In commercial cooperation with VisitKarelia
Article by Terhi Ilosaari
On my day of departure, Southern Finland had been released from the grips of winter. The road had thawed and was watery all the way to Kuopio. Then along came a snowstorm. The landscape was completely white, nothing but dusty clouds of white. On arrival at The Puukarin Pysäkki Guesthouse, relief set in – it’s winter in Valtimo. Although I had managed to get there in one piece, my car got stuck in a snowbank. I got to know the members of our three-day Guesthouse to Guesthouse ski tour group as well as the hosts during our evening exercise session in the snow. We pushed the car back onto the road.
The Guesthouse to Guesthouse tour is a full service cross-country ski tour in North Karelia with daily skiing distances averaging 25km. However, we forgot all about the upcoming trip as the guesthouse hostess Anni delighted us with her Karelian food and hilarious tales. Bowls and baskets were passed around the table, each raw ingredient and dish with its own story.
‘Remember, there’s no rush with the skiing’, the hostess calls out as we roll to our beds with full tummies. Outside the window, so much snow was falling that the yard lights were covered under a thick blanket.
From Puukarin Pysäkki to Laitalan Loma
Puukarin Pysäkki’s host showed us the day’s route. A little worried, we asked what colour signs we should follow and how to find the right track.
‘There’s only one track, and I’m about to go ahead of you and make it’, he reassured us.
And so it was. We, the privileged few, got a fresh, unspoiled track made especially for us.
The route mainly went through fields that were sleeping under diamond-encrusted snow, low-lying and leisurely. You don’t need to know any special skiing techniques or even have downhill-skied. It’s enough if you can stay upright on your skis. The adventurer in me wanted to go off-track, but I soon realised that there’s over a metre of snow and it’s really soft and easy to sink into! On this tour you can use almost any type of ski. Poles should have a slightly bigger basket than usual.
Lost, but in a good way
Skiing at a slow, easy pace, enraptured by the snow and warmed by the sun, it’s easy for your thoughts to wander off into the unknown. I forgot who and where I was. It was only the first day of skiing and I had already lost track of the days of the week and where I was on this planet.
Our group skied unhurriedly in small, 2-3 person groups. After the halfway point, a small cute kota (type of Lappish hut) emerged from the edge of the field. When we got there, we all opened our lunchboxes with delight. Hollola’s skiing demons were already jumping back onto the track, as the last group could just be seen waving from the other side of the field.
Perfection at the kota
‘Everything is as perfect as it can be’, sighed one group member during the lunch break. Another followed with: ‘Even as a pessimist I can’t seem to find anything wrong’.
Everyone started talking about an abandoned house on the riverbank that they had been admiring along the way
One person pondered out loud how the children would have travelled to school, another speculated how much property tax one pays, the third person thought about who had built the house and cleared the plot when the house had to be vacated, the fourth wondered why there was no barn. The fifth person just said ‘what a beautiful house!’
I wondered how much it would cost to rent the house for a whole summer, how much it would need to be heated in the summer, how many mice would need to be caught and would it be an endless work camp or would I have time to write alongside being the house’s caretaker?
To ski or paddle?
Alongside the route flows the river Karhujoki, which means that you can do the same trip by kayak or canoe in the summer. The gentle silence of Karhujoki is interrupted by the Neitivirta rapids, in which the cruel tax collector Simo Hurtta lost his maiden. ‘What of the wretched girl, but there went a good saddle’, the mean taxman is claimed to have said.
With lunch in our bellies, the journey to our destination flew by without us noticing. We had clocked up about twenty kilometres on skis. In the yard I felt a moment of dismay… where had I left my belongings! In recent weeks, I had been hiking with my sled and rucksack, unpacking and packing, drying my sleeping bag and hammock. I sighed with relief when I remembered that my luggage had been transported by car to the destination hours before me.
At the door of the guesthouse, our hostess Henna called us to come inside. The coffee was hot and karelian pies with egg butter were warm. This was followed by pancakes and three different types of jam.
Taken care of by a cranky old woman
Henna, the hostess of the second house told us the following:
‘Laitala farm was originally my in-laws’ dairy farm. It’s where my husband and I spent all our weekends. Leaving to return to the daily grind in Kuopio was always difficult. Suddenly one day, the in-laws suggested that it was time to hand down the farm to the next generation and soon we were in the yard with our moving trucks. As I sat on those steps, a curlew sang and I thought: I don’t need to go anywhere else anymore.’
Our minds were already travelling to the next guesthouse. After the first day on fields it was nice to weave in and out in the shelter of the forests. The track sloped up and down in parts, but was still easy to ski. Gentle snowfall softened the rest of the sounds in the landscape. The very thought of ‘ski-track rage’ made me almost giggle hysterically.
The Rhythm of the Track
As I was preparing to leave, I contemplated with friends who are as greedy for endurance exercise as I am, if this kind of trip was really my thing. Should I go and jog an extra circuit in the morning or keep skiing a bit further down the track in the evening? The atmosphere on this laidback trip is different. The world became meditative. Despite my hesitation, I slotted right into the daily pace: breakfast at 9, lunch into the backpack, bags to transportation, track, new guesthouse, afternoon coffee and treats, sauna, dinner at the guesthouse with stories and then slipped into unconsciousness.
A coffee break with real locals
Hulkkola farm could be seen from the edge of the field. Raija and Aimo invited us in for the halfway coffee. Sat around the kitchen table, with cardamom buns in our mouths, we listened to the story of the house, which although unique is also similar to that of many other houses we had admired on our journey.
Parents or grandparents planned the house using matchboxes. Modern architects would question how well these sorts of blueprints worked, but the house was built for oneself and so it was known exactly what was needed. When handed down to the next generation, electricity, children and running water inside were added. People got on with life. Children went out into the world, and then there was no-one to continue the farm.
The last cow was led out from the cowshed and now the house was regularly being heated only using the bread oven, evenly, in the quietening landscape. We were comforted by log walls and a stunning landscape. At the same time, somewhere in the world, someone is bumping into someone else against their will in a cramped metro. How can one send a package of this space and peacefulness to those who need it the most?
How many long to get to know normal local life, rather than engage in the usual tourism? This is now it. Genuine and ordinary. The cottage table and cardamom buns straight out of the oven next to it. A host, who was born in this very house.
A miserable blizzard
In the afternoon the snowfall was more intense. The track was wet and soft, the landscape white from top to bottom. Ahead of us was the final spurt. Four kilometres to Viemen lake on top of the 20 that we had already skied. The snow spa massaged our faces without asking. Water that had risen above the ice made the snow stick to the bottom of the skis. Today we were working hard to reach our destination. I added skins to my skis to prevent clods of snow sticking to the bottom. I think with horror about how tough the rest of the route is for those who don’t have a plan B in their rucksacks.
My thoughts turned from the lake ice to the next guesthouse, of which I only knew the name: Pihlajapuu, run by entrepeneurs Äksyt Ämmät. This kind of trip was a lot of fun after all! In the afternoons we got to open a completely new present, the door of a new guesthouse. The present was always pleasant and delectable, but also new and surprising. The two first guesthouses exuded old wisdom from their solid log walls, but with this third one you can immediately sense fun and a touch of saffron right on the doorstep.
With our coffee we got to sample kukkonen, baked rounds golden with egg butter. Talk around the table focused on the ghastliness of the weather and comparing ski waxes. I suspect new skin-based skis are going to make it on the shopping lists of many.
Gentle steam and a cranky woman
At this guesthouse, you can book a massage if you wish. Blissed out, sauna’d and massaged skiers arrived at the buffet table. While we had been in the sauna, Minna the host had prepared flame-blazed salmon, and the chef had braised beets in the oven. But before eating, we received a splash of Kiteen Kirkas, the famous distilled spirit from the hostess’s home county.
Minna told us that in the beginning, permission had to be sought from 90 landowners along the ski route, and now it had gone up to 220. As Minna told her stories of seeking and asking for permission we saw small flashes of the cranky woman that her business was named after (Äksyt Ämmät means cranky old women), but otherwise the lady of the house was of a very good disposition.
There was a small hamlet in Nurmes, where names were briskly collected on a list. The village wanted its own school. A trusted man was sent on his skis to deliver the message, with the name list in his pocket. On the way the skier sank into a ditch, but at the last minute saved the inky list from a soggy end. The village got its school.
Winter arrived this year in Northern Karelia later than usual. Lakes did not form a proper layer of ice, before snow started to fall. That’s why the lakes are now full of puddles. The last day of skiing to the fourth guesthouse was mostly on Lake Pielinen. One of our group asked if we could move our route onto Bomba’s tracks in Nurmes. It was agreed. We managed to avoid the same fate as the school hero and got to ski with dry feet.
The quiet, one-way track switched to the back of a taxi with a chatty taxi driver and then to wide tracks that were in very good condition. The snowstorm from the previous day had calmed down. Birds tested their voices as if to ask: can we start to sing our spring song yet?
Along Lake Pielinen
For the last stretch to the guesthouse, we moved along a track just made for us, in Pielinen’s peaceful snow flurries, each person going at their own pace.
It felt quite strange to ski right there, on Finland’s fourth largest lake. Only a stone’s throw south was Koli’s shore. If on that shore a group of good people hadn’t offered my father a boat ride over the lake, my father wouldn’t have got to school, or ended up getting an education in Joensuu, or met my mother. If that group of partygoers hadn’t taken my penniless future father on board, maybe I wouldn’t exist.
The track ends in a courtyard of red houses. Red ochre paint could be seen here and there amongst the snowdrifts. All the buildings were buried under the snow. This would be a good place to hibernate like a moomin. I might just stay here.
A skier who has skied for 30 years on Lapland’s ski-tracks sighs:
‘There’s too much of everything in Lapland! I can’t relax, because I want to take part in everything from ski boot dances to evening shows and in between go do the rounds on all the tracks. This is something completely special. Here I can really relax.
The Guesthouse to Guesthouse route in a nutshell
The Guesthouse to Guesthouse is a full service cross country ski tour. The package includes overnights in four guesthouses full board, saunas, tracks made especially for the group, luggage transfers between accommodation and trip information.
Food is mostly organic and local and of the region.
The route goes from Valtimo’s Puukarin Pysäkki Majatalo in Pohjois Karjala to Salmenkyla in Nurmes on the shores of Lake Pielinen. Daily distances are about 25km. There are three skiing days, but you can of course extend your holiday at either end. In the summer, you can do the route by paddling or by bike. Dogs are also welcome on the ski tracks. Even though the journey might sound long, a basic level skier can manage it on pretty much any kind of ski – you have the whole day and the only things on the programme in addition to skiing is sauna and meals.
The Ski Tour Package is brought to you by Northern Karelian entrepreneurs working in close cooperation. Read more and book your own trip here!
From Guesthouse to Guesthouse Tour accommodation:
Kajaanintie 844, 75700 Valtimo
Laitalantie 85, 75710 Karhunpää
Salmenkyläntie 81, 75500 Nurmes
Männikkölän Pirtti (in Finnish)
Pellikanlahdentie 1, 75530 Nurmes
Translation by Becky Hastings