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Dugout canoes in Estonia’s Soomaa National Park


In Karuskose, Viljandi, Estonia a person paddles by means of a flooded meadow in a dugout canoe

Saving the UNESCO-recognised tradition of constructing canoes in Estonia’s Soomaa National Park


Words by , pictures by Mati Kose

Every 12 months, earlier than spring, Soomaa National Park transforms right into a semi-submerged world of drowned meadows and tangled waterways. This is Estonia’s ‘fifth season’, when water from melting snow within the jap uplands rushes down by means of the rivers and floods the low-lying forests, wetlands, roads and yards of the residents who nonetheless dwell right here. 

It’s mentioned that in previous floods, the water degree rose so excessive that villagers may paddle a dugout canoe proper by means of their home windows and into their residing rooms. The pure annual phenomenon has formed the individuals of this area, in addition to the encircling panorama and its wildlife. Everyone has needed to be taught to adapt.  

According to the archaeological proof, the dugout is the earliest type of boat. The oldest of all is called the Pesse canoe. Excavated from a peat lavatory within the Netherlands, it was reduce from a single Scots pine log 10,000 years in the past. Grooves in its hull counsel that it might have been made utilizing flint or antler instruments. Little has modified in both the looks or development of the dugout since. Although they proceed for use in lots of components of the world, in Europe, the tradition of crafting these conventional boats has barely survived the arrival of the twenty first century. Here in Soomaa, nonetheless, the floods have helped to protect the custom.

An aerial view over Raundna river in Soomaa National Park

Aivar Ruukel appears to shrink back from being referred to as a boatmaster, regardless of his in depth information of the craft. He’s solely ever offered two, selecting to construct them as a option to join with the historical past of the realm moderately than for cash. Yet he’s one in every of solely 5 Estonians who nonetheless retain the talent, every having made between ten and 20 Estonian prolonged dugout boats, or haabjas. Last December, the dugout boat tradition of Estonia’s Soomaa area was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage listing. Enthusiasts hope that its inclusion will safeguard the traditional follow and entice the following era of boatmasters to maintain the custom alive. 

There have at all times been boatmasters in Estonia – individuals who relied on boat making, if not as a full-time career, then not less than as a part of their revenue. It’s tough work that requires particular abilities. Today, the 400-square-kilometre nationwide park is dwelling to round 60 everlasting residents, however 100 years in the past, it was ten occasions that quantity. During the Nineteen Twenties and ’30s, dugout boats have been nonetheless the primary mode used to move milk, butter and hay from the farms that dotted the panorama. 

In Kuusekäära, individuals craft a dugout canoe by stretching out a tree trunk with the assistance of heated water from a hearth

Intangible cultural heritage

UNESCO defines ‘intangible cultural heritage’ as being community-based and consultant of that group, its customs and abilities. It’s a concurrently conventional and residing follow. Among the 629 UNESCO-listed traditions are examples of performing arts, craft making and pure practices. Estonia has 5 entries on the listing. The most up-to-date, the constructing and use of dugout canoes within the Soomaa area, joins the smoke sauna custom (the precise bathing customs, but additionally the making and upkeep of picket saunas, bathtub whisks and sauna-smoked meat) and the traditional custom of polyphonic singing among the many Seto group in southeastern Estonia. Known as leelo, it’s carried out by all-female choirs utilizing a way that lets them sing two notes directly. The safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage is taken into account an essential a part of sustainable improvement. Traditional meals gathering, searching and farming practices contribute to meals safety, whereas high quality international well being care could be supplied with assistance from conventional well being practices that use native pure sources. 

Estonia is wealthy in peatlands and a fifth of the nation is roofed in bogs, fens and different wetlands, though many of those landscapes have been degraded and drained throughout the Soviet occupation; peat continues to be extracted – 1.5 million tonnes is exported yearly, with 40 per cent destined for the Dutch flower-growing business. Soomaa National Park is the biggest and best-preserved peat lavatory system in Europe. ‘It’s distinctive for its community of those massive peat bogs and marshlands, that are separated or related, whichever method you have a look at it, by an expansive community of rivers,’ says Mati Kose, a biologist, nature information and photographer. 

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The park sits inside the largest floodplain in northern Europe. When the floods come, the water can attain a depth of 5 metres and span 175 sq. kilometres. It may appear inconceivable that individuals would select to dwell right here, however Kose explains that the floodplains are very fertile because of the sediment dispersed over the fields by the water. ‘It’s like free fertiliser,’ he says. 

The dugout boat tradition of Estonia’s Soomaa area has been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage listing

In anticipation of the floods, households used to tie down their belongings and transfer into the upstairs rooms of their homes. Some farmers even constructed rafts to maintain their cows afloat. ‘It was mentioned that the flood was like some wealthy family coming to go to,’ says Ruukel. ‘There was a necessity to organize and a sure pleasure, however it wasn’t destructive. Nobody left the realm due to the fifth season.’

In the tip, nonetheless, many did depart. In the wake of the Second World War and the advance of know-how and urbanisation, individuals moved away from agriculture. Also on the decline are the old-growth forests with timber large enough to maintain each the canoe-making follow and the nation’s wildlife, such because the IUCN Red Listed capercaillie, elk, lynx, wolves and Europe’s densest inhabitants of brown bears. Dugouts have progressively been changed by plastic or picket plank boats, that are cheaper to provide. Ruukel laments the misplaced abilities, not simply of boat constructing, however of handicrafts extra usually. ‘We’re in a short time dropping the information of tips on how to deal with an axe, even to make firewood,’ he says.

Partly frozen water covers the floodplain round a standard hay barn

Boat constructing

Building a dugout canoe requires an excellent trunk of an aspen (Populus tremula), which grows all through the forests of Estonia. ‘Good’ means large enough and sufficiently old – often with a rely of 80 rings – and straight as a pencil. Trunks have to be wholesome and checked for Phellinus tremulae, a parasitic fungus that causes heartrot, leading to a hole core that makes them unsuitable for constructing however a superb dwelling for the large-eyed Siberian flying squirrel. Once felled, the timber are peeled and formed like a cigar utilizing an axe or a chainsaw. ‘Even my academics used a chainsaw 30 years in the past,’ says Ruukel. ‘I don’t need to copy every thing because it was carried out a whole lot of years in the past. Our boats are nonetheless handmade, we simply use some fashionable instruments.’ From right here, the inside of the boat is carved out to provide it form. Ruukel works with an adze, an historical device like an axe however with a curved chopping blade set at a proper angle to the deal with, whittling the hull down to some centimetres in thickness. An extended log hearth is then constructed alongside the canoe, which is stuffed with a number of bucketfuls of water and left to heat up. After just a few hours, and as soon as the water has evaporated, sticks are wedged into the hull lengthways to open it up. Aspen is a tender wooden and a trunk half a metre throughout could be expanded right into a metre-wide boat. It takes round six hours to unfold the hull with longer sticks, watching out for rising cracks within the wooden and realizing when to cease or threat splitting the hull in two. The boat is then left to chill within the shade and is historically completed the next spring, as soon as the wooden has totally dried, when it’s given its last design and sealed with tar. 

And but, in current a long time, there was a renewed curiosity in constructing dugouts, as mirrored by the UNESCO designation. As a younger man, Ruukel attended workshops led by two grasp boat builders, each of their 70s on the time. He hopes that by the point he’s 70 there will likely be extra younger individuals doing the identical. ‘Maybe in the future it’s going to turn out to be one thing {that a} man feels he should accomplish in his lifetime,’ he says, ‘to construct a standard native Estonian previous boat.


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Bryony Cottam
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