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Soomaa: Estonia’s Mysterious Land of Bogs

This article was written by Steve Roman in March 2010 for the Air Baltic inflyght magazine issue April 2010

When most people hear they’re about to be hit by a flood, they run for the hills. Even if they don’t flee in screaming panic, at the very least they pack up the car, shut off the power and move in with the in-laws.

For Aivar Ruukel and other residents of Soomaa though, the news of a flood is always a good thing. It means all is right with the world.
“It’s great when there’s a flood because it brings visitors,” he said.

For the last 15 years Ruukel, a local nature enthusiast, has been running a travel and adventure company called He specialises in helping visitors explore Soomaa, a vast wetland area located in the southwest of Estonia.

In Estonian the word Soomaa literally means ‘swamp land’ or ‘land of bogs.’ Forget those images of crocodiles and malaria. In its normal, non-flooded state, this landscape is a stunning tableau of spongy peat bogs, bog pools and low, stunted trees. For first-time visitors it usually seems both strikingly beautiful and utterly alien. It takes on an even more mysterious quality on spring days when a light mist settles over the peat and heather.

As beautiful as it is though, Soomaa has never been too popular a place to live, at least for humans, mainly because it’s so hard to get around without a canoe. With the exception of a few die-hard berry and mushroom pickers, for most of the last century Soomaa was avoided or ignored by the outside world.

That all changed in 1993 when Soomaa National Park was established. Covering a full 390 km² of the bog lands, it’s the country’s second largest national park and each summer attracts more and more eco-tourists, particularly those from Germany and the Netherlands.

For Estonians though, the favourite time to visit, as Ruukel points out, is in March or April when, more often than not, there’s a huge flood. In fact, floods are so regular here that locals call this time of year ‘the fifth season.” For two to three weeks the annual snow melt runs over the already saturated peat, the rivers rise and the water doesn’t have anywhere to go but up. The result is usually a rise in the water level of up to 3.5 metres. This allows visitors the novel experience of paddling their canoes over meadows, through forests and just about anywhere, Ruukel says.

Since Estonia was hit by such a large snowfall this winter, the conditions have been ripe for an abnormally big flood this year. Of course the weather is impossible to predict, but as you’re reading this Soomaa may be on the verge of, in the midst of, its biggest flood in more than a decade.

The 8,000-year-old sponge

According to Ruukel, Soomaa’s unique ecosystem got it start 12,000 years ago during the last ice age. Back then what’s now the Baltic Sea was in fact the Baltic Ice Lake. It was much higher than the Baltic Sea is now and was totally cut off from the Atlantic. When it eventually broke through, the water level dropped about 30 metres and the flat lands of western Estonia emerged.

“Western Estonia, including Soomaa, is all an ancient seabed from that period. At the bottom of the sea there’s always a process of sedimentation. There are sands and hard ground which don’t let the water in very well,” he said. “That’s the reason bogs are created.”

In Soomaa’s case, there’s also the effect of the sphagnum, or peat, that eventually started growing here.

“Peat bogs grow about 1 mm per year, and in the bogs of Soomaa there are now about 7 metres of peat. That means they have been growing there about 7 or 8 thousand years,” said Ruukel. That process has not only changed the landscape, but also the local biology.

“It’s like a huge cake full of water,” said Ruukel. Because the peat soaks up most of the nutrients and creates a slightly acidic Ph level, only two species of trees can tolerate the conditions: pine and birch. Even these end up in miniature versions of their usual form.

On the other hand, the Ph level also means no bacteria can grow in the peat, and its absorbent quality has often made it a handy material.
“The world’s first Pampers were made from this,” said Ruukel. “It really sucks water and it’s sterile. In wartime, it was used for bandages.”

Hopefully most visitors won’t need to get that up-close and personal with the peat. There are, however, a lot of different ways to experience Soomaa no matter what time of year you visit.

Night canoeing and beaver safaris

Soomaa’s big attraction for most visitors is the chance to experience nature, especially the local flora and fauna. Even in winter there are options for this: offers guided sledding, snowshoeing, and back-country skiing (like cross-country skiing but without trails).

“The aim with the skiing is the same as with snowshoeing – you try to track animals. Normally you find quite many tracks. Last time I was guiding … we saw something like 10 or 11 different species during three hours of snowshoeing,” said Ruukel.

On that trip they saw fox, roe deer, wild boar and lynx tracks. But sometimes the animal encounters get even closer.
Last summer while preparing to go canoeing with some Finnish clients, Ruukel caught a lucky break. “We were heading to the river with the canoes on a trailer, and a wolf jumped out from the forest and crossed the road. It took something like three or four very long jumps across the wide road and disappeared. We stopped the car and went out to see the tracks, and then we saw another one about 200 metres above us, just slowly walking in the same direction. Meeting wolves, lynx or bear is always very remarkable,” he said.

In spring and summer, excursions can be made by so-called ‘bog-shoe’. Bog-shoeing is exactly the same as snowshoeing – the shoes let you walk across the wet peat without sinking.

Otherwise most group tours are done by canoe along Soomaa’s rivers, and one of the most unique Ruukel’s company offers is night canoeing, a sundown-to-sunup trip taken at the height of summer when the northern nights are a mere four to five hours long. That might sound like a long time to be paddling, but Ruukel says the exertion level shouldn’t put anyone off.

“It’s quite slow …It’s a physical exercise, but the aim isn’t to get sweaty. The aim is to be there, experience nature and learn something new,” he said.

What’s special about night canoeing isn’t what you see, but what you hear: the sounds of nocturnal animals.
“Animals are more active at night, and there are some specific birds that don’t sing so much during the day, like nightingales and owls. [On the trip] the guides interpret everything you hear and tell stories, and that’s why this night paddling is such a good experience.”

Typically one hears, but doesn’t get to see, the animals on the night canoe tour. Visitors who want a better chance of actually seeing an animal have another option though: the ‘Beaver Safari’. Also by canoe, it’s shorter and involves less paddling than the night canoeing trip but, says Ruukel, there’s a 90 percent chance of spotting a beaver. The only disadvantage here is that, later on, your friends who went on lion or elephant safaris will give you no end of grief.

Another type of Soomaa activity, one more connected to anthropology than zoology, is building dugout canoes, or ‘log boats’. Because of Soomaa’s flooding, this is one of the few places on the planet where the stone-age practice never quite went away. The knowledge of how to hone a boat out of a single log has been handed down through generations of Soomaa locals and is now kept up by enthusiasts.

Since actually building a log boat takes about 10 days, only the true converts will take the annual summer class, but visitors can often see the works in progress at’s base in Karukose.

Bog Basics

Depending on how much time you have and what your agenda is, there are a lot of different options for visiting Soomaa. Groups can arrange fully-catered, multi-day excursions. Individuals who want the best chance of photographing animals should book themselves into a local guesthouse and stay a while, Ruukel advises.

For a casual, quick visit though, you can take a walk through the bogs on one of the many bog trails. Here the word ‘trail’ usually means a series of planks that stretch across the bogs, providing visitors with a way across the peat.

From the north, Jõesuu is the gateway to Soomaa National Park. Your first stop should be the Soomaa National Park Visitor Centre in Kõrtsi-Tõramaa. Here you can get all kinds of tips and info, as well as maps to the park’s ten trails.

For first-time visitors, Ruukel recommends the 3 km Ingatsi hiking trail. It starts right at the Karuskose and usually takes less than two hours, looping around and returning to the starting point. Along the way you can see an 6-metre ‘bog wall’ (Europe’s highest ridge of peat), climb a watchtower and even go swimming in one of the bog pools, if the fancy strikes you.

Another bit of advice Ruukel gives is to be patient and take Estonia’s climate into account.
“If you are just expecting a nice walk on a peat bog, it depends very much on the weather. If it’s a normal Estonian summer you should have your raincoat with you, and if it’s a season when there is more rain, then rubber boots would be good.”

One great advantage of Soomaa as a nature getaway is that very few of the summer party crowd – the kind of people who park, crank up their car stereos and throw beer bottles around – ever come here. But there’s a reason for that.
“I think it’s because we have the image of being a kingdom of mosquitoes,” said Ruukel. That should come as no surprise. This is, after all, a swamp. If mosquitoes aren’t the kind of wildlife you want to experience, take appropriate countermeasures.

The European Charter for Sustainable Tourism in Protected Areas