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Up and down the fjelds

Virve Pohjanpalo

 

The research station on Värriötunturi fjeld in Lapland collects information – and marten poop – for ecologists, pollution statistics, meteorologists and many others. The place is a paradise for anyone who delights in natural beauty and peace and quiet.

Did you know that bear cubs are born in January, hairless and weighing only a couple of hundred grams? That reindeer fur insulates well because it is hollow? Can you estimate – by raising your nose – the direction and force of the wind so that you can submit your observations for weather statistics? Do you know how many times a hare stops along its daily route to eat juniper twigs and how much droppings the food results in?

The people at University of Helsinki’s northern research station at Värriötunturi fjeld (arctic treeless mountain) can answer all these questions. The work of the staff consists of roaming the nature reserves in the region and reporting their observations to those needing the data: scientists and institutes. The base in Värriötunturi is a group of houses built of silvery grey barkless pine a couple of kilometres from the Russian border, two or three hours by reindeer from the home of Father Christmas, far from the maddening crowds.

Willow grouse does not like it indoors

As Finns have followed the news reports of wolf poaching, so deplored by environmentalists, they have learned that scientists observe animal movements with radio transmitter collars. On the clear but mild days of mid-February, the Värriötunturi staff have a collared marten called Sulo under their special observation. Sulo’s two mates move a little farther afield and their activities are not observed as closely at the moment. “The transmitter attached to the collar is selected on the basis of the signal frequency, so that the signal tone of a new animal differs as much as possible from those of the other animals currently under observation. And we usually name the martens after the calendar name-day for the day they are given the collar,” smiles Tapani Tuohimaa, who has worked in Värriötunturi for ten years.

However, there are more willow grouse under observation than martens. “This winter, the first bird was caught on January 5th. It was the 253rd willow grouse to be collared. Soon we will be weighing willow grouse number 271, so in a little over two months about twenty birds have been trapped and tagged.”

Today’s willow grouse, which I hold in my hands, does not seem to like the warm room. It was brought indoors from a net trap in a sack. After its collar has been welded together, and as an identification ring is being attached to its leg, the bird’s struggling dies down and the heartbeat becomes slower, the white head droops. I loosen my grip, afraid of squeezing too hard, and wonder out loud whether the bird is all right. “It soon will be,” Tuohimaa nods and to make his point flicks the bird’s feathered, clawed snowshoe feet. Frantic fluttering ensues. The rest of the drowsiness is soon gone, when, a few minutes later, I release the bird from my hands in the research station’s front yard. The bird quickly takes wing with energy. “It was a young female,” Tuohimaa explains. Determining the age and sex was facilitated by a patch of brown colour found among the feathers as the wing was stretched, and the low weight, 498 grams, of the bird.

When this or other willow grouse are later met up with, it is recorded what the flock is like and what each bird is doing. Willow grouse can be monitored and sought within a radius of approximately 10 kilometres, the signal travelling no farther than that.

Skiing in animal tracks

Observation of the capercaillie, or wood grouse, the largest Finnish game bird, began in 1997. Meeting with one is much rarer than seeing willow grouse.

The research station staff seem quite pleased, when they tell that skiing in hares’ tracks is over: the observation project has ended. “We had to use a millimetre measure to find out the exact thickness of the twigs they’d munched on at each stop! Thank God that’s over...” However, there is warmth in the voices when the staff talk about both Kaino, who was caught in the station yard when young, and Sakari, who embarked on infuriatingly long excursions.

The list of animals under observation does not end here. Tracks of all kinds of small mammals are discovered in the snow. After identifying the species, it is time to determine the sex of the animal. Ignorant southerners are taught that females and males can be distinguished on the basis of how faeces are situated in relation to paw prints.

Ten years ago Värriötunturi staff observed ‘the migrant elk’ Suvi, who even made newspaper headlines. “It was a young calf when its mother was shot. First the orphaned elk was raised at the University of Oulu, but when she was able to cope on her own, she was brought here,” Tuohimaa reminisces. “Suvi roamed around the station in an area of approximately 5000 square kilometres.”

Foxes, on the other hand, often come too close to the yard – and research sites. The fat provided for the Siberian jays attracts foxes to the bird feeder close to the station’s kitchen. “Every once in a while we and the foxes also fight for the same birds caught in the traps.”

In addition to vandalism by the foxes, the willow grouse track also takes us to the other Finnish SMEAR station (Station for Measuring Forest Ecosystem-Atmosphere Relations). The well-equipped and computerised station filters small particles in the air through butanol vapour and counts and measures them. “Normally we check in on the station and record data approximately every three days. During busy measuring periods, we have forestry students helping us,” Tuohimaa explains.

For example, sulphur drifting from the east and, according to Tuohimaa, forming quite high peak values at times, arouses international interest. At the University of Helsinki, the pollution data is processed at the Departments of Forest Ecology and Physics, among others.

No road

The largest regular group of visitors are students from Helsinki who come for their winter ecology course at Easter. Meeri Nousiainen, who attended the course last year, says she immediately fell in love with the place and began enquiring about opportunities to do the practical training period, a part of her studies, at Värriötunturi. “I just don’t understand why my course mates would rather work at some research institute in an ugly Helsinki suburb full of concrete blocks of flats.” After her training period, Nousiainen was lucky to obtain a post as a replacement for a member of the regular staff in Värriötunturi, and Lapland is quickly becoming a home to the young woman from the capital city. “Snowmobiling, however, still seems foreign to me. I’ve mostly moved about on skis.” Seeing the marten tracks in the snow by the gullies’ edges, one realises, without trying it oneself, that following the steep topography of the arctic mountain landscape, thigh-deep in snow, is hard work. Nousiainen does not seem bothered by the clumsy way of moving about. “I can’t get tired of this beauty. Everything always looks so amazingly beautiful. When you ski, everything is so peaceful that I’m in no hurry to jump on a snowmobile.”

At the Värriötunturi research station, the living quarters, weather station, food cellar and snowmobile shed stand on top of a hill and the shore sauna and a hole in the ice for water are a few dozen steps down. The buildings are not cosily huddled at the end of a winding road. There simply is no road.

When the station staff return from spending their days off in the nearest villages, they have to leave their cars ten kilometres away at the Ainijärvi frontier guard station, where their nearest neighbours, the frontier guards, live.

In the winter, during the snowmobile season, the trip to the research station goes easily enough, although one can never be sure the car or the snowmobile waiting at the parking lot will start. At other times of the year, the trip is made on foot, which does not encourage carrying heavy burdens. The summer’s food supply, for instance, is transported well in advance in the spring when there is still snow. “Sometimes the frontier guards drop us a food parcel or two from their helicopter, as if by way of assistance to brothers-in-arms,” Tuohimaa gives thanks to their neighbours.

When it comes to living comfort and food, the staff is almost pampered. The cooks prepare a proper meal first thing in the morning for those heading out to the fjelds. At seven in the morning, the table is laid with reindeer stew or pea soup, for instance. And the fresh bread is always home-made. Even if the weather is mild, as it was in mid-February, the many hours spent snowmobiling in the fjelds require a lot of energy, and the skiers need even more. “At times it feels as if a marten runs up and down the slopes just to annoy his observers,” Tuohimaa laughs.