We couldn't avoid a slight gulp in the face of the last of Iris's remarks: “the man no longer wanted to let me go but he let himself be convinced.
Let's go again now but I doubt that tomorrow it will still be possible to return here. See those cracks and puddles at the ends? They mean the surface is getting too fragile. That's why they're about to close it.”
The Crossing to Hailuoto Island by a Road in Thaw
We were walking along the longest official ice road in Finland, which, during the long winter, connects the mainland to the island of Hailuoto on the shallow waters of the Gulf of Bothnia, which the intense cold of this latitude solidifies with relative ease.
We asked the driver if, with all the Nordic technology, they hadn't invented any system to correct those flaws and guarantee the use of the road for longer. The answer takes us to the heart of Hailuoto's alternative and contradictory soul. “No, there is no such machine.
It all depends on the weather. There is, however, a discussion that has been going on for several years about building a bridge. Many people on the island are against it.
They want to keep it isolated and quiet. But a good hundred work in Oulu. If you go by ferry, it takes 1h30. It takes 3 hours a day to travel and that's when you don't have to wait because the ferry only takes 6 cars.
We question why these people don't move to Oulu. Iiris assures that he no longer works in Oulu but that he would not return there, and goes on to explain a series of advantages of his new island life, with emphasis on additional security, tranquility and autonomy.
We have been with her since breakfast at the hotel in Oulu. We know that another heart reason played a part in the retreat.
The God Sampo and the Sampo of the Island of Hailuoto and Liris
"Did you take the 'Sampo' trip?" I also have my own Sampo. They will like to meet you”.
According to Finnish mythology, sampo was a magical artifact that was difficult to qualify but brought good luck to its owner. It had been built by Seppo Ilmarinen, a kind of boy god, blacksmith, eternal hammer of finnish mythology.
further north in Kemi, "Sampo” was also the name given to an icebreaker which is no longer useful to make way for ever wider vessels to plow the Gulf of Bothnia and, therefore, adapted by a company for small tourist routes demonstrating its fragmenting power and the beauty of the frozen seascape.
We entered the island of Hailuoto. Amidst snow-dusted conifer forests and icy farmland, we arrived at the couple's small farm. Iiris enters the house. Shortly thereafter, she returns accompanied by her half-hearted icebreaker. Sampo doesn't live up to the analogy.
A Fishing Trip in Hailuoto Island and Arctic Fashion
He begins by showing himself intimidated by the presence of these strangers from the south and says little while he gathers what he needs for the morning of fishing with the net that we were going to follow. The weather in the region has always remained sub-arctic. Soon, in his own way, the host would grant us much warmer treatment.
The four of us got into the couple's Volvo van, also loaded with rural instruments and animal hair. A short journey takes us back to the frozen coast.
Iiris prepares a fire to wake us up from a certain morning inertia with coffee and cookies.
Meanwhile, Sampo returns home to retrieve something he had forgotten and we wait for Make Valimaki, a family friend and one of the island's true professional fishermen.
Sampo lingers. Make, on the other hand, is approaching at great speed on his snowmobile, over the tough but snowy surface of the gulf.
We turn our backs on him for a moment to respond to any challenge from Iiris. When we least expected it, we heard the trunks and branches of a natural hedge crackle.
Make's Rugged Arrival
Enthusiastic with the sense of freedom suggested by the lightness and endless white, the adventurer had decided to go inland through an opening parallel to the normal trail.
To her misfortune, the accumulated snow camouflaged a ditch. That was the last stop of the snowmobile, which got stuck between juvenile trees.
Make went into shock. As anyone would, he tried to mend his hand before the incident drew too much attention, but despite his enormous stature, he quickly realized he was going to need help.
We join your inglorious efforts. For several minutes, we dug huge blocks of snow from the ditch to open an escape path for the motorcycle. All in vain.
Sampo finally appears with some shovels. And a neighbor in his fifties, with Herculean strength, completes the rescue team. While manipulating the steering wheel and accelerating the bike, Make insults himself and curses his lack of judgment.
Sooner than expected, the group frees him from that unusual humiliation for a commemorative photo and for the long overdue fishing trip.
Finally, Hailuoto Island Ice Fishing
Grateful, on the snowmobile also unscathed, the Finn then organizes a back-and-forth that saves us from strenuous hikes with snow up to the knees, to the place where Sampo kept his hammocks.
When we get there, the native installs a rudimentary awning that protects him from the biting wind, digs a round hole, and uncovers one end of the long mesh lying under the ice.
Sampo wears a fishing shirt typical of the island of Hailuoto that ends in gloves of the same shade of beige with the fingers cut off.
Without a trace of fussiness, he puts his hands in the frigid water and begins to pull the net, removing the fish that are entangled in it.
The Alternative Life of Hailuoto Island
Make knows the craft by heart. “For 15 years, I was an engineer at Nokia. Only, in 2012, I got fed up with the endless travels and all the instability.”
The break was such that, even aware of his qualifications and generous salary, he opted to retreat with his Thai wife to the island life of Hailuoto which, like Sampo and Iiris, considered much more genuine and honest than the corporate subjugation prevalent in the largest Finnish cities. Also on the island he found a way of subsistence.
Restaurants in and around Oulu have long paid good money for fresh fish. Make was not for half measures.
He bought 1 km of nets and started selling the hundreds of specimens he collected every morning, as long as the weather allowed.
We start the afternoon tasting the delicacy at a table at Kievari, a cozy inn-restaurant in Hailuoto. During the meal, a couple of neighbors and friends who traveled frequently to Goa appeared. "What's your nickname again?" ask. "Pear?" Oh yes, I remember. That's him. They still use it a lot! We're going back there in April.”
A Frigid Journey through the Winter of Hailuoto Island
After lunch, Sampo and Make return to their duties. Iiris takes us to Marjaniemi, a peninsula-dock of the island which, despite the frigid and inhospitable scenery, the hostess assures us is a divine beach in summer.
The sun dips over the horizon. Slightly warms up the shades of the icy dock fishing boats and another stalk of vegetation that withstands the relentless winter.
"These boots are failing me." confess us. “I have to go home and change them. My feet are soaked.”
Along the way, twilight sets in and dyes the sky magenta. We pass by some old wooden mills and, decorated by them, the scenery enchants us to double. We asked the driver to leave us at the side of the road and recover when the shoe problem had been solved.
At that time, still without snowshoes, we resisted a cruel hike with the snow almost to our waist, only to get closer to the structures.
The Welcoming Return to the Rural Home
When Iiris rescues us from the edge, we're on our toes. The return home and the relaxed interaction in the compartmented corral where she, Sampo and daughter Elli raise pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and other unusual species, comes as a reward and makes us lose two ferries back.
The couple also invites us to the comfort of their home and toasts us with invigorating cups of tea. It's late and we get tired but we talk about the island and its eco-tourism projects to the limit.
Iiris reclaims the last energy and takes us to the next boat and to Oulu. Take advantage of the trip to share other adventures in the couple's life in Hailuoto.
His disinhibition seems to us to be much more Latin than Nordic. It sounds, however, with the calm and leisurely rhythm with which Finns learn to speak and hypnotizes us.
“You know that when I met Sampo, I was always worried about inbreeding here on the island. As you might guess, these roads and ferries did not exist before. Isolated on the island of Hailuoto, it was always inevitable that, in one way or another, everything was more or less in the family.
We got involved quickly but the last thing I wanted was to have kids with problems. Until he told me his mother was from the mainland. That's all I needed to hear. Now we have the life we want.
With all the bills and monthly fees accumulating, of course it's not easy but at least we fight in our own way and, despite living with a certain distance, we really enjoy showing the island to visitors.”
Iiris drives the car aboard the ferry. The vessel sets sail for the bleak immensity of the Gulf of Bothnia. Three last hours and this new convert to the island of Hailuoto will once again be safe from the excessive lights of Oulu and the social hardships of cynical and competitive Finland.