ACROSS FINLAND OR BUST
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
It is Finland's answer to Cycle Oregon.
And next month Dick and Siobham Knowles of Haines will experience it first hand.
The couple will participate in a 266-mile cross country ski trip across the width of Finland. They will be a part of a party of 100 skiers who will travel 38 to 46 miles a day. The trip is called Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto, which translated means a regional tour of Finland.
"It is not a race. It is a chance to enjoy the culture, geography and people of Finland,'' Dick Knowles said.
The week-long trek is the skiing equivalent of Cycle Oregon, in which 2,000 bicyclists travel for about a week in a different area of the state each summer. Cycle Oregon participants are accompanied by support vehicles and staff.
In Finland's Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto, the skiers have food stations every 1 to 4 miles and will be accompanied by snowmobile riders who are ready to provide medical and other assistance at a moment's notice.
Quieter four-stroke engines and electric snowmobiles will ride behind and within earshot of the last skier.
The tour actually begins in Russia just outside the Finnish town of Kuusamo. It ends in Sweden in the town of Tornio.
Participants will stay in hotels in small towns. They will dine on reindeer meat, salmon, cheese and other foods popular in Scandinavia.
"The cuisine will be quite traditional,'' said Knowles, the director of the Anthony Lakes Nordic Center.
The Knowleses will be part of three groups of 100 skiers. The tour groups will be several days apart.
The Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto is not for novices.
"You have to be a good skier,'' Knowles said.
The Knowleses have been skiing between 90 and 120 miles a week in preparation for the trek.
Most of the route will be over flat land covered with forests and lakes. Skiers will see moose and plenty of other wildlife.
When the Knowleses tell others about their upcoming tour of Finland some people don't understand why they would want to make such an rigorous trek. People who are familiar with it understand. Siobham Knowles noted that when her sister told a friend from Finland about the trip she described herself as "very envious.''
The Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto will not conclude the Knowleses' Scandinavian ski excursion, in fact it will only be the beginning.
After crossing Finland the Knowleses will start a second trip with two other skiers. They will travel 12 miles over mountainous territory in Norway.
The Knowleses and their friends will spend their evenings in huts scattered throughout forests. The huts will contain beds, dry food and wells.
"We will probably have to knock a lot of snow off each night to get in,'' Dick said. "Sometimes we may have to tunnel our way in.''
The party will have the option of taking high and low trails. The skiers will drop to the low trail for protection from the elements if stormy weather hits. Storms are a major concern because they can strike fast and furiously. Storms there can drop 4 to 8 inches of snow in 15 minutes, he said.
The party will conclude its trip in Lillehammer, Norway, the site of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games. It is also where the famed 35-mile Birkenbiener cross country ski race ends. Dick Knowles will be among the race's 13,000 competitors.
The race will start in Rene with waves of 1,000 to 1,500 skiers. Each wave of skiers will begin several minutes a part. Knowles will be positioned near the front of his wave.
"If you are not careful you might get run over,'' said Knowles, who has skied in the Birkenbiener three times.
The first 13 miles of the race are uphill, the middle 14 miles are along the top of mountains and the final eight miles are downhill.
"It is very downhill; it is fun but it is very fast,'' he said.
Skiers have to be particularly careful during this stretch.
"You are tired so you have to have your wits about you.''
Unlike much of Northeast Oregon, Scandinavia is receiving plenty of snow this winter. Knowles regularly checks a Web cam in Lillehammer via the Internet to check on weather conditions. Every time he checks, Lillehammer has received several more inches of snow.
"Every day there is more frosting on the cake,'' he said.