The Best Way to See Finland? Ski Finland.
Author and political consultant Stuart Stevens loves a good sufferfest, so he couldn't resist Border to Border: 420 kilometers of nordic sliding through a country that defines what winter is all about
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
We left Mora at 2 A.M. with snow falling, headed for the Arctic Circle. Mora was Mora, Sweden, the small town that’s famous as the end point of the 90-kilometer Vasaloppet, the oldest and largest race in cross-country skiing. I first completed it back in the 1980s, when I was making a film with National Geographic about doing, in a single year, all the races in the European series known as the Worldloppet. One of the sponsors was Karhu skis, which also sponsored the Swedish marathon team that dominated the race circuit that year. Out of pity for my sad skiing ability, Karhu asked the team’s coach, Kjell Kratz, to help me out, and we’ve been close friends ever since. Over the decades, Kjell’s red house, which is a short walk from the finish line of the Vasaloppet, has become a second home for me.
The week before, I’d skied the 2019 Vasaloppet and a crazy new event, the Nattvasan, which involves negotiating the same course at night, helped along by torches, headlamps, and moonlight. After the race, I walked back to Kjell’s house through a sleeping neighborhood, thinking how lucky I’d been to stumble into this world of skiing, snow, and Scandinavia. It had sustained me in dark times and was always there for me—waiting, never disappointing. In previous years after the Vasa, I’d felt a mix of relief that I’d made it to the finish tinged with a melancholy that this signaled the beginning of the end of winter. It made me long for an endless ski season where the snow was always fresh and the tracks stretched forever beyond the horizon.
A few years ago, I heard about an event in Finland called Border to Border. The idea seemed irresistibly loony: a 420-kilometer cross-country ski all the way across Finland, from the Russian line to the Swedish line. Border to Border had been held every March for more than 30 years, run by volunteers, never advertised or commercialized, just one of those wild challenges that attracts a self-selecting group of ski nuts. I signed up and was trying to figure out the best way to get there from Mora when Kjell, who was then 76, announced that he was going, too, and that we would drive.
“That’ll take us two days, right?” I said. It was about 750 miles away, and Mora was just south of the Arctic Circle. This was during an old-fashioned Swedish winter that seemed to bring heavy snow every day.
Kjell eyed me with a look of disappointment that I’d come to know well, like the time I suggested we might want to stop and sleep when driving from Mora to a race in Italy. “Two days?” he said. “Out of the question. It is nothing.”
Which is how we ended up leaving Mora in the middle of the night, heading north to Lapland, the region that’s home to nomadic reindeer herders known in Finland, Sweden, and Norway as the Sami. Kjell is a famously fast driver. One time, near the start of the Vasaloppet, he dropped me off to stay with a friend. Her husband, a renowned Swedish race-car driver, saw Kjell roaring away, came into the house wide-eyed, and asked, “Who was that lunatic?”
Kjell had lined up a job waxing skis at the Norwegian Birkebeiner a few days after the finish of Border to Border, and his Volvo station wagon was packed with exotic waxes of every variety. As we rocketed past a double semi on a blind curve in heavy snow, I fell asleep pondering the flammable qualities of fluoro.
We drove up the eastern coast of Sweden, the sun rising over frozen pieces of the Baltic. We arrived just after dark at a cluster of buildings deep in the woods, buried in snow. The place was called the Oivanki Outdoor Education Centre, and when I tried to find out more about it online, two nearby attractions were mentioned: the Kujala Reindeer Farm and the Palosaari Reindeer and Fishing Farm.
About 30 skiers were there, most on the older side, and they had the lean and perpetually tired look of endurance devotees who’d probably pushed their bodies too hard. A few very fit-looking younger women—Americans and Canadians, as it turned out—studied posted maps that showed each day’s route. They described the first day, tomorrow, as an “easy warm-up.” It was 42 kilometers, with a long climb.
A sign announced that there would be two dinners served each evening, one around five, after skiing, and another at eight, after the nightly briefing for the next day. At the first dinner, the group ate with the quiet determination of people who understood that eating enough was a key to success.
Later that night, after I’d taken a sauna—in Finland there’s always a sauna—I stepped out and looked at a frozen lake, glistening in the reflected glow of the moonlight. A short dock led to a ladder descending into a hole in the ice. I stood there sweating, the snow falling softly, and knew there was no place in the world I’d rather be.
The next morning, we bused a short distance to a trailhead near the Russian border, which was beside one of the endless frozen lakes that we would cross during the event. A pair of Germans took off, and I knew that finishing first each day would mean a lot to them. I’d never done a multi-day ski event before, but I’d done enough group bike trips to know that there will always be people who act like they’re wearing a numbered bib. For reasons I didn’t quite understand but accepted gratefully, I never felt competitive in these situations, perhaps because there had been other parts of my life in which winning had meant too much.
Kjell had followed the bus in his Volvo; now he studied the snow with the concentration of a bomb maker soldering wires to a detonator. I’d brought two pairs of skis. One was prepped with Start wax tape, a magical application that went on like masking tape and delivered shockingly good results in a wide variety of conditions. The other was treated with standard Start hard waxes for cold weather. (Kjell was a Start rep and viewed all other waxes with suspicion.)
Conditions this morning: ten degrees Fahrenheit, with a projected high of fifteen. “Perfect skiing weather,” Kjell announced, but I knew he would say that of anything short of rain. He handed me the hard-waxed skis and announced solemnly, “These will work.”
He was right, of course. When you’re a mediocre skier, there’s a certain magic to having perfectly waxed skis—it’s as if you changed running shoes and suddenly started knocking off miles two minutes faster.
In the Border to Border ski, inevitably, the first five or so kilometers were across a frozen lake. Minnesota is called the Land of 10,000 Lakes and actually has more than 11,000. Finns call Finland the Land of 1,000 Lakes, and it has just under 200,000. Somewhere in there are the makings of what passes for a joke in this taciturn country and something very profound about the Finnish people. As the saying goes, the introvert Finn looks at your feet while talking; the extrovert looks at your knees. These are people defined by understatement.
This temperament suits the landscape perfectly. Finland is not known for visual extremes, breathtaking vistas, or high peaks. Mostly it’s marked by endless expanses of forests, lakes, rivers, rolling hills, small towns, and neat farms. During Border to Border, there was no hint of spring at all.
We started our ski on a track made by volunteers who used a snowmobile dragging a weighted sled. Around midmorning, we connected with the beautifully groomed trails of the Ruka system.
In the cross-country world, Ruka is famous for being a place where elite teams gather to train in the early season. Ruka’s managers store massive amounts of snow—increasingly a thing in nordic skiing—and there’s always skiable track by the third week of October. For a groupie like me, skiing in the Ruka system was like trotting onto the field at Fenway. With small cafés situated along the route and trail signs pointing in every direction, this was the alternative universe I’d long sought, where skiing was the organizing principle of life, both transportation and sport, and other endeavors, like work, were of far less importance. Life was here. That other stuff was what you did because you really couldn’t ski all the time.
The Border to Border volunteers had set up lunch on the porch of a trackside café. Kjell was waiting inside. “The wax is fantastic,” I told him, sitting at a wooden table. He frowned. “Of course it is.”
The three women I’d seen the night before—who’d called today a warm-up—came in. I was surprised that I was ahead of them, but Kjell shook his head, smiling, and said, “They were here a half-hour ago and just went back to the bus to get some clothes.” I laughed. The salmon soup was amazing.
That night we stayed in a sprawling spa hotel just off the track. I walked in, still a little dazed from the cold, sweating from a cluster of short, sharp hills in the final kilometers, and for a moment I thought I might have been hallucinating. This was a destination resort, geared to families, complete with a water park. It was warm and slightly moist inside, almost tropical. I stood there, feeling the melting icicles that hung from my sweaty hat, while families walked around in white robes headed to the spa or pool. Kjell approached with a beer in one hand and room keys in the other. “I love this place,” he beamed. “The wax room is superb. The first dinner is in an hour. Sauna now.”
The Finns consistently rank as the “happiest” people in surveys that show the United States far below. After a long and troubled history, they have carefully constructed a society that seems to work better than most, where health care and education are considered a right of citizenship and conspicuous displays of wealth are discouraged. Their ethos of fairness affects every element of society. Even traffic fines are assessed based on income, which is how a Nokia executive ended up paying nearly $105,000 for speeding in a 30-mile-per-hour zone. But this benign image of Finland hides a bloody, complicated history of desperate fights to maintain a distinct Finnish identity free of foreign dominance.
I thought about that history the next day when we skied for hours atop a railway bed built in World War II by German-organized slave labor. A Finn I met, who was out for his daily ski, told me: “We are skiing on a road of bones.”
From 1939 to 1944, the Finns fought the Russians, first alone and later in an alliance of accommodation with the Germans. Facing a far-superior force, the Finns weaponized winter, maximizing their ability to be comfortable in bitter cold against Russian conscripts who were ill prepared to live and fight in such conditions. They built saunas just behind the front lines and taunted the freezing enemy.
This deeply acculturated embrace of winter was ingrained in the Border to Border ski; every 15 kilometers or so, a few volunteers would be waiting along the track by a fire, resting and snacking. In near zero temperatures and heavy snow, they looked as comfortable as Hawaiians on the beach.
On the second day, we slogged a slow and snowy 53 kilometers. When I first looked at the daily distances in Border to Border, I figured that 10 kilometers per hour would be a nice pace. But on a day of heavy snow and no need to press hard, I found myself quite happy to poke along at a rate that started to feel more like walking on skis than skiing. When I finally finished and met Kjell in the lobby of that night’s hotel, he pointed to my Garmin watch. “I think we should get you a calendar, not a watch,” he said. Which, as nordic ski humor goes, wasn’t bad.
We were staying at one of the sport hotels popular in Scandinavia. A banner in the lobby read, “Eat. Sleep. Train. Repeat.” I’d stayed in Swedish hotels like this and always found them idyllic. There were small rooms, big buffets, and a sauna that was always hot.
I’d feared my body would start breaking down after back-to-back long days but was pleasantly shocked to feel myself growing stronger and more comfortable with the distance, most likely because of the easy pace, regular feed stops, and absence of outside stress. It was still exhausting, but a world in which the most critical questions of the day were how to wax and how much to eat is rejuvenating in ways that are difficult to replicate. Most of the third day was spent on groomed trail systems with warming huts at intersections. Every so often, there was a fire pit where locals would be roasting the inevitable sausages on sticks. The perfect ski life started to seem normal, as if this was how one was intended to live.
The fourth day was the longest scheduled, at just under 90 kilometers, the total length of the Vasaloppet. At the start of every Vasa, I’d felt a mix of dread and anxiety about my ability to finish. But this morning, I was relaxed and comfortable. The weather had turned warmer—around 32 degrees—with snow falling, making for the ultimate waxing nightmare. I was on my Atomic skis, using Start wax tape, and after the first five kilometers, I could have sold the product to other skiers for a fortune. Every wax combination seemed to be failing: snow got stuck under skis, which led to much scraping and cursing. I had no problems, and I felt somewhat guilty and baffled, as I had been many times before, about why Start tape wasn’t used more widely.
I’d long ago learned from my long-distance cycling hero, the late Bob Breedlove, that the secret to tough days is to not think about the finish but to consume the course “like the ant eats the elephant, bite by bite.” It was difficult to read my Garmin wrist GPS in the wet snow, so I gave up trying to figure out where I was. Late in the afternoon, I came to one of the feed stations that had been set up inside the traditional, tepee-like structure used by the Sami. As soon as I stepped inside, my goggles fogged, but when I pulled them up, there was Kjell, deep in a heated conversation with one of the volunteers—who was the tallest man I’d seen in Finland. All at once I felt exhausted. It always seemed that way when doing the long stuff. You feel fine when you’re moving, but once you stop, the hammer falls.
“How did you get here?” I asked, the words feeling strange coming out of my frozen mouth. As far as I could tell, we were deep inside a Finnish wilderness. “There’s a road,” he said. I stepped outside. In the near whiteout, I could barely see Kjell’s Volvo in the falling snow. I’d never felt so happy in my life.
“Enough?” he asked gently. He was telling me it was OK if I wanted to bail out and head to the hotel. “Enough,” I said.
In the short ride to another sport hotel, down a beautifully plowed dirt road that seemed to stretch to the Arctic Circle, I experienced a strange feeling of relief. I’ve come in last in events before, but I was not a guy who DNF’d. Today, putting my skis in the car, I felt not a twinge of regret or shame as I watched other skiers cross the road, heads down against the snow, determined to finish the last 20 kilometers. I’d always told myself I did these crazy endurance events for fun and not to prove anything, but of course that was just a convenient lie. I always had something to prove, though I couldn’t have told you precisely what it was. Perhaps now, after decades of skiing, I was stumbling into some hidden secret: that it’s OK to enjoy the sport because, well, it’s enjoyable.
I devoured both dinners that night and listened to two Canadians and an American laugh about the day. They were dismissive of what they’d accomplished, in the way of people who are accustomed to making the difficult seem easy. The next day’s ski was “only” 46 kilometers, they said. A walk in the park.
But it turned out to be the hardest day we had. Most of the route was on a narrow track laid down by a snowmobile and sled. The snowstorm of the day before was followed by a vicious cold wind that obliterated the course anytime there was a break in the trees. I found myself struggling across a wide expanse of what I thought, from the map, was a bog and wondering if I was even close to being on course.
I had also stupidly skied past the last feed station, eager to be done for the day. So now I was bonking. In the distance, I could just make out a stake with a yellow ribbon, the course marker used by Border to Border volunteers. The wind was straight in my face, blowing icy snow that bit into my skin, making it hard to look up. My race poles had narrow baskets that went through the drifted snow like spears. I floundered across the bog exhausted, finding it hard to start moving again anytime I stopped. In the Arctic, there’s a phrase used to describe people who retreat to their tent and don’t want to come out: “tent flu.” I had a bad case.
Ultimately, I was able to see the red houses where the day’s route ended. There were no hotels along this section of the track. The overnight stop was an old schoolhouse that had been converted to a clubhouse for a local ski team—with, of course, a large sauna attached. I bent over to take off my skis and felt dizzy, staggering a bit as I came up. One of the German guys walked back from the sauna—he’d finished long before—and put a firm, steadying hand on my shoulder. “Hard day,” he said. I nodded. “Go eat.” He motioned toward the ski club.
Inside was a food spread I’d been dreaming about for the past few hours. Kjell was there with a small group, watching a Norwegian biathlon race on TV. I ate and ate, too tired to talk. I could feel myself falling asleep while eating, which I hadn’t realized was possible. I finally stood to eat, so I wouldn’t end up with my face in the food.
The organizers had advised everyone to bring a sleeping bag for the stop at the schoolhouse, and I’d dutifully brought one. But when Kjell saw this request on the itinerary back in Mora, he was adamant: “We don’t do this,” he said. So I dragged myself out to his car, and we drove back to the hotel where we’d spent the previous night. At a small store across the street, I bought as much chocolate as I could carry, ate most of it before I got inside the hotel, and feel asleep on my bed, still wearing my ski clothes.
The last day was long but mostly on beautiful tracks and easy terrain, the sun shinning, no wind, the sort of day that makes you want to ski forever. There was an end-of-term lightness with the group, a few impromptu sprints to see who still had some snap—I didn’t even try—and many hours of quiet skiing. Mostly I skied alone, not wanting to worry about keeping up or holding anyone back, deep in my own thoughts and rhythms. I reached the banner at the end of the course, with that unique feeling of relief and regret that comes from finishing a challenge that’s right at the edge of your capabilities. I took off my skis, sweating, a bit unsteady. Two students from the nearby high school brought over hot cider and the now familiar sausage on a stick. They hovered quietly, watching me, and I realized they were wondering if I might fall over. Finally one of them, a tall girl with hair so blond it looked almost white, said softly, “It was a good ski, no?”
The tour ends with a banquet and a night of skits presented by the different nationalities represented during the ski, but Kjell would have none of that. His wax plans for the Birkebeiner had changed, and he wanted to drive back to Mora immediately after the finish. I was too tired to argue, and the thought of being back at Kjell’s house had its appeal. We stopped at the home of a friend of Kjell’s a few miles from the finish for coffee. He was a Start wax pro married to a former Finnish national team skier. He lived in the farmhouse he had been born in, right on the Torne River that separated Finland from Sweden.
When I asked him what happened to his family during the war, he said his mother’s family had gone over the river into Sweden, and the Germans had used the house as a field hospital. When his family returned, the floor and walls were saturated in blood. They spent weeks cleaning. He talked about it with the matter-of-fact tone that summed up the tough resilience and determination of the Finns. It’s such a national character trait that they have a word for it: sisu. It was sisu that got you through war and the long Finnish winters.
We made it back to Mora in the early morning. The finish line of the Vasaloppet on the town’s main street had been dismantled. There was a hint of a warmth in the air. A few cyclists were out before sunrise; winter was ending. But I felt better knowing it was still out there in Lapland, waiting. For a brief moment, I thought about going back and starting over. Then Kjell said, “It took us 16 hours to get there. Next year I think we can do it in 12.”
I told him I thought he was right.
We need your support...
Outside Online aims to deliver readers the world, dispatching our writers and photographers to the ends of the earth to report the one-of-a-kind stories that have inspired and informed generations of readers. We hear from our audience every day about how much they love our long-form journalism. But it’s no longer sustainable for us to give it away for free. Making a financial contribution to Outside is not tax-deductible, but it will help pay for the writers, editors, fact-checkers, designers, and photographers that stories like these demand—and will ensure we can keep publishing them for years to come. Please support Outside Online today.