Tuesday, April 20

The country that has a “fifth season”

Every morning in the days leading up to spring, Aivar Ruukel looks out of his bedroom window and sees that his favorite season of the year has arrived.

If you are lucky and the weather is good, you eat a quick breakfast, grab a life preserver and paddle from the store, and rush to get your aspen, a traditional canoe.

From his vantage point on the boat, a network of routes emerges into view and Ruukel paddles into the flooded forest, entering a half-sunken world of flooded fields and canals.

Dawn is the best time to observe the delta and jump in the canoe at first light to see again this wide area of ​​spongy bogs and forests turned into peat bogs.

“I remember my father brought me here as a child and I will never forget it,” Ruukel said, looking out into the flooded forests.

“Woodpeckers rattling in the trees; the flowers poking out of the water; the sounds and smells of the arrival of the new season… what a joy ”.

What is the “fifth station”

In almost all places, a weather report that predicts heavy rains anticipates a bad day, while a report that talks about dangerous floods does not want to hear it.

Except if you are a guide like Ruukel and you live in Soomaa National Park, a bog in southwestern Estonia known for annual floods that can be as alarming as 8 kilometers wide and 5 meters high.

To put it simply, this It is the so-called “fifth station” of Estonia, a volatile period that comes after winter and shortly before spring every year.

No one can pinpoint exactly what day will arrive, but this annual phenomenon appears without fail between March and April, bringing floods that redefine the national park as a flooded basin, with submerged houses, sunken apple trees and elevated swamps.

It is the triumph of the water over the earth and also of the will of the human being over Mother Nature.

Tour guides

“Every year comes with new challenges,” explained Ruukel, who begins his 27th season as a canoe guide in the zone.

“When the floods come, we have to figure out where we can row safely, but there is an inherent risk in navigating in such cold, moving water. You have to be careful”.

Soomaa National Park seen from the air
Soomaa, which means “land of mobs,” is situated in a low basin on the western slopes of the Sakala Highlands. (Photo: Getty Images)

On the morning of our meeting, I also met another guide, whose investigation of this annual phenomenon earned him the nickname Mr. Flood (Mr. Flood in Spanish).

Algis Martsoo pioneered the “Tourism of the fifth station” in southwestern Estonia and developed a map of detailed canoe itineraries in Soomaa National Park that wind the bogs for about 7 km.

Navigable routes appear, giving an air of a gigantic slalom circuit to the whole place, which disappears when the waters go away. Everyone becomes obsessed with the fifth season life cycle. But no one but Martsoo.

“People are very curious about our fifth station,” said Martsoo, who did his doctoral research in 2010 during Estonia’s highest-water station in half a century, when the overflow reached a surprising height of five meters.

“It feels like canoeing down the Amazon, and suddenly you’re paddling over a road that is a few feet below the surface.. Wild, right?

Martsoo is correct in thinking that people may be interested in visiting this flooded land.

In recent years, thousands of Estonians have discovered the magical waterways of Soomaa and currently Mr. Flood and Ruukel run Soomaa.com, an outdoor activities company with a fleet of 40 Canadian-style canoes for adventure tours and excursions. self-guided tours.

As co-owner and founder, Ruukel has explored the park far and wide, taking evening canoe rides in summer, quietly watching beavers build levees, or walking the Kuresoo, Estonia’s largest bog.

But it is the anticipation of the flood and the excitement of the unknown that continues to inspire him.

Often in a normal year, he witnesses waters rising ten feet, while other times, he and Mr. Flood can paddle through flooded meadows to see common cranes, nesting swans, and raccoon dogs stranded on branches. poplar, birch and beech.

The most formidable wildlife in the park – lynxes, wolves and grizzly bears – leaves long before the floods hit.

Soomaa National Park seen from the air
The annual phenomenon appears, without fail, between March and April. (Photo: Getty Images)

With its stunted and skeletal trees, the haunting landscape may scare the visitor, but the fifth station is, after all, the result of a combination of unusual factors.

Consequences of the thaw

Soomaa, which means “land of mobs”, is situated in a low basin on the western slopes of the Sakala Highlands and its rivers cannot contain the large amount of snowmelt that comes from the mountains with the snowmelt after winter.

The Navesti, Halliste, Raudna, Kopu, Toramaa and Lemmjogi rivers converge in Soomaa, but only the Navesti flows into the Baltic Sea.

The consequence of this is the creation of the Riisa flood zone, a natural basin covering 175 square km and which is considered the largest floodplain in Northern Europe.

Another element that shapes Soomaa National Park is geology. In the past this was an ancient ocean floor created 12,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, when the Baltic Sea was the Baltic Ice Lake and western Estonia was a frozen land.

Retreating glaciers left a great depression characterized by sedimentary bogs, and today Soomaa remains the largest intact peat bog system in Europe, essentially a giant natural sponge.

“In summer, the average water flow per second in Soomaa is 5-10 cubic meters,” said Jana Põldnurk, Head of Hydrology at the Estonian Environment Agency, whom I spoke to on Zoom.

“But in the fifth station it is 10 times greater and the torrent rises up to 100 cubic meters per second. Add to that the fact that an extraordinary 70% of the annual excess water is also produced on these dates and you will get some startling data ”.

A country house in the middle of a meadow in Estonia
The 70 people who live permanently on the edge of the park have learned to deal with the annual overflow. (Photo: Mart Vares / Visit Estonia)

Despite living in the Estonian capital Tallinn, Põldnurk has witnessed the Soomaa floods several times and oversees the team monitoring Riisa, the closest hydrological station upstream in the park.

Here, records dating back nearly 100 years show that the largest floods in history occurred in the 1930s and 1950s.

I asked him how he felt about the flooding, specifically since once the water level of 1.5 meters is exceeded, Soomaa starts to fill up like a bathtub. Some see it as dangerous. And her?

“There is always a sense of danger, but it is offset by excitementPõldnurk replied.

“Once, I remember being out in a canoe where I could only see water in whatever direction I looked, and I didn’t know where the river started and ended. It was a very strange feeling ”.

Resistant population

Newspaper reports from 1931, the year the flood reached a record height of 5.53 meters, extolling past glories and the unwavering spirit of residents, detailing stories of farmers building boats for cattle and storing bread for weeks to come. avoid starving.

Around this time, skilled inhabitants also built their own temporary wooden and suspension bridges, while the canoe aspen it became the only means of transportation.

“The memory of past floods makes people aware that at any moment there can be a closure and they can be locked in their houses,” said Põldnurk.

“Just the same thing that happens now with the coronavirus.”

Land of mobs in southwestern Estonia
Soomaa is the largest intact peat bog system in Europe and its forests are home to elk, deer, lynx, wolves and bears. (Photo: Sven Zacek / Visit Estonia)

Then, as now, the fifth station helped cultivate a deeply emotional landscape.

About 70 people, foreigners and farmers, live permanently on the park’s limits and all have learned to deal with the annual overflow.

The main roads are bypassed, and half of the park’s residents are confined for up to four weeks while the waters recede.

Still, this creates a sense of belonging that can only be understood by someone with a true affinity for the fifth season.

The impact of climate change

What also unites different sectors in Soomaa are the conversations about climate change and how it could soon manifest itself in even bigger and more unpredictable floods.

Especially, according to Põldnurk, as long-term climate scenarios show that annual rainfall is increasing.

“There is certainly a change in characteristics compared to last year,” said the expert.

A house and a canoe in the middle of a forest seen from the air
Spring floods, which can last up to four weeks, create new routes for canoeing in open water. (Photo: Seikle Vabaks / Visit Estonia)

“Climate change means that floods can occur at more unusual times, so Estonia may have a sixth season in the future“.

Watching people in canoes maneuver through the flooded forest, it was hard to ignore the unique appeal of Soomaa.

It is, as Ruukel told me, a wonderful combination of water, time and space, and for a moment it offered a brief window into another world, a more peculiar one.

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