Swamp Thing Trail: Exploring The Estonian Taiga

Contributed By

Montanus  - The Wild Side

Montanus

The Wild Side
There is a trail in the northeast of the old continent that crosses a medley of floodplain taiga, quicksand, swamp, meadows, bogs, and intercepts the East-Atlantic migratory path of Arctic waterfowl. This place holds a multitude of rivers and lakes that lead to the extraordinary and isolated coasts of the Baltic Sea. Welcome to the wild heart of Estonia.
Share Facebook 0 Twitter Pinterest Google+

The Swamp Thing Trail is a 386km route that runs from south to north through the nation of Estonia, one of the most forest-rich countries in the world. The route is named after The Swamp Thing, a comic book from the 1970s which depicts a swamp monster — a humanoid mass of vegetable matter — who fights to protect his swamp home and the environment in general. The route name is fitting not only for the unique ecosystems and scenery which it passes through, but also considering Estonia’s environmental plight. After regaining independence in the 1990s, Estonia has made an effort to protect and enhance its flora and fauna throughout the country.

The ride starts from Pärnu, a small city on Estonia’s west coast. After penetrating a majestic coniferous forest, a rusted and decorative bridge along an old abandoned railway escorts in the Laiksaare forest. From there, a series of empty gravel roads alternate with singletrack to immerse you in the Estonian wilderness, between carpets of moss and lichens, wild berries and mushrooms. The primordial bog landscapes offer a spectacle like no other, where the lights of dusk and dawn move with the mist along these endless lowlands. The observation towers are the best place to watch this unfold.

The singletrack is never overly technical, and there is very little elevation gain. What makes this route deserve a seven on the difficulty scale are the constant mosquitoes as well as the ever-present challenge to access drinking water. The water resupply points are very rare and the rivers and channels have a brownish-orange color and must be purified. Another pitfall is the unpredictable flooding which can require waist-deep wading, or in extreme cases, improvisation of alternative tracks to continue the route.

After crossing the Soomaa National Park and Kõrvemaa Landscape Reserve, estonian forest will take you through the Lahemaa National Park in one of the most amazing places of the entire route: Mädalaht bay on the Käsmu Peninsula. Large stone fields, fine sand, tall conifers right on the coast, and Devil’s island on the horizon make this the most incredible place on the Baltic Sea. And don’t forget to take a dip in its icy waters.

  • Distance

    240 Mi.

    (386 KM)
  • Days

    5

  • % Unpaved

    95%

  • % Singletrack

    20%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    7

  • % Rideable (time)

    99%

  • Total Ascent

    5,223'

    (1,592 M)
  • High Point

    341'

    (104 M)
  • Highlights
  • Must Know
  • Camping
  • Food/H2O
  • Surju Train Station was built in 1896 under the Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia. It’s an estonian cultural monument.
  • Farm Museum of C. R. Jakobson at Kurgja and The flour and saw watermill, built in 1879, at the Pärnu River worth a visit.
  • Soomaa Nature Center in the Soomaa National Park. Here you can have information materials and watch films about the Park. You can also explore the flora of Central Estonia, the cultural history, and experience the fifth season of Soomaa – the flood.
  • In the Centre it’s possible to see the exhibition of the epic “Fifth Season” of 2010.
  • Estonian forests are populated by european lynx, brown bears, wolves, moose, beavers and flying squirrels that can only be seen in Estonia and Sweden. You can also meet a lot of galliformes as the Hazel Grouse, the Capercaillie and the Grouse. Flocks of white storks will often accompany your trip.
  • Observation tower near Lake Paukjärve. A sort of time machine on which it’s worth going to watch the primitive bog landscapes.
  • Swimming in the Baltic Sea. The Mädalaht bay, at the end of the trail, is the best place to do this, and have chilling time and a beer!
  • The best time to tackle this route is from June to August, with temperatures ranging from 10° C to 20° C. July and August, however, are the wettest months.
  • Pärnu, the trail starting point, is easily reaching by train from Tallinn and bikes may be transported without additional cost.
  • Don’t forget anti-mosquito net hat and a ton of repellent.
  • If anybody should give you a Vodka, drink it in one shot without coughing!
  • The trail is mainly made up of empty gravel roads and singletracks, never really technical except in brief steps.
  • The floods can inundate large areas, and you may find yourself facing deep fords without the possibility of bypass them. Crocs might come in handy.
  • Along the trail we counted 9 campsites and 18 campfires, equipped with outdoor fireplaces, fire rings with barbecue grill, shelters with table and benches, trash cans and dry toilets.
  • There are 5 forest huts that can be used free of charge. Inside you will find tables, benches/platform beds and in someone even fireplace.
  • There are 3 points for sourcing of drinking water along the trail: a well near the Laiksaare Forest District and two fountains, one at the Sooma Nature Center and the other in the Campsite of Võsu (All noted on the GPX). The water has a metallic taste, but you will appreciate it.
  • Along the trail you can pick wild blueberries and apples. Super tasty and great natural energy if necessary.
  • In the town of Kurgia, inside the water mill, near the “Farm Museum of C. R. Jakobson,” you can buy mineral water bottles.
  • There’s a general store in the borough of Lelle, about halfway through the route. It is small but well-stocked.
  • The second and last market where you can resupply is in the village of Aegviidu.

Additional Resources

  • rmk.ee – the official webpage for State Forest Management Centre. The site contains useful information about campsites, campfires and huts along the route.
  • Visit MontanusWild.com – For the full set of photos from this trip.

  • http://www.offroute.ca Skyler

    This route looks remarkable! But, I wonder if “Swamp Thing” makes any sense to a country that was part of the Soviet block until 1989. It’s a cute literary handle for us anglophones, no doubt, but I imagine these trails existed before any anglophone showed up to ride them on a bike. Do they already have place names? The act of naming something is a powerful action. I referred to one of the routes I rode in Chile as the “Monkey Puzzle Trail” in a similar tongue-and-cheek blog post and to my horror, cyclists have been using that name since (I’ll be replacing that route info this fall, partly for that reason). Since that experience, I’ve tried to use only existing place names and refer to routes with generic names like, for example, “Trans-Estonia”. We’re not exploring empty places on the map – perhaps it’s more respectful to leave the naming to the people who live there.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Yeah, I get it. Perhaps it’s just a naming convention too. A lot of the routes have two parts and maybe keeping the creative portion to the right of the colon makes sense. Maybe ‘Trans-Estonia: The Swamp Thing’ could have solved this; although I do like the story behind it, and it makes a good description of the terrain.

  • http://www.offroute.ca Skyler

    Yeah, I think the subtitle would succeed in keeping the fun tone of these route posts without imposing anglophone pop-culture references across the globe. I totally love the hand-drawn map photo, and don’t mean to criticize that. I think it’s great as a story title, but not as a concrete, lasting name for something on the ground. The subtitle seems to me a great solution to have it both ways.

  • MONTANUS

    Hi Skyler and thanks for your compliments about the route and the map. “Swamp Thing” has a great sense especially for Estonia. Since indipendence there have been major ‘clean-up’ attempts to counter the effects of Soviet-era industrialization. Toxic emissions in the industrialized northeast of Estonia have been reduced sharply and new environmental impact legislation aims to minimize the environmental effects of future development. Estonia and the RMK, the manager of state forest, are working hard on this side. One of the objective of RMK is to offer outdoor recreational possibilities and introduce sites of protection value through the nature tourism system based on everyman’s right in rational and protected areas. In the same way the Swamp Thing character “fights to protect his swamp home and the environment in general”. This is the why we think that ‘Swamp Thing Trail’ is not only a creative-fun naming for this route, but mainly it is useful to tell what estonian people are doing for their country and its environment.

    Cheers from Italy and sorry for my poor english.

    Francesco and Giorgio

  • matt wiggins

    Awesome route! Very similar vibes to my nearby Green Swamp here in Florida. Glad to hear Estonians are working to protect their swamp, which if it’s any similar to Green Swamp, is important to replenishing aquifers and feeding river systems. Great stuff!

  • RuwenG

    Thanks for sharing this journey! Estonia has been on my list for a long time, especially the Lahemaa Nat Park.
    How did you get your bikes to Tallin? There is a cheap flight airline (Ryanair) that operates flights to Tallin but I’m not sure if they will allow bikes?!

  • margusl

    What a nice read and those shots.. super nice!
    But as a local, I was quite confused about Swamp Thing at first, just kept reading intro over and over trying to remember if there is anything along the route that might translate to something like that (Soomaa, for example, translates to swamp land)

    While I actually had to look up The Swamp Thing, I guess that name makes a lot more sense for people who actually have to plan a bit more instead of taking up to 3 hour drive to reach most of those sites. Anyway, while googling or taking some questions about the route and supply points to some Estonian forums or Facebook groups, referring to ‘Oandu-Ikla route’ will probably result with few more responses :]

  • MONTANUS

    Hi Margusl, we’re glad you like words and photos about your country.
    Talking about the STT, you can decide to give a name using the starting and finishing point (Pärnu-Käsmu) or you can choice a more classical one as Estonia-Divide, Baltic Route or other solutions. We think that a route name can tell you more than its mere geo-location. With the terms ‘Swamp Thing’ we want to highlight not only the scenario you meet along that route, but maily the great environmental sensibility and ecological thinking of Estonians (Swamp Thing character fights to protect his swamp home). I hope you understood that is a positive meaning :-) Maybe you missed the rmk.ee link in Additional Resources (just above this chat). Please, check it out, it’s plenty of usefull info about routes (Peraküla-Aegviidu-Ähijärve is interesting too), campsites and huts. We hope you appreciated our good intentions to promote your country and the incredible landscapes that it can offer. Ciao!

  • Nick

    Awesome! Estonia has been on my off road touring list ever since I saw it from the air a few years back. Those pine forests and endless beaches look wonderful.

  • margusl

    Hey, no worries :)
    Sorry if I somehow sounded bit grumpy, never meant to and I’m totally cool with naming and background story. I really am! And so are probably vast majority of local riders and hikers after they get over the first puzzlement (again – nothing negative here, depending on background it just happens to work as a brain teaser for some ;) )

    “Oandu-Ikla” was only meant as practical tip for anyone wanting to to some more research on that route and might be after some local knowledge – STT follows current RMK Oandu-Ikla Matktateee (= hiking route) quite closely, ~ 80% – 90% . RMK officially opened it in 2012, basically it meant some new sections linking together existing ones, route marking, some new camping sites, maps and booklets, changes in RMK web. And a public campaign to get more people to enjoy all this. RMK has put quite an effort into promoting it’s routes and sites and they have been quite successful while doing this – longer routes are well known and popular among quite different crowd, from XC and adventure racers who are after 24h endurance training to families looking for day-hikes or taking one section per weekend on bikes. This in turn generates a fair bit of useful information – are some bridges broken, updates on marking, changes in sections, roads turned into mudstreams by logging trucks, state of boardwalks etc. And searching for “Oandu-Ikla”, “Peraküla-Aegviidu-Ähijärve” or just “rmk matkatee” will get you closer to this community-built knowledge. Even if all those search results are in some kind of gibberish that Google identifies as Estonian and maybe even tries to translate to something more meaningful (miserably failing, of course), leaving your comment or question in English on those blogs, forums and facebook pages / groups will most likely get you a reply.

  • MONTANUS

    We respect your point of view, we simply think that Estonian route names work good for locals and for all the people well known the country and its cities, forests and so on. We think that “Swamp Thing Trail: exploring the estonian taiga” is a good title (and it’s works on Google too) to promote a bike-adventure in Estonia on a worldwide bikepacking specific site. The rmk.ee link offers to the reader all the additional infos that he may need. We also really appreciated that VisitEstonia.com, the official travel guide for Estonia, liked and shared our route on its social media. Ciao.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fcfe71b601088d5d1d2747bfdb050be3bfebd5219de67f2424613edf957a4903.jpg