The Thing

In January when I mentioned that I was visiting Finnish Lapland my Swedish colleague Martin suggested I get to the treble border point of Norway, Sweden, and Finland (and no, not in an angry "Tony, why don't you p%^& off to the end of the earth" way).

I was supportive of the idea but when I asked Martin if there was anything to see at that location his answer in his inimitable Scandinavian accent was "There is a thing there."

Right. How informative. A thing.

I asked again: A building, a statue, a cannon? "Tony, trust me. There is a thing there."

Two months later I arrived at the village of Kilpisjarvi in Lapland. It is the far north-west corner of Finland - and looks and feels like the end of the earth. As well as seeking the northern lights I came here determined to see what Martin was talking about.

Being well within the Arctic Circle there was still plenty of snow in March. I knew the treble border was about 12km from the lodge I was staying at. Since I had no experience of driving snowmobiles nor cross-country skiing I asked the staff if walking was an option.

Fortunately walking was possible, albeit treading the snowmobile paths. Unfortunately the thick snow meant it would be a six hour round trip.

Yikes. I had completed six hour walks in Australia in fine temperate weather... but six hours of trudging through snow? I had not even walked twenty consecutive minutes in snow before.

But I had come all this way and minor inconveniences as lack of experience in the deadly local conditions was not going to stop me. The day after I set out with a hired pair of snowshoes.

I wasn't wearing the snowshoes but carrying them as a contingency, should I encounter particularly soft snow. For those that don't know snowshoes look like small skis or snowboards and help you stay afloat on top of deep soft snow.

Earlier on the trip in Kemi, in the middle of the town, I strayed off the footpath slightly and landed in thigh-deep snow. If you're not accustomed to snow: Imagine dipping both your legs in a huge pool of 7-Eleven Slurpee. It took me several minutes in wet jeans to wade eight metres back to the footpath. So here in the wilderness sinking and drowning in soft powder sounded like a terrible way to die, hence my backup equipment.

I started the walk at midday, knowing sunset was around 6:40pm. The weather was glorious at Kilpisjarvi - the sun was out with hardly a cloud in sight - which was why I was keen to take off, despite the late start.

But an hour in I was starting to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

Disturbingly there were no footprints on the trail. Apparently everyone else was cross-country skiing or snowmobiling. My legs felt fine but my arms were aching from carrying a load of water, food, and two snowshoes. And walking on soft snow was no picnic either - it was as strength sapping as running on the beach, but ten times worse. I was expending much energy to gain very little ground.

As I was walking on the frozen lake I occasionally looked back to see the warm lodge getting smaller and smaller - it was a sombre thought that every step I took was another I would have to take on my return trip.

I peered into the distance where a couple of cross-country skiers were gliding effortlessly across the lake. Hmmmm, maybe I should have tried that?

In the middle of the lake a group of snowmobiles whizzed past me, all having a great time with the Arctic wind in their hair. One of them stopped and the Nordic man asked where I was going. I told him the treble border marker, bid him good afternoon, and he took off.

About 100m in front of me the group suddenly stopped. What's going on here? The man who asked my destination then circled back to me and declared "Come on, I will give you a lift."

This was my lucky day! I tried my best to contain my giddy delight, and expressed my gratitude in the most expressive yet simplest English I could manage.

A three hour hike one way all of a sudden became a ten minute ride. My face was numb from the cold air and my arms were sore from holding onto the snowmobile safety handles, but this was a sensational turn of events. As the magnificent lake scenery rolled past I kept thinking "How could I have possibly walked all this way?" I would have been stranded in the dark and been eaten by wolves. Nice doggies!

In no time we were at the tri-nation border. And there it was - The Thing, in all its glory.

I now understood why Martin described it as that. It is a block of concrete not shaped to look like ANYTHING, painted in yellow. It is almost abstract in its lack of utility. The only destiny this object had since its creation was to be the border marker between three countries at the end of the earth.

As we rested at the marker I discovered that the group was an extended Norwegian family. My generous driver's daughter, her husband, and their kids were on the other snowmobiles. They were on a camping trip in the area and were out for a joyride on their machines, and made the short detour to the border point especially for me. Apparently they took pity on the foreigner plodding like a turtle on the snow.

The man's daughter told me about a fantastic show of the northern lights the night before, which I had excruciatingly missed. That's the way to do it, I thought. If you want to see the lights you have to be out camping so you can keep an eye on the sky constantly.

The family asked if I was touring alone. Upon learning that I was they reminisced about silly tourists from warm countries - one Italian bloke a few years ago walked from where we were all the way to Norway to a 1400m mountain seen in the horizon. I think they said he died, or had to be rescued - their English trailed off at that part of the conversation. I didn't press for details.

The group gave me a lift halfway back on the return trail before going off to have fun on their snowmobiles on the Swedish side of the lake. The remaining ninety minute walk back to the Lodge again emphasised how fortunate I was not to have to hike the entire return journey.

I arrived back satisfied that I met Martin's Challenge. I'm raising my glass to you, Martin!

T Yoo

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