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Travel Stories

Highway to Helsinki

Published in Whitelines Magazine Issue 96, March 2011

Words & Photos: James North

In the countless hours I’ve spent glued to DVDs or flicking through magazines faster than a fat kid in a red rope liquorice race, I’ve seen a lot of shots from Finland. I’ve also heard nothing but good things about the country, and the abundance of street jibs that litter its capital. Eventually, along with Ollie Plumley, Billy Neilson and James Carr, I decided I had to see this mythical cityscape for myself.

So on the fourth of January, I found myself Helsinki bound…

Billy Neilson, Photo: James North


Say Finland to most Brits (including myself!)and no one can tell you much about it – except perhaps that it’s freezing cold, covered in snow, and full of hot women. Oh, and old Saint Nick inhabits the far off north of the country. Well, it turns out this is not entirely true… apart from the ridiculously hot women! According to the (ahem) lovely Karoliina at the Helsinki tourist board, there’s a lot more to enjoy, and their ‘Northern Exposure’ campaign is about selling the beauty of the city in winter and the feeling of remoteness you get in the nearby landscape. I’m keen to discover what this means.

Having rehearsed a minuscule amount of Finnish phrases prior to my arrival, I approach the Hertz rental car desk in Vantaa airport. My first greeting, “Hei”, gets a friendly response from the lady behind the desk, which leads me to the next obvious tourist question… “Do you speak English?”…

Of course, like most Scandinavians she spoke better English than any Brit. So off I trudged through the ample amounts snow to find the car. I was half expecting a Fiat Panda, but on arrival I discover they’ve laid on a new Laguna estate. Sweet.

Helsinki centre is around 30minutes from the airport. The motorways are covered in that grey, inner city type snow, but even on the road it’s cold and hard. Two large tyre tracks in each lane are the only tarmac available. The Finns seem unperturbed, mostly driving at a steady110mph or so… The UK goes into shut down with an inch of snow –trains stop, buses slide backwards downhills and people sleep in their cars on motorways – yet in every other country I’ve been lucky enough to visit, I see grannies aplenty motoring round 90degree bends without snow chains, or skipping down the icy streets in flat soled shoes. Strange eh?

Arriving in the centre, it feels different from any city I’ve been to before. The Russian Empire had quite an impact on Finnish history, which is instantly obvious in the architecture. One building that particularly catches my attention is the Uspenski Cathedral, with its golden cupolas [golden cup holders?! – Ed] and a redbrick facade that makes you think you could be in Moscow. It’s a fascinating place, and I spend most of the day walking the streets and just looking at stuff before retreating to the car to warm up and go fetch the boys…

Ollie Plumley, Photo: James North

James lands on time and calls to find where I am. We meet, slap a few obligatory high fives, and in the process he manages to drop his duty-free bottle of rum all over the airport floor. Lookout, Brits abroad! It isn’t long before Ollie and Billy roll through the arrival gates, but wait… no bags. Lost in Amsterdam. Gutted. After Plumleyblows steam out his ears at the defenceless customer service desk, they promise to have them back by the next afternoon.

We’re staying a way out of the capital in Porvoo, known as ‘The Old Wooden Town’ for its maze-like layout and higgledy piggledy buildings. It’s half one in the morning by the time our sleepy hostesses, Sigrid and Ursula, welcome us into their homely flat – complete with a ninja cat called ‘Bilo’.

We sleep well, and in the morning we headback to the airport to collect the boy’s luggage. We spend the rest of the first day scoping for spots. We immediately discover a disgusting amount of wooden and metal rails, wall rides, marble ledges, gaps, creepers… everything. One huge housing estate we stumble across is nothing less than a concrete jungle, with high walkways incorporating tons of shreddable features. We’ve arrived in the snowboarder’s Barcelona! After dribbling at girls, concrete and handrails, we stock up on the cheapest produce we can find at the local supermarket and set off back to Porvoo.

The lift in the girls’ block of flats is super sketch: the size of a shoebox, with no locking door and a weary old rope for a cable. We squeeze in, armed with our shopping bags, and to make matters worse I’m shoved face first into a 60-year-old female resident who speaks no English and gives me an awkward smile every time my body is pressed against her chest. Unpacking the groceries we get laughed at by the girls – apparently the whopper sized salami fun pack we’ve purchased is in fact horsemeat. Ah well. With high spirits and bellies full of horse, we hit the sack…

Photo: James North

We wake up at 6:30 to the surreal sound Sigrid running around the flat shouting “I want chocolate” and James coughing his guts up, super ill. He isn’t going anywhere. It’s a disastrous start but Ollie, Billy and myself decide to make the best of it, heading out the door into the early morning darkness. We arrive at our first Finnish jib spot – a flat wooden down rail on around 29 stairs – only to discover cars blocking everything. So we move straight on to the concrete jungle housing estate, where Plumley has spotted a creeper rail on the side of an Islamic centre. With the aid of some push-ins from Billy, and plenty of weird looks from the centre’s visitors, he nails it.

Billy Neilson, Photo: James North

During this shoot we have our first run-in with the local authorities, or ‘Poliisi’ as they are known in these parts. On most handrail missions you typically receive a confused bollocking and are forced to scarper. In Finland, they look at you, smile and drive away! Stoked by our reprieve, we grab some snacks from the local petrol station to fuel the next sesh, where we have the pleasure of learning some more Finnish. ‘Mega’ means big and ‘Pussi’ means bag, so when we see ‘MEGAPUSSI’ written on a rather sizeable bag of crisps, you can imagine the childish laughter that follows.

Moving on, we find another good warm-up rail: 20 stairs with a single bar and cheese grater stairs. Unfortunately an in-run issue means we have to can the build, and as we gather our equipment and re-pack the car we notice something is missing… Plumley’s jib board. During our enthusiastic shovelling it was stolen from right under our noses! After a few air punches and 1000 decibel swear words, we cut our losses and make for the apartment…

Hoping for a better day, we rise early the next morning to learn that James is even worse. Nevertheless, morale is good as we drive into town, and it gets better when we spot a cute girl in the shopping centre where we grab our morning brews. Some flirtatious smiling and a cheeky wave from ‘Billy Smalls’ and the lovely lady waves right back, only to trip and fall over – a proper You’ve Been Framed moment! It’s dumping loads and visibility is real bad, but we’re determined to get some shots and head back to the wooden down rail where bad luck struck the day before. It’s on. Run-in dialled and flashes set up the boys begin lapping the beast. Both kill it, but you can tell Ollie is having a hard time with only a long, stiff powder board in his quiver.

Next we arrive at a triple kink, which sits outside a floodlit church making for great photo potential. Digging out the stairs, we hear Billy start to panic; all that horsemeat has played havoc with his insides, and he has an uncontrollable urge to shit. I arm him with some empty pastry bags for wiping material and off he waddles behind a tree to produce what he claims is the largest “super turbo danger nature poo” he’s ever done. After only a few attempts, he got ridiculously close but unfortunately it stayed this way [are we still talking about shits? – Ed], leaving us all a little frustrated that only one shot was in the bag.

Over the next few days we have a bit more joy, picking off a variety of spots amongst Helsinki’s frozen suburbs as the temperature plummets to minus 24. By now James has dragged himself off his sick bed and shows no ill effects (boom tish!) as he does the business on a 31-stair gem. Billy takes a heavy slam on the same rail, trapping his nose between the bars and ripping his binding clean off, inserts and all! We get shutdown by angry locals on a couple of occasions – including once by a no-tooth rampant wino screaming “Poliisi!” in our faces – and without a local jibber to guide us it is hard work at times. Unlike in a resort there is no Helsinki ‘piste map’ to show you to the best rails, so we are forced to put in a lot of miles on scouting missions.

James Carr, Photo: James North

Desperate to hit something really big, we get on the phone to Forum’s European team rider Gerben Verweij. A rail veteran who frequently descends on these shores, we hope he will take pity and let us in on a secret or two. We have a lead on a beast of a down bar but can’t quite pin it down on the map. Gerben knows exactly which rail we’re after, and with a few scribbled directions I hang up the phone and fire up the engine. Some driving, a bit of looking and boom, there it is – a perfect 39-stair down bar. An epic session ensues – cheers Gerben.

Back in Porvoo we go out on the town for some well-earned jars. We take it easy on the expensive beers but still end up in the newly opened club. Randy teenagers Billy and James set off on a harpooning mission while Plumley and I, the old timers, observe. Meanwhile a local Scandi swaggers onto the dance floor and proceeds to scare everyone with his shape cutting just as the DJ aptly drops ‘Evacuate the Dance Floor’. The Finns, it transpires, love rock and metal. In fact they love it so much that they’ll play any song at any time of day, regardless of its lyrical content. Hence, at 8:30 one morning, the first song we hear on our new favourite radio station goes, and I quote:

“You have a pussy, I have a dick, so what’s the problem?”

Before our time is up we decide to visit the small but famous resort of Talma, which opens at 4pm for a night shred fest. Talma is a family runhill that is known as ‘TheFactory’ for its uncanny ability to churn out world class talent like Heikki Sorsa and Eero Ettala. The whole place is essentially a perfectly groomed park with something for every ability level. Suited and booted, we jump on the lift to remind ourselves how easy it is to bag shots in a park, and within 15 minutes the boys are boosting out of the hip. In between shots I observe the local talent. Everyone is killing it, from kids barely into double figures to older veterans. Most people seem to know each other, and I’m instantly reminded of the snow dome and dryslope scene back home. With its floodlit piste, an evening trip to Talma is the Finnish equivalent of a post-work freestyle night at Castelford or Bearsden.

Billy Neilson, Photo: James North

Speaking to Jani from the resort, it’s clear he and his family are proud of their modest hill, and so they should be. It continues to push the progression of Finnish snowboarding, and they take the opinions of the local riders very seriously. After a rad session we wrap up around 9pm and leave the place wishing it was located in our own back yard. Instead, it’s back to the flat to pack the board bags…

It has been a super hard ten days – to be honest, a lot harder than we had first envisaged. Countless hours behind the wheel have uncovered copious amounts of spots but – what with illness, stolen boards and shutdowns – we have also encountered more than our fair share of bad luck. Nevertheless, as we spend our final evening over a Ristorante frozen pizza and some cold Karhu III beers (which come in novelty two-pint cans) we promise to return for round two in the handrail jungle that is Finland. Thanks to Sigrid, Ursula and Bilo for the hospitality, Arto Asikainen at Visit Finland, Karoliina Saarnikko at the Helsinki City Tourist Bureau, Jessica Backman at the Porvoo Tourist Board, and Jani Pihlajaniemi at Talma Ski.

Billy Neilson, Photo: James North

the factory

The tiny resort of Talma has nurtured more than its fair share of famous snowboarders. Its secret? A floodlit park, short lap times… and rock hard landings which force you to land everything! Here are just a few of the riders to have rolled off the production line…

Eero Ettala

Eero Ettala – Sometime afro’d park destroyer who can also smash it on the streets. Star of many a Mack Dawg movie, annoyingly good at skating, and probably the best lanky snowboarder ever.

Heikki Sorsa

Heikki Sorsa – Sometime mow hawk’d park destroyer who can also smash it on the streets. Star of many a Mack Dawg movie, annoyingly good at skating (hang on, there’s a theme here!) and formerly holder of the world record quarterpipe air.

Jussi Oksanen

Jussi Oksanen – Sometime… Just kidding! The original Talma robot who took switch riding to another level and became a fixture of the Burton Global Team in the process. Married to a Brit and – in true Finnish tradition – living in Southern California.

Lauri Heiskari

Lauri Heiskari – Burst onto the scene with the Forum team for his gangster rail steeze. Now on DC, he’s moved out of the park and (surprise surprise!) over to America, where he recently bagged a cover of WL with an insane backcountry shot.

Iikka Backstrom

Iikka Backstrom – Baby-faced blonde with a typically hard-to-spell name (seriously, what’s with all those double ‘i’s and ‘k’s? And why isn’t it Lauri Heis K Kari?) Another DC import trying to make up for those icy years at Talma by chasing powder.

And a few more… Eero Niemela, Paavo Tikkanen, Joni Malmi, Joni Makkinen, Wille Yli-Luoma and Aleksi Vanninen.

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