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"Norse am I when the first snow falls"

Albert Karvonen has skied 700 km this winter, for the sake of physical and mental health

ATHABASCA — When Canadian poet Wilson Pugsley MacDonald wrote, “Norse am I when the first snow falls; Norse am I till the ice departs” in his poem "The Song of the Ski" published in 1926, he may as well have been writing about Albert Karvonen. 

While the poem is about downhill skiing, the almost 90-year-old Karvonen also sets his firm and true skis to snow every year, cross country skiing around his land on Amisk Lake east of Boyle averaging five km a day and says it is important for people, especially during the pandemic, to take advantage of the winter to help with physical and mental well-being. 

“Without exercise there's some problems, for me at least anyway, and I'll be turning 90 in April, and I'm thinking to myself it's very important to get out every day,” he said in a recent interview. “To feel the winter, to see the snow in the tracks, and the sky and the trees, like even this morning (Feb. 5), there are loads of coniferous trees loaded with snow and they're so beautiful, so that's the therapy; that is part of the reason I really ski.” 

Karvonen is a well-known naturalist and conservationist who has produced over 80 film, television and multimedia productions about nature from local flora and fauna to following the migration of wildebeests across Tanzania to Kenya and the impact of Africa’s disappearing glaciers. 

“Nature's good for the mind and the body and nature is good for the economy, it’s good for the well-being of the planet and so on,” Karvonen said. 

While he is out on his ski-about he pays attention to what is happening around him, the sounds and sights of the creatures sharing the forest with him, from the tell-tale signs of where an owl caught a mouse or other small meal beneath the snow, with its wing prints still fanned out like angel wings in a miniature snow angel to tracks from four-legged predators. 

“What do you see? What do you hear? How do you feel about getting out into the snow? And so, it's not a rush thing,” he said. “(It’s about) what you can discover in winter, from animal tracks to predation to birds like the Great Grey (owl), and so on and so on.” 

And while he sees or hears many woodpeckers or grosbeaks, it is that Great Grey who gets Karvonen excited when he spots one of the elusive birds. 

“He is the jewel of the forest, or what they call the Phantom of the Forest, the boreal forest,” he said. “And I often look upon that bird as kind of symbolic of a bird that really represents the boreal forest. It’s a common bird around here, common in terms of species, but not that common in numbers. I don’t see it every year but when I do it’s very uplifting.” 

And like MacDonald said, ‘Come, ye lads of the lounge and chair, and gird your feet with the valiant skis; And mount the steed of the winter air, and hold the reins of the winter breeze’ Karvonen invites everyone to get out and become a ‘child of the roofless world.’ 

“When the sun is out, and you're in the forest it’s beautiful. You can feel the heat of the sun on your back as you ski away from the sun,” Karvonen said. “Anyway, it's just beautiful so, the goal is to try to get out every day.” 

Averaging 900 kilometres a year, Karvonen broke his personal best skiing 1,002 kilometres last year and is hoping winter holds long enough to reach that again. 

“It depends on the snow conditions like (if) we've had a dump (of snow), it's spending a lot more energy because you have to break 10- or 15-centimetres of snow or so.” he said. “That's sometime makes it a little bit more difficult." 

Karvonen said sometimes choosing to go out can be a fight between sanity and insanity trying to decide if it’s too cold, but once he gets moving it’s never as bad as it seems, especially if properly dressed.

"Hopefully, it serves as a little bit of an example within our own community, living in six months of winter, to try to deal with (mental health) by just getting out. It does not have to be skiing, it can be walking, snowshoeing,” he said.