Hanging bogs and spruce forests
When visitors take a breather while ascending the day trail towards the summit of the Riisitunturi Fell and look back, they immediately realise that, above all, Posio’s Riisitunturi is a scenic national park. In the east, they can see the wide, open Lake Yli-Kitka and beyond it, the blueish slopes of Kuusamo’s Ruka Fell. The Riisitunturi area is located at the highest elevation in the watershed between the Bay of Bothnia and the White Sea. The nearly treeless summits of the twin top formed by Riisitunturi and Pikku Riisitunturi are the highest of several peaks that rise over 400 meters above the sea level.
Regardless of its breath-taking views, the Riisitunturi National Park was established in order to preserve the area’s bogs. In general, bogs are formed in natural depressions where water gathers, providing a growth platform to peat moss, thus enabling the emergence of a bog. However, the abundant precipitation and thin soil of the Riisitunturi area enable bog vegetation to grow even on steep slopes. The fell’s western slopes are covered by Finland’s most impressive hanging bogs which are also some of the world’s steepest bogs. The eastern slopes are largely covered by several kilometres long bogs whose waters form numerous brooks that flow calmly towards Lake Kitkajärvi. Ikkunalampi Pond, which is located between the two peaks of the Riisitunturi fell at the highest edge of a long and narrow hanging bog, is an exceptional phenomenon – an infinite pool created by nature. Eyes rest when looking over the pond’s eastern edge as it seems like the open, blue pond blends into the sky.
In Riisitunturi, the shades and colours of the landscape vary depending on the season and the time of day. In August, the landscape is painted by mats of reddish-lilac heather and deep green walls of spruce forests. In winter nights, the setting sun colours the scenery with shades of gold, green and pink. The light blue tint lingers on the sky until the light slowly fades, and colours grow darker. Then, in the night, the northern lights appear in the northern dark blue sky.
Bears and three-toed woodpeckers thrive in the taiga forest
Since the dawn of history, the Riisitunturi area has remained a wilderness which was first traversed by the forest Sámi and later by ancient Finns. Ancient people lived in harmony with nature and only took what they needed. Therefore, the area has remained in an exceptionally natural state up to the modern times. As the modern way of life started to threaten the area’s natural heritage, the Riisitunturi National Park was established to preserve the largest wilderness of the Koillismaa region.
The natural inhabitants of the northern taiga forest, such as bears and lynxes, have close to a hundred square kilometres of space to roam without running into people. These predators generally avoid people, but luckily not all of the area’s wild animals are as shy. Siberian jays (Perisoreus infaustus) – which were referred to as soul birds in Sámi and Finnish mythologies – are very curious about people. Visitors are often greeted by the birds’ whistles that vaguely resemble a cat’s meows. If you’re lucky, you may see a pair of colourful, intrepid pine grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator) or three-toed woodpeckers (Picoides tridactylus) that barely mind the occasional passer-by while jumping up and down spruce trunks, pecking the bark to find food. The golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) can be more easily heard than seen as the wind carries its melancholic song over the open fell forest. Rustic bunting (Schoeniclus rusticus) and little bunting (Schoeniclus pusillus) are some of the shiest dwellers of the taiga forest, and they hide their nests on the sides of pine bogs or in thick spruce mires. The occasional hiker, too, may think they are hidden by the forest until they notice the guardian of the great wilderness, the all-seeing northern raven (Corvus corax) soaring high above them. The raven’s caw carries all over the forest, reporting the human presence.
The millennia-old forest and the humid climate have made the Riisitunturi area a northern paradise for both small and large animals. Generations of trees have grown and fallen, turned temporarily into growth platforms for mosses and lichens, fungi and insects until finally decomposing into nutrients following the circle of life.
Hawk owls and spruce trees laden with crown snow at Riisitunturi
Crown snow accumulated on trees is a phenomenon characteristic to the elevated fell area. The snow load is formed as the Atlantic humid low pressure meets the high fells of the Maanselkä watershed in the winter. At the latest, the crown snow starts to develop in October. After the autumn’s first cold spells, each and every tree needle, sprig and moss sprout are covered by the thinnest of rimes. Over the course of winter, new snow gathers on tree crowns layer by layer as a result of snow fall and condensation of freezing humidity. The spruce forests of this area are filled by thin, candle-like Siberian spruces (Picea abies subsp. Obovata) whose branches do not spread as wide as those of the European spruce (Picea abies subsp. Abies) so that the tree can carry the snow load each winter.
Closer to the spring, the spruces bend under the snow loads that may weigh up to thousands of kilograms, filling the scenery with imaginative shapes. In March, the south wind grows stronger, predicting the coming of spring. Every once in a while, loud thumps can be heard on the fell. Trees start to drop their snow loads and straighten up their trunks to welcome the warmth of the spring.
The most colourful plant during autumn
The scenery of Riisitunturi is characterised by the most impressive views of the southern fell nature. Alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), trailing azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens), alpine clubmoss (Diphasiastrum alpinum) and three-leaved rush (Juncus trifidus) thrive in the heather-laden forests of the highest tops.
Noticing these small, ground-level fell shrubs requires accurate perception and close observation as the natural treasures hide from the strong winds and harsh weather conditions. The pot-like, pale flowers of the alpine bearberry blossom among previous year’s withered leaves early in the spring when more sheltered areas are still covered by snow. The shrub’s leaves and berries change colour over the course of the growing season. In the summer, the greenish, raw berries are hidden by the bright green leaves, but as the berries ripen, they turn red and finally black, becoming clearly visible. In the autumn, it is impossible to miss the alpine bearberry as its leaves blaze in a fiery red colour among the ground vegetation.
Trailing azalea is a low-growing sprig that can be most easily spotted when it blossoms. Its small, pink flowers have thick and waxy petals. Trailing azalea’s thick leaves retain their green colour over the winter under the cover of the snow layer.
Prescribed fires enrich nature
Riisitunturi is one of the large national fire continuum sites where forest is burned at regular intervals to simulate natural forest fires. Forest fires started by lightning strikes have been a natural part of the northern coniferous forest zone for thousands of years. Nowadays, forest fires are prevented so effectively that taiga forest’s species that depend on fires have become endangered and so has the young deciduous forest stage that develops after the fires.
Each forest fire and simulative restoration burning are different and have unique ecological impacts. In places, the fire remains a light surface fire that spreads through the forest as narrow strips that only burn the moss and shrub layers and damage but a small portion of the trees. Sometimes spruces burst into flames and the fire spreads from tree to tree as a crown fire. Only the oldest pines that have a very thick bark can survive such fires in which the blazing heat turns into a raging sea of flames. In old natural forests, it is often possible to see age-old burned tree stumps, and on pine trunks, there may be fire wounds and charring that can date back up to hundreds of years.
In order to grow, dozens of forest species require the nutrients of burned wood or the fungi thriving on it. In addition, there are dozens of other species that benefit of forest fires. Insects that can perceive forest fires with their infrared sense or delicate sense of smell from a distance of dozens or even hundreds of kilometres are among the most common species that benefit from forest fires. The charcoal-coloured beetles black fire beetle (Melanophila acuminata), false darkling beetle (Phryganophilus ruficollis) and darkling beetle (Upis ceramboides) as well as the flat bug Aradus laeviusculus start to nest on charred tree trunks when the forest still smoulders.
The forests burned in a controlled manner in the Riisitunturi area could also burn naturally. Most of the area’s woodland is humid, spruce-dominated forest that has not been touched by fire in a long time and would burn naturally only seldom, or perhaps never. Restoration burning is systematic maintenance of the natural biodiversity. It increases the number of tree species in a forest as well as contributes to the forest’s tree structure. When the forest burns, the species that require burned wood are provided with wood that has charred to various degrees as well as wood at different stages of the decomposing process.
The history of Riisitunturi
One of the Kuusamo region’s two historical Sámi communities, the Kitka Siida, was located near to the northern shore of Lake Yli-Kitka, 10 km from the border of the modern-day national park. The people who lived centuries ago left only a few marks in the landscape. The forest Sámi were semi nomadic people whose subsistence was mostly based on hunting, fishing and gathering. The quartz quarry on the western slope of Fell Nuolivaara and the deer hunting pits in the narrow neck of land between Liittolampi Ponds are some of the only visible remnants left by the Sámis. Deer was hunted by driving the prey to a narrow stretch of land where the animals would fall to camouflaged holes dug into the ground.
Settlers of the peasant class started to inhabit the Riisitunturi region in the late 17th century. As the peasants bred cattle, they led a less mobile lifestyle than the Sámi people. However, hunting, fishing and foraging still played a significant role in their lives. Despite their more stationary lifestyle, the peasants moved around in the area and its meadows, setting traps and fishing in the lakes. Cattle breeding was largely based on the use of natural meadows and, to a small degree, on the slash and burn technique. The mires and brook beds of the Riisitunturi area were used for extensive meadow agriculture long into the 20th century. The most distinctive remnants of this period are the restored barns in the Riisisuo Mire and certain place names. In general, all that remains of barns, haystacks and meadow lean-tos are old timbers, roof coverings made of birch bark as well as cut-off tree branches on which farmers hung their backpacks made of birch bark.
The cultural change was fast. Deer had been hunted in the area for centuries, and as a consequence, the local deer populations had thinned. As the peasant settlers arrived, more and more people fished in the same lakes. By the end of the 18th century, the forest Sámi had either moved beyond the modern-day Russian border or blended with the settlers.
Riisitunturi: origin of the name
Many theories have been presented on the etymology of the name Riisitunturi. In old maps, the name was written Riistunturi which has been associated with Sámi words referring to crown snow, twigs or hay. Thus, the name of the Riisisuo Mire would refer to fen meadow agriculture. On the other hand, a later interpretation has it that the name would refer to clubmosses that thrive in the area. In folk medicine, clubmoss spores were used for the treatment of rickets whose Finnish name, riisitauti, resembles the place name.