Martin Bauman hosted me on his podcast Story Untold to talk about the journey that led me to research and write a travel memoir about my Mennonite culture. Have a listen!
Join Cameron Dueck on Thursday, May 14 for a virtual launch of his new book, Menno Moto: A Journey Across the Americas in Search of My Mennonite Identity. There will be a reading, a Q&A, and the opportunity to win a copy of Menno Moto! Cameron will be joined by his brother, Rod, and writer Dora Dueck (no relation).
Join the event on Facebook Live
Thursday, May 14, 7pm EDT/6pm CDT
Across Latin America, from the plains of Mexico to the jungles of Paraguay, live a cloistered Germanic people. For nearly a century, they have kept their doors and their minds closed, separating their communities from a secular world they view as sinful.
The story of their search for religious and social independence began generations ago in Europe and led them, in the late 1800s, to Canada, where they enjoyed the freedoms they sought under the protection of a nascent government. Yet in the 1920s, when the country many still consider their motherland began to take shape as a nation and their separatism came under scrutiny, groups of Mennonites left for the promises of Latin America: unbroken land and new guarantees of freedom to create autonomous, ethnically pure colonies. There they live as if time stands still—an isolation with dark consequences.
In this memoir of an eight-month, 45,000 kilometre motorcycle journey across the Americas, Mennonite writer Cameron Dueck searches for common ground within his cultural diaspora. From skirmishes with secular neighbours over water rights in Mexico, to a mass-rape scandal in Bolivia, to the Green Hell of Paraguay and the wheat fields of Argentina, Dueck follows his ancestors south, finding reasons to both love and loathe his culture—and, in the process, finding himself.
To get your copy of Menno Moto, call or visit the McNally Robinson Grant Park bookstore. 10 AM to 6 PM, Monday through Saturday. 204-475-0483.
You may also order online here: mcnallyrobinson.com/9781771963473/cameron-dueck/menno-moto though note that it will take at least a week to process new orders, so for faster service we strongly encourage you to phone or visit the bookstore.
Across Latin America, from the plains of Mexico to the jungles of Paraguay, live a cloistered Germanic people. For nearly a century, they have kept their doors and their minds closed, separating their communities from a secular world they view as sinful.
The story of their search for religious and social independence began generations ago in Europe and led them, in the late 1800s, to Canada, where they enjoyed the freedoms they sought under the protection of a nascent government. Yet in the 1920s, when the country many still consider their motherland began to take shape as a nation and their separatism came under scrutiny, groups of Mennonites left for the promises of Latin America: unbroken land and new guarantees of freedom to create autonomous, ethnically pure colonies. There they live as if time stands still―an isolation with dark consequences.
In this memoir of an eight-month, 45,000 kilometre motorcycle journey across the Americas, Mennonite writer Cameron Dueck searches for common ground within his cultural diaspora. From skirmishes with secular neighbours over water rights in Mexico, to a mass-rape scandal in Bolivia, to the Green Hell of Paraguay and the wheat fields of Argentina, Dueck follows his ancestors south, finding reasons to both love and loathe his culture―and, in the process, finding himself.
The last three months have been insane. Hong Kong, my home, has been torn asunder as we come to grips with how Beijing interprets and disrespects “one country, two systems”. Many of my friends overseas have asked how this is affecting me — thank you for your concern, and here is my answer.
This crisis, protest, revolution, movement — call it what you will — has overshadowed all else in my life, and the lives of many people I know here. I still wake, eat, work and play much like before, but the situation has shaken my sense of optimism, ambition and trust, and it colours every conversation and interaction I have. This conflict began peacefully, but the lack of leadership skills in the Chinese and Hong Kong government has passed the problem off to an undisciplined, cowardly and morally bankrupt police force and the triads they collude with. This has caused it to become a violent one, and protests are growing more dangerous with each clash.
However, the youth of the protestors, and the economic prosperity of Hong Kong (at least for those at the top), can make our uprising seem less important and dramatic than the Arab Spring or the fight undertaken by those that died in the treads of a tank in the Tiananmen Massacre. But it’s the same — we are confronting leaders who refuse to represent or listen to their people, and they resort to underhanded methods to hold onto power. From my limited experience as a Hong Kong citizen, I can testify that being oppressed sucks!
So we fight back. But how? I unreservedly support the young protestors on the front line. They are so brave, selfless and committed that I have often cried as I stand back at a safe distance and watch them in action. The beauty — and messiness — of this movement is its lack of leadership, and the agreement of all that we will support each other in our different methods of protest. I do not always agree with frontline tactics, but I support them and stand behind them, physically and in spirit.
I’m mad, I want to fight back. I have some “solutions” in mind for our despicable leaders and police force. But I also want peace. Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world, and I want it to stay that way. I want the honourable, peaceful side of me to take control of my reaction to this. I want to tap into a relentless, positive spirit, because it’s that kind of a fight, with many chapters yet to come.
I’m a writer, but I have been unable to write coherently about what is happening in Hong Kong. So I have chosen to simply go to protests. I don’t chant, I don’t wave a sign, I don’t often post it on social media. I just lace up my running shoes, bring water, a hat and an umbrella (the symbol of our revolution) — and lately I’ve added a face mask, to further safeguard my future. Then I add one to the number. 1. Just me, and 2 million others. Weekend after weekend.
I have a lot of ideas and questions and angry things to say, but right now it’s enough to say I wear black, and I stand for freedom of speech, a vote, the rule of law and responsible, respectable police. And you, wearing your ridiculous riot gear, a white T-shirt, or big crocodile tears, you don’t put these things first, and therefore you stand in our way. I have an unwavering confidence that we are the righteous, and on the right side of history. So I’ll do what I can, which is take to the streets to say that this city belongs to us, and not to you.
Padlock the door and board the windows
Put the people in the street
“It’s just my job,” he says “I’m sorry.”
And draws a check, goes home to eat
But at night he tells his woman
“I know I hide behind the laws.”
She says, “You’re only taking orders.”
That’s how every empire falls.
Please support us as we stand for our democratic ideals in Hong Kong. Trustworthy information is our weapon. Please follow and support the small, resilient independent media outlets reporting from the front line, such as the non-profit Hong Kong Free Press.
145 years ago today (Aug 1) my nine-year old great grandfather stepped off a paddle wheel ship onto the banks of the Red River in Southern Manitoba. He was among the first of 7,000 Mennonites to come to Manitoba from German-speaking colonies in South Russia, now Ukraine. His landing site was where I chose to begin my motorcycle adventure through the Americas. I crossed 19 countries and rode my bike 45,000 km to find the diaspora that has its roots in that same riverbank, and to discover the Mennonite in me. My book about that search for identity will be released by Biblioasis on March 21, 2020.
I’ve received many messages from people who want to know when they can read the story of my motorcycle trip across the Americas to research the Mennonite diaspora. Those messages encouraged me to keep editing, rewriting and reimagining what has become a very personal project. I’m pleased to finally have some good news to share. I’ve sold the manuscript to Biblioasis, and Menno Moto is slated for publication in Spring 2020.
Biblioasis is an independent bookstore and publishing company based in Windsor, Ontario. It was founded by Dan Wells as a bookstore in 1998, and in the early years it focused on poetry and short story collections. Biblioasis went on to become one of Canada’s most prestigious small press publishing houses and in 2015 they had three books nominated for the Giller Prize. You can read articles about them here and here.
Dan is known for taking a risk on new writers and books that other publishers won’t touch. In that case, I’m proud to have written something the publishing industry considers risky.
Menno Moto documents a culture of fair-haired, blue-eyed people who have created isolated colonies across Latin America. There, they have kept their doors and minds closed for nearly a century, viewing the rest of the world as sinful. These are my people, and they are my story.
In Menno Moto, farmers, teachers, missionaries, drug-mules and rapists force me to reconsider my assumptions about my Mennonite culture, which I find to be more varied than I had dared to hope. I find some of my people in prison for the infamous Bolivian “ghost rapes”, while others are educating the poor in Belize or growing rich in Patagonia. In each of these communities I encounter hospitality and suspicion, backward and progressive attitudes, corruption and idealism. I find the freedom of the road, the hell of loneliness, and am almost killed by accidents and exhaustion as I ride my motorcycle across two continents. I learn that there is more Mennonite in me than I expected, and in some cases wanted, to find. I find reasons to both love and loathe the identity I am searching for.
I hope you’ll buy Menno Moto when it’s published in Spring 2020.
One year ago I spent a month as a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, where focused on essay writing. This essay about open ocean sailing was written while at the center, in response to fellow resident’s question.
Leaving without a fixed destination to arrive to an uncertain welcome. That is why I sail.
It’s the first thing I tell landlubbers who ask, “What is it like, to sail across an ocean in a small boat?”
I could describe the long, loping swell of the deep ocean. The black, moonless nights when the darkness chokes my mind. The curl of blue bioluminescence on a breaking wave. The way a new dawn paints the deck candy floss pink. I could describe the welling of joy when dolphins appear and the secrets we share. But I always begin with the thrill of leaving port.
My port clearance is a precious document, the paper clearing boat and crew of debts and warrants and unpaid bar tabs, free to leave without obligation to say where we will come to rest. A zarpe, outbound clearance, a chit that sets you free. The thrill of limbo when I travel without destination sets my imagination afloat.
I aim my boat into blue waters, seeking wind and way. A month of waves may kiss my keel, then, just miles from port, I gybe away. To another coast, a friendlier nation, somewhere downwind from here. Perhaps I’ll never return, never arrive, betwixt and between, alone at sea. I’ll sail in circles, north to the pole, south to the ice, east and then west until land stands in the way. I could if I wanted to.
When the wind blows hard from the north, we aim for Yemen rather than Oman. When our water runs low we stop in Alaska on our way to Japan. If the sailing is good I’ll pass New Zealand and aim straight for Tahiti.
It isn’t always so, this ticket to eternal noncommittal freedom. If you are port hopping in an island nation, or skipping down a nation’s coast, authorities may ask your destination. But when you raise your sail to cross the Atlantic Ocean, The Arabian Sea, crossing a great expanse to a land far away, you wave farewell and slip away into a world between nations, free of borders, free of customs, duties and right of abode.
Tell me, where else can you wander like this? Which train carries you across a border without two nations, one to exit, one to enter? No airliner takes off without a destination on your boarding pass. Roads that lead to the fronterra cross to the other side.
But not when I go to sea.
“Don’t you get bored, day after day with nothing new to do or see?” the landlubbers ask.
Bored? No. Never. I’m too engrossed in the blue soul of the Indian Ocean, light shot through it like a drift of silver filings. The fear that punches through the bottom of my belly when I look aft and see a grey wave, two, three stories high, with anger in its face. The brilliant flash of metal and blue, streaks of yellow, as a tuna hits the lure. Hand over hand, in it comes, the first fresh food of the voyage.
There’s too much work, helming hour after hour, trimming, changing sails. An inch of ease for a tenth of speed. Or making repairs, jury-rigging when you don’t have spares. Baking bread, cooking dinner, cleaning the head.
My father, an old farmer, came aboard my boat. Never sailed, never cruised, a life spent working hard. He knew nothing of the sea. I was proud, showing him my world. And I waited, wanting a hand on the shoulder saying, son, you’ve done well. Nothing. A silent, critical eye.
“So Dad, what do you think of sailing?”
“Seems like an awful lot of work to go real slow.”
I couldn’t argue. The whole point is to go real slow, to appreciate the subtle shifts of scene. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the sea. Every cloud that passes creates a new blue, new grey, new frothy white cap on the wave. Sometimes there are thrills, a squall that makes us long for home. A whale, a school of dolphins showing us the way. But even without, even if it’s calm, we’re still sailing in a kaleidoscope of shifting shape and light. The setting sun on a clean horizon, the masthead light joining Orion. Darkness so deep it’s hard to stay on your feet. Watching the stars revolve, picking a new one to point the way. Then the dawn. Oh, the dawn. First a tinge of grey, then blues and pinks and tangerine light. The white decks glow, waves and wind that frightened in the night pushed back by the light. If I show you the dawn of open sea you will love me. You’ll know what’s for real.
And then, a few weeks in, someone gets lucky on their watch.
“Land! I think I see land!”
A dark smudge on the horizon turns into mountains, beaches and trees and sand. An excitement takes hold. We clean, we shower, we put the ship in order, we work even harder.
Port of Aden, Dutch Harbour, Port of Jamestown, Pond Inlet, Galle, Salalah. Ports and not marinas, not moored next to superyachts and motor cruisers, but ships of war and coastal barges, the grit and grim of a working harbour. The docks are painted with tar, the water streaked with oil. This is not the country’s best face. But it’s where we arrive, alongside working men and foreign cargos, by the kitchen door. Others, less fortunate I’d say, are disgorged into shiny halls, then a taxi and a hotel in a predictable order. We hoist our yellow flag, a declaration of quarantine, inviting corrupt officials to board.
“Perhaps you have a gift for me? Ah thank you, but my brother, he likes Marlboros too.”
Our first requests are fuel and water and is there a sailmaker in this port? And once she’s secure, the papers signed and bilge inspected, we step ashore.
A cold beer, that day’s newspaper, a meal that’s fresh and green. A walk about town, perhaps a souvenir. And then I begin to wonder, what does the forecast say, when will the wind blow and get us out of here?
Read this essay as it appeared in the February 22, 2018 The Globe and Mail newspaper.
Dad’s raspy 87-year-old voice was filled with relief that this last bit of business was taken care of. But I also heard uncertainty, a tinge of seller’s regret, over the telephone.
“He’s agreed to the price and it’s a done deal,” Dad said, his voice muffled by half a world of telegraphic cable. “That’s it. That was my last piece of farmland.”
I was in Hong Kong when I received his call, a long way from Canadian land that he himself broke and turned into grain fields. The fields where my siblings and I learned to put in an honest day’s work, the cornerstone of our family farm on the Prairies. The land that had defined him as a Mennonite man, one chapter in our culture’s long history of buying wilderness and turning it into productive farmland. Selling his land meant he was exiting the cut-and-thrust of agri-business. It meant he no longer had a seat at the table when talk turned to crops and taxes, government subsidies and drainage plans.
When Dad bought half the half section, 320 acres we always called Section 10, it’s designation according to the Dominion Land Survey in the 1800s, it was mostly old-growth tamarack and spruce and the ground was covered in luxuriant moss. It was home to bears and bobcats, wolves and wild that would take years conquer. There were no proper roads leading to it, and just beyond it lay mile after thousands of miles of wilderness. It was low-lying peat and prone to flooding. The land was cheap because it was beyond the fringe of civilisation, part of a new agricultural frontier in Manitoba’s Interlake region. The government offered Dad favourable financing terms because he was a young man eager to help build Canada’s agricultural industry, to tame the nation’s vast expanse.
Grainy black and white photos in our family album show him and my mother, fresh faced and smiling as they began carving a farm out of the forest in the early 1950s. They were in their early 20s, poor but filled with the thrill of prospect. It was a grand adventure to them. One picture shows them resting in waist-deep snow while cutting down the pine forest to make room for their first crops, another has Dad on a borrowed bulldozer, pushing brush into long windrows for burning. Then there’s the photo of him standing in his first crop of barley, which grew as high as his chest but couldn’t hide his beaming smile.
“Ahh, those were hard times,” he says when he sees the pictures. “We worked so hard, because we wanted to build something, to have our own farm. That land was everything to us.”
Sold. Sold to someone I’d grown up with, a farmer who will take good care of it, but still, Section 10 is gone. We knew it was coming — he tried for many years to convince my brothers and I to buy it. But none of us wanted this particular piece of land.
Most of my family still lives in Manitoba. I’m the one that has moved farthest away. When we gather near the farm we grew up on, and the heavy Sunday lunch has been consumed, the men pile into pick-up trucks and go for a drive down the rutted dirt roads circling Section 10. It’s always only the men — because land and crops is a man’s game. At least in a Mennonite’s mind it is. We drive and tell stories about picking roots and long hours on the tractor.
“Ohh, do you remember this corner of the field, the roots that we had to pick here?” one of my brothers asks. The truck slows down so we can get a closer look.
“We’d pick them and burn them, and every year the frost pushed up a fresh crop,” another brother adds.
One person driving the tractor, slowly pulling a flat bed trailer. The others walking behind, sinking deep into the soft peat, picking up the remains of the forest and hurling the roots onto the trailer. When the trailer was full we dumped the roots into piles and burned them. Rock picking wasn’t much different — just heavier to lift and harder to dispose of. Hour after hour of hard work, the earthy smell of the land permeating our hands and clothes, the dirt hiding thick in our hair.
“Child labour. That’s what that was.” Everyone laughs.
Dad squirms in his seat. “Ahh, it wasn’t so bad. And there was no other way, if you boys didn’t work hard the farm wouldn’t keep going.”
“We’d clear the fields of roots and rocks, and then it would rain too much and the fields would flood,” one of my brothers continues.
“It was all we had. We had do the best with what we had,” Dad says.
The stories are always about the struggle, the fight against nature. There were no easy gains made on Section 10. And that’s why none of the brothers bought the land. We wanted nothing more to do with land that required such hard labour. The land was important to our family history but owning it would put nostalgia above smart investment, and none of us could afford such costly sentiments.
Yet owning farm land is central to Mennonite identity. It spells security and stability and, most importantly, independence. Menno Simons, the radical 15th-century religious leader for whom the Mennonites are named, never called on his followers to own land. Nowhere is it written that Mennonites must buy and break land. But the faith’s key tenets of isolationism and simple living were translated into practicing agriculture in remote regions, places raw and wild enough that we could do as we pleased. So, for a Mennonite man, land means you don’t owe nothing to nobody. It means you’re your own man.
Mennonites like to tell stories about how we have moved from country to country to escape religious persecution, to find freedom to live the old way. But, truthfully, the moves are often about finding new land. And Mennonites are thrifty. Swampy land that needs draining can be had for cheap, and all it takes is hard work to turn it profitable.
Perhaps we’re influenced by our earliest roots in the Low Countries, where holding water at bay was a matter of survival. In the mid-16th century those skills earned us an invitation to settle, en masse, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. We dug ditches and built dikes, creating an agricultural haven. Then Catharine the Great invited us to move to southern Russia, promising us good land. We accepted, and took a break from our ditch-digging to farm wheat and silk worms on the well-drained steppes.
In 1874 my great-grandfather moved from Russia to Canada in the first wave of Mennonites to colonise the Prairies. He settled in the Red River Valley, where he needed those diking skills again. The Red regularly breaks free of its banks, overfilled with spring melt. In Rosenort, the diked village where both of my parents grew up, the farmers hold their breath every spring, watching the river rise, rejoicing when it doesn’t flood and resigned when it does. We’ve done it in southern Mexico, Belize, all the way down to Paraguay and Bolivia. On a topographical map, many Mennonite settlements are located in deep green territories, where the land dips and water gathers, places the cartographers mark with cross hatchings.
Dad added another chapter to that story when he left the Red River Valley and moved north to the boggy shores of Lake Winnipeg to break virgin peat land. For Dad, digging drainage ditches became as much a part of farming as planting and harvesting, from an annual deepening of ditches already dug with the tractor to hiring heavy machinery to transform the landscape, thumbing his nose at nature. Ditches that led the water off our land and towards Lake Winnipeg. In really bad years the lake flooded, snaking up those same ditches to drown out our barley and canola. Farming the Mennonite way.
No matter how many ditches we dug, the tractors and harvesters still became stuck. My father put rice tires on the harvester — although there was no rice being grown — hoping to better churn his way across his swampy fields. To no avail.
My childhood memories of farming centre around being mired axle-deep in the fragrant peat of Section 10, the tracks filled with seepage. Deep ruts, so deep you had to scramble to climb out of them. I could think of a hundred things I’d rather be doing.
“Why are we farming here? This is the worst place in the world to farm,” I’d say, my hundredth complaint for the day as I grudgingly helped Dad work the land.
“It’s good soil, we just need to drain it better,” Dad said. He slapped at the hordes of mosquitos — ohh, there were mosquitos, big and by the thousands. He crawled through the muck under the harvester to hook a logging chain to the axle. I took the other end of the chain and dragged it towards the idling tractor, hitching the machines together with the clinking steel snake.
“Now start slow. Don’t yank it or the chain will break,” he would instruct.
I crawled into the tractor cab, twisting around in the seat to watch him on the harvester, watching his hand signals. I revved up the big diesel engine until it belched black smoke, eased out the heavy clutch so slowly that my skinny legs quivered with tension. Watching Dad, watching the harvester, the chain, a delicate dance of lumbering beasts. The chain pulled taut and then, instead of the harvester popping out of its hole, the tractor’s spinning wheels dug giant holes in the quagmire, pulling the machine deeper and deeper with every revolution.
I could see my father shouting, urgent, his lips moving but words drowned by the roar of thrashing pistons. He waved his arms for me to stop. I groaned.
“I’ll put another drainage ditch through here and then next year it will be dry,” Dad said as we unhooked the chain and repositioned the tractor on firmer ground. But it was never dry. Some years we had to wait for frost to firm up the water-logged fields before the crops could be taken off. In those years harvest became a race against the snow.
“I’m never gonna be a farmer,” I told him, more than once, as we stood knee deep in bog, working to free the machinery. I said it angrily, with vengeance.
And I stuck to my word. I moved away from the farm and the Mennonite lifestyle that the rest of my family still shared. I lived in Chicago, New York, Singapore, London and Hong Kong, moving further and further away from my Mennonite identity. I certainly didn’t attend a Mennonite church, I rarely found opportunities to speak our quirky Plattdeutsche mother tongue, and digging ditches made for good stories in the bar, but it was no longer a part of my life. I’d scrapped that muck from my shoes for good.
Then, years after I’d left and Dad had long ago accepted that I wasn’t the farmer he’d hoped I’d become, on a trip back to Manitoba to visit my family, I told Dad I had some money I wanted to invest. His eyes lit up and he leaned forward in his chair.
“Hey, there’s some land for sale near here,” he told me. “It may not go up in value as fast as those stock markets do, but it will always be there. They’re not making more land.”
The language of land — drainage, fences, good soil, stoney or not — was one I’d never learned to speak. But the idea of owning land, my very own land, still appealed to me. It appealed to the Mennonite in me. I’d thought the Mennonite in me had faded, replaced by urbane tastes and international lifestyle, so I was surprised at how his suggestion struck a chord in me. Drifting through the world’s capitals earning a living with my pen was good fun, but owning land, now that was permanence. That was long term planning, building something for the future. The advertised plot was a few miles from our family farm. It was cleared of trees, already tamed and well drained. No digging of ditches needed. It promised an easy, painless path to becoming a respectable Mennonite man.
So I bought the land with a loan from the home town credit union, a small place, where my family had banked for so long the manager still recognised my voice on the telephone. It was with great satisfaction that I took the “For Sale” sign off the gate and walked into the field for the first time.
I kicked a clod and thought, “That’s mine.” I eyed the slope towards the lake, pretending, for a moment, that I knew something about land. I had friends and family that owned thousands of acres so there was a tinge of city-boy sheepishness to my pride in owning this modest plot. I knew I was reaching back to something that wasn’t me anymore, that I had skipped some important steps. I hadn’t broken my own land, planted it with crops, let the land tether me to a place, a community, church and family that consumed me all day every day for my entire life. It wasn’t the same as what Section 10 had done for Dad. This land had not been watered by sweat from my father’s brow. It did not come with stories of hardship, work and progress. And I’d never be a real farmer like my Dad. But I did have a piece of my own land.
Solid, well drained land, and it’s not for sale.
Finland is opening some of its secluded military islands to the public, creating a string of new cruising destinations and adding to the many gems of unpolished history spread across this remote archipelago.
This story was first published in the February 2018 issue of Cruising Helmsman.
The waters approaching Örö are treacherous. Submerged rocks abound, and if you don’t pay attention to your charts you’ll end up swimming in the cold Baltic Sea. It only makes sense, as the inhabitants of this Finnish island have spent the last century with guns in hand, trying to keep visitors at bay.
We handed our sails and motor into the marina under the gun-slit gaze of a weathered concrete bunker, knowing the gun barrels were plugged with concrete while the bunkers are now a tourist attraction.
Örö served as a grazing pasture for local farmers until the early 1900s. Then, as the First World War loomed, Tsarist Russia built a fortress on the island to keep ships away from it’s nearby capital, St Petersburg. Civilians were prohibited from visiting the island and the Russians embarked on a base-building frenzy, from artillery batteries, observation towers, barracks, jetties and cobble-stone roads to warrens of trenches.
When Finland declared independent in 1917 Örö was handed to the Finnish Defence Forces — and remained closed to the public. It was an important defence base during World War Two, and it remained an active base until 2004. Only in 2015 were Örö and all of its buildings transferred to the park system and opened to the public. Örö is only about a 25 mile sail southwest of the region’s major yachting base of Hankow.
The second ö in Örö means island in Swedish, the language of choice for many locals — which points to wars that took place even before this island was militarised. Many of the decommissioned islands have been occupied by Swedish, Russian and Finnish soldiers over the centuries, so each layer of peeling camouflage paint has a story to tell.
On Örö,, the rusting weaponry still gives off a Cold War chill. The historical preservation has been careful and unobtrusive, allowing each new visitor to feel as if they’ve stumbled upon a secret.
If your charts are a year or two out of date, like mine were, the secret can suddenly become pressingly more realistic.
“There’s a north cardinal up ahead,” my girlfriend told me as she helmed our borrowed H323 through the skerries south of Örö. We were on a three-week cruise, with this being her first ever sailing trip. I was navigating, my nose in a book of charts.
“What? You must be seeing something else. There’s nothing on the charts,” I replied, scanning paper and screen simultaneously.
The lack of marks on my charts explained why we were sticking to a wider channel, tacking well clear of the shore and watching the depth meter with a nervous eye. Finland’s waters are notoriously rocky, but the main cruising areas are well marked, with excellently maintained and positioned cardinals, transit marks, lighthouses and cairns. It’s like sailing in a navigational classroom.
“And there’s an east cardinal…I think I can see another north over there.”
These marks for small craft had been laid, or maybe only revealed, in the past year or two, if the date on my charts were correct. I had no doubt the Finnish Defence Forces had these waters well-charted, but still, it felt like we were in remote waters.
Once we were safely moored on Örö we wandered the many hiking trails that wind through forests and over windswept rocky shores. Sprinkled across the island are barracks and mess halls painted the rusty red colour favoured by Scandinavian cottage owners. Örö felt like a summer camp, until we stumbled upon guns with barrels big enough to support a bridge. A radar whirred and spun atop a communications tower, reminding us of Örö’s less peaceful past. Each headland and windswept hill is honeycombed with bunkers and gun positions.
That night we sat, naked and sweating, in the marina’s new sauna, a Scandinavian chic and minimalistic building nestled among the birch trees. An expansive veranda led to a pier, from which steaming pink bodies were being launched into the frigid sea. A full moon bathed the rocky shore in light and turned the leaves of the forest silver. War seemed far away.
Some of the decommissioned islands are just outside Helsinki’s main harbour. Vallisaari was known for centuries as a place where sailors could take fresh water. When Sweden and Russia were at war in 1808 the Russians used Vallisaari as a base, and the island was only opened as tourism destination in 2016. The nearby islands of Isosaari and Lonna, all part of the Helsinki Archipelago, have similar stories to tell. Limited access has allowed threatened wildlife species and habitats to thrive on these islands, making them popular with scientists and eco-tourists alike.
While the bucolic natural settings have made it easy to turn the islands into parks, some decommissioned islands can’t shake their rough character quite so easily. On Utö, 25 miles to the southwest of Örö, the cruising boats are outnumbered by beefy coast guard ships and working boats that have to earn their keep. Utö has had a weather station since 1881 and is the southernmost year-round inhabited island in Finland, but the island feels like a place you are sent to and where you remain out of a sense of duty. Here the bunkers carved into granite feel colder, harder, more dangerous. In reality, Utö has also been a place of refuge. The island and its sailors formed the backbone of the rescue effort when the MS Estonia ferry sank nearby in 1994.
There was a cold, stiff breeze hitting Utö from the northeast when we were there, and it made me wonder about the island’s welcome. But then it came time for one of the handful of sailing boats to leave the dock, and the warm heart of these waters showed. Helping hands began to emerge from cockpits as the departing sail boat started her engine. Warps were run ashore, instructions shouted into the wind, and the boat began to back out while the sailors ashore controlled her head and made sure she got away cleanly. Here, boats moor bow to the dock, with a hook on a stern line to catch the mooring buoy. Boats run their anchor from the stern in smaller marinas without buoys. Most local boats have a strap line on a spool at the stern to make mooring easier.
A spool of strong line on the stern also makes it easier to adapt to local customs in natural harbours. In the Finnish archipelago the land falls into the sea so steeply that in many places you can moor your boat directly to the rocks — a frightening exercise for uninitiated sailors. The anchor is dropped off the stern, and bow lines are tied to trees or pitons pounded into cracks in the rock. Then you jump ashore off the bow and explore your island.
Even in the high season of June and July you can have a cozy bay all to yourself. The forests are wild and pristine, filled with wild berries — within a one-week span we picked blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and cranberries — as well as wild mushrooms, if you dare. While there are summer houses sprinkled across the archipelago, the land use customs dictate that as long as you’re not moored right in front of the property and give everyone a bit of space and privacy, you’re allowed to go ashore anywhere you want.
When you run out of beer and locally smoked fish, there are scores of small, affordable with basic services and friendly advice. The islands have three main mooring options: Natural harbours, whether anchored or moored to the shore; basic marinas, with a toilet and picnic table near the dock and not much more, are free; service marinas, which range from small family-run affairs that offer basic amenities to professionally-run marinas with fuel and repair support. Service marinas charges anywhere from 15 to 40 euros for a 40-foot boat, depending on their location and services.
Foreign boats are rare, and locals are surprised to encounter sailors from Hong Kong in their homely little ports. We borrowed Valaska from a friend, and she flies the Finnish flag, so in every port there was an awkward explanation — we’re not Finnish, we don’t speak Finnish or Swedish, we’re not from around here, but hello all the same. We saw a handful of Germans, the odd British, Estonian or Russian flag, but the vast majority of the boats were from Sweden or Finland. It only added to the feeling that we were discovering something special.
But the discoveries are not limited to old guns and underground bunkers. A dusty patina of history also covers many of the civilian islands that have transitioned from industry and other functions to nature tourism. Most of them are within an easy day’s sail of each other.
Själö was once home to a mental hospital and leper colony — today it’s a marine research center and quiet marina. Nearby is Jussarö’s abandoned iron ore mine, which became a military training ground before even the soldiers went home. The island, now a nature reserve, advertises itself as Finland’s only ghost town.
Helsingholmen is also on that list. When I told a fellow sailor that I preferred rustic, quiet marinas to the full-service ones, he showed me the island on a map.
“There’s just one family living there, running the place, selling some fish and keeping the island alive,” he said.
We arrived in Helsingholmen after a long day of dodging squalls and running in front of a 25-knot breeze. It was nearly dead calm in the bay. Children were playing on the lawn and the smell of smoke and fish drifted through the air.
Helsingholmen has been inhabited by farmers and fishermen since the 1770s, but now it’s just the Andersson family left. I went ashore to pay our marina fee and instead of a cash register found a wooden box nailed to the wall of an old barn, on the honour system. Smoked fish and bread rolls that were still warm from the Andersson family oven were on offer.
A hike across the island took me past abandoned log cabins with leaky roofs, 18th century farm machinery that was slowly becoming part of nature, and overgrown pastures carved out of the forest. The whole island felt like a museum piece.
The sun was beginning to set — which happens late, if at all, during the Finnish summer. I found a rocky outcrop that faced mainland Finland. The sea chopped at the rocky shore, trying to tear out the reeds that grew in the shallows. My sailing voyage through Finland’s archipelago was coming to an end, and I looked out across the water we would cross the next day. We would sail east, towards the bustling port of Hankow and beyond that the capital, Helsinki, and back into the present.
I’m at the Vermont Studio Center, in Johnson, VT for a month-long writing residency. The art center is based in repurposed turn-of-the-century buildings in the center of town — houses, church, grain mill, dance hall, gymnasium — all turned into studios, housing and dining hall. It’s a lovely place with about 50 residents in addition to a large community of staff artists and writers. I’m here to work on a series of essays.
Writing residents are given opportunities read their work to the community in regular readings held in the Lowe Lecture Hall, a wonderful old converted theatre. I chose to read from the manuscript of Menno Moto: A Journey in Search of Identity. It’s the first time I’ve read any of this work publicly, and I hope there will be many more readings once it gets published. You can listen to an audio recording of the reading here: