The Republic of Karelia

Pristine forest, marshes and bears: Vodlozersky National Park in Karelia

How to experience wildlife comfortably?

09.03.2023// The combination of convenient infrastructure and wildlife is quite rare. The Vodlozersky National Park is one such good combination—it can be reached by car along a modern highway, eco-trails and guest houses are prepared for tourists, and excursions can be booked at the visitor centres. At the same time, it is one of Europe's largest nature reserves, covered in pristine forests that remember the first nomadic arctic hunters.

The Vodlozersky National Park was established in 1991. It is one of the largest parks in all of Europe, covering almost half a million hectares in the Onega district of the Arkhangelsk Region and the Pudozhsky district of the Republic of Karelia. In 2001, by the decision of UNESCO, the park was granted the status of a biosphere reserve—the first such occasion among national parks of Russia. It is also home to many archaeological sites. Vodlozero is one of the oldest inhabited regions of the Russian North—the first hunter-gatherer tribes reached these places already in the 9th–8th millennium B.C. As in the whole of Karelia, the Vodlozero area is widely represented by traces of Finno-Ugric and Sami cultures, which were only joined by Slavs in the 10th and 11th centuries. This region was subordinate to Novgorod and was part of the Obonezh Pyatina, but has always been considered a remote and sparsely populated land. This is how it has survived to this day.

You can drive from Arkhangelsk to the southern limits of the park. To do this, move along the following route: Plesetsk (310 km) – Kargopol (175 km) – Pudozh (160 km) – Kuganavolok. Upon driving past the latter village, after another 20 km take a right turn and proceed for another 63 km on a dirt road. The park's administration office is located in Petrozavodsk, and the Onezhsky branch office is in Onega.

The main treasure of Vodlozersky Park is the pristine forests covering two-thirds of the protected area. Pines, spruce and larch trees growing there are on average 200–250 years old. Some old-timers are even over 350 years old. It is the largest forest in Europe, and one of the most significant in all of Eurasia. Its rightful owners are still bears, foxes, wolves, lynxes, badgers and wolverines. The Vodlozersky Park is not only a forest but also a water kingdom, strewn with 383 lakes and 240 rivers. One of the park's phenomena is its extreme swampiness: over 40% of the area is covered by moors and wetlands. How such a large marsh system was formed remains a mystery, especially seeing as it is located on a relatively high plateau to the south of the Vetryanoy Poyas Ridge, 150–200 m above sea level.

Loons, swans, waders, as well as black and bean geese breed on its water bodies. And there are so many fish here that there is enough for all the feathery fishermen, and there are also enough for tourists. On 7 March 2023, for example, a record-breaking Pudozh Burbots ice fishing festival was held there. Around 500 participants came to the event, for whom prizes, workshops, a draw, a fair and refreshments were prepared. Events in the national park take place throughout the year, and a list of them can be found on the national park's website.

Besides sport fishing, tourists can also follow the ecological trail along the Ileksa River from the Varishpelda village to Luza village (about 40 km), take a trip to Vodlozero by boat Saint Ilya, an exact copy of a 17th-century longboat, and enjoy skiing and ice-skating in winter. It is important to note that tourists will not be allowed to travel outside the paved routes for their own safety. It's easy to get lost or encounter a wild animal in the park's vast area.

However, there's no need to get into the thicket to find a convenient parking place—you can stay for a few days in the national park at the Okhtoma tourist base in wooden tourist houses on the lake shore or at the campsite. In summer, you can get there by boat or car, and in winter—by snowmobile. The park's staff run excursions and are involved in organising children's summer camps. Today, bases have been prepared on Velikostrov, Varishpeld, Koskosalma, Kalgachikha and Novgud to accommodate children.

You can only stay in the national park if you have a permit. It can be applied online or at the administrative centres in Petrozavodsk, Onega or the Kuganavolok village.

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