The Skiing Soldiers of Finland
by Gary Sprung / Gnurps Photography
In 1991 I had been writing a bit for Cross Country Skier magazine. I thought about soldiers who ski. Many Americans know about our 10th Mountain Division in World War II, who trained at Camp Hale, Colorado to wage winter warfare. They definitely knew how to fight on skis, but never got a chance to employ that skill. They were sent to Italy in 1944 during a warm winter and played a key role capturing an important German position atop a peak in the Apennine Mountains. So was there ever a real battle on skis in modern times?
Yes! Shortly after Hitler invaded Poland, Stalin invaded Finland in November, 1939. The Finnish skiing soldiers held off the gigantic Russian army in a desperate war that kept their country independent. So does Finland still have skiing soldiers? I wondered.
I cold-called the Finnish embassy in Washington, DC. “Hi, I write for Cross Country Skier magazine and I’m wondering if you still have skiing soldiers.” The phone operator replied, “Let me get you to the military attache.” A few minutes later, a voice with thick Scandinavian accent got on the line and I explained my idea. “Yes, we still have skiing soldiers. Every young man in Finland trains to ski and carry a gun.” When I said I might like to write an article about that, he said, “Let me get back to you.”
A few days later, I received a call from the Finnish Foreign Trade Association. The person started explaining how they would help me with the article. They would arrange the flight and hotel and get me a guide. A few minutes into the conversation, I asked, in amazement, “So you’re offering me a trip to Finland?” Yes, was the answer, and you can also attend the World Nordic Championships in Lahti while you’re there.
Next thing you know, I was on a 747 in first class, flying over the Atlantic and sitting next to a beautiful, blonde, older woman who said she had acted in American films. She guessed she was the only Finnish woman ever to act for Hollywood.
A Foreign Trade Association man picked me up at the Helsinki airport and took me to a first-class hotel and explained our agenda, which started with an hour-long train trip to Lahti the next morning. I got to ski on their superb ski tracks and I watched the 50-kilometer race, which had TV cameras along the course in the woods. Like, their x-c ski coverage is our American football coverage!
The next day I visited ski tracks local to Helsinki and encountered a 90-year-old man skiing 50 kilometers, training for an amateur race.
Finally, it was time for my visit to the skiing soldiers. A Finnish Army major showed up at my hotel door early in the morning and took me to the airport. We flew together to Joensuu, an eastern city near the Russian border. At the nearby Army base, the Army put on a mock battle for little old me and my camera! I was super-impressed with their personnel carriers: two cabs on treads connected by a fancy universal joint that could twist and turn so each unit might have a different angle. It could carry 24 soldiers and all their gear, including guns, ammo, mortars, skis, and winter survival gear. The skis were about 250 cm long and quite wide and used a fancy, no-wax, smooth surface that enabled both grip and glide.
Next, the colonel in charge of the base invited me in for lunch. It was fancy and I sat with a bunch of officers who all spoke fluent English. “Now we take a sauna,” the colonel said after lunch. That done, I again donned the track skis they offered and skied out to their biathlon course. They let me fire an AK-47 rifle at their firing range. I recall someone telling me, “You did good. All five shots hit the target.”
At the end of the day, the colonel invited me in for another sauna. This time, it was me and him and the other officers. I was naked in the sauna with these army officers! As that finished, the colonel tells me, “We have a little snack before you go back” and said I didn’t need to dress, yet. Rather, the officers and I sat in nice wooden booths with towels over our mid-sections, otherwise naked, and enjoyed fine Finnish faire. Then back to Helsinki by plane.
Back in America, I told my editor at Cross Country Skier magazine about the fantastic trip. That’s great, he said, but we recently made an editorial decision to not cover Nordic skiing outside North America. They wanted a couple short pieces about the racing and the fact that that Lahti has a Jumbotron to show the racers in the woods to the fans in the stadium. But they were not interested in my main story.
Who else could I sell this too? Ski, Skiing, and Powder magazines had next to no coverage of Nordic skiing. Thinking back now, maybe I should have called the New York Times. But I did know of a Boulder, Colorado-based publication that might want it, Soldier of Fortune. They notoriously covered war, mercenaries, weapons, survivalism, etc. My liberal compatriots definitely don’t like this magazine! Though I didn’t really like their bent, I felt that I had to get this published. I owed it to the Finnish Foreign Trade Association.
Soldier of Fortune was definitely interested. I told the editor that I wanted to emphasize the country’s role in United Nations peace-keeping forces and he suggested a sidebar devoted to that. So at least I got some decent info about peace into that paper, as well as positive ideas about the United Nations. And I’d say that Finland does need to maintain its skiing soldier skills. Russia is dangerous.
Read the whole story, “White Death”, here.