The hike across the Island of Örö was organised by the Finnish Society for Blind Children, who kindly invited us, Theodorians, to take part. Participants from Latvia in the hike were visually impaired Andris Ošāns with his dog Feja and Natalja and Ivans Muravjovs with their dog Latti. They accompanied by their friends Zaiga, Juha and Ligita.

We departed from Riga in the late afternoon and stayed overnight in Tallinn. From there, we took the early morning ferry to Helsinki, before embarking on a cross-country drive lasting several hours to the south-west of Finland, where our final destination was the island of Örö otherwise known as Fort Örö.

The island of Örö has a very interesting history. It is quite small, spanning just 10 km at most from one end to the other, but extremely picturesque, with occasional impenetrable thickets, rocky pastures, paths overgrown with moss, and a wild coastline. In 1910, Russia began to build a fortress here, which was part of Peter the Great’s fortification line, comprised of Fort Örö, Russarö, Utö and Saaremaa. The objective of the exercise was to defend the Gulf of Finland, and thus Saint Petersburg, from attacks by the German fleet. A paved road wends its way across the whole isle, which was built by Mongolian prisoners of war. The work to build the road was backbreaking; food was meager and many of the prisoners died. Our guide informed us that the corpses of these unfortunate road builders could be found all around us. This island was closed to the public until 2014. In January 2015, it was given National Park status and opened to tourists in June last year.

The island has a number of walking trails, ranging from 6-13 km in length, which wend their way along the coastline, across the inner part of the island, forest, and open spaces, which in turn are adjoined by various military fortifications, artillery pieces and tanks.

We reached the island on a small ferry. Once on shore, we were greeted by some quadricycles, which transported our bags to the hotel, while we reached our accommodation on foot. The former barracks have been rebuilt as a modern hotel and restaurant, where we settled into comfortable double rooms, before setting off for a short walk around the island accompanied by a guide. The following day, having planned to negotiate one of the hiking routes, we put on our comfortable footwear, while listening carefully to warnings about snakes and ticks; and with good reason, for I spotted a couple of snakes, and was left wondering, how of many of them had spotted us? We decided to set off on a 5.4 km hike on which we, Latvians, stuck together, helping one another. Our destination was the northernmost tip of the island. At first, we made our way along a paved road, but then our path took us into the forest, which was not the easiest terrain. From time to time, we had to overcome various difficult obstacles including fallen trees and boulders, before taking a breather on the seashore. After taking some refreshment, we continued on our way. Everyone agreed that it was an exhilarating, but difficult experience, which forced us to be careful, because the rocks near the sea were slippery. We proceeded with care, explaining the challenges of the terrain to one another and allowing our companions to feel and sense them. We returned only for lunch. In the evening, Juha and Elvi treated everyone to the Finnish pancakes cooked over a campfire. Natalja played the guitar and sang songs, Riitta Lahtinen showed everyone how visually impaired people can come to terms with their surroundings by drawing the layout of a space or surrounding object on a sight-impaired person’s back, thus indicating movement and direction. Inspired by her example, we did the same, showing how one can indicate various levels on which to guide a sight-impaired person with one’s hands, making this a most valuable experience. Afterwards, Päivi Helminen, a visually impaired member of our group, shared her experience of living an active life and travelling a great deal with her husband, despite losing her sight a few years ago. She has learned to trust her dog 100%, and now finds it much easier to understand the nature of various obstacles with the help of her dog, instead of by holding her husband’s hand. Päivi is proud of her dog, which is her eyes.

On the final morning on the isle, we took a joint hike to the seashore, where we split up. Some of us went back, while other continued on a long and interesting route to the southernmost tip of the island. Finland’s nature and people are surprising in extent of their beauty and kindness. After walking for a few hours, we returned in time to wash up and sit down for a joint lunch, before heading to the wharf to embark on the long journey home. We enjoyed a fantastic holiday, thanks to some wonderful Finnish hospitality, and got some valuable experience in organizing hikes.

Ligita Damberga, September 2016.




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