Mar 2, 2011

Siberian Hanti skis part 1

This winter has been extreme, cold Siberian and Arctic winds have been blowing across Finland and partly because of this I have been inspired to explore the ways of our language-relatives in Russia.

I have been planning to make a pair of snowshoes but I realized that I could instead replicate the next best thing;  - a simple pair of Siberian skis. The Siberian skis represent a very archaic form of skis. The Siberian ski-type is spread across a wide territory from the Western slopes of the Ural mountains to the Kamtchatkan Peninsula in the East. The ski-type and is very distinct as it it shorter and broader than skies used in the Nordic countries. Skis of this type have a very flat, boardlike appearance.

These type of skis are made to enable winter-travel in the thick powdery snow of the Siberian taiga. These skies are more for walking than for gliding. They are in fact more like snowshoes than skis. 

Even if the Siberian skies appear very similar at first glance there are many differences in construction among the Siberian peoples. There are variations in the shape of the ski and the width-lengt proportions. There are also differences in how the footing surface on the skis are constructed, in Finnish this part of the ski is called päläs and there are three different type of päläs. The footing or päläs can be flat, raised or it can be formed as an channel for the foot. 

Image 1. From the left; a Hanti ski with a raised päläs, a Komi ski with a channel päläs and a Hanti ski with a flat päläs.

The Siberian skis are often fitted with fur on the bottom of the ski. The skin is attached on the running surface of the ski so that the hair points backwards. The most typically used skin was the legskin of reindeer as the skin is though and the short hairs provide traction when climbing hills but glide effortlessly forward. Sealskin was also used by coastal dwellers. 

It is interesting to note that the same type of short broad skis were used in Finland and Scandinavia during the neolithic and the bronze-age. There are several finds of skis in bogs and these resemble the Siberian types. 

Image 2. The Kalvträsk skis and ski-staff.

There is also some drama in connection to the prehistoric skis found in the Nordic bogs as there is some debate conserning which country can claim to own the oldest ski in the world. Three men digging a ditch in a bog near Kalvträsk in Västerbotten, Sweden in 1924 discovered two 15cm wide and 204 cm long skis along with a skipole. Later C-14 dating of this find confirmed the age to 5200 BP (before 1950). In Northern Finland, some 10 km from Saija, Jaska Repo, a farmer diggin a ditch in a bog called Särkiaapa in 1938 unearthed a broken ski. The ski is estimated to have been 15cm wide and max. 180 cm long. The ski from Särkiaapa was also C-14 dated to 5200 BP. So both findings date back to 3200 B.C. Sadly for the Finns a second c-14 dating of the Särkiaapa ski resulted in 4470 +/- 110 BP, so it appears that the Swedes won this time!
Image 3. The Särkiaapa ski from Salla, Finland.

Although inspired by all this I was in a hurry to finish a serviceable pair of skis in matter of only a week so I decided against making a copy of some archeological find and to go for a fairly simple model with a flat päläs-design to reduce carving-time. 
Image 4. A pair of hanti skis design for use on crusted snow.

I found a photo of a Hanti ski that seemed easy enough to make. I pretty much had to guess the lenght of the ski since the book in which the ski was sketched did not provide any exact measurements. This type of ski should perform best in spring when the sun melts the surface of the snow and it freezes to a crust during cold nights. This would suit me perfectly as it is already March and winter will only last for a few more weeks in southern Finland. 
Image 5. One ski is cut out from the spruce board.

I picked up some wide spruce boards at the local lumberyard (thanks Edgar!). The wood was not perfect as there were several knots in the boards. I managed to carve the skis so that there is a knot in the middle of the tip on both skis. This should prevent the tip from cracking as spruce is prone to crack easily.
Image 6. Bending the steamed tip.
The bottom, or the running side of the ski was carved flat and the top convex. I slightly stream-bent the tips after first soaking them in water for a couple of days. The skis are now almost finished, I still have to fit them with some bindings and also apply some animal fat on the wood before I can try them out.

Image 7. The small crack in the tips have not advanced beyond the knothole.

Photo / Image Credits
Image 1. Suksen tarina, Eino Nikkilä 1966.
Image 2. The Museum of Västerbotten
Image 3. National Board of Antiquities, Finland.
Image 5-7 Marcus Lepola.

Further readings


  1. how did they go? did you add moose fur?

    1. No I haven´t and in fact these skis would definetely benefit of it as they are flat-bottomed and do not have a groove along the bottom as most skis do. These will however perform ok in powder snow conditions and the odd shape of the back of the skis might have a balancing function as these skis are intended to be back heavy.

  2. Fascinating articles. I've recently been working on replicas of the Kinnula ski. Wish I'd had this idea and found the paper on "Ancient Skis in Finland" sooner. We've had the kind of snowy winter I remember from my childhood here in Northern New York State in the US.

  3. Argo - Good job on the decorative features. I see you added the "päläs" or the footrest as a separate piece. In the original the whole thing is carved from a single piece of wood. The Kinnula ski works just as well, or just as bad as the Hanti ski. It will perform really well on flat ground and deep powdery snow, but on crusted snow the ski will glide and slide all over the place. I believe that the Kinnula ski could have had added fur for grip, but it will work just as well without it. The angle of the päläs seems a little steep. I am not a 100% sure of how they appear on the real thing but did you feel that the angle of the päläs had an benefit or was it uncomfortable?

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  5. What kind of wood is used to make the skis?

  6. Fantastic post and great Blog! One question are "Hanti" and "Khanty" synonymous?


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