Kayaking in Estonia is not for the faint-hearted, as travel journalist Alex Wright finds out on a trip to a remote island in the Gulf of Finland…
“We train NATO soldiers during the week,” remarked my guide Rene. “They are not as good as you would think though; they’re always capsizing or complaining they’re tired.”
Welcome to kayaking in Estonia on the Baltic, where the waves are big and the laughs even bigger. I was there on a two-day paddle around Vaike-Pakri, the smaller of a set of two islands located in the Gulf of Finland, one hour outside of Tallinn.
After explaining how to get into the kayak and paddle, and more importantly how to get out if you capsize, it was time to set off on our adventure. Heading out across the strait that separates the island from the mainland into a gale force wind, I was soon reminded of Rene’s last words about kayaking in Estonia: “The waves are your friends.”
They weren’t so friendly moments later when a huge one almost swept me under. It was only a minor setback, however, and I quickly regained my balance (and my pride), dug my paddle in deeper and pressed on. Having paddled for what seemed like an eternity, though in reality it was probably 10 minutes, the shore ahead still looked as far away as ever.
When we did finally make it to land 40 minutes later, it was a welcome opportunity to get out, stretch the legs and admire the rugged scenery around us. The hard part done, having caught our breath we set off again, hugging the shoreline as we made our way round towards a sandy beach that would be our camp for the night.
Awaiting us further up the beach was a pile of beer and crisps that our guides had thoughtfully left out for us. Our thirsts quenched, it was time to pitch our tents and unpack our provisions from the kayaks. After a quick change of clothes, we set off on a one-mile hike inland to Suur Kula or Big Village (incidentally the island’s only village).
What greeted us on arrival was a scene straight out of Deliverance; a farmyard from an age when everything was worked by hand, with meticulously stacked woodpiles built for the winter when the temperature drops below freezing, and various livestock roaming free among the machinery. The whole place was strangely devoid of people; the island’s 15 inhabitants probably had somewhere better to be on a Friday night.
Ushered into a communal hall adorned with smaller farm machinery by our guides, we sat down to a hearty feast of veal in sauce, boiled potatoes, and vegetables straight from the field. Having finished the last morsels, the farmer pulled up in front in his old Soviet tractor and offered us a lift home on the rickety wooden trailer on the back.
What followed was a white-knuckle ride back along the dirt track to the campsite with the creaky old trailer feeling like it was going to fall apart at any moment as we were thrown from one side to the other at every bump. Safely home, we retired to the beach, where we gathered around a roaring campfire, as our hosts hastily assemble a pop-up sauna tent.
Sitting back and listening to tales of adventure on the Nile from another of our guides, looking out across the water gleaming in the eternal sunshine overhead; life couldn’t be more perfect. With the sauna now firing at optimal heat, we filed off in threes and fours to go and sweat it out in the tent in our smalls before racing into the icy cold sea to cool off.
The next day we were up early, awoken by the hot sun beating down on our tents. After a wholesome breakfast of rye bread, yoghurt and blackcurrants, much of which was spent trying to avoid the local wasp population who had decided to join us, we repacked our kayaks and set off.
With a strong easterly wind buffeting our kayaks around, Rene shouted at me to paddle towards the relative safety of shore, after one particularly large breaker almost wiped me out. As we worked our way along the coast, the landscape suddenly changed, giving way to dramatic limestone cliff faces, which I am reliably informed by another guide make up the 750-mile Ordovician Period Baltic Klint that stretches all the way from Sweden to Russia. Legend has it that in the 18th century, Catherine II had ordered a dam to be built linking the island to the mainland, but every time they tried to lay new foundations, it sank into the seabed.
The next clear and present danger was in the form of large rocks hidden just beneath the surface and scattered along the coast, which we had to weave our way through. As we followed the shoreline toward the northern side of the island, the rusting hulk of a boat reared up in front of us.
It turned out that the Soviets, who had requisitioned the island, had sailed decommissioned vessels such as this into the channel between the two islands and used them as target practice for their military aircraft bombing. Dodging the ubiquitous gun cartridges and cowpats strewn along the beach opposite (I had yet to see a single cow yet), we tucked into our picnic with gusto in preparation for the final and most gruelling leg that lay ahead. It’s true what Rene had said, kayaking in Estonia is no picnic.
Passing alongside reeds and under low bridges, we meandered our way towards the strait we had crossed a day earlier. Instructed to paddle together as a tight-knit unit to avoid being swept away, we braced ourselves as we headed once more into the full force of the wind.
Setting our sights on the far peninsular so that the tide would sweep us back into shore, we soon settled into our rhythm. Stretching every sinew, we cut a path through the whitecaps until we reached the calmer waters of the harbour and let the tide do the rest. Leaping out of our kayaks, we allowed ourselves a moment to float in the warm shallows among the Estonian families who had flocked to the beach for the day, and contemplate the last 24 hours. Our incredible adventure sea kayaking in Estonia had come to an end, and it was time to head home.
Kayaking in Estonia: How to do it yourself
To experience this unique Nordic sea kayaking experience, check out the fully guided tour from Much Better Adventures here. The trip includes two days sea kayaking with a guide, a night’s wild camping accommodation on the remote islands of Pakri, a night of hostel accomodation in Tallin’s old town, a hiking expedition to explore the islands as well as an evening enjoying drinks in a teepee sauna. Also included on the trip are daily meals and all kayaking and camping equipment (except a sleeping bag).