Four days in Österbotten

Last Monday Annika and I travelled to one of Umeå’s nearest neighbouring cities: Vasa. Vasa is located in Finland and the fastest and easiest way to get there from Umeå is by ferry. Taking the car round Kvarken and the Bothnian Bay – the northernmost parts of the Baltic Sea – would be more than 800 km.

2. April – sunny Islands, cormorants and bad roads

The forecast promised sunny weather and I wanted to flee the town of Vasa (round 68000 inhabitants). Our plan was to explore some of the large islands of the Kvarken Archipelago which consists of several thousands of islands and islets.

We left Vasa municipality and entered Korsholm municipality. In Alskat we left the Finnish mainland, took a bridge to the island Fjärdskäret and then the large bridge Replot bron – more than a kilometre long – to the Björkö skärgård.

We made a short stop at the church in Björköby, the main village of Björkö. To our surprise the church wasn’t locked and we could enter. Probably it was only open for the handyman working there. I even went up to the organ but I didn’t dare to climb the clock tower without asking.

From Björköby it’s not far to Svedjehamn, a boat harbour. The coastal sea was still covered with ice and no boat could be seen. Probably many of the boats were in the red boathouses, that were everywhere.

We looked around, then we followed a path to the large observation tower, which is dark and almost 20 metres high. An eye-catching landmark. Beside of some ice fishers that parked their cars at the coast, we were completely alone. Only seabirds could be heard, mostly the typical honking call of the Whooper Swans.

From the tower we had a nice view both over land and sea. The land was framed with ice, but further out the sea was open. Birds flew around, mostly Whooper Swans and small flocks of ducks (being shooed away by other birds). Suddenly a group of dark birds passed our tower, it was a flock of cormorants.

After a while of amateur bird watching we descended the tower and went back to the parked car. We were hungry and took the way back to the Replot Bridge, where we got a delicious lunch at Berny’s Café and Restaurant.

After that we headed for another island in the north. This was quite challenging to drive because larger parts of the way were covered with ice with deep ruts. I had to drive quite slow to keep on the way. In Köklot I made the photo of the only boat in the fishing port, later I just had to photograph the small red hovercraft. I would love to have such a vehicle that can access the sea the whole year round.

I followed the bad road for a while but finally I had to turn because all turnouts were closed. It took a long time to drive back and when we arrived in Vasa we both were tired.

Later this day: A dinner with Asian food, a small coastal walk in Vasa and a bit of luxury: Our flat had a tiny sauna.

3. April – history lessons, old Vasa and Indian food

Already the day before we had decided that we wanted to stay two other nights in the region of Österbotten. We had given Couchsurfing another try. We contacted K.D. that lives in the Korsholm municipality but he didn’t have any place for us. He suggested however that we could meet in the city. So Annika and I went to the monument on the market square where we met K.D.

We got an extremely interesting history lesson about Finland in General und Vasa, while we slowly walked through the city. I didn’t make a single photo, I was too eager listening. After some hours K.D. had to leave but he invited us to the museum Stundars for the next day.

Later we took the car to Gamla Vasa, the old town that burned down in 1852. Some walls, among others of the old church from the 15th century are still there.

Later this day: Indian food and another sauna session.

4. April – a meteorite, two museums and welcoming hosts

Already before the journey we learned about Söderfjärden, a large plain which is an impact crater of a meteorite impact 520 million years ago. The plain lies south of Vasa and we took the car there.

The exhibition at the crate’s centre was closed but outside there’s a model of our solar system. I never walked from the sun to Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – here it was possible.

We only had limited time, so we took the car to Uranus and Neptune – two small blue-green orbs. Then we changed our perspective back to here and now. We saw the first cranes of the year, more geese and more whooper swans.

From Söderfjärden we drove to the museum Stundars, which is quite nearby. We met K.D. again who had opened the “Smedens stuga” – the cabin of the smith – together with a colleague. We thanked for the day before and had an interesting talk about history and now.

We couldn’t stay for long because we had another appointment. When we had stood on the deck of the ferry three days ago we got in contact with S.. He gave us his phone number and this day we met him in Malax where he opened the Kvarkens Båtmuseum and gave us a private guided tour.

I was deeply impressed by the boat that was used for seal hunting. The hunters lived on the ice for several months with nothing but their boat to live in. We do not talk about the middle age, we talk about the 20th century. The last time this boat was used for seal hunting was in 1963, only five years before I was born!

Through Couchsurfing Annika got in contact with A. and M. who live in Västerhankmo, north from Vasa. We were welcome to live with them for two days, although they had other guests and one of the sons would return from Australia the very same day. We felt honoured that we could stay anyway. We drove to their house, where we were shown a huge couch to sleep over and got in contact with the residents – both human and feline.

Later this day: z-z-z-z

5. April – cloudy weather and a bilingual car trip

The weather was cloudy and we were quite lazy. We had seen a lot the last days and we learned a lot. We learned especially a lot about the Finland-Swedes, the Swedish speaking minority in Finland. Although their nationality is Finnish they have Swedish as a first language. Österbotten is one of the regions in Finland with a lot of Finland-Swedes. In Vasa 25% have Swedish as a first language, in the neighbour municipality Korsholm it is 72%. All people mentioned above are Finland-Swedes and have Swedish as a first language.

The children grow up with Swedish and go to Swedish schools, where they will learn Finnish as a secondary language.

Even the culture is different. When Annika asked for (Finnish) tango events she was told that this would be more a Finnish thing and therefore not easy to find in Österbotten.

It is said, that “the” Finns are much more direct then “the” Swedes who try to avoid any conflict, when possible. I experienced the Finland-Swedes as more to the point than the Swedes and I have to admit, that I enjoyed it because of my own quite direct personality.

Back to 5. April. We took the car and travelled around, first to some other islands.

In Isokyrö we stopped for the old stone church, built between 1513 and 1533.

Temperatures were above zero and everything looked grey and dull. The leftover snow was wet and the gravel roads were muddy. When we returned to our overnight place my car looked really dirty – but in their special way the dirt patterns were beautiful anyway.

Later this day: Having a good time with M., A., and family including a very tasty meat soup with homemade bread and petting the cute cat

6. April – with the Ferry to Umeå

6:40: the alarm rings – 7:05: we sneak out of the house (we said goodbye the evening before) – 7:45: we roll on board of the ferry – 9:00: the ferry starts its journey back to Sweden – 12:30 (Swedish time): we arrive in Holmsund, 20 km from Umeå.

Thank you, K.D, thank you S. “för trevlig sällskap” – for nice company!

Thank you, M., A. and family – for your hospitality and “för trevlig sällskap” as well!

Later this day: The first flowers of the year:

Closing ceremony of the Ice Swimming World Championship in Murmansk

This article is part of the series “2019-03: Redex Murmansk”.

I was in Murmansk with Barents Press with a project called Redex 2019. The project goal is to establish contacts between sports journalists and exchange experiences.

Saturday, 16 March

This evening we gather on the Площадь Пять Углов, the Five Corners Square in Murmansk. We want to join the closing ceremony of the 3rd Ice Swimming World Championship. The event has started already and we are not alone.

And it’s a big, long show with loud music. And I mean really, really loud! Never ever will I travel to Russia again without ear protection. Right after some children dances the flag parade that was rehearsed some days ago starts. Loud playback music: A male voice sings a very patriotic sounding song. The only words I understand: “Murmansk! Murmansk!”. To this song flag bearers are marching on the elevated walkway and onto the stage. One group in some kind of winter uniform bears the flag of the event, others clad in black uniforms carry the flags of the participating nations. “Murmansk! Murmansk!” The final country is Russia and of course it gets the biggest applause.

 

Now the Russian regions whose swimmers participated were presented, and these are a lot. Russia is divided into 55 oblasts and krais, 22 republics and 8 other regions. Not all of them were involved in this World Championship, but many were.

Alexandr Brylin, the guy who swam with the flags yesterday comes for example from the Amur Oblast which is north of China. Альметьевск/Almetyevsk – the town presented in the photo below – is much nearer, just 2500 km by car. Russia is huge!

Everything is accompanied by music, fireworks and flames. An enormous and perfectly staged spectacle.

After that a singer enters the scene accompanied by girls in metallic dresses. The singer is dancing, acting, jumping and gesticulating all the time and finishes his number with a big jump from the winner’s podium.

Finally the award ceremony starts and with that the swimmers enter the scene. They are welcomed by a speaker that stands near the mixer unit in the darkness of the night. TO be able to read the names he wears a headlight. Many people stand around the fenced area, others stand a bit back in the snow that covers the flowerbeds. One child however seems to be longing for a quieter place. It rests a while on some kind of box before it has loaded its batteries and jumps back to its family.

The rest of the evening? A delicious dinner in the restaurant Terrasa with the other participants of Redex 2019 including translator Anna and journalist Dmitry.

We return to the hotel quite early, because tomorrow we will travel back to Luleå in Sweden and already leave at 6:30 local time, that’s 4:30 Swedish time! The journey back will turn out to be relaxed and without any problems. 15 hours later I’ll be home in Skelleftehamn again.

The lake Semyonovskoye in Murmansk

This article is part of the series “2019-03: Redex Murmansk”.

I was in Murmansk with Barents Press with a project called Redex 2019. The project goal is to establish contacts between sports journalists and exchange experiences.

Saturday, 16 March

While swimmers still compete in 1000 m of ice swimming as part of the 3rd Ice Swimming World Championship in Murmansk I leave the spot and start to go back to our Hotel Park Inn. That’s round 5 km to go.

In Summer I would have to go round the lake Семёновское озеро/Lake Semyonovskoye. Now it’s winter and I can simply go across. The ice is at least 50–60 cm thick as the huge ice cuboids along the way show. In the heap of these ice blocks kids were playing. One of them probably will become next generation’s polar explorer.

On the other side of the lake I can spot grey concrete buildings – as cuboid as the ice blocks – and the Russian orthodox church Спас на водах/Saviour on Waters. They have been the background scenery of the championship, too.

And I see people everywhere. The lake is not crowded, but used of many people for different activities. Some of them are sitting on folding stools and doing ice fishing. Others are going for a walk or doing cross country skiing. The nice thing: some of the skiers are quite athletic and fast, others are do not have any technique and are quite slow. But they ski anyway. And all of them seem to enjoy being outside.

These funny “motor-bananas” probably only exist during the ice swimming: The vehicles consist of three parts. In the middle there’s the “chauffeur” standing in a sledge-like plastic tub. At the rear a banana-shaped inflatable rubber thingy is attached on which people can ride. The whole thing is driven by a small caterpillar attached to the front of the plastic tub and operated by the man in the middle.

I start to cross the lake. I pass a snowman and admire his artful face. He looks however too serious to be my namesake Olaf from the film Frozen.

The lake is not so big and soon I reach the other side. Here’s the winter bathing place I already heard of before. I’m angry with myself that I didn’t take swimming trunks and towel with me because the cold water looks inviting. But no swimwear, no bath.

Here I have to leave the Lake Semyonovskoye and I start following the main road Улица Челюскинцев/Ulitsa Chelyuskintsev back to the hotel. Temperature is above zero and the snow is soft, brown and greasy, but it’s easier to walk on that than on blank ice. At the branch Улица Туристов (“Tourists Street”) a woman comes my way. She bears skis with an old-fashioned binding system. I’m sure she wants to go to the place I just left: the Lake Semyonovskoye.

The 3rd Ice Swimming World Championship in Murmansk

This article is part of the series “2019-03: Redex Murmansk”.

I was in Murmansk with Barents Press with a project called Redex 2019. The project goal is to establish contacts between sports journalists and exchange experiences.

The main reason for us to visit Murmansk just this week was the 3rd Ice Swimming World Championship and the 1st Ice Swimming Arctic Cup 2019. There were 7 individual distances/styles and 2 relay distances/styles, all from 50 m butterfly to 1000 m (!) freestyle. The event is organised by the IISA and the town of Murmansk. 400 swimmers from 33 countries will participate.

Friday, 15 March

After breakfast we meet Dmitry, a local journalist at the hotel lobby and then take the trolley bus to the ice swimming pool, which is located in the freshwater lake Семёновское озеро/Lake Semyonovskoye, 5 km from the centre. We arrive there to see the opening ceremony at 11:30 but due to the many starts the competitions already have begun in the morning. As usual we have to show our press badge to be able to enter the arena.

I’ve been on several winter swimming championships before: in Joensuu and Rovaniemi in Finland and of course several times in Skellefteå.

The first thing I notice are the many people wearing robust drysuits. There were two for each lane, all secured with ropes, plus additional divers. They belong to EMERCOM,  the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

The next thing are the restrictions for the press. We have got a plan with the marked areas where we are allowed to stand, but even there we sometimes are shooed away because we block the audience’s view. We are not allowed to go too near to the ice. Security first! The area behind the pool was open for a short time and then closed for the rest of the competitions.

When we arrive the 500 m freestyle competition is in full swing. A total of 47 swimmers compete in this distance. Some people are so exhausted after the swimming that they have to be helped out of the water. Some of them are even lad to the hot tub where they are able to warm up, but most people can walk by theirselves.

The opening ceremony starts with a flag parade in groups of three, one for each country: a boy presenting a sign with the name of the country, a cadet holding the country’s flag and a swimmer of that country. Here we meet again Mongolian swimmer Davaadorj Shagdarsuren.

Then a line of women walk along the green walkway. They are clad in white and blue dresses and hold traditional Russian welcome gifts in their hands: bread and salt. They walk around the pool and present these gifts to the guests from all countries that stand there in one line.

Finally the championship is opened by the outstanding Russian ice swimmer Alexandr Brylin who swims 25 meter holding two flags in his hands.

The next hours I take various pictures: Of the two mascots dancing around, of the swimming itself, or of the Chinese people having fun with the Russian women.

I have a lot to watch and I reflect on similarities and differences of this ice swimming event compared to others. While Skellefteå is partly a fun event with short distances and a funny cap competition, this competition is a 100% serious sport competition. On the other side the opening and closing ceremonies (we got a sneak preview two days before) in Murmansk are colossally enormous. Nevertheless the championships in Skellefteå have a larger public, partly because it’s in the middle of the city, partly because in Skellefteå you can compete in 25 m, too and many locals do this.

The scenery has its contrasts, too: snow – cold ice – open water – people with warm clothes – women wearing fur – swimmers in bathing suits – colourful flags everywhere – grey concrete buildings in the distance.

I take the freedom to loosely quote Tim, who helped organising Redex 2019: Russia will always surprise you!

Saturday, 16 March

Today it’s the day of the 1000 m freestyle competitions. To be allowed to participate you have to proof that you are able to cope being in the ice water for at least 25 minutes. Nothing for the average leisure swimmer. We arrive to heat number 2, where among others Ren Feng Wang from China participates. Just before swimming all participants get a medical exam and another after the swim.

The start commando: all others swim crawling while Ren Feng Wang breaststrokes. At the end of the competition he will be slowest of all with a time of 24:05:04. For me this would be worth an extra medal for being able to cope the icy water such a long time.

Winner of heat 4, men is the German Martin Kuchenmeister, a professional ice swimmer with a time of 16:56:94.

In the same heat a swimmer has to give up. He is helped out at the other side of the pool by the people of EMERCOM.

Some more photos:

Again, it’s the contrasts that fascinate me. The competition, the concrete buildings and the white Russian orthodox church Savior on Waters.

When you watch the championship you hardly realise that there is a lot of life on the Lake Semyonovskoye outside of the fenced area. People are walking, skiing or ice fishing and some of them stand outside the fence and watch the championship as well. After a while I leave the temporary arena and walk across the lake to make some non-swimming photos.

At the end of the day there are two winners of the 1000 m run:

For the men: Petar Stoychev from Bulgaria with 12:10:81. For the women: Alisa Fatum from Germany with 13:02:39. Chapeau!

Links

3rd Ice Swimming World Championship in Murmansk – preparations

This article is part of the series “2019-03: Redex Murmansk”.

I was in Murmansk with Barents Press with a project called Redex 2019. The project goal is to establish contacts between sports journalists and exchange experiences.

Thursday, 14 March

Tomorrow, 15 Mars 2019 the 3rd Ice Swimming World Championship will start. 400 swimmers from 33 countries will participate in this competition and will swim distances up to 1000 metres. The event is organised by the IISA and the town of Murmansk.

The first contact to this event we got yesterday, 13 March in the swimming bath. We met Davaadorj Shagdarsuren, a professional swimmer from Mongolia and only participator of his country. His traditional clothes were really eye-catching and according to himself much too warm for Murmansk. He’s more used to winter temperatures between -35 °C and -50 °C.

Later we had an appointment with Irina Andreeva, leader of the municipal Sport Committee and member of the organising committee. She gave us interesting details about the ice swimming championship and the organisation.

When we went back we passed the Five Corners Square we heard loud music. There a rehearsal for the closing ceremony was in full swing. Heroic music sounded from the PA system and young people were marching to it with huge flags. Half of them in some kind of winter uniforms and flags with the logos of the IISA, the city of Murmansk and Аспол, the association of polar explorers. The others with the national flags of all participants. A nice gesture to all countries. I have however to admit that such kind of parade looks quite odd from my German-Swedish perspective. I’m not used to marching and parading.

Today at 1 o’clock was the press conference for the championship. It hold place in the hotel Azimut. 13 officials talked a bit about the event and invited the journalists to ask questions. Since there came hardly any question they started to ask each other instead. Quite funny situation.

After that we got our press accreditations. Now I have a press badge and I’m quite curious how freely I’m allowed to move the next two days to take pictures of this event.

Links

A trip to Murmansk with Barents Press

This article is part of the series “2019-03: Redex Murmansk”.

Last year a friend of mine told me he would travel to Murmansk and asked me if I wanted to follow. The friend finally did not have the time, bit I got the opportunity of a Murmansk trip thanks to Barents Press, a journalist network in the Barents Region. I became a member as a photographer this year.

The project called Redex 2019 has a strong focus on sport journalism and sport events in Murmansk. People who know me may know that I do not care about sport competitions. In this case however there’s a large sport event I’m interested in: the 3rd Ice Swimming World Championship. I’m very glad that I was invited to travel and my thanks go to Barents Press for the invitation, for taking all the costs and for the great organisation.

Monday 11 March, 7:00. I just finished my breakfast in a hotel in the Comfort Hotel Arctic in Luleå and we are ready to travel to Murmansk. We, that is five journalists, me, and Sergei, our Russian chauffeur. He came from Murmansk with a Mercedes 15 seater minibus the day before. Good to have a bit of comfort, for we will travel about 840 km which will take the whole day.

Off we go. To Finland it’s only 130 km.

And – swoosh, are we in Finland. You hardly realise that you just crossed a border.

There are different ways to Murmansk. We will take the way via Salla. We make a lunch break in Kemijärvi where we got an extraordinary delicious lunch at Mestarin Kievari with a lot of salat and side dishes and even two different desserts.

At 15:30 Finish time (1 hour ahead) we arrive at the Finnish side of the Finnish-Russian border. Sergei has to make some paperwork and we have to wait, then we all show our passports before we enter the bus again to drive to the near Russian border.

The first check is before we exit the bus: A Russian official gets on the bus, counts us and checks our visas. Then we drive to the custom office where we leave the bus and have to fill out a form, that we have to keep with our passport the whole stay in Russia. It takes some time to fill the form, especially since it’s so tiny.

Then we go through the control, one by one. I’m first. There’s a minor problem with my form but Tim who speaks Russian can help. I wait on the other side where there’s a small exhibition of war memorials found at the border. I say one of the few sentences I know in Russian: Можно фотографировать? Yes, I may take pictures.

Then we are i Russia. Another check of the officials, that we are complete and have our stamps on the forms and in the passports. 20 other km and we have travelled half the distance. The Russian roads and landscapes are very similar to the Finish ones. It’s not easy to take landscape photographs from a bus driving on a bumpy road with a lot of windows reflecting the light. I start to doze.

We stop in Алакуртти/Alakurtti to refuel the bus. We have to wait, because the gas station itself is being refuelled and that takes some time. Anyway it feels good to stretch my legs and to get some fresh air.

After half an hour we continue our trip. We make a short stopover at a petrol station in Кандалакша/Kandalaksha, then we drive on.

It starts getting dark and I try to sleep a bit. It’s still 250 km to Murmansk and our trip takes some more hours, but finally we approach the city.

On the sign stands: “Murmansk, Hero City”, an honorary title from the Soviet times for outstanding heroism during WWII.

Just before 22:00 local time (+ 2 hours) i enter room 838 at the Park Inn Hotel, where I’ll stay the next five nights. So the whole ride took almost 13 hours and I’m really tired. But before going to bed we meet at the lobby and go to a restaurant nearby to get a late dinner. (I remember the food was tasty, but I’m not sure because my brain already had turned on the autopilot.)

The whole route: LuleåHaparanda/TornioRovaniemiKemijärviSallaКандалакша/KandalakshaМурманск/Murmansk.

Inside the Snowhotel Kirkenes

This article is part of the series “2019-02: Northern Norway”.

After two great snowshoes tours I took it easy today. I went to the Snowhotel Kirkenes nearby, took some photos of the huskies, that didn’t have to work, visited an acquaintance who works in one of the restaurants and went inside the Snowhotel itself. I’ve been there before, but since the hotel is rebuild from scratch every year it looks always different.

Which photo of the lobby do you prefer? The first one, where the room is empty or the last one with the blurred people in it?

Going by snowcat

This article is part of the series “2019-02: Northern Norway”.

It’s dark outside. I’m in the cozy house, where Chris and Ørjan live and reading. But what’s that blinking orange light outside? I peek through the door and what I see is a snowcat.

Ørjan is about to start a tour to prepare trails, both for his employer, the Snowhotel Kirkenes and for the local skiers. Preparing trails for the letter is a dugnad, that means voluntary work. Dugnad is very popular in Norway.

I ask Ørjan if I could join him on the tour and I am allowed to. Time to take some handheld pictures.

It’s fun to go by snowcat through the dark. I looks quite easy to operate and I would like to have my own snowcat. But neither do I need one nor could I pay it.

Takk for turen, Ørjan!

The ice road in Avan

Today I had a meeting in Norrbotten, Sweden’s northernmost län (county). It was the annual general meeting of Barents Press International, a joint network of journalists in the Barents Region. I joined this organisation a few weeks ago and took the meeting as an opportunity to meet members of Barents Press in real live.

The projects presented at the meeting were really impressing. In addition to that the people were both very friendly and extremely interesting.

The meeting was in Avan near Luleå, 150 km from here or as the Swedes say: 15 miles. The name Avan rang a bell, but it took a look on the map to remember that it’s the place where Annika and I had used the ferry to cross the river Luleälven in May 2015. And later that day we had been forced to wait before a bridge, where people tried to get out a ship with a crane. (It didn’t work.) After a long time of waiting we had been able to continue the tour.

But back to today. It’s 2 February, -18 °C and the Luleälven had been frozen for many weeks.

I had left the E4 and drove the road to Avan. It was picture-perfect weather. Everything was covered with soft snow. It was snowing gently and since it was quite early, the snow looked still a bit blueish.

Some hours later – we had finished the meeting and went upstairs to have fika. This Swedish coffee break took at least twice the time of the official meeting, but fika is anything between 15-30 minutes (most common) and open end …

While we were holding fika and it was still snowing the sun came out. The sunlight made the scenery look even more beautiful. What a gorgeous view the house owners have!

Half past twelve I thanked the hosts and left Avan. I had got an idea: I remembered that there was an ice road crossing the river in wintertime. I was not sure if it was open but it was not far away. I drove there and right, the ice road over the Luleälven was open.

It had stopped snowing and the sun was shining. I parked the car and took some pictures (and was annoyed with myself that I only took the small camera with me).

I saw other cars using the ice road, otherwise I wouldn’t have dared to cross the river, which still is a river with water under the ice. Flowing water. Ok, let’s go …

And so I have got my ice road premiere today. Check ✔︎. I took some photos on the other side and decided to drive back again because I prefer the southern road which I came from.

It was still sunny but clouds had started gathering in the south. While I drove back south it got more and more cloudy. When I made a stopover at my favourite Thai restaurant in Skellefteå it was quite windy and my mobile phone displayed a message:

Warning class 1 snowfall Västerbottens … Snowfall which from Sunday morning to night to Monday can give 20-30 cm. In coastal areas in combination with fresh northeast wind. Snowfall contin…

Later there were the first snow showers. Let’s see, what will happen tomorrow.