THE MYSTICAL TAIGA

Helle Holsen & Uri Golman

NOTES FROM THE FOREST

The mystical taiga

Can you actually get lost in the Finnish taiga? That was a question we had often asked ourselves before we started working on our assignment for National Geographic Nordic. The question might sound kind of stupid to outsiders at first, but when you look at a map and realize that the Finns have 23.000.000 hectares of mixed coniferous and birch forest all to themselves, most of it growing in and around bogs that are a remnant of the last ice age, you will start to understand. At the same time this boreal forest is a part of the immensely huge forest belt that spans the entire northern hemisphere and is an important source of oxygen for our planet. Our job was simply put, to photograph a story about the Finnish taiga, the beautiful forest and its wildlife inhabitants. Something that is easier said than done… And, yes, you can actually get lost in the Taiga, but we will get back to that later.

A world of trees

Actually it is amazing to watch Finland from above. Most of the country is covered in a huge boreal forest of pine, fir and birch. From above it all looks like a kind of spiky broccoli with an amazing variety in shades of green. This is the true taiga and its geographic location is between the treeless tundra in north and the more temperate forest to the south. The thin layer of soil that holds the tall trees consists mainly of thin layer of peat and then a permanently frozen layer. In some areas the frozen layer is substituted by hard bedrock, which creates a natural water blockage. This creates Finland’s magical and fabled shallow bogs that are interspersed all over the taiga. Seen from above the thousands of lakes and bogs mixed with the trees create habitats that could have been taken straight out a Tolkien adventure. Down on the ground old logs and rocks covered in moss lies on the forest bed and fungi pops up everywhere. Ancient green and grey lichen hangs ominously from the coniferous trees, like long beards of old men. Positively these beards, tell the story that this habitat is saturated with the good clean air, they need to be able to grow. Another lichen, colored red like blood, embraces large rocks in a colorful splash amongst all the greenery. In late summer the ground of this pristine habitat booms with berries, a favorite food of the European brown bear. The taiga is also home to the fabled and elusive wolverine, the lonesome wolf and the intriguing capercaillie. The majestic great grey owl lives in the tallest of the pines and the largest deer in the world, the moose, roams free in the woods.

16 hours in a small humid hide

Imagine a small valley with steep rocky sides covered in moss and a ridge lined with old spruces. In the bottom of the valley old world ferns covers a small stream and it all looks so ancient, that you wouldn’t be surprised if a small dinosaur nonchalantly walked by. All in all, very romantic… Now try to visualize this: you are sitting two persons in a small humid box, build for one. It has been put up right in the middle of the stream and literally thousands of mosquitoes enter every place where naked skin is visible. After just 1 hour your body starts  to ache like hell and you just sit there with the knowledge that you will not be able to leave for the next 15 hours. That was us, as we tried to get the dream shot of a brown bear in its primeval surroundings. After 6 hours a raven’s harsh call saturates the air. We know the bear is here. A branch cracks and our hearts stops for a second. Our eyes are fixed on the ridge: First we see nothing, but then a flicker of movement tells us its whereabouts. We see the mighty bear as it shows itself in silhouette above us. We stop breathing as it comes closer. The only thing that breaks the silence is the sound of our camera shutters. Getting the right shot is an unmistakable feeling. In a magic moment everything comes together. Good light and a great angle turn to our advantage. The charisma of the brown bear shines trough and we both had a sense of connection with this animal. As the bear looked straight into the camera it felt like that we got to enter the bears mind and could see the soul of the taiga. Exhilarated we both stopped clicking away and for a few minutes we let our self enjoy the bear as it slowly walked away trough the ferns and back into its green kingdom. After that we did not notice our aching muscles or the humidity in the hide. Everything was pure joy and we both fell a sleep, with the knowledge that we had got the shot and that, even in Europe, there is still wild nature to be seen.

Getting lost in the Taiga

The dark towering trees were all around us; the sky was a gloomy grey, hiding the life giving sun. We had ventured out into the forest to try to catch some of its mysticism, but somewhere along the way, we had missed the track. We found ourselves lost or to keep our pride intact: Temporarily out of position. Usually we don’t have problems navigating in nature, but the forest is a difficult place. If the sun is gone, you don’t have many features to navigate by and we had left our GPS at home. We did however know that if we could find east, we could keep on walking until we hit the border between Finland and Russia. From there we could trek north to find a path that would get us back home. But as we asked each other which way were east we all pointed in different directions. However embarrassing it was, we had to consult with our smartphones to look at the compass there. Luckily the phones all agreed on east. But there is no doubt in writing this: Getting lost was actually a fantastic feeling! It was at this point during our adventure in Finland that we realized how small and vulnerable we as humans can become when we enter the realm of Mother Nature. Actually we all became pretty excited with our new challenge and the pathless terrain became our adventure! Two hours of swampy-hiking later and the first yellow marked border pole appeared. The path from there was, however, all but easy. First we had to cross a small swamp, where border guards used to patrol during the cold war. The old bridge was rotten and completely torn down, so we had to construct our own and very unstable bridge, from the old planks. We were very thrilled with the project, like kids can be when offered an important task. It was both fun and scary. As we were balancing the wooden logs and boards, getting support only from our tripods we quickly realized that a fall would mean total loss of our camera equipment. But everything worked out and three hours later, we got back to the car unscaved. We were all happy and invigorated from the long walk in the beautiful woods and although we will not recommend getting lost it was an amazing feeling to have been humbled by nature!

Flying in the mist of the Taiga

A soft rumble from a Cessna Skyhawk II engine accompanies the fast clicking sound of our camera shutters. We are thrilled beyond belief from our emotions as the mythical landscape below us unfolds. The mist looses its eerie grip from the night and beclouds the taiga in a magical spell. Our pilot Pekka does not speak any English at all, but he is smiling widely from listening to all our very loud and positive reactions. The wows and the yubiiis needs no translation in the headset. We are in the middle of the Ruska Season, as the Finnish call it, when the fall colours set in. We have timed it exactly spot on and the forest is displaying all its hues in full glory. From above everything looks like a colouring book made by professional artists and the trees comes in all shades from green, yellow to orange and even red. Meandering rivers dissects the surreal landscape and the only good way to catch it all in one photo, is from the air. As photography goes, this was by far the easiest part of our assignment and everything was a mix of planning and good luck. We spent a whole week living in our tent in the beautiful forest where we fried vegetables and fantastic reindeer steaks over our Trangia outdoor kitchen. The mosquitoes were almost gone and we were literally in heaven. Flying by morning and walking or driving in the forest by afternoon and evening. It was a unique experience and we got a clear image of how immense the taiga really is. It is, by all standards the most untouched forest and beautiful in all of Europe.

Reflection of the taiga-travels

The northern taiga or the boreal forest of Finland is nothing short of a magical place. It is a place where you can easily vanish in the vast beauty or the adventurous pathless terrain. Here time stand still … Finland has taken us with storm and we miss the silent embrace of spruce and fir trees and the clean forest air in our lungs. The boreal forest is an important carbon sink and produces great amount of oxygen for our planet. But the taiga is not only fantastic for us. Thousands of large elusive animals lives in this forest home and the trees are their last refugee from a world that is in great change. If we as humans are able to realize this, we might just be able to save the immaculate taiga.

Behind the scenes

As photographers we have long been smitten by the magic of the northern hemisphere and had suggested a story on the Taiga to National Geographic Nordic editor Karen Gunn. As you might imagine our hearts jumped with joy, as we had just received the call, that the magazine would take the story. Our minds immediately started spinning as to how we would actually solve the different problems of getting the shots. We quickly decided that we wanted to experience the taiga in an old school way, by immersing our self into its nature, living in a tent amongst the trees. We also knew that we would visit Finland in three different seasons as to get a broader view on everything. Fortunately we were already well connected with some people who call this part of the world for their home. We contacted Kari and Jani from the Boreal Wildlife Centre who are extremely knowledgeable about the wildlife and Jari from Kuusamo Tourism who had a lot of good ideas for some of the most beautiful locations in Finland. With most of our location issues solved, we started to focus on the gear. Off course we had to bring all the camera gear necessary like our three Canon camera bodies with a full array of lenses ranging from the EF 180mm Macro to our newest addition the EF 11-24mm wide-angle and our beast of a 600mm telelens. All in all this would add about 15 kg of equipment for each of us and we packed in our Bergan’s backpacks which we rebuild to become serious camera backpacks with a bit of space for extra gear for camping in the wild. We chose to bring only a minimum of clothes for the different seasons and each trip would see us bringing only two sets of clothes. One to use and one clean in the event that we would get really dirty. We opted for most of the lightweight Bergan’s clothes that we are already using frequently even everyday as this has proven to be some of the most durable clothing for what we do. For the summer expedition we brought our Ally foldable canoe so that we could navigate some rivers and lakes and for the first winter trip the warm woollen underwear and the lightweight down jackets was our main priority. Carrying that much equipment trough the forest a terrain that varies from mud and swamp to snow and rock we needed the to bring a sturdy and comfortable hiking boot and opted for the AKU Jaeger EVO high GTX. This boot is an amazing crossover leather boot that is extremely comfortable for hiking and at the same time can make it out for a tall rubber boot. The tongue of the boot is connected with the soft leather shaft in a seamless way so that no water will enter the interior of the boot no matter what you do. 

The project

WILD is a conservation project, which aims to tell the story of the last wild places on planet earth. During the course of the next 4-year, photographers and adventurers Helle Olsen and Uri Golman, will be travelling the globe on all 7 continents to document these areas for a large exhibition and book. All meant to inspire world leaders and public opinion to take better care of our last natural reserves. Helle and Uri will be working in more than 15 different locations and the photos and stories are published along the way. The first two stories from the boreal forest i Finland and from the world’s largest national park in Greenland will both be published in National Geographic Nordic in 2016.

The photographers

Both Helle and Uri have a strong connection nature! Uri has always sought the adventure and today he is a recognized nature photographer. He is an Associate Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and a Canon Ambassador in Denmark for his work with conservation. Helle has a ranger degree from Africa and is a Near Eastern archaeologist. For 15 years she has worked on all the 7 continents as a guide and today she is a member of the Women’s Adventures Club and a photographer in her own right. Together they have dedicated their lives to adventure and conservation.

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