(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.)
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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