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How mindful cloudberry picking turned Finnish Lapland into a wellness destination

Finns savour the ceaseless, golden light of midsummer with a biological urgency. Now, after a long winter, the never-ending space and solace of Lapland’s forests beckon. Here, you can walk, meditate and collect juicy Arctic berries born from winter snows.

Born of snow and native to the Arctic, the cloudberry is a rare and precious thing. When its amber hue lights up the swamps for a few brief weeks in July, it signals the height of summer, stirring the hunter-gatherer instinct in Finns.

Photograph by Kerry Walker
Published 7 Aug 2021, 06:00 BST, Updated 13 Sept 2021, 10:27 BST

Forest, all is forest. Stretching away from the road, vast swathes of woodland knit together the whole landscape without dropping a stitch.

The journey is long to reach the modest settlement of Ranua in Finnish Lapland; the scenery monotonously beautiful. For hours, we drive on ruler-straight tarmac arteries, empty but for the odd timber lorry and solitary reindeer. If you were to cut deep into the body of Finland, I believe it would bleed green and blue: these are the country’s defining colours. Around 70% of Finland is forest — pine, fir and beech, mostly — and with some 188,000 lakes, you can barely touch a map without dipping a finger into piercing aquamarine water, the kind only found under northern skies.

Forests are in Finland’s DNA. Long before ‘forest bathing’ became a trend and social distancing a necessity, Finns were seeking out the space and mind-clearing solitude that only the forest could afford. As deep, quiet and introspective as the woods that surround them, most of the Finns I know can’t abide idle chitchat. This is a nation, too, that still worships at the altar of the green gods. Metsä kuuntelee silloin kun kukaan muu ei is a Finnish idiom meaning ‘the forest listens when no one else does’. And to listen, as Finns well know, you need to be silent.

Silence comes easily to a country that, geographically, enjoys extreme apartness and prizes sisu, the hard-to-translate national characteristic soldering together ideals of hardiness, courage, freedom and emotional resilience. Sisu is reflected in ice bathing and fiercely hot saunas, birch-branch whippings and walking for miles to forage for berries that grow in mosquito-infested swamps when you could just put your feet up in the garden.

While the cloudberry grows elsewhere in Scandinavia, Russia and Canada, no country reveres them like Finland. During cloudberry season, Ranua gets swept up in 'cloudberry fever', which climaxes at the cloudberry festival in August.

Photograph by Kerry Walker

The latter is the reason I’ve made the pilgrimage to Ranua, a small town just south of the Arctic Circle and Finland’s self-proclaimed ‘cloudberry capital’. Born of snow and native to the Arctic, the cloudberry is a rare and precious thing. When its amber hue lights up the swamps for a few brief weeks in July, it signals the height of summer, stirring the hunter-gatherer instinct in Finns, some of whom drive hundreds of miles just to pick a few punnets of the berries that are called hilla in Ranua and lakka elsewhere.

After checking into a log cabin in Ranau, I step out into the never-dying light of the Finnish midsummer’s evening. The old-growth boreal forest soars above me like a great buttressed cathedral. Golden light streams through the canopy, and pine, larch and birch trees lift their beams to a vaulted sky of pink-filigreed clouds, forcing me to look up with the wide-eyed wonder of a new believer. It’s silent here — so silent, in fact, that I’m aware of my own heartbeat, every rustle in the ferny undergrowth.

The next morning, I meet Riikka Tuomivaara, my local guide, who lives and breathes cloudberries, knows the terrain like the back of her hand and is eager to show me the foraging ropes. We drive a few miles to a middle-of-nowhere swamp on the outskirts of town. My GPS draws a blank.

“When Finns pick cloudberries, they usually go alone,” confides Riikka, as we pull on rubber boots and mosquito-net hats and grab optimistically large buckets, peering out across the expansive swamp, beaded with cottongrass like pearls on a bride’s train. “We like the fresh air. The time to think. The loneliness. We walk for hours to pick berries, sometimes days, camping in the wild and connecting with nature. This is Finnish happiness.”

Ranua in Finnish Lapland offers the best cloudberry swamps in the country, but finding the right spot takes practice. Local guide Kristiina Lehtonen lives and breathes cloudberries, and is eager to show travellers the foraging ropes.

Photograph by Kerry Walker

Sparsely populated southern Lapland is 60% swamp. There are räme (pine bogs), korpi (dry swamps with trees) and avosuot (treeless bogs) — but they’re all just one big bog to an untrained eye like mine. As I plod on, the swamp threatens to suck me down, and I watch in awe as Riikka leaps from tussock to tussock with the unfaltering grace of a ballerina.

She stoops to pick a cloudberry the colour of the setting sun. “The paler the cloudberry, the riper it is,” she whispers, shaking her head and smiling kindly as I wrongly pluck a crimson-coloured one. “These are the best cloudberry swamps in Finland, but finding the right spot takes practice, so there are cloudberry maps and apps. And most locals are happy to divulge their favourite spots.”

Most — but not all. Despite the grand scale of the landscape, some Finns remain fiercely protective of their secret patches. “I’ve walked many miles along a fence only to find the very best cloudberries hidden behind it,” laughs Riikka. Some locals try to scare off would-be pickers with bear tales. Cloudberry bears, we call them.”

I bite into my first cloudberry. It’s the size of a raspberry but less sweet and has all the thick, syrupy lushness of a peach. Riikka is well versed in this super-food berry’s health benefits. “A single cloudberry has more vitamin C than an orange and is packed with antioxidants,” she enthuses as she assembles a campfire to boil cloudberry-leaf tea. “They’re rich in vitamins A, E and K, trace minerals and folate. When we’re tired or unwell, we eat the berries and drink cloudberry tea to restore our energy and focus. We’ve been doing it for generations. It’s nature’s best medicine.”

While the cloudberry grows elsewhere in Scandinavia, Russia and Canada, no country reveres them like Finland. During cloudberry season, Ranua gets swept up in what Riikka describes as “cloudberry fever”, which climaxes at the cloudberry festival in August. Cloudberries are whipped into cakes and pizza toppings at local cafes and restaurants, their jam is served with leipäjuusto, Finland’s squeaky ‘bread’ cheese, and summer is toasted with cloudberry wine. No part of the berry is wasted: the leaves and seeds are used to make bread, tea and even cosmetics, which are used in spa treatments at Ranua’s one-of-a-kind Hillasauna.  

A cloudberry is the size of a raspberry but less sweet and has all the thick, syrupy lushness of a peach.

Photograph by Kerry Walker

A giant cloudberry hovers at the entrance to the Hillatori, Ranua’s cloudberry market, where I meet Taisto Illikainen, who locals know better as the ‘cloudberry professor’. In the business for 50 years, Taisto has a vigour and cheeky glint in his eye that belie his 76 years. This, he confirms proudly with a hearty tap on his chest, is because cloudberries keep him young and fit. Taisto announces the official start of cloudberry season, records how many kilos are picked and determines the market price. One kilo in 2020 cost between €14 and €21 (£12 and £18).

“Cloudberries are our food, culture and work,” says Taisto, as he busies himself weighing berries and filling them into containers. “But it’s not only locals who are involved: pickers come from Estonia, Russia, Sweden, Poland, even Thailand. It can be a profitable working holiday if you’re fast. One man picked almost 100 kilos in a day! And some pick through the night. The people who buy them are just as crazy. I have known Finns drive all the way from Helsinki, 500 miles away, to buy a few boxes of cloudberries, then drive straight back.”

The next day, we return to the swamps to pick cloudberries on the shore of a lake, as still and blue as stained glass. It’s a treasure hunt and a labour of love, with each stalk yielding just one valuable berry, but slowly my bucket fills. “Take care not to tread on the wild bees,” says Riikka, as I dodge a swarm. “We say that if you step on one, you lose 10 kilos of berries.” 

In Lapland’s long, dark, snowbound winters, when the sun never properly rises, cloudberry jams and liqueurs are cracked open, and frozen berries are defrosted to bake cakes that taste intensely of summer. But for now, midsummer blazes on and there’s much picking to be done. We wade through the swamp, lost in our own thoughts. There’s silence between us but, this being Finland, it’s by no means awkward.

Taisto Illikainen is known locally as the cloudberry ‘cloudberry professor’ and can be sought out at Ranua’s cloudberry market. Taisto announces the official start of cloudberry season, records how many kilos are picked and determines the market price.

Photograph by Kerry Walker

How to do it
 

Getting there & around
Finnair operate direct flights from Heathrow to Helsinki; departures are daily in summer. Norwegian is another alternative, departing instead from Gatwick.
Average flight time: 2h50m.
In Helsinki, connect with domestic flights to Rovaniemi (1h45m), the nearest airport to Ranua. Ranua is an hour’s drive south of Rovaniemi. Car hire with Europcar is available at the airport.

When to go
The short cloudberry season runs roughly from late July to mid-August. Visit Ranua has links to useful cloudberry foraging maps and apps and can help arrange guides.

Where to stay
Holiday Village Gulo Gulo, Ranua. Apartments from £128, B&B.
Arctic Fox Igloos, Ranua. Igloos from £132.

More info
visitfinland.com

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