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The history of Finnish skiing slips and slides.


By June Ilona Rantanen

As we begin to think about strapping on our fancy ski boots and skis, let’s also think about our northern heritage.

The custom of the people of the North was to speed over the snow on extraordinary implements unknown to others.  Over one thousand years ago, the first dimension of Finnish culture and heritage started with survival.  Hidden in the wilderness, the original Finns strapped onto their hand-fashioned boots, little more than bowls as they moved cautiously over the snow-covered landscape.  During the stone and iron ages, the men (Hiihtomiehet) were on skis during the struggles between tribes and intruders.

In his book, Winter in Finland, professor W. R. Mead wrote of Finland and skis:  "Historically, skis are some of the oldest pieces of equipment found in the country."

In Finland, some of the oldest artifacts discovered in bog lands (the peat bogs) have been a variety of prehistoric skis in different parts of the country. Pollen dating of peat at one of the oldest sites, at Kinnula, in the southern province of Häme, gives an age of 4,000 years to the skis found there.

Skis from the 6th century A.D., found in a peat bog in south-central Finland had a raised footrest and were faced with skin, which prevented snow from sticking to the ski, with a badger skin toe-strap.

The Finnish word for ski is "suksi", probably of Uralic origin, which may have evolved into the Scandinavian word "ski."  For English speakers, as professor Mead points out, the word was probably first defined in Gustaf Widegren's Svenskt och Engelskt Lexicon (Swedish-English Lexicon), published in Stockholm in 1788. "Skid: a kind of scate or wooden shoe on which they slide over the snow..."

Definite regional differences in ski shapes and names existed before the advent of mass production. The small band of foreign travelers who wrote of their experiences in Finland in the 19th century provide some of the sharpest observations of skiing in its natural setting. Paul du Chaillu's description of skiing in Finnish Lapland serves as a model for the rest of the country. Up in the north he came across several types of ski or "the queer snowshoes of the north." He saw "short ones used in the forest...where the trees are close together; long ones, for use on soft snow "so that they can bear up the weight of a man and not sink too deeply"; skis faced with sealskin, "used in spring when the snow is soft and becomes watery; the skin prevents the snow from sticking to the ski". Du Chaillu's reference to 'queer snowshoes' may be misleading to today's reader. However, it is certain that he means skis, not the snowshoes of the North American continent, which never caught on in Finland.

Thus, the ski was a working aid and an important means of transport in Finland from prehistoric times until the last quarter of the 19th century.  A local observer in the southern parish of Hauho wrote in the 1880s that one seldom saw a ski except outside the huts of foresters, who used them for the journey to and from work.

The ingenuity of the Finns enlightenment shone as brightly as machine-honed fiberglass skis by the end of this millennium.

As a matter of necessity, toddlers learned to ski as they learned to crawl and walk.   School children skied to school and home again, did their lessons and hopped back outside on skis.  They skied and played until they had to head for their warm log homes at bedtime.  Racing through the forests of Finland was a part of daily winter life.

Skiing must be in the genes of the Finns.  We continue this heritage in America with our cross-country ski trails at Saima Park.  And we definitely still enjoying strapping on those bowls – now fashioned of man-made materials and designed to help us glide faster and faster.

(You can contact June Rantanen via e-mail, by clicking on her name at the top of the page)

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