BRETTON WOODS — More than 35 years ago, Heikki Heliste did what many idealistic young 20-something adventure seekers do and took a year off to live and work in a foreign land.
Following his mandatory military service in his homeland of Finland, Heliste sought an alpine environment, where he could live an outdoor life.
For the 21 year-old Finn, that journey took him to Pinkham Notch under Mount Washington's shadows where he worked in the lodge kitchen of the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.
He worked with cook Dave Wilson, known for filling many a back-country skiers' bellies over the years, and became friends with a hut caretaker named Joe Gill who went on to a career with the U.S. Forest Service.
"No regrets," said Heliste sipping coffee in December at the Grille in the Bretton Woods Nordic Center next to a window showcasing a clouded Mount Washington outside. "That was the best year of my life."
That was 1981-82 and now Heliste is back in his beloved Mount Washington Valley. But instead of Pinkham Notch, he spends his days in Crawford Notch as the new Nordic director at Bretton Woods.
At 55, Heliste spent 10 years as a training and warrant officer in the Finnish military before embarking on a 25-year career as an engineer in the global telecommunications industry. The multi-lingual dual citizen has traveled the world, living in places from the Netherlands to Dallas.
"I just fell in the love with the area, and skied and hiked," he said. "I still have friends in the area from when I first came here. I decided that one day I will buy a house in North Conway and work outdoors. I have a third career left in me."
Growing up in a northern Finland village, Heliste says he was born on skis. He skied in the dark days of winter and played soccer in summer's long-lasting light. Like many of his generation, he skied to and from school, about a half mile each way, though some classmates had upwards of a five-mile roundtrip trek.
"We used to downhill on our cross-country skis," he said. "It was part of the lifestyle."
Heliste mostly skied recreationally, though he did compete in some local ski club races in his youth.
A hands-on guy, both northern village living and his military tenure taught him to use mechanized tools and winter motorized transportation. He also developed leadership skills in his two careers.
That's why he feels he's a fit as the Nordic director.
He's out on the vast 100-kilometer network, tweaking trails, building and maintaining bridges and grooming with a snowmobile. He's going to learn how to use a Snowcat.
"Personally, I love being outdoors and if I can help some others learn how to enjoy it, I'd love to do that," he said. "I have a Siberian husky that I love taking out on the trails. Cross-country skiing is the best exercise you can think of."
From high school races to Bill Koch League skiing to taking a lesson, there is much going on this winter at Bretton Woods. The weekly Casual Friday Nordic Race Series is slated to start in early January while the 44th annual Geschmossel is scheduled for Jan. 16; the Bretton Woods Marathon for March 11; and the Mount Washington Cup for March 12.
"The scenery here is really great," he said. "The trails have developed over the decades."
During that youthful wander year, Heliste worked doing dishes and serving meals. He would set up tables and haul firewood. During those carefree days, he would work breakfast, then hike up to ski Tuckerman with friends like Gill and then be back in time for this afternoon duties for the evening meal.
With the perk of a free pass, he cut many telemark turns at Wildcat.
"I might have been the best Nordic skier in the area at that time," he said. "I think there was only one other person other than myself. Everybody else was doing downhill."
Today, you may also find him playing hockey at the Ham Arena.
"I really fell in love this this area," he said again.
He finished his coffee, had his photograph taken and then went to get his gear for an afternoon ski under Mount Washington like he did a generation ago.