Cross-country in Finland: meadows deep under snow

In late March the snows of Helsinki were crusty and worn, and already there was a faroff hint of spring in the air. It was too early, though, to put the skis away, what with the frozen Gulf of Finland just out the back door and Lapland's white beauty beckoming all the way in to May. Besides, said my friend Jukka Niemi, there is always Lahti.

Lahti, 60 miles north of Helsinki, is a major producer of furniture, textiles , and skis, and it is also a sportsmad city, with the highest downhill slope in southern Finland and a network of cross-country trails laid out and cared for by the local government. In summer it is noted as a gateway to the Finnish lake country, and a hydrofoil and an old steamboat take passengers from Lahti across the endlessly long Long Paijanne to Jyvaskyla, but all that of course was academic on this bright, cold Monday morning.

Winter, once we had cleared the Helsinki environs, was in good form: meadows deep under snow, evergreen forests riding away to the horizon. "That's our green gold," said Mr. Niemi, referring to the healthy Finnish lumber industry. I observed how thoroughly Finland protects its landscape from commercial intrusion; about the only signs we saw were painted silhouettes of some huge, horned woodland denizens: elk crossings.

Lahti's proudest landmark is probably its i sports stdium, site of the Salpausselka winter gamres and many other athletic events. We peeked in and found the arena empty but for three women seated together in the bright 20 -degree sunshine, working on their tans. Lahti has 100 miles of groomed cross-country trails (30 miles of which are lighted for night skiing), and the meandering tracks lead away from the stadium in three separate but connecting loops. The city spends 200,000 Finnish makrs a year (or about $50,000) to keep the trails cleared and smooth, and there is no fee for using them -- facts that can't help impressing any North American who has seen the once pristine sport being turned increasingly into a hard-nosed business.

In a country where almost everyone owns a pair of skis ("I honestly don't care for skiing," a Helsinki woman had told me in confessional tones, "but when I visit my brother's cabin in the north, I must ski the eight kilometes from the road to his door"), it is not always easy to find rental equipment. The assumption is that everyone brings his own gear. I hadn't done so, but ski-happy Lahti did not let me down. It is possible to ent full gear at the Lahti Hotel or at a charming resort, Messila, a few miles from town.

Jukka Niemi and I had a date to go skiing at Messila, an icicle-hung, clapboard manor house just up a snowy road from the lake. Lahti's city-made ski trails run right past the resort, which also has a sizable downhill program, thanks to the proximity of southern Finland's highest and most popular slope. It rises to only 222 meters (about 700 feet), but the undulating ski run extends 800 meters, and there are two ski lifts.

We rented cross-country skis (about $5 a day) and headed across an open field toward a birch forest -- as unlikely-looking a skiing tandem, I am sure as had poled away from the manor all winter. I was wearing jeans, a rare sight on Finnish cross-country trails, and Jukka -- independent, iconoclastic, practical -- went to the task in his business suit, necktie and all, with an outer jacket for warmth.

Messila has one cross-country teacher and five downshill instructors, a ratio Mr. Niemi found reasonable. "Finnish people," he said, "are a little ashamed to ask for cross-country instruction. We ski before we walk."

Even if I had asked for instruction, it was clear my partner felt the silent forest too pure a place for any mundane, how-to sessions. He bolted away, and in the half-hour we skied (we would have stayed out longer, but lunch was waiting on the manor table), I scarcely kept him in my sights as I battled the dipping, curving trails. It turned out to be the best sort of instruction -- trial and error in the Finnish forest. An important lesson I learned is that cross-country skiing is not the apple-pie-easy sport its American promoters sometimes advertise. In the end, as the manor reappeared across the meadow, I found myself grateful to Jukka for having let me experience my few early pratfalls alone.

At Messila's luncheon buffet table, a busload of Russian tourists had arrived to help us clean out the cold meats, cheeses, vegetables, and hot dishes. Jukka and I sat down in the sunlit dining room overlooking lake and forest and were joined by Messila's owner and manger, Kyosti Toivonen. "You can call me Sam Finn -- that was my nickname when I went to the States 20 years ago," said the puckish Mr. Toivonen.

He said Messila had been a farmstead since 1500 and had been in his wife's family for 200 years. "It was dairy and lumber, but 12 years ago my mother-in-law -- she was a war widow -- decided to retire. So my wife and I left our jobs and changed the line of production here. WE sold the cows and decided to milk the tourists instead." (For reservations, write Manor House Hotel, SF-15980, Messila, Finland.)

Besides the active ski program, Messila diverts its customers with weaving, candlemaking, and carpentry courses, ice fishing on the lake, and horseback riding through the surrounding fields and woods. Mr. Toivonen said Messila is much livelier in summertime when the craft courses are in fuller swing, riding is unlimited by the weather, and the lake opens up to countless sporting possibilities. Even in late March, though, the lake has a lot of potential, which Jukka and I learned on a postprantial ski trek on that icy expanse. This time we skied together. Again there were no instructions, and by now I understood why.

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