From the very first step, Hossa National Park in northeastern Finland feels familiar. It seems almost as if it’s the fairy-tale forest of storybooks come to life. The relaxing quietness of this park, dedicated in June 2017 to celebrate the country’s centenary of independence, provides an accompaniment to the scenery: paths bathed in natural light winding through the forest, serene lakes that allow canoers to continue from one lean-to shelter to the next, clear streams full of fish, and a wealth of wildlife from reindeer to bears. Those who have viewed the landscapes of Denali National Park’s boreal lowlands may see some similarity—just don’t count on those mountains being in Finland.
Finland’s 40th and newest national park may be less than a year old, but its features hail from the most recent glacial age. Some of the oldest bedrock in the world is here, in the Fennoscandian Shield. Hossa is home to ridges shaped by the flow of melting ice sheets, now crowned by forests of pine trees that almost appear to be holding up the sky. Below the ridges are kettle ponds, lakes, and marshes—creating a mosaic-like landscape.
The Hossa area, near the Russian border, has more than 130 lakes and ponds, one of which is Finland’s largest canyon lake. Julma-Ölkky measures a little more than 2 miles long and 164 feet deep. The rock walls that emerge from the lake tower above visitors’ heads as they float past on boat excursions. About halfway through, if you’re looking carefully, you’ll see a small red-ochre rock painting depicting two people and an elk.
Humans entered the story at Hossa 10,000 years ago, and the park contains the northernmost rock paintings in Finland. But the paintings on the walls of Julma-Ölkky are only an appetizer in the overall feast. On a cliff wall rising from the north shore of long and narrow Lake Somerjärvi are the Värikallio rock paintings—more than 60 figures of red ochre that are about 4,500 years old. They seem to be everywhere—stretched over the golden-hued rock—and while humans can’t touch them, I wanted to run my fingers over the lines painted so long ago.
The water level of the lake has remained at approximately the same elevation since the end of the Ice Age, so ancient artists had to either employ boats or wait until the lake was iced over in winter months. Modern-day visitors use a metal floating bridge to visit the paintings.
In summer, the park is an endless palette of green hues; wandering the more than 60 miles of trails, hikers often spend much of their time looking down to forage for the abundance of the season—bilberries, lingonberries, cloudberries, and mushrooms. I skipped my snack of trail mix in my backpack in favor of handfuls of bilberries and a sip of water from a nearby spring.
This being Finland, the park also has saunas. Some rental cabins are equipped with saunas for guests’ use, the Karhunkainalo Camping Ground has a service building with a sauna, and some of the wilderness lodges have saunas (including an old-school-style smoke sauna), as well.
With all this serenity, one might think hikers, bikers, and kayakers would flock to Hossa. But in a day of hiking, I spied fewer than 10 people on the same trails, which means there was plenty of trailside berries to share with the bears. An ancient Sámi hunting ground, Hossa means “far away place” in the local Sámi language—and it’s easy to feel that you’re far removed from civilization here, even though the closest airport in Kuusamo is just an hour away.
Why does Hossa feel familiar? Is it some ancient connection to the land, or because it’s the epitome of the definitive Finnish romantic landscape? Is it the clarity of the water or the handfuls of free berries? Maybe it’s because you’re so close to the natural landscape without having to weave through queues of behemoth tour buses or selfie-taking crowds. It may just be the national park of your dreams.