March 14-15, 2014
Kalli to Lautamaan and back (46 km); return home
One hundred percent of the route for the last day are unskiable. So, on this particular instance of Rajalta Rajalle, we neither ski from the Russian border, nor to the Swedish border! Instead, we are bussed to Kalli, a little bit north of Kemi, to ski on a track that’s been maintained and groomed for an upcoming local event. It runs north to Lautamaan for 23 kms, and we ski it out and back. Given the abysmal conditions this winter – it’s the warmest winter on record for Finland, and everyone is still in disbelief – they have done an amazingly good job with the track. It’s doubletrack with a skating lane in the middle, piston bully groomed.
But!!!! Yesterday evening another front went through, and it has been raining overnight, hard. That takes the iciness up a notch (hard to believe that’s even possible!). I am soooo tired of double-poling, I’ve decided to leave my worn-off-grip-taped skis alone, and ski on the other pair, klistered. Should be nice for a change. I hoof it to the start from the bus, step in – and discover that one of the bindings is busted. So, run back to the bus before it leaves, and pull out ye olde grip-taped pair, which by now is mostly gone, and so is the glidewax, alas.
Double-poling it is…
The weather front came with some winds, which are strong here at the coast, so we are battling a sustained 15-20 mph headwind with 30 mph gusts for the first half of the ski. In Lautamaan, there is a nice stop in a little hut with kitchen, and volunteers frying up crepes with strawberry jam. Yum! And yum again, because I have doubles!
And then, sadly it’s back out on the track for the last time. The roaring headwind is now a roaring tailwind, which coupled with the ice leads to amazing speeds. Which in turn leads to numerous crashes on the slight descents. I manage two myself, and it is just amazing how far one keeps going on this ice. Fall, and then just skitter and rumble along for another 100 feet or so. Amazing that my tights are not worn to shreds by the icy corduroy. My average speed on today’s 46 kms is well over 14 kmh, and that’s on skis that haven’t seen glidewax in three days despite really abrasive conditions!
We get to Tornio pretty early; I have a last sauna session, a long nap, and the set out for some shopping. The local Intersport store is full with RR skiers; I snag some nice ski pants on sale, and some Start Base Wax Extra that I just read about in the latest edition of Ski Post. Supposed to be good for extra-abrasive conditions, so seems like an appropriate thing to bring home from this trip. And I stock up on rye bread, rye porridge, and of course, Fazer chocolates!
Dinner is fancy and celebratory; after that we have a last gathering where every country does a skit. The Slovenians steal the show with their reindeer safari; I am afraid us Americans come in rather lamely. Lots and lots of klister jokes sprinkled throughout the presentations.
I skip the post-event drinking (Finland + Friday night + celebration – you can imagine) and get to bed to catch a few hours of shut-eye before my god-awfully early flight out of Kemi, to get back to Helsinki (where it is snowing hard!) and to Vermont (where there is half a meter of new snow!!!)
At the airport, which is tiny-tiny, I chat with another skier, from group 2, one of those huge and hardy Finnish guys; a final chance to communally bemoan the conditions. I learn that the broken collarbone and wrist actually involved two different people – and one of them was the ski guide!
I also learn about an event I hadn’t known about. It’s the Lapponia Hiihto, a week-long event held every spring in Muonio. Half-way between Tornio and Hammerfest. Features 3 timed marathons during the week, ranging up to 80 km. Hmmm. Now that is interesting info to stow away.
The waxing redux from this trip: I skied almost 400 kms on two pairs of skis with one application of grip tape each, on the worst stuff imaginable. I had some tape/grip left by the end, but not much under the heel or on the sides (snow/ice plowing). The stuff is definitely not very draggy. In actual snow (as in, flakes, as opposed to ice granules) it might do better in the kick department – but cannot comment on that. Definitely a considerable plus: I spent a total of 5 minutes waxing on this trip (namely, putting grip tape onto skis #2). Most folks spent hours rewaxing very evening, and reklistering a few times every day; or used zero skis, though I have a hard time believing they were quite as fast overall.
The last ski, on icy tracks
Tomi showing off the national colors
Finished at the finish.
It’s snowing in Helsinki!!!
March 13, 2014
Hosio to Honkamaa (59 km)
Conditions have been getting worse as we’ve been moving to the west, where is it flatter and warmer. So, today’s ski is truly a redefinition of marginal! I think I’ve skied in all sorts of crap at home (like, back and forth in tractor ruts filled with a thin layer of spin drift), but that all seems like perfectly fine conditions after today. Why, I could charge admission to those tractor ruts!
The very start today is unskiable, so we are bussed along for a few kms. Then, the conditions vary, and include: snowmobile moguls twisting through the woods, with various exposed stretches of moss and lingonberry thrown in; swamps that are truly swampy; glare ice roads; mud roads; grit roads with a little bit of dirty mush on the side; dirt roads with only two skinny frozen logging truck ruts… lots of walking and skis off and on and off and on. Luckily, for the first few hours it stays below freezing, so I make good time despite the obstacle course. And then, as if someone had thrown a switch, the snow turns to mashed potatoes and the ice from slidy to rotten. No matter, almost there….
I think altogether I did three strides today. The rest – all double-poling. By all rights, I should come home with arms of steel and ready to rip doors off their hinges.
In Honkamaa, I have to wait almost an hour and a half for the bus to Jokikeskus, where half of us are staying. At least I can wait inside, drink coffee and eat a whole mountain of ginger snaps and pulla. Jokikeskus is about 30 kms farther east than Honkamaa and turns out to be a former camp for workers at the first hydro station ever built in Finland, in the 50s. They’ve damned up the Kemi river close to the Botnioan Sea. The place is old and somewhat run-down, but spacious – I am sharing a whole little house, including kitchen, with 5 others. It smells of paper mill in the whole area – unmistakeable. The weather has turned gray and drizzly, by the end of the day, so all in all it’s a bit dreary.
Interesting sauna experience at the end of the day – this place has a mixed-gender sauna. First such I’ve encountered in my travels in Finland – usually when there is only one sauna, one takes shifts. There are two ways into the sauna, one for the miehets, one for the nainen, i.e. there are separate (un)dressing rooms. Like a good girl I go into the nainen, shed all my stuff, and then into the sauna. Two Finnish guys are here who politely cross their legs while I kinda stay wrapped in my towel; then I have the place some to myself; then I reach boiling point and leave. I hear a big commotion of German guys coming from the miehets side, so good, I am outta here just in time. But! When I get back into the nainen locker room, there is a big crowd of German guys here, too!!! Older gents. Apparently, they haven’t learned a thing from reading Finnish bathroom signs for a week! I grabble for all my stuff with one hand while holding onto my towel with the other and get out of there! Then, across the parking lot and access road in nothing but a towel, steaming, to get back home. Grumble! Luckily, no slipping on the ice and no flailing.
Those guys had better look embarrassed when I see them in a little bit for supper….
The little sauna in Hosio – river, woods.
Volunteers at a service stop
Regis (our lone French guy) displaying good attitude
You gotta be kidding me!
March 12, 2014
Ranua to Hosio (14 km)
Wow, that zoo visit is worth it!!!!! It is a huge place, set right in the boreal forest, and only has arctic animals. All kinds of different owls, brown bears, wolves, foxes, the polar bears of course, an arctic fox, moose, martens, ermine, otters, wild boar, different kinds of deer and reindeer, lots of other birds…. All easy to see, except for the wolverine who is sleeping on the job. There are three polar bears, one of them was born right there a bit over two years ago. He does a lot of ambling about while his mother snoozes in a snow pit. And I almost forgot about the lynx! There were a whole bunch of them, and I had no idea that they are such big animals. I’d imagined large house cat size but no, they’re much closer to a large dog. All animals in huge enclosures – it is quite a hike to get around to see them all.
After the zoo visit, we get bussed to the start of our mini section, and then we set off on our 14 km ski of the day. The usual: warm temps, pretty marginal conditions, no kick, great glide, doube-poling the whole way. I only stop once to turn on my GPS, and to take at least one picture! Instead I put the hammer down to get to the school in Hosio quickly and get first dibs on a mattress😉 We are staying in an old school here, and there are a lot of us crammed into pretty small rooms. I’m sharing mine with seven other women; it’s nice to get a semi-private (or quarter-private) nook. We’re actually split between two country schools today – only half the group is here in Hosio.
Makara-grilling is going on of doors but I skip it, since with 14 km I hardly burned enough calories to justify a huge sausage. Instead, I venture to the sauna, which is in a small hut in the woods, wood-stove fueled. It’s used by the men and the women in alternating one-hour shifts. No running water, but there are some barrels of water in there, good enough for a post-sweat rinse-off. After the sauna I am so hot, hot, hot I sit outside on the little porch wrapped in my towel letting the steam come off me for a while. Quite peaceful.
The head-cold is an annoying nuisance but, at least today, not much worse than that. Also, there has been no talk of my feet at all, because they are doing well – no toe troubles at all. Then again, since all I seem to do is double-pole all day, it’s not like me feet do much more than just sit there…
Young polar bear
Lynx marking a tree
Wild Siberian reindeer – much larger than the domesticated ones
Hi! I’m a polar fox! And who are you?
Getting friendly with the polar bear at the start of today’s section
March 11, 2014
Syöte to Ranua (69 km)
Another day of beautiful and very fast skiing. We start at the bottom of the downhill area in Syöte, and the first kms are on the Syöte trail system. It’s just below freezing, and freshly groomed, and for the first time on this trip I have actual kick – nice! Some ups and downs, and then a killer long downhill through the woods, need to snowplow the whole way. Quads quivering by the end. Next, after walking through another logging area, the crux of today’s ski: a couple of miles on a back road that is covered in an inch of glare ice. At the end of that, my ankles are tired, too! Through some fields where so much grass is showing that it reminds me of the Thetford fields in a sketchy winter, another roadwalk, and we arrive at the Rytinki school. A few shy school children welcome us here, and put home made paper medals around our necks. I’m very touched by my “boarder-to-boarder” medal!
From here, there is a bus shuttle because the next 18 kms are unskiable. Bus is nice and wam… but spits us out in Kelankylä, where we have noodle soup in a teepee. From here, it’s pretty much a 44 km straight shot through swamps to Ranua. The track is icy, but mostly in good shape other than a few bare patches and some stretches of glare ice. A number of very pretty river crossings on wooden bridges. I am double poling the whole time, which makes for very fast and very fun skiing.
I get to Ranua a little after two, which is nice because I have the sauna to myself and can even take a nap before my room mates arrive – two Germans from Dresden. I have caught a cold and mention that I need to find a pharmacy for some decongestants; and one of the room mates reveals herself as a pharmacist and designated medical care taker of her entire German cohort…… out she pulls a huge medi kit and presto, decongestants! And some expectorant type thing (it’s called a slime-thinner in German!). I am very grateful. Looks like the paying-it-forward principle is at work (one of the Coloradans is on my blue Atomics by now and having a good time on them).
Tomorrow’s route has been shortened to 14 km because of the marginal conditions. Instead we will be spending the morning in the Ranua zoo. Yes, that’s right, there is a zoo in this tiny town in Lapland. A polar bear is rumored to be the main attraction. I’m game! A short day might help me kick this cold.
Glare ice road
Schools kids on the lookout for RR skiers
Volunteers keeping the soup and coffee hot
Glare ice in a swamp. Zoom zoom!
Lots of wooden bridges today
March 10, 2014
Taivalkoski to Syöte (57 km)
Day starts not so great, with a whopper migraine. I throw up round one of my meds, can’t eat breakfast, and crawl back into bed for another little nap, which helps. At the last possible moment, I pull myself together and get on with it… I am the last person to clear out of the hotel, and manage to just get on the trail before the sweep. After 10 lonely kms, I catch up with my Finish friends, and that helps with morale. By lunchtime I am in the swing of things, and devour three sandwiches, to make up for the missing breakfast I guess.
The skiing today is absolutely fantastic. The skies are clear, it’s blue and sunny, the tracks are in great shape. I’m on fresh grip tape (decided against the klister), and while kick is borderline to so-so all day, I have fantastic glide on mostly hard to icy tracks. Out of the tracks, the snow is loose and granulated, good for skating through curves and braking on downhills. There are only a few spots where the trail is marginal; and everywhere where there is standing water, it’s sheer glare ice,
And the scenery today is amazing – lots of rollers, climbs, ups and downs, curvy bits through forests, vistas. Much of the day looks like it’s straight out of a winter vacation brochure. And most of the day I can ski with my sleeves rolled up, feeling springy. Nice!
So, the day ends at a little downhill ski area. Our hotel is on top. One takes a T-bar lift to get there. 10 years ago, I didn’t know how T-bars worked and sat down on it, and that didn’t go well at all – you are supposed to stand, and let the cable tension pull you up. This time, much wiser, I stand. And can you believe it, that T-bar still knocks me over!!! Try again. This time I make it, the cable unwinds and gets taut, and yes! I’m on my way, clinging to the bar with one hand and my poles with the other. Then, midway up the slope, the bronco bucks and off I go again. Zing!!! My T-bar gets reeled in and swings wildly above me. A few other empty ones go by, way out of reach. Then come some teenagers on snow boards, looking puzzled as they glide by. One is dragging on a cigarette. What to do? One could ski down, but it’s a steep and icy way down; and I am not particularly eager to get on that darn lift again anyway. So I take off my skis and hoof it up. After a while the older Swiss couple whom I’ve been skiing with much of the afternoon go by. They cheer loudly when they see me; apparently they think I am some human-power purist who has to get to the top under her own steam; the woman can’t believe it when I tell her in the sauna what actually happened.
Me and that lift now have unfinished business. I may need to come back in another 10 years!
With my Finish friends from HHS
Trail conditions not universally good…
My Swiss friends cresting a hill
Evening views back over perfect tracks
March 9, Sunday
Kuusamo to Taivalkoski, 60 km
Nice surprise at dinner last night – reindeer with lingonberry preserves. I had two platefuls, and then a little one for desert. Hey, it’s not everyday one gets reindeer. And there was a glass of champagne for all the women, to celebrate women’s day. Not bad!
Today’s ski was… interesting. I’d heard over dinner last night that someone in the group before us broke both a wrist and a clavicle on a downhill crash on the section we are skiing today. While this seemed incredulous yesterday (this is Finland! Gentle landscape!), today I totally get it.
When we start at 8:30, it’s just a few degrees below zero, which means that everything is frozen solid – and it stays that way for most of the day, which means that we ski on ice. The first 15 km are on an old railroad bed, and go by in a double-poling blur – I try to cover ground, because I’m worried that soon enough, it’ll all turn to mashed potatoes. The next 15 km go along a snowmobile trail under power lines, lots of steep ups and downs. Unfortunately, the snowmobiles have done a fine job of trashing the trail, and it’s frozen in that state. So, 15 kms over a frozen mess. Nothing to grip into on the ups or the downs. And if one gets a ski into a snowmobile rut on a descent, one is absolutely done in for, in terms of being able to slow down. As much as it pains me to see all that kinetic energy go to waste, I walk most of the downs. After 15 kms of sheer misery, lunch stop at a road crossing. Nice salmon chowder which hits the spot. The bus is here, too, and I find out later that lots of people behind me decide to bail out at this point.
The next 25 km are relatively flat, but the snowmobile trail from hell has taken off a good part of my grip tape. So, nothing to do but double pole, even on the inclines. This makes the going reasonably fast, but I am inventing new nicknames for the grip tape as I go along: “Finish-way-to-build-six-pack-abs-tape”, or “Quick-way-to-elbow-tendinitis-tape”, or “Harumph-harumph-harumph-tape” (on the ups). In all fairness, though, NOTHING would have stayed on today. Some people re-klistered twice on the trail today (fun, fun, fun), and still got in with totally stripped skis.
The last 5 km are on the Talvaikoski trail system with lots of steep rollers. Just about now is also the witching hour when the snow turns mushy, so bye-bye great glide. Mind you, this does nothing to ice, so I still walk down all of the skied-off downhills. Better that than adding to the injury count. So, last 5 km are super-slow.
In the hotel, the Coloradans (there are 4 fellow Americans here, besides Jeff), look shell-shocked. I guess with all that Rocky Mountain powder, not much occasion to ski on ice. One of them broke a ski, too – what bad luck. They didn’t bring spares, so I offer one of my extra pairs.
Tomorrow’s forecast: above freezing, including the night. That means draggy mush on ice. My intended strategy is to start out with some klistered skis, and to switch to a pair with fresh grip tape midway through, when we meet the bus. We’ll see how that goes…
March 8, Saturday
Suorajärvi to Kuusamo, 43 km
Boy, I’m pretty shot after the first day! And to think that if this were day 4, I’d only be half-way…
Weather today starts out pretty horrific: rain, drizzle, sleet, and a SW gale blowing at a sustained 15-20 mph. The first 20 km are a true slush fest, slow, slow, slow. My grip tape is doing ok, but just that. Maybe it should be called “barely-grip” tape. Or “work-out-your-upper-body-today” tape. Or “character-building” tape. Waxless would have been the way to go. Some people here have Atomic Skintecs and they are happy campers today. On the wishlist for next Christmas!
Luckily, the gale is actually a front moving through, bringing in sliiiiiighty colder air. For the last 15 km we even have sunshine, and the tracks into the Kuusamo area are hard and slightly glazed. Finally, glide! Who cares about grip now! I’m doublepoling the last 8 km and truly enjoying the ride.
Highlights of the day: Yummy hot soup in the middle of the day; some beef and potato thing; and a dogsled team coming towards me in the afternoon. Beautiful, eager huskies, tongues a-lolling.