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Skiing in the Arctic Night

In midwinter there is light for only a couple of hours a day in Lapland. We decided to go for a two day skiing trip in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, to get a proper feel of the darkness during the shortest days of the year in December.

The route was marked on the map, starting from Koivarova parking lot, and went around Keimiötunturi and Sammaltunturi fells in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park. The plan was to stay the night in one of the three open huts on the route, depending on how quickly we could move in the snow with sledges.

Packing in the parking lot. Me and my friends Pipsa and Salla had long skis, forest skis, special for deep snow. Our sleeping bags and food was packed in two sledges, inside waterproof bags.

The weather was not on our side

It was just above zero degrees of Celsius, around +2 C, when we started the journey. This is bad news for skiing. Snowflakes melt too much under the ski and there is absolutely no traction whatsoever. The skis glide very well, but without traction there is literally no way you can pull a sledge behind you.

We added some grip wax on all skis after the first 20 meters but the effect was minimal. I wished I had hairy skins to put under my skis. They would have worked.

So the first couple of hours our journey proceeded very slowly. It was nearly one meter ahead and two backwards, if there was even the tiniest hill. Our spirits were still high, but we started thinking maybe we have to stay the night at the first open hut only 4 kilometres away at lake Keimiöjärvi. At least there was a lovely sunset to enjoy, and the great Keimiö fell on our left side kept us company.

Me pulling the sledge. Luckily the track was visible, it was cleared by snowmobile. In deep powder snow we would have been exhausted in no time.

When finally reaching the first hut, Keimiöjärvi autiotupa, it was lunch time. We went to sit inside. There was everything one needs for perfect camping: firewood, a stove, some buckets to fetch snow in and pans so you can melt the snow for drinking or food. Sleeping places for 3 people, more if you squeeze. A dry toilet outside. Someone had left many candles on the big table which made me very happy.

Across the frozen lake and into the darkness

After lunch break it was only 2 pm, so we decided to keep going. It was always possible to return to this hut if the journey wouldn’t proceed at all due to non-existent grip. The second hut, Mustakero, we had to forget as it was situated on top of hill. No way we could climb up in this snow.

It was getting dark already so we wanted to cross the lake as soon as possible. You never know with frozen lakes, if there is a current or underwater spring that prevents the ice from properly freezing over.

This route was marked though and I felt pretty trusting there wouldn’t be any soft spots in the ice. Still, there was nervousness in the air. We had forgotten to bring ice claws. You should never cross unfamiliar waters without them, ice claws literally save your life if you fall in. You smash them on the ice and pull yourself up.

Crossing the lake, leaving the Keimiöjärvi open hut behind.

After crossing the lake with no casualties (phew), our path continued in the dark. The funny thing about darkness is, it never really is pitch black when there is snow on the ground. I didn’t even want to turn my headlamp on. I could see shades and trees, the fells around me. And I could see the amazing sky with a zillion stars!

What you don’t see, is depth. Downhills on our way were not steep, but all three of us managed to fall many times! Luckily snow was soft and there was a lot of it. The sledge is funny when coming downhill: first you have to pull it for the initial glide. Then gravity takes over and you feel a push on your back, as the sledge gives you extra speed! I wouldn’t dare to slide down a steep big hill, the speed would accelerate so fast I wouldn’t be able to do anything but yell.

Mustavaara hut

After the last rays of light were gone by 2.30 pm, the temperature dropped below zero, just enough to get some grip back. Our expedition managed to actually ski ahead now! Before no time we had travelled 5 km from the first hut to Mustavaara, an old reindeer herders’ hut. It has been estimated that this hut was built in the end of 1800’s, making it the oldest hut in the whole Pallas-Ylläs National Park.

Melting snow for drinking water.

In summer time there is drinking water practically everywhere. The waters in Lapland are so pure. In winter, you melt it from snow. But snow takes quite a while longer to bring to boil than liquid water, as you might recall from chemistry lessons. Still, it took surprisingly long, I thought.

For dinner we made avocado pasta, not the most traditional of Finnish dishes, but very quick to prepare and absolutely yummy!

The cute and old hut Mustavaara. Imagine this too is complete free for everyone to enjoy! Many thanks to Metsähallitus, the Finnish Administration of Forests, for the maintenance and firewood.

The next day

Our expedition team didn’t sleep too well as there were mice rattling (don’t leave food laying around) and wind howling in a snow blizzard. But we were more than happy to have experienced this old hut. After breakfast it was time to get going as daylight would last, again, for only a couple of hours.

Today it was about -2 C, just enough to get a decent grip of the snow. The way back around the fells was 15 km so it was going to be a long way – or not, depending on the path. The first 7 km were in great shape with hard path made by snowmobile. There were even proper ski tracks all the way from Mustavaara hut to hotel Jeris, 7 km leg. Our forest skis were too wide to fit the tracks though, they were meant for normal cross-country skis.

Skiing in deep snow

The last 7 km leg was something else. This part of the route hadn’t been opened, I don’t know why. Or perhaps it had snowed so much the track had been covered. It was quite a struggle as we had to cram in unbroken snow, in the dark. The benefit of tall, wide skis is that they glide better on top of snow. That is, IF the snow is hard enough to carry your weight. This snow was powder fresh fluff and we sank right through. We took turns in opening the route.

Also the terrain changed to very hilly. It was ever-changing uphill – downhill for at least 3 km. The last leg goes next to a reindeer fence so you can’t get lost. You just need to find the gate where you started off.

Obviously it’s hard to take good pictures when it is dark, but most of the time our skiing trip looked liked this.

It was fine with a good headlamp, but my friends had very dim headlamps and couldn’t see where they were skiing. Imagine skiing down at high speed in complete darkness without knowing where you will end up! They took it well though, and by that I mean, they landed softly when falling in the snow – with head first, butt first, sideways, you name it. I fell too, even though I had a good lamp and thus, no excuses…

Finally we recognised the gate in the fence and yelled out of excitement. It was a fun, challenging trip, I learned a lot about skiing in snow that keeps changing its form.

Starting point on the map

coordinates: lat:67° 55′ 18,488″ lon: 24° 9′ 35,108″

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.

reindeer1

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.

reindeer2

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!

reindeer5

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