Bladerunner

By on November 22, 2013
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Long-distance ice-skating is the ideal way to explore Finland’s magical winter landscapes. Fleur Kinson tries out the new sport of ‘tour-skating’.

I’m sitting on the plush fur of a reindeer pelt draped over a bench on a frozen lake, trying to attach two long and flimsy-looking blades to my space-age boots. I’m about to try tour-skating, a Nordic sport that’s been around for less than a decade. In theory, I’ll be speeding along today at up to 30mph (fat chance!), covering miles of frozen lake flanked by mystical snow-clad scenery.

My guide is Markus Kaskinen, a handsome thirty-something Finn who’s mad-keen on the sport. He has set up a ten-mile tour-skating route here in South Karelia where the land fractures into a thousand spits and tiny islands thronging massive Lake Saimaa. “It’s an ideal route for beginners,” he tells me excitedly, a zealot’s gleam in his clear green eyes. “Later you can do the beautiful forty-kilometre route through the National Park!” Steady on. Let’s not run before we can walk.

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Weird blades latched underfoot, I teeter up off the bench, and we begin. I’ve been figure-skating since I was seven, and spent more time on natural outdoor ice than manicured rinks, so I’m not completely incompetent as I take my first experimental strides forward. Crunch. Slide. Ooh, it’s bit like cross-country skiing mixed with ice-skating, I think as I start to grasp the movement. But the sound is something all its own. The lightweight blades lift and drop flip-flop style from the boots as you raise and lower each foot, and I fall in love with the soft, wooden-sounding ‘clonk clonk’ this makes. It’s a tiny noise that exaggerates the vast white silence all around us.

We head south from a forested lump of land the map calls ‘Tuunaansaari’ (as if someone had fallen asleep at the keyboard) and glide through enormous air admiring colourful wooden cottages peeping out from shoreline pine forests wrapped in the hush of deep snow. We occasionally pass a rosy-cheeked fellow skater or two, exchanging a cheery “Hei!” or “Moi!” Thankfully none of them witness any of my few sprawling pratfalls across unexpected patches of rough ice. As we zoom beneath an elegant suspension bridge, the famous Punkaharju ridge spools away to our left – home to some of the world’s cleanest air and water, apparently, and much loved as a holiday destination by the Russian tsars.

I ask Markus what sort of speed he thinks I’m doing. Being Finnish, and thus steeped in the latest technology, he whips out a slick electric gizmo and smilingly reports, “Twelve kilometres per hour”. Not too embarrassingly bad for a beginner. I get up to 20kph before the end of the day. But of course the joy of tour-skating isn’t so much the speed as the exceptional method of exploration. Watching this lake-fractured landscape change and unfurl from the vantage point of the ice is like nothing else. It trounces the fun of snowmobiling, because you’re self-propelled and enjoy a much more intimate connection with the ice underfoot. Plus, except for the rush of air and the sweet little clonks of each footfall, you remain wrapped in the gigantic peace of the place.

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We loop round a picturesque little island cradling a lone pretty cottage. There’s a bench beside the skating track here and Markus suggests we stop for that great Finnish necessity, coffee. (Did you know that Finland consumes more coffee per head than any other nation on earth? Yep. Not Brazil, not Italy, Finland.) Markus magically conjures cups, spoons, milk, sugar and a silver coffee-pot-thermos from his miniscule backpack, and the two of us sit in the middle of a frozen lake sipping our smoking drinks. “You Finns really will have coffee anywhere,” I tease. Blowing steam off his cup, Markus winks and says “The Spanish have siesta, but we have coffee.” This strikes me as a tiny slice of Finnish ‘sisu’ – a national character trait which translates as pluck, fortitude and tenacity. The Finns would never go to bed in the afternoon, oh no; they’d have another coffee and keep going. “We’re going to build a pancake hut on the ice soon,” Markus adds brightly. “And bonfires to light the route for night-skaters.”

Evening sees me settled in the tiny holiday-hamlet ‘Harjun Portti’. It has a single shop-cum-restaurant, a ski and skate hire room, and far beyond these a series of cute wooden cottages scattered through the snowy forest. Number 29 is mine – an absurdly cosy little bolthole, with pine walls still redolent of sweet resin. It’s lavishly well-equipped. I’m particularly taken with the bathroom, where there’s underfloor heating and… wait for it… my own private sauna. Wey-hey! Another Finnish obsession.

18Before bed I slip out into the enticing wintry dark for a walk, and pad endless snow-covered paths couched deep in forest silence. The snow is dry and powdery, leaving only a dust-like trace on the black suede of my boots. A crescent moon shines benignly through the treetops, its light broadened by a veil of thin cloud. When I stand still the silence is dense and solid – so strong that it pushes against my ears like a physical force. A pair of cross-country skiers suddenly whoosh past in the near-distance, like wildlife glimpsed on the hoof. As I slowly wend my way back to my cottage, I pass a man standing on his porch wearing only his underpants. He’s briskly rubbing lumps of snow into his skin, clearly having just come out of his sauna. You gotta love this country.

When I finally go to bed, I sleep for an hour or two and then wake, deliciously comfortable, my mind full of a sense of a quiet polar world turning outside. The snowy globe rolling along on its axis, full of slumbering bears and stars and, somewhere far above, the dancing glow of the aurora borealis. I can hardly wait for tomorrow to come, I realize, so I can get back down onto that enchanted ice.

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