Saimaa Geopark Ancient culture in the Lake Saimaa area Stories from Lake Saimaa


Story about geosite Sormuskivi or “the Ringstone”

Story about geosite Sormuskivi or “the Ringstone”

Watch the animated story of the Sormuskivi here

Story is made by Pekka Vartiainen in Rural Explorer project managed by HUMAK and Saimia

The witch

The witch

The witch is shaking, emitting a strange moaning sound from between her tight, grimacing lips. If they are words, I do not recognise them. I don’t want to go too close to the thing. The women are trying to stop the witch from hurting herself. They need to hold on pretty tight. The blood has already left their fingertips. The man watches in the background, looking busy but actually doing nothing. Rubs his swarthy scalp and gives some instructions to the headscarf-clad women. They are unlikely to pay attention. The witch’s legs kick the air wildly, the back is arched, and evil-sounding shrieks fill the air. She is like some strange bird, flapping and trying to take wing.

This goes on for some time. Then the man sees that the women will soon be unable to hang on to the struggling witch’s old body. He finally goes to it and grabs the witch’s legs. Grumbles something to me, but the words vanish far away over the lake. I feel like crying. I fight the tears and fear. Then, suddenly, the witch appears to have lost consciousness. The women let go of her. The man also takes his hands off her.

The witch lies half on her back on the rock, her limbs twitching slightly. The women’s Sunday clothes have picked up lichen off the rock surface and leaves fallen off nearby trees. They adjust their headscarves; the man tells us all to keep our distance. Staring at the witch, there seems to be slow, slithering movement in her skinny, age-withered legs.

The Kolmiköytisenvuori rock paintings in Ruokolahti were made about 4,700-3,700 years ago. The paintings are faint, but five human forms are discernible. It may be a depiction of a ritual journey, with a witch entering trance in the presence of a party accompanying her. The painting seems to show a person whose lower body has turned or is turning into a snake.

Source: Sulo Siitonen (1997), Retkeilijäin Ruokolahti.
Story: Pekka Vartiainen, Translation: Annira Silver/Rural Explorer project

The strange rock

The strange rock

It had been a long evening out in the village. But it was for a purpose. We had shivered on the corner of the village store until Ketonen had come to the door to lock up. He saw us and called: “All right lads?” Right as rain, we are. Eki had gobbed a proper wad onto the bike stand. It hung there, a bit like a stalactite. Good job Ketonen was already out of sight.

We hung around for a while longer and then headed for the rock. We had agreed to go there at dusk. The old man had told us to. Said that if you go there after dark and do as I tell you, you’ll be sure to hear it. All we understood was that you can’t do this stuff in daylight. Twilight stuff. Like the old man’s tales of rock knockers.

Eki led the line of bikes, as always. He was in a hurry. Me and Make followed at a slower pace. The red hem of Eki’s jacket flapped in front of us. A gust of wind also caught the spruce trees around us. Their swishing blended with the cawing of crows.

The closer to the rock we got, the more scared I was. Or at least I began to doubt the sense of what we were doing. We all knew the old man’s tales. “You wetting yourself already?” Eki mocked, and I spotted a small grin on Make’s face too. We chucked our bikes on the side of the track, grabbed the sticks we had brought, and I made a beeline ahead. I thought, I’ll show them. Stick around if you can stand the pace.

Every time it was an equally strange sight. A huge boulder not really held up by anything. And on it, a gnarled tree clinging by its claws on the surface of the rough rock. Waving its antlers high above. Blowing eternal vapours from its mouth.

I stopped, like at a respectful distance. The light dusk had fallen. I squeezed the stick in my hand. It felt soft.

Eki rushed past me and immediately started thumping the rock with his birch pole. Walked in short steps around the rock hitting, hitting, hitting. Here, there and everywhere. Make stopped at the foot of the boulder and reminded us of the old man’s instructions. The blows had to be aimed at a precise spot. Seven-and-a-half centimetres north from the contact point of the rock and its base.

The first booms echoed in the air. Somewhere, something heavy took to the wing with a rustle. At first, we each beat our own rhythm, then in unison, trying to keep the same tempo. Padam-padam-padam. The echo rose to the top of the pine squatting on the rock and sprang from there, with almost a howl, to the surrounding forest.  Padam-padam-padam.

The dark shadows grew as the strength began to wane from our strikes. Almost as if the darkness had swallowed us. Eki was the first to throw down his stick, I was next. “So much for the old man’s drivel,” he said. Make continued to beat a little way from us. The booms were now more subdued. A bit like they were coming from somewhere and not just carrying to somewhere. I was about to say this to Eki when I saw Make’s pale face behind me. Padam-padam-padam, came from some place deep inside the rock.

Story: Pekka Vartiainen, Translation: Annira Silver/Rural Explorer project

Ruokolahti church hill – Elli and Albert

Ruokolahti church hill – Elli and Albert

The woman keeps a wary eye on her visitor’s antics. He walks in little, stubby steps, measuring the room. Stops to look at the view opening up from the
window. Nothing much there, the woman thinks, fields, forest, a few hens. The visitor says something in his broken Finnish. He smells rather nice, the woman thinks, of the big wide world.

It is a while since the stranger turned up in Elli’s cabin. Elli has seen his kind before. At least in Russia, when she took trips there, to relieve people of their aches and pains. Golden carriages and white teams of horses waited at St Petersburg station. Horns sounded and lackeys bowed. In Moscow, the wife of the Sultan of Turkey uttered tearful words of gratitude. She has come across all sorts, but perhaps not quite like this one. He is very young, a glint in his eye, a cockerel. That kind will string you along if you don’t watch it.

He wants to paint people from the village, that much becomes clear. Says he is looking for new faces, no matter what kind. The uglier the better. Elli wonders if she has understood quite correctly. It is hard to make sense of the young man’s speech. He shows with his hands what he can’t get across by other means. Uses his fingers to stretch out his mouth, lurking under the moustache. This makes them both laugh.

Elli prepares the sauna for the visitor. He grunts in the dark when Elli calls to tell him it is ready. After a while, a sweaty, red face settles on the treatment table, towel around his waist. Elli uses her fingers to plough her guest’s back, presses her knuckles into the pale skin, kneads the knots formed over the tips of his shoulder blades with her rough fingertips.

The visitor makes grunting sounds of feeling good, smacks his lips and mutters unclear words. After the sauna the visitor sits down at the table, picks up a pad and pencil and asks Elli to stand near the fireplace. Elli stands there for a moment, stock-still. Looks up at the ceiling rafters. Swings her arms slowly, not quite knowing what to do. Her hands are wanting to brush away a strand of hair getting into her eyes. The visitor smiles and Elli sees what beautiful fingers that cockerel has. They move through the air so prettily.

They make a plan to go to the church hill tomorrow. Elli promises to ask authentic people to come along. That is who the visitor wants to paint. Old Ruokolahti women. That’s where you’ll find ’em, Elli says, and carefully studies the picture the visitor has made of her. Looks pretty solemn, Elli thinks. Stands there stiff as a poker.

At the end of the 1800s, Finnish artists of the so-called Golden Age sought folksy, realistic subjects, and in the hope of finding inspiration, also the company of common people. The trips popularised by the Kalevala boom were often to eastern Finland. Albert Edelfelt was one of the painters who travelled to Vuoksenlaakso in 1877 to look for and paint common country folk. He stayed for some time in the home of Elli Jäppinen, the folk healer renowned in Finland and Russia. One of Edelfelt’s best-known paintings ‘Women of Ruokolahti on the Church Hill’ (1887) dates back to his time in Ruokolahti; it was admired in big cities around Europe – and later also in Finland

Story: Pekka Vartiainen, Translation: Annira Silver/Rural Explorer project



It was at Karhusaari Pavilion that I first met Reino. I think it was the second or third summer after the war. I went with the girls, dressed in our best frocks, a little lipstick on. Marke had found a guy somewhere who promised to row her to the island. We left our bikes at the side of the Maalaistenlaituri quay and got into the boat with the others. When the engine started, we could see Marke’s boat already gliding on the small waves towards Karhusaari.

It was a glorious summer night! The warm wind played in my hair and gently brushed by bare arms. People were chatting together. The cheerful chatter, excited about the coming night, accompanied us to the dance venue rocking on the horizon. A flag was flying above the high Pavilion tower. I had made this journey many a time before, but somehow I had a feeling that this trip would be rather different.

The familiar melody of ‘Anna-Liisa’ carried from the Pavilion, as the men meeting the boat on the quay helped us ashore. Skipping across the shoreline bedrock, we hurried inside and found a table right by the dance floor. Our legs didn’t get much of a rest; we were soon whisked away to dance. The orchestra played something rhythmic and loud. The other girls were whizzing around the parquet with their partners. I took a sip of my lemon soda through the straw and adjusted my dress. Through the window, I saw Marke talking to some young man outside.

Then a slim figure appeared in front of me. That young boy’s laughing eyes may have been the first thing I fell in love with.

The music carried me and I wanted to fall asleep in Reino’s arms. The other dancing pairs seemed to vanish from view. The world rushed by in my ears, the thin scent of after-shave was like a wonderful drug which I relished with all my senses. I closed my eyes and immersed myself in the feeling.

We danced all that night, and after it nothing was the same again. Later, just before leaving for the return trip to Lappeenranta, the two of us sat shyly on the bedrock and watched a small boat at a distance making its way towards the town, oars slowly rising and falling. The sun dived down to sleep and I thought that all this is forever.

In a strange way I now realise that young slip of a lass was right. Although the Karhusaari Pavilion is no more, no friends sharing memories of summer nights, no life partner kissed by the summer wind, no bold Marke, everything is still in its place and present in this moment. Nothing disappears or is lost forever.

Story: Pekka Vartiainen, Translation: Annira Silver/Rural Explorer project

Muukonsaari – Pencils from the sky

Muukonsaari – Pencils from the sky

We had feared a war breaking out for some time. News about rampant mobs shooting at each other and whispered executions became commonplace pretty soon. Brother rose against brother, like the stories in the Bible come true, and there was no holding back the hate. Even though we lived off the beaten track, we could not avoid it. Not even our little ones. On a fine late winter’s day, they had gone onto the frozen lake to play. Likely got up to furious speeds with their kick sleds, braids flying from under woolly hats and cheeks glowing frostred. I sat in the cabin darning and didn’t quite clap my own eyes on it all. But soon both of them stormed in, door slamming and winter boots stomping, faces aghast, telling the tale in one voice.

It took a moment for them to catch their breath sufficiently to make the story intelligible to me. They told of hearing strange banging from the shore opposite, and soon stubby pencils had started raining from the sky. They unfurled their fists then to show me their finds. They were not quite like those they’d got from school, but small and sealed at the tip.

I certainly recognised what the bairns held in their snow-clogged mittens, and I may have let out an involuntary yelp or some sound anyway, which frightened the younger one and started her crying. The elongated objects taken for pencils dropped onto the floor with a clatter, rolling here and there, some under the dresser and table, as if hiding in shame. The children spent the rest of the day indoors, and the planned move off the island, already discussed with the husband, became more urgent. When summer finally arrived, the Boehms acquired the lands they had long wanted.

On Työsaari island on the east side of Muukonsaari there is a cabin, which today is known as the summer holiday home of Professor Erik Tawaststjerna. During the Civil War it was still the home of fisherman Muikku and his family.

In the spring of 1918, when the lake was still decked with ice and snow, there was a strange incident. The fisherman’s little daughters were playing on the frozen lake. Suddenly they heard banging sounds some distance away, and soon a strange rapping filled the air. Small, elongated objects were dropping onto the ice. Recovered from the surprise, the girls gathered them by the fistful, soon running to excitedly show mother their treasures. “Mother, mother! Look how many pencils we gathered that fell from the sky!” The frightened mother quickly realised that the pencils were bullets. Machine gun bullets fired somewhere on the mainland had carried to Työsaari.

That same summer, the Muikku family sold their cabin to the aristocratic von Boehm family. The artist Aino von Boehm spent several summers on the island with her family and painted the colourful, sun-drenched landscapes opening out to Saimaa lake. Erik Tawaststjerna, the musicologist, later married Aino von Boehm’s daughter, and so the island cabin came to their possession.

Source: Pertti Vuori. Tulentallojain tarinoita VI. Wärrönlahti, Punnanlahti,
Muukonsaari. Joutsenon kotiseutuyhdistys 1991
Story: Pekka Vartiainen, Translation: Annira Silver/Rural Explorer -hanke.

Sulkava rowing race – rowing around the isle of partalansaari

Sulkava rowing race – rowing around the isle of partalansaari

Even as a child, Kauko admired the beauty of Partalansaari. As a little boy, sitting on a seine shore, he heard a story about somebody rowing around Partalansaari. It had taken from sun set to sun rise. The boy was left with a great deal to ponder, as the island was big and the summer night short.

As a senior boatmaster Kauko Miettinen often wondered whether the story that he had heard as a child was true. He was also concerned about the survival of the boatbuilding skills and wooden boat culture learned from grandfathers and passed on to the following generations.
As his thoughts did not allow him to rest, he decided to organise a race to find out how long it would take to row around the island. In order to get people to participate in the race, Kauko promised to give the winner a boat.

The first races were held in 1968 and were to continue for over 50 years developing into the Sulkava Rowing Race. The event organised in July annually attracts around a thousand rowing enthusiasts, making it the largest rowing event in Finland.