Berries of the Swamp
Like a stork on unfamiliar ground, I wade cautiously through a swamp on the fringes of Ranua, with one hand holding a bucket, the other frantically swatting away the mosquitoes that feast on anyone crazy enough to venture here in midsummer.
One wrong step, and I feel I might sink into the bog, so I master a technique of hopping between clumps of moss that handily present themselves. It’s a cool July morning in a part of the world that is lit by near 24-hour daylight at this time of year.
As with much of Lapland, the terrain appears vast and impenetrable, with just a pencil line of dark conifer trees providing some kind of orientation. It would be easy to get lost in these near-endless swamps full of ripening cloudberries and silky cottongrass—but thankfully, I’m guided by a local cloudberry forager, Riikka.
It's quite normal, apparently, for Ranua folk to march happily for hours and miles, day after day, in search of these precious berries during the season. In fact, they take great pleasure in maximizing time in the great outdoors after the long, bitterly cold winters, pouncing on pursuits like cloudberry foraging with sun-starved urgency.
To pick cloudberries like a pro, there are some things to bear in mind, I quickly learn. Finding the berries is of course the first challenge. The roads here are long, lonely, and heavily forested. To an outsider, they all look the same. It's a proper wilderness, too: you’re just as likely to see reindeer on the road as cars.
But the remoteness of Ranua is no object to the people who come from all over the world to pick these berries in July, and sell or buy them at the local cloudberry exchange. The tourist office in Ranua lends a helping hand with a map pinpointing the cloudberry hotspots, should you want to go it alone.
Once you’ve managed to locate a suitable swamp, it is all down to developing a knack for finding the berries, beginning with color. “The red ones aren’t ripe yet,” Riikka tells me as I reach for a scarlet berry. Contrary to all logic, cloudberries become paler the riper they get, eventually turning a pale, peachy hue. Each stalk has just one berry.
You need very little to hunt for cloudberries successfully: just a bucket or two, a sturdy pair of boots, a sunhat (preferably with anti-bug netting), plenty of repellent to ward off mosquitoes—and most importantly, stamina.
Once you click into the slow, almost soothing rhythm of foraging for hard-to-find cloudberries, you start to see why the locals are so obsessed with it. Here in the swamps, beneath wide-open skies, you have the freedom to totally switch off, escape from the buzz of modern-day life and reconnect with nature.
Back to Nature
Typically associated with snow, reindeer, and the Northern Lights, it turns out that Lapland is every bit as much a summer wonderland as a winter one. The long days are ideal for epic foraging expeditions, which might involve picnics in woodland glades, campfires, and sometimes sleeping under the stars.
Finns as a nation love their solitary, head-clearing pursuits, especially in Lapland where houses are often spaced miles apart. Picking is done in silence, allowing time for reflection. After a few repetitive hours of hunting for berries, with no distraction other than an occasional bird flitting among the pines, I begin to appreciate its meditative benefits. If you want a mindful activity, this is it.
Foraging here is as much about getting back to nature as it is about buckets heavy with cloudberries. And as around 60% of the region is swampland, there's a lot of roaming to be done. "I love this time of year," says Rikka, radiant with health and happiness. "Not just the berries, but the nature, the exercise and the fresh air."
It's now 10 pm—with buckets full and the sun starting to set over a pristine lake just beyond the swamps, I can see what she means.
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The Wonder Berry
After the last snow melts, cloudberries—called hilla in Ranua, and lakka elsewhere—come into flower in June then ripen around six weeks later. So for Finns, cloudberries signify the arrival of summer and brighter, lighter days.
Bite into one and you might be surprised: though not as sweet as you might expect, they have a tart, peachy flavor that is uniquely their own. Finns love to eat them fresh as they are, baked into cakes and pies, or made into jams, jellies, and liquors.
Though you'll come across cloudberries in other parts of Scandinavian Lapland, Russia, and Canada, the Finns treat them with unrivaled reverence, referring to them as 'Lappish gold.' The only other berry they hold in such high esteem is the mesimarja (Arctic raspberry), which is three times smaller than the cloudberry and grows by lakes and rivers. They are even harder to find.
Hailed as something of a wonder berry, the health benefits of cloudberries are impressive—a single berry contains more vitamin C than an orange, and is packed with antioxidants. But Finns have loved them long before they achieved superfood status.
Ranua's Cloudberry Professor
To see just how strongly cloudberries influence the lives of the local community each July, you need to head for the Ranua farmer's market. Here you'll meet Taisto Illikainen, Ranua's 'cloudberry professor,' who has been in the business of buying, selling, and officially fixing the market rate of cloudberries locally for the past 50 years—during cold years, when cloudberries are more scarce, the price is considerably higher.
"Cloudberries are our food and culture, but they also bring work," admits Taisto, as he sets about weighing the berries and pouring them into containers ready to be sold. "Not only locals pick them. We have visitors from Estonia, Sweden, Russia, Poland, and even Thailand."
Some turn it into a working holiday, he continues. "If they are good pickers, it can be profitable. Once a man picked 220 pounds in a single day."
Then there are visitors to the market who come to buy. Some Finns will drive all the way from Helsinki, 500 miles away, just to pick up some cloudberries and drive straight back. "It's crazy," he chuckles.
"Ranua gets cloudberry fever in July," laughs Riikka. It starts with the very first berry and climaxes in the cloudberry festival in early August, when there are communal picnics, cloudberries featuring on many menus in town, and even cloudberry competitions.
The reason they are so prized is perhaps because finding them involves more than a little luck. They can't be grown commercially, and locals can be very secretive about their hidden patches. "I've walked for miles along fences only to discover that the best cloudberries are behind them, obscured from view," says Riikka.
Local restaurants, cafes, and bakeries feature cloudberries on their menus in season, sprinkled on salads, whipped up into extraordinary cakes, and even topping pizzas. Near the entrance to the town's Arctic zoo, the distillery Ranua-Revontuli is the place to pick up a lingering taste of cloudberries to take home in the shape of cloudberry wine.
Meanwhile, behind timber doors all over town, Ranua's residents are swiftly transforming their cloudberry hoards into rich compotes that go well with the other local specialty: leipäjuusto, a 'squeaky cheese' made from fresh cow's milk. Nothing is wasted: the leaves and seeds are turned into teas, bread, and in some instances, cosmetics.
"When it's freezing outside in winter, cloudberries offer a taste of summer," says Riikka, as we head out on one last foraging trip. "When you eat them then, it's as if you are transported back to those sunny summer days out in the swamps."
I'd like to stop and savor a berry to see if I can get the same feeling, but there are many berries to pick yet, and a half-empty bucket with my name on it.
Cloudberry Season Travel Tips
The closest airport to Ranua is in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, around an hour's drive (50 miles) north—right on the Arctic Circle. To get from A to B, you'll really need to hire a guide or rent a car of your own, as distances are vast and swamps spread out far and wide. Car rentals are available at the airport.
Attractive and spacious lodge-style accommodation is available at the central Holiday Village Gulo Gulo.
Cloudberry picking is free, but be mindful of the fact that this is a wilderness. Take along the map provided by the tourist office and familiarize yourself with local restrictions. The exact dates of the cloudberry season change slightly each year, but usually fall in mid- to late July.
Go for the cloudberries, but don't stop there—Lapland has plenty to do in the summer season. Check out this article for ideas.