Feb 5, 2011

Lessons learned during the “Tour de Ski” at Kurjenrahka

Image 1. "New" skis versus old skis. Would the old skis manage to hold their own against more modern equipment?

Decided to take my "new" ski poles and my old 3 meter skis on a small tour. I headed out with Patrik Berghäll, a wilderness-instructor for the Folkhälsan Association in Finland. 
Image 2. "Traditional" ski pole roof rack.

We drove to Kurjerahka, a beautiful wilderness area just North of Turku. Kurjenrahaka. This area looks like most of Finland used to look like before the moors where drained for fields and forestry. We still have a lot of moors left, but approx. ½ of all the moors in Finland have been destroyed over the last 100 years. 

Image 3. The first time these skis have been worn for god knows how many decades.

What also makes this area interesting is that wolves have returned to the scene. Finding wolf tracks in here is fairly common these days. We saw no wolves this time but got to enjoy some beautiful scenery and sunny skies. Clouds rolled in after midday and we found ourselves in the midst of a thick snowfall as we returned to our car. 

Image 4. The ski trail across the beautiful Kurjenrahka high-moor. 

We started of skiing on a frozen crust of snow and it was easy travelling as the skis kept us from piercing through the crust. I however managed to break both staves as I tried to negotiate a sharp turn on a wooden bridge that led to the ski trail. The breaks where not catastrophic as bot of the poles broke at the ends and it was the antler tips that broke of. Only one of the poles needed some additional mending during our stop at the fireplace.

Image 5. Easy going.
The old skis were surprisingly smooth and easy to use, even if I couldn't use my other ski stave to it´s full potential until I had a chance to mend it. I also tied a hemp cord around my heals and the skin thong bindings to prevent my foot from slipping loose. However the it was warm enough for the snow to melt on the cord and I had to re-tie the cord a couple of times during the trek.

Image 6. A old "kammi" with a partially collapsed roof.

We came across some surprises during our trek to the camp-site such as an old "kammi", a small semi-subterranean cottage used by hunters and wood cutters. We also came across an old "kota" frame in the woods.
Image 7. Old kota frame.

We made a stop for coffee, sausages and  tasty pea-soup at the camp-site which happened to be fairly close to the "kammi". It started to snow as we were making our way back to the car. I had only applied tar to my skis and the sudden rise in temperature made the wet snow stick to the running surface. Luckily we only had about 1 km left to the parking when the ski tour began to feel as a real struggle.

Image 8. Wet snow.

Wet snow conditions are traditionally considered as the worst possible conditions for traditional wood skis. In Finnish this particular circumstance is called "takkala".

Image 9. Heavy going, 3 cm thick snow stuck to the running surface of the skis. Feels like wearing very heavy shoes with high heals. 

I suddenly found myself thinking about my mother. She was born in 1948 in Ostrobothnia and during winter she, along with her sisters and the boys of the village, had to ski for some 3 km across a moor, fields and two forested hills to reach the elementary school in another village. She had told me about how tired and cold she used to be as she struggled to get to school during  the dark hours of the morning. She had to use old worn down wooden skis. She also told me of how hard it was when it was warm and the snow clung to the bottom of the skis and travelling was almost impossible. I really felt for her as I found myself in the same situation, I however am an adult male, she was only a seven-year old girl. Life was hard. I am grateful that my seven year old daughter does not have to experience what my mother had to endure on a daily basis, I however feel that it's good for my children to learn of how life was used to be so they get a bit of perspective on their own lives.

Image 10. One of my ski poles after the trip.
In summary the traditional ski-equipment did perform surprisingly well. The wooden surface of the skis are however an issue when wet snow is concerned. Modern silicon-waxes might help battle these problems but using synthetic rubbings on traditional skis might also ruin them. So my advice is that owners of old skis should only use traditional rubbings such as tar, candle wax and animal fat on their skis. They should also refrain from using their skis in exceedingly warm conditions to avoid the problem of snow sticking to the bottom of the ski,

Photo Credits

Image 1-10: Marcus Lepola


Old skis and new poles

As the winter season is at it´s best in Finland right now I felt it would be good idea to try out a pair of old skies I have stored away in the basement. This particular pair is a beautiful set. They are long and slender with a nice tapering ridge carved along the top of the ski. 

Image 1. Newly tared and ready to go.

These skis are 290cm long and around a 100 years old. There are some little sign of wear on the bottom of the skies, but very little considering the age of this pair. This pair is made out of knotfree birch. These skis still have the old leather thong bindings. On some old wooden skis the leather thong binding has been substituted with the more modern "rat-trap" metal bindings but in this case the skis had been left unaltered.
Image 2. Very little wear of tear on the running surface. It's hard to believe this ski is almost 100 years old.

Finns have been skiing for a long time. The oldest ski in the world was unearthed in Salla, Northern Finland in 1938. Later carbon dating of the ski established that it was made 3298 B.C. Skis back then where wide and short and made of coniferous trees such as pine.

In historic times people used of different lengths. For 1800 years in Scandinavia, it was common to use a short ski on the left foot and a longer one on the right. Often at least in part covered in skin leg skins of wild reindeer or elk (moose), the shorter ski (or "kick ski") was used for pushing. Equally sized skis did not become common until the mid-1800s.
Image 3. Archaic ski design. The Lyly (long gliding ski) and the Kahlu (short kicking ski).

This old skiing tradition in Finland involved only one ski pole. These poles where often fitted with spearheads so that they could also be used in hunting. Elk were often chased with skis when there was a lot of snow with a strong crust. The exhausted animals where dispatched with the ski pole-spear.
Ski manufacture gradually became a small scale home industry with a specialized craftsman in every village. 
Image 4. Skier from Pargas, Southwestern Finland 1919.

As competitional skiing became more popular in the late 19th century it also had an impact on ski design which experienced a rapid change. Some 200 small scale factories or carpentries supplied skis to Finns in the early 20th century. Although the length of the long ski varied by region from 2.5 to over 3 meters, the long ski was always approximately 5 cm thick and 12-13 cm wide. In competitional skiing the ski tended to become shorter as the skier was using them in ski-tracks and the ski was not used for travel in deep snow. Birch was in later times the most used wood for skis in Finland. An old picture taken of a Pargas skier in 1919 gives a good look at the ski gear that was used almost 100 years ago. Notice the ski-boots with curled ends.

As I did not have a matching pair of ski-poles to go along with my skis I had to make them myself. The old poles did not have a wrist-loop at the top and they are fairly tall, almost as long as the skier. I decided to make things easy for myself so I picked up a straight grained pair of milled staves, or broom sticks at the hardware store. These should be fairly thick as they are subjected to a lot of rough handling when skiing in the forest.

I decided to go “primitive” on the ends of the poles. I had seen some ski-poles that had tips of antler and I wanted to replicate that design. I cut out two pieces of antler with simple straight joinery. These where attached to the poles using copper nails with I hammered flat in both ends (old school riveting).

The basket frame was traditionally made out of juniper and cut a few fresh branches of even thickness. Juniper is really flexible and one can bend a branch in to a nice circular shape if one is careful not to over strain the wood at knotholes.

Image 5. The basket frame loops made out of juniper.
When scraping of the bark one also has to be careful not to damage the outer surface of the frame as the wood will crack at the cut. Wood can be removed on the inner surface of the frame if the branch is of uneven thickness. The joinery of both end was simple. Just two diagonal cuts that are matched together. The joinery is attached by wrapping strong and thin cord around the splice. Small groves have to be cut on both sides of the splice so that the wrapping won´t slip of. I used sinew which I also wrapped with birch bark to cover the joint an make it water-proof. 

Image 6. Almost ready, the basket has to tied on the shaft and the pole tared. 

Image 7. Ready for action.
The finished ski-poles are 27mm thick and 170 cm tall. The poles used to be fairly tall, almost as tall as the skier.

Photo Credits

Image 1, 2, 5-7: Marcus Lepola
Image 3. National Board of Antiquities, http://www.nba.fi/fi/kansatieteelliset_sukset
Image 4. The Aboland photoarchive. NAU0016.

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