I have not been above the arctic circle before. The mysterious land up north, that I’ve imagined harsh and unforgiving always had a strong appeal. Taking advantage of my research stay in the Helsinki Institute of Information Technology in March I thought it is a good opportunity to explore Finnish Lapland and realise one of the long awaiting dreams: sking trip in the land of snow. The plan was simple: one weekend purchase a pair of cross-country skies, learn how to use it, practice, and the following weekend go up north.
So I did. I have purchased a pair of second hand cross-country skies, and started practicing. The last time I skied was when I was in my early teens, on one of the camps, that I used to go for winter school break. All in all, I probably had cross-country skies twice on my legs long long time ago. The practice runs were made easy by a nice large park next to my apartment in Espoo, with a well-maintained skiing grooves. The first day I’ve done around 8km, with an average speed of 5.8km/h (and lots of falling). The second day, 10km at 6.7km/h, and the last day 12km at 7.5km/h, at which point I’ve decided that I probably “can” ski (which later turn out to be quite an over statement). I have been quite confident, and I got most of the flat, up and down techniques sorted. My legs were sore after 30km “running” over 3 days, so I gave it a break. When the next weekend came, I have packed my 20kg backback with my bivvy, food and warm clothes, and started one of the biggest adventures: destination Lapland. And the adventure begins.
Day 1: Helsinki-Kolari. Taking overnight train (85euro), for an over 1050km trip up north. (That’s my longest train trip from start-to-finish. The other was Warszawa-Wien.) Lots of people with cross-country skies on the waiting platform in Helsinki and (somewhat surprisingly to me) the train is almost full. Helsinki train station. Platform. I am confused – a train with no windows? Ah, the train takes about 3 large train-cars full of passanger automobiles. The actual “human” carriages are attached a bit later. The sitting-only section with about 10 people in it. Everyone else with their skies crowds into the sleeping compartments. Reading a book. Some sleep. 13hours pass by fast. Waking up. Excited to see different sceneries outside – shorter trees, more snow, every lake and river frozen.Warm and comfortable ride (as much as one can get in a sitting position). Arriving around 11:00, although not sure about the exact time, as the clock on the train station in Kolari is not working. Catching quickly a taxi-bus towards Yllasjarvi. Getting out by on the south slopes of Yllas, by the Yllas Saaga hotel, few kilometers north from the Yllasjarvi village. Ski slopes, lifts, gondola. Cold, -10C. Getting the map and some information about ski trails. Planning the first day, while having a quick lunch. Changing clothes, packing up and hop on the skis. My first ski touring adventure begins. I am about to leave the civilisation for 3-4 days. Exciting.
Yllas Saaga – Latvamaja – Kotamaja – Kutujarven nittypirtty. As son as I’m on the skies, I’m losing my balance. Down. Getting up. Losing balance. Down. Backpack with about 20kg of gear turned out to be a quite a challenge for a newbie skier. Takes me 15min or so to get use to wobbliness of the backpack, and to stabilise myself enough as to be able to progress forward. Real challenge. A sense of inadequacy. Once in the ski grooves, I slowly make forward progress. Hour by hour, getting better in handling the skis and the heavy load. Quickly getting tired though. Muscles not used to the load and the movement.
Quick stop to catch a breath in Latvamaja. Lots of people warming up around a fireplace and a typical sami laavu. Back on the skies. Continue. Reaching Kotamaja. A nice kota, very warm. Some skiers around. After that the track becomes empty. Fewer people around. Reaching the hut around 18:30 was a blessing. I was pretty exhausted by then. Took me long time to relax and unload. The two Fins occupying a tiny 3-person hut invited me in, happy that I do not have a companion (we would not fit into the hut).
Great evening. I’m really tired. Eating my 3min noodles quickly, and watching the Fins preparing their feast: potatoes, sour-kraut, reindeer meat, choices of wine, bread, etc. The preparation takes forever, the feast seem endless. By the time they start I have forgotten that I already had my dinner. Really nice evening. Champagne. Legs tired. – What do you celebrate? – Few days without our wives! Exchanging stories. Talking about the route they took. It turns out direct summer route up north is not possible in winter. I have to cross over to the western part of the park, and take the summer trail, that has been prepared by a ski-scooter (long time ago). The track has been used last 3 months ago! They also travel with backpacks, and say it’s easier than the harness and a sledge. They have better off-track skies, do not sink as much in snow. Better boots. Getting hints about winter travels. Tenting may turn out to be a challenge, but, the night seems relatively warm.
Day 2: Kutajarven – Akasmylly – Pahtavaara. Morning passes by quickly. Thermometer shows -5C. Quick breakfast, packing. Back on the trail again. Feeling great. Fresh. The kilometers on a grooved trail pass easier than yesterday. The backpack is a bit lighter after loosing the supply of water I have carried the day before and some food. My technique is improving. However, I still make 3 classic steps against 1 of a fast flowing skating people. I see less and less people as I move towards the western edge of the park. Midday I start on a trail that has not been traveled by anyone before me. Fresh snow. Nice feeling. I see no people anymore. Meeting two reindeers! Looking around but no signs of the Santa. Lots of animal and dog-like trails. Taking photos. Moving along. Longish break by a frozen lake at Akasmylly. Talking to the hut owner that sells coffee and tee there. He mentions two people passing by the day before. He explains where I should go, but the explanation is a bit abstract and lost in translations. I get a rough idea.
I cross the road and have difficulty finding the walking (sking) trail. After wasting 40min or so going south, I venture north on a skido trail. Then there is a road off west, with big dog farm. Now the explanation start to make sense. I eventually find the trail. Progress is slower – no more grooves. No people. Quiet. Thick forests. Climbing up hill on rough snow turns out to be quite hard – the skies do not “catch” sometimes, and the scooter trail is too narrow to walk with crossed skies. Tricky in places. On one longer uphill I took the skies off.
Eventually got on top of the rigde. Very nice views. In places overlooking large frozen lakes and white tunturis. Fresh snow makes my last night companions trails completely invisible, but, at one point I notice a pair of ski trails going east. It takes me 40meters or so to click – that might be the off-track bit leading to the hut! Indeed – I’m going back, and off the trail. My skies are too narrow and I sink in a belly-deep snow. Skie poles sink with no resistance, and I have to start using them horizontally to get out of the snow. Losing balance and falling often. Recovery from deep snow with a backpack gets easier after 3rd or 4th fall. Quickly I’m getting tired. Takes me about 30min and 6 or so falls to eventually get to the hut. Awesome feeling. Empty, spacious hut, great area. Quiet. To pick up wood I have to put skies on. To go to a toilet I have to put skies on. Additional 3 falls and I have enough wood in the hut for the burner to get hot. Party! 3min noodles, warmth, drying clothes, writing notes. Awesome night. Alone. Very quite. Perhaps -8C outside. T-shirt and shorts in the hut. Good night sleep
Day 3: Pahtavaara – Sarkitunturi – Torasieppi – Siepinvaara. Morning. Thinking of the nightmarish deep snow path up to the trail awaiting me. Packing up and leaving. Surprisingly finding myself up on the trail in less than 15min with only 1 small fall counted! Worries dissolved, warm and dry clothes make a good prospect of a day
hike. Awesome. Riding the ridge, small steady downhill, and big open plains. Mesmerizing. Very quiet. The scooter trail goes off the marked summer trail. Takes me over an hour of trying to follow the unbroken summer trail, and I only manage 300metres or so. No way I can continue on a deep snow with my skies. Going back to the scooter path – I have no option but follow it. Turns out it goes around and joins the skido track. All’s good. Again, another moment of enlightenment – that’s exactly what the Fins were saying – they had to bush-bash through deep snow for about 1km between the skido trail and the summer trail. Now it makes sense. I continue up. My skills improved to a point that I feel confident climbing my first tunturi. Going off towards Sarkitunturi, and joining a properly maintaned grooved ski trail half-way through. Awesome. Easy. Great views from the top.
Skiing downhill without the grooves is surprisingly doable. What gets me down are the flat sections in the grooves that turn into steeper downhill rides. I’m too heavy with the backpack to brake in time, and often reach speeds beyond my ability to control. 5 or so falls are needed to get me all the way down. Back onto the skido trail, and onto the big frozen lake. Being alone and surrounded by a mass of ice and snow, with the white tunturi on the horizon – unforgettable. Making steady progress. Hours pass by, and the mind gets into the rhythm. Perpetual motion.
At Torasieppi I turn off west and head off towards Siepinvaara (a laavu I intend to sleep in). Very quite and calm evening. Joining the trails. Feeling I’m back to civilisation. Setting up the camp. Melting snow, cooking, 0.5l of water prepared for tomorrow. Fire going. Tired. Going to sleep. Waking up often – breathing the air in feels painful in the lungs – must be really cold outside. I have to hide my head into the sleeping back to breath.
Day 4: Siepinvaara – Olos – Muonio. Waking up fresh and happy. The night wasn’t bad at all. But white frozen moisture all around my face reminds me that the morning is still cold. My drinking water, gas cylinder and everything else is frozen. Packing gear is a challenge. Eventually, after 2 hours of short packing sessions mixed with running and warming up I’m back on skies. 2-3 hours later (not exactly sure, the phone has not been able to start neither) I got to a crossroad, where for the first time I felt warm. The termometer there shows -15C. Eating rocksolid frozen bread with cheese and peanut butter turns out surprisingly hard, yet rewarding. Continue running. More people around. Then Olos, with all the lifts and downhill skiing slopes. Weird feeling after 3 days spent on skies watching the folks using the lifts to get up the slopes. Longer stop just past Olos. Good groved ski trails, fast progress towards Muonio.
I have reached Muonio around 13:00. The bus to Kolari leaves from SEO petrol station at 14:55. Walking around, packing up my skies. Quick food shopping. I’ve done it. I’ve made around 75km over 4 days of skiing. I had great time, and first hand experience of Lapland.
I want to come back, and spent more time with the bowing trees, with the changing shades of whiteness, mesmerizing quite plains, tunturis and forests.
Hetta-Pallas hiking trail.