Estonia: Wandering through Soomaa National Park

Bring your swimsuit (or not) for a refreshing dip in the natural bog pools in Estonia. Sonja Stark Photos.
Bring your swimsuit (or not) for a refreshing dip in the natural bog pools in Estonia. Sonja Stark Photos

An enchanting bog for swimming  in Sooma National Park

By Sonja Stark

Boarded footpaths keep you dry until the fifth season (which follows the thawing of snow and heavy rains) when floods of near biblical proportions wash through the area.
Boarded footpaths keep you dry until the fifth season (which follows the thawing of snow and heavy rains) when floods of near biblical proportions wash through the area.

Estonia, a relatively flat part of the Baltic region in Northern Europe, has neither majestic, snowy peaks, deep gorges nor rushing alpine streams.Nevertheless, a retreating glacier 10,000 years ago turned this country into an enchanting, nature-loving wetland. Just two hours south of Tallinn, capital of the former Soviet Republic, Soomaa National Park will capture your imagination.

Soomaa “Land of the Bogs” National Park

It feels like I’ve wandered into a mystical children’s book written by a foraging Sendak or a hungry Dr. Seuss.

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Visit Estonia during their Soomaa Wild Berries and Mushroom Weekends in September for guided hikes with fungi experts. Bring a basket to harvest the bounty!
Visit Estonia during their Soomaa Wild Berries and Mushroom Weekends in September for guided hikes with fungi experts. Bring a basket to harvest the bounty!

Edible booty like plump, wild blueberries, sweet lingonberries, fleshy mushrooms and on this lucky occasion, a juicy cloudberry stalk, tempt our appetites. We’re promised a hearty meal after our visit if we keep dry.

‘In my youth, I visited a bog forest much like this one but one that cultivated commercial New England cranberries.

Nobody there was allowed to eat the bobbing red fruit unlike at this unique place where the berries grow organically and hikers are encouraged to tote baskets, especially in September when the berries are ripe.

The right-to-roam (and pick) is a strong tradition in Estonia and Soomaa National Park is the perfect example.

Guiding Soomaa ambassador, Aivar Ruukel, founder of “Wilderness Experience in Soomaa” takes his mission to educate, publicize and protect this swampy ecosystem seriously.

What makes Soomaa so unique is their so-called “fifth season” – a phenomenon when spring floods raise water level by 15 feet inundating meadows, fields, forests, roads and sometimes even houses.

Nicknamed the Wilderness Capital of Estonia, Soomaa stands out as one of Europe’s most unique biologically diverse floodplains.
Nicknamed the Wilderness Capital of Estonia, Soomaa stands out as one of Europe’s most unique biologically diverse floodplains.

Sporting a fuzzy goatee and red flannel hunting shirt, Aivar greets us with bug repellant as we exit the bus. “The short 2.5 mile hike will feel a lot longer if the insects are biting” says Aivar..

We saunter easily on a winding wooden footbridge through a virgin forest. Aivar motions us to stay alert for endangered species in flight, like the Golden Eagle. We crane our necks at everything that chirps.

The loud krek krek sound of a Corn Crake bird, popular in Western Europe, sounds the alarm that we’re near. Migratory birds find this route especially appealing for the protection received from the dense pines and thriving flora.
The history of human habitation in Soomaa stretches back to the Stone Age. This unique sanctuary is also home to a number of other animals including lynx, roe deer, raccoon dog, beaver, wolf and even brown bear.

Bordering the undisturbed wilderness is an endless floodplain called the Kuresoo bog. It’s dotted with refreshing crystal clear sinkholes that resemble giant blue eyes peaking up from below.

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The boardwalk unfurls in front of an elevated interpretation stand where we climb a circular staircase to the second floor and enjoy a panoramic view of nearly 43 square miles of preserve.

In one direction is a savannah-like horizon punctuated with a hundreds of scrubby pines and a carpet of mustard-colored grass, almost burnt in appearance. In the other direction is the magical forest where we just came.

Aivar gives us a brief pop quiz on the local Estonian landscape. “Who can explain to me why the pines here are so scrubby?” he asks. We all stumble for the right answer.

You’ve probably never heard of a cloudberry but they are Estonia’s most treasured fruit. Only one berry grows per plant so they are a costly treat.
You’ve probably never heard of a cloudberry but they are Estonia’s most treasured fruit. Only one berry grows per plant so they are a costly treat.

“Because of paludification,” says Aivar, repeated without the slightest hint of an Estonian ascent. (English is spoken as clearly as Estonian.)

Paludification

From what I learned, paludification is a complicated natural process that eats away at the soils nutrients. Unless you plan to use bog shoes, you will get wet trying to navigate the spongy peat layer. That process is achieved with red sphagnum peat moss, a dead sediment of composing vegetation, blocks tree and plant roots from reaching soil and ground water.

The peat layer at Soomaa is particularly thick – more than 12m in depth (39 feet). For commercial farms peat moss is like black gold, used in fertilizer for gardening applications and home heat production.Aivar continues his science lesson while we shuffle behind on duckboards laid down to protect the spongy carpet now teeming with dragonflies.

Visitors who want to walk farther have the option of striding atop the peat moss by renting a pair of moorschuhe or bog shoes. Similar to a snowshoe, the bright red plastic raquettes strap easily to any rubber boot.

The shoes help keep walkers upright lest they lose their balance and a shoe in the process. My photographer colleague Beverly learned her lesson when she stepped off the duckboards for the ‘perfect shot’.

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The ground shook like a bowl of jello and she collapsed into the squishy tableau. Fortunately, others in her vicinity came to her rescue pulling her up and out.

Soomaa also offers canoe trips on several undulating rivers that run through the preserve.

The author’s toes on the verge of a bath in the bog.
The author’s toes on the verge of a bath in the bog.

We come to a sinkhole thick with tadpoles skimming the surface alongside balloons of floating It’s an veritable fruit compote with berry picking starting in June and running through October in the bogs at Soomaa. frogspawn. It’s the beginning of July and the water temperatures are warm and enticing.

Nobody brought bathing suits for the occasion but that doesn’t stop a capricious park intern by the name of Karolis to peal down to his skivvies and glide like a gator.

The rest of us dangle our legs in the primeval drink splashing off the blueberry juice stains from our palms.

The wilds of nature and the Estonian culture are inseparable – intertwined with an appreciation for simplicity and self-reliance – undoubtedly a reaction to decades of occupation.The rural countryside is where folksy customs like singing, saunas and savory meals are enjoyed after a hard day of work.

Before it rains, we complete our visit tasting the bounty of the land with a homemade picnic outside of the Sooma Visitors Center. A steaming cup of sauerkraut soup (no soup for you Beverly) is complemented by loaves of dark rye bread, pickles and hemp butter.

For dessert, vanilla ice cream is topped with handpicked local raspberries for an even sweeter sensation.