Finn Forms and Ferries

Scandinavian design.  Clean, unencumbered, inspired.

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Finland. Lovely, crisp, content.

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Watery Worlds, Ferries, and One Kindly Gnome

20,000 islands means a lot of water.  In the watery world of Finland’s Turku Archipelago, ferries serve as bridges.  Also in this watery world of dark forests and fickle wild flowers, fabled mythical creatures may just step out to help you find your way.

One day, 60 kilometers of riding, 5 island crossings, six ferries.  Sometimes the ferry is a small single floating deck fastened to a cable drawing it across the channel.  Some ferries cross only when called by pressing a button on the opposite shore, or when the pilot spots a car on the other side.

Other times the ferry is a monstrous yellow thing, deisel powered, looming high above us like something out of “War of the Worlds.”  These behemoths have two big pointed arms sticking out in front that are skillfully fitted by the pilot into slots on the dock to secure it for loading and unloading a long stand of cars, buses, repair vehicles and heavy-equipment.  These ferries leave right. on. time.

The larger ferries have cafes with coffee, beer, pastries, sandwiches and ice cream.  And on one, freshly made salmon soup.  My favorite.

On our final day of a 6-day bike tour, we returned to the mainland.  Where the islands had been easy to navigate, as they were small with few road choices and clear directional signs, the maze of cycle paths criss-crossing the City of Turku’s countryside and suburbs proved that our “route notes” were not well constructed, and in fact were probably just downright wrong in places.  (We suspect that our touring company staff are not cycling specialists…)

Things went right for the first 10k or so.  But as we got further into the congested city-scape, we got crossed up and found ourselves stopping at each intersection scratching our heads over Finnish street names of unprouncable words with long streams of vowels.  Our directions bore no relation to the landmarks in site.

We asked locals, all but one who spoke more than adequate English, who would say “yes, yes, just stay on this path and continue straight ahead,” pointing up the road (which was decidedly NOT constructed of yellow bricks).   And we would ride on with a sigh of relief.  Soon enough though, we would approach another intersection with no clear sense of “straight ahead.”  And again we were scratching our heads.

In a while, we spied a figure up the path, peering over a fence.  Again we asked for help.  Uncurling himself from his task, we saw a disheveled man dressed in a faded yellow jacket, sloppy denim pants and well worn sneakers (no socks).  He had a shock of thick tangled lightish hair, long past having seen a barber’s chair, or even a comb.  The raggedy man repeated the now-familiar instructions “just stay on this path,” and pointed ‘straight ahead.’  We must have looked dubious.

The raggedy man climbed on a bicycle as old as myself, which until that moment I had not noticed.  It was a single speed contraption, the style favored by locals.  His appeared to be held together by rust.  His manner though was thoughtful and kind.  “Why don’t I show you,” he said. “I’m going there anyway.  I will take you the shortest route.” (I’m sure he sensed our fatigue and frustration.)

He then led us into town, skillfully maneuvering through streets now crowded with afternoon traffic and pedestrians.  We rode right up to the block where our hotel sat, and right next to the town square market.  He veered off with a friendly wave of his hand.  I noticed a dingy shopping bag in his other hand.  I hadn’t seen it before.

Yes, this land is filled with magical creatures, and I think this day we met a kindly gnome.

Dark Forest Floor

A bike tour is a slow-motion view of the big picture.  But to really explore the details, I have to get off the bike and single out my subject.  I admit that I often, though only on a lonely country road, pull my phone out of my pocket flick it on with my thumb, swipe up for the camera, point and shoot off a picture or two.  All while steering with the other hand and peeking over my shoulder at what I want to capture.

I am working my way from Turku, on the Baltic Sea in southwest Finland, through a few of the Turku Archipelago islands. The first thing I notice is the dark forest floor, surrounded by a perimeter of wildflowers in every color, shape and texture.  This is a land of trolls, fairies and elves, where strips of land jut out of the Sea, carved by glaciers.  Only their very tops are visible above the water line – a cross between Maine’s North Woods, perhaps, and the lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains.  But this is the Old Country and there is no question that these deep lush woods house mythical creatures.

Tomorrow we leave the islands.  I am sad to leave this inquiry behind.  The watery world of an archipelago, where ferries serve as bridges to keep the islands’ traffic moving mostly year-round, and local residents swell from 800 to 5,000 for a few short weeks when the weather turns to “summer.” The long days of the sun’s northernmost-most angle reaches high into our hemisphere.  Fair haired people, always friendly, go-out-of-their-way friendly.  And so hospitable, eager to share their bounty – from their sea and from their land and from their heritage. Proud to share their culture.  They know they live in a magical, protected place.

It is August and the Finns are already talking of the end of summer.  This one was cooler than usual, after a warmer than usual winter.  I get the sense that there is an uneasiness about this in their islands.  Our group of 14 explorers were lucky to have hit the first good week of weather – temperatures mild, if cooler than normal, and mostly sunny skies.  (Perfect biking weather!) From the sound of things, it may be among their last.

I wonder, where do those mythical creatures go when the weather again turns bad?