Friday, April 1, 2005
Carlisle Comments "Dad, let's ski across Finland"
Those were the words that launched 1000 slips. It was last summer, and my daughter, Grace, had learned of the Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto, or border-to-border ski from Russia to Sweden across Finland, just below the Arctic Circle. Her suggestion sparked the instant response: "Better sooner than later"; which after quick reflection became, "Now or never." It was all downhill (more or less) from there.
The Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto is a ski trek from Kousama to Turnea covering 440 km over 7 days of skiing, with daily ski lengths ranging from 44 km to 84 km. Tracks are set each day for classic style skiing, with the hope they survive wind and snow. The trail is clearly marked and is a rich combination of beautifully groomed track near towns and ski centers, and snowmobiled tracks set across miles of endless forests, lakes, scrub, and bog. Accommodations run the full range from tourist sport hotels with full spas, to remote schoolhouse floors (mattresses provided) to back-country bunkhouses sporting detached (and distant) 4-hole outhouses. Distance matters late at night at 30oC. The sole universal amenity: all offered the ubiquitous Finnish sauna. The tour was beautifully organized and supported with full food provisioning, efficient bus transport of luggage, and feeding station support every 10-15 km staffed by local volunteers. Skiers need simply carry the clothing needs of the day, and reach their destination before the arctic nightfall.
The trek initiated over 20 years ago, with largely Finnish originators, and has grown steadily in international participation. Ours was one of four groups starting on successive days. We had 98 skiers from 10 countries, the most populous being German and Italian. Finns, Netherlanders, Austrians, and Americans each provided 8-10 skiers. Our first objective look
at the group came at our come-together dinner and the overwhelming
impression was "lean and fit". There was barely enough meat
on many bodies to spark interest from a Carlisle coyote. I thought that
might be a good thing. The US contributed a father-son team from Anchorage,
Alaska, three MDs (Urologist, Cardiologist, Internist), and a chiropractor
(daughter Grace) — thus was beautifully prepared for adversity.
As the days got longer, the US presence proved to include many exceptional
individuals who welded into a strong and special force.
With a planned 6-10 hours per day of continuous skiing, weather plays an all-important role and can overwhelm the best hi-tech fabrics. We were lucky: arctic cold, every day. Temperatures ranged from -30
This was both an intense and at times endless experience, and there were many highlights. We passed through open forests where 30-40 ft. tall spruce and pine stood totally shrouded in snow, a dazzling sculpture park of endless glowing forms, most standing tall and proud, some bent double with a giant gnome snow hat and snow beard dropping to the ground — all ablaze in sunlight — a scene so special we were loath to leave. One afternoon out of a cold but clear gray-blue sky came snow, falling in the purest, finest, perfectly shaped ice crystals imaginable. As they accumulated and rose from the snow pack, they became something I had only seen once before, in Norway: a field of diamonds. Each delicate ice crystal balanced lightly on its neighbor, and together they rose in weightless crystal from the snow field, all to be ignited into a field of glittering suspended diamonds by the afternoon sun.
The power of food
In a more basic dimension: the power of food. Every meal was life sustaining and never have I craved or consumed so much. A typical breakfast was hot porridge, open-faced sandwiches of bread, jams, hams, and cheeses; hard-boiled eggs; herring pickled two ways, pastries, orange juice and coffee — sometimes multiples of the above. Two occasions rise from the food memories, both in the middle of an endless ski day, where the wilderness and the miles became blurred and the body was testing its resolve. The first was arriving at lunch, skis off, into a teepee with roaring center fire, hide-covered benches rimming the edges, and hot salmon soup! The warmth, the taste, the nourishment, the restoration! A second was even later on a different day, when our last rest stop was an apparent timeless little schoolhouse somewhere in nowhere. Inside was a kindly lady who spoke excellent English, serving her most exquisite hot blueberry soup. Part of its magic was the warmth, then the full body, then the taste that overwhelmed the palate. The best part was the strength it somehow rejuvenated in an exhausted body. I was astonished at how the last 15 km flew by that day, and I feel at this writing the wellness and strength that flowed with that soup.
The people of the world are a highlight in themselves: here most notably the Finns, and most highlighted by their children. The night of our schoolhouse stay, the children had created a circle of ice sculptures featuring mountains, castles, houses, towers — dozens of structures arranged in a circle, rimmed by small flags of the nations. In the center stood a twelve-year-old lad with his reindeer on a tether. As we left the next morning, the children assembling for school stood out in the -24
What conclusions from all of this? First, this was a glorious extended ending to what has been a long and wonderful winter. Secondly, after a lifetime of skiing, I have at last found the longest 10 km. It is that which follows the first 74 km, and it arrives as the body issues its last complaints and the arctic night settles in. Those moments forced me to look deep inside myself, to find it almost empty except for a few scraps left at the very bottom. Finally, I've been privileged to come to know my daughter as never before. We were the only father-daughter team on our tour. The others missed something very special.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito