Stuart Forster bog walks through Lahemaa National Park
The ground underfoot is proving surprisingly springy. I thought bog walking would leave me a muddy mess but isn’t the case as I follow Triin, my group’s guide, between the crystal-clear pools of Viru Bog in Estonia’s Lahemaa National Park.
Located just over 40 miles from Tallinn, the bog is surrounded by dense forest and Triin tells me it’s a popular weekend destination for walkers and cyclists. Today is a sunny Tuesday, though, and we’ve not seen anybody else on the marked trails, which are pleasantly shaded by pine, spruce and silver birch.
Lahemaa became the first national park in the Soviet Union back in 1971, and while now-independent Estonia is home to around 500 lynx, 150-200 wolves and up to 700 brown bears, only a handful of them still live in this forest.
“Every weekend I’m in the forest and I’ve never seen anything but poop from the bears,” says Elin, from Tallinn, smiling and reassuring those members of our mainly British group whose faces dropped at the idea of a close encounter with potentially dangerous wildlife.
I’d anticipated today being a physical challenge but that isn’t the case. For much of the way we’ve followed a wheelchair accessible wooden boardwalk, which runs for over two miles and leads to a ramped, timber-built tower, providing views over the surrounding countryside.
During the two world wars and into the Soviet era, people — including members of the Forest Brothers resistance movement — would hide on the bog’s islands. Triin explains how locals could quickly pick safe channels through the wetland, losing their armed pursuers.
We’ve pulled on specialist bog-walking footwear, resembling red plastic snowshoes. Triin tells me to stay on the brownish moss, unaware that I’m a touch colour blind. “The bog rosemary has horizontal roots and is safe to walk on. It feels like a pillow,” she says.
Standing by the edge of one of the pools I can see right to the bottom, over 8ft down. The sky reflects deep blue in the water, which has an acidic pH level of between three and five. Triin scoops up a handful of moss and squeezes water from it. “The sphagnum was used on wounds in World War Two because it has little bacteria,” she explains. Locals also applied it in their babies’ nappies and to insulate housing.
“The peat grows at a rate of one millimetre every year,” explains Triin, gesturing to the dark earth. “It’s six metres deep, so we know this bog is 6,000 years old.”
A great crested grebe lands a few metres from us but Triin is doubled over the moss, searching for something. “Look,” she exclaims with a broad smile, “cranberries. The bears, when they wake up after hibernation, they come to the bog and pick cranberries. Then their stomach works properly.” Luckily for us, the animals aren’t feeling peckish today.