Saturday, August 31, 2013

Hello Estonia! Bogshoeing.


Exploring a bog in Soomaa National Park. Love the footwear!

It was an early wake up call this morning. Our first destination of the day was Soomaa National Park in Estonia. We had to be there (not sure exactly where in the Park) to meet up with Aivar Ruukel, a well known local guide who has made Soomaa his area of specialty. I had seen quite a lot of information about Aivar on the web including this highlight and was looking forward to spending time with him.  Though Ieva had listed all the driving distances on our itinerary, this would be our first driving foray in to Estonia and so I had no idea what the road conditions would be like, what the road signage would be like and therefore, how long it would actually take us to get from Valmiera to Soomaa. Better to arrive early than miss our time with Aivar.


We had a quick buffet breakfast in the restaurant's dining room. As I had expected, it did not compare to what we were having at the Elizabete back in Riga. Maybe we're in too small a town though the hotel seemed much larger than the Elizabete.

In any event, we filled our bellies and then headed back to our room, got our luggage and checked out.

Our map did have the route out of Valmiera and so Bro navigated us out of town. Somehow he thinks he's a better navigator than I am. I will forever debate that but one thing is for sure, I don't think he can find a street sign if his life depended on it so in addition to driving, ole eagle eyes me also has to read the signs. Every time I'm in this situation, even at home, I'm yet again reminded about how bad my eyesight is and maybe I should consider Lasik surgery to help improve it a bit. Another thing to put on my to-do list now that I'm semi-retired.

It took us a while to get from the hotel back to the main highway; Valmiera was a larger town than I had given it credit for. It was a smooth crossing in to Estonia. I had expected a police check point of some sort but instead we drove straight passed the large blue and yellow EU sign that simply had "Estonia" printed on it.

It's amazing how things do change from one country to another. We could immediately tell we were in another country - the roads and signage in Estonia were far better than the ones in Latvia. Our challenge with having to learn the signs in a new language had also just begun!

Our first destination of the day was actually our guest house - the Klaara Manni. As has been the case with our travel adventures so far, finding it was another mini-challenge even though we had instructions from Ieva. As in Latvia, much of Estonia seems to be very rural. Towns are small here and roads are often not marked so you just hope you're driving on the right one! We passed by the Klaara Manni on our first drive by. We did a quick u-turn and saw the sign. The red building looked familiar as I had seen images on Google when I was selecting our accommodations for this trip. Pretty little complex.


It was just around 10:30a when we pulled into the small parking lot. There were two other cars in addition to ours and from the looks of it, they were being packed up to head out. One thing nice about traveling off season - there's plenty of available rooms at any place you want to stay.



We walked inside the building that looked like it would be the reception. It was a cozy interior - light colored wood paneled walls with family pictures hanging everywhere. It all looked very rustic and inviting. A woman approached us and we told her we were checking in. We followed her in to the dining room where the teeny weeny check in desk/bar counter was. I handed over the voucher and she did the needful to get us registered.

With key in hand, she led us back outside to an adjacent row of buildings. We entered the one on the far left - an end unit. Inside the door was a small anteroom with a fireplace. There was kettle with tea to help ourselves to. To the right and left of the anteroom were two rooms. We had the room on the left which was nice because we were in the end unit room that had windows on two sides. It was a good sized room and very bright. There was a small TV which came with cable and a large bathroom that was equipped with facilities for the handicapped. Later on we would find out that this and a couple of other units were built with handicapped visitors in mind. Quite forward thinking for a small guesthouse located in rural Estonia!

We unloaded our luggage from the car and took a few minutes to settle in. As as quickly becoming routine, I laid out my mushrooms to dry. I had sacrificed the bag that I had been carrying my travel papers in to now carrying mushrooms - much better purpose :-)

There was also a quick few minutes for an apple break for Bro! It wasn't long before we decided we best hit the road. The kind lady, who turned out to be owner, had told us that Aivar had called to see if we had arrived. She was going to call him back to let him know that we were indeed here and would soon be on the way to meet up with him at the park's Visitor Center.

Our map did have the park indicated on it but that was it. The owner's English was a bit rough but her daughter was nearly fluent. She gave us some rough instructions on how to get to the park. Simple she said. Just turn left here, past this building, take next right.....Sure. We thanked her and then I prayed to the map Gods that we would arrive as I would be at the navigational helm.

We did pretty well initially but again, here the roads are not really well marked and the signs are in Estonia. We did come upon a sign that we thought could be to the Visitors Center and turned on to the road only to discover that it led to a camp ground. So, we turned around and continued on the same road. Further down, we saw another sign and again, turned off. This time we hit the jackpot! We parked the car next to a van. As we got out of our car, so did a tall man from the driver's side of the van. It was Aivar! We introduced ourselves - we were mutually glad to see each other.
While he was waiting for us to arrive, he had been sitting in his van and working on the finishing touches on a YouTube video. Apparently, Aivar is a bit of a techno freak and especially loves doing videos. You can check out his YouTube channel.


The Visitor's Center was small - part education center about the park itself, part gift shop. Aivar had arranged for us to see a short video about the park but there was some sort of a technical issue so we had to skip that.

Can you believe I saw the beaver but completely forgot to ask Aivar about going on a beaver safari! Losing it :-(



Before he headed to the blog, Aivar briefed us on Estonia's famous Fifth Season.

We headed back out to the parking lot and got into the back seat of Aivar's van. We were starting our day in the park which I knew would include spending some time walking on the bogs that dot this part of the country.

A short drive later, Aivar parked the van. There was a small building - it looked like accommodations of some sort. On the ground near the van were a set of red, plastic snowshoes. Aivar grabbed three pairs based on the respective sizes of our feet which meant I got a set marked "small". As Aivar put the snow shoes into the van, another guide pulled up in car and the two of them started chatting in Estonian. From the looks on their faces, I guessed Aivar was explaining who we were. Yes, Asian tourists. We stand out like sore thumbs.

My pair of red snowshoes.

We then got back into our van and continued down the road. Another short drive later and again, Aivar parked the van and we got out. This time, we had to carry our snowshoes with us.


Aivar stopped at the start of the wooden footbridge that we would take us into the forest. On the side of the pole were pieces of paper that marked the height of water, on various occasions, during what Estonians refer to as the "fifth season". Basically, the spring thaw causes nearby rivers to flood into the forest and at quite high levels. In fact, often enough that you can actually canoe through the forest - apparently, a very popular activity for Estonians during fifth season. I have to admit, it was amazing to see just how high the water could rise. The highest levels occurred in April 2010 - water level was just about Aivar's waist and he easily stands well over 6 feet!


It was a pretty walk through the woods. I brought up the rear - busy taking photos. The damp ground was mounded up here, there and everywhere.


I thought to myself, perfect spot for mushrooms. And indeed it was. By now, Bro's eyes were well trained and he was spotting them all over place. No surprise that Aivar is an avid forager (who isn't in the Baltics?).  

Tall, slender trees providing dappled shade.

We walked along the wooden boardwalk.

Before I knew it, the guys were off the wooden walkway and in to the woods looking for mushrooms. Hearing that I love chanterelles, Aivar asked me if I had ever had this one variety where the stems are yellow and the caps brown. Of course I hadn't but apparently, they were his favorite so all of a sudden, it became his mission to find this seemingly elusive variety of chanterelle. I was not about to complain :-)

Damp ground, perfect for mushrooms!

Bro's first find, a bolete.

A deadly Amanita.

An Amanita just bursting open.

Another Aminta, this one with a brown colored cap.

Soon, the forest of trees thinned out and I could see open sky. We had reached the point where the forest met the bog. In front of us was a brightly yellow colored landscape punctuated with bits of red. It was the autumnal bog. Very pretty against the bright blue sky with its fluffy white clouds hanging high above.

Just steps away from the bog.

We followed Aivar up the steps of an observation platform for a wonderful view of the bog landscape. In the distance, we could see a small tour group that looked like it was getting ready to come back our way. Perhaps they had just wrapped up their visit to the bog.

Up to the observation platform.

The other tourists.   Looked like they had just finished swimming...but where?

View back towards the path and woods we just came from.

Where forest meets bog.

Back down on ground, we continued on into the bog.

What colors!  The late summer bog is beautiful.

Aivar pointed out the small lingonberry and cranberry plants that were fruiting. Of course, we had to sample some of the berries. The lingonberries are very thin skinned, slightly juicy and very tart. The cranberries are thicker skin, not so juice and just as tart. If Aivar had not told me which were which, I would not have been able to tell the difference. To, they're both tart berries and I'm not sure there is a difference in taste once they're cooked up - at least, not to my non-Baltic taste buds.

Lingonberry or cranberry?

Cranberry or lingonberry?


Soon, the other group did pass us. We stood single file so they would walk by us on the wooden walkway that we were still on.

The peat bog gave way to small ponds which perfectly reflected the bright blue sky and white clouds above. It was just a really pretty, pretty landscape.


Our path took us to a small wooden patio area with a bench. There, we had a chance to sit and put on our snowshoes. It had been decades, literally, since I had last worn a pair of snowshoes. That was back when I was at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. One winter, as a biology student, I had gone up to the university's research lab located near Lake Opinicon. With all the snow on the ground, the only way to get around was on snowshoes. I remember how difficult it was especially once snow started to mound up atop the shoes. Of course, we would not have any issue with that today.

Snowshoes on and ready to roll!

Aivar the techno geek.  Checking his cellphone which he used as a backup camera.

Photo time.  Another photography buff!

Just some instructions before we head out.

Nonetheless, it was still a bit awkward walking with snowshoes on the wooden walkway but once we got on to the spongy bog, we were all glad we had them on. The shoes definitely help to distribute your way so you don't inadvertently plunge a foot or worse, two feet through the peat moss and into the murky, water below.

Shuffling along the wooden walkway.....only way to walk with snowshoes on.

Finally on the spongy bog.

Me and my little red shoes :-)

I'm actually happier than I look.  #notphotogenic

Bro, getting the hang of it.

Exploring the bog.  Don't get too close to the edge!

Seriously gorgeous landscape.

Once on the bog, it was good opportunity to squat down and take a closer look at the flora. The plants are unique in this environment - having to live off of very acidic water. Nothing to shield from the wind or harsh elements either. Back in my university days, I had written my undergraduate thesis on the evolution of bogs. Being here today brought back warm memories of days spent gathering plant life day on the bog.

It was a really pleasant walk on the bog though we did have to pay attention as there were sections where even with snowshoes on, my feet sank down far enough for water to surface. Bro was intent on checking out the small ponds - I shouted to him to not get so close to the water's edge. Definitely don't want to have to be fishing him out of the water - I think there are leeches in it.

The only way to truly appreciate the flora is to get down low....

....so you can see the delicate moss and bog flowers....

....and the equally delicate, lichen.

We didn't stay on the bog for long as after a while, the vegetation does all begin to look the same. Before we knew it, we were back on the wooden platform heading back to the wooden patio to take off our snowshoes.

On the way back into forest, there was more foraging for berries. The guys really got into it.


Then, it was back into the woods. And, wouldn't you know it but Bro spotted the elusive chanterelle that Aivar had been talking about! I have never seen anyone so excited about finding a mushroom and when it turned out to be a grove of the mushrooms, the two guys went to town picking every specimen. I happened to have a small bag with me so that's where they all went into!

That elusive chanterelle, peeking out from under twigs and fallen leaves.  So surprised Bro actually spotted it!

On our walk back to the car, we met up with a family for Latvia who had come to forage for mushrooms. Apparently, this one spot is their *secret* location and the best one for boletes - worth the effort of a drive from Latvia. I have to say the boletes we've been seeing are much larger than the ones we found in Gauja National Forest. Perhaps there's something about the forest here that grows larger ones. While the husband chatted with us, his wife was busy culling through their finds and doing a bit of trimming here and there so as to only have the best parts of every mushroom to take home with them. I just love how people are allowed to forage in their National Parks. They are very respective of the land so no damage is done and it's probably beneficial to the environment as well - a win win situation all the way around!

The Latvian family sorting through their finds.

Some of our finds.  We didn't pick much as today was not about foraging for mushrooms.

We soon arrived back at the van and piled in along with our snowshoes. To be honest, I had no idea exactly what our itinerary was so I had no clue what was going to be happening next. Aivar drove us to the next stop which was a small wooded grove located next to what looked like a field. There was already a car parked there and a woman standing next to a wooden table that had food placed on it. It was already early afternoon so I was hoping this was our lunch and indeed it was! I wasn't hungry but I was certain Bro was famished as it was well past his usual lunch hour.


Aivar had arranged for a local woman to cook lunch and to bring it to this spot. It smelt tasty. In a large pot was squash soup that the woman had made. I took a good bowl's worth. There was also some home baked apple bread. I took a slice.  We washed down our meal with apple juice.



It was a simple but very delicious and satisfying meal.  Nothing beats homecooking!

We found benches nearby and sat down to eat our meal.  I have to say the soup was wonderful. It was just slightly warm, thick and full of good squash flavor. I downed two bowls. The apple bread was also delicious but I really enjoyed the soup!

A view to enjoy with our meal.

After lunch, we headed into the field which bordered a small river. There was where we launched a canoe, all three of us fit into one, for a ride on one of the many rivers that run through Soomaa National Park. I can imagine this would be one of the rivers that overflow during Fifth Season.



I took the front spot so I could take pictures/video. Bro sat in the middle and Aivar took up the helm. It had also been ages since I had been in a canoe but it's like riding a bicycle - takes just a few seconds to remember how to row an oar.


Although we were pushing upstream, the water was so calm there was little movement. It looked like we were moving atop a piece of glass. It was pretty landscape all around us.



As we paddled along, the skies above started to go gray. Fearing we could get drenched in a downpour, we didn't go far upstream before turning around and heading back to our starting point. I think our entire canoe ride took less than an hour which may have been too short for Bro but was enough for me to get a sense of what the experience is like. I am NOT an outdoorsy person by nature!

We reached a stretch filled with grassy reeds.  This is where we decided to turn around.

Docking the canoe.



We docked the canoe, piled back into the van, returned to the spot where we had picked up our snowshoes and left them behind. We then headed back to the Visitors Center where we were parked. It was the end of our visit. We thanked Aivar for his time and bid him farewell.

It wasn't a long visit to Soomaa but we sure did have a lot of fun.  After all, how often do we get to go walking on a bog and foraging for mushrooms?

....and for more fun - finding our way back to the Klaara-Manni.