Friday, January 28, 2011

Snow -- The Dark Side

A couple of weeks ago, Helsinki was hit by probably the worst possible weather phenomenon you can experience this time of the year -- it turned warm.  Above freezing, in fact.  We knew it was coming.  It had been predicted days in advance.  But that still doesn’t mean we were mentally prepared for it.  So I was a little surprised, and hugely disappointed, when I woke one morning to the light tapping of rain on our bedroom skylight. 

A typical Helsinki mid-winter street scene.
Now, for many folks in the US, especially in the south where I’m from, the idea of a downside to above-freezing temperatures will sound, well, nutty.  Especially after the southern US recently got walloped with a blast of proper winter weather that caused all kinds of havoc in Georgia and other subtropical states.  Atlanta-based Delta Airlines was apparently forced by the snow and ice to cancel some 3500 flights over a two-day period.  And schools were closed for a full week, as highway departments were unable to keep roads passable.  At least three other southern states besides Georgia declared states of emergency.  A sudden winter storm in Dixie, though small by Helsinki standards, shows how little climate change it actually takes to upend modern life. 

But trust me, a sudden thaw in Finland, though not as disruptive as a little snow in Georgia, is no fun either.  As long as the mercury stays below freezing here in Helsinki, all that snow burying the yard, piled beside the road, and covering the rooftops remains more or less pristine – in fact, lovely, white, and deep.  And dry.  Nice and dry.  That all changes once warm air blows into town.  Sidewalks turn into wet stretches of slush, and deep puddles of dirty, brown meltwater appear in the streets.  It’s sloppy wet conditions like this that make it oh so understandable that Nokia, Finland’s best-known technological powerhouse, first got its start making knee-high rubber boots. 

Our own private hanging glacier.
Of course, all that slush under your feet is just an inconvenience.  What is seriously something to worry about is the danger from above.  As long as temps remain below freezing, the snowpack on the roofs will, in most cases, stay put, like hanging glaciers clinging to a mountainside. 

Many Finnish houses are fitted with “snow rails”, small guardrails along the bottom edge of the roof, to keep those micro-glaciers from sliding off.  But, even snow rails can’t hold back 20 inches of accumulated snow when warmer weather greases the skids, as it were, and gravity does what gravity does best. 

During these annoying warm spells, an entire roof-full of snow can plummet, and I mean plummet – without warning -- to the ground with a fearsome thump.  After one such “avalanche” last week, we checked that both our cats were accounted for, since the falling mass of snow completely obliterated a path (more like a snowy trench) that the cats often use when they’re outside. 

While such a sudden dumping of snow would certainly entomb a cat, it wouldn’t do a human any good either.  It’s common to see sections of sidewalks below the typical Helsinki eight-story apartment building cordoned off by caution tape if there’s a danger of snow falling, especially when the roof is being cleared.  It’s deadly serious business.  An 81-year-old Helsinki man who strayed into such a taped-off area was recently killed by falling snow and ice. 

And it can be dangerous as well for the guys who clamber around on the roofs to clear the snow.  At least three snow cleaners (should they be “snow sweeps”?) have fallen from high rooftops this year, saved only by their tethers.  Still, the job is well-paid and pretty good seasonal work for folks who are not afraid of heights, and are fit.  

A local snow dump.
It is definitely physical work, as my wife and I found out last weekend when we agreed to help clear snow from the three-acre roof of a warehouse near Helsinki, as part of a money-making scheme for our daughter’s soccer club.  Working in shifts over an eight-hour period, about a dozen of us soccer parents pushed large scoop-fulls of snow to the edge of the roof and dumped them to the parking lot three stories below.  At the end of the day, though we were able to clear only part of the roof, we had left several piles of snow in the parking lot, each large enough to cover a VW minibus. 

Fortunately for us, removing the snow once it was on the ground was someone else’s problem.  And that is the ultimate problem with snow when you can’t simply wait for it to melt – where the hell do you put it all?  By mid-winter, every parking lot and sidewalk in Helsinki is crowded with piled up snow that eventually needs to be dealt with.  (It’s great fun, however, for neighborhood kids who love climbing around on these temporary, slippery mountains.) 

Of course, unlike many cities in the US – and not only the south, mind you, but also New York a couple of weeks ago and Washington this week – Helsinki is pretty well geared up for all this.  To keep the city functioning, an army of front loaders and dump trucks work all winter long, hauling the snow to its final resting place.  Scattered around Helsinki are a dozen or so “snow dumps”, where truckload after truckload of snow (200,000 loads last winter) is deposited in monster piles, some reaching at least 30 feet in height.  (One or two are located offshore on the sea ice so that they'll melt directly into the Baltic.)  In these dumps, the remains of winter slowly melt away before completely disappearing sometime in summer.  If you've come to decide -- as some of my friends have -- that you've had about enough of snow for this winter, thank you very much, it might just give you a chill to think that somewhere nearby the white stuff can linger until June.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

Off Target

The US is reeling from the shooting to death of six people in an assassination attempt against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona over the weekend.  And, predictably enough, the tragedy has spilled over into the political arena, mainly because Giffords was one of 20 congress people targeted by Sarah Palin for removal from office in a campaign ad now made famous for its use of symbols that look like gun-sight crosshairs.  The title of the ad is “It’s time to take a stand.”

For the record, I don’t think we can assume that the shooter in Arizona was influenced by Sarah Palin.  Maybe evidence will surface to show he was.  Maybe it won’t.  In any case, it’s clear that he was unhinged and perfectly capable of goading himself into carrying out an act of incredible violence.  Still, I’m not too unhappy that Palin finds herself in the hot seat over the rhetoric she has used in the past, such as telling her followers “Don’t retreat, instead RELOAD!” 

But I do think both sides may be reading too much into some of the symbolism she has employed.  In particular, the whole debate over the exact nature of the symbols used on the “take a stand” map is ridiculous, especially the PR spin the Palin camp is using to explain the symbols used to mark the 20 politicians selected for removal.  They are claiming that the symbols can’t be the crosshairs of a gun sight – as many people have interpreted them, including Representative Giffords herself earlier -- because the vertical and horizontal lines extend beyond the circle, which would not be possible in the case of real gun sights.  Instead, Palin’s supporters claim, they are merely “surveyor’s symbols”

These folks would have us believe that for anyone looking at the map -- let’s say a Palin supporter who has probably gone on many more hunting trips than surveying expeditions – the symbols would jump off the page at them as surveyor benchmarks. 

“Yep,” they’d say to themselves. “Sarah’s indicated the exact location of these congress people I’m supposed to take a stand against.”  And that’s only natural given Palin’s well-known use of topographical and surveying rhetoric in her speeches and tweets. 

Give me a break.  I think the intention of the symbols was clear.  And to be fair, Democrats have done something similar, using “bullseye” symbols to indicate election races they wanted to target.  Of course the symbols were meant to be crosshairs.  Probably the graphics people creating the ad either did a poor job of drawing the crosshairs (maybe not being of the hunting set themselves), or for convenience’s sake they used the handiest computer graphics symbol they could find that looked anything like crosshairs.  And that happened to be a surveyor’s benchmark symbol -- close enough for most people (other than certain nick-picky marksmen) to understand the map's meaning as putting certain politicians in Palin’s sights.  Metaphorically speaking, of course. 

And not to mention the fact that Palin herself didn’t somehow get the memo.  Otherwise, the tweet she posted the day after November’s midterm election (crowing about her success in removing most of the congress people targeted on the map) would have looked something like this: 

"Remember months ago the “surveyors” symbols used 2 benchmark the 20 Obamacare-lovin’ incumbent seats? We won 18 out of the 20 (90% success rate;T’aint bad)” 

Instead, she used the word “bullseye”. Is Palin herself one of those people who know so little about hunting rifles that they mistake a surveyor’s mark for crosshairs?  I tend to think the idea that she is steeped in hunting culture is a sham anyway.  She needed five shots to bring down a caribou, for goodness sake. 

If Palin’s supporters continue to trip over themselves to explain that the use of a symbol with crosshairs extending beyond a circle was intentional (and therefore not meant to represent a real gun sight), some people might start taking them at their word.  After all, there is another symbol that perfectly matches those used on the map and at the same time makes more sense than surveyors’ symbols in a political context.  I’m taking about the “Celtic cross” unfortunately used by some neo-Nazi groups.  I don’t think for a moment that’s what Palin’s people intended.  But if they keep denying the obvious use of “gun sights” on their map, they are setting themselves up for even uglier accusations.  I’m just saying.  

Hoping for the best for Rep. Giffords and everyone else touched by this madness.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Finns, inhabiting a country that is in deep freeze much of the year, are fanatics about winter sports.  You name it, if a sport requires snow or ice or teeth-chattering cold temperatures, there is a Finn somewhere ready to jump at the chance to do it.  Or at least watch it.  Skiing, ski jumping, hockey, snowboarding, skating, ice-fishing are all popular, though ski jumping – for reasons anyone who has seen it up close will appreciate – is a sport that most people are happy to experience as mere spectators.  With their feet planted firmly on the ground.  Conversely, ice fishing is a solitary (some might say reflective) pursuit.  While I’m sure it has its own special joys, I pity the soul who would see ice fishing as a spectator sport.

Of all these sports, by far the most popular with folks who actually want to get out in the bracing air and enjoy themselves is skiing, and mostly this means cross-country.  Downhill skiing is quite popular, too, especially in Lapland where Finland’s only world-class slopes are located.  Still, downhill skiing will never have nearly the impact on Finnish culture as the traditional cross-country, or Nordic, skiing that Finns have been doing for millennia.  It was some 5000 years ago that the idea of using two slabs of wood to travel across snow first caught on across the northern fringes of Europe and Asia, including present-day Finland. 

Holiday traffic in Paloheinä
Practically everyone here has skied at some point in their lives, and many do it regularly.  It’s been reported that some 15% of the population ski at least three times a week.  I can believe it on a day like today, Epiphany, a public holiday in Finland.  (Epiphany commemorates the Three Wise Men’s visit to Bethlehem, bearing the gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh and, apparently, a day off work for Finns.)  When skiing today near Palohein√§, the premier skiing center in Helsinki’s central park, there were easily a few hundred skiers with me on the groomed trails that wind for kilometers through fields and woods.  I’m lucky to live close enough that it’s only a five-minute walk from my front door. 

Skiing begins early in life here.  Most parents have likely strapped baby skis on their kids’ feet before they turn three (for our kids it was under two).  Group outings on skis are a regular activity for kids, from in pre-school to high school.  After that, the level of interest (or willingness) seems to drop off dramatically for the current generation of young folks.  In fact, many of the skiers you see on the trail are middle aged or older, which doesn’t always hamper their ability to overtake me as I prod along the trail at my own deliberate speed. 

As you might guess, I ski old school.  I would love to fly across the snow using the sexier “skating” technique favored by the more serious skiers nowadays, but alas, I don’t have the coordination to manage it for more than a few meters at a time.  I don’t feel so bad about it, though, since like most foreigners here, I don’t have the advantage that Finns have of being able to ski before learning to ride a bike.  That’s not to say that I was a complete skiing newbie when I first arrived here.  In fact, strange as it seems, I had my first introduction to cross-country skiing way south of the Mason-Dixon Line. 

Back in March of 1978, a friend and I went hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, a range of mile-high peaks on the North Carolina-Tennessee border.  Protected by a 770-square-mile (2000-square-kilometer) national park, the Smokies is the biggest chunk of mountain wilderness in the Southeastern US, a paradise for hikers and black bears, and a place my friends and I had visited many times before, also in winter. 

For this trip, our goal was to hike a couple of days along part of the Appalachian Trail, which in the Smokies runs along the backbone of the range over some of the highest elevations east of the Mississippi.  It was to be an easy two-night trip covering a bit more than 20 miles, starting from Newfound Gap, a high pass on the crest of the Smokies and good jumping off point for the AT.  

Helsinki boasts hundreds of kilometers of ski trails.
Though it was late March, practically full-blown spring elsewhere in the South, at Newfound Gap (at over 5000 feet, 1500 meters) there was almost a foot of fresh snow.  And this was on top of a previous snowfall of almost a foot that had earlier frozen into a rock hard surface.  The new snow made walking difficult.  A foot of soft snow itself isn’t hard to walk through, but when it hides “postholes”, it can present challenges.  By “postholes”, I mean deep “foot prints” punched through the hard crust of the old snow by the last hiker to pass through.  Completely hidden deep under the new snow, these quickly became little pit falls. 

As we made our way up the trail, we’d take one step in not-so-deep snow only to -- without warning –- hit a foot-deep posthole with the next step and plunge into snow over our knees.  It made for frustratingly slow walking, and after a mile or so of this, we’d had enough.  Luckily, there was an alternative. 

The stretch of the AT we were on parallels the Clingmans Dome road, a spur highway that runs along the Smokies crest that is closed to traffic all winter.  We decided hiking on the unplowed road had to be easier, and at the first opportunity, we crossed over the ridge to find it. 

The road was great, and afforded better views of the valleys below than we would have had from the trail.  And the snow covering the road, untouched by other hikers, made for much easier walking.  That didn’t mean, however, that we were entirely alone.  At a particularly secluded section of the road, we were surprised to meet a small party of cross-country skiers from Michigan.  I’d never seen anyone ski touring anywhere, and I was impressed that these folks would drive more than 500 miles (nearly 900 kilometers) for the chance to glide undisturbed across miles and miles of fir-covered mountaintops. 

It appealed to me, and two years later, with another friend I tried it for myself, touring along that same stretch of closed, unplowed road on skies we rented in Cherokee, North Carolina.  We liked it so much that the following weekend we made the three-hour trip again to Cherokee to buy our own skies.  Mine still hang in my parents’ basement in Georgia, mostly unused.  But I did venture out on them a couple more times before moving to Helsinki, where the forest scenery – while not as solitary and mountainous as in the Smokies –- is still perfect for skiing.  Especially when it’s all just outside your own front door.