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.  

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Sounds like great fun!

    I've never skied at all. Of any type. I've had my chances, going to resorts in the NC mountains with family, but the idea of downhill skiing just never appealed to me. But in a month Carole and I are going to take a four-day vacation in the WV mountains, which get a tremendous amount of snow, and the resort where we'll stay offers downhill sledding (but not skiing) and cross-country skiing. So I think I'm going to find out what it's like.