the Russian border. Several times along the trail there were signs of battlements – trenches etc – left over from the German and Russian occupation during WW2. Two golden plovers called as they flew in, landing close to the platform, but immediately disappearing against the background of heather and lichens. Also up here were found droppings of grouse, capercaillie, reindeer, weasel and fox, and perhaps pine marten too.
Instead of going straight back to the information centre, we turned onto a ski track that would take us to the Sompio strict nature reserve. A strict nature reserve is an area where nature can do its own thing with no human interference. This one was established in 1956. (When we visited, we were told that it was the part of the national park with the highest density of breeding birds, but from the website it is not clear if the strict nature is actually within the park boundary).
Access was limited to this one track, which you are supposed to keep to. Elsewhere in the national park you can wander off the tracks, though it is easy to get lost or stuck in a bog if you leave the marked routes. Anyway, by the time we stopped for lunch, I was feeling the beginnings of blisters on both feet. Since our time was limited (we had to get back for the last bus) we had decided to walk until 3pm, then turn back regardless.
We had not gone very far back, when I heard something crashing through the forest, and just caught sight of a capercaillie hightailing it across an open area and disappearing into another patch of trees. At least, I assume something large and black, with wings, is a capercaillie. Bob went off in pursuit, I found capercaillie droppings under a small pine tree, and took some photographs of the landscape while waiting for Bob to return. He had caught another glimpse of capercaillie, and reckoned there were also several hundred reindeer hiding amongst the trees.
The map suggested that the track would eventually come out on the main road, so we decided to continue along it rather than go back to the information centre. Halfway there, I noticed some large tracks in the mud – the only animal I knew of that size was bear, and bears certainly lived in the area, though at low density and rarely seen.
We got back to the bus stop with time to spare!
Here is how to watch bears in Europe
The Finnish National Parks website provides a lot of useful information. Particular note should be taken of the Instructions and Rules in Urho Kekkonen National Park.
The Inari region tourist board website has a lot more information about the area in general, including places to stay, other national parks, other things to do, etc.
Luontoporti – Naturegate – a useful ID and info resource
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Many books on the nature of Lapland, or even Finland as a whole, seem to be out of print. So you have to use whatever you can find on north-west Europe.
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More about Finland
A selection of organised trips (eco-volunteering, guided vacations and single day/night opportunities) for watching wolves in Europe.
A round-up of opportunities for watching and photographing bears in Europe
Information for the naturalist thinking of visiting the Hiidenportti National Park in Finland. With links to other resources.