Some children still ski to school, and many people go about their daily errands on self-propelled sledges in the countryside in winter. It is these sledges that mark the scene.
As Nordic in general, and Norwegian in particular, more of them are made and used in Norway than anywhere else. Even city centre sport shops stock and sell them along with other winter sports gear.
The full name sparkstøtting (literally “kick stand”) is descriptive and tells how the spark, as it usually is abbreviated, is used. The user stands on one foot on one of the two runners and kicks rearwards on the snow between the runners to propel the spark forward. So abroad, the spark is sometimes called a “kick sled”.
For kicking on hard snow or ice, the kicking foot can be shod for grip with a pad of studs, like those in studded winter tyres. Otherwise, using a spark requires no special skills or additional equipment. A spark is steered just as is a traditional children’s sledge, by leaning to the side and twisting the handlebars. Likewise, it’s slowed and stopped by dragging the feet.
Though a spark can be used in play, it is no toy. It’s the ultimate simple, basic winter vehicle. It has spring steel runners and a sturdy birch or metal frame fitted with handlebars and a combined seat and baggage platform.
The history of the spark is an enigma. Sledges antedate skis by several thousand years; the oldest known, found in Finland’s Heinola, dates from 6500 BC. A variety of types evolved; every village had its sledgemaker, and sledges differed as much as did English carts and wagons. The spark probably evolved from simultaneous invention in different places.
But most historians credit the first modern design to the village of Piteå in northern Sweden in ca. 1872. Although the spark may have been invented in Sweden, its tradition is best preserved in Norway where there are three brands on the market: Nansen, Rapp and Tarzan, all marketed by Norax of Tynset, www.norax.no (in Norwegian only).
Of the three, the Nansen spark is historically remarkable, as it’s the only product on which famed explorer Fridtjof Nansen allowed his name to be used.
Sparks are so much a part of the winter scene that one poster for the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, held in Norway at Lillehammer, featured the girl and boy mascot figures, Kristin and Håkon gliding along on a spark, she kicking, he riding.
Sparks are even exported in small quantities, to Canada, Germany, Sweden and the USA. They were sales leaders before cars became commonplace in Norway. Close to 100,000 were manufactured and sold in 1950, half again as many as the total number of cars then registered in the country.
Like skis, sparks are made in sizes to suit the user. There are four sizes: Herre (Men’s) with 194 cm long runners and a 90 cm high frame, Dame (Women’s) with 194 cm runners and a 83 cm high frame, Junior (Junior) with 152 cm runners and a 69 cm high frame and Barn (Children’s) with 152 cm runners and a 59 cm high frame. All models now made can be demounted and packed flat, for ease of transport and summer storage.
The spark is basically a workhorse, but it can be a racehorse as well. Sparkkjøring, a race between sparks dawn by horses, was a popular winter sport up to the late 1930s. And Spark VM, the most highly unofficial World Spark Championships is held on a Saturday in late January (the 2013 event was held on 19 January) at Geilo in the south central mountain range.
There now are signs that a spark renaissance may be underway outside the Nordic countries. In 1994, a company named Kickbike was founded in Helsinki, Finland, to make cycle scooters and an all-metal, seatless versions of the spark
See the www.kickbike.com website for details, selectable in Finnish or English.