Akaslompolo, Finland — As I sat down to dinner at the long wood table the first evening, I knew why the people around me had come to Lapland. They had not come to feed the reindeer or to buy Lapp handicrafts or to look for the northern lights. They had come to ski.
It was 5:30 p.m., dinner hour at the blond-log Akaskero Hotel 120 miles northwest of the Arctic Circle, and as the entirely Finnish, mainly over-40 skiers bent to the salmon soup and pancakes filled with berry jam, they began to compare notes on a day's outing in the Finnish forest.
"We did 41 kilometers [about 25 miles], and stopped at only two cabins in the woods," said a rather formal Finn who was on holiday from his post as air and naval attache in Moscow. "Our wives took it very well, but I think my friend the dentist was a little tired." The attache was not out of practice, having skied all winter on the Moscow ring. The day before, he reported without sounding boastful, he had covered the 13 kilometers to the cabin and a clearing called Kotamaja in 55 minutes, a personal record.
This may have slightly deflated the businessmen brothers, Bengt and Lars Lund (one up from Helsinki, the other all the way from his temporary job in Brazil), but they didn't show it. Bengt said his best time to the Kotamaja cabin was 1 hour, 30 seconds. His wife and brother were no cross-country slouches either, but I was bouyed more by the admission of Lars Lund's wife that she hadn't skied at all that day, had merely skimmed around the parking lot on a potkukelkkam sled. Until she spoke, I was beginning to wonder if I had landed in a lair of overachievers.
Lapland in late March is the place and time for the dedicated skier. But as I was to learn in the still and sunny days ahead, an American intermediate who doesn't bother to clock his cross-country treks can also find peace and contentment among the pines, birches, and reindeer. Finnair takes people up to Ravaniemi, the Lapp capital on the Arctic Circle, and beyond to ski down the bald white fells or to go on reindeer safaris, but my focus was cross-country terrain, perhaps the best I've ever assaulted.
It didn't matter that I was practically the only non-Finn in the forest and thus the only person not born to ski. Nor did it matter that I didn't keep a log as the Lund brothers did, recording every ski outing they had taken for 10 years including afternoon sorties in Helsinki. If anything, my forgoingness entitled me to certain dispensations. In deepest Lapland a Yank is a welcome sort of oddity. One night at the Yllas hotel, a large A-frame that is the social headquarters for the region, the owner thought about when he had last seen an American skier. "At the moment," he said, "I think someone else here is English- speaking."
After a few days on the trail my friend and leader Nino de Prado (don't ask me what a Finn is doing with a patrician Spanish handle like that) said my reputation was spreading. "Reputation for what?" I asked.
"Everyone is calling you the 'English- speaking man.' They know you by your hair, by your different clothes, by all the yelping you do on the tracks, and of course by your skiing style."
Nino was something of a sight himself, wearing Norwegian knickers and high socks in a country where thermal jackets and matching long pants much like US jogging outfits are the rule. Nino, a former ski teacher, introduced me to his no-nonsense, purposeful, long-striding technique and coached me on the rules of the road, such as: when skiers approach on a downhill grade, surrender the right of way. As you jump off the tracks to let them pass, you will invariably get a smile, a nod, and a "huomenta" ("good morning") from each one.
At the woodsy Akaskero, with its two dozen rooms and 12 separate log cabins, the trick is to load up on the smorgasbord breakfast so you have the fixings -- cheese, eggs, bread, meat -- for trailside lunches. (Meals are included in the hotel rate, about $75 a day for two in the highly desirable stretch from March 15 to April 19.) The other trick is to avoid falling backward on your lunch-filled rucksack. I took a few spills trying to keep up with the flying Nino, and when we had reached the cabin at Kotamaja in a sunlit clearing and I sat down on the porch to eat lunch and take the sum with a dozen similarly inclined Finns, I found the egg in my pack no longer needed cracking.
In the cabin, skiers toasted sausages on a log fire, others sat at tables drinking cocoa and hot berry juice purchased from a snack counter, which also purveyed blocky little carved trolls. For most, this was a pit stop before assaulting the big white egg-shaped fell that loomed above the cabin. These hardy Finns were about to take the mountain on cross-country skis.
On our last day we left Lars Lund's wife pushing her sled in the parking lot and set out for Akas Mylly, a working gristmill deep in the national forest. When we pulled up, people were exchanging quips with an old miller in a colorful Lapp jacket and peaked floppy hat. His face was covered with flour dust. He led a group of us into a cabin near the mill and served up porridge, flatbread made directly from the ground grain, and hot lingonberry juice.
"Take a close look at the miller," a woman skier told Nino and me. "He is made up to look old.He is only 36. His whole family is employed by the forestry service to take care of the cabins and the trails and this mill." It was a little touch of Disney in Lapp ski country, but there was nothing Mickey Mouse about it.