Yesterday I visited the University of Oulu to give a talk about my research and to engage in some collaborative discussions with faculty in computer science. (Impressive and fascinating work underway there!) Timo, the professor hosting my visit, grew up in the fields and forests of northern Finland; he offered to take me out today for a day of skiing in a nature reserve an hour east of Oulu. As he noted, this week was a special opportunity – the first time since 1981 that the wildlife-management folks were opening a winter season for hunting European Grouse… and for just 10 days. Timo is an accomplished hunter and fisherman, as was clear from the many stuffed grouse and the fishing awards in his den at home. This mid-week opportunity was too good for him to pass up, and I was delighted to join. Read on, and check out the photo gallery.
I spent last night in his guest room so we could get an early start this morning. We arrived right at sunrise – which sounds early, but this is 65º8′ north just past mid-winter: the sun rises at 9:30am, and sets at 3:30pm. We parked at the end of a long snow-covered dirt road, plowed this winter due to ongoing logging operations nearby. We dressed in warm clothes and donned a white camouflage shell, as the sky turned deeper blue and all horizons deep pink and orange. An older man pulled up in his van, and struck up a friendly chat with Timo; although I could not follow the Finnish conversation, it was clear the man was a local who had also come to try his luck today, and gesticulated to indicate the areas he’d searched two days earlier.
Timo and I set off on touring skis, across a shallow base of untracked snow that had been compressed by two days of recent rain and then frozen into a crunchy firm surface. After a brief stretch of bushwhacking through a sparse forest of small firs and pines, we came to the edge of a huge wetland. Timo shook his head at the sight; normally, he said, this would be a vast plain of pure white snow. Today, it was barely covered in snow – and patches of ice where yesterday’s rain had pooled – with tufts of grass and shrubs sprouting here and there. In his more than 50 years in northern Finland, Timo said, he’s never seen a winter so warm and snowless. Today, I never saw snow deeper than my shins.
Suddenly, a huge grouse burst from a nearby treetop, flapping silently past us no more than 20m away. Focused on the scenery, we’d not seen this tree-top grouse until too late; oddly, he had let us approach incredibly close. He flapped his way back toward our car, outside the game reserve, safe for the day. Timo was disappointed not to have gotten off a shot with his rifle, and I was disappointed not to have gotten off a shot with my camera.
Across the flat wetlands we skied, with effortless glide on the hard snow surface, double-poling for kilometers. Every so often, Timo would pause and scan the surrounding treetops through his binoculars. The grouse spend their mornings in the treetops snacking on the freshest pine cones, and soaking up what little warmth the winter sun has to offer. “No cigar,” as Timo likes to say. We continued across a small stream, gently testing the ice and keeping our weight well distributed. After all, just 36h before this stream had been fed by fresh rain in above-freezing temperatures.
The morning passed, sometimes crossing open wetlands, sometimes bushwhacking through forest, sometimes on day-old ski or snowmobile tracks. A light wind blew from the northwest – not enough to bother us, but enough to complicate any shot at a grouse. As we paused on the open flats before entering a patch of woodland, a big grouse flew from one tree to another, about 300m ahead of us. I stayed put while Timo slowly skied a circuitous route to approach more closely. The grouse sat warily in its treetop, enjoying the sunshine but keeping one eye in our direction. Timo readied his rifle, and approached closer. Poof! The grouse took off. Sigh. When I joined Timo a few minutes later, he explained he had a good line of sight at 225m, but felt he needed to be within 200m to make the shot, given the wind. The grouse must have decided that the white-coated critter with sticks on its feet was getting too close for comfort – a life-saving move on its part.
We skied onward, through the woods and back across the river ice to the other shore. Around noon, as the sun reached its high point just a smidge above the horizon, we came to a beautiful log cabin, built 15 years ago and maintained by the park service, free for any and all. Timo soon had a crackling fire in the woodstove, and set sausages to grill and tea to brew while we dined on creamy reindeer stew from one thermos, and sipped berry juice from another. Quite cozy indeed!
All the way back we kept our eyes peeled on the treetops, hoping to sight another European Grouse or perhaps the smaller Black Grouse. No luck. A few clouds rolled in and shared with us a few of their snow flurries. Although it was merely 2pm, the sun was getting low. These northern sunsets last for hours, tickling the dissipating clouds orange and turning the northern and eastern horizons deep pink and purple, a satisfying contrast to the stark white of the wetlands and dark browns and greens of the forest.
By 3pm we were on our way back to Timo’s home, where the sauna was hot and the beer was cold. A fine end to a fine day!
Check out the gallery for more photos.
Temperature: -7ºC and up
Elevation: approx 120m.a.s.l.
Elevation gain: 29m (flat!)
Time: 5h39m (of which 3h54m was moving)