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Exhausted with the pressure of office work, the deadlines, responsibilities and sheer bustle and clutter of city life?  Then don’t head for the crowded beaches of the Mediterranean,  follow the geese and go north to Finland.     

Arola farm lies in the north east just south of the Arctic Circle within sight of the watchtowers of the Russian Federation.   It is situated on the edge of Martinselkonen National Park,  a Tolkien-like wilderness of vast open forests of spruce, pine and birch, carpeted by mosses and lichens, with broad expanses of  grassy bog, and dark lakes.   A hundred miles away from the nearest town, you can wander through the forest all day long without meeting a soul, but your every step is noted by the tree top conversations of Ravens, the laughter of woodpeckers, the mocking calls of the Cuckoo and the long drawn out trills of summer Bramblings, as smart as guardsmen in their coal black heads and red chests.  Trekking in Finnish National Parks is very easy.  The trails are well maintained  and marked,  the traverses across the swamps are dry and boarded and there are comfortable huts equipped with stove and fuel and clean toilets, where you can stay  overnight at no cost at all.  

Martinselkonen is a refuge for the few remaining large European mammals; in fact you have to remind yourself that you are not in Canada.  There are Brown Bear, Elk, Wolves, Lynx and Beaver in the forest, but you do have to know where and how to see them.  Arola has its own bear hide, at the side of a clearing a few miles into the forest.  Eero leaves 100 kilos of fish and elk meat out for the bears every evening.  With their own five-star restaurant,  the bears, normally shy, venture cautiously out of the forest in the long light nights often bringing their cubs with them to feed, play and even make love.  European Brown Bears are enormous creatures.  The male weighs in at over 200 kilos and stands over ten feet tall.   The female is not quite that size, but when they make love, the earth really moves!    But this is no zoo; these are wild animals.  In the hide we speak in whispers and cover our skin to disguise the smell.  Bears have a very good sense of smell.  If they detect the slightest whiff of human presence, they will gallop off into the forest.   Bears are not the only creatures to come to Eero’s restaurant.  Occasionally a Wolverine, a kind of large polecat,  will venture out for a snack if he thinks the coast is clear.  And around the clearing, a pair of White Tailed Sea Eagles wait from their unlikely perch of the top of the spruce, fending off attacks from the gulls.   Suomussalmi is on the migration route and many of the species that winter in England, such as Whooper Swans, White fronted and Brent Geese pass through in late spring en route to Siberia while others such as Fieldfares, Redwings, Brambling, Waxwing and Golden Plover breed here and can be watched from the window of the farmhouse.  A few Siberian species, such as the Bluethroat, Siberian Jay, Common Crane and Lapland Bunting, are resident here.  Other common residents include the Ruff, Green and Wood Sandpipers, which are on the British list, but are rare. One morning while canoeing slowly up river, we came upon a Red Throated Diver,  late for the wedding in his light grey morning suit, black and white striped shirt and crimson cravat.  

The Sappinen family have farmed in Arola for generations, even throughout the chaos of war when this region was occupied first by the Russians and then by the Nazis.  In 1939 it was Eero’s mother, Lempi, who bundled her children in a blanket, put them on a sledge and escaped across the thawing river to warn the people of Juntusranta that war had broken out.  In Finland, as in many parts of Europe, life for small farmers has become increasingly difficult.  And so Helena, Eero and their son Jeru gave up the farm just two years ago and decided to invest in the growing international enthusiasm for eco-tourism. Visitors can stay here at any time of the year.  There is always so much to see and do.  All they need is a love of the wilderness and a sense of adventure.  It is a wonderful place to bring children.  In the summer, there is trekking or cycling in the forest,  bear or beaver watching and canoeing or swimming in the broad, shallow river, but in the long winter, the forest is transformed into a wonderland, which can be explored on skis, on skidoos, or even on sledges pulled by eager teams of huskies.  Arola is on the route of the long distance cross country ski trails and visitors can even use the trail that runs along the border and is kept clear by Finnish soldiers. 

Helena once worked as a nurse in Plymouth and speaks English fluently.  She can accommodate up to 11 people in two houses; the old farmhouse and Hevonkuusa,  a lovely log cabin, 500 metres down the track by the lake.  The latter comes with its own smoke sauna and diving platform.                            

Self catering is an option,  but it would be a mistake not to enjoy Helena’s wonderful traditional Finnish cuisine.  Locked in by snow for half the year and with the nearest store 5 miles away, self sufficiency is the by-word.    So berries picked late in the season are boiled and bottled; the delicious dark crimson blue berries swollen with sweetness,  the creamy cloudberries with their subtle hints of butterscotch,  cranberries from the bog and my favourite, the wonderful combination of sweet, sour and bitter flavours of the lingonberries.   Mushrooms are also stored over winter.  Some need to be boiled twice to remove the toxins and then dried.  Others are pickled in brine. Made up into a sauce, the rich earthy flavours are a delicious complement for the tender sweetness of fresh pike or the meatiness of Elk.  Fish is caught locally all the year round.  In the summer, swarms of roach can be caught by net, cleaned and cooked slowly in salt, onion, olive oil and lemon and bottled with tomato.  In the winter, pike can be caught by rod and line through a hole drilled through the thick ice of the lake.    Elk is shot during the brief hunting period in October and kept frozen overwinter.  It tastes like beef, but does not have the fat content.   Reindeer is smoked and salted and is lovely as midday snack in the forest between two slices of freshly baked rye bread.  Beetroot, cabbage and potatoes grow quickly during the light nights of the Finnish summer and can be pickled and stored through the winter. 

A week in Arola will broaden your mind.  It will appeal to the adventurous. The wild outdoors and range of activities will excite children of all ages.  In the summer, canoe up river to the rapids, trek all day in the forest and return for a wonderful sauna and nerve-tingling dip in the river.   Or why not ski through winter wonderland along forest trails and return to your cosy log house, warmed by a stove, that has been constructed locally out of heat radiating dark soapstone.  But above all, just enjoy feeling so in touch with nature and so healthy and alive.  

To book a holiday at Arola, visit the website at www.arolantila.susmussalmi.net or write to Helena Sappinen at Arolantie 5, FIN 89920 RUHTINANSALMI. (Tel/fax        +358 8 734 403     ). Travel is remarkably inexpensive.  Flights from various airports in England to Helsinki can cost around £200.  Then take a flight to Kuusamo (£80 return), from where Jeru will collect you and drive you the one and half hour journey to the farm.

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