Sunday, 15 April 2018

Skiing, Saunas and Sausages: A Six-Day Hut-to-Hut Trip in Northern Finland


By Adrienne Blattel, April 2018


For the past few years, my husband Fred and I have gotten into the habit of exploring a new hut-to-hut ski area in March, just as the ski season starts to wrap up here in Quebec. March 2018’s project was to ski one of the most popular and oldest trails in Finland, the Hetta-Pallas trail.

The trail is located in Finnish Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle, in Finland’s hilliest area in Pallastunturi National Park. The trail stretches some 55 km (closer to 70 km along the winter ski trails) between the village of Hetta to the north and Pallas to the south. We opted to continue a day and a half further south to Tunturikeimio. March is a fine time to ski in Lapland. This area is so far north that it pays to wait until the sun returns. The height of the ski season is March and April, and many trails and huts are not maintained before that.

From the national park's website

After a missed connection in Helsinki, we finally arrived in Kittila in northern Finland, where we met up with our friend Mélanie and Fred’s sister Hélène. We spent a couple of days retrieving lost baggage, buying and preparing food and getting packed for our trip. We made our way a couple of hours north to Hetta (in the municipality of Enontekio) in a rental car with studded tires that handled the icy roads perfectly. Along the way, we admired village ski trails starting from behind churches and little old ladies scooting along icy footpaths on their clever kicksleds. Wide cleared paths encouraged people of all ages to walk and bike to the store, so unlike Quebec’s rural car-dependent tendencies.

We made a detour to the Pallastunturi Visitor Centre where we picked up keys to the huts we had reserved. There are a few different kinds of huts in Finland. We had lined up spots ahead of time in reservable wilderness huts where you can reserve a bed for 12 euros. These huts have mattresses, blankets, gas, a camping stove and a few pots, which meant lighter packs for us.

Open Wilderness Huts, on the other hand, are free and you can’t reserve them. They don’t necessarily have any of the above amenities. There is an intimidating ‘last come, first served’ tradition: the last person who arrives gets to stay if the hut is full, while others who have had time to rest must in theory pack up and ski to the next hut to make room, even if it’s late. Apparently this rule is rarely enforced, but we had witnessed impressively ‘tough Finns’ while skiing in Norway and Sweden and knew that they are not afraid to pull into a hut well after dark! Thus, we opted for the reservable huts. There are also a few rental huts that you must rent entirely. They have the same amenities as reservable wilderness huts.

Inside one of the huts.

In Hetta, we stayed at the oldest hotel, Majatalo, which offers simple accommodations and friendly, hearty meals. Reindeer, berries and fish were typical ingredients. As with everywhere in Finland, there was also a sauna, with an option to duck outside in the snow to cool off. We discovered that in some Finnish saunas, bathing suits are actually not allowed![1]

Hélène rented her skis from bustling Hetta Huskies nearby. We saw vast husky dog enclosures on the way in, and got to visit the rather pungent dog infirmary while Hélène tried on her boots. Apparently they have 239 dogs at last count. Hetta Huskies is definitely worth a visit, if not a dog team tour. They rent skis and have many, although if you have heart set on anything specific in terms of length or style of skis and poles you may be better off bringing your own and braving the expense and bother. We all skied on light backcountry skis with metal edges, just narrow enough to scrape through the tracked trails, and were happy with our choice. Over half of the network we encountered was well-groomed and track set, but there were also long ungroomed stretches, as well as sections covered in windswept snow dunes.

The Fell Lapland visitor centre was also worth a stop; they dispense advice, distribute hut keys, sell maps and souvenirs, and have a small exhibit. The map proved to be an essential purchase. Once we had taken care of business, we went for a short ski in the area, part of which was along a track that is lit at night!

We were disappointed to just miss the annual March St. Mary’s Saami festival, scheduled to begin the day we had to leave Hetta. The Saami people are the Indigenous people of northern Europe, and their traditional lifestyle revolves around herding reindeer.

And finally, day one of our ski trip arrived. It was a brisk minus 22 degrees Celsius that morning. We crossed the frozen lake and headed south. Snow conditions were superb; temperatures hadn’t risen above zero since the start of winter. Our packs were still quite heavy because we were carrying 6 days worth of food. During our outdoor lunch, local chickadees and friendly Siberian Jays eyed us curiously. Just as our energy started flagging, we spotted a herd of reindeer on the flank of a hill. And minutes later, after about 15 km of skiing, our first hut came into view.

We spotted reindeer at the end of the day.
Sioskuru hut is divided into two parts, an Open Wilderness section and a reservable section. There is another small building nearby jam packed with firewood. Both sides are quite cozy and would probably be a tight squeeze when full. We spent the evening melting snow for water, though there may have been a stream nearby. Some local water sources may be tested, but information about this will probably only be in Finnish.

As per our expectations, a group of skiers pulled into the other side of the hut at around 9:30 pm! We went to sleep soon after they arrived.

In the morning, to our delight, we spotted three well-disguised snowy-white ptarmigans from the hut window. After admiring the birds and eating breakfast, we set off for our second day of skiing. We stayed above treeline for most of the day, exposing us to the slightest breeze but offering surreal views of the nearby white hilltops. While the trail was tracked, it was quite windswept, snowy and rugged. When we stopped for lunch, a group of Czech fatbikers on a 500 km hut-to-hut journey passed us, struggling in the soft snow. After around 12 km of skiing, we arrived at Hannukuru hut, which we had to ourselves for the night.

A typical ski-scape pretty much above treeline.

Hannukuru is quite the complex: there is a large reservable hut, a self-serve sauna, a kota (a small wooden tipi-shaped building solely dedicated to roasting sausages over a central fire), and various other small outbuildings. The sauna cost 6 or 7 euros each to use, which you can pay at one of the nature centres before or after the trip. Preparing this sauna involved lighting no fewer than three wood stoves: one for the sauna itself, a second to melt snow for water in the sauna, and a third to warm the changeroom just beside the sauna. We realized that in all, we lit 6 separate fires that evening: three sauna-related stoves, the main stove in the hut; the tiny stove in the dedicated ski clothing drying room, and the fire to roast sausages in the kota. And this, despite the park’s instructions to use firewood sparingly.

Sausages were a main feature of that evening’s meal. Kotas come equipped with various sausage-roasting paraphernalia to stab, rotate and remove the sausages. We later met a Finnish journalist on our trip who called sausages the ‘national vegetable’ of Finland! 

Inside a kota.

As we were preparing the rest of our supper in the hut, the gas stove stopped working. After some initial investigation, we realized that the gas tank was empty. The huts come equipped with several full gas tanks which are located outside the huts or sometimes in another part of the building. We managed to change the tank, but this required some know-how (or at least confidence to muddle through) and a multi-tool with a big set of pliers to undo the valves. The gas tank was empty in two of the four huts. If you’re not the handy type, I’d recommend bringing along instructions in English to guide you through the process, and definitely some pliers. Each hut has a folder with instructions of this nature, but in Finnish only.

The next day, we woke early. We had a long journey ahead of us: 21 km and a climb, which was a bit of a surprise. When planning the trip, we had calculated daily distances based on the summer hiking trail. The winter trail often stays lower and is the longer route.  As we skied out of Hannukuru, we remained below treeline across frozen marshes and lakes. The trees got bigger and more majestic. Our trail was narrower and more rustic. We had a break in a kota, and later, lunched outside in the sunshine after crossing an elaborate reindeer fence. At a fork in the roads, we opted for the considerably longer and more gradual route south around the mountain. We skied on a well-groomed track up what seemed like hours of gradual hill, until we reached spectacular Nammalakuru hut above treeline. The view was well worth the slog!

We met one skier from southern Finland taking photographs of ptarmigan and enjoying the powder snow with his extra wide backcountry skis. And as we were settling in, a man pulled up with his pulka (sled) and impressive Karhu forest skis: 250 cm long! We later learned that ‘karhu’ is the Finnish word for ‘bear’. Nammalakuru was the perfect place to enjoy the colours at the end of the day and some Northern Lights in the middle of the night.


The next morning we went for a quick side trip to a nearby tiny hut, Montellinmaja, built in the 1940s. The white-out conditions made skiing more arduous than normal. In the hut, reindeer pelts provided some comfort on the wooden sleeping benches. An older Finnish pulled in to the hut, worried for her skiing partner who had fallen behind. Like everyone else we met, she was planning on a long ski day of at least 30 km. She was dressed from head to toe in red, which seemed to be a popular choice for older Finnish skiers. After her partner arrived safe and sound, we returned to Nammalakuru, grabbed our packs and enjoyed the long ski down… 15 km in total to the Pallas ski resort.
 
That evening we enjoyed the luxury of the Lapland Pallas Hotel, the only accommodation at this stop. The downhill ski resort looked rather windy and dubious. After a fantastic supper and some time in the sauna, Mélanie noticed other visitors racing down the hallways in their winter coats, signalling the start of strong Northern Lights, which we admired for a long time while shivering in our pyjamas.


Our next stop was slightly off the beaten track, because we had now completed the classic Hetta-Pallas route. But there were still plenty of ski tracks and skiers. On our lunch break Finnish journalist Päivi skied over and talked to us, which was a treat. We admired her super-warm rubber ski boots, more suitable for Lapland winter temperatures than regular ski boots, apparently. She had just completed a solo hut-to-hut trip from Hetta to Pallas in only two days!

We bid Päivi good-bye and continued skiing in the sun until we reached Lake Keimiojarvi, where three men were ice fishing. We managed to find the Keimiojarvi rental hut tucked on a hidden peninsula on the lake. It also had a self-serve wood sauna. The hut was beautiful and comfortable. The outhouse was perhaps rather over-used by visiting fishermen: it was filled to the brim! This hut, which cost about 100 euros, could have easily fit 9 people.

The next morning we skied the remaining 8 km of our trip. The sky was overcast. We found the ski tracks at the other end of the lake and made our way to Tunturikeimio, a comfortable, friendly youth-hostel-like accommodation. Its owner speaks very little English but was patient and welcoming. The food here is good and copious. One of the two saunas had a hole in a frozen lake for cooling off! Mélanie was brave enough to try it. Two Finnish ladies on vacation showed her the way. From what we could gather, this is an alcohol-free hotel that sometimes welcomes religious groups.

While we were busy testing the sauna, Fred and Hélène caught the twice-daily bus back to Hetta so they could pick up our car (which we had left at hotel Majatalo), return Hélène’s rental skis and the hut keys. The trip cost 18 euros each and took a couple of hours. They made it back in time for dinner.

Self-packed lunch at Tunturikeimio
The next day, we drove through Yllas, pronounced ‘Oo-lass’, a village, ski resort and national park. As usual in Finland, trail and park access were free. In addition, even outside of national parks, a regulation known as ‘everyman’s right’ allows anyone to hike and camp anywhere, even on private land, as long as they follow certain rules and are respectful. I dearly wish Canadians would adopt this mindset…

We followed a short, lovely loop through a dramatic pass, stopping at a kota to roast our last sausages of the trip. There was a huge network of connected ski trails in this area, as well as many craft and souvenir shops. We had a surprisingly great meal in the downhill ski resort before returning to Kittila for a last sleep before the next morning’s flight.

We had a great time skiing in Finland. It was fun to discover Finnish ski culture. We lucked out and had ideal snow conditions and weather. We saw Northern Lights several times. Skiing mostly below treeline made the trip less extreme than our previous trips in the region.Thank you to Frédéric, Mélanie and Hélène for being great trip-buddies, and to everyone who gave advice and helped us along our way!


Practical Information

Finnair flies into Kittila from Helsinki and other destinations. From Kittila, it is about a two-hour drive to Hetta. Bringing a ski bag on the plane costs 20 euros. https://www.finnair.com/

Bus from Tunturikeimio to Hetta: http://www.eskelisen.fi/en/  This bus was on the Rovaniemi-Kittila-Hetta line. Google helped us figure out that this was possible.

Other than this bus-shuttle, we got around by rental car. Taking pricey taxis and infrequent yet inexpensive buses would have been another option, but figuring out schedules and reserving taxis seemed daunting. Taxis seem to need to be reserved 24 hours ahead of time. The price varies depending on the distance and number of passengers. The national park provided a list of taxis. But since we were a group of 4, we optimized the car rental and simplified our stay in this way. Car rental for the week cost us about 700 euros.

Anna’s Air B and B on Sairaalantie in Kittila north of the airport was clean, comfortable and affordable.

Hotel Hetan Majatalo in Hetta: https://hetan-majatalo.fi/en/   Ask permission to park here during your trip near a plug in case your car doesn’t start.


Tunturikeimio Hostel: https://www.facebook.com/tunturikeimio We reserved by messaging the owner and received a succinct reply: ‘Ok’.

Grocery stores: While there is one major grocery store in Hetta, you will find considerably more selection in Kittila, Muonio or Yllas.

Outdoor gear: Yllas has many outdoor and ski boutiques if you are missing something.




Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park: http://www.nationalparks.fi/en/pallas-yllastunturinp

Information about huts: http://www.nationalparks.fi/en/huts



How to reserve a hut: First consult hut availability. Then write to the park at pallastunturi@metsa.fi to reserve by e-mail. They will send a reservation and bill. Send your payment directly to their bank account well in advance of the due date (international money transfers can take some time).


Realtime maps with track maintanance info:

Unfortunately that is only in Finnish. Color codes for tracks:
Green = maintained within last day
Orange = maintained within 1-4 days
Red = maintained within 5-14 days
Grey = last maintenance was over 14 days ago

Saami Festival in mid to late March in Hetta: https://sites.google.com/site/heahtamarjjabeaivvit/en/home

Hetta Huskies (ski rentals, dog sledding), located about 4 km outside of the village of Hetta: http://www.hettahuskies.com/en

Costs: This trip cost us approximately 650 euros each for 6 days of hut-to-hut skiing plus 3 additional days onsite. This amount does not include airfare.


If you liked this article, you might also enjoy reading:
http://www.pleinairinterculturel.com/2017/03/skiing-lodge-to-lodge-in-maines-100.html


[1] This was a refreshing change to Montreal’s increasingly prudish tendencies. In public swimming pools in Montreal, new signs are appearing that admonish bathers in same-sex changerooms to ‘change discretely’ and avoid nudity! I always thought that our society should aspire to be more open minded and relaxed about our bodies. Look at Finland! Look at hammams! But I seem to be in the minority.

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