Saturday, April 13, 2013

Beavers, Bogs, and Canoes. Soomaa National Park.

Cute European beaver (Image by stevehdc)
Here's a phrase that I never imagined I would when looking for things to do in Estonia - "Beaver Safari".  Of course, once I saw those two words, I had to do more research.

Turns out that Estonia is home to the Eurasian beaver or European beaver (Castor fiber).  Once a widespread species of beaver, it was hunted to near-extinction for both its fur and castoreum, a secretion of its scent gland believed to have medicinal properties.  By the 20th century,  the estimated population of beavers dwindled to about 1,200 beavers and in many European nations, the beaver went extinct.  Thanks to reintroduction and protection, the population of beavers has gradually recovered well over half a million and beavers can be found from Great Britain to China and Mongolia, although it is absent from Italy, Portugal and the southern Balkans.


Eurasian beavers are one of the largest living species of rodent (read "rat") and are the largest rodent (read "really big rat") native to Eurasia. They weigh around 11–30 kg (24–66 lb), with an average of 18 kg (40 lb).  Typically, the head-and-body length is 80–100 cm (31–39 in) and the tail length is 25–50 cm (9.8–20 in).  A big rat with a fat tail and a really cute face. But don't be fooled by the cute face.  I just saw this news alert posted up on the web yesterday.  Yikes!! You forget about those teeth.....they can cut down trees.

Estonia has a healthy population of beavers.  In Soomaa National Park,  these animal can be seen on the river at night.  That brings us to the Beaver Safari.  Of course, we have to go on one so I changed our tour route so we can spend one day near the park. Just have to find the right tour to sign up with.

Aside from the Eurasian Beaver, Soomaa National Park is home to, and a breeding zone for, rare European mammals including roe deer, elk, wild boars, lynx, wolves and brown bear as well as several rare bird species, including golden eagles, black storks, black grouse and capercaillies.

Photo from ramsar.org

Soomaa National Park, is also known for its bogs.  Yes, bogs.

Your's truly did her undergraduate thesis on bogs so I have a odd affinity for them.  I spent an entire summer, collecting data from bogs around Lake Opinicon in Ontario, Canada.  Queen's University, my alma mater, has a biological station on the shores of Lake Opinicon.  I spent the summer of my junior year at the station - cooking breakfast, part time, to pay for my stay.  My days were spent collecting data in the bogs.....hard work under the hot sun!

Soomaa  National Park, located in central Estonia has 5 large bogs, native forests and flooded meadows.  While it is a popular place all year round, apparently Estonians get the most enjoyment out of the park during what is known as "Fifth Season"  which is the name given to the annual spring flood, which can raise the water level five meters above normal.  The result is that the park essentially flooded everywhere - meadows, fields, forests, roads and sometimes even houses.  It's an Estonian to canoe through the flooded Soomaa forests and meadows.

We won't be in Soomaa during 5th Season but we will be going canoeing and.....bogshoeing which is a hike through the bogs wearing the bog equivalent of snowshoes.  Apparently, the large paddle keeps you from sinking in to the bog water.....which is no fun.  Been there, done that....many times! 

Bogs are fascinating ecosystems.  I remember all the cranberry plants and carnivorous plants like the Venus Flytrap.  I also remember the leeches.....oh.....the leeches.  I used to wear waders to work in the bogs. If I was unfortunate enough to step through the peat and flood the waders, I would immediately get to solid ground, remove the waders and look for leeches. The things you learn to do in college!  Leeches or not, I'm looking to rediscovering bogs on this trip. 

Estonian dugout canoe, a haabajs (Image by Aivar Ruukel)
In Estonia, the typical canoe is a dugout canoe, a boat made from a hollowed tree trunk.  Known in Estonian as "haabjas" the dugout canoe is a very traditional form of transport in this country that is full of lakes and rivers.

They are popular in Soomaa National Park especially during the 5th Season.  In recent decades, a resurgence of interest in making haabjas has revitalized the ancient tradition throughout the country.  Several companies offer workshops where you can lend your hand to building one.

I don't think we'll be canoeing in a haabajs but it's been decades since I've been in canoe so I'm looking forward to a fun experience!

I warned my brother that our trip to the Baltics will entail a lot of outdoor activities.  Though we are both born and raised in the city, we do enjoy our times soaking in the outdoors.  This trip is going to be very different from all the other ones so far in that it focuses more on Mother Nature than on culture. I think it will be a very nice change of pace for both of us!