Jouni Laaksonen 1.1.2018
When I wrote my book about the wilderness areas of Finland (book name Erämaat, published in 2010), I made a tiny bit of research on how large wilderness areas there are left in Europe.
In Finland, Sweden and Norway there are quite large untouched areas, that was evident to me. The largest National Park in Finland is Lemmenjoki, 2860 km², and the largest Wilderness Area is Kaldoaivi, 2924 km². Norways’s largest NP (not counting Svalbard) is Hardangervidda, 3400 km². Sweden’s largest NP’s are Padjelanta and Sarek, both just under 2000 km². Wilderness does not end at the border of a NP, but let’s compare these areas first.
View from Muurahaislampi campfire site at Lemmenjoki National Park.
What about Central Europe? I was surprised to find out that the largest ‘nature park’ in Germany, Black Forest, is 7000 km². And Great Britain has Cairngorms National Park, 3800 km². What? Larger wildernesses than in Fennoscandia?
Definition of a National Park
Closer examination revealed that the definition of a national park, let alone nature park, is very different in different countries. For example inside Cairngorms National Park there are roads and villages, and a total of 16 000 persons lived inside the park in 2010. That makes population density of the national park 4,2 persons/km². (And I understand there live hundreds of thousands of people inside Black Forest nature park.) Compare that to all of Finnish Lapland, 100 000 km², with a population density of 1,9 persons/km².
I am by no means demeaning either of the above mentioned areas! What photos and maps I have seen for example of Cairngorms NP look really great and inviting, and the area of Cairngorms mountains look impressively large. Scotland is one of the destinations I would be glad to hike in some day in future.
And also by no means do I try to say that all of Finnish Lapland would be wilderness. Nope, in addition to scattered villages and towns and some highways there is heavy forestry use and a zig-zag of forestry roads in all of southern Lapland.
But this made me realize how different definitions there can be even for an international brand like national park. Let alone nature park, zapovednik, luonnonpuisto, nature reserve, landskapsvernområde, recreation area etc. In Finland the population density inside a national park is always zero. On some few occasions there goes a road through a national park, but most often there are no roads inside the park boundaries.
How is it in your country? Is there habitation inside a national park? And what about a fee or reservation? I remember how in Serengeti National Park our guide paid a fee before we were allowed to enter, and I’m pretty sure he had needed to make a reservation beforehand. I have understood there are hiking trails and/or national parks in many countries where you have to book a permission in advance. Is that so in your country? In Finland anyone can enter whichever of our national parks or hiking trails whenever you wish. No reservations, no fees. (Mental note to myself: let’s discuss Everyman’s Rights some time soon.)
Besides National Parks and Wilderness Areas there are several other national conservation programmes in Finland:
- strict nature reserves
- bird wetlands
- herb-rich woodland
- old-growth forests
Also there are private nature conservation areas. And there are National Hiking Areas (see Opposites week 51, part III), which are not strictly speaking conservation areas, but interesting to us hikers, of course.
The same applies to all of these: there is no habitation inside the borders.
Usually nature conservation does not interfere with hiking. On the contrary: the nature is at its best in protection areas, and all Finland’s most important hiking trails wind through or circle inside one nature conservation area or another. Many protected areas contain a hiking trail, with campfire sites, wilderness huts and so on, though not nearly all.
Kevo is the greatest canyon in Finland. It is situated in Kevo Strict Nature Reserve, where hiking is only allowed along marked trails.
Strict Nature Reserves are the most strictly protected, and in 10 out of 19 SNR’s it is totally forbidden to hike. In 9 out of 19 hiking is allowed only on marked trails. In some national parks and mire protection areas there are zones where moving about is forbidden during the bird nesting time, but this does not really restrict hiking, for these are very wet marshlands where a hiker has usually no interest in going.
Largest wilderness in Europe?
In Erämaat book I continued to consider where are the largest real wilderness areas in Europe. This time I mean how many square kilometers empty of human activity in total when you add the areas of neighboring national parks, wilderness areas and other protected areas.
In Sweden I believe the largest wilderness is Laponian Unesco World Heritage Area, 9400 km². This area includes Sarek and Padjelanta NP’s, as well as Stora Sjöfallet and Muddus NP’s, and Stubba naturreservat. A mighty large wilderness, but not totally roadless. The road from Gällivare to Ritsem goes through the area.
Now, if we allow a seldom-traveled road or two, let’s see Finland’s largest wilderness again. If we combine Pöyrisjärvi, Pulju, Hammastunturi and Muotkatunturi Wilderness Areas with Lemmenjoki National Park and Pomokaira mire and old-growth forest protection area, we get over 9000 km². There is no habitation, forestry or other human use (except reindeer husbandry) inside these boundaries. Only three roads with very little traffic cross this area.
Or if we allow a couple of more roads (but no habitation or other human usage inside these square kilometers), we could add Urho Kekkonen NP, Paistunturi WA, Kevo Strict Nature Reserve and Kaldoaivi WA. That makes about 17500 km².
Map of Finnish Lapland, the northern part. Grey areas are protected in one way or another. 1. Pöyrisjärvi Wilderness Area, 2. Pulju WA, 3. Lemmenjoki National Park, 4. Hammastunturi WA, 5. Muotkatunturi WA, 6. Pomokaira mire + old-growth protection area. 7. Urho Kekkonen NP, 8. Paistunturi WA + Kevo Strict nature Reserve, 9. Kaldoaivi. And we could add those other gray areas into the calculation, too, but that would stretch the definition still a bit more. Map is a screenshot from Geoportal, Paikkatietoikkuna. The purple line from Nellim village in east to Kilpisjärvi village in west is the route of our nine weeks hike, see below. (Sorry, this picture seems to have been broken for many weeks, I don’t know why. Now it should show.)
Well, who cares about numbers? As a bottom line I’d say that in Finland we have probably the largest forested wilderness in Western Europe. If I am wrong, please correct me!
Usually the large untouched areas are only situated in mountains where forests are sparse. In Finland we have treeless fell wildernesses, but we have also a lot of forested wilderness. Combining the forested parts of above mentioned areas you get over 10 000 km². (Though, of course if you take countries like Canada and Russia into this consideration, Finland’s forested wilderness seem small and tame.)
But still about big numbers. For me personally it is very important to know that even if there are villages and roads in Lapland, and areas in heavy forestry use, there are still very large un-logged, uninhabited areas left. I love wilderness. Probably the biggest reason for hiking to be my main hobby and job is because I like the feeling everything is in my own hands. Or in my own backpack. In wilderness you rely on yourself, and your companions, and that’s it.
Day hiking is the most popular kind of hiking, but many of us also like to go for a week long trek. And I think many of these latter ones sometimes dream about a much longer trek still.
We don’t have very long hiking trails in Finland. There are hundreds of great marked trails for day hiking, and a dozen or so great marked trails for one week backpacking tour, but not much longer. Or there is one about 1000 km long, but it is in disrepair in so many patches that you cannot call it a continuous trail. When I was younger I used to dream of through-hiking Pacific Crest Trail, or just lately I heard about Te Araroa, a hiking trail from one end of New Zealand to the other end.
I am a bit jealous of trails like these. But on the other hand I am glad about the trail-less wilderness of Finnish Lapland that makes it possible to hike for months, too. Often we tend to choose one NP or Wilderness Area for the destination of our longer trek. But when you combine many of the above mentioned national parks and other protected areas, you can plan a hike that lasts for a month, or months. My longest hike is nine weeks of skiing off any tracks or trails from eastern Lapland to western Lapland, 99% of the time staying in the wilderness, only twice fetching more food from a village. More about that trek later.
Me standing at the highest point in Finland, Halti fell. With my friend Markus we have skied for over 900 km without any trails or tracks, enjoying ourselves immensely, albeit also facing quite difficult problems with weather and river crossings. This is our 60th hiking day on this trek, and yesterday we saw other hikers for the first time. Our plan was to stand on Halti 1.1.2000 and our schedule held.
It is quite different to hike along a marked trail compared to finding your own way, without seeing a soul in weeks, I can tell. What is better or nicer, is a question of taste. Day hiking is very popular in Finland, but still the tradition of packing a heavyish backpack and heading off any trails for a week or two weeks is strong in our country. I think that is something quite Finnish. Or how does this sound compared to the hiking traditions in your country?
If you dream about a long hike, I definitively recommend you try to fulfill that dream. There are great areas throughout the world to fulfill such a dream. It can change your life. Mine did.
* * *
I’ve not decided yet, shall I tell next week about a very cold expedition in January or about a hot July day trip. But there will be one story or another in Opposites category Monday 8.1.2018.