Between Seasons (That Sinking Feeling)

The snow is finally melting! Even the ice has started to break (albeit on the turbulent confluence of the Ounasjoki and Kemijoki), and as I write this I can hear a cacophony of returning arctic terns hanging out on the fringes of the ice.

At this time of year, I'm caught between two seasons: winter on the way out, and summer not quite here. This winter seems to have been especially harsh. We have twice as much snow as we normally do at this time of year, and that snow is hanging on, fragile and unpredictable, showing utter contempt for snow shoes or skis.

But still, the sudden, welcome visibility of running water refreshes the soul, and tempts me to new adventures. 

It's a sensory transformation as much as any other. Gone are the muted sounds of deep snow cover, replaced by the trickle of melt water, and the crystalline tinkling of ice on drifting on the river. A sudden warmth on the face. The smell of earth. All these things bring a smile to my face. It'll soon be time to dig out the trail runners and go hiking.

But every glimpse of grass send me thinking back to just a few weeks ago:

I find wanting one more trip in the crispy white. The roads are clear, and my bike is oiled and ready to roll, but the snow in the forest still tempts me.

On an evening dog walk, I test out the snow. It's corn, but seems like it'll hold my Eons. On the return journey I make a recce up to Ounasvaara to check out the situation on the hill. The ski trails are still there; the tracks are gone, but the heavily compacted trails look pretty good. Best of all, there's nobody else on them. It seems the locals have given up. I sense an opportunity for some solitude.

Okay then. It's decided. I'll give it one more go. Tomorrow. 

When I arrive at the parking area, it is as it was the day before: empty.

It's a public holiday. I really thought there'd be some people out making the most of what remains. The city center was busy, and there were plenty of people walking by the river, but Ounasvaara is silent; forgotten. As if people have turned their backs on winter, refusing to look, hoping that it'll just go away if they ignore it hard enough.

But here I am, giving it one last chance. And as walking is still forbidden, I don my skis.

I slip off and find it surprisingly good going. The trail has just the right amount of snow on it for easy kick'n'glide. I even manage to get up a little speed on the downhill. I'm pleasantly surprised once again by the grip on the waxless Eons.

Hey, this is actually fun. And just as I start to wonder why there aren't more Finns out enjoying the last of the winter glöggi, I see one.

A lone skier skates past me. We look at each other, and experience the "should I say hello or not" moment. I opt for the middle ground and smile. He slides by, impassive, probably thinking I'm mad.

I stop and take in my surroundings for a moment. I realize that this is the same spot I was snow showing in a couple of months ago. It all looked so different then.

On that day, icy fronds coated every branch. I'd seen it before in damp areas, but on this occasion the lichen-like hairs were longer then anything I'd witnessed.

On that trip the snow was deep, dry, and fluffy. You'd sink waist deep into the insubstantial flakes. On this trip I'd soon face another problem.

I get a little bored on the tracks. I mean, the Eons are backcountry skis after all. What's the point of having them if you can't head off the trail and explore the less-travelled areas?

I decided to break off the ski trails, and head for the forest. I have a pretty good idea that the snow won't carry me, so I follow what appears to have once been a snow shoe trail  – indentations and foot prints, which, once compacted, sinter and solidify, leaving a better trail to ski over.

I soon discover I was wise to ski. As I sort-of-float along the hint of a path, I see one sorry soul has gone before me, wearing only shoes. I can't imagine the amount of fun this person had.

It isn't long before I get a first-hand taste of the snow myself. I know around the side of the hill that'll keep me on the level. I head off from the vague trail and immediately get a sinking feeling.

After a couple of meters I'm down in the snow, my skis sunk deep and criss-crossed. I shove the poles deep down and push myself up slowly. Another two meters. This time I don't fall, but the skis dive deep and I create my own mini crevasse.

This is getting tiresome.

I shuffle on. Two kicks forward, then down we go. Pull back the ski. Get it out the snow. Waddle like a slapstick duck. Try again. 

In the distance I see another brave soul, struggling through the slop. I watch for a while to see what he is on. Skis? No. Snow shoes? No. Just shoes? I watch him fall deep into the snow with every step. Yep. Just shoes. It must be a tourist. I can almost hear him sighing in frustration.

I find another faint trail, and decide to try my luck again.

But halfway up the trail vanishes and I hit the same problem. 

I give up and zig-zag up the hill, back to the ski trail, a broken man. You've beaten me, Winter. You're no fun anymore. You're cold and indifferent and you always have to have the last laugh. Sure, you're pretty in your glistening white coat, but I've met someone else: she's warm, open, and generous. She's called Summer and she's coming to get you.

I find the tracks and slide off down the hill, happy at last to be back on reasonable terms. I even squeeze off a slip-shod half telemark turn on my quivering legs at the bottom of the hill. I take little pride in this, and promise to return next year and master the skills.

Stupidly, with one success under my belt, I decide to give the forest one more go. 

It's the same. Utterly pointless. Today is a good day to give up and go home.

I back track to the swamp, glad to be taking the easy route. Soon, all this snow will be gone and I'll be walking on the duckboards that still lie deep undercover.

Soon. But not yet.

Back at the car I take of my slush-coated skis. There's a hotel at the top of the hill, mainly used during the ski season, but closed now (although I'm pretty certain you could still get a couple of good runs if you were determined).

I remember there's a good view from the roof of the hotel, and climb up. I'd forgotten how good. Lapland opens up around me, low, squat, but unmistakeable. 

I look longingly to the North, where the hills start to rise, and the untamed Ounasjoki river calls. Both are still snow and ice-bound, but not for much longer. I can feel it.

I'm through with you, Winter. You've been great, but you're one of those awkward types that never knows when it's time to leave the party. It's already April 30th, and way past your bedtime. Your days are numbered.

How do I know?

Because it's 23:30, and there's a light on the horizon.