The Weekend Woodsman in Estonia – Part 1

I contemplated calling this post “Of Moose and Men”, but ultimately decided on a more conventional title. You’ll find out why later on and in Part 2. πŸ™‚

This year’s longer-than-a-weekend trip was quite different from last year’s trip to Lapland in a lot of ways. Not only did I head in the complete opposite direction geographically, but the type of outing differed as well. Rather than an on-the-move backpacking trip covering lots of ground, this year’s trip involved more foraging, bushcrafting and hiking around a base camp. The base camp in question was located on a 7-hectare/17-acre piece of private land (which I am fortunate enough to be able to use) on the largest island of Estonia, called Saaremaa. This island is 2,670 kmΒ²/1,030 mΒ² in size, has about 40,000 inhabitants and lies in the Baltic Sea. It is located in the transition zone from broadleaf to boreal forest, so elements of both are present.

After a ferry ride from Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia, I flew on a small 12- or 15-seat propeller plane to the little airport near Kuressaare, the capital of Saaremaa.

Leaving mainland Estonia:

By the time I had landed it was getting on in the evening, and I knew I had to get to the forest quickly or I’d run out of daylight! Somehow, I managed to explain to an elderly cab driver where I wanted to go using my bad Finnish and even worse Estonian language skills. After about a 15-minute ride, he dropped me off on a muddy back road, probably wondering If I knew what the heck I was doing!

I speedily changed into my “bush clothes”, hiked part way into the property and set up a tarp between four trees. It was just in time, too, because shortly afterward it got a bit too dark to see and started raining as well. I laid out my bedroll to sit on and got the rest of my gear situated under the tarp while listening to the nearby cricket chirps, raindrop spatters and moose calls. I was surprised at how close the moose were and that they didn’t move on after hearing my fumbling around and probably smelling me. This made me wonder if I’d be having any run-ins with bull moose during my trip, as they can be moody and aggressive during mating season (which I think it was), but I was too tired to care and passed out like a drunken frat boy (it turned out that the moose calls would echo through the forest for lot of my time here, but I never caught a glimpse of any). The thunder and lighting storms that rolled in during the night woke me up a few times, but I stayed warm and dry in my little shelter setup.

The next morning, I woke up to this view of the birch forest:

And this:

These are blackberries (rubus fruticosus), but I didn’t know it at the time (I had never come across them before). I collected the ones you see here from a sitting position under my tarp, and there were plenty more within reach. Since I was unfamiliar with these berries I didn’t eat any yet.

I really wanted to find out if they were edible, because after I got up and stumbled around for a little while I realized that I was surrounded by acres and acres of them. A quick text messaging session with my friend Ilkka Seikku helped me to identify the berries as blackberries. After assuring me that they are tasty and nutritious and that there aren’t any poisonous lookalikes, I decided they probably were blackberries. The fact that they were “probably blackberries” is, however, not sufficient for me to start eating to my heart’s content. As much as I respect Ilkka’s knowledge, skills and experience (greatly), he was not there with me in person and could not see what I was looking at. Not wanting to take a chance with my health or life, I decided to do the edibility test to make sure I wouldn’t be eating something poisonous. I started by crushing a berry on a more sensitive area of skin.

I left it there for about 20 minutes. There was no burning, itching or other reactions, so I put some berry juice on my bottom lip (not in my mouth). Again, after a while there was no reaction, so I chewed one berry in my mouth and held it there for several minutes. Once again, no reaction, so I swallowed it. About an hour later, I felt fine, so I decided it was OK to eat some more. Turns out they were, in fact, blackberries. πŸ™‚ Note: If I had been dealing with something that I was completely unfamiliar with and had not gotten Ilkka’s advice beforehand, I would have waited much longer during each of the tests before deciding they were safe to eat.

It was time to check out the property, so I put on my rubber boots and gaiters and pulled the gaiters much higher than they normally go so that they were well above my knees. This effectively kept my pants from getting wet as I continually brushed against wet undergrowth in the forest while hiking.

I headed back to the “road” alongside the property to see what I could find and to start out on a perimeter walk of the land. I found dandelion greens:

Plantains:

And this…a wild “deadible”?

I believe this is harebell:

Alder:

Oaks:

Stone bramble:

Sphagnum moss:

Moose dumplings:

Rowan, a.k.a. European mountain ash:

Pine forest:

A mighty aspen:

Birch polypore:

Fern:

The point where the pine forest meets the birch forest:

Unripe blackberries:

Blackberry blossom:

The drainage channels surrounding parts of the property are where I got most of my water from, which I strained and boiled before drinking:

Jumping ahead for a second, I had an annoying headache for a while in the afternoon after my hike, so I went back to a willow like this, which I found while hiking, and chewed on some of the leaves (they contain a natural pain killer). My headache went away after a little while, but I’m not sure if it was because of the willow or not.

The sun came out and changed the look of the place pretty dramatically:

Mugwort:

The biggest maple I could find was just a sapling:

There is a lake behind the far end of the property, but there’s a large area of reedy wetland between the lake and the forest, so I didn’t go all the way to the lake.

Check out the size of this horse’s hoof fungus!

Sphagnum moss growing on a long-dead birch:

A long-lost Saami village?! Nope, somebody collected, bound and put up reeds to dry. Traditionally, house roofs on this island were thatched, and there are still people who thatch roofs there today.

I also found their binding device:

Clover:

After my 3-hour hike and photography session, I ended up back at the road alongside the property near my camp. The day’s breakfast was eaten while on the move and had consisted of blackberries, dandelion greens, plantain leaves and clovers.

My tarp blends in to the forest pretty well, doesn’t it?

After returning to camp, it started raining, so I chilled for a while and rested up. I was in need of water at this point, so I let rain collect on my tarp, dumped it into my pot and strained it through a bandana into my kettle.

After a while, I started to get hungry and wanted to make lunch using my hobo stove, so I found the closest dead standing wood which looked like it might be dry (turned out it wasn’t). I felled this dead birch tree with my axe and sectioned it with the saw.

As I said, it turned out to be wet inside (though the part I happened to test before felling it was dry, go figure). It was still solid, so all it needed was to be heated and dried out next to a fire and then it would work fine.

To get the hobo stove fire started, though, I had to look elsewhere for dry wood. I found some along the road and split it up (two piles on the right).

I mowed down the plants in an area under and around my tarp and then cleared down to the soil in one spot so as to avoid setting an unintended forest fire. Then I processed wood for cooking in my hobo stove/tin-can stove.

I gathered some very thin birch bark from a tree nearby, stuffed it in the can and lit it with my ferro rod/firesteel.

I added the dry wood shavings I had made, as well as some split wood for fuel. In no time, I was ready to cook.

Lunch/dinner for the day would be a hearty soup, woodsman style. The ingredients:

I cut up half the package of bacon I brought with me and put it into the pot of boiling water.

Then I cut up three smallish potatoes, two small onions and two carrots, using my frying pan to hold them temporarily.

These veggies were added to the pot after the bacon had boiled for a while, and once they were cooked through I added some salt and pepper and took the soup off the heat to cool.

While my meal was “on the cool”, I figured it was a good opportunity to make the bread I’d be eating for the next few days, as well as to boil some water for drinking. I rummaged through my food bag and pulled out the bannock mix I had prepared at home. After mixing in some water and a little olive oil and kneading the dough, I heated a little oil in my frying pan and put the dough in.

I dug into the soup, which was fantastic and filling after a very active day in the woods, and when the bread was done I ate some of it as well. A meal fit for a woods-wanderer. πŸ™‚

Night was coming on quickly, and it was time to crawl into my sleeping bag again. Though the moose were back in force all night, the weather was on my side, so there were no storms to contend with. I slept reasonably well and awoke well rested on Saturday morning.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to see some natural crafts, more wild edibles, more bush cooking, a hike to the sea and a 14th-Century castle (didn’t see that one coming, eh?).

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19 comments on “The Weekend Woodsman in Estonia – Part 1

  1. Nice post – your pictures totally capture the wonderment of walking in the woods
    SBW

  2. OZme says:

    OK, that’s it! now I am offended that you did not take me with you there!!!
    Just kidding:)

    Using reeds for roofing is also traditional for Japanese house and it is a excellent material for water proofing and insulation. It also works wonderfully for making camp bedding.

    the red berries before the Sphagnum moss picture looks like “lillukka” (Rubus saxatilis). it is quite nice to eat and has medicinal use as well.

    it seems plenty of wild edibles and varieties of trees and lots of fun time spend.
    Look forward to see the part 2!

    • Thanks for the reed and berry tips. I thought that those red berries were edible, but I didn’t know for sure. I decided to leave them alone this time.

      When your girls are a bit bigger and you can leave home for a longer period of time, you are welcome to join me there! πŸ™‚

  3. Ross Gilmore says:

    Great trip report. I look forward to Part 2.

  4. OutdoorEnvy says:

    Awesome trip! Food looked good too. Looking forward to part 2 πŸ™‚

  5. Ron says:

    Nice one!
    Someday, when I grow up and my oversized sense of responcibility lets me leave home, i’ll do something like that too….. πŸ™‚

    I have had similar experiences with dead, but wet birchwood, too, so I tend to look for pine or spruce first. Dinner look quit good!

    On to part II…

    • Thanks. πŸ™‚ To be honest, it doesn’t feel great to leave my family for 2.5 – 3 days, but our God-daughter and her mother came to visit them while I was gone, and my wife’s Aunt, Uncle and cousins live almost literally around the corner, so I feel better about leaving them “alone” because of this. πŸ™‚

  6. As I looked at your pictures a line came to mind from a song that doesn’t get much radio time in the states anymore, ‘I find you been creepin’ ’round my back stairs’…

    I guess knowing that’s Gordon Lightfoot puts a date stamp on my forehead.

    Your woods look so much like parts of mine, both of our areas are a type of Laurentian mixed forests, where a transition from true boreal to broad-leaf big woods occur, it’s a very special biome that belts it’s way around most of the globe along that same parallel. It appears that only maples and tamaracks are not prominent there where they are here, as we have what I see in your images.

    As if I wasn’t homesick enough, I’m traveling this week, then to see your fantastic images kind of put some spin on that homesickness.

    That has to be the largest horsehoof fungus I have ever seen!

    It’s moose mating season, well ours is winding down but you’re right in the middle of it. Nothing else in the world sounds like a lonely bull moose calling or the crying mewing of a cow. Also happens to be the most dangerous time in our north woods here. I’ve seen bulls charge freight trains during this time of year.

    Awesome outing my friend, can’t wait for part II.

    • Thanks for the comments, AG. πŸ™‚

      Ah, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown”. πŸ™‚ That song was already probably a decade or more old when I heard it as a kid, and it brings back memories of that time when I hear it. πŸ™‚

      I found it interesting that, even though Southern Finland and Estonia are not far apart by any means, the forest I went to on Saaremaa was definitely different. One of the big differences was the soil, which was sandy or peaty on Saaremaa, but which is much thinner and rockier in Finland. Anyway, I did enjoy being in a more mixed forest, which is not as easy to find in Finland.

      The pictures I showed in this post are only from one 17-acre lot. Once I left the property and went elsewhere, which you’ll see in Part 2, I saw a wider variety of trees and plants, including large maples and some tamaracks/larch (though I do believe the tamaracks are Siberian larch and that they are not native) plus a bunch more.

      Believe me, I was aware of the possible danger in the forest (thanks to the “dying moo-cow” moose calls), and at all times kept in mind that there could be a confrontation (I figured staying close to large trees would be my best option). As another safety measure, I wore a blaze orange hat in case there were hunters in the forest. At least I didn’t have to worry about bears. πŸ™‚

  7. Marm :):) says:

    WOW…..truly amazing!!!! You certainly are a natural woodsman!!! Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to read Part 2.

  8. […] In case you missed it, check outΒ Part 1 here. […]

  9. […] Park, Pukala Recreation Area, Hanko, Scandic Woodsman’s property, Florida, New Jersey, Estonia etc.). This phase is winding down now, and most of my upcoming bushcraft, hiking and camping trips […]

  10. This was a wonderful journey through Estonian nature. Thank you for so much information. If you had sms me… I would also have assured you those wild fruits were blackberries (mΓ»res, in French). We have got plenty of them in our forests; I eat them or pick them for delicious jams or marmelades. What a delicious meal you prepared ! You really deserved it πŸ™‚

  11. […] you’ve been following the blog for a while, you might remember my camping trip to Saaremaa, Estonia in September 2012. Last month, I returned to Estonia’s largest island with the family in tow. Unfortunately, I […]

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