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Skishoeing – fun and traditional way to enjoy winter magic

Short skis with skins are ancient, dating back 10 000 years. They represent skis as they were originally! Today they have been “invented” again to suit modern day winter adventurer. I tested skishoeing in lovely Pyhätunturi in the heart of Lapland.

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Skishoes are short and wide. These are only 125 cm long, up to my shoulder. They have a hairy skin integrated on the backside for grip, but only partially. The bindings works for any shoes, I had my hiking boots with a couple of woollen socks.

Skishoes are literally a hybrid of skis and snowshoes.  But as you cannot have it all, they come with some compromises. They glide as skis, but not as well as proper skis. When climbing uphill they get traction like snowshoes but not quite as well as snowshoes when it gets steeper.

For me skishoeing was a new form of winter sport. Soon after setting off I decided I love it.

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Skishoes glide surprisingly well on flat surface, you go faster than you would with snowshoes. The short size of skis makes it easy to navigate in the forest. Pyhätunturi fell with its skiing slopes is sunbathing at the background.

Nature trails in National Park

I got my skishoes for a test from Bliss adventure. As the day light broke (at nearly noon) we left for the 5 km marked path called Tunturiaapa nature trail in Pyhä-Luosto National Park.

In deep powder snow skishoes sink in the snow somewhat. Long skis would be better for floating on top of snow. But compared to snowshoes it still feels easier, in my opinion, as you don’t have to lift the whole foot up, just push the ski forward and save your sweat.

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Me after one of my many falls! It took a while to learn just how to keep balance with skishoes. Luckily snow is soft. You can’t control them as well as you can proper backcountry skis.

The trail continued through the woods and out to the open marshland in deep snow. We had a lunch break at Tiaislaavu lean-to shelter, where there is firewood for everybody.

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Lunch break at Tiaislaavu lean-to in Pyhä-Luosto National Park.

Great fun on small hills

The last leg of the round Tunturiaapa trail was full of small hills, so up and down we went. There the traction and gliding properties were really put to test. Climbing up a steep hill with skishoes is a task. The traction isn’t quite enough, snowshoes would be better. But on gentler hills they work like magic. We couldn’t resist playing around and went up and down some nice hills several times.

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This was one of the steepest hills. Skiing down such a hill with new unfamiliar toys made me nervous, but it was actually a lot of fun!

Not a new hobby

There are still people living in the Altai mountains in northern Asia who use these kind of skis with actual animal skin on the bottom. The Tuwa people have been moving on snow like this for thousands of years. Instead of two poles in each hand, they use one long pole that balances on the way up and helps manoeuvre when skiing downhill.

I recommend skishoes to anyone who loves snow sports or winter trekking. It is a unique way of moving: faster than snowshoeing, slower but more versatile than skiing.

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Photos: Joona Kivinen

Skishoes, snowshoes and fatbikes for rent at Bliss Adventure 

Visitor Centre Naava at Pyhä

Starting point of this trip on the map

These holy fells are two billion years old – Pyhä area, Lapland

Pyhä area in Lapland is a row of beautiful fells. The name Pyhä means holy. They looked special in the eye of the ancient Sámi people, but also geologically these fells are something else: They’ve been around for two billion years. The round fells we see today are the roots of ancient high and mighty mountains. Come and see for yourself! But respect the sacred surroundings.

Noitatunturi, “the Witch Fell” is an old sacrificial place and the highest peak of Pyhä fells, reaching 540 m. Photo: Joona Kivinen

Sacred place for the Sámi people

The fells and the grand gorges between them look so unique that the ancient Forest Sámi people held the place sacred. There are several sacrificial and worship places, “seita”, in the area that you can visit. A seita can be a unique rock formation or special kind of a tree. It was believed that spirits and gods lived in such places.

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Isokuru is the deepest gorge in Finland, plunging down 220 meters. It is 1,5 km long.

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On the bottom, there are many stories from the past if you pay attention. For instance, in the summer you see wave figures in the rocks, reminding of the time this place was under water.

Geological wonderland

Besides being culturally important, the Pyhä fells are special regarding the whole history of our planet: They belong to the oldest mountains in the world!

The age of the Earth is 4,5 billion years. The age of the main rock type (quartzite) in Pyhä fells has been dated to 1,9-1,8 billion years. These round cuties of today used to be massive mountains, reaching 4 km in height! Kind of like the Alps look today. Except that the Alps are wearing nappies compared to the ancient Pyhä fells, as they are only around 55 million years old. The difference in age is so huge it is hard to grasp.

The ice ages have done their part in sculpting the area. Massive glacier, as high as 3 km, has gone back and forth with warming and cooling climate and has rubbed the sharpness off the fells. Melting water from the glacier has gone through the gorges, carving them deeper and deeper.

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These Pyhä fells have seen it all. Literally. They have been here for half of the Earth’s lifetime.

Enjoy the National Park

In Pyhä-Luosto National Park there are many marked nature trails for your enjoyment all year round: Up the fells, down to the gorges or out to the open wetland on duckboards.

Whether you are into ancient cultures, geology, extreme sports or blissful nature, Pyhä has it all.

It is December and the day light is short. You only have a couple of hours of light, before having to turn the headlamp on. Then again, at noon it is both sunrise and sunset at the same time so the sky is just breathtaking. Then darkness falls for another 20 or so hours. But you have plenty of time to enjoy the northern lights…

Pyhä Visitor Centre

Map

What are Santa’s reindeer like?

We know Rudolph, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen and the other reindeer pulling Santa’s Important Sleigh by name, but really nothing else. I went to find out what Santa’s reindeers are really like. They live all around Lapland, some in Torassieppi, Muonio.

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Meet Rolle, one of Santa’s less famous reindeer. The antlers are pretty impressive! Rolle is always willing to work hard and he is very patient with humans (and elves). He stood still for the photo shoot like a real pro model. Did you know that reindeer see ultraviolet light! The world looks very different with Rolle’s eyes.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet Rudolph, as he was resting and saving his energy for the Big Day. But there are big personalities amongst the others as well.

Antlers are a signal of fitness

The bigger the antlers, the better father material you are in the eyes of the ladies. Lads cannot cheat and grow ridiculously large antlers, however, as it is up to genes and fitness how large they grow. 

Unlike other deer, female reindeer have antlers too, although smaller ones. Most likely the function is to better defend their young.

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Antlers grow at astonishing speed, as much as 2 cm per day! Reindeer antlers are the largest of all deers, relative to body size.

Reindeer shed their antlers once a year, males after the rutting (mating) season. Some hold on to their crown until Christmas, probably to show off when travelling with Santa. Others won’t get rid of them until spring! Big antlers are heavy to carry and not very handy in thick forest, so there is really no need to keep them after the ladies have seen them in Autumn. Females loose their antlers in the summer.

Reindeer are not fussy with food

The favourite food of reindeer is lichen. But in the forest during their summer holidays reindeer also munch mushrooms and plants. It has been counted that reindeer eat over 350 different species of plant! The strategy is to pile up weight as much as possible before the long winter.

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In Torassieppi the elves feed the reindeer an armful of hay a day, plus some protein rich lichen and reindeer pellets. To keep them in shape.

In the winter they smell food under a thick layer of snow. They have a very good sense of smell, it is reindeer’s most import sense.

His name is Aaro. He can be a bit moody and doesn’t get along with everybody. Aaro tends to prefer female elves and co-operates well with them! He does like his caretaker Tommi (at the background), with whom he goes sledding often.

Extreme cold doesn’t bother

Reindeer can manage in extreme cold, in -50 degrees of Celsius.

My lungs hurt if I ski at full speed in -25 C. Reindeer warm cold air in the long nose before it enters lungs.

But the coolest (or warmest) trick is in the fur: They have a very thick underlayer of hair, and overcoat is made of stiff, hollow hair that traps air for insulation. Actually Santa’s reindeer could make their journey by swimming, as the air trapping fur works like a life vest!

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I personally often get cold feet even in my warmest shoes. Reindeer don’t care, even if the temperature in their feet goes near freezing point. They don’t get a frost bite as I would, thanks to a specialised circulation system, in addition to a super cool antifreeze liquid in their bone marrow. True story.

Need to stop for a wee

In Finnish we have a measurement poronkusema which means the distance a reindeer runs without urinating. It is 7-8 km in fact. Reindeer cannot run and pee, so when sledding, they must be stopped at certain intervals so they can use the bathroom. I noticed at least Rolle seemed to empty his bladder every time we stopped on our 3 km sledding trip, just in case. It is actually very dangerous for the reindeer if he can’t go in a long time.

So if you see something yellow on the snow next to your house on Christmas Day, you know what it is!

These guys are sharing a joke. Or they both just love sledding. One of the elves is practising with young Harmikas (1,5 years old), who is too young to participate in Santa’s crew just yet.

 

See reindeer at Harriniva Torassieppi village, Lapland

Map to Torassieppi

Finding Santa’s Childhood Home

Everybody knows where Santa Claus a.k.a Father Christmas really lives right? It is not North Pole. Santa lives in Korvatunturi, Lapland! But if you’d fancy seeing what his childhood home looked like, you have to climb up the grand Levi fell in Kittilä. Or take a gondola straight up.

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Levi in the arctic night, kaamos as we call it. Photo: Mira Pyy

The talk about North Pole is just to cover the true story about Santa’s home. All of us Finns know it. Korvatunturi is a fell far far away in Urho Kekkonen National Park, very near the Russian border in Eastern Lapland. You actually need a special permit if you want to go there. In addition, it is 20 km from the nearest road so a bit of a hike by feet or skis. Santa chose well as there are not many nosy children snooping around before Christmas.

Santa’s childhood

In 2007 a movie was filmed called Christmas Story (Joulutarina, directed by Juha Wuolijoki). It tells a tale about a little boy Nicholas who later became Santa Claus. As a boy he lived in a cute little cottage high up on a fell.

Santa’s cottage. Rising up with the gondola you can see the rooftop of the cottage when nearing the top.

Guess what, the cottage filmed in the movie is still there! You can go visit it, if you find it. There are no signposts, you just have to know where to go.

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We came here by skis, me here with alpine skis, my friend with telemarks. Photo: Mira Pyy

The way to the cottage

It is situated on the southwest side of the fell, near the top, off piste, in between the gondola (World Cup and west pistes) and lift number 11 (south pistes).

In the winter you get there by snowshoeing, skinning up with skis, or the easiest option: by taking a gondola from the Levi ski resort up to the top, and descend down a bit, preferably by skis or snowshoes or you will sink in the snow up to your waist.

In the summer you get there by hiking up or by downhill biking (one track passes the cabin).

It is an adventure finding the cottage, plus a perfect place for a break, away from the piste lights. My friend Mira is admiring the view to the neighbouring fells Aakenus and Kätkätunturi.

The gondola starting point
Map pointing Santa’s cottage

Ylläs is heaven for snowshoeing

Hiking up fells with snowshoes is fun and good workout. Ylläs has around 50 km of marked snowshoeing routes to keep everybody happy and fit. You don’t need prior experience, just good spirit and a camera to capture the breathtaking nature around you. My first encounter with snowshoes was sweaty but left me infatuated.

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Tuija attaching boot to the binding. It is around -10 degrees of Celsius and we are feeling a bit chilly as we should. It’s going to get sweaty! My choice: Merino wool base layer, T-shirt and a windproof softshell.

Marking routes for the winter season

In the early December days I tagged along a friend who had a task of marking a snowshoeing route next to Ylläs fell in Lapland. The route is 3–4 km in length and takes you up through a magical forest on top of a small fell “Pikkulaki” for some striking views and back.

We stuffed a big bunch of blue poles in our hiking backs and started the journey. Tuija needed to mark the path to follow specific route, so that it follows the same route as on official maps.

Tuija marking the official route with blue poles. Elli the dog is helping.

Tuija marking the official route with blue poles. Elli the dog is helping.

Snowshoes prevent sinking in the deep snow

There are many different kinds of snowshoes but they all work with the same idea: You place your shoe in the binding so that your toes point to the shorter end of the snowshoe. Tighten the cords and go!

The point of snowshoe is that it is easier to walk on top of loose deep snow when your weight is distributed on larger area the your feet. The larger the area, the more it allows you to float on top of snow. The same applies with skis: the longer your skis, the better they will hold you on top of snow. This effect was the reason skis and snowshoes were invented in the first place – to help people move in deep snow.

Harder than I thought

So we embarked upon our journey and within 50 meters it was clear it is going to be rough. Even the dog Elli knew it and wisely saved her energy by stepping only our tracks. The snow was powdery but packed tightly by wind and there was a lot of it, 40–50 cm on average, sometimes much more. So the snowshoe didn’t really do the magic and let me glide on snow as I was expecting, but rather I had to work really hard in knee deep snow to take steps forward. But Tuija was reassuring that conditions on this particular day were harder than usual. Onward we went.

The first hill was very small but steep. I felt I was sliding back and couldn’t get a grip. Then Tuija pointed out there are metal “teeth” below the shoe that allow you to step on you toes and get a proper hold of snow when climbing a steep surface.  So I changed my step to tiptoeing, with success.

Forest is just magical now. Trees have piles of snow on them, some of them are bend as the snow is so heavy. The scenery is from a fairy tale, and as the day light gets fainter and fainter I start to see all kinds of mystical creatures in the tree silhouettes.

Finally on the top, just in time to see the last beautiful rays of light! On the way back headlamps were needed.

Finally on the top, just in time to see the last beautiful rays of light! On the way back headlamps were needed.

It took us a couple of hours to reach the top, Pikkulaki. It was 2 pm, the sun had only been up for two hours and had already set. Polar night will begin here soon. The colours were breathtaking.

View from Pikkulaki mini fell. Sweating up was totally worth it. I haven't enhanced a single colour on this pic. On the other side of Pikkulaki there is the grand Ylläs fell, boasting the largest skiing resort in Finland.

View from Pikkulaki mini fell. Sweating up was totally worth it. I haven’t enhanced a single colour on this pic. On the other side of Pikkulaki there is the grand Ylläs fell, boasting the largest skiing resort in Finland.

Snowshoeing down was an easy ride as now we could follow our own tracks. On the way down we made sure there are enough of blue poles, so you won’t be puzzled or have to worry about getting lost. A map is a good friend though, so you see how to get to the starting point by car or bus.

What to wear?

Tuija had her Sorel Caribous, I had my hiking boots plus gaiters to prevent snow from wetting my pants. Hiking boots or the like work as they feel comfy but robust, and they are somewhat waterproof. The rental places often have a variety of shoes if you don't own suitable ones.

Tuija had her Sorel Caribous, I had my hiking boots plus gaiters to prevent snow from wetting my pants. Hiking boots or the like work as they feel comfy but robust, and they are somewhat waterproof. The rental places often have a variety of shoes if you don’t own suitable ones.

Snowshoeing is proper workout, make no mistake. Don’t overdress or you’ll be sweating like a pig. Well, I was anyways. But it’s important to have extra clothing in a backpack so you can add a woollen layer or two if you get cold during a break or when descending.  A good advice is that you should feel slightly cold at the start. Your body will soon heat you up.

Map – how to get here 

Coordinates: (ETRS-TM35FIN) N=7494364.526825563, E=382855.67971687607

Check these out:
Snowshoeing routes in Ylläs
Snowshoe rental places

Juuvanrova – lovely free hut for a night

On top of fjell Juuvanrova in Muonio, Lapland, there is a cute pond in the middle of old pine trees, perfect silence and a charming little cabin waiting for you (or me).

A hidden little gem.

A hidden little gem.

In Finland there is this wonderful network of wilderness huts, ‘autiotupa’, free for trekkers and skiers to stay and rest for a night. The huts are fairly small and generally accommodate about 4 persons – but with general friendliness and empathy among fellow-trekkers you can be fairly confident you won’t have to spend the night outside. But you might have to endure a stranger snoring right next to you! Also, the custom is you only stay for one night or two at the most and don’t make it your personal cottage for a week.

Juuvanrova fjell is situated next to Olostunturi and Särkitunturi fjells, and is easily reached from the north side of the fjell, with just 5 km hike from the road. In the winter you can ski to Juuvanrova from any direction.

Short hike past wetlands and up the fjell

We parked on Luusunseläntie, a small road off Rovaniementie (road 79), about 7 km from Muonio towards Kittilä. There are signs to Juuvanrova from the tiny car park a couple of kilometers from the main road 79.

The hike to the cabin is 5 km and the path is well marked by orange triangles. First two kilometers take you through some wetland, waterproof hiking shoes are recommended. There are wooden duckboards across the wettest areas but careful – they are not in their best shape anymore.

Mind the duckboards after rain! The bogs are pretty though.

Mind the duckboards after rain! The bogs are pretty though.

After 2 km you reach an autiotupa Tammikämppä, also an open hut. It is situated by a lovely river with pure drinking water right next to you. If you feel tired or are in awe already – stay here and chill by a fire! Or walk across the bridge and continue for 3 km upwards to Juuvanrova.

The climb is not very steep and you can take breaks to admire the neighbouring fjells and lakes – it really is quite pretty! 

Admiring the Pallas fjells in the distance.

Admiring the Pallas fjells in the distance.

Juuvanrova hut

There are sleeping places for 4 persons, but more can be fitted if you squeeze. We were just two persons and nobody else was there so felt pretty lucky. The rule of these open huts is that the last one to enter has the right to stay. The person who has come earlier has already rested and can move on.

There is an area for fire outside the wilderness hut.

There is an area for fire outside the wilderness hut.

A lovely fireplace in the corner lights up the room and fire wood can be fetched from the wood shed. There is also an axe in the shed to make smaller firewood. But keep in mind the wood is there for everyone to enjoy, don’t burn them all. You can make coffee and cook with the pans found in the hut, the former user will have washed them properly for you to enjoy.

Juuvainside

We walked up here on a Friday evening in Autumn. We enjoyed the warmth and crackling of fire indoors, but also the crisp air and some Northern Lights outdoors. The following day we walked around the fjell, saw a sleepy reindeer, some eager and nosy Siberian Jays and heard Crows fighting about something. Then we walked back to the cabin for another night, as nobody else had come there.

Siberian Jays are very curious birds.

Siberian Jays are very curious birds.

Drinking water

We boiled the water from the pond before drinking, just in case, but it is most likely very pure on its own. In general, it is recommended you only drink water that is running freely and not standing still. So creeks, streams and rivers of Lapland are pretty safe bets. Otherwise boil the water first to kill possible germs.

The open wilderness huts are marked on most maps along the hiking and skiing routes. They are maintained by Metsähallitus, a Finnish Administration of Forests.

Woodshed full of wood is a happy sight for all wanderers.

Woodshed full of wood is a happy sight for all wanderers.

The rule is you leave the hut the same way you find it – clean and nice. Empty and wash up all the pans and make some fire wood for the others. Pour the dirty water on the ground at proper distance from the pond. Consideration for others – that is the only way such a superb system keeps working!

This is a dry toilet. Don't forget to bring your own toilet paper.

This is a dry toilet. Don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper.

From Juuvanrova you can continue the trail down to Kuusikonmaa hut for about 5 km, and onwards all the way to Ylläs fjell if you like.

Juuvanrova wilderness hut on the map