Estonia’s largest national park was also the Soviet Union’s first, created by careful lobbying of party apparatchiks favourable to granting protected status to the large coastal area of forests and bays, in 1971.
Boasting glacial erratic boulders, windswept beaches, peat bogs, waterfalls, lakes, ancient pine forests and resident bears, wolves and lynxes, the park feels timeless and mysterious. We enjoyed three days cycling and trekking about its coastline and forest.
Kasmu Bay lies in a stone field that numbers the most erratic boulders in Estonia.
The boulders were brought to the coast from the Gulf of Finland by glaciers during the Ice Age. Groups of boulders cluster along the shore, but also inland where they have been appropriated in gardens, or as village boundary markers.
Formed of a pink granite, they contain silvery streaks of minerals which dazzle in direct sunshine. Although protected, it’s allowed to clamber around and across the boulders, which we duly did.
The sea water around them was warm, as the Baltic continued to reach 26 degrees during the daytime, and this meant a strong smell of algae and seaweed was overpowering in places where the light breeze did not lift it.
Kasmu village was originally a settlement of fishermen but became known as the Captains’ Village from the 1800s, when a school for training sea captains was based there, as well as boat builders.
The bay was a major port for overwintering sailing ships, sometimes as many as 70 vessels sought protection there. Intellectuals, naturalists, writers and painters flocked to its shores in the 1900s and today the many pretty wooden houses are used as holiday or second homes by wealthy Tallinn families.
Altja fishing village is a tiny crop of six wooden houses that were registered as farmsteads in the 17th century.
Unchanged today, the houses cling together at the shoreline from where the fishing boats, owned in partnership by the families, netted catches of herring, sprat, flounder and perch. A trade was established with Finland for wine, honey and cloth in exchange for fish, seal fat and leather.
We pushed the bikes along the sandy coves noting the old Soviet fence posts of barbed wire that prohibited access to the beaches, to all but the military.
The village of Vosu, where we were staying, had a lively pre-war history as a popular holiday and bathing destination, but was shut by the authorities when occupied from 1945 to 1991. We imagined the joy felt by the locals once they were able to tear down the two-meter-high barrier and venture onto the sand and into the sea, once more.
Away from the coast the park is largely pine forests. We cycled to Oandu and trekked around two of its trails, crossing raised wooden boardwalks, climbing up and down steep wooden stairways (made more challenging by carrying our bikes) and spotting the marks of bears, elks and wild boar on the trees.
All three mammals have the same behaviour of scratching into the bark (at varying heights) to mark their territory. In the gashes that they leave, fungi grows and eventually destroys the living tree. We were surprised to see so many marks and so close to the trail, although we didn’t catch a glimpse of any of their makers.
Neither did we see any beavers along the park’s dedicated trail, although we did see evidence of their dams and eager tree-felling activity.
The long heat of the summer had lowered the water in the Altja River, and in case the beavers are nocturnal so were most likely cooling in their sets hidden from view in the banks of mud.
The waters were also low at the Jagala Waterfall where the usually spectacular eight meters high drop, from across a fifty-meter-wide shelf, was largely dry save for a short shallow stretch where people were paddling, looking bemused.
At Hara, we clambered around a former Soviet submarine degaussing base. Neither of us had heard of this before but it means the process of decreasing the magnetic field of an object, in this case the submarines, making them undetectable.
The buildings are demolished but the perimeter seawalls are more or less intact as well as one dock. We chatted to the young girl taking the entry fee about the site’s demise as neither the Estonian government nor local council have wanted anything to do with it.
Now a group of young entrepreneurs has set up a not for profit company and is running a children’s sailing school and fundraising for a small harbour to be built. She said that in the longer term they hoped to offer camping too.
It was another interesting example of how former Soviet military bases are being turned, with imagination, into positive additions for the local community and economy. It was a world away from the Lithuanian museum at Saltojo Karo but there is no reason why it shouldn’t be as successful. We wished her well.