The Meaning of Snow

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Standing on top of one of the treeless, snow swept Arctic fells in Urho Kekkonen National Park in Finnish Lapland—only eighty miles south of the Arctic Ocean—reoriented my life in a way I didn’t anticipate.  Maybe it was the extreme cold, or the wind, or the solitude in an empty expanse of white.  Maybe because it was Christmas Day.  What’s significant is that my mind changed; what I had thought mattered in the past no longer did.  What I saw in the snow was a different future.

I’m staying in Saariselka, in the far north of Finland.  It’s the northern-most place in all of Europe where there’s any accommodation for tourists.  The temperatures over Christmas this year are no higher than -45 C.  The wind chill out on the fells drops lower by another 20 to 30 degrees.  All of the sparse pines are encrusted in snow.  On top of the fells there are no trees at all.  Snow covers everything in sight.  It’s so cold the snow doesn’t even squeak under foot.

I rented snowshoes to walk out into the park, intending to take the easy 2.5 km route.  Somehow I went the wrong way and ended up on the 12 km “difficult” route across the Arctic fells.  By the time I discovered this I didn’t want to retrace my steps.  I was still deep in the frozen pine forest enjoying the beauty of the trees and pine-covered hills and heavy snow all around me.  I didn’t know what lay ahead.  I’m glad I didn’t because I may have turned back.

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The trail began to ascend the hills, in some places very steeply.  This was my first time on snowshoes and I was surprised how well they gripped the snow as I climbed higher and higher.  The pines began to thin out and wide expanses of empty snow took their place.  I proceeded higher up the fells, one snowshoe step at a time.  I couldn’t have hurried even if I had wanted to. The white vistas spread out in all directions. There were no landmarks but for the trail markers, half hidden in the snow.  There were no other hikers. I began to feel like the Norwegian Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen setting out to walk across the frozen tundra to the North Pole.

I was alone in this barren winter landscape.  I didn’t know how far I had gone and wasn’t sure where I was going.  The markers spread out ahead of me, curving up and down the fells.  I couldn’t see where they turned to return to Saariselka.  I assumed they did at some point.   I wore a down parka with thermal underwear, a wool turtleneck and a heavy Finnish sweater underneath so except for my cheeks I wasn’t cold.  Still, the thought crossed my mind how much more romantic it would be for my boys to say their father had frozen to death in Finnish Lapland than, say, having a heart attack on a bus.

At this time of year in Lapland the midday light is only half-light, a flat gray sky blending into the flat white snow.  No icy sun sparkles on the snow—no sun at all.  No blue sky.  No clouds.  Only white in every direction, spreading across the fells, the frozen surface hard and packed by the wind.

After following many hills away from where I had begun to climb the empty fells, I began to worry.  The markers still spread out in front of me.  I wished another hiker had appeared.  I didn’t see any other snowshoe tracks in the snow, though the snow was so frozen I wasn’t digging tracks myself.  I had no choice but to keep going.

Out there on this cold, white expanse I understood the allure of the North.  Everything familiar slips away.  No landmarks or signs of man.  All of the 19th century explorers felt this.  I thought about Bowdoin’s Perry and MacMillan determined to be the first to reach the North Pole.  I now knew why.

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I stopped worrying and opened my mind to the cold snow and wonder of it all.  Here I was in the far north of Finland, on Christmas Day, alone on snowshoes with no one in sight, far from where I had started out.  Everything unimportant in my life, past and present, fell away.  My perspective changed.  I can’t explain why, just as I can’t explain falling instantly, chemically, in love.  It just happened without willing it.

What I realized was that I had everything I ever needed, or would ever need, in my life, right now.  The purity of the landscape all around me, the cold wind, the snow, the complete whiteness, filled me with peace.  Whatever I had lost in my life became meaningless.  The cycle of heartbreak came to an end, right there, so far north, hundreds of kilometers above the Arctic Circle.  No more expectations or fears.  Nothing she had given me, and she gave me much, could replace what I had within me in that moment.

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I had only myself.  I had my endless love for my three sons, and theirs for me; the gratitude of being here on this earth when it might not have been; the calm beauty of being alone and not being unhappy.

I’m in Lapland following my son Sam’s wedding in Turku, Finland.  I’ve never experienced anything as beautiful as Sam and Saga’s wedding in Turku’s eight hundred year old cathedral.  Seeing my handsome boy Sam with his lovely bride looking like a princess, with Sam’s brothers David and Adam to one side and Saga’s sister to the other, filled my heart with joy, and my eyes with tears of happiness.  The setting—the entire wedding—was out of a fairy tale.  What I experienced that day grounded, humbled, me to the realities of my life, as it is, not as how I might want it to be.

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Earlier in the day, Sam, Adam, David and I all met in my hotel room, to prepare and dress for the wedding.  First we spent an hour and a half in the hotel’s traditional Finnish sauna, going from the showers, to the sauna, out into the snow, back into the sauna, back to the snow—laughing and having the best time imaginable.  None of us could remember the last time the four of us had spent an entire afternoon, just us together.  Can you imagine how special it was for me to have my son ask to prepare for his wedding with his brothers and me?  Or watching Adam stand behind Sam knotting Sam’s tuxedo bow tie?  Or David dressing up, taking photos, thrilled to be there?  Or all four of us walking to the cathedral?   Nothing ever will equal this day we had being together at such a special time and in such a special place, for such a special occasion.

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All of this I saw out in the snow walking across those Arctic fells.  I don’t need anything more.  I don’t need most of what I have other than this.  I don’t need to feel miserable anymore.  Memories remain, but distant and white in their own oblivion.

Tomorrow I leave Saariselka and this cold, half-light sky.  I’ll see the Arctic fells in my mind for as long as I live. It’s not likely I’ll ever return here.  What this journey has meant to me, however, is permanent.  My experience of Sam’s wedding is permanent.  These memories of snow are permanent.  They have changed me.  The snow, the cold, austere and barren snow, has affected me as nothing else ever has.   I may look the same; may live day-to-day as I have.  Yet my dreams have changed.  They’re not gone, but set in the context of that vast, empty, white, cold, snow-covered, wind ravaged landscape.

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6 Comments

  1. Niland, What a captivating and deeply meaningful description of your journey, inside yourself, with your dear sons, and outside with them, then the numinous moments alone yet so connected to the universe, snowshoeing away the now superfluous parts of your past… coming clean in so many ways… you designed this trip as a set of chapters, and they unfolded in such an apt and meaningful way, you well deserve. Meanwhile the sun is making the waters of Richardson Bay glisten after off and on showers… and over here in my village it has been a wonderful set of chapters too, with beloved friends and family….

    Reply
  2. Thank you, Kare. Yes, I see how I did design this trip–a real journey of the heart.

    Reply
  3. Gio

     /  December 27, 2012

    Dear Niland,
    How beautiful, how touching. Thank you for sharing such a precious and private experience.
    I´m convinced that nothing happens by chance and I think it was not by chance that you found the magic of life again, on that day, in the disarming pureness of the snow.
    I´m so happy we met – that wasn´t by chance either 🙂

    Gio

    Reply
  4. Thank you Gio for these kind words. No chance; no coincidence. The universe speaks to all of us.

    Reply
  5. Ben Fox

     /  January 6, 2013

    Hello, Niland!

    I stumbled onto your blog a while ago, when Adam posted a link on Facebook. I love reading about your journeys and thoughts about life, and it is also intriguing to find out about Adam through your entries.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Sam’s special day; I bet all four of you created permanent memories from this trip. I will continue to read your blog, and wish you the best!

    Sincerely,
    Ben Fox

    Reply
    • Ben–thanks so much for your kind words. I enjoy writing these posts–try to write once a week. Say hello to your parents. Niland

      Reply

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