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The sea always offers a sense of timelessness , and islands are a great place for adventure. Ekenäs Archipelago National Park is a genuine treasure trove, with sheltered harbors offering a safety net for seafarers. And the island of Jussarö, where mining used to be carried out, is the ideal place for reflecting on deep social questions. The summer sun glimmers on the gentle waves as the salty wind ushers the traveler onward.
In a way, Ekenäs Archipelago National Park is very easy to get to. All that’s needed is the means of navigating the waters (or ice!). The national park can be reached in summer by boat, canoe, kayak, sailboard, and even by swimming, and in winter on skis or skates whenever it’s safe to travel on the ice. Seasoned travelers should make sure their schedule is overly tight, or getting around from island to island may feel like too tough a task.
For those who have less time and do not have their own means of travel, I highly recommend a guided tour, as it makes it possible to focus fully on admiring the splendid nature of the archipelago and on enjoying a snack. A day trip to the archipelago is a wonderful escape into what seems like another world entirely.
We set off from Ekenäs pier around nine in the morning. The sun is already shining by then, and the fairly calm sea is inviting. Our captain and guide Matti Piirainen pilots a small boat for six people, and has a lot to tell about all the destinations and the nature and history of the area. At one time in history, it seems like Ekenäs could grow into a large cluster for islanders, as Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia – formerly Princess Dagmar of Denmark – and her fleet of ships visited the area for leisure. A reminder of this part of the area’s history is Dagmar’s Spring, a popular sight that winds its way down to the sea at Källviken. Due to the sheltered nature of the archipelago, large fleets set sail instead for more open waters, and thus Hanko and Helsinki developed into more favored destinations. We pass Dagmar’s Spring and a whole host of inviting little sandy beaches, and continue further eastward to the island of Älgö.
A guide who knows the area well will always make sure that the boat docks only in an area subject to permission. When visiting Ekenäs Archipelago National Park, it is important to remember that the park was established to protect nature, and that the Finnish ‘everyman’s right’ to pick berries and mushrooms freely do not apply within the national park. For instance, some islands have a prohibition against landing for part of the year, while in others landing is prohibited all year round. In addition, there are certain water areas where marine traffic is not allowed at all. Visitors to national parks should not forget that they are guests in the wild, and should conduct themselves accordingly and with respect for nature. Before they set out, they should read the rules and regulations for visits to national parks on the website of Metsähallitus, the national environmental services organization. The guide will ensure that the visit is conducted responsibly. The first stop will be the island of Rödjan, south of Älgö, the largest island in the national park.
Rödjan (above) is a former fishing village – and in a way it still is, as Micke Röberg takes care of the parcels of land and the pier, and smokes his catches of fish. The service structures in Rödjan are freely available to visitors to the national park. In the area you will find a nature trail, a dry closet (that is, a toilet containing no water), and a campsite a little further from the beach. Unfortunately, the beach sauna burned down recently, so there is no chance of a sauna.
Micke’s catch on the day of our visit is the usual kind, largely perch – but also one flounder, the first in a long time! We talk with him about how the sea and the Ekenäs archipelago have changed. Micke has been fishing and has been living in the area for several decades, and says the changes taking place in the region are most visible in the water. The rocks are resistant to change within a human lifetime, but the changes in the underwater world are clearly noticeable.
“At one time, it was quite common to catch anywhere between 100 and 200 flounder a week. I used to smoke a lot of them. Nowadays, the flounder catch for the whole summer is about a hundred.”
According to Röberg, the waters are also becoming cloudier all the time. On the other hand, changes related to emissions from the large factories on the shores of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland are also noticeable, and fortunately they are for the better now.
With our guide, Matti, we also talk about the birds of the archipelago during the day. Cormorants in particular are a source of lively debate, as their habitat and presence in the area has had a marked effect on the habitat of the population in a short time. Matti also advises birdwatching visitors to be on the lookout for an osprey’s nest in the crown of a particular pine tree.
Ekenäs Archipelago National Park was established in 1989, and it annual visitor numbers are about average for Finland’s marine and lakeland national parks. Whereas there were just short of 5,000 visitors to Bothnian Bay National Park in 2020 and almost 100,000 visitors to Bothnian Sea National Park, Ekenäs Archipelago National Park drew an estimated 58,000 visitors that year. Visitor numbers have not been astronomical, as those who travel in the area are largely boaters and paddlers. According to Matti, however, there have been increasing numbers of birdwatchers to national parks, and some choose Ekenäs Archipelago National Park as their final park of the birdwatching season. On Matti’s guided tours, these park achievements and birthdays have been celebrated, and he has also taken experts on expeditions to see shipwrecks in the area.
When in the archipelago, one can’t always be certain when they’re in the national park and when not. In some places visitors can find themselves in the nature reserve, other times on private land. Responsible hiking also means knowing the waters you are travelling through, and choosing your landing location according to the permitted places. Overnight stays in Ekenäs Archipelago National Park are only allowed in marked places. As there are only a few of these, they should be carefully chosen in advance. Naturally, in the event of an emergency boats may be forced to come to land in other places – as is well known, the sea can be an unpredictable environment. But with good preparation, and if need be an overnight stay with respect for nature, every hiker can contribute to ensuring that the Baltic ringed seal can continue to raise its head amid the waves.
After leaving Rödjan, the landscape gradually changes. The inner archipelago gives way to the mid-archipelago, from where we eventually end up in the outer archipelago. The pearl of the intermediate archipelago is unquestionably Modermagan, meaning ‘mother’s lap’, a natural harbor with a charming lagoon-like, rock-walled route into it. Matti steers the boat to land under the welcoming pine, and we jump off onto the rocks.
The services at Modermagan are relaxingly simple: a fireplace, a place to safely light a fire, an outdoor toilet, tent site and information board. Mother Nature’s offerings, by contrast, are abundant: a peculiar, almost fairytale water pond, the wind-blown cliffs towards the outer archipelago, the wonderfully wind-curved pines, and the view from the rocks over the magnificent embrace of the bay. One could stay and admire the open sea all day were it not for the summer heat, which soon forces a retreat into the shade. An amusing little detail that Matti points out is a telephone pole on the southern rocks of Modermagan. There used to be a phone there at one time, and on occasion it would ring. The only telephone coverage among the nearby islands was there. The phoneless telephone pole is now a convenient perch for mew gulls.
After leaving Modermagan, the open sea beckons. There is only a gentle breeze, so the journey goes smoothly, ‘like treading on asphalt.’ At Modermagan we saw the Jussarö lighthouse far off in the distance. It was in fact built on a separate islet southwest of Jussarö. We make a detour to admire the beautiful idyllic former archipelago village, which is now privately owned and apparently serves as a summer resort.
Up ahead is the main destination for our day trip – Jussarö island. Perhaps some advance knowledge of the island and its history has an effect on our perceptions of it, but even the name itself has a metallic ring to it.
In the port of Västerviken, however, the atmosphere is quite relaxed as holidaymakers and excursion boaters enjoy a peaceful afternoon by the new pier. Right next to the guest boat pier is an outdoor toilet, an information board, a swimming area, a sauna – and even a café! There is also a water point on wall. The water is safe to drink, as the seawater is desalinated and purified by reverse osmosis. It’s worth keeping in mind that this is the only water point in the national park. This is a little reminder that hikers planning their excursion to Ekenäs Archipelago National Park should prepare at least as carefully as hikers in Lapland, if not even more so. The limited number of services and the requirement for a good deal of self-sufficiency tend to reduce the number of visitors, thus making this national park a rather peaceful and unknown destination, one that offers more than its fair share of adventure. After all, Ekenäs Archipelago National Park is not a place you’re ever going to come across by accident.
With our guide, we get a peek into Kullakoja, a small red building that is the only building remaining from the old pilot village of the early 19th century. It has been renovated by Metsähallitus. The building has a strong sense of atmosphere about it, but is not open to visitors. Half of Jussarö island is part of the national park, and there walking is permitted only on the marked paths. This restriction is absolute and always in force. All services and camping facilities are in the eastern half of the island, which there are less restrictions. On the nature trail, hikers can immerse themselves in the nature of the archipelago as calmly as their heart desires. But the serenity comes to a startling end when you set eyes on the ugly spectacle on the other side of Jussarö.
On the open zone of the eastern side of the island is a historically significant former iron mine, and the heavily pock-marked landscape is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Faced with such a sight, the viewer’s imagination may well be tempted to run wild, evoking stark, even brutal images from video games and movies.
Summer nature could not be more beautiful when the sea glimmers in the sun, a deep contrast with the man-made scar on Jussarö.
In the deciduous forest, above the trees, runs an old, partially ruined wooden railroad track. This is the route on which the enriched iron was hauled to the loading dock in the northern part of the island. A light metal fence encloses the barracks buildings that in bygone days provided accommodation for the miners. Only very few of the windows still have intact glass, and there are plenty of bullet holes in many of the walls. The Finnish armed forced apparently used the buildings in their exercises. We walk through the horror movie-like scene with the guide, and I have to admit I’m happy it’s a sunny summer day. If we were here during an autumn storm, the combined effect of these unsettling surroundings and a runaway imagination might well be too much for the nerves.
Ahead of us is what was called the iron yard. There is a tall tower-like building on the left, and a fairly large, gray barracks-type building on the right. An open gravel pitch. We could almost be in the Texas Wild West of the movies; all that’s missing is the tumbleweed. Moving on, we can hear the sound of the crickets in the grass. And further ahead is another tower-like building and the skeleton of a house, with no walls left standing. This is a pretty mind-boggling sight. These are not the scenes you’d expect in a national park.
But on the other hand, perhaps we should just accept it.
After all, denying or forgetting the past is of far less value than remembering and learning from it. In all its harshness, it’s nonetheless probably a good thing that these remnants of buildings are still here. As monuments. According to Matti, the iron mine was in operation for an amazingly short time – only seven years! He also tells us of the day-to-day life and activities on the island and its connections. Digging for iron under the sea turned out to be unprofitable, and so came to a rather swift end. The world changed. Now those who some to Jussarö are mostly boaters at their leisure, a far cry from the miners or conscripts who came to labor here. But even in a transformed world, it’s still the same island.
Behind another tall mining building is a sandy hill, and we get to try something that’s close to a pleasant reminder of physics classes in our high school days. The guide gives us small magnets for finding iron-bearing stones and rocks in the ground. And we find them! An awful lot of them, in fact. We also come across a few of what seem to be old shotgun pellets, or what’s left of them (pardon my ignorance in this area). There are plenty of ferrous rocks and sand. So much, we’re told, that in the past the compasses of many ships, which worked with old, unrepairable mechanisms, were led astray near Jussarö, making navigation difficult. On the seabed to the southeast and south of the island are several shipwrecks.
Hiekkamäki leads us directly to the sea to one of Finland’s most remarkable beaches – the aptly named Iron Beach. The dark tone of the beach meets the magnificently glistening summertime Baltic Sea, and the cliffs that frame the area make the place almost magical. On a nearby cliff stands an observation tower, with a direct view south over the sea.
There is also a nature trail to the west of Iron Beach. it does not run through the national park, but instead leads to the cliffs to enjoy the seaside sun. Along the path, Matti gives us a few tips about other rocky or sandy beaches along the trail that are good spots for swimming. We can feel the heat radiating from the rocks, and the salty sea breeze ruffling our hair. It’s just fantastic to be by the open sea. And we have been blessed with such great weather: as beautiful as the nature around these parts is now, in the winter it can be ferociously stormy.
Jussarö gives you much to think about. An abandoned iron mine, old broken-down former railroad tracks in the middle of the forest, a tranquil beautiful archipelago meadow, the majestic sea and beautiful cliffs… You can’t take it all in at once. Even for people who now the archipelago well, Jussarö is still a world apart. There is just something so… video game-like about this island.
On the way back to Ekenäs, there is still plenty of sunshine to savor. As we speed away, we pass islands and islets to the right and to the left of us – many of them nameless, and highly varied. A start to dream of a kayaking trip through the watery maze of this sheltered archipelago. As the home port comes into view, the feeling is slightly unreal. The sea and the archipelago are a wilderness of their own kind, and promise adventure to those who visit. It’s nothing short of breathtaking what a massive contrast there is from the islands criss-crossed with small paths to the asphalt of the mainland. And despite the contrast, the distance between these two worlds as the crow flies is not even that great. Perhaps it is the ‘absence of society’ that makes archipelagos and wilderness so different, relaxing and natural.
And all the treasures that are hidden in those islands.