After a basic euro-breakfast of cheese, coldcuts, bread, rolls, hard-boiled eggs, hot cereal, juice, yogurt, and so forth, we loaded our gear in the buses for the one-hour drive to the border station from which we would start.
The temperature at the start was pretty close to 32F/0C, but our wax seemed to be working okay, so we headed off, downhill for 3.5Km to the Kivijoki (Kivi River). On the way down, it became apparent that there was less snow in Finland this year than there had been two years ago.
After skiing along the river for about 1Km, we depart the river to the left and "kiss" the Russian border, or more properly, the 500m wide zone straddling the border, under the watchful eyes of whomever occupied the watchtower visible on a ridgeline on the Russian side of the border.
From the river, the trail climbs VERY steeply to the top of a hill overlooking the border territory. This is 5Km into the day. Only 56Km to go. From here the route continues to climb for a bit over "Saunavaara" (Sauna hill), and then follows a rolling path to the first feed station at 20Km.
There are distance markers ever 5Km over most of the course. Usually they are marked in multiples of 5Km from the finish (i.e. 55Km to go, 50Km to go, etc.). These markers are helpful, and actually they are mostly reasonably accurate.
However, during this section, we rediscover the variable nature of the length of the Finnish kilometer: the 5Km segments between 55Km to go and 40Km to go varied in length from 6Km to 3.5Km. Fortunately, this inconsistency was the exception, not the rule.
After a drink at the 20Km mark at Suorajarvi (suora Lake, but no lake in sight), it was back on the trail, heading for lunch at Virkkula, 8Km distant, a beautiful little cluster of dwellings and farms on a hilltop.
At every day's lunch stop, the buses were waiting. So, if you were smart about your packing, you could leave a bag with extra water, food, and dry clothes in the passenger compartment of the bus, where you could access it at your convenience.
The warm temperatures and off-and-on snowfall made for some wet clothing, so we took the opportunity to change into our dry gear before eating. After a pretty quick lunch of cold cuts and bread, with pickle slices, raisins and juice, it was back to the trail, to ski over the highest point of the week - Valtavaara - along the 15Km segment to the next feed at Rukajarvi.
After descending from Virkkula and traversing some flats, we began the climb up and over Valtavaara. To this point, we had been skiing on a combination of trails groomed just for RR, snow-machine trails, and groomed forest/logging roads.
However, as we approached Valtavaara we entered a ski-trail network surrounding Rukatunturi (Ruka Mountain), one of the main alpine ski areas in Finland, and site of the 2005 World Freestyle Championships. It's not a big hill by US standards, but then Finland is a pretty flat country, so it's a very popular ski destination.
Valtavaara is covered with tall evergreens encrusted in snow that are quite picturesque and photogenic. The climb to the high point is quite gentle, and the route does not reach the actual "summit" of the hill.
From Valtavaara the route descends on well-groomed, well-used ski trails, with numerous non-RR skiers, to the area surrounding the base of the Ruka Mountain ski area.
The course is very flat from here to the next feed station at Rukajarvi, famous among RR skiers for their Blueberry Soup (Blabar in Swedish), a thick, warm, brew that tastes pretty good after 43Km of skiing.
The route from Rukajarvi to the final feed station at Nissinvaara (11Km)follows a mostly gently rolling powerline, with at least one screaming downhill (a straight shot) and one pretty solid, steep uphill.
The final seven or eight Km to the Kuusamon Hotelli Tropiikkii on Petajalampi (Petaja Pond) are mostly flat and gentle, with the exception of a road crossing near the finish neccessitating a steep climb to the roadway.
At last we glimpsed the hotel, and skied past the open hole in the lake ice just down the hill from the sauna and finally removed our skis. The distance was 61.6Km, pretty close to the stated distance of 61Km.
After getting into dry clothes, getting our luggage to our cottages, putting our dry clothing into the drying closets, and generally getting organized, it was off to dinner at the hotel's restaurant, followed by the nightly briefing on the next day's itinerary and weather.
The weather forecast was not encouraging. Our guide, Jaakko Heikkinen, said that temperatures would be around 0C/32F, with "some snow" falling. we couldn't really tell how much, and even our Alaskan weatherman Ed Plumb and the German weatherman Klaus Knupffer we couldn't nail down a number.
We then headed off to the wax room, glide waxed with some warm, low-fluor wax (we'd waxed with start green in Fairbanks before we left), and put on a little binder, figuring we'd wait until the morning to put on our final coat of wax.
Had we known what the next day held, we would not have slept as well as we did.