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The land of empty roads


August 1995

(Some of the pictures in this story are much better in full color and large size. The links from in-line GIF images lead to larger full-color JPEG pictures. Enjoy at least some of them if your hardware lets you use more than 256 colors.)

These winding sand roads run up and down between low hills and colorful marshes, from one lake to another, they cross the streams gurgling under decaying log bridges, run on and on through the taiga to vanish finally in a young birch grove or in a dead village where only remaining chimneys and outhouses mark the locations of houses once standing solidly against the harsh winter winds. The pace of everything in this land is slow -- except, maybe, for the water jumping down the rapids that connect the lakes. Population decreases slowly but surely, villages die and disappear, roads sink in the patiently waiting flat marshes. North has never been a hectic place. Its roads have nothing to do with the highways you are so familiar with...

That's what we've been dreaming about while sitting in Moscow...

It's just the right place to spend three weeks of our summer vacation this year, to change the pace and the lifestyle, to try something new. Not a standard wilderness trip, not a white water adventure, not a typical hike -- I have no idea how to describe properly the style of this year experience. We went to a village where there are as much as 11 permanent residents, a village on the bank of a small river running through Karelian taiga almost 1,000 miles north-north-west from Moscow (35 deg. 14 min. E, 63 deg. 53 min. N, if you care about geographic precision). Five years ago the friends of ours had bought a house there, so we were counting on it as a home base for relatively short (within 15 miles) radial hikes in different directions to explore this land where a bear's footprints are as frequent on the roads as tire patterns. But strangely, these empty roads give you stronger feeling of solitude and desolation than some narrow trails...

It's also the land of old gray wooden churches... This one, St. Peter and Paul church was built in 1625. It is located on the shores of White See, in Virma village.

It took us two days and two different trains to get to the destination. Not that we had any objections.

A view from a train window. Rails running north through thick forests.

We spent a quiet night on the train from Moscow and arrived to our first stop in the sweet and fragrant Sunday morning of late July. Train connection in Vologda, a Russian town as old as Moscow (almost 850 years), was generous enough so that we had a few hours to walk city streets enjoying old wood-carvings on the walls and reflections of numerous churches in the almost still waters of a lazy river. A nice way to feel you are on vacation already!

Cathedrals of Vologda Kremlin reflect in the slow flow of Vologda river.

Then there was another train and the next morning we saw in its window a slightly different landscape passing by. Gray and black unpainted log houses, gentle low hills with boulders scattered all over them, streams and small rivers the color of weak coffee. Thin and long haystacks of the North have replaced thick round ones of the Middle Russia on the small meadows.

Northern haystacks, northern skies...

And something had changed in the sky, strange and magic colors were sliding on the low misty clouds flying from the west. North is the place to enjoy colors even in the overcast sky.

Do you like the colors? (If you have a good monitor, try getting the bigger full color JPEG... It was really a great view on that lake!)

Our friend Sergey picked us up at the small station. There is no public transportation available for the last 40 miles separating the railroad station and the village. Here, where private cars or even motorcycles are rare, a road with no public transport on it indeed separates rather than connects places...

An hour and a half of a ride that would provoke a severe motion sickness in anyone predisposed to it -- and we have arrived to Vorenja.

Here it is! Vorenja, an old and slowly dying Karelian village...

A compact cluster of old black log houses scattered on two banks of Suma, a very typical Karelian river. Here Suma is slow and quiet, but mostly it either forms big lakes (a few miles wide and long, you'll see one of them below) or cuts its way through the narrow canyons between the piles of boulders in the foam and roar of impressive rapids. A kayaker's dream! And a place where you can drink from a river not bothering with any water purification gadgets.

The entrance to one of the rapids, 2 miles upstream from Vorenja.

The first evening brought us better understanding of where we were. The sun was setting slowly and reluctantly, moving almost along the line of tree- tops instead of diving behind it. When it finally disappeared, the time was well after 10 p.m. The sky demonstrated a strange palette, from yellow brilliance in the north-west, through all the shades of pink and purple colors, to deep velvet blue in the south... No artificial light interfered with the magic, there was no electricity in the village to power any sort of lamps.... Feeble candle flames flickered in some windows. Blue darkness crept in with the fog from the ridges surrounding the village. We unrolled our sleeping bags on the floor of the room well warmed up by a big oven in the corner. Smells of old wooden walls, mushrooms drying on the oven, herbs hanging from the rafters... And impossible silence, the one you would never hear in a more civilized or populated area. No purr of a distant motor, no music from a radio or TV in someone's open window, no footsteps on a solid pavement somewhere... The silence of endless forests, slow waters, empty sand roads leading nowhere. We slept.

Few things give you a better feeling of soothing and quietness...

Next day we settled the pattern for the rest of our stay in Vorenja. Packed some dried food and a standard set of camping gear in our backpacks and started along one of the roads coming from the village. Our map told us that there would be many lakes along it and the locals said that one of them would have unusually "white", clear and colorless water and be full of perch. We decided to spend some time on that lake, do some fishing, then come back to Vorenja, spend couple of days gathering berries and mushrooms, then move to another lake, stay there for a day or two, return, pick up more berries and mushrooms... and so on. A relaxed schedule and even practical one to some extent; we were going to make some supplies of dried and pickled mushrooms, make sweet jam from mountain cranberry and blueberry to bring all these delicatessens back home to Moscow.

And we stuck to the pattern. Days were rolling peacefully, full of slow progress along a road and campfire smoke three times a day, fishing and mushroom hunting, night silence of the lakes broken occasionally only by hissing of gees' wings and their cries. Our feet were getting used to the roads, at least 15 miles of daily walking, and a soft carpet of Iceland moss once you leave the tracks.

This is the luxury carpet of the North.

Roads were different, of course. Smooth sometimes (Sergey made 60 miles an hour on some good parts on the way to the village), they became rough and barely visible in the new forest growth in other places or had already surrendered to advancing marshes, disappeared under their brownish water so that you needed a high rubber boots even on a nice sunny day on such a road.

Poor Camel Trophy guys, you just don't know what you are missing not being familiar with these roads...

Weather was different too. The North is not famous for stability of sunshine. After a very beautiful and quiet sunset with no wind at all you should not be surprised to hear patting of raindrops on your tent's fly before dawn.

Walking in the rain... Yes, often here is not a place to go out without a waterproof outfit. But both Masha and Marina like hiking no matter what the weather is.

But in any weather it's a very special feeling to spend a day and a night near a big forest lake sharing its beauty with no other group of human beings. Not even faint laughter comes to you across the water, the only footprints on the sand of gorgeous white beaches belong to a pair of flirting moose, no fires on the other banks disturb the pale starless twilight of the night. It's so silent that you hear rustling of the rainfall on the water from far away, long before the rain itself crawls to your camp.

Pulozero lake. Nine miles to the opposite bank. Strictly speaking, this lake is a part of Suma river.

It's really different from what you see on a rafting trip. There usually are many other rafters' teams, and even if you're lucky not to see them at the time of your travel, you do notice the traces they have left, old campfire marks, makeshift tables and benches made of logs and rocks, trails leading to most scenic places. Here, nothing. Many lakes that we visited were not connected to any rivers and therefore were out of reach for rafters. Of course now and then you come across an old campfire circle made many years ago by a local hunter... but that's it. No trails lead you through the forest -- except for those made by animals... And if you follow them, you may see sometimes hidden wonders of wild life. A huge dam built by beavers, for example, holding a big lake quite unexpected in that part of the forest.

Look carefully! The black mirror in the right-hand half of the picture is a still water in the large lake created by beavers on a small creek... The girls on the left stand just below the dam, and as you see the dam is almost as tall as they are. And almost 60 feet long!

And occasionally you come to villages... or, to be more precise, to what is left of them. A porch leading to a non-existing house, remnants of furniture standing among the rubble, boats on the banks with trees and bushes growing through their rotten bottoms.

I was thinking about this very porch when writing the paragraph above...

The lonely sound of the village is thin buzzing of countless mosquitoes, their population having no trend to go down... And the taste is the one of sweet raspberry. Thick bushes heavy with ripe red berries have already formed new fences around former yards. And there is nobody to pick up juicy berries.

When you come back to Vorenja, the memory of those dead villages makes you particularly curious about the way of life people lead there. Perhaps before too long the last old people in this land will die and the whole layer of culture and history will disappear with them. Their children live in the cities and do not care much about rural life anymore. Of course, there are museums... But museums are different and -- somewhat artificial, no matter how much their curators try to preserve the feeling of living history.

Speaking of living history... Here are a few examples of local treasures shown to us by Seraphima Stepanovna Nikonova. She's 68 now and one of those 11 people who still live in Vorenja all year round.
In the first picture you see an ancient spinning-wheel. By the way, it came from overseas. Northern Russians were always famous as good sailors, and Seraphima's grandfather brought this antique from Norway in the middle of XIX century.
The second picture shows a local gear for carrying heavy sacks. Made more than 70 years ago it is still impressive. As an experienced backpacker, I was deeply amazed by both the design (which includes all the elements you would find in a modern high-end backpack from, say, REI) and the quality. Birch bark and moose leather seem to be lasting even longer than nylon...
The last picture in the row shows separators and a mixer used (even today, by the way) to separate cream from milk and then to beat it up into butter. We have seen the technology in operation, it works perfectly.

Still -- we are outdoor people. After two days of village life we start feeling that we're missing that special coziness of a thin tent wall separating you from the elements, the faint smoke taste of a food prepared on the open fire, feeling of the road pebbles under the soles of your favorite hiking boots... And we pack our tent and everything again in well-used backpacks and take a new road... to watch new sunsets above new horizons.

This sunset is worth watching, isn't it?

Three weeks passed quickly -- despite the slow pace of events... Very soon it was time to pack fundamentally for coming back... back to Moscow where one of the first tasks would be to develop eight rolls of film we had used, then to scan some pictures and type the report for you -- yes, the one you're reading right now. In a very few days the memory of white nights and sand roads will fade out, replaced by more immediate images and worries. We know, we are used to it, -- but we also know that every such trip gives us something new and invaluable, and deep inside something will stay with us through all the haste of city life. And in a year we will be heading north again... Maybe now you better understand why.

From Karelia with love,
Andrey and Masha,

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