The sea has always been a way of life in the High Coast and in the Kvarken Archipelago. Stone Age hunters hunted seal at the High Coast already when the tops of till-capped hills were just islands about 8,000 years ago. At that time the Kvarken Archipelago was still deep down in the sea. It took another 7,000 years before the seal hunters and Vikings visited the first islands of the Kvarken Archipelago.
Humans follow the shoreline rising from the sea
Because of the land uplift, people have always had to adapt to the changing nature. People had to move their harbours closer to the sea, when the land uplift gradually made the sea bays too shallow or even separated from the sea. Sometimes people had to build new settlements or move whole towns, which happened with the old city of Vaasa.
At the High Coast’s steep shores, you can follow the traces of the ancient remains uphill, starting from the Iron Age, then to the Bronze Age and all the way to the Stone Age. Humans have always settled near the water. The higher up the ancient remains are in the landscape, the older they are. The oldest traces of humans are nowadays 160 meters above sea level, and they are about 8,000 years old. Among the most interesting findings are a trading place from the Stone Age and burial cairns from the Bronze Age.
In the low-lying and shallow Kvarken Archipelago, the land uplift makes a difference surprisingly fast. In just one lifetime, you might not be able to reach a boathouse with a boat anymore. Similarly, prehistoric fishing camps are nowadays in the forest, while new harbours are intentionally built on the outer borders of the archipelago.
Waters of the World Heritage Site are not easy to navigate
The land uplift makes the boat passages shallower and lifts boulders above sea level. The Kvarken Archipelago has even been called the archipelago of wrecks because of the many vessels that have gone ashore here. The boat passages are marked, but winter ice can move the boulders to the boat passages.
In the High Coast, the waters are deeper and less rocky, but even there the land uplift has made the waterways too narrow and harbours too shallow. Just like in the Kvarken Archipelago, the High Coast charts have been redesigned many times over the centuries.
Lighthouses islands and signal fires
Originally, seafarers have navigated these waters using tall spruces or cairns as landmarks. Better landmarks were built in the Middle Ages when the export of seal oil, tar and ships increased. Later in the 1800s, the first lighthouses were built to the World Heritage area. Pilots, coast guards and their families lived year-round on these isolated islands.
In the Swedish Empire, the Crown’s pilots guided the ships to the harbours. In the Kvarken Archipelago, the original duty of the coast guards was to catch the smugglers during Finland’s wartimes and 1920s when alcohol was forbidden by law. After the Second World War, coast guard became part of the border guard as the smuggling stopped. Nowadays all the lighthouses are automated and most of the coast guard and pilot stations are closed. Similarly, the former homes of the families who lived the islands are now holiday cottages and nature stations.
In the mountains of the High Coast, large signal fires warned the communities of approaching enemies. The chain of beacons went all the way down to Stockholm so that the armies could be gathered. The local farmers were obliged to light the fires in case of danger. Today the names of the mountains remind of the old signal fires. For example, there is a mountain called “Vårdkallberget” near Docksta, and the name means “beacon mountain”.
Living on the rising land
Besides the sea, livestock farming was a source of food, marketable goods and tax funds. The women took care of the farms and livestock when the men were at sea fishing, hunting seals or on trade trips. The seal hunting trips in winter lasted for weeks, and the conditions on the sea ice were cold and dangerous. Children helped their parents but also attended school. The children who lived in the outer archipelago attended school on the mainland or on the larger islands. If the sea ice was not strong enough, the children could not come home for Christmas.
In the High Coast, people kept livestock in the forests up in the hills where the Sami people also kept their reindeer. In the Kvarken Archipelago, sheep, cows and goats were brought out to the islands for summer grazing, which meant long milking trips for the women. They also harvested hay from the shore meadows for the cattle’s winter fodder. You can still see the remains of the old barns, which are nowadays far from the beach because of the land uplift.
Most of the land on the World Heritage Site is not particularly well suited for cultivation. In the extremely rocky Kvarken Archipelago, people had to move stones to make fields. That is why you can see lots of stone fences in the villages. In the steep High Coast, the hilltops and hillsides are not suitable for cultivation, but the valleys between the mountains have very fertile land. After the Ice Age, the valleys were bays that were sheltered by islands and peninsulas. A lot of nutritious sediment ended up to the bottoms of the bays. As the land uplift raised the land, the bays gradually became the valleys you can see nowadays.
Next chapter: similar but still so different
Why is the High Coast so high and the Kvarken Archipelago so low?