Saimaa consists of several lake basins that form a vast, labyrinthine body of water. The length of the entire coastline is 15,000 kilometres and there are over 13,700 islands in the lake.
Saimaa is created of ancient bedrock, the spectacular Salpausselkä ridges, clear waters and human existence over millennia. The waters of Saimaa have been used as a great navigable passageway ever since the first settlers arrived in the area. Later, the lake had a huge impact on the development of the economy and industry in the area. The water is still clear and the shores offer diverse nature for the enjoyment of residents and visitors.
Geology tells the story of the birth and development of Saimaa
The basis for the Saimaa landscape was born at the bottom of an ancient sea over 1,900 million years ago. Clay, silt and mud stratified at the bottom of the sea to form mica gneiss and related rocks. 1,885 million years ago a collision of lithospheric plates formed an ancient mountain range, at the foundations of which the stratifications recrystallised. The granite rocks of the Saimaa region formed 1,830 to 1,800 million years ago. During that time, hundreds of cubic kilometres of granite magma crystallised slowly deep in the foundations of the mountain range to form coarse-grained granite. As time passed, the mountain range wore down and is now sand on the shores of Lake Saimaa. The fragmented remainders of the mountain range can still be seen in the landscape as a colourful mosaic of water, rock and fertile ground.
Saimaa formed over thousands of years
Approximately 8,000 years ago, Saimaa separated from other waters and is now an independent body of water. Remnants of the last Ice Age are the massive terminal moraines, the Salpausselkä ridges, which formed approximately 12,500-11,500 years ago and are even visible from space. The land that was pushed down by the ice sheet is still rising and gradually altering the shorelines. The incline of the land can still be seen in forests and prehistoric habitations that remain on the bottom of Lake Saimaa.
Vuoksi, the great current, was born from an ancient natural disaster
Originally the waters of Saimaa drained into the Gulf of Bothnia. The land that was released from under the ice sheet rose quicker in the Gulf of Bothnia and the land started to lean towards South-East Finland. In Saimaa, the waters flooded against the Salpausselkä ridges and approximately 5,700 years ago the spectacular terminal moraines of Salpausselkä broke. As a result, Saimaa flowed as a wide torrent onto the dry lands. The Vuoksi, Saimaa’s effluent river, was born. These days the Vuoksi, which flows into Lake Ladoga, is the largest river in Finland in terms of volume. Imatra, the largest rapids on the Vuoksi, has attracted visitors to its banks for centuries.
Saimaa has unique wildlife
A legacy of the isolation brought about by the Ice Age are the endemic species of Lake Saimaa that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. There are a little over 300 of the likeable Saimaa ringed seals (Pusa hispida saimensis) left. If you are lucky, you may see the jovial seal laying on a rock and basking in the sun. Two of the fish species, the landlocked salmon (Salmo salar m. sebago) and the Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), are local and critically endangered.
The shores have been inhabited since prehistoric times
Humans arrived in Saimaa over 10,000 years ago. Great waters for fishing and land for hunting attracted people to this new area that had been revealed from under the ice. The most popular settlement spots were near the sunny beaches. People painted dozens of rock paintings on cliffs and rocks, with the most common subjects being people, animals and boats. The paintings tell us about the world of the ancient hunters of Saimaa.
Saimaa is at the border between East and West
For centuries, South-East Finland has felt the effects of the national frontier. For centuries, control over the area alternated between Sweden and Russia until Finland became independent in 1917. In Saimaa, defence structures from different time periods, such as hillforts, fortresses and canals dug for warships, serve as reminders of living at the border.
During the Second World War, a 1,200 kilometre-long defence zone, called Salpalinja, was built in Finland. It was one of the strongest defensive positions of the war. The most densely fortified area was Saimaa, where defences can still be seen on the shores and islands. With the Moscow Peace Treaty (1940), Finland’s eastern border shifted and part of the Vuoksi River and the waterway connection from Saimaa via the Saimaa Canal to the sea remained on the Soviet side of the border. These days Finland leases the Saimaa Canal from Russia.
The ancient waterway is still in use
The waters of Saimaa have acted as an important transport route since prehistoric times. They have made it possible to transport raw material for the needs of the wood processing industry, which is very important for Finland. Saimaa still has active commercial traffic that consists of cargo carriers and cruise ships. The Saimaa Canal offers an aquatic connection to the Gulf of Finland, apart from a couple of months in the winter when the canal freezes. In the summertime, towboats transporting timber and log rafts hundreds of metres in length can be seen slowly floating towards paper mills.
A good place for people
Living the life of an islander has a strong cultural meaning in Saimaa. Cities and small villages grew up near the water. Bridges and ferry boats connect those that live in the fragmented archipelago. Life in the countryside relies on agriculture, forestry and the service industry. Some of the residents work in the cities in the area and in the summer they might commute by boat. During cold winters, you can take a short cut across the lake via an ice road. Saimaa is a popular holiday destination. All year round, summer cottages, waterways and forests offer a wide range of opportunities for relaxing and experiencing new things in the middle of the countryside, while still remaining close to the city.