When Amanda received a grant to do anthropological research in Northern Sweden I began mentally preparing for a long and very dark winter. Our first stop in Sweden was Stockholm, which is considered southern Sweden but is about as far north as Anchorage Alaska. When I would tell people that I would be living in Jokkmokk for a year they looked at me cockeyed and told me how cold and dark it would be, some saying we would be experiencing complete darkness for days on end. We arrived at the beginning of November and while there wasn’t as much daylight as say Bali, the snow covering the ground, trees, and anything else not moving very quickly, reflected the light and made things appear lighter. My Swedish language teacher told us that the sun would no longer be visible in Jokkmokk from about December 7-January 10. However due to angles, vectors, the Pythagorean Theorem, roundness, refraction, and wild colored long underwear, there would still be daylight.
On the shortest day of the year the sun officially rose around 10:42am and set at 12:25pm (I actually made both those times up, but I can assure you that it’s darker here then where you are and that those are pretty close). Still it wasn’t that bad, and truth be told, I think it is lighter here during the winter than in the Willamette Valley of Oregon where we were living before. In the Willamette Valley winters are characterized by low clouds, above freezing temps, and an almost constant drizzle, luckily they only last from October to June. Isn’t it funny how people can make the best of the situation no matter the horrible conditions “well sure it rains all the time but it never rains hard (Willamette valley)” or “well we don’t have much sunlight but the snow makes everything lighter(Jokkmokk)” or “it’s not as hot here as some places (Dallas).”
I love learning new things and I am often in the midst of discovering a new hobby or interest. This began when I was still drinking water out of the dog bowl and was about the size of a pineapple sitting down (I was sitting, not the pineapple) according to one of the few pictures of me as a child. First I loved heavy machinery (backhoes, front-end loaders, skidders, bulldozers, etc) and then “My Little Ponies,” and then fishing to name a few. Well anyway after working my way through all kinds of stuff, my current kick is skiing.
I grew up in a place where people go on vacation to ski, New Hampshire (at least those who can’t afford to go to Vermont). So it might surprise you that I did not learn to downhill ski as a child, rather my “sport de glisse” was sledding where I was known locally as “that kid who sleds like everyone else but doesn’t know how to ski.” I did have one ski experience in Italy my freshman year of college and I found that while not being a particularly good downhill skier, I was really good at going over jumps on skis and then landing with all concerned appendages going different ways.
After college I found myself at the gateway to the Swiss Alps in you guessed it, France (the geography in that particular region is fuzzy). Thanks to an amiable Brit named Tom I learned to snowboard, which involved falling 742 times on each run. The key to snowboarding is mastering the edges; a momentary lack of attention can result in falls hard enough that you have to go back up the hill a ways to pick up your hat. Anyway Tom gave me the instruction and support I needed such as this tip on my second run “kay, now we are goin’ to get some speed and hit a jump.” By the second day I was picking up my hat less frequently and by the third I looked like John Wayne on a horse, except for on tow ropes.
Snowboarding was fun and exhilarating and there was much less to worry about than skiing. You don’t have poles and skis that can go different ways, just a plank that is basically nailed to your feet. I loved the feeling of shifting back and forth between my edges, carving crisp turns or weighting the back foot in deep powder and watching the tip of the board glide though the quiet white. Skiing (or “riding” if you are a snowboarder) in France was great, excellent snow with exceptional food and amazing views. When we would stop to eat our lunch of baguette, comté cheese, and saucisson, passing skiers would chime a “bon appétit” our way with a nod. Plus skiing in France was affordable, which I realized is not the case everywhere, like small mountains in West Virginia for example. I began to think how taking a ski lift up is kind of cheating, though what wonderful cheating it is! Still the idea of self propelled uphill travel for gravity propelled travel downhill was very appealing.
I had heard people talk about “Telemark” and “Alpine Touring” skis, magical skis with free (or occasionally free) heels that you can affix a sealskin (if you lived like 100 years ago) or some kind of fabric that glides one direction but grips the other (uphill direction). I did some more research about these skis and found out that “Telemark” is a Norwegian word that translates as “unnecessarily difficult way to ski that is beautiful and seductive” and “Alpine Touring” is an English word that means “really expensive.” So when the opportunity to buy a pair of telemark skis with climbing skins from a guy moving to Florida presented itself, I pulled the trigger and bought something I had no idea how to use. Luckily the guy who sold them to me also had no idea how to use them, telling me that these were the next generation of telemark skis and you could choose between the extremely difficult “free heel” mode, or you could lock down the heel like an Alpine Touring ski. A telemarking friend gave me a pair of old telemark ski boots and I set off on my first uphill ski adventure with two friends.
Traveling uphill on skis through deep snow is a great workout and is a wonderful way to be outside. We skied upwards for several hours, eventually covering about 5 miles of gradually sloping to steep switch-backing terrain. Then it was time for the big moment, the downhill! My telemark bindings look like a cross between a transformer and a rattrap and my friends were afraid to offer any advice or get their hands too close. Not wanting to diminish the difficulty of my descent (which is a typical telemarker’s sentiment) I kept my heel free in what I thought to be “Telemark” mode, which was actually uphill free pivot mode. This meant that my feet could pivot forwards with no resistance (this resistance is the key to Telemark skiing and allows the skier to put downward pressure on the ski and initiate turns). In my effort to be a genuine telemarker I was completely out of control, the equivalent of riding a bike with loose handlebars. The good thing was that the snow was soft and there was lots of it, knee deep powder (known colloquially as “pow pow”) in some places. With my free pivoting bindings I would fall and completely disappear, the skis lying parallel to the ground and me lying on top of them, nothing breaking the surface of the snow until I would pull myself laughing giddily from the fluff.
I eventually learned that I was doing it all wrong, adjusted my gear, and began to develop the correct technique through enthusiasm, willingness to fall, and the joy of turns. My friends also tipped me off that my skis were indeed women’s skis, evident by the yellow flowers on blue background.
Skis were of course one of the things I brought with me to Sweden, figuring that we would not want for snow. Jokkmokk is not in the mountains, rather the terrain is rolling but there are some small hills that can be downhill skied. One such hill is visible from our apartment window. It has been recently logged so there is plenty of room to ski. On January 12 the clouds and snowy weather lifted and the sky was clear, so I decided to “ski to the sun.” By increasing my altitude I figured I would be able to once again see that great ball of fire that is the basis for life. I had perhaps foolishly left my Telemark skis in Oregon and instead brought an Alpine Touring setup. The temperature was holding steady around -4F but I quickly warmed up as I skinned uphill. After only a few minutes of travel I felt the warm glow of the sun and sure enough it was back, hanging triumphantly just over the horizon. Encouraged, I quickened my pace and headed upward, momentarily following a group of 8 reindeer as they ran ahead.
It took me about 30 minutes to reach the top of this little hill and I was treated to a spectacular view of Jokkmokk and the surrounding landscape. I could just barely make out our apartment building, a yellow speck in the distance. Using our cellphone, which seems to have been designed by delinquent monkeys and only gets reception half of the day, I called Amanda. She was just barely able to see me with binoculars, though she claimed I was only the size of speck of salt.
I changed my skis to downhill mode by removing my climbing skins, locking my heels, and tightening my boots. Donning my helmet I pushed off from the summit down a steep wooded bank, winding my way through trees until I blasted out into the open. The snow was soft and light and I floated along, leaving symmetrically squiggly tracks on the blank canvas of snow.