Southern Finland’s snowiest winter in years inspires many people to strap on snowshoes and explore places that other winter sports enthusiasts cannot reach.
Bemused drivers stare through their windscreens as a long line of snowshoe trekkers trudges across the road leading to Oittaa Recreation Centre, about 20 kilometres northwest of Helsinki. We’re all here to enjoy a sunny afternoon stomping through scenic snow-covered forests, led by local nature guide Jali Gräsbeck.
Gräsbeck is keen to provide detailed instructions about ergonomic techniques, but most of us have instantly got to grips with the cumbersome-looking footwear and are eager to pioneer our own trails through the deep, virgin snow blanketing the forest floor.
“Though it helps to be fairly fit if you want to go a long way, up steep hills or through soft, deep snow, the truth is that anyone who can walk can also snowshoe,” Gräsbeck says. “This is a much easier way for newcomers to Finland to explore the winter forests than learning cross-country skiing techniques.”
We soon learn to space our feet and swing our bodies as we plough purposefully through the snowdrifts. The resultant waddling gait is effective, if not graceful.
We don’t have to tramp far from the centre to feel we are in truly unspoilt woodland. The forest birds seem undisturbed by our chatter and laughter. Our intrusive tracks cross the subtler spoor of hares, squirrels and voles, revealing that these silent forests are rich in wildlife, even in midwinter. “Sometimes we find lynx tracks, or the droppings of flying squirrels, which are quite common in this area,” says Gräsbeck.
We slither down a gentle slope into a valley, and then clumsily clump through thick white powder snow to an imposingly steep hillside. Gräsbeck shows us how to dig our toes in and use our poles to support our bold ascent. All of us successfully surmount the precipice, though progress often involves three steps upward and two steps back down.
Townies from southern Finland are increasingly learning that you don’t have to head up to Lapland to try this exotic but easy-to-learn activity. “Snowshoeing is steadily getting more popular, and after a couple of years when we didn’t get much snow down here, this has been a great winter for the sport,” Gräsbeck notes.
“What people like about snowshoeing is that you can go absolutely anywhere, on all kinds of terrain,” he explains. “Everyone feels the call of nature sometimes, and it means a lot to people to find their own new place in the fresh snow, away from it all.”
Oittaa Recreation Centre
Located in a converted barn and run by the Finnish Association for Outdoor Activities, Oittaa Recreation Centre rents out winter gear including skis, sledges and modern lightweight snowshoes. Guided snowshoe safaris are organised most winter weekends, and groups can hire local guides for tailored treks at any time.
After exploring the forests, trekkers can refuel in Oittaa’s café, soak in a hot sauna or visit the nearby lake for a bracing dip in a hole in the ice – or all of the above.
By Fran Weaver, March 2010