Finland on Ice

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004

We were caught in a flurry of moments, standing on the snowy edge of a frozen lake in Finland, the dusk suspended in a purgatory of blue light that caressed the spindly birch trees and blurred the fields of fresh powder. We had been gliding along, our boots strapped into cross-country skis, swishing through the woods in slotted lines that ended here at the shore. We could go anywhere really, but the light, the two-hour sunset that drawls poetically every evening across the landscape, had suspended us as well.

In this scene, at this place, we simply stood, rooted -- my friend, Jamie, and me, intruders in an artist's watercolor, breathing the frigid air and listening to the silence, a quiet so still it is as if you can hear the whole world sighing at its own beauty.

This is Finland, this candle-lit canopy of blue and white. This is where four friends and I had come for an early spring ski vacation.

This Nordic country sandwiched between Russia and Sweden has plenty of snow when other parts of the world have long defrosted. It offered the mysterious appeal of the Arctic tundra, reindeer, saunas and vast lakes, forests and rivers that could be explored by ski, snowshoe or studded tires. Our crew -- Jamie, Kathleen, Cathy, Suzy and I -- plunged ourselves into the snowy countryside, to the western lake region 3 1/2 hours north of Helsinki. The locals seemed genuinely surprised to find us there, five laughing, dancing, smiling Americans who fell down. A lot. What could we tell them? We didn't want to go to Vermont.

We needed layers of sweaters and hats and insulated gloves to guard against the wind and the dry, zero-degree air. We were cold, but we didn't care because we were in Finland, and the cold, our muse, made us feel creative and aware. We knew we sounded like fools when we called home and tried to describe what it was like to experience Finland in a reflective glare. To look down as your yellow skis plowed through unmarked snow. To hear the slice and the poke of the movement, a musical requiem you can't download from anywhere. We sounded like we were in love.

At the Arctic Circle, we took our schoolgirl crushes and climbed a 100-foot mound of snow and slid down on denim, a flying tangle of limbs. We simply couldn't get enough of Finland. We closed down bars like we were 22 again and drank strong coffee just to keep going. We ate pizza and chewed licorice gum and cranked up the Cure in our rented blue Peugeot station wagon, singing as we rolled along two-lane highways while red-painted cottages passed by in a streak, popping out of the snow mounds like cherries on a vanilla ice cream cone.

A Cabin in the Woods

Our home base was the tiny resort town of Kihnio, no more than a street with a row of drab wooden buildings on each side. The town is so small it only shows up on the most detailed maps. We rented a two-bedroom log cabin at a lakeside resort called Pyhaniemi. We had a fireplace that we kept ablaze and a small kitchen where we saved money by cooking our meals. In the tiled bathroom, we had our own private sauna, and we sat in towels on wooden planks after a frosty ski, baking in the dry, oppressive heat until our skin turned bright red and we could take it no more.

We were isolated both by geography and language in our cabin in the woods. Few people spoke English. When a hearty, fair-headed man in a gray wool sweater showed up at the wooden door one afternoon, we had to hand him our phrasebook so he could point out what he wanted, which turned out to be a screw saw for ice-fishing. The word wasn't in the book, so it would be days later when it occurred to us what that circular gesture he kept making with his hands was.

Finland is a remarkable cross-country ski destination. The double-lined markings of a cross-country ski path are everywhere, cutting through the woods, lining the sides of the roads, linking towns and communities. Many are illuminated, and if you have skis, you have a free pass to explore the countryside.

Our first morning at the cabin, I woke up in front of a paned window that looked out onto Lake Kankarinjarvi. This time of year Finland is emerging from its winter darkness, with at least 12 hours of daylight. One morning we hit the lake before anyone else had a chance to make tracks in the snow. The lake had a lunar feel to it, almost gray and unspoiled. We were explorers, and the grooves our skis cut into the snow would determine where everyone would follow later that day.

By ski, with the waterways frozen, no part of the landscape was closed off to us. Four of us headed out late one morning, and for hours we took turns following each around the bends and coves of the lake, sometimes forging new tracks when the trail ended. We passed abandoned summer cottages and boats left exposed to collect the winter snow. We skied through brown reeds and around rocks poking through the frost. The edge of the lake was rimmed with tall pine and birch trees, their barks stripped for several feet from the ground. The tops slumped with the weight of an overnight snowstorm. We ducked in and out of the coves, an army of swish, poke, swish, poke, swish, poke.

Santa's Village

Although Finland is geographically one of the largest countries in Europe, its population of fewer than 6 million is spread out across diverse terrain. The northern part of the country, known as Lapland, is the most sparsely populated, a barren wilderness of reindeer and the Sami people who herd them. The gateway to Lapland is the city of Rovaniemi, a college town and tourist center that swells with visitors in summer and winter. You can find cold here when home is warm and you want inspiration from pink cheeks and ice for just a little bit longer.

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