On Turning Fifty and Skiing Across Finland

I’m not one to make a big deal out of my birthday.  At least, not since I turned 18.  On my 40th birthday, for example, I bought a new vacuum cleaner.  That wasn’t a bad choice, given the circumstances.  But I decided I wanted to do something memorable for my 50th year.  I’ve always wanted to do a point to point x-country ski tour.  I couldn’t find anything in North America other than going to a lodge and exploring the nearby trails.  There are lots of back country, hut to hut ski trips, especially in Colorado, but that didn’t appeal to me either.  Been there, done that.  I searched and searched the internet, and found the Border to Border Ski Tour, 440 km of groomed classic ski tracks across Finland.  You ski supported for a total of seven days, from the border of Russia to the border of Sweden.  It takes place in northern Finland, close to the Arctic Circle.

Rajalta Rajalle-Hiihto (Finnish for Border to Border Ski Tour) THe strange logo is a map of northern Finland, with the ski route running horizontally across the bottom. I can't explain the Carmen Miranda hat.

Rajalta Rajalle-Hiihto
(Finnish for Border to Border Ski Tour)
The strange logo is a map of northern Finland, with the ski route running horizontally across the bottom. I can’t explain the Carmen Miranda hat.

I told my husband, we signed up, unsure of who was going to look after our children, our dog, or our jobs.   Then we more carefully examined the itinerary.  The average distance per day was about 60 km, the longest day being 90 km.  Wow! neither of us had ever skied that far in a day.  When and where did we have the luxury to do that?    It never crossed my mind that I might not be fit enough.

At the start

At the start

I live near Boulder Colorado, after all, one of the most athletically obsessed places on the planet.  In my opinion, there’s really not much to do in Colorado, other than exercise.  I stressed about my arm strength, I’m a mountain biker and a formerly competitive runner.  I have strong legs and lungs, not strong arms.   We were forewarned about epic days of double poling.

There were close to 100 people from many different nationalities on our tour.   Most of them were men (85%) and had names like Gunnar, Thor, Serge and Guido.  The majority were from Finland, of course.  There was a Swiss man who had skied Border to Border 23 times.  He must have been close to 80 years old.  When you arrive, the staff hand you a laminated card with your name, your nationality, and the number of times you have completed Border to Border.  My card was very boring.  It had my boring name, Julie Smith, my boring country and flag, and the number 1.  What I wished they had included on the cards was the age of the participant.  As you can see from the group picture, many of the participants were gray haired.

This was the warmest winter on record in Finland in over 100 years.   Ironically, the arctic current was on the east coast of North America, where I am originally from. In some ways this was a relief as I have heard tales of losing fingers and face to frost bite in 30 degrees below zero temperatures.  The ski conditions reminded me of skiing in southern Vermont in March, a mixture of  alternating soft slush and rock hard ice with many bare spots in between.

Finland reminded me of Maine

Finland reminded me of Maine

There were miles of frozen roads, skiing across pine needles, wood chips and pitch where cut trees were stacked, gravelly areas close to the roads and areas where your feet got soaking wet skiing across melting lakes and bogs.  It was certainly not the arctic, Christmas-like, experience we were anticipating.

The ski conditions were not ideal

The ski conditions were not ideal

There was a Father and son from Alaska who left early, they couldn’t tolerate the conditions.  I overheard a Brit arguing that these conditions would be considered “good” in Britain, that was the day it poured rain on us.  There were several sections of the trail we were unable to complete, because rivers, lakes and bogs weren’t frozen enough.

So there we were in Finland skiing 60 km a day.  If you had the right wax ( which meant klister, given the warmth and ice) and stayed focused it really wasn’t too bad.  If you dawdled and took pictures and fell behind, 60 km was endless.

skiing in the rain

skiing in the rain

Border to Border 1914 069

The service stations were staffed by volunteers. They provided pickles, a fire and warm black currant juice.

  The first few days we were sore.  We could barely lift our legs up the stairs.  If we wanted to sit cross legged in a chair we had to physically place one leg on top of the other.  The other non-Finns seemed to have similar complaints. It was true about the double poling.  There were some skiers who rarely moved their legs, they were dedicated double polers !

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swimming hole outside the sauna

The last day, near the border of Sweden, we were unable to do any of the designated trail.  They took us to a ski resort and  gave us a 50 km route instead.  It felt like the flood gates had opened.  I think the participants were thankful to have decent tracks and an opportunity to strut their stuff.  It was a race to the finish!!  The whole trip was, in my opinion, a bit of a competition. It was hard to pass a Finn.  I had trouble keeping up with the 75 year old Finnish women.  I’m not sure if their speed was attributable to technique or sheer determination.  The Finns are a rare breed, that’s for sure.  On the last evening of our trip my husband sauned with four other Finns who ranted and raved about the inadequate sauna.  It was not hot enough for them, though my husband was quite comfortable for a change.  The Finns proceeded to pour lots of water on the rocks to try and heat up the sauna.  They eventually gave up, grunting and groaning, and proceeded to jump in the lake.

Overall, I would say this experience was quite humbling, I am not a good skier by Finnish standards.  Yet, it was also inspiring.  I can’t wait to turn 75 and go back and ski Border to Border again.  I guess my Swedish genes dominate!  For more information on the tour : http://rajaltarajallehiihto.ranua.fi/In-english/RR-info.

one American, 3 Danes, 1 Catalonian, and 1 Italian

My buddies – 1 American, 3 Danes, 1 Catalonian, and 1 Italian

The lodging was quite nice.  I loved the Finnish design.

The lodging was quite nice. I loved the Finnish design.

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Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

endocrine disrupting chemicalsBy Julie Smith

Our endocrine system consists of the thyroid, adrenal, and pituitary glands. These glands manage and produce hormones.  Endocrine disrupting chemicals are a class of chemicals that mimic hormones and confuse the body. These chemicals disrupt a very delicate balance by binding at receptor sites, preventing the real hormones from doing their job. Some common ones are phthalates; abundant in body products, they are used to bind fragrances. Phthalates are also in plastics.  Perhaps more infamous is Bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic hardener found in dental filings, eyeglass lenses, and CDs. These are just a few.

BPA has been linked to breast and prostate cancer, urethra problems, cardiac irregularities, and negative developmental impacts on children and fetuses. In 2012, the FDA outlawed BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. Many plastics now advertise as BPA free. But do they contain triclosan? Another endocrine disruptor, it is common in plastics but less well known.

A list of some common endocrine disruptors:

  • BPA: plastic water bottles and canned food items
  • Dioxin: conventional meat, dairy, and eggs (choose organic and grass-fed!)
  • Atrazine: drinking water contaminant
  • Phthalates: personal care items and air fresheners
  • Fire retardants: plastics, textiles, and construction materials
  • Lead: industrial facilities, batteries, and home products including paint and plumbing materials
  • Arsenic: pesticides, fertilizers, rice and apple juice products
  • Mercury: seafood and amalgam teeth fillings
  • Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs): manufacturing facilities, Teflon cookware, personal care items
  • Organophosphate pesticides: pest-control products and frequently applied to agricultural crops, buildings, and lawns
  • Glycol ethers: solvents for paints, gum, dyes, and cosmetics

Most alarming of all, recent research has linked endocrine disrupting chemicals to obesity and diabetes. The study suggests these chemicals cause obesity by encouraging the formation of more and larger fat cells. Let’s review that laundry list again. These chemicals have been linked to: cancer, developmental disorders in children, obesity, and diabetes. And what are we waiting for?

It is important to keep up with this issue because it is virtually impossible to avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals unless you’re a mennonite or a Buddhist monk, as Florence Williams so humorously points out in “Eat Like a Mennonite.“  It is encouraging to know, however, that by changing our eating habits (not eating food packaged or stored in plastic or cans) and altering our lifestyle (not touching anything with plastic, including  car interiors and bicycle helmets, etc), these chemicals or at least BPA, are easily excreted from our bodies. But the fact remains that most of us uphold a modern lifestyle and, glass water bottle or not, we are constantly in contact with these chemicals.  “It’s a daily drip” as Williams so morosely states.

In another opinion article in the NY Times, Nicholas Kristof, whose opinions on most world matters I deeply respect, states: “endocrine disruptors may be the tobacco of our time. Science-based decisions to improve public health — like the removal of lead from gasoline — have been among our government’s most beneficial public policy moves. In this case, a starting point would be to boost research of endocrine disruptors and pass the Safe Chemicals Act. That measure, long stalled in Congress, would require more stringent safety testing of potentially toxic chemicals around us.”

To me that says it all–the  toxic chemicals that surround us are the “tobacco of our time”.  Time to wake up and do something about this. I have difficulty convincing my fifteen-year-old daughter to use safe cosmetic products. How can the “natural” shampoo compete with the phthalate ridden shampoo that makes her hair so soft and shiny? The struggle to keep my kids eating healthy food is battle enough. If the government outlawed phthalates (among others), then I wouldn’t have to worry, and my kids chances of becoming sick from these substances would significantly decrease.  I don’t like being an anxious person and neither do you! But we need to pressure our representatives to act on this matter. In the mean time, what can you do to avoid the dangerous effects of these insidious chemicals:

  • Use a drinking water filter
  • Use a HEPA air filter
    Invest in infrared sauna sessions
  • Include chlorophyll in your diet
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Fascinated by All things Ancient and Sometimes Magical

PompeiiBy Julie Smith

Early human civilizations, ruins, and all things ancient fascinate me. I sat in my favorite high school course, “Ancient Civilizations,” mesmerized by my teacher’s descriptions of embalming methods in ancient Egypt, the building of the pyramids, and Roman gluttony.  I fancied myself an archeologist while in college. When on an excavation near Nazareth, I unearthed a near perfect, pure white, bone needle. Measuring six inches long, sleek and smooth, this needle was an omen (talisman) of my future career.

Years later, I find myself a practitioner of an ancient medicine involving needles—acupuncture.  Unlike many traditional medicines, acupuncture has a written history dating back more than two thousand years. Furthermore, it’s grounded in thousands of years of clinical practice. I have my predecessors to thank when my patients get better. Yet, when my patients ask me how and why, it’s not something I can explain easily. I tell them, it’s something they can experience, like magic.

I recently visited  “ A Day in Pompeii” exhibit at the Denver Museum of Natural History.   There I came across a display entitled, ”Medicine in Pompeii.” The wall label read:

Pompeii revealed much about the medicine practiced by the Romans.

Medicine was perceived to be part magic and part science. People believed in potions and talismans as well as more practical medical treatments.  Doctors were considered to be craftsman, like potters and sculptors.

Complete sets of medical instruments, including scalpels and probes similar to those used by surgeons today, were discovered. These show how knowledgeable some medical practitioners were and how advanced Roman medicine was.

Pompeii’s doctors set bones, drilled holes in skulls, sutured wounds, performed amputations, and used prostheses to replace lost limbs. They performed minor plastic surgery such as the removal of moles. understood that arteries carried blood, and cleaned their instruments in boiling water after use.

In Pompeii, medicine embraced “magic”, and doctors were craftsmen. Unfortunately, in our culture, we expect doctors to be more like technicians and robots, eliminating subjective human input. But while there are facts, objectives, and scientific evidence, there are also so many unknowns and so much left to our own imagination. I like to think magic is our subjective experience of the unknown. And when I practice, I am tapping into that magic and into a force much greater than me. I am tapping into the unknown.

 

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Julie’s Journey: Falling Into Acupuncture & Moxibustion

When Julie Smith arrived in China in her early 20s, she didn’t know what to expect. But while teaching English in Chengdu, she lived across the street from The Sichuan Institute of Traditional Medicine. There, she took a few classes, her teachers and fellow students convinced her to try acupuncture, and, she said, she just fell into it.

“I would go to these clinics, and they would hand me these long needles, and say, put these in that woman’s face,” Smith said. “It was really fun.” Plus, she began noticing the impact acupuncture had on a wide variety of illnesses and the throngs of patients that passed through the crowded clinics. People who had facial paralysis, the flu, back pain, psoriasis or broken arms, among other things, found relief.

For example, she recalled, “It was inspiring to see family members bring  their Nai Nai (grandmas) in for acupuncture every day if they had recently suffered from a stroke.  They often traveled great distances to receive treatment.” People who have a stroke need to regenerate the damaged tissues, so the more treatment they get in a more concentrated period of time, the more likely they are going to regain their faculties. In most Chinese hospitals, whether they are western or traditional, acupuncture plays a major role in post-stroke rehabilitation. For Smith, this was eye opening.

“The Chinese are really dedicated acupuncture patients,” she stated. And the practice is not only for adults. Smith saw a lot of infants and children pass through the clinics.

“Parents in the United States are conservative,” Smith said. But there are techniques specifically adapted for children that are very effective and accepted by most children.  With shonishin  ( a type of Japanese acupuncture for children) tools are used on the surface of the skin rather than needles. “Children are very sensitive. The gentler you are, the better they respond. It’s a shame parents here don’t use acupuncture more often. You can really see a lot of improvement quickly with pediatric coughs, fevers,  asthma, sleep issues, and digestive problems … to name a few.”

After a year in China, Smith returned to Seattle, Wash., where she decided to be one of the first students to study in a brand new acupuncture school started by Dan Bensky, one of the more well known Chinese Medicine specialists in the Western world. After graduating in 1997, she and her husband moved to Lyons, where Smith started practicing right away.

Influenced by a close colleague who studied Japanese acupuncture, which included the use of specific moxibustion techniques, Smith decided to focus more on that medium. “When I got out of school, I came to realize that most people didn’t want to drink the disgusting tasting herbal decoctions I had to offer,” she explained. “But I’ve always liked using herbs to heal the body; I’m more comfortable with herbs than I am with needles.”  Incorporating moxibustion into her practice gave her the opportunity to use herbs externally rather than internally.  Smith saw results; most of her patients felt significantly better when she used a combination of moxa and needling.  Working with these mediums opened Smith’s mind and heart, she said. “It felt like I could accomplish a lot with just a little bit. It doesn’t really take an enormous amount of effort to heal; it just takes intention and attention.”  In 2002 Smith opened the Moxa Shack in a converted office space in her garage in Lyons.

By 2010, Smith recognized a need in Lyons. “A lot of people wanted acupuncture, but couldn’t afford it, or couldn’t afford to get enough of it to get better.” So, she and Carol Conigliaro opened up the Lyons Community Acupuncture Clinic, styling it after Asian clinics. While LCA is not exactly the same as the busy, noisy clinics in China, treatments are more affordable and patients might find themselves being treated alongside other patients.

“It’s not as good as getting a private, but I feel like people really see the value of this, and they appreciate the clinic a lot,” Smith added. “How you treat your body and respect your health is really a reflection of your ethics and how you choose to be in the world. Health is a journey for people, and acupuncture can be a powerful healing tool.”

Smith has practiced for 15 years, taught at Southwest Acupuncture College, and currently offers treatments in both Boulder and Lyons. She lives in Lyons with her children Eva (15), Angus (11) and her husband, Tim, with whom she has been married for nearly three decades.

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