Cool your heels in the white woods of Finland

For 'Independent on Sunday' reader Reg Stewart cross-country skiing meant avoiding the seething slopes and discovering a peaceful winter wilderness
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The Independent Travel
DON'T LIKE crowds of people in long queues but love snow? The solution is cross-country skiing. For my wife, Sue, and I the genuine back-packing days may be long gone but we still like to get off the beaten track. After hearing that there were excellent cross-country conditions in the Karelia region of Finland, we decided to set off.

The idea was to ski the length of the Karhunpolka, the Bear's Path, a long-distance track that runs for about 150 miles through the forests and lakes of Karelia. We'd be part of a small group of Finns with a local guide covering about 30 miles each day.

Our guide, Markku, met us on arrival in Joensuu. The drive from the airport to our base near Lieska took two hours. The headlights picked up the snow being driven horizontally into our windscreen like a constant stream of tracer bullets. Markku was totally unconcerned, and certainly didn't slow down.

At Lieska it was too dark to see much, but our cabin was more than adequate with full en-suite facilities and a welcome meal of borsch, reindeer casserole and blueberry pie. Markku, whose English seemed only marginally better than my non-existent Finnish, promised to be back by eight next morning. Sue and I were awake by seven and delighted to see snow up to the lower windows. However, we were amazed to discover that our cabin was one of about fifty. We had instant misgivings. Was this some sort of Finnish holiday camp? Markku arrived and explained that the "group" comprised only me and Sue. It would mean a slight change of itinerary. We would go on the Bear Trail but we would have two days here at the Bomba complex at the end of the trek - it seemed a good compromise, five days of isolation then 48 hours with the madding crowds. Our main baggage was left for the support snow-mobile to deliver to the wilderness cabin that was to be our first night stop.

In minutes we were away from the complex. Indeed, it seemed, away from the rest of the human race. The forests of birch and pine were silent, almost eerie. We trekked on at a comfortable pace, stopping at times to absorb the silence, the beauty, not talking for fear of breaking the spell.

Markku knew the area intimately, and while we broadly followed Bear Path, we frequently took detours to ski across frozen lakes or along frozen rivers. Wherever we went, our skis, gently cutting into the virgin snow, made the only sound. The terrain was relatively flat, but there were times when we had to climb slight inclines and then glide down the other side. It was slightly demanding but the hypnotic beauty of the deserted, snow- covered forests and the mind-cleansing therapy of the totally silent world, apparently devoid of humans, ensured that our physical exertions went unnoticed.

Markku stopped in a forest clearing mid-morning and, using snow, boiled some water to make coffee. I asked him why there were no other skiers. Apparently Finns mainly came at weekends and few foreigners knew it existed, although the rivers and lakes did see an influx in summer. Fortified by the coffee and the news that the trail was likely to be totally deserted, Sue and I set off in Markku's steady wake.

Lunch was produced from Markku's Aladdin's cave of a rucksack: more coffee, with rolls filled with cold meat, followed by handfuls of dried fruit. The afternoon followed the same pattern as the morning: a steady pace that enabled us to enjoy the solitude and silence.

In late afternoon Markku led us through a dense forest. We came to a small lake and there, on the edge of the frozen ice, were two wooden huts. On entering, we saw our bags. There was no sign of the "delivery" team or the snow-mobile but we could see a set of twin tracks disappearing across the lake and into the woods the other side. It was clear that even the support team would not be allowed to disturb the silence of the snows.

The other hut was a sauna and Markku told us he was going to light the fire so that it would be ready in an hour. He seemed to assume that we would want a sauna but Sue and I weren't sure. Of course we wanted to "go native", well, to a degree, but didn't Finns, men and women together, sit naked in their saunas, roll around in the snow, beat each other with birch twigs then plunge in the freezing waters of the nearest lake? We decided we'd do it anyway, we'd just take it easy with the twigs, but Markku came back and said we could use the sauna while he lit the fire in the cabin and prepared supper; I think Sue was a little disappointed. It was a fascinating experience, and we were soon addicted to this, the most Finnish of traditions, even to the extent of rolling naked in the snow!

The food prepared by Markku tasted even better after the sauna, and the vodka that I produced later allowed conversation to flow as Markku's English improved by the hour.

The next five days followed the same pattern. Daily silent treks with a stop each night at isolated huts along the trail then an evening meal and the eagerly awaited sauna. We did see two Finnish soldiers in the distance one day, and there were tracks in the snow where caribou had been foraging for food. This lack of life made the wide, treeless swathe cut through the frozen terrain to mark the current Russian/Finnish border, a disturbing place. Later Markku took us to the underground hospital and network of trenches and fortifications that the Finns had created as they fought, and initially repelled, the might of the Russian armies in 1940. Although ultimately the Russians drove the Finns back and annexed part of Karelia, the deserted buildings and trenches of the main battle line serve as a true testament to the courage of the Finns who fought alone in a war virtually ignored by the rest of Europe.

On the fifth night, on making a dash to the outside loo across twenty metres of crisp snow, Sue was so taken by the beauty of the night that she came back to wake me. I joined her outside. The surface of the snow crunched as we walked in an environment that seemed unreal. The brightness of the moon and stars in a clear sky created sharp silhouettes of the trees, and the crisp, crunchy surface of the snow seemed to be a blanket of tiny twinkling diamonds. It really should have been Christmas morning. If there is a Father Christmas that is where he must live.

However, by next morning the weather had broken. Snow was swirling down from a dead sky. The wind increased and we travelled across open terrain in a full-scale blizzard. It became so bad that we had to keep within two metres of each other to retain contact. This was white-out! Although Sue and I were apprehensive, we had every faith in Markku, as long as we didn't lose him. Skiing in such an isolated, deserted location and in horrific climatic conditions was exhilarating. It certainly beat travelling on the Northern Line. It also helped us to fantasise; well, we couldn't really be a couple of middle-aged grandparents well past our prime, could we? We eventually reached our destination, and there, at exactly the pre-arranged time, was our transport to take us back to civilisation.

By now we were just about ready to socialise again and delighted to find that the Bomba complex, although busy, was basically a recreation holiday centre used almost exclusively by Finns. With the spluttering of Finnish that Markku had taught us in the wild, I could now say "Two beers please", and Sue could ascertain the ingredients of some of the marvellous meals on offer. She even managed to immerse herself in the black hole that had been cut through the 10-foot ice on the large lake around which the complex had been built. By now we had lost most of our British reserve, as we joined the Finns in their mixed steam rooms and saunas, it was just those birch twigs!

Markku and the local representative from the Lieska Tourist Board took us to Joensuu and we left Karelia having had a wonderful experience. But how could we face the M25 and the Northern Line again?

The writer travelled with Peak International (tel: 01296 624225). He paid around pounds 500 per person for the trip, not including flights. These are available through Finnair for around pounds 250 (tel: 0171-408 1222).

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