Exploring The Largest Bog of Estonia
Riisa Ranch, 42 km / 26 mi east of Pärnu and gateway to Soomaa National Park, Estonia. This is the starting point of what turned out to be one of the most exciting days I had in the Baltic States. But I have to admit that even before leaving I was pretty excited to go for this tour.
The promise of an in-depth exploration and total immersion in a vast bog land is too exciting to ignore! I had seen some bog landscapes in Ireland before, but it was the first time I would actually hike on the bog itself. A totally new experience.
Soomaa National Park protects the largest peat bog in Estonia, as well as a network of rivers and extensive wetlands around it. It is a quite unusual landscape to walk in when you live near Paris, France, and even more so for my girlfriend who is from equatorial Singapore!
Since I wanted a comprehensive visit of this park, there wasn’t much hesitation to book both the day tour and the night tour. Indeed, they bring totally different experiences.
Address: Riisa Rantso, 86815 Pärnu County, Estonia
GPS: 58°28’1.22″N, 24°59’12.31″E
Best way to go: Book a tour online (see links below)
Tour prices: Day tour: 55 Euros (75 Euros with transfer from Pärnu); Night tour: 50 Euros (70 Euros with the transfer from Pärnu). Thus, for both tours I paid 75+50 = 125 Euros from Pärnu.
Best season: Summer
What’s So Special About Peat Bogs?
Peat bogs are amazing environments. They are the result of an accumulation of sphagnum moss. As the moss dies and deposits layer after layer, it becomes peat.
It is a very slow process. As I explain in the video below, the bog in Soomaa National Park grows only 1 mm (0.04 inch) every year. In some areas the thickness of peat reach 8 metres (26 ft), which means it took 8000 years to accumulate all that moss.
It is easy to understand that bog lands are very fragile ecosystems and they recover painfully slowly (or not at all) if disturbed.
Plants growing in peat bogs are highly adapted and specialized. The bog is fed with rain water and is constantly waterlogged. Sphagnum moss also has intruiguing properties. It has antimicrobial properties that prevent its decomposition. As a result, when it dies it doesn’t decompose and becomes peat.
Sphagnum moss also makes its environment acidic. That’s a good way to eliminate competition from other plants. Moreover, peat bog water is very poor in nutrients. Now you understand why I say bog plants are highly specialized. Most plants would never survive in such conditions!
At first, all you see is an endless carpet of moss but if you look closer, you notice thousands and thousands of tiny carnivorous plants. These very pretty sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) are adapted to bogs and wouldn’t grow in your garden’s raised bed.
Another interesting thing to notice is the changing size of the trees. A thick forest grows around the bog. Pine trees seem to resist quite well to the difficult growing conditions in the bog. As you go deeper into the bog, pine trees gradually becomes scarce and dwarf.
The explanation is that when they grow deep into the bog, their roots can no longer reach the bedrock below the peat, which means less nutrients and less stability.
Soomaa National Park Travel Video
Check out the video for a good overview of the day and night tours.
The Day Tour – Bog Walking
The tour makes loop inside the park from and back to Riisa, that includes some forest, crossing a part of the bog, back to the forest until you reach the Raudna River. Then you paddle all the way back to Riisa on the Raudna and Halliste Rivers. You can check the map at the bottom of this page to see what it all looks like. 🙂
The fun and unusual feature of this tour is of course the use of bog shoes. Before travelling to Estonia, I had never heard of such a thing. They look very much like snowshoes you would use to walk on powder snow, and they are pretty efficient to walk on flooded carpets of sphagnum moss.
As a wilderness lover, I really enjoyed venturing deep into the bog, walking on floating moss with my bog shoes a little clumsily, observing plant life (I’m a botany enthusiast).
We even came across the remains of a plane crash that probably happened decades ago during the Soviet era. Almost no living plant can be seen in the immediate area around the crash. It shows how slow the recovery process is for the bog.
In the crystal-clear ponds inside the bog, it was possible to swim – I would have loved to but the water was way too cold for me!
The canoeing was also delightful. The water is so calm that it is a flawless mirror of the trees around and the sky.
The Night Tour
After the tour, we were left at a small restaurant where we could relax and get something to eat. We have shared the day tour with 2 other friendly young couples, but me and my girlfriend were the only ones going for the night canoeing tour.
What’s so different from the canoe ride we just had? Well, the night canoeing is more wildlife watching-oriented, and the atmosphere is really completely different as the light is declining and the air gets colder. The quietness of the place was unbelievable. The mirror effect of the river was ever more striking than during the day tour.
Seeing animals is a matter of luck but just for this experience of paddling in the dark, it’s well worth going for the tour!
You need to paddle really gently, avoiding any unnecessary noise or splash, to increase the chances of seeing an animal. The most commonly seen animals in these rivers are the beavers.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to get a clear view of a beaver, but we caught some of them diving when they noticed our canoe, and firmly splashing their tails on the surface of the water to warn the other beavers around.
What we did see is a beaver nest, an impressive accumulation of branches almost as tall as me! I was also pretty impressed to see whole trees that has been gnawed and fallen by beavers.
But the most beautiful moment of this evening is probably when we met a beautiful elk that was eating. It didn’t hear us coming because the sound of our paddling was covered by the sound of nearby flowing water. It was a surprise for both us and the elk! It’s not often that you can see such a fantastic animal from up close in its natural environment, it’s a moment that will remain in my memory for a very long time.
Last Thoughts About Soomaa National Park
This was clearly a highlight of my trip. If you are travelling to the Baltic States and want to get a good overview of this bog land environment that is a common feature of their territories, Soomaa National Park is probably your best option.
You may get a shower or two while hiking on the bog, and your shoes might get a little wet, but all these don’t matter when compared with the whole experience. The tour is led by very nice people and you are guaranteed to have a good time!
A really cool experience I recommend to anyone who is fond of nature and wild spaces.