Words // Bruno Rivoire
Photos // Matt Georges
It’s literally pouring down with rain, and we’re at what looks like a motorway services area. The ground is covered in wet snow, and a drunk man shouts at us before collapsing in the mud. A group of Japanese tourists walk out of a fast-food restaurant, all wearing blue suits with Lapland North Expedition on the front. They remind us that this isn’t just another suburb.
A few weeks before that, we had the idea to do a bit of snowboarding during December, obviously without taking into account the global warming effect, which pushed us above the Arctic Circle to Lapland, in the North of Finland. Therefore, we can say that it’s by accident that the crème de la crème of jibbers from the Vans team landed in Rovaniemi, the ‘official town of Santa Claus’…
Arriving in the town, you wonder why it’s how come to be known as this… No tinsel, no Christmas tree, no decorations at all really – and it’s already mid-December, two weeks away from D-Day!
As a consequence, there is not much to see there – and even less so in the industrial estates and suburbs where our spot quest has led us. At this time of year, it’s night-time for 20 hours a day – and the remaining four hours are all gloomy. Moreover, there's not much snow and the pouring rain is not helping. With such a vibe, it’s not a surprise that Rovaniemi is has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. You get the picture now, I guess…
Actually, the story of it being the home of Father Christmas appears to be a rip-off. Rovaniemi is only the closest town to the official ‘village’ of Santa – and when I say ‘village’, I should maybe say ‘Christmas market’ or something. It’s crazy to think that people come from all over the world to visit a huge bunch of souvenir boutiques. In the middle of this big mess, between the snow globes and the blankets made from deer hair, there’s a little corridor that leads to Santa Claus “in person".
In order to get close to this impostor, expect to wait in line before you go to the checkout for the traditional souvenir picture of you on Santa’s lap. On the wall you can see examples featuring Antti Autti (a genuine star in his own county), the band Kiss and even Silvio Berlusconi. They really have a sense for business in Santa Claus land; a signed picture will set you back €30… But we weren't here to meet Saint Nick, so we forgot about the souvenir and went to ride a street spot.
Luckily, Sami Luhtanen and his crew KBR had already checked the area. Sparrow Knox and Will Smith, as the two rookies they are, were just going with the flow without doing much besides singing non-stop and laughing stupidly like young kids.
Between the rail closeout to drop next to a special needs school, the roof of the skating rink and the tourist information centre, the buildings of the little town looked like they had a lot to offer – if only someone had the decency to switch the lights back on.
We had lost enough time, so Sami suggests that we move on to Mt Ruka – one of the biggest resorts in Finland, and without a doubt the best spot in Lapland. Two-and-a-half hours of straight road separated us from this mountain. We felt lost in the vast, empty, incredibly flat landscape of Lapland, with Mt Ruka visible in the distance. In the middle of the night, the snow fell non-stop which left us with the impression that we were on board a spaceship – or Santa’s sleigh, perhaps – as we travelled towards the light.
Ruka is a true oasis in the middle of a white-trees desert. I could have told you that it was like “the sun island" in L’Alpe d’Huez, but as you will have already gathered, the metaphor doesn’t really apply here.
A large part of the Finnish scene spends the beginning of the season in this spot, but they can be really depressing about it – especially when they tell you that during the three hours of daylight, everything is grey and the visibility is really bad. They advised us to stay at home, have a little sauna or fire up the barbecue, then ride in the morning up to 11am and until the night returns at around 2pm. No problem if we are to miss the morning sesh, as the mountain is lit up until 10pm.
The environment is crazy; it made a huge impression on us. Everything is quiet, cosy, powdered… The white trees creak under the weight of the snow. And if they are not white enough, then the snow guns add another layer just for you. There are a few runs, and the park is quite nice. The scenery is magical, and frankly you wouldn’t be surprised at the sight of a bunch of elves coming towards you, their arms laden with gifts.
Here it is, the Christmas cheer…