In search of... Finland's lake district

Devoid of motor boats, Lake Saimaa in Kolovesi National Park is a tranquil wilderness.
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The Independent Travel

British visitors to Finland may have heard of Savonlinna, with its beautiful medieval castle and opera festival. But even the Finns know little about the area north of here – Saimaa Lakeland and Kolovesi National Park. This is a beautiful archipelago of wooded rocky islands and, unlike other parts of the Finnish lake district, it is characterised by cliffs up to 40 metres high.

British visitors to Finland may have heard of Savonlinna, with its beautiful medieval castle and opera festival. But even the Finns know little about the area north of here – Saimaa Lakeland and Kolovesi National Park. This is a beautiful archipelago of wooded rocky islands and, unlike other parts of the Finnish lake district, it is characterised by cliffs up to 40 metres high.

The forests are ancient and rock paintings dating back 5,000 years are testament to man's long presence here. But as they say in Finland, "the nature" is what counts, and Kolovesi is home to one of the world's most endangered mammals, the Saimaa ringed seal. Motor boats are banned to protect them, so the only way you can visit, in the summer at least, is by rowing or paddling.

Okay, where do we start?

I began my canoe odyssey along the "Seal Trail" at the monastery at Valamo, the only Orthodox monastery in the Nordic countries. It was originally in Karelia, but the monks decamped here when the 1939 winter war put Karelia into Russian hands. You spend the night in a simple but comfortable room, and it is one of the few places I have stayed where what one might loosely describe as a curfew comes into effect at 9pm. After that hour, noisy pursuits are forbidden. When the day visitors depart in their coaches, you have the place to yourself, enhancing a feeling of tranquillity.

Is there any expert guidance?

Paddling a canoe isn't difficult, but it is one of those activities that makes you feel you have rediscovered long-forgotten muscles. My first day covered a mere 10km, but I ended up feeling as though I had been squeezed out of a toothpaste tube. Even so, I guess I was lucky. I was teamed up with a guide called Heikki. At around 6ft 8in, with build to match, he decided to swap the traditional single paddle in favour of a double paddle, more commonly used for kayaking.

This was like being turbo-charged, and probably accounted for our ability to break away from the rest of the group. It was during one such moment that I was privileged to catch sight of a Saimaa seal. We were passing a rocky headland when I spotted the dark shape of his head. "This is his fishing ground," said Heikki.

Any other wildlife sightings?

That evening, in the heart of Kolovesi National Park, we camped on one of the islands, our tents pitched in the trees near the water's edge. It was true wilderness, with a peace of spiritual proportions, but it came at a price. The mosquitoes here clearly regarded me as a delicacy. My most potent repellents proved useless, and I was covered in angry red lumps. A guide, Matti Siivonen, lent me a stick of anti-histamine ointment, probably thinking that he'd have enough left when I had finished to last him the rest of the summer. I used it all in two days.

What about the nightlife?

It wasn't just the mosquitoes that were after me, either. As I was enjoying a beer in the pub in Oravi, a large and rather drunk Finn on the bench next to me put his arm around me, massaging my back. Foolishly, I thought he was merely taken, in a vaguely vodka kind of way, with the cuddly fleece jacket I was wearing. Then he squeezed my shoulder, and suddenly his other hand was on my thigh. "He wants you to go back to his place for a sauna," my guide translated, helpfully. "Tell him I'm hot enough already," I replied, struggling from his grasp.

But I would be hard pressed to top the game of darts I played in broad daylight at 11pm on the side of a cabin at Kermankoski. The cabin owner demonstrated the Finnish style of darts, throwing from five metres, so the style is more akin to throwing a javelin. I was lucky to hit the side of the cabin, let alone the board. Then he grabbed the board from the wall, held it in front of him, and invited me to throw the darts. This seemed vaguely suicidal to me, so neither wishing to upset him, nor indeed to maim him, I lobbed them as gently as possible, achieving my best grouping of the evening in the centre of the board. Sometimes it is better when the target moves.

I'm not feeling particularly turbo-charged. Any gentler options?

Matti Siivonen's canoe safari along the "Seal Trail" provided a nice mix, not just between the wilderness and civilisation – it included a visit to the attractive wooden church on a hilltop at Heinavesi – but in the type of canoeing, too. Sometimes you would paddle along rivers or canals – you even have one or two locks to contend with – and at others you would paddle across open water. I particularly enjoyed the more intimate experience with the shoreline and brushes with the wildlife. And if you find yourself getting tired, Matti will start up the outboard on his boat, outside Kolovesi, of course, and give you a tow.

Where can I stay?

Accommodation varies, from small hotels and guest houses to tents and sleeping bags when you camp in Kolovesi National Park. And, of course, since you would expect nothing less in Finland, virtually everywhere you have the opportunity to soothe away the aches of paddling at the end of the day with the Finnish national pastime – the sauna.

Canoeing in Kolovesi National Park is restricted to licensed companies. I travelled with Kolovesi Retkeilly Co. Further information is available from the Finnish Tourist Board (020-7839 4048).

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