The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Estonia claims to have not four seasons, but five. What’s the deal?

Aivar Ruukel steers a dugout canoe through a flooded landscape in Soomaa in Estonia. (Mati Kose)

The sign on the construction fence ringing the Embassy of Estonia made me suspicious. It wasn’t so much that the embassy’s message was self-serving — every diplomat must believe his or her country is the best in the world — it’s that it seemed impossible.

Facing the intersection at 22nd Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW was a sign reading: “Visit Estonia. There’s so much to see, there’s an extra season to see it.”

An extra season?

For as long as humans have watched the plants grow and the animals migrate, we have divided the year into four seasons. In case you’ve forgotten them, they are spring, summer, fall and winter. And here was this Baltic state declaring that it had somehow gotten an extra season.

What is this season? If the Estonians are crowing about it, it has to be a good one, right?

Is it an especially sublime spring? Something like, “Spring 2: The Reawakening?” Is it “Summer: The Sequel?”

Is it an amalgam of two noncontiguous seasons, a conjoined summer and winter, say, with days balmy enough to strip down to swimsuits and nights cold enough for mittens and hot chocolate? Or a fantastically fine fusion of spring and autumn: trees heavy with blossoms at the same time their leaves are turning red and yellow?

I had to know. So I contacted the Estonian Embassy here. They put me in touch with Aivar Ruukel, who introduces the fifth season to the world as a guide in the Soomaa National Park in southwest Estonia.

Over the phone, Aivar told me that “fifth season” in Estonian is “viies aastaaeg.” As for what exactly that season is, it’s “ujutus.”

And just what is an “ujutus?”

“It is actually a flood,” Aivar said.

A flood? That’s what Estonia is putting on its tourist materials? Come for our flood?

Is this a reflection of a uniquely northern European disposition, unable to be comprehended by the sunny American mind?

“I understand very well what you are saying,” Aivar said. “Normally, a flood is a catastrophe.”

Well, normally, a flood is a surprise, an unpleasant one. But Estonians in and around Soomaa expect their fifth season, which comes between winter and spring, when water from melting snow fills Soomaa with floodwater, swamping the forest and creating a tracery of waterways perfect for canoeing.

“You know it is coming,” Aivar said. “There is this old saying, ‘It’s like a distant relative is coming to visit you.’ ”

The water rises about nine feet, though in some years it can be twice that. The flood can occur at other times of year, too, if there is enough rain.

Added Aivar: “It is really fun to go to the forest in a boat. That’s what you can do if it is flooded. Another nickname journalists use is ‘Estonian Amazon.’ ”

It’s the Amazon without the piranhas.

When Estonia was under Soviet control, not much of the outside world knew about the flood season. It wasn’t all that well known in Estonia, either, Aivar said, except among the people who lived near Soomaa.

“In Soviet days, nobody came here,” Aivar said. The region was primarily farmland, with 95 percent of the residents working in agriculture. People actually looked forward to the ujutus, Aivar said, because it meant it was impossible for them to work. Party time!

“There are nice photos from the 1920s and ’30s of local people using these dugout canoes that are a living culture here,” said Aivar. “Local people are using their boats and celebrating it in a way.”

The flood comes every spring, the depth of the water varying from year to year. The three-year period from 2010 to 2012 was especially high.

“It became really popular,” Aivar said. “All Estonian media was here. Many people visited us. After that it is becoming more and more known.”

Not many people live in the park. Those who do know to move their belongings to higher ground and live on the second floor of their houses during the fifth season. That’s when Aivar leads canoe tours, paddling through the drowned world.

And during the other four seasons?

“I am actually working year-round,” he said. “Right now, we have mushroom season. And walking on the peat bogs. During winter, when everything is frozen, we do kicksled and snowshoeing.”

Aivar invites you to visit Estonia during any season. Nature, he said, is open “24/7, 365 days a year.”

The construction work on the country’s embassy that prompted the fence and the sign is almost over, meaning that tourist slogan is coming down. I guess it did its job.

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