It’s early may and snow still paves the roads and mountains of Northern Norway. A message ticks in on my phone from none other than Finnish freeride legend Jarkko-Juhani Henttonen. “Hola,” he says. “Howzit? Would you by chance be interested in coming to Tamok this weekend to dig a banked slalom course?”
He had me at Tamok. A couple of friends and I already had it in our heads to check out the Riksgränsen Banked Slalom the following week, so stopping by Tamok Valley on our way down from Tromsø was a natural choice. Due to its proximity to the Finnish border, Tamok Valley is commonly dubbed as The Valley of Finns. It stacks loads of tall mountains, and the inland climate keeps the snowpack dry and stable. On a splitboarding tour at Tamok Valley, you’re more likely to receive a kiitos than a takk (“thanks” in Finnish and Norwegian, respectively) as you step to the side to let a faster hiker overtake you. It’s a refreshing change from the skittle-clothed skiers you usually meet elsewhere in Norway’s mountains.
As we roll up on the parking lot next to the old community house-turned-snowboard-bum-hostel, we are greeted by a dazed and confused Finnish telemark skier ranting something about Jaloviina a traditional Finnish traditional liquor, in his native tongue. We then meet Silja Sundsfjord, a local snowboarder also invited here by Jarkko. She informs us that Jarkko and his crew were done digging for the day, but we’re welcome to go up and check out the course.
Northern Norway is known for its summertime midnight sun, and in early May there’s light twenty-four hours a day. We start hiking in what looks like fading light, but at this time of the evening the light is in fact neither fading nor strengthening. It keeps a humble illumination throughout the night as the sun creeps just below the horizon of the northern sky, reminiscent of an everlasting dawn. We can barely see the contours of our destination through the flat light on approach, but can just make out what lay ahead: A natural half pipe of sorts, with berms running from just below the tree line down the naturally thinned out forests of the mountain called Blåbærfjellet—or, Blueberry Hill—following the terrain as if it were a river of varying diameters.
Blåbærfjellet is a very accessible slice of Tamok Valley and features an array of descents, from steep big-mountain faces to long cruisy runs ending in the channeled out forests where we find ourselves the following day, shaping out the course with a group of middle-aged, super-committed Finnish snowboarders. The Finnish people are known to be a quiet practical type, and the atmosphere is calm with some chatter about putting snow here, or removing snow there. But the calmness becomes broken by cheerful hoots as people start taking laps. I note the technique of the experienced elders. As a quiet bearded rider with particularly good style effortlessly flows through the course on a beautiful teal Japanese snowboard, one of the more talkative Finns leans over to me and says, “You see that guy? He turned down a big contract with a mainstream company in the late 90s. He refused to conform to their mainstream vision.” The guy is the fastest rider through the course, so I don’t doubt the statement, especially as I see him lay out a huge backflip off the wind lip at the end of the run.
As people tire from hiking and riding the 8-bank course, we light a bonfire and share Finnish vegan hotdogs and mustard, along with some jokes and stories. Most of the guys here are husbands and fathers living in the Finnish cityscape with ordinary jobs, but their passion drives them out of the city in search of these times in the mountains. Often they’re going on overnight road trips only to reach this place, a place where the real spirit and core of snowboarding still can be found; a place without the hype and glamour.