The Bog at the End of the World

Bog04

Jõesuu, Estonia – August 2008

I watch the bus putter up the road and disappear. Next bus is tomorrow morning. I walk through the tiny village. I see no one. It takes me five minutes to locate the hostel. It’s a long cinder block building with perpendicular wings. As I approach it, I notice that the shades on most of the windows are drawn. I grasp the doorknob. It’s locked. I pound on the door. No answer. I make a lap around the building. No noise or shadows from within.

I had an email just two days ago from the manager. There would be room and I was welcome. Everything is okay. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a tall, big-boned woman standing in a vegetable garden. She chirps something at me.

Tere. I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” I point to the hostel and shake my head.

She smiles. Her teeth are large and perfectly square with big gaps in between. She beckons me to follow her to the back door, which she slides open. “Manager come later.” She leads me down the long corridor and pushes open a door. The room is empty except for a single mattress on the floor and a small reading lamp next to it. It appears clean – no grime or dust and the mattress is unstained. Under the mustiness is the scent of fresh wood. Although it appears to be in the midst of renovation, this place hasn’t seen guests in a long time. The woman returns with some linens. She hands them to me and leaves, casting a final glance over her shoulder. Curiosity mixed with some disapproval. Nothing I haven’t seen many times before.

I put my backpack on the floor and walk towards the common areas. Three cement-floored showers are across the hall from my room. The reception desk is piled with papers and books. The small couches are hidden behind a bicycle, some tools, and yet more stacks of books. A backpack and a pair of mud-caked boots lie on the floor behind the reception desk. The mud is fairly fresh. I breathe a sigh of relief at this sign of life. A reek of decay wafts out of the kitchen. I peer around the corner. The garbage bins are overflowing. The jubilant buzz of flies breaks the silence. I back away and return to my room.

The reviews on the hostel website were glowing – a real adventure hostel, awesome hospitality, etc. This is the only place to stay in Jõesuu, so I must be at the right place. I lie back on the mattress and close my eyes. I will never trust hostel reviews again.

Some time later, the front door creaks open. I wait a couple of minutes and then venture out. The young man introduces himself as the manager, and then apologizes for the confusion. He returned from a hiking trip in another part of Estonia this morning and had to rush into work. He works at Soomaa National Park visitor’s center. He informs me that the hostel has actually been closed since April, but the listing needs to remain on the hostel website for a few more months because of the contract. The renovation has been abandoned, because a recent inspection showed that it would cost less to tear the place down and build anew.

I nod. This would explain the residue of desertion, of failed ambitions, which casts a pall over this place.

He tells me that the computer is in the kitchen. I follow behind him with a grimace. His face reddens when he sees the filth. “The cleaning woman was supposed to come,” he explains. He drags the garbage bins outside, muttering under his breath. I type a hasty email to my husband to let him know that I’m still alive.

After the manager calms down, I ask him about the park. There’s no public transport, but he offers to drive me to the visitors center. Then I can walk to Riisa Bog, eight kilometers on the way back to Jõesuu. It’s an Estonian holiday – the Day of the Restoration of Independence – so the park will be quiet. Everyone is in Tallin for the festivities. I might even have the bog to myself. He retreats to his room and closes the door.

At night, I lie awake and watch the blue flicker from his television set through my window. The sound of singing drifts down the corridor. The Night Song Festival. There is pop music, then a choir. The songs become chanting – melodic and mesmerizing. Solemn and defiant. It’s the sound of winter winds and hope in the incessant darkness.

Bog01

At the visitor’s center, I watch the short film about Soomaa’s fifth season – the flood season – and then I head for Riisa Bog. I pass by a tiny village, nothing more than a couple of buildings by the side of the road, but it also appears deserted. It is early afternoon when I reach the Riisa Bog trailhead. A couple of cars are parked at the entrance. I follow the wooden path through a small forest and then emerge into the bog. In the distance, I see other humans.

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The wooden path narrows to a single plank. The ground on either side looks solid, but one false step and there’s no way out.  One can take organized  bog shoeing tours or canoe trips. It would have been much easier, but I feel a sense of satisfaction that I got here on my own.

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A thick gray blanket covers the sky. The air is still and humid. In the distance, I hear the voices of those other humans. They are following another trail back to the exit. Soon, I will be alone out here.

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Soomaa National Park is the largest intact peat bog system in Europe. I can’t help but wonder what lurks beneath, waiting to be unearthed. The word “bog” is like the sound a creature that lives in its depths would make.  A murky, primeval sound.

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For a short time, the path is framed by thick patches of purple flowers.  A silent, invisible sensation hits me – not a smell or a haze, more like an emission that seeps into my pores. My head spins.  In the distance, thunder.

Bog06

I circle the ponds and head back to the forest. It’s a five kilometer walk back to Jõesuu. I didn’t bring an umbrella.

The road unfurls ahead of me, passing through farmland and forest. The old wooden houses look too well-maintained to be abandoned, but still I see no one. Every so often a car passes by and faces turn to watch me. Then they are gone. It would be easy to contemplate everything that could happen to me out here. But I don’t. My legs grow tired and fat raindrops begin to fall. Just a couple of kilometers to go.

A Jeep pulls up next to me. An older gentlemen pushes the passenger door open. I jump inside. “I can take you as far as Jõesuu,” he says in English. The Jeep is full of hiking and other equipment. He has the air of a field scientist – precise, yet unpretentious, but his impassive demeanor invites no conversation. Out here, he could be anyone and so could I. He lets me off at the bus stop and then drives away with a wave.

Bog03

124 thoughts on “The Bog at the End of the World

  1. Great story, well written, thanks – I enjoyed reading and want to go there myself. I know of old bogs in Denmark where they used to bury sacrifices, 2000 years later the artifacts were well preserved in the oxygen-depleted mud. So yes, there may be all kinds of things buried in the bog.

  2. I can’t help but feel anxious picturing myself trying to navigate the narrow planks of the path… “one false step and there’s no way out” – poetic. So much like trying to live life on the straight and narrow… too often one false step sets us on a slippery slope into one bad decision after the next. As always, another thought provoking post. Thank you 🙂

    • I totally didn’t notice that metaphor until you mentioned it, but you’re so right. 🙂 The planks were on relatively thick ground, so I think if you tripped you’d just end up getting a little wet. The deadly thing about bogs is that there’s no stable land to hold onto to pull yourself out. But if you’re close to the planks, that should work. Haha.

  3. Your were born for adventure! And adventure finds you at every turn knowing that you will embrace the call of the unexpected. You embrace uncertainty as a friend, rather than as an enemy. What an extraordinary place – photos are amazing as always. I am going to check out that missing link….

    Right now, I’m in Calgary – just came in from Vancouver. And it is cold here – minus 25 when the plane landed. I haven’t experienced winter like this for many years and it felt good!!!

  4. When I was little, I would read about bogs and think same thoughts about monsters that look like mud blobs coming out to get me. Its nice to know reality is so much more beautiful than that. Perhaps I would’ve played skip or hopscotch if I was on the plank. What a beautiful place to get over your childhood fear

  5. What a great adventure…even the unexpected chaos at the inn has a certain charm about it. I could close my eyes and picture the manager “pretending” to be outraged at the clutter in the computer room. Good material for your story!

  6. So that’s a bog. Interesting! Goodness, that wooden plank seemed to go on forever. Those purple flower fields were really sumthin’. Looked like a scene from The Gladiator movie, except for the plank. Hehe. You really are an admirable traveler! Going on your own and all. So adventurous! Your descriptions really give your readers a “taste” and “smell” of where you’ve been!

    • Hi there. I haven’t gone during the fifth season. I checked out your photos of it and it looks amazing. I don’t think I’d go alone during that time. It looks too volatile.

      • It is quite liquid, that’s true. Nevertheless, the biggest risk is getting lost up there; but that’s the same in the ‘normal’ bogs, they can be quite impressive mazes, even with so little trees to hide the tracks. Your story reminds me of my time in Estonia; although the modernisation has changed the country, the people haven’t.

  7. I always enjoy a foreigners point of view about Estonia. Unfortunately all of the villages are abandoned or have few last residents living there. I hope you had some time to visit some other places as well. Thank you for the lovely story. I would love to share (or reblog) it with other Estonians.

    • Hello Annika – thanks for your local insight. Of course you are welcome to share and reblog the post for other Estonians. I’d be honored. So, those villages are indeed abandoned. Sad. I also visited Tallin, of course, but Soomaa is the most potent memory. Estonia is a lovely, silent place. Cheers! –Julie

  8. If you’re interested in bogs, I’ve just started a bog blog based on my experiences on my local bog here in Ireland! They are indeed beautiful places, but the ones in Ireland are probably smaller than this one, due to the fact that the government and public are still cutting them for turf to burn. Crazy!

    • Now, that’s a unique idea for a blog. I’ll check it out. As for your local bog…too bad people haven’t learned that there’s a reason why such things are there.

      • Thank you for reading and for your kind comment! I would love to visit Estonia some day. Finland, Estonia and Ireland have the most area of bog left in Europe, in that order. I think the purple plant is heather. This is a super thread on bogs from all over the world, keep em coming 🙂

  9. This is quite the journey you embarked on in your story, A ritual passage almost of reflection and real discovery within one self. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

  10. Beautiful bog photos and a very inviting trail! In North America, sphagnum bogs are called “muskegs” in the northern U.S. and Canada, and “glades” in the southern Appalachians, where they are remnants from the Pleistocene and are found only on the highest mountains. Wooded sphagnum bogs are “pocosins” in the North Carolina coastal plain, and are home to carnivorous plants, red wolves, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and other rarities. I’ve seen all three but can’t travel much anymore, so I enjoyed your photos.

  11. Reblogged this on A Boy Who Travels and commented:
    I’m going to break one of my rules and post another persons article today because I feel like this needs to be shared. This article, about a bog in Estonia, is so well written and mystifying that I want to be in this run-down hostel right now! I really suggest giving it a read, you won’t regret it.

    • Thank for the reblog! Are you really sure you want to be at the “hostel of the damned”? Haha. I think it might still (sort of) be open. I looked it up online when I was writing this.

  12. Lovely post. I went to a bog near Tartu,ee and at first I thought you were posting about the same blog. I went with a small group that included an Estonian native, who stepped of the blanks to pick lingonberries. Other than getting her shoes wet, nothing happened to her. By the way – the name of thepurple flowers is heather.

    • Thanks! I’ve heard of that bog near Tartu, but I chose Soomaa because it was more remote. I figured that they wouldn’t put the planks near really deep water, but since I was alone I didn’t want to risk walking around. The Estonian native probably knows how to tell which part is okay to walk on.

  13. Beautifully written, you carried me along with on every step…..the hostel sounds so creepy…..and I didn’t realise you were a girl until about half way through! Then I understood the disproving look…..I had been wondering what that was all about!!
    We have bogs in Scotland too, I posted some shots last year with big blue brag on flies hovering over the oily water.

      • Oh yes, once it dawned on me that you were a girl/woman I understood utterly!
        But I also love that you didn’t give that away immediately……it shows up all sorts of assumptions on my part….and that’s despite being quite adventurous outdoors myself 🙂

  14. Gorgeous writing.

    Your photos remind me of the Tamarack swamps of Northern Minnesota. Those bogs are desolate and strange places, home to swamp fairies and strange lights that glow inexplicably in the night.

  15. West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada near Tofino has one of the most spectacular bogs to see. There is a board walk trail through it as well. Hope you can visit some day. Lovely story and thanks for sharing your adventure with us. There is a great effort to conserve these habitats ,here, in Canada as they are very important to our ecosystem.

    • Thanks for reading and for the info! Bogs may seem like still, dead places, but there’s a real feeling that something big is going on under the surface. Hope yours are conserved.

  16. I enjoyed this very much. I like the spareness of your prose, which seemed fitting given the desolate environment and the abandoned dream of the hostel.

  17. this is poetry said someone once
    I did not hear
    then
    and now
    the water is dripping
    .
    .
    .
    this is poetry said someone once
    weren’t you there
    then
    and now
    her heart beats
    .
    .
    .
    this is poetry said someone once.

    The manager ; )

    • Hello Rait!

      It’s a very small world. 🙂 The poem is lovely. I imagine that you and your dog moved on from that hostel a long time ago and it’s now a memory for you, too. Thank you for your kindness during my visit.

      • Hi Julie,

        Just the perfect size I’d say. And somehow I’m not surprised. You, being the last person to stay there at the hostel and your post finding it’s way to me yesterday fits well to the given frames – circle has been closed.
        I moved away from Jõesuu on the same year. It was just a stop on a journey taking me further to the forest. That’s where I am still. When awake. With the dog. And her cat.
        You’re welcome though I was just a middleman.
        To face bits of myself through your words felt as traveling in time. I’d say we are even : )

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  20. What a wonderful post. I’m a new visitor here, and I am enthralled with your photography and your ability to tell a story. Your world view is just about perfect too. I enjoyed this post tremendously. 🙂

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  24. I agree totally with George Weaver. I have not ever visited a bog but I will now think anew.
    You are a most intrepid traveller. You have my utmost admiration.

  25. I’m beginning to like the way you transition your stories from beginning to end/close, they certainly take one inside the location.
    Have been through a few swamps of different kinds, different consistencies to their mud composition with survey work, some you’d sink with each step to around the knee in places, but bogs sound a little dangerous if one drifts from the path. How many different ends have you been to?

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