Recalling our trip this past March, I left our PennFinn13 group and headed north with my daughter. We rented a car and drove about four hours northeast of Rovaniemi, Finland to Inari. One would never know we were above the Arctic circle as the roads were in better condition than many roads back in Vermont on the 45th parallel. I wondered about the difference between hoar frost, permafrost and frost heaves. Thinking about the general construction and engineering of the roads, I figured I’d better leave this topic for another day. Suffice it to say we did not hit one frost heave. In addition to being great educators, the Finns seem to understand road engineering.
My daughter and I learned about the Kings Cup, a championship reindeer racing event. We wanted to watch the Sami athletes on skis being pulled behind reindeer. We stayed in a small cabin at a campsite with simple bunks, rented some skis and from then on skied everywhere. On the first day in Inari we met Carol Brown Leonardi, a British woman who had worked at the University of Rovaniemi, but was now at the Open University in Cambridge, UK. Her current research brought her to Inari studying the Sami people and local economy. With shivering hands and a notebook, she interviewed us about the impetus for our vacation and our thoughts about tourism and other general impressions. I asked her if she wanted to borrow my small hand held tape recorder. She was delighted by the idea so we skied back to the cabin and I bought her my tape recorder, the same one with sound bytes from my research from the schools in Helsinki. She put away her notepad. A day later I met her at the local hotel so she could download the sound flies to her computer.
The Kings Cup is a yearly event where the reindeer herders provide jockeys to compete against each other in sprints, relay races and a longer loop out on the ice. The jockeys are dressed in sleek Nordic or alpine racing suits. Some race on Nordic skis, some on alpine and one competitor chose telemark skis. The race organizers piled up snow to make a packed path lined with small branches on Inarijarvi (Lake Inari). Next to the course were booths with reindeer sausage and all manner of animal pelts, hats, jackets, and other sundry. The reindeer were corralled in a makeshift paddock on the side of the race course.
Over the course of the weekend, everyone laughed, smiled and wore lots of festive clothing. It was cold. The races themselves were spectacular. Reindeer are not large animals, but as they raced by their large tongues lolled and they gracefully sprinted. Once past the finish line they were corralled to their area and fed fresh clumps of lichen.
During the relay races, one competitor would complete a lap, release the reins, ski over and tag the next member of the team and the next reindeer would be released from the start chutes. Some of the reindeer had a mind of their own and chose to trot across the ice and ignore the actual course. When another reindeer entered the vicinity the stubborn wayward reindeer would then gear up to race again, bursting onto the course to compete with the others. The crowds consisted of tourists and locals. The children at the Kings Cup wandered about, laughing and playing in the snow, free to be part of the festivities. There were no parents training them or barking commands, but all adults had a watchful eye and would gently redirect a child now and again.
There was broadband everywhere (A constitutional right for the people of Finland). After my daughter negotiated the price of some reindeer pelts, we got ready to pay and the Sami man took from his breast pocket a credit card wifi swipe unit, punched in the price, took my money and we were done. We strapped the pelts to our backpacks and headed out across the lake back to our cabin.
One difference between my home and Finland is it takes forever for the sun to set when you are on the Arctic Circle. In Vermont if you are at the summit of Camel’s Hump or Mt. Mansfield, you bundle up, feel the wind whipping over the 4,000 foot peak, sit down and wait for nature’s show. The sky lights up, orange red and yellow hues, then the sun sinks over Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks, it is over in about 20 minutes. In Lapland this takes about three hours. Think about it — the northern latitude and the rotating earth. With our reindeer pelts we skied out onto the lake which went forever. We kept going and then decided we ought to turn back, skiing into the sun we watched for a long time as the giant yellow orb slowly lowered itself to the horizon.
I am so very appreciative of all the Finnish educators who made our trip possible and to the PennFinn13 leader Joe Mazza and teammates. The reflections, insights, ideas and inspirations, like the sunset on Inarijärvi, linger on and on. I am not sure it will ever be completely gone, as the red glow occupies a little space in my heart for the beautiful people of Finland.