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Aspö, Finland

The village and island of Aspö, Finland lies in a sheltering cove, about fifteen miles north of the island of Utö – the southernmost point of Finland – a speck in the Baltic Sea. On one edge of the cove is a row of short, twisted docks punctuated by red boat-shelters.  On the other, there are wide grassy spaces –  often covered in snow – and a scattering of smoothed, rounded boulders that fall away from the church and into the straight.  A solitary path leads through the grass from the cove to a diffuse band of houses spilling lazily away from the water and disappearing into gray shades of juniper, alder, rowan, birch and pine, and beyond, where an attenuated icy lagoon stretched, choked with duckweed and cat-tails.

Aspö is actually hundreds of small islands and skerries massed around one large, pinwheel shaped island supporting three families of fifteen people.  The problem facing Aspö, as well as the entire Finnish archipelago, is an economic one.  There is no real, independent, internal economy, nor had there ever been.  When the population of the archipelago began to fall after World War II, the problem only exacerbated itself.  As more people left, there was less economy, fewer jobs and even less reason to stay. More people, mostly the young, moved on to new places.

Like most of Finland, Aspö was once the home of giants.  On the island’s eastern edge sits the throne of the King Giant.  When the first church was built on Nötö, just across the sound, the giant, a pagan, took up a boulder and lobbed it at the church.  It fell short, crashing into Bönholm Sound (where this photo was taken) where it lies to this day.

Aspö was first mentioned in a series of Danish exploration and trading chronicles in 1270.  The old papers even listed population numbers in those days.  There were more people in the archipelago in 1270 then there were on my last visit in 2005.

Aspö, with its natural harbor and sheltered cove, was an important way-stop for the traders running from Copenhagen to Stockholm, then on to Turku, Hanko, Raseborg and Tallin.  King Valdemar made the first route description, calling Aspö the perfect resting spot between Utö and Hiitis.  The next mention of Aspö comes in 1696 when visiting priests discussed the need for repairs on the rundown, ancient church positioned on a rock near the main bay.  In 1698 the islanders got their new church.  From then on, there was constant mention of the island and its village.  In 1870, an anthropologist from the University in Turku made the first ethnology of life on Aspö.  In photographs from that time, the island was nearly devoid of vegetation from centuries of grazing, tree-cutting and erosion and, the village, with its red houses and its white church stood starkly against the gray of the sky, the gray of the pastures and the mercurial silver of the bay and the sea.  There was but one tree in the entire picture.

It may be that the islands had far too many people to begin with; many more than could be supported for a long period of time and the abandonment was bound to come.  I followed the recently laid Nature Trail to the highest point on the island; a round, balded spot with a 360° view capped with a sprightly wooden bench.  When I took this shot in the frigid mid-winter of 2003, Aspö was a heavily wooded island.  Sea geese passed overhead, swans crowded on an outer edge next to three pink masses of granite.  Bullfinches creaked in the branches.

The people of Aspö have, for hundreds of years, rotated fishing grounds so that one family doesn’t monopolize the most productive areas.  The changeover happens each year on January 25th.

In 1944 the Prinz Eugen returned to the islands with the cruiser Lutzow.  The Germans wanted to keep the Soviets from occupying Åland.  One of the ships laid anchor just outside the cove where the village lies.  The Germans tied the ship to the island, plunging massive anchoring rings into the granite, many of which I found while hiking the island.  They hung huge iron nets from the port sides to ward off Soviet torpedoes.  It was a sweltering, languid summer and the handsome, friendly German boys were the perfect distraction as they jumped from the ships and swam in the far cove.  All the girls of the island – not to mention a number of the married women – crowded in for a close up.  The boys bought fish and milk from the islanders and even helped with the hay-making at the end of the summer.  The ship’s doctor took up residence in the village and helped deliver babies, mend broken bones.

When the Finns sued the Soviets for peace, the Soviets demanded that all German military had to leave Finland.  In September, the Finns gave their former allies a week to go before they were forced, by treaty, to attack.  The two cruisers found no time to bring up their anti-torpedo nets and they dropped them to into the sea – covering the best fishing grounds in a thick mass of twisted metal.

They were never able to free the sea bed from the metal.

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tourism in finland

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