A buzz saw of engine noise yanks me out of some deep state of brain shut-offness. Where am I? Who am I? All the normal questions. Thin, blue, early morning light leaks in the window, and I look at my watch–1:30 p.m. Wait, what? Nick yells from the room next door that we better get out of bed ’cause we don’t want to miss the daylight. I sit up to peek out the window, and I can feel the jetlag hanging around my neck like a dead weight.

The little world outside the windowpane is unreal–it’s the North Pole! The engine sounds come from entire families of vacationers riding around on snowmobiles, everyone bundled up and on their way to do things like cross-country ski and sled. This could be the surface of the moon. It’s all dusky blue and white, and there’s no exposed skin on any humans within sight. Fur hats, bulky winter trench coats, swanky one-pieces out of a James Bond movie. We’re in the Finnish Arctic Circle at a resort called Saariselkä, and I can tell almost intuitively how cold it is outside the window by the color of the air, the way the sound carries, and the sharp squeak-noise of feet on moistureless snow.

Finland + Snowboarding = Love

Tucked in between the icy shapes of Sweden to the west and Russia to the east, Finland nurtures its own unique hotbed of Nordic snowshred action. For such a freezing, decidedly un-mountainous country, this place has produced some of the most prolific snowboard personalities on the scene–Joni Malmi, Jussi Oksanen, Joni Makinen, Wille Yli-Luoma, as well as younger riders like Heikki Sorsa, Markku Koski, and Iikka Bäckström.

If you had to sum it up, you could say that Finnish snowboard talent means personality, a smooth, fluid style, and a supernaturally huge bag of tricks. “Freeriding in Finland sucks,” admits Joni Makinen. “So the only thing you can really ride is park and pipe–and you get pretty bored doing the same tricks off the same jumps every day, so you constantly try to learn new stuff. Like in Talma (a small resort just outside Helsinki), you can get 30 to 40 runs in an hour, hitting the same jumps lap after lap. There’s plenty of time to practice your tricks to perfection–and it’s usually pretty freakin’ icy, so you really don’t want to fall.”

These riders aren’t just recognized for skill, though, they’re known for their strange Finnish charisma, too–mostly involving a deadpan sense of humor, a love for trashy Top 40, and an extremely flamboyant relationship with “the drink.” This could be the reason why nearly every major snowboard company over the years has scrambled to hire a token Finn teamrider while mainland European snowboarders struggle for years to break into the North American marketing machine.

“The majority of Finnish riders are really focused on style,” says Aleksi Vanninen, “and their personalities are not too much ‘in your face,’ either–they’re more down-to-earth and mellow. Of course there’re some energetic ones, too, but that’s all in a good way–happy and so funny, especially when they get some firewater in their system.”

Arctic Homecomings

Obviously you have to venture out of Finland if you want to ride anything other than hardpack, and Finns do make it to the Alps and eventually to the States, where they learn how to land in powder and ride bigger lines. It’s for this purpose that most Finnish pros have residence in the U.S. these days: Jussi Oksanen lived in Salt Lake City last winter, and Iikka Bäckström and a few of his Trulli Clan mates lurked around Whistler. But the truth is that every season around the holidays, the whole crew comes flooding back for one big Finnish snowboard reunion. It’s the coldest, darkest time of year, right after the winter solstice, and ma of those aforementioned riders–most of whom are Helsinki-based–head north for New Year’s and some Arctic snow-slashing.

The entire top third of Finland is in the Arctic Circle and the Scandinavian region of frosty, rolling hills known as Lapland. The winters are long and sunless here, with the sun actually remaining under the horizon for 51 days straight. In midwinter, daylight lasts for about three hours–not full-on daytime, either, but rather a strange haziness of just-before-sunrise or just-after-sunset light.

Riding happens toward evening under floodlights. The terrain can be compared to that of New England–gentle and hilly, with herds of hunched-over, perma-frosted trees lurking between runs. Full-slope parks are a mainstay at every resort without question. And hey, you want to get to the top of the mountain? Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the T-bar. I don’t recall seeing any chairlifts during my time in Finland. Just that icy bar pressing against your ass and a bumpy, heelside fall-away track that somehow always makes your front foot hurt like hell.

With riding as a later afternoon/evening activity, it’s all too easy to completely miss the daylight by getting into a pattern of staying up late. Bars are open ’til 4:00 a.m., and everyone knows that you stay ’til closing no matter what time closing really is–especially if you’re Finnish and you love going out and drinking big glasses of local beer (and don’t forget vodka) with all your friends, because, let’s face it, it’s one of the few ways to keep warm on a freezing Finland night. So it’s no problem to end up in bed around six, which puts you awake at, say, three or four in the afternoon. Daylight? Nope, too late.

A few in a row like that and you may as well be in outer space. It leads to a real disassociation with time, a surrendering of the daily regimen of sunrise and sunset–a thing Scandinavians have never really known like North Americans do. You lose track of the hours. You sleep when you’re tired and eat when you’re hungry. The things commonly associated with getting out of the house become things you can do under the lights at any hour: snowboarding, skateboarding (indoors), drinking–which, of course, is its own liquid sunshine.

It Comes In Colors

The sky over Finland is an amazing thing of color, even in the dark, cold months. Lapin Kulta, or Lapland Gold, is the firepit orange illuminating the horizon as the sun sets somewhere far off and already below the cusp of the hills. Lapin Kulta fades into something called “The Blue Moment,” a weird quiet time of about twenty minutes when absolutely everything turns blue–the sky, the snow, the light, the air.

Later on in the dark, there’re the Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis–crazy color-ghosts of dancing ribbon light. We rode halfpipe at Saariselkä until late one night with a crew of Finnish locals: Tommi Savela, Kaius Korpela, Timo Aho. We were out ’til at least eleven, and after the park crew turned off the floodlights, we looked up to find huge, green, bleeding snakes ripping across the sky. Nick set up his tripod and put the camera on long exposure. I bundled up and lay back on the hood of the car. We watched the show: Green slashes accented with red, Us becoming triple wiggles and then big arcing Ses. The native legend is that a gigantic fox is swishing its tail and kicking up snow crystals into the air. And the light show incites Japanese tourists in the area to rush off and copulate, because conception under the Northern Lights to them means good luck and male babies for everyone.

One part of the Northern Light equation is cold temperatures–I can’t even begin to describe how cold it was during our time in the Arctic Circle. Most nights riding were minus 25 Celsius, which is minus thirteen Fahrenheit. This is cold enough for instant frostbite, for ice-cream headaches through thick winter hats, for getting rid of hangovers–even wicked post-New Year’s Eve ones. But staying inside all day really isn’t an option when you’re staring down the barrel of three months of this crap. And so you bundle up. You buy handwarmers. You wear a facemask–and two hats. You go out there and shred it … and have a mean sauna and a beer when you come home to get the blood flowing again.

South Of The North

Down south the temperatures are a bit mellower, which ain’t warm, mind you, but isn’t quite mind-numbing, either. You have a little more daylight to play with, which definitely helps out. Southern Finland is the home of Helsinki, the capital city–a clean little port city with lots of hip joints, amazing architecture, and a booming subculture of artistic, skate- and snow-minded youth. There’s shreddable metal everywhere, and you’d recognize a lot in all the most recent big-budget snowboard movies–Helsinki is now widely known as an untapped rail garden, with handrails around every corner, snow on the ground, and cops who just shrug and tell you to be careful when they see you riding.

It’s just outside Helsinki at a resort called Talma where the major Finnish snowboard scene we know today was born. “Talma was definitely one of the very first to start helping snowboarders out with jumps and such,” says Vanninen about his home hill. “It’s still recognized as possibly the best place for freestyle snowboarding in Finland.”

How to describe this little melting pot of Finnish talent? Let’s see, a couple hundred vertical of terrain park and a Poma lift–meaning you never have to unstrap, just bunny hop your way through the maze and you’re on your way back to the top again. A run takes at most five minutes, including lift time. So think about it–your average person in Helsinki could easily go to school or work all day, then hop in for a 45-minute car ride, and still get in the equivalent of a full day of riding. Because I’m convinced that two hours of snowboarding at Talma is the equivalent of a full day anywhere else. It all happens so fast, like snowboarding compacted–no time for distraction.

And that could be Finland’s big secret, actually: no sacrifices, no moving to a resort town and fighting it out in a shitty dishwashing job so you can ride a decent mountain. Just straight-up living your normal life and still riding every day, because there’s nothing else to do when it’s cold and dark and you’re sick of sitting around inside all the time. The only thing to ride being finely manicured parks, lap after lap, day after day, season after season. Hell, I was even learning new tricks after 25 runs in the Talma park. And that, my friends, is saying a lot.

Good Luck With That

Read aloud this list of Finnish pro snowboarders ten times fast, and try not to hurt yourself in the process.

Timo Aho

Tero Ainonen

Antti Autti

Iikka Bäckström

Eero Ettala

Lauri Heiskari

Minna Hesso

Jesse Hyvari

Sami Hyri

Satu Jarvela

Jarkko Kauranen

Kaius Korpela

Markku Koski

Sebu Kuhlberg

Aleksi Litovaara

Joni Makinen

Joni Malmi

Anssi Manninen

Risto Mattila

Eero Niemelä

Jussi Oksanen

Tommi Savela

Mikko Sjoblom

Heikki Sorsa

Jussi Tarvainen

Jari Tuoriniemi

Aleski Vanninen

Pasi Voho

Ami Voutilainen

Wille Yli-Luoma

enheit. This is cold enough for instant frostbite, for ice-cream headaches through thick winter hats, for getting rid of hangovers–even wicked post-New Year’s Eve ones. But staying inside all day really isn’t an option when you’re staring down the barrel of three months of this crap. And so you bundle up. You buy handwarmers. You wear a facemask–and two hats. You go out there and shred it … and have a mean sauna and a beer when you come home to get the blood flowing again.

South Of The North

Down south the temperatures are a bit mellower, which ain’t warm, mind you, but isn’t quite mind-numbing, either. You have a little more daylight to play with, which definitely helps out. Southern Finland is the home of Helsinki, the capital city–a clean little port city with lots of hip joints, amazing architecture, and a booming subculture of artistic, skate- and snow-minded youth. There’s shreddable metal everywhere, and you’d recognize a lot in all the most recent big-budget snowboard movies–Helsinki is now widely known as an untapped rail garden, with handrails around every corner, snow on the ground, and cops who just shrug and tell you to be careful when they see you riding.

It’s just outside Helsinki at a resort called Talma where the major Finnish snowboard scene we know today was born. “Talma was definitely one of the very first to start helping snowboarders out with jumps and such,” says Vanninen about his home hill. “It’s still recognized as possibly the best place for freestyle snowboarding in Finland.”

How to describe this little melting pot of Finnish talent? Let’s see, a couple hundred vertical of terrain park and a Poma lift–meaning you never have to unstrap, just bunny hop your way through the maze and you’re on your way back to the top again. A run takes at most five minutes, including lift time. So think about it–your average person in Helsinki could easily go to school or work all day, then hop in for a 45-minute car ride, and still get in the equivalent of a full day of riding. Because I’m convinced that two hours of snowboarding at Talma is the equivalent of a full day anywhere else. It all happens so fast, like snowboarding compacted–no time for distraction.

And that could be Finland’s big secret, actually: no sacrifices, no moving to a resort town and fighting it out in a shitty dishwashing job so you can ride a decent mountain. Just straight-up living your normal life and still riding every day, because there’s nothing else to do when it’s cold and dark and you’re sick of sitting around inside all the time. The only thing to ride being finely manicured parks, lap after lap, day after day, season after season. Hell, I was even learning new tricks after 25 runs in the Talma park. And that, my friends, is saying a lot.

Good Luck With That

Read aloud this list of Finnish pro snowboarders ten times fast, and try not to hurt yourself in the process.

Timo Aho

Tero Ainonen

Antti Autti

Iikka Bäckström

Eero Ettala

Lauri Heiskari

Minna Hesso

Jesse Hyvari

Sami Hyri

Satu Jarvela

Jarkko Kauranen

Kaius Korpela

Markku Koski

Sebu Kuhlberg

Aleksi Litovaara

Joni Makinen

Joni Malmi

Anssi Manninen

Risto Mattila

Eero Niemelä

Jussi Oksanen

Tommi Savela

Mikko Sjoblom

Heikki Sorsa

Jussi Tarvainen

Jari Tuoriniemi

Aleski Vanninen

Pasi Voho

Ami Voutilainen

Wille Yli-Luoma