Up! Into the sky – With a balloon!

I recently excited my 20’s and in the celebration of that, Waffle went a little cuckoo in the way of presents. Now I can enjoy complete silence in the train with some noise cancelling headphones and swoosh by traffic jams with an e-scooter. I also received a balloon flight!

I had mentioned about wanting to go flying with a balloon sometime, years ago in a side sentence, and this goofball of mine remembers it and buys me a flight. Love him to the moon and back!

We had been searching for the perfect weekend to go and take our flight and ended up picking a day in mid-September. The departure was scheduled early in the Saturday morning. We were in luck. The sky was clear and the cold night had left some mist lying around here and there, as we drove to the small city of Sint-Niklaas in Flanders. We would be taking off from an industrial area where there was an open plot of land.

As we arrived, there was one huge red-black balloon being stretched out.  All the preparations to get it up were in full swing. It was quite interesting to see, how it all comes together. Massive fans do the first inflation. Only after the balloon is partially inflated, do they shoot some flames into it to get it hot and floating. Once it is reaching for the sky, all the people climb to the basket and wait for the balloon to be strong enough to lift them.

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After the red balloon was on its way, they started to inflate the one we would be flying in. It was considerably smaller than the one before us. It had the capacity to carry nine people – we would be eight – in total. The process s we had just seen started around our balloon and soon our blue bubble was ready to take off.

Slowly the basket we were in, hopped off the ground, sliding a little in the wind. The balloon was not quite hot enough to pull us to the sky. To let it get hotter, there were two men hanging from the basket, keeping it from sliding away in too low an altitude. It was bit of a comical situation.

Soon the lift of the balloon was strong enough, and we bounced off to the sky. I was surprised by the speed with which we gained altitude, just a few seconds and we were hanging well above the rooftops and floating towards the city center

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Takeoff
All of a sudden, they all looked so small!.

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Sint-Niklaas is famous for organizing a Balloon festival every autumn, and it sometimes happens that a balloon hits the bell tower of the town hall. There was a nervous anticipation in our basket, as we flew over the market square, towards the very same tower. Luckily we were high enough and floated safely above it.

It was amazing to see the familiar streets and buildings from above, sliding by, in the light of the rising sun.  Slowly we passed the city. The huge gas burners were roaring as we rose up higher and higher. Our pilot stated that this time we would reach the altitude of 800 – 1000 meters. 

There was a lot of moist in the air that morning, so even from that altitude we could not see too much further than 20 km. That was far enough though, to see our old hometown Rupelmonde and the cooling towers of the Doel nuclear power plant. And the see, or at least the delta of the Skelt. The pilot gave us plenty of time to admire the view from up there as we were slowly drifting westward. 

Witte Molen

Sint-Niklaas
The bell tower we happily sailed over.

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Fields of green
The cornfields look like soft pillows from above!

What surprised me up there was the silence. Whenever the burners weren’t roaring, it was completely still. We were drifting in the wind, so we couldn’t hear it blowing. We were also way too high for the noise of the traffic to reach us, the silence was perfect. Every now and then, we broke the silence, noting something about the landscape or asking things from our pilot. We learned he was holding the Belgian record of longest balloon flight, reaching all the way to the Jura mountains in France. And that the small balloon we were flying was just a  toy, costing merely 70 000 euros to buy. If anyone happens to be interested.

We were far from Sint-Niklaas already and the pilot had allowed the balloon to sink, searching for new wind directions. All of a sudden, we were just above tree tops and still descending. I was wondering if we were going to land somewhere there, although I could see nothing but cornfields around us. Surely, we would not land on some poor farmers crops? 

We were still descending and it did seem as we were going to hit the ground. The bottom of the basket was sweeping the tops of the corn plants, still wet from mildew; we could feel the vibration from them to our feet. Then, all of a sudden, the pilot pulled both of the burners to full blast and in a blink of an eye, we were dozens of meter above the ground! It was quite surprising how fast the climb happened, just by hot air! 

Puivelde
The huge church in a tiny village – Puivelde.

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Sweeping by
The basket was touching the heads of the corn. Here we really got a sense of the surprisingly fast speed we were going.

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The balloon floated back up to the skies and further to west. Before long, we started to see some more familiar sights. Approaching from the distance, we saw the church of Puivelde. Puivelde is the town where my dear Waffle went to ground school as a kid. It is a small town, nothing more than a crossing of two streets, but it has a huge church. Right about there, our pilot dug out his phone, and called his parents to come out of their house to look to the sky. He had grown up in that tiny spec of a village too. He was a couple of years older than Waffle, so they didn’t quite know each other, but did have some common friends. Such a small world. 

We flew by the village of Puivelde and caught a sight of another familiar place. We were passing the yellow house of Waffle’s parents! We passed the town of Sinaai, Waffle’s old hometown slightly from the north. Then we set off to higher altitude again and floated away from the familiar landscapes. It took still about 20 minutes before we actually started landing.

Getting us out of the air wasn’t a simple task. First, the pilot had to find a field, which wasn’t cultivated and was accessible to the cars that were driving behind us. Then he needed to find a wind layer that would take us there while dropping our altitude.

The ground was sweeping past fast and getting closer by the second. We had been guided through landing positions, and now we embraced them as the basket was about to hit the ground with quite some speed.

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Stekene
That town is Stekene. We quite often go walking along the channels.
Peaking to the backyards
One quite satisfying thing about flying with a balloon, is that you get to peak into peoples gardens. And sometimes spot some weird stuff, or just fancy shrubbery.

All of a sudden, there was a thud and a bounce and the basket ended up lying on its side with us packed inside it. Some of us were commanded out, the basket was tilted back up and the team that had followed us by car started dragging the basket to a better position, so the deflating balloon would have space to fall down safely.

The hot air was seeping out of the balloon and the rest of the weight could climb out from the basket. The pilot jumped out and attacked the deflating balloon. He started pulling the fabric to the ground to hasten the outflow of the hot air. When it was empty enough, he asked some of the passengers to come and help him. The empty balloon was rotated into a long roll. That roll was then packed into a large bag and swayed into the trailer the team had driven to the field.  The bag and basket were quickly hauled into the trailer and all the evidence of our adventure in the sky was out of sight. 

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Rolling
Rolling the balloon to get it ready for packing.

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Balloon to sofa
Completely OK to use the package as a sofa.

We got a ride back to the cars and left all in our separate ways. It was truly a unique experience. I would never say no, if the opportunity pops up again. To enjoy all of the pictures, clickety click to here!

The compqny we were flying with was Up Ballooning. 

Walking The Swamps of Finland – 2

After a day in the swamp and an evening in the rain we were happy to return to the hut, warm up the sauna and feel the night wrap around us. In august, the midnight sun has given up to darker sort of evenings but the sky is still painted in pinks and purples, giving a magnificent backdrop for the nightly flight of the bats and owls.

The following few days we spent happily at our hut. Doing some mandatory gardening tasks, cleaning out the forest and planting new trees and berry bushes. And enjoying the sauna and the lake of course.

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Waffle in his Finnish element.

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Another sunset, being ridiculously pretty.

Some boat rides, family visits and berry picking trips later we were ready for another hike. We would be heading to the Patvinsuo National Park, where we would hike the Patvinkierto Circle Trail, about 30 – 35 km in total. We packed our backs, took our Tentsile with us and drove off.

Patvinsuo is a huge open mire. Hosting a healthy population of bears, wolfs and lynxes, moose and a multitude of birds. A beaver or few are swimming around there also. We were secretly hoping to see at least some of them, as we would be hanging in our Tentilse, above the ground, so maybe, just maybe, some of the wild forest folk would not notice us. Fingers crossed.

The drive there from our hut takes a good 2 hours. We only passed two towns worth mentioning, Nurmes and Lieksa. Other than that, the roads pass mainly forest, with occasional view on farms and lakes. But in the final approach to the park, the scenery gets real pretty.

Soon after Lieksa, we left the asphalt and hit the iconic Finnish rally roads, with rolling gravel, soft turns and bouncy climbs. The nature around us was beautiful. Endless pinewoods growing out of sand hills shaped centuries ago by the retreating ice cap, all wrapped in soft, dark green moss carpet.

We navigated our way to the Nature house Suomu and got ready to hit the trail. We would head south, to circle the big swamp in counter clockwise direction. It was already quite late when we left, so we decided to camp at the first campsite, at Nälmänjoki, a hike of about 5 kilometers away. It was fast going; the trail is mainly on flat ground and well maintained.

We arrived at Nälmänjoki right before sunset. The campsite was right at the edge where the elevated forest lowers down and gives way to the bog. There the trail turns to duckboards, heading into the wast empty of the wet mire. The scenery was currently bursting into brilliant colors, as the setting sun was peaking through clouds and being covered again. We were happy to set up camp there.

There already was a dad with his 3 daughters camping at the spot and making fire, so we wouldn’t have to worry about hot water and could focus straight away on finding a triangle of trees, suitable for the Tentsile.

There was a small clearing in the forest, circled by some sturdy pines with an open view to the swamp, that was the spot we chose. After a bit of searching and adjusting and testing our tent was hanging. We adjusted it to about shoulder level, so it was still relatively easy to jump in and out of. Still we would be high enough to be out of the vision field of the potentially passing wildlife, we hoped. The weather was looking good, not too much wind and no rain promised, so we left the rain fly off to get to enjoy the full view. Our thick sleeping bags would surely be warm enough.

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On the way to Nälmänjoki.

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The camp, up and hanging.

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Journey from the stream to camp.

We joined the family at the fire for a bit, to make dinner and small talk until they, all 4 of them, somehow squeezed into their microscopic tent. At that time it had become dark in the forest. Perfect setting for the imagination of a person slightly afraid of dark hoping to meet some wildlife. I mean to say, I was slightly jumpy and nervous.

A while later, after the evening tasks were done and the fire put out, we went back to our camp. It was a pretty sight; we had left our tent lamp burning and it lit the mesh up to a soft glow, creating a floating pyramid in the forest.

This time we had done a good job at hanging the Tentsile and it slept comfortably. It was nice to sway up there, looking at the stars peaking through the tree tops. We lay awake for quite a bit, looking up to the sky and listening to the surroundings, trying to catch a sign of an animal passing. And every now and them we did hear some footsteps here and there. Before long it did get impossible to stay awake and we bounced to sleep.

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Our glowing floating pyramid.

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The view to the night sky, who wouldn’t want to fall asleep with this?

The next day we continued the tour on the western edge of the swamp. The duckboards were endless, turning into a trail only occasionally as we crossed a more foresty ”island” on the swamp. We had our first rest at a swampy bond called Pirskanlampi. There is another camping area. The bond is really just a hole in the swamp, even though it was hot, it wasn’t really very inviting of a swimming spot.

So we wobbled on. For a while the trail was making its way through a pine forest, before finding a steady route at the borderline of the swamp and forest. I love the colors in a forest like that. It all changes in unison from green at the bottom to grey and orange in the middle before getting back to green at the top and finishing off to the blue sky. Very harmonious and calming it is.

The trail took us to the strip of forest, separating the Patvinsuo from the Lake Koitere (bigger than the Principality of Liechtenstein, they claim). It was a good deal of untouched forest between us and the lake, so it wasn’t really a surprise when we saw the first ant hill, torn open by a bear. That opened our eyes to see other potential markings left by the king of the forest. And sure enough, we did see some more ant hills torn open and possibly some droppings, luckily no sighting of the actual animal.

Before long, the trail was making its way to the shoreline of the lake. A little further, at the north-eastern corner of the lake, there was another campsite. This one we were considering to stay at.

It was a beautiful spot. On a small cape, surrounded by water and sheltered by the forest. There had been a storm recently, and the lake had eaten a part of the beach away. There was now a drop of a meter, before you got to the water. The bottom was fine sand and a pleasure to walk on. We made a fire and decided to have a swim, the shallow water at the shore was nicely heated by the sun. It was a special beach as it continued shallow for dozens of meters. We had to waddle quite far even to reach a knee depth and at that point the water was getting uncomfortably cold, forcing us to turn back.

Eventually we decided to move on. It was windy there at the lake, and since we wanted to be able to sleep with just the mesh covering the tent, it would probably get cold there. The next stop would be just a small hike of 5 km away, in a small forest in the middle of the mire. So we boiled plenty of lake water to take along, as there was no water point at the next campsite, and hit the trail. Advancing a bit slower again, thanks to all the bilberries that were shouting our names at the trail side…

We were soon out of the woods, back on the duckboards, making our way ahead through the open plains of the swamp. The duck boards, if in good condition, are incredibly nice to walk on. They have a little bit of give, which makes for very soft steps. And they are smooth and even. Walking goes fast. Despite the easy trail, we were starting to feel the kilometers and progressed slowly. It was little over 20 km we had done that day.

 

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Once we finally reached the spot, we were happy to find it was very pretty. An ocean of golden hay swaying all around the island of forest where there was the familiar sight of a lean-to shelter, woodshed and an outhouse. Again we went to look for a triangle of trees, to get our tent set up. This time around it seemed particularly difficult, probably because we were quite tired. It was very difficult to get our thoughts straight, not to mention calculate some angles and figure out what side to tighten and what to loosen in order to shift the platform correctly.

A bit of bickering followed but eventually nobody was severely injured and our tent was up and looking good. We cooked and enjoyed the complete silence of the empty swamp. It felt like we were completely alone in the world. Well, maybe there were some bears around, somewhere in the distance.

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There was a view tower at our campsite. See those lines in the swamp? That’s done by the thawing of ice in the spring time.

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Atmosphere here was so beautiful.

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Our hanging hotel for the night.

I was well rested the following morning as the sun woke us up. After the long walk the day before I had been deeply asleep, not hearing much of what was going on around us. The last leg of the journey was going to be relatively short, 8 – 10 kilometers, so we didn’t need to hurry to get going.

The trail ahead was crossing the swamp straight from the middle. So plenty of duckboards to walk on and open views to look at.  The scenery there is monotone, with grassy marsh and some half dead trees along the way. Still there is a beauty to it, especially if you look closely enough, enjoy the berries and appreciate the rich colors of the moss.

We finished the hike in the early afternoon and went for a coffee break at the nature house Suomu. There we heard that the hunting season for bears was starting that night, and we had just managed to get out of the way, lucky us! Apparently there are way too many bears in the are and  up to 20 of them can be killed this autumn.

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See that arrow there, on top of the stand on the fire pit? It always points to North. Just figured that our myself on this trail. Quite nice little help for a hiker.

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Breakfast is love.

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We drove off, happy and drowsy. Enjoying the nature swooshing by us, all the way home. We still had some time to spend at our hut and live quietly, in the rhythm of fire making, food preparing and sauna. The full moon paid us a visit too, turning the view from our dock to quite a spectacle on one of the nights.

As always the time to say goodbyes and go home came much too soon. We had raided some shops and luckily were carrying a luggage full of Finnish goodies with us, to keep us (me, mainly) going until our next visit.

Moon over the lake
Full moon lighting up the nature around us.

 

 

 

 

Walking The Swamps of Finland

The tarmac was getting further and further behind us, as the plane was throttling its way to north and Helsinki. We had just gotten in from a standby place and I was recovering my stress induced panic-y moment, as I had of course thought we would never make it to the plane and to Helsinki in time.

If there is such a thing as phobia of being late, I definitely have it. I hate being late and will do most anything to not be late (take the 30 minute earlier train than I would need to, for example). But anyhow, we were making steady progress and a couple of hours later we landed in the Finnish capital.

As usual, we spent the first few days with friends and family. Enjoying the Helsinki’s summer, cottage life in Karkkila and some joyful celebrations there in between. Those people,  I wish I got to see them more.

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Helsinki at night.
View to Linnanmäki over the Töölö bay.

But we were eager to see our hut again too, so a couple of days later we made our way through the lake lands to home and our cottage. The night had already fallen as we arrived and we were welcomed by the blue silence of the northern night.

Before going to bed, I had to stop at the dock, to sniff the air, listen to the owls hooting around and searching for the stars in the sky. It feels so strongly like home there. I have learned to love the ever changing view that opens to the lake form there and the feeling of the fresh summer air.

Moonlit lake

We had two weeks to spend in Finland and we were planning on making the most of it. The season, being late summer, would be perfect for exploring the swampy national parks in Finland, I reckoned. We would first be heading to Ruunaa at the eastern border .

Ruunaa is not really a national park, it is just a hiking area, wildly popular among fishers too, thanks to the amount of rapids in the area.  We planned a day hike there, a loop of 10 km, starting from the Vastuuniemi Parking area and going  around Kattilaniemi, crossing some spectacular bogs and stretches of forests.

The first surprise on the hike came within the first ½ km of the trail. We left the parking on a sand track towards the lake, where we would have to cross the water. I simply expected it to be a float pulled along by a cable as it usually is. Over here, that wasn’t the case.

We had a row boat on our side of the lake and another one on the opposite side. And those you have to row across, so that there is still a boat on either side, when you move on. As we were two, it was easy, we just rowed the first leg together to fetch the other boat, rowed them both back and then the first one together again to the opposite side. It is more complicated if you are alone, since you have to tie the other boat to the one you are rowing, in order to get across with one boat being left on either shore.

After the boat crossing the trail quickly took us to the first leg of duckboards leading over the swamp. It had been a dry summer in Finland too, but there was still plenty of water left there, a hiker was wise to be happy about the boards to walk on.

I have a feeling the swamps and mires in this world are the most underappreciated landscapes. People tend to think of them as wet and unpleasant places with a plethora of mosquitoes and other biting bugs to walk along side you. But I have learnt to appreciate them.

The colors are absolutely beautiful, the hay glows in golden yellow and bright green, with bonds reflecting the blue of the sky above, it is heartbreakingly pretty and there were hardly any bugs digging into our skins. The tussocks or red and yellow mosses were hosting also plenty of cranberries well on their way to ripening. The cloud berries had already gone to my great sadness.

The trail was making its way partially through old forests too, and there we were treated by bushes full of bilberries! It was hard to make any progress on the trail from all the eating. We stopped a couple of times at the lean on shelters scattered along the trail, just to enjoy the view and nature around us.

We needed to cross the water a couple of times more, with the same boat system as the first time over. We reached our car just before the skies poured open. We still wanted to take a look at the rapids of Siikakoski and have a little campfire moment there to go with the dinner we had brought. There is a trail that follows the Siikakoski, right at the riverside. There is a beautiful wooden hanging bridge crossing it; about a kilometer away from the closest parking, and at its side, there are two camping spots with leaning shelters.

That’s where we went to, to make our food and find shelter from the pounding rain and thunder. The shelter we picked, stood at the shore of a pool upstream from the bridge. Waffle did his magic and soon we had a nice fire going, in spite of the rain. It was lovely to sit and listen to the running water and the falling rain. We even saw a family of diver birds swimming by, pushing up the stream.

The Ruunaa area is quite intriguing and I think we need to visit it again. The hiking area is limited in the east to the Ruunaa -lake and further to the east from there, all the way deep into Russia, it is just empty wilderness. It must be an experience to camp out there at the eastern shore of the big lake. Next summer maybe?

During this holiday we were still going to take to the trails of Patvinsuo National Park. One of the vastest swamps in Finland, inhabited by bears, wolverines and wolves as wells as a lynx or two. More on that the next time!

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