Above all, the forest is woven together by wood ants. One afternoon, near the aapa mires —the wet peatlands—on the sandy northern edge of the park, I sat and watched an ant colony at work. Its mound, some three feet tall, looked like the great shoulder hump of a brown bear with pine needle fur. The mound swarmed with small red ants making their way in and out of several entrances. The movement was so constant, so determined, that the entire mound seemed to be shifting in and out of focus before my eyes.
And yet this was just the superficial activity of these ants. In fact, their trails lead all over the forest: underground, aboveground, up the trunks of the trees, and out onto the highest branches. The ants recycle everything around them, including dead insects. They farm aphids for their honeydew. Wherever there are wood ants there are also richer populations of earthworms and richer nutrients in the soil. Brown bears tear the nests apart, foraging for grubs, and they have been known to hibernate in the soft earth inside the mounds.
In themselves, the ant colonies—some of which may be as old as Oulanka's mature trees—constitute large-scale organisms that suppress the presence of other insects. If all the biomass in an ant colony were concentrated into a single individual capable of wandering over the landscape and showing its true biological proportions, it would tower over even the biggest bear. In short, wood ants play a vital role in regulating the economy of the forest in Oulanka. They are its keystone species.
National parks preserve more than the life and scenery within them. They also preserve the cultural assumptions of the nations that create them. Like the rest of Finland's parks, Oulanka helps preserve an intense cultural bond with the forest, part of the annual, and deeply beloved, Finnish retreat to the countryside in summer and fall.
Throughout Oulanka—in its campgrounds, on its swinging bridges and well-groomed trails—I met hikers carrying bags of edible mushrooms they had gathered along the way. In an American national park such as Yellowstone this would be illegal. But the Finns cherish a custom called "everyman's right." Among other things, this allows any person to gather berries and mushrooms—though not wood or lichens or mosses—wherever they like, including Oulanka.