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Finland's Kvarken Archipelago

The m/s Tiira leaves several times a day from the dock in Vasa.
The small tour boat holds about thirty and most tend to be Finns. There are the older women’s groups on their weekly excursion, the small families out to see a few birds, a romantic couple or two and, of course, those looking for someplace else to drink. Sitting on the park terraces or on the docks in your underwear down by the fishing boats must get a little old, after all.
The air is warm in early August but each breeze brings a chill. The smiling, chatty ladies wrap themselves in thin windbreakers and push at their sunglasses with long fingers. The pilot smokes heavily and concentrates on the rocks.
The Tiira plows north through the inner Gulf of Bothnia and into the sticky air of Finland’s first World Heritage Site, the Kvarken Archipelago (map).
There are over 6500 islands in the Kvarken, the majority of them too small to be inhabited by anyone other than the coots and terns and geese. From the deck of the Tiira though, one can see numerous summer cottages, sauna’s perched on rocky shoals and ancient fishing villages, removed from the water by the rising landscape and so abandoned to sink into the mud and marsh and the birch forest.
A sea eagle passes overhead.
The glaciers that squashed the bedrock are long gone but the land here is rising over a centimeter a year, threatening a waterless connection to Sweden in just a thousand years. One square kilometer of land is created every year. The distance from mainland Sweden to mainland Finland in this area is only eighty kilometers and the distance between the outermost sovereign islands only twenty-five. At only twenty-five meters in depth, thick ice connects the two neighbors for a decent chunk of the year. Mail service across the ice to and from Korsholm Castle and Björköby began in the 1300s. At the border in the middle sits Henry LePaute’s 150-year old Valosaaret lighthouse. In 1799 Acerbi arrived to Vasa from Sweden on a sledge pulled by reindeer.
The Tiira paces itself to a view of the magnificent Replot bridge then turns and threads the rocks around to a beer and coffee stop on a remote island. The café is manned by young country girls who cannot wait to get back to university in Helsinki or Turku or Stockholm. They sigh and tilt their head at each order as if the request were the greatest of inconvenience. The group of Finnish grandmothers looks at me and everyone rolls eyes. We all laugh.
Finnish is not to be heard. The particular island form of Swedish is the language here.
The people that have lived in the Kvarken over the past 10,000 years have depended heavily on the sea for sustenance and the culture is the of a fishing economy. As the land has risen, however, fishing villages that once sat directly on the water’s edge have moved far inland, first sitting on bays meeting the sea, then to unconnected lakes and marshes then to dry land. Old houses, boats and nets appear where you may least expect them.
You can take a car up from Vasa and across to the Svedjehamn in Björköby where the long, thin, parallel moraines and the curving drumlins – originally laid down in the last ice age – rise from the water. The diversity of this low and changing land makes it a bird-watchers paradise.

At the café, in Svedjehamn a watercolor class works on the subtle shades and tones of the islands. At the information hut near the start of the hiking trail a kind young Metsähallitus (forest service) employee will offer you a cup of acidic coffee and a map. An extensive trail system extends out through the blue-berries and young, scrappy forests into hidden bays where a very haunting trumpeter swam call bounces off the rocks. A boat trolls by and disappears up the sound.
Next time, the plan is to rent a kayak and spend a week exploring the archipelago by water.
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