Muonio: The West Yellowstone of Finland?

Chelsea LittleNovember 5, 2010
A view of the trails in Muonio.

Each year, many of northern Europe’s best racers travel to Muonio, Finland, for early-season training and racing. With reliable snow even in late October, these national teams travel from Ramsau, where the glaciers are no longer so nice, to this small town far north of the Arctic Circle. Here, the Finns have been hoarding a giant pile of snow all summer, and in the fall, they spread it around with an excavator and dump trucks. Game on.

With its first FIS-sanctioned race of the year scheduled for Sunday, Muonio is in full swing. Among the teams training here are the Swedish biathletes, as well as skiers from Germany, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Norway, the Ukraine, and, of course, Finland.

Your average day on the trails might include getting “hupped” by Petra Majdic, tangling skis with a Kazakh as he flies by on a pickup, having “Go! Go! Go!” shouted at you by some skier in a “Suisse” jacket who nonetheless appears to be Russian, and getting the silent stare-down treatment from basically every national team coach out there.

Two female athletes honing technique with some one-pole skating.

At the moment, the Craftsbury Green Racing Project is the only American team training in Muonio, although others will arrive soon. This has been met with a bit of confusion on the part of many coaches and other athletes, who have a hard time understanding what Head Coach Pepa Miloucheva, originally from Bulgaria, is doing with a bunch of kids from the United States.

What is Muonio really like? Is it dark, cold, and drab? Is everyone depressed because there’s never any sunlight? Is there a town at all? FasterSkier has the answers.

First of all, it’s true that there isn’t too much daylight. The sun doesn’t fully reveal itself until well after 9 a.m., and by 4 p.m., it’s pretty much dark. Every week, another hour of sunlight will disappear until the solstice.

But this isn’t as bad as it sounds. The perpetual state of near-dusk is quite beautiful, and when the sun actually shines, it, well, shines. Plus, Olos, the ski center, has lights on all of its loops, including a long 10 k skirting the hill that houses alpine lifts and wind turbines.

Muonio really is a town, and seems to have more than its purported 2,000 residents. It is home to two grocery stores, S-Market and K-Market; a sports shop; a library; a dollar store; two banks; and various other enterprises. The influx of hungry athletes clearly isn’t something the grocery stores are used to, but they cope well and there’s plenty of stuff to go around.

According to the proprietors of Kolstrom, the sports shop, this is actually the best time of year to be a skier in Muonio. By January, there is almost too much snow, and it is blown dry by the constant wind. As a result, it is light and fluffy and refuses to pack, making skating all but impossible. To create opportunities for classic skiing, the ski center is reduced to pouring water from a hose onto the classic tracks, which freeze them into a skiable state for about 30 minutes.

April is the other big season for Muonio’s skiers, when the area is home to a three-day marathon that travels a total of more than 150 k.

Unfortunately, at this point in the season, the long trails to other outposts and cabins haven’t been groomed, so visiting Americans can’t sample this very European ski network. At Olos, all efforts have been focused on preparing the race course, and providing adequate training opportunities for the hundreds of foreign skiers who have made Muonio their temporary home.

After Sunday’s sprint, there will be three days of racing the following weekend. The Americans are looking forward to testing their speed against Europe’s best athletes, so stay tuned to hear the results.

Chelsea Little

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