Last winter, I got the beautiful chance to spend time living and photographing on a freezing island located right in the central Helsinki. I spent 24 nights there as the cold winter turned to spring.
It all started when I saw an article about an island that was for sale for one million euros. Katajanokanluoto is the only privately owned island in central Helsinki and is located just a few hundred meters from the Helsinki shoreline. I had seen the island many times before from the Suomenlinna ferry. Suomenlinna is one of the most popular locations in Helsinki among the tourists and one of my favorite places.
I emailed the owner and asked if I could live and photograph on the island. He thought the idea was great and encouraged me to carry out the plan. A few days later, I had keys for the cabin. The only thing left to figure was how to get to the island.
It had been a record-breaking cold winter. It dropped as low as almost -20 °C in Helsinki, so the ice was really thick. The central location of the island meant that there were many open ship lanes surrounding the island. Walking there wasn’t an option. Ship lanes were opened only for huge ships, so they didn’t help for getting a small boat to the island.
I asked a ride from archipelago transportation business. Due to the coldness, they had already postponed all their transportations at that moment. I incidentally met them in Kauppatori while they were trying to free their ship from the surrounding ice.
I really didn’t want to wait until spring so I had to figure out another option. The only vehicle that can easily move on both ice and water is hovercraft. Luckily I found a guy that imports them and does some transportation as well. He said that he needs to make sure there weren’t any huge ice chunks on the way. When icebreakers operate, the edge of the open lane is sometimes piled with ice, making it dangerous to pass with hovercraft. Few days went by and I got the good news. Ice is flat enough so the adventure could begin.
The trip from the nearby dock to the island was a small adventure by itself. It was really fascinating to watch how effortlessly this versatile vehicle could move over the water and ice when driven by a skilled driver. The ride was over in just a few minutes.
Being on the island for the very first time, and realizing there is no going back before the scheduled pick-up after 7 days, felt oddly relaxing. The sights were amazingly beautiful, the air was fresh, and the cabin was really comfy looking.
Katajanokanluoto island is about the size of a half soccer field, 5000 square meters (~1.24 acres). It looked much bigger on the spot than from the distances I had seen it before.
After circling the island a few times, I went to check out the cabin. Outside very traditional, warm and comfy looking cabin surprised from the inside. White painted walls, stunning board floor, minimalistic interior design with some beautiful art pieces took me far from the traditional cabin views.
Just a few hours after arriving I knew that I would enjoy my stay. The versatile presence of nature felt wholesomely good. It is really empowering to watch the madness of the city from just a few hundred meters distance and feeling mentally really far away from it. Time and events of the world lose their significance. Observing nature and surroundings felt much more important.
Crows of the island were shocked about my arrival. At the beginning even opening the cabin door got them bolting to another side of the island. Day after day they approved me better. When watching swans I experienced a beautiful moment of trust. The crow flew and landed between me and the swans just under 10 meters from me. It groomed its feathers like it even didn’t notice me.
Besides the crows, blackbirds, common goldeneyes and swans inhabited the island in the winter time. Later came mallards, white wagtails, and geese. Lots of geese.
Ice circumstances and weather conditions varied rapidly throughout the day. Nighttime coldness halts the sea entirely while the warmth of the morning sun revived it back alive bringing chunks of ice from the distance.
As the day progressed, ice gathered on the shore. Changing ice formations, clouds and the tones from the setting sun made sure that all the nights looked different. Snow blizzards arrived in just minutes. Often making it literally snow from left to right. The wind was very piercing and combined with coldness, it effectively revealed the weak spots on clothing. Weather conditions were generally favorable and I had the chance to enjoy sunny moments almost every day.
I spent most of the time exploring and photographing the island. Quilted trousers were needed even in temperatures around zero. Especially when observing birds. I never felt outstandingly cold. The first night I heated up the fireplace. After that, I slept without heating.
I got used to the coldness really quickly. Only the first moments after waking up and getting out from the sleeping bag felt harrowing. “Washing” myself with the snow and bathing in the sea filled with ice cubes were the most shivering experiences. The coldest temperature was 12 degrees Celsius below zero.
My morning routine was to get up without hesitating, get the clothes on and go outside to take photos for 2-3 hours until the sunrise. Then I ate breakfast and took a nap. After that, I continued enjoying the fresh air outside and taking photos for the moments after sunset having just a few eating, warming, and resting breaks in between the shoots.
During the first six days, preparing food took a huge amount of time. I prepared a warm meal with the stove using wet wood three times a day. Every time it was a great challenge and I got well-needed practice of patience and fire starting skills. After the first trip, I took my portable stove with me so the meal preparation was much easier and less time-consuming.
Living on the island was really relaxing, healthy and full of well being. Keeping the mobile phone silent and living without grid electricity and computer ensured uninterrupted living. Days went by on a flow state taking photos and doing small tasks. Sleeping difficulties were gone and I slept better than ever. Usually starting around 10 pm.
The cruisers passed the island from just a few hundred meters of distance. Bigger ships could be felt as a low-frequency rumbling but overall they made quite little noise and operated just a few times a day. The motor of Suomenlinna ferry kept oscillating noise which could be heard every time in advance. Cabin fever hit me so I felt the urge to go to the shore watching, wondering and photographing the ships passing the island. I can imagine ending up on many photos and videos taken by tourists. Katajanokanluoto island is a pretty popular subject of photography for the people going to Suomenlinna and back.
The first six days on the island was over in an instant and completely without the present of homesickness or getting bored of the scenery or daily routines. I was surprised how quickly the ordinary haste and stress were gone. Small challenges on the island life: trying to keep the drinking water in a liquid state, using a pit in the snow as a fridge and maintaining warmness by clothing, were just the right kind to keep the mind stimulated and to give continuous rewards from the small successes in the day.
My next trip happened a few weeks later. I got a lift from the same hovercraft business but this time the vehicle was a self-made hovercraft. This sportier looking vehicle turned out to be as stable as the one before and again the trip to the island was successfully over in just a few minutes.
This time the sea was partly open. The weather shifted between snowy cold and warm. First signs of spring were there. Plants sprouted, the smell of the sea was present and the bird count increased day by day. In morning and night, It was fascinating to observe the creation and the melting of the ice on the sea.
I enjoyed my stay on the island more every day. While I was there, my only concern was returning to city life. In an apartment building and in the city, concerns of humanity are present all the time. Schedules, noise pollution, and conflicts. On the island, these worries seem distant. Lack of disturbances and other people created a stronger sense of being in charge of one’s well being.
I did a quick maintenance break on the mainland. Washing clothes, copying data from the memory cards, charging batteries and preparing food. I returned to the island with a small motor boat. The remnants of winter were gone and replaced by the spring livelihood and lightness. Few times I could bathe in the sun shirtless. Birds were also on a spring mood. Moments after arriving, I witnessed the weird mating rituals of mallards and observed how the Canada geese and the barnacle geese were fighting for their territories.
In the beginning, the bigger Canada geese didn’t tolerate their smaller cousins at all. They did numerous random attacks towards them. With the tiring tactics and the bigger count, barnacle geese invaded numerous spots from the island gaining majority.
In a late evening moment, the cliff on the island was a war ground. As usual one of the defiant male Canada goose shooed away the barnacle goose couple that had come too near. This time barnacle goose had some reinforcements. Other barnacle goose couple joined the fight and the four smaller geese scolded the bully with their aggressive pecking. The Canada goose escaped dragging its neck to the pushes just to bluster and peck its mate. That night the victorious barnacle geese cackle more confident than ever before.
There was a greylag goose nesting on the island too but for some reason, other geese didn’t seem to notice it at all.
In the morning of the returning day, I saw something in the corner of my eye. It was an American mink with a fish on its mouth. The mink leaped under the tarps of the dock. I got a little bit closer to wait and after a few minutes, its curiosity won. The mink came back to stare me a while. This time without its fish.
After returning from the next maintenance break the atmosphere was quite different. Geese had formed their territory and maintained it with aggression. Barnacle geese had eggs on their nests and they were really defiant towards me. At first, I had to gain back my routes by walking them with a broom. Numerous of mean stares, hissings, and fake attacks later I took over their respect and could walk on the island again. It was a game of patience.
In that week the weather conditions varied from stunningly clear and warm sunny days to cold and misty. There were gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. A few times in the middle of the day, a low flying mist cloud arrived from the horizon covering everything. The visibility was limited to just twenty or so meters. It is a surrealistic experience being on the island in the Heart of Helsinki and not seeing or hearing anything besides the foghorns echoing in the distance.
From the start to finish of the trip, the same basic routines and thoughts repeated themselves. Nevertheless, the adventure changed its shape and developed by time. In the beginning, the snow and ice dominated the landscape. The wintery peacefulness was something truly spectacular and unique. Observing the form shifting ice and getting by on the cold, felt an adequate thing just by itself. Later when animal and human contacts got more frequent, it brought hecticness to living. Advancing spring, enjoying the sun and watching birds gave lots of joy. I really felt that I was at the mercy of nature.
One of the most unique features in photographing on the island were its limitations. Many times there is a bit restlessness about whether you are on the most photographic place or not. On the island the subjects and the spots were limited. To get versatile photos I really had to challenge myself and think the photo expression again and again.
All in all, the adventure was one of the greatest I’ve experienced. Well-being, peacefulness, and the absence of stress and restlessness felt really good. I returned the island for October and Christmas week. Spending 34 days on the island in 2018.
About the author: Pasi Markkanen is a photographer, artist, and entrepreneur who lives in Porvoo, Finland. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Markkanen’s work on his website. A longer version of this article was published here.