Kirvesniemi's career has spanned a revolution in skiing technique. Bill Koch of the U.S. is widely credited with being the first in competition, in 1981, to lift his skis out of the time-honored parallel tracks of a cross-country course and skate suitable stretches of terrain. Skating was practiced liberally at Sarajevo in 1984, and in a springtime race in northern Sweden later that year, Thomas Wassberg won a 15K event without even using kick wax, which provides a grip essential in traditional skiing. "For the first time someone had skated the whole thing," says Kirvesniemi. "The course had big hills, too. So the next day I skied without kick wax and found it worked fine."
At the '85 world cross-country championships in Seefeld, Austria, skaters reigned. "People with wax were destroyed," says Kirvesniemi. "Now people use kick wax only with really fast snow."
So in June 1986, the Fédération Internationale de Ski, treating skating much as swimming officials had the butterfly when it threatened to make the breaststroke obsolete, voted separate races for each style. "The Scandinavians wanted classical skiing because of tradition, and the middle Europeans joined them because of the mass ski tourism they have," says Kirvesniemi. "Old men and ladies aren't able to skate."
Kirvesniemi has decided to go classical in Calgary, where he senses a rewarding course awaits him. "At the last worlds [In Oberstdorf, West Germany], we had steep ups and downs, a lot of bumps and then a whole kilometer of flat. You had to have strong hands and upper body. None of that really agreed with my style. But Calgary's course has long uphills and downhills. It should suit me better, my long glide."
Enough ski talk. Hämäläinen and Kirvesniemi place the visitor before a plate of hot karjalan piirakka, the bland local specialty of egg and rice in a flattened, oval crust, which they wash down with black coffee that would peel the paint off a Saab. Everyone gazes at the Silamus. "From these lakes," Kirvesniemi says, pointing east, "the water goes to Russia."
Finland fought the bitter Talvisota, or Winter War, against Soviet invasion in 1939-40, before being forced to part with the eastern precincts of Karelia, including about 124 acres of Hämäläinen's ancestral home. On the Soviet side, no one is allowed to live within 20 miles of the border. All Finns see of the U.S.S.R. are forest and a few guards. "Soviet skiers are friends," says Kirvesniemi. "It would be nice if the border were opened. Marja-Liisa's father [now deceased] was born on that side. But I think most Finns who came from there are used to things now. It was a war. Somebody won. Somebody lost."
He thinks awhile. "There are many systems that are theoretically wonderful, but practically, they don't work so well," he says. "After the second war we had to be practical. We had to have good relations with the Soviets. We kept our independence."
They did, and in commerce at least, Finland has come to treat the U.S.S.R. as a third-world nation, buying its raw materials and selling it finished goods. "Yet Finns sometimes lack pride in being a Finn," says Kirvesniemi. "That's why sport is so important in Finland. That's why it was said about Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen, and even Lasse Viren in the 1970s, that they put us on the world map."
Making sure Finland stays there, Hämäläinen and Kirvesniemi travel the snowy regions of the world, experiencing one last, typically Finnish longing: to come home. "It's so peaceful here," he says. "It's always what we need. I may end up working for the Finnish Ski Federation or a ski company, but it would be nice to stay right here on the farm."
A cloud covers the sun. The breeze freshens, rustling the birch leaves. "Summer's over," says Kirvesniemi, with an expectant grin.