Finland, with its heavy metal, Santa Claus figurines, and endless herring dishes, is an easy country to dismiss until you actually see it and realize the extent of its natural gifts. The Karelia region, which sprawls into neighboring Russia, is Finland’s sweeping expanse of coniferous forests, pristine lakes, and moose country – a vast, flat-packed New England – that demands exploration in the wake of the late spring thaw.
Start your adventure at the boreal bolthole of Routa, a husky farm tucked into the evergreen bliss of Lake Tervajärvi. Expect the resident pack of gutsy Siberians and chunky Greenlanders to be chomping at the bit for an off-season workout. Guests head out for husky hikes after donning harnesses tethered to their canine guides – at which point it is extremely unclear who is walking whom.
Come supper, take the farm out of farm-to-table: Finland is the land of the hunter-gatherer. Pick cloudberries, fish for pike, and forage for the notorious false morel shroom – delicious when cooked, deadly when fresh.
Evening is all about the Finnish sauna ritual. Routa’s old-school variation requires a pile of freshly cut wood and a scoop of lake water. A vasta, a bunch of fragrant birch branches, is on hand to stimulate your skin, as is tar shampoo rendered from pine trees, which is perfect if you’re searching for the ultimate man-of-the-woods treatment. Once the mercury hits 200 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s time to hydrate with a plunge in the lake. Locals swim in the buff.
North of Routa, moose signs give way to warnings about wild forest reindeer as the land gets wilder. Outside the town of Kuhmo, a 20-mile dirt track winds toward Finland’s carnivore watching capital: The Boreal Wildlife Center. The center, which sits on the old Viiksimo border post, is situated less than one mile from the Russian frontier and the majority of its wildlife observation stations are located within the eerily quiet Finnish-Russian border zone. Base camp for the night is a purpose-built wooden bear blind punctured by zoom-lens portholes that overlook a peat bog. The wait begins in the late afternoon, and visitors are asked to remain hidden and quiet until morning because wolverines, white-tailed eagles, and the occasional tufted-ear Eurasian lynx prowl past. With a booming local population of 1,500, European brown bear are commonly seen both alone and in the company of gray wolves, which get first dibs on carrion.
A nightlong shift is tiring but never dark, thanks to the 24/7 summer sunshine. This forest is farther north than Anchorage and Reykjavik, so using a flash is no problem at all.
More information: Routa Travel offers all-inclusive week stays for $795, while overnighting at Boreal Wildlife Center costs from $192 a night. Ten-man blinds also contain bunk beds, so travelers can rotate night watch as they await their shot. For more information on Finnish forest getaways check out Wild Taiga.