We were lost. It was sometime past midnight and I was lost in a swamp in a foreign country. I didn't speak the language and I didn't have the camping gear I would usually have been carrying in a situation like this. The antiquated skis we were using had felt heavy 14 hours earlier when we started. Now it took an feat of will to move them. We had to get found, but how? I couldn't remember the last turn we had taken, and now the logging road we were following was trending south. Our map told us we should be heading north. I thought the map was at fault and the road would soon turn. My two companions felt differently. Janne wanted to backtrack. Jani wanted to strike out cross country.
My trip to Finland for the Kaukopartiohiihto competition was my last chance for a good ski outing. All winter, throughout the Midwest, there had been low to no snow. In Iowa, with marginal skiing in a good year, I had only been out on skis four times. My plans to ski the Arrowhead 135 race in International Falls had been thwarted by a lack of training. Finland was supposed to be a capstone trip, an easy cruise. It wasn't turning out that way.
Brothers Jani and Janne Kohonen and I arrived at the Utti military base, just outside Kouvola, early that morning, signed in, received our maps, and checked out our army ski gear. The skis, made by Järvinen, Karhu, and Peltonen to spec, were 1985 vintage. Solid wood with a p-tex base they weighed at least two pounds each. Exel poles with huge baskets, cable bindings, and rubber boots resembling galoshes (and offering just as much support) rounded out the blast-from-the-past equipment. My confidence that we could get through 150km of off-track skiing was wavering.
The equipment was only appropriate though. Kaukopartiohiihto translates to long distance ski patrol. We were honoring the memory of those Finns who fought in the 1939-1940 Winter War and 1941-1944 Continuation War with the Soviet Union. Numerically outmatched, Finnish ski troops were reported to have out fought the Soviets 30:1. More than a race, the Kaukopartiohiihto is part military exercise, part memorial, and part pure Finnish sisu.
The route was a mix of forest roads and a single narrow snowmobile track through the woods. Four 75 km routes made up the course and participants have 48 hours to do as many loops as possible. Sometimes the roads we were sent down were too well ploughed for good skiing (though not clear enough for good driving either). The tracks in the woods were often icy and woven tightly between trees, often diving down into ditches and climbing back out again. There were, of course, no course markers. We were utterly dependent on the maps and our wits. While we could often follow the tracks of those ahead of us these often diverged and left us to decide which way was right. Not every ski track was even part of the Kaukopartiohiihto. In Finland ski tracks in the woods are not the novelty that they are in the US.
Heavy skis, floppy boots, and uneven tracks not to mention poor skills helped me crash many times early in the competition. Several times I found myself floundering in deep snow having once again fallen while dropping into a drainage ditch. A little instruction from my skiing companions helped me out. By giving up on subtleties and getting assertive with the skis I started to get the hang of the old equipment.
All too soon it was dark and route-finding became even harder. Several times we missed our turns and had to backtrack. By the time midnight rolled around we were tired and maybe a little confused. That's how we ended up lost in the swamp. After some debate we realized that the road we were on was not in fact a road, but a logging track not marked on our map. Striking out cross country seemed like a very bad idea. A good way to get even more lost. Backtracking it was. We found the fork where we had gotten it wrong about one kilometer back and took the correct road.
At four in the morning we were back in Utti. We had managed just one 75 km loop in 18 hours. Going out for another 75 km loop wasn't very appealing. Jani and Janne were good sports and offered to go out again, but I knew they didn't really feel like it. I know I didn't feel like doing any more. We called it quits and were awarded a bronze medal for one loop. It was a good finish to a poor snow year.