An account of walking the winter trail at the Ounasvaara hill in spring. No skiing or sledding or tobogganing or fatbiking: just two pairs of feet on ice.
Crunch, crunch. The snow was thick, the ice brittle. I was familiar with the sound of dry autumn leaves underfoot but this was new. The frost was granular and crisp, like it had just come out from a freezer. The ice glistened under the Finnish spring sun, looking almost edible. Pine and spruce trees in surrounded us, reaching up to skies of pale blue.
My partner K and I were walking on the Ounasvaraa winter trail in Rovaniemi, Lapland. We’d chosen to do it in spring, a startlingly quiet time in an otherwise busy and touristy town.
Ounasvaara is a hill (“fell”) just a couple of kilometres away from the town centre, across the Kemijoki river. The river is something of a moving, transforming living being in itself. The previous day it had been resplendent blue, sparkling under the sun. Ice had accumulated on its banks: it looked like someone had run a blower down the middle, pushing the ice to the sides. But today the sky was overcast. At -2°C, the river had frozen in layers, in swirly patterns and thick sheets. As we walked over the bridge, I noticed that in some places, the patterns on the ice looked like an ikat weave. I could see now why there were about 40 different words to describe ice/snow in Finnish: you need new ways to express what you see around you. And for me, who had grown up with no exposure to snow or its language, I felt suddenly like I needed a new vocabulary. But strangely enough, I could talk about the landscape in analogies of Indian sweets: snow the colour of fresh rasgulla; thin, fragile, translucent ice that looked like petha; and fresh, loose powder-snow that reminded me of white kalakand.
The road to the Ounasvaara hill adopts a wide mud path that runs alongside the main road and upwards towards the hill. There are multiple entry points: we chose the one we saw first. There were a few dozen steps that went to the top, after which you continue walking into the forest. The slopes were covered in patches of snow, but clear around the base of the pine trees (read why that is). I realized my shoes were far from appropriate for this kind of hike. I placed my feet gingerly one after another, not trusting the ice or my shoes. My partner strode up like it was child’s play (“I’m from the Himalayas,” he likes to announce proudly on all our hikes, though in reality he spent only a couple of his childhood years there.)
Note the lack of snow around the base of the trees
We seemed to be the only ones here. We walked in silence. The snow seemed untouched, but after a while I noticed large footprints of someone’s snow shoes. I placed my foot in one of the moulds: the ice was surprisingly firm. It was strange: to be in some sort of winter wonderland, but with the sun in our eyes and enough warmth in our jackets. A loud chiff chaff appeared out of nowhere and sat on the ground, wagging its tail vigorously: I often wonder if these birds aspire to be wagtails.
I sat down on a moss-covered rock. I closed my eyes and listened. A fieldfare sang loudly, the cars whooshed past on the highway, a branch creaked occasionally. But there seemed to be a lot more conversation going on than what one could hear. Surely, in the silence of snowfall and the stillness of the trees, there was some exchange that I wasn’t privy to. I am convinced that trees speak with each other. Here, in a land where there are about ten trees for every person, there must be an ongoing dialogue.
We walked on to find the ski route, which was a covered in several feet of ice and easier to walk on. The observation tower wasn’t too far away. I was happy here, as I always am while walking. I bobbed my head along, humming to Bryan Adams’ Thought I’d died and gone to heaven. K shushed me crossly and walked ahead. I’ll be two steps behind, I crooned in my best Deff Leppard voice.
Snow, snow everywhere
The observation deck sat in a little clearing, which also houses a shelter and a campfire site. The wooden shed had logs in it to make a fire. I climbed the steep stairs to the top of the tower and was greeted with a 360 degree view. I could see over the tops of the trees all the way across the river to the town of Rovaniemi on the other side. The city was Lego-themed, with wooden painted houses neatly packed together. Smoke rose from a chimney, making it look like something out of a fairy tale. The river wound itself around the town like a long snakey mirror.
That morning, I’d spoken to K about our plan for the day. He likes travel being open and unplanned, while I like to know what I’m doing when. He’d said we would walk around Ounasvaara and see where the day took us, and I had agreed, but I was secretly anxious to do the full route as it was marked on the map. “You’d consider this a successful trip only if you got to the top of the hill, right?” he’d commented. I wanted to protest but I realized that it was true. If we hadn’t gone to the very summit, I’d have a nagging feeling that my mission was incomplete. Maybe it was FOMO or a misplaced sense of victory that I derived from getting somewhere. But this trip was all about me learning to calm down and enjoy exploring without worrying about chasing a goal. So, the first time we walked in Ounasvaara, we just ambled about and turned back after we saw the view from the observation tower. Two days later, we walked the full trail without really planning to, and I found that it was a lot more enjoyable.
The Ounasvaara observation tower
View of Rovaniemi from the Ounasvaara observation deck
A blue sign featuring a hiker and a snowflake pointed us in the direction of the winter trail. We were walking uphill but the slope was so gentle it was almost like a stroll. In some places, water had accumulated in puddles, and thin ice had formed on it. I heard an excited child’s voice and looked up to see a little girl walking with an elderly couple, presumably her grandparents. She held a twig in one hand and was tapping the ice in the puddles and squealing with excitement when it broke into pieces. What a fun way to spend the day.
Wooden stairs were placed in some places, leading up to the rocky plateau of the hill. When we reached the summit (“huippu”), the weather changed: the wind was strong and chilly. I tightened the straps of my jacket’s sleeves and pulled my hat over my ears. This must be a really busy place during the winter months, when there’s a chair lift that takes you up to the top of the hill. It felt good to have it to ourselves.
The Ounasvaara winter trail: waymarked route for hikers
View from the summit
The snow melting: I love how clear the water in places without the icy film – look for the reflection of the tree
We resumed the walk, this time downhill, past the Royal Reindeer hotel. The couple we’d met before were now sitting on a rock, while the little girl was off exploring. It was sunny again now, and the ice in the puddles had melted, the snow turned into small rivulets. We walked past a snow-covered football ground, which was altogether surreal on its own. As we got back on the main road I realized that it didn’t really matter to me whether we’d made it to the top or not. Yes, the view was beautiful, but there was nothing of much value that it offered to me: no golden pot of wisdom, no unravelling of life’s secret. There was no validation in it: no prize or praise or prestige. All I had wanted was a beautiful walk, which was achievable whether I’d walked around the bottom of the hill, got halfway up there, or took whichever path looked inviting. Maybe “getting there” wasn’t always the only way to experience victory.
Perhaps it really was better to keep things fluid, continuous and open to change, than be weighed down by the anxious scramble to reach the final destination. I voiced this to K and vowed that I would embrace a new and improved me, but he looked disbelieving. Ah, time will tell.
There is nothing particularly spectacular that I can point out about the Ounasvaara hike. There were no breathtaking views of gorges and lakes, no dazzling and dancing Northern Lights above us, no sightings of wild animals. But like a lot of things in Finland, there was simplicity. A reinforcement of the message that you really don’t need very much to feel recharged and refreshed or, simply, alive. There was breathing: a filling of lungs with snow and sky and spruce and silence. The Ounasvaara hill is not just a place for hiking and skiing. It’s a place for us to walk among the trees and listen to what they’re saying. Maybe even talk to them. But just not too loudly.
The excitement was palpable
Ounasvaara football ground
Just to give you an idea of the number of trees…