The Gulf of Bothnia (Arctic Finland)

The Island of Hailuoto lies about 10k off the Finnish mainland in the Northern reaches of the Gulf of Bothnia. That puts it at 65 degrees north or not quite in the Arctic but so close as to make little difference, especially as winter temperatures can reach -35C. When Katja’s family realised that I would be taking up the opportunity to visit in March rather than during the brief visitor season (July and August), well, let’s just say that eyebrows were raised.

The tourists that do visit in season come to photograph birds, something I’m not particularly good at, or to hike amongst the natural scenery which, to be fair, is not a patch on parts of Scotland or Wales. My interest in accepting the invitation was to experience life in such a remote part of the world and find out a little about the people who live there. By late March the ice road has been abandoned for safety reasons but the sea is still frozen. A ferry service plies the icy channel several times a day and this service is provided for the residents by the government for free. I cannot imagine a community of a thousand people being so well cared for in the UK. Somewhere a minor functionary in an obscure Government office would have long since downsized services with a satisfied tap on the “delete” button.

The Island has been inhabited for many hundreds of years but unfortunately its sixteenth century church burned down in 1968. Since it boasts only a post office, two shops, one school and a petrol station, there are no other buildings of great historical significance. The school is attended by children up to the age of fourteen but thereafter they have to register at the senior school in Oulu on the nearby mainland. Most then communte for part of the week as the crossing can be difficult in midwinter. In spite of the fact that many people have to leave the island for much of their working lives, this tiny community seems to exert a strong enough pull to draw them home eventually. One such is Eini’s brother, the “Sailor Man” who recently returned after a brief absence of forty three years.

Although modernisation in the form of the internet and satellite television has brought ready access to the wider world, winter activities on the island tend towards the traditional: cooking, hunting, handicrafts and, of course, taking saunas and stocking up on firewood. When I was told that the moose shot on the island twenty years ago might have been the last one to come across the ice, it hardly seemed appropriate to question the conservation policy involved. Up here you eat meat and you burn trees – or you die.

Life in Oulu, across the water on the mainland, looked pretty tame in comparison. This is a large city with all the amenities and, although it didn’t look particularly attractive to me, I was charmed by an Egyptian gentleman in the Gourmet Food Hall who has been living there for twenty years and has nothing but good to say for the place.

I had an unforgeable visit to this remote and fascinating part of the world, so I hope that my photographs do justice to the charming hospitality that I experienced. Thank you again to Raiija and Eini.

Categories: Arctic, Europe

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