The moss was moist and ice cold. It covered the entirety of the sun-drenched forest ground, allowing plenty of all kinds of mushrooms through. There was dark green and softer moss, lighter and needle-shaped sorts and most of all, the white reindeer lichen that sprawled over everything it could reach. The big reindeer herds wouldn't migrate that far into the South, hence the abundance of safely growing lichen. I dipped my bare feet into the mossy softness, seeking my way from mushroom to mushroom. The basket was nearly full after this extensive day out in the forest of Rokua Geopark. We settled at a fireplace amidst the woods and fed off what we collected earlier. After such a long day at Rokua, we could barely appease our hunger.
I started early to reach the overwhelmingly beautiful reserve – once I arrived, I met the rangers and locals Vesa Krokki, Jukka 'Susi' Nordman and Julius Kuusisaari who introduced me to the special place I was about to discover. Rokua is an exceptional landscape: Many thousands of years ago, a sea vanished here, leaving the place to ice ages glaciers, which formed the ground into a hilly landscape. Today, the area is covered by a thick layer of sandy ground that is still left from its times as a sea, and, due to the lacking glacier's weight, Rokua is rising one centimeter per year. 'Rokua is actually a huge, constantly rising dune', Vesa told me. 'A dune, that is quite similar to Sahara's counterparts, though differing in the fact that isn't moving thanks to the vegetation that holds it in place.' Rokua is covered with a dense pine forest. Pine are the only trees to reach that deep into the ground to prosper here. Apart from that, the scarce flora and fauna consists of much undergrowth – moss, plenty of reindeer lichen, mushrooms and some berries – and few animals: birds, some moose, wolves and bears.
However, I didn't travel all the way to Finland's wondrous Rokua Geopark to attend classes – I wanted to be out in the woods. To go hiking, collect mushrooms and, most of all, discover the unique nature. I didn't reckon that my guides had a real surprise prepared: Susi brought some of his huskies with him to go husky hiking. 'We keep them as sledge dogs for the winter, but during the summer it's too hot for them to participate in such exhausting activities. When the temperature rises above ten degrees, they'll most likely die from heat stroke. This is why we keep them fit with easier tasks: hiking.' I was curious, how this should work out. 'The dog gets a harness, you get a belt and the both of you will be connected by a leash. But it's not you who will lead the dog, the dog will lead you. In fact, he will pull you through the woods. Just walk normally.' Those were challenging words for a guy who goes by the name Susi, Finnish for 'wolf'. There was no one in the Finnish woods who deserves this name more than him: He sported a majestic full beard; his steel-blue wolve eyes gleamed from the deep sockets beneath his thick and wiry eye brows. A brown fedora, lumberjack shirt, leather pants and boots matched his outdoorsman's appearance. A precious knife dangled from his embellished belt; I was sure he used it to skin the numerous reindeer and moose himself to fashion this outfit adequate for such a tough nature-boy he seemed to be.
As soon as Susi brought the equipment, the huskies became nervous. They howled and barked, pulling on their chains, eagerly awaiting to frolic around the forest. Susi donned the harness on husky Pikkumusta ('the small, black one'), helped me to put belt and leash on. 'Pull on the leash if she's too fast and strong for you', then he let off. Pikkumusta had a powerful pull. I had to lean back but managed to stand firm. Then we took off for the woods. Susi accompanied us on the trail to a distant hut and watchtower. But Pikkumusta seemed to know the right way. 'She's the leader of the pack. She knows the paths through the forest and whenever I tell her to turn right, she turns right. And if tell her to go left, she goes left.' Soon, the dog and I got used to each other. She comfortably pulled me up the hills and I steadied her when we went downhill. Whenever I took a break to gaze in amazement or take photos, she would wait for me, just to powerfully pull again once I moved a foot forward. When we reached the watchtower that stood on an elevated point in the area, we leashed the exhausted dogs to some trees and went to the small well nearby to gather some fresh and cold water. 'The dogs come first. They're the most important. We can wait.' And the dogs drank, they drank as fast as they could. Susi and I took a short rest to climb the watchtower, that was still there from war times, when the Finns watched out for Soviet fighter planes. Reaching some twenty or thirty meters above the ground we climbed all to the sheltered top, where we enjoyed a magnificent view over the dense pine forest of Rokua. Susi gave me some peculiar mosquito repellent, made of tar and bee wax, to grease myself with – and as far as I can tell, this intensely smelling stuff didn't allow any of the hundreds mosquitoes that were up there to bite me.
We climbed down again where Susi showed me the camp: Everyone could come here and stay for as long as desired – there was a shelter with a bunk bed, an oven and simple amenities for hikers. The hut was vacant for most of the year, but every now and then exhausted hikers could stay for a rest. However, I had to leave soon and move on. After meeting Vesa and Julius again to collect and eat the mushrooms, we drove to Rokua Spa. Amidst the woods and by a beautiful picturesque lake sat the building; but since we already felt hungry again we immediately met chef Esko Holopainen at a traditional dining hut at the lakeside. Esko, a trained mushroom specialist, had a specially and long roasted salmon along with a porcini soup prepared – wine and Koskenkorva were served, and that, with a 'kippis!', was how this wonderful day out in the deep woods of the Rokua national park ended.
Rokua Geopark is one hour's drive from Oulu away. It is best accessible by car. However, there is bus service to Vaala (which is already inside the park), from where a cab will cover the distance to Suppa, from where I started into the woods. Accommodation available. The website has further information.
Suppa · Jaakonjärventie 2 · 91670 Rokua
Erä-Susi Huskies · Rukajärventie 30 · 93825 Rukatunturi
Rokua Spa · Kuntoraitti 2 · 91670 Rokua
Text & pictures by Matthias Planitzer