Free to Explore

Rich in undomesticated landscape and an impressive coastline, the Northern countries have enough nature for everyone to enjoy freely. Here, earth truly is accessible to all, which has led to a very close connection between people and nature.

Text by Antonia Hamberg Photography by Bryan Saragosa

Ask any person from a Nordic country what characterizes their homeland and chances are that they will begin an intricate explanation of the harsh winters, endless summer nights and unique nature. With vast forests, picturesque lake districts, an exceptional archipelago and the alluring Lapland as their birthright, these Northern beauties have a democratic approach to everything — even land ownership. Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden all have the Right of Public Access allowing everyone the freedom to roam. One can for instance set up a tent for a night or two anywhere, keeping in mind certain rules of respect such as staying out of near sight of private homes and not setting up fire without permission from the landowner. Because nature is so generously available for everyone, enjoying the unspoiled natural treasures in its various forms has become a deep-rooted part of the Northern identity. It is reflected in the natural materialism of Scandinavian design, in the midsummer traditions celebrating summer solstice, in the ancient mythologies, and in the fondness for spending holidays outside at the summer cottage in the countryside.
 
Considering how generously the Northern people have access to undomesticated land, there could be a risk of easily taking it all for granted. But, when discussing people’s relationship with nature, it is clear that most Finns feel a deep connection to the untamed. They might mention the comfort of just being surrounded by the harmony of its organic form without feeling the pressure of achieving anything. Or the beauty of being fully present with something so eternal that has always existed and always will, infinitely longer than the human mind can grasp. They might recount with enthusiasm how the salty wind from the sea blows through the body; how demanding the extremes between daylight in summer and winter are; how the sunbeams glisten through the tree trunks as the sun sets at midnight during summer; how the mysterious whiteness of a snow-drenched Lapland in the winter leaves you speechless. Everyone has their personal experience of nature, but it is likely going to be challenge to find a northern soul who feels indifferent about the subject.

To many Lapland’s jagged wilderness is the ultimate way to revisit the instinctive bond with nature.

Experiencing the mostly untouched landscape is seen as an essential way to maintain a true connection with the earth, a connection that Finns do not want to loose in the midst of city life. In Lapland, the seasonal differences are more intense than in the city. In mid-September, the boundless forests are reborn as the brightest yellows, orange and reds during what is known in Finnish as Ruska. This is a popular season for hiking and camping along the numerous trails, feeling the uniqueness of the huge sense of unrestrained space and big skies. A second metamorphosis happens, when the coldest months are ushered in by harsh winds and slow snowfall. Amongst the mesmerizing silence of the winter months in the north, you are likeliest to encounter one of the most spellbinding nature-experience of all: the Aurora Borealis. These Northern Lights, also known as the mistress of the sky, expose themselves on clear nights when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with the earth’s atmosphere — hence the name aurora borealis, meaning north wind in Greek. Greenish yellow, or more mysterious red, blue and violet dancing lights fill the exhilaratingly black night sky with a dazzling show that is worth waiting for. 
 
In Finland, forest covers about 70% of the landscape, making Finland the most forested country in Europe. Next to meadows where a moose might stare you in the eye from behind the white trunk of a light green leafed birch, forests are plenty with wild berries. Blueberries, lingonberries and cloudberries are freely available for all to be picked, baked into pies, preserved and jammed for the winter. Come fall, mushrooms start popping up in what seems like endless woods. Picking berries and mushrooms is consequently a very instinctive way to connect with nature, as forests exist at close proximity to everyone. In addition to using what is gathered for summer parties or dinners with family, the healthy catch is often preserved in the form of jams and by deep-freezing so that pieces of summer can be enjoyed during winter months. Berry and mushroom picking are activities usually enjoyed from a young age with a parent or relative, adding a nostalgic dimension to the habit - an intuitive way to pass on myths and lessons about nature. As the respect towards the earth is passed to the next generation, it grows into a deep-rooted relationship with the natural as well as a way to clear your mind of distress.
With an abundance of untamed land, the cost of it has stayed relatively affordable in the rural areas of the Northern countries. This, together with rapid urbanization, has resulted in steadily growing enthusiasm in summer cottages as second homes over the past century for Finns, Norwegians and Swedes. Finns have their mökki, Norwegians their hytte and the Swedes their sommarstuga – all related in their role as a way to recharge and relax in a more remote hideaway. Relocating to the cottage during vacations and weekends is a treasured ritual; a way to escape the everyday routines of urban life by being closer to nature and enjoying a more traditional way of living. Cabins are still built and kept in a relatively basic form with many not having running water or electricity. To keep the feeling authentic to heritage and roots, cottages are decorated with nostalgic Finnish design details and a minimalistic aesthetic. A substantial amount of Finns are emotionally connected to the countryside and nature, as large-scale urbanization is a relatively recent phenomenon. This has in turn resulted in a cottage tradition that is entwined with the national identity. The amount of summer places has surpassed half a million, which for a population of 5.5 million, is a considerable number taking into account that many of the places are shared with family and relatives. 
 
If you visit Finland’s capital Helsinki in July, the city will seem hollow of locals, as most people will have retreated to their summer places. For some, staying at the often quite stripped-down cabin is about spending time with family and friends, while for others it is more of a chance to catch some meditative time alone. Yet, no matter what your preferences, it is nature that plays the key role in this primitive habit. Sauna, swimming and being outdoors are all part of the experience that is about reconnecting with one’s roots and soaking in the splendor of the wild and the free usually at a close proximity to one of the thousands of lakes or the extensive coastline. For Northern people there is almost something sacred in the feeling of aliveness and oneness with nature that can be experienced during a late night sauna in the soft, pink light of the midnight sun followed by a dip or two into a silent lake that greets you with its smooth, sweet water; or in basking in the heat of the bright July sun, stretched out on the raw but hot skerries hugged by a glistening Baltic Sea. 
 
However, being close to nature is not reserved for those who have access to summer cabins. The Northern countries are cherished for their awe-inspiring national parks; immense areas of pure wilderness covered by forests and lakes. Finland has just established - as a celebration of its 100th year of independence - its 40th national park in Hossa, close to the southeast border of Lapland. There you can walk around for hours in silence comforted by the bright spruce-pine forests and shimmering, fish-filled waters. Hossa also encompasses dark primeval forests, the rugged canyon river of Julma-Ölkky and cave paintings dating back almost 4000 years. The national parks are charming representations of the coexistence of man and nature; they are places where you can experience a time stopping silence, magical hiking trails, peaceful kayaking, wondrous wildlife and cozy pockets for setting up a tent. And much to the visitors’ joy, everyone can enjoy these mosaics of green and blue freely thanks to the Right of Public Access.