Saturday, February 12, 2005

I'm getting too old for this ...

It sounded good. Traditional Finnish dinner in a restaurant at the top of the hill behind our hotel. Then a toboggan ride home afterwards.

Visions of a reindeer-drawn sleigh, some jingle bells, swish of skids on the snow that blankets the forested land 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle at this time of the year.

And the dinner was really good. That's one thing I've always found about Finland: the Finns like real food and they serve and eat it in real quantities.

Probably something to do with the outdoor life in a land that can vary in temperature alone between -50degC and 35degC over the span of a year.

But there were no reindeers, apart from what we'd eaten. No jingle bells. Just a pile of little plastic sleds.

They didn't even have ropes to steer them by, like the bent corrugated iron sleds we'd made and used as kids back when there used to be snow in Irish winters.

And I was ten, then, too. Now I'm in my sixty-first year. And this just didn't seem right after a bottle of good Spanish red and the dessert of a decent warming brandy.

This was the reason they'd said to bring our Arctic gear Babygrows ...

There was a choice. Take the bus back down and wait for those foolish enough to entrust themselves to pieces of plastic that looked like no more than slightly larger office in-trays.

Not really a choice. There are limits to madness. And I hadn't yet reached the limit (though last night I didn't go for the plunge in an ice-hole after the sauna. I DID like the bit, though, where you pull a pint of beer for yourself in the changing room before actually going into the sauna ...).

So I opted for the plastic tray trip, along with some 40-odd mostly Brit colleagues on this Volvo Winter Challenge in Saariselka.

We'd been shown some rules beforehand. Always sit up on a toboggan. Use your weight to steer. If you use your feet to brake, spread them wide so you don't get freezing snow shavings in your eyes and forming a second skin on your face.

The run down was just under two kilometres. A hundred metres in and I'd already gone into the side snowdrifts three times and had to start again.

The steering by weight business simply wasn't working. And the Arctic Babygrows aren't the most flexible of apparel. So I was very quickly getting fed up of trying to get going again.

By now I was Tail End Charlie. And the 'sweeper' for the event on his snowmobile figured he should intervene, or at least ask about how I felt.

'Enough,' I said. 'I'm getting too old to be foolish.'

So his partner gave up his pillion seat and took my bit of plastic and I was quite happy to take the easy way down on the back of the kind of skidoo I'd enjoyed driving the previous night.

I guess I'm an engine man, really: I could never cotton to horse-riding either.

But not much further on a re-decision had to be made. A colleague whose glasses had frozen over wasn't able to proceed. So, having been brought up to be at least the pretence of a gentleman, I relinquished my comfortable and safe seat home and took the colleague's plastic, which at least was a different colour to the one I'd opted from before.

Thing was, we were now at the top of a steep part. But at least the sled and me would probably obey the laws of gravity, and maybe keep going.

But now I was too tired to sit up and so broke the first rule. I lay back and let it rip.

Hey, this was at least an improvement.

And instead of using my body weight, I was able to use alternate 'braking' with my heels in the snow to steer.

The bit about the snow shavings proved to be true. I'm not sure whether spreading my legs wider actually made any difference, but I managed to see enough to stay between the lights that lit the run.

Over-cautious on one slow section, the toboggan came to a stop. I started paddling with my hands, and then got a push from someone who I suppose was the skidoo driver wanting to get home, and I was away again.

And then, in the lower blessed distance, I could see the bus, waiting.

Tail End Charlie I might have been. But at least I'd made it. Sure, I'd given up, but Providence in frosted glasses had decided that I get a second chance, and enabled me to finish the course.

Though I really did prefer that old piece of rusted galvanised iron of my childhood days. Or maybe I was a better fit for it then.

©2005 brian byrne.

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