Blog post #5 From The Finland Trip
For being so far north, things certainly get very hot in Finland. To say the sauna is central to Finnish culture might be an understatement. Everywhere we went on this trip, we found a sauna. Our hotels (private ones in each room), Aunt Hilma’s apartment, my cousins’ homes, at the lakeside near Teeriranta in the backyard of what was once my great-great grandparents’ land, at the national park, and even at a Burger King in Helsinki (seriously).
Finland is Saunaland with an estimated 3 million saunas to 5 million Finns, on average a sauna for every household. Even before the trip I was fairly certain I’d be sweating it out at least a couple times in Finnish tradition so I packed a bathing suit. When FinnAir lost my bag, I used some of the compensation money to buy another in Kuusamo. Turns out I could have skipped that: the Finns go to sauna the same way they came into the world – buck naked. Even whole families together. This was surprising for me given their reputation for personal space as expressed by this meme that got a lot of mileage with Finns for its “funny and true” factor.
My first venture into the sauna on this trip came at my cousin Tanja’s home in Kuusamo where I joined her husband Markku before a fantastic dinner. They showed me what seemed a rather sizeable sauna beyond the laundry room, and I nodded as if inspecting it, stalling and wondering how to broach the subject of etiquette.
“I, uh… um… naked, right?”
Tip repressed her giggling and I could tell my Finnish cousins were a bit amused at my awkwardness. Travel is going outside your comfort zone, eating raw chicken or a tuna eye, or simply making a spectacle of yourself. Off I went to drop my drawers.
If you’re thinking, Good lord, you don’t plop your bared Netherlands down right there on the shared bench and sweat ten pounds into the wood, do you? No, you don’t. Towels or even disposable paper sort of placemats are provided. But yes, people are comfortable in a locker-room sort of way, even among mixed gender with family. Call me shy, but I had a sudden anxious nostalgia for the modesty of the Victorian Age and its properly covered piano legs.
Unaware of the hysteria of death-by-hot-tub and sauna that we Americans have written up on lawsuit-averting warning signs in hotels and locker rooms, Finns sit in the infernal heat for long periods of time, taking breaks to dunk themselves in ice cold water outside (death by shock? heart attack??) or at least sit in their robes in lounge chairs to cool off and swat mosquitoes. And just like shampoo instructions: rinse and repeat.
They even take alcohol in with them, another alarm bell. Markku offered me a “sauna beer” and I stared at it as if it was a plastic bag I was supposed to pull down over my face for the next half hour. To be fair, there is a definite risk to drinking heavily or hitting the sauna with a hangover, but sauna beer is “lawnmower” beer, a pale pilsner with a modest alcohol content. One website reported that sauna-related deaths in Finland averaged 25 per year, but typically involved alcohol, with injuries including burns, contusions, fatal falls and passing out more than cardiac events.
Despite an eleven-year run, Finland’s World Sauna Championships were canceled after 2010, in response to the death of a Russian competitor and the near-death of another. So I can’t recommend the bravado of seeing how long you can stand the heat, but it should be noted the competitor death appears to have involved prohibited pain killers.
We sat down inside and Markku pitched a couple scoops of water onto the stones of an electric-powered stove. I stared at the glowing red number on the thermostat on the wall: 65 degrees. Celsius. I screwed up my face – double that is 130, minus 10%, 13, is 117, plus 32… Holy hell! 179 degrees??? No, wait. 149 degrees??? Math is hard at the gates of Hades.
“Sixty-five, eh?” I asked Markku as coolly as the situation would allow.
“Yes, we turned it down for you.”
“Normally for Finnish people it is at least 100.”
“Uh, that’s the boiling point.”
He shrugged, sipped his sauna beer with a smile.
After about 15 minutes, with the sweat pouring off of me, Markku said it was time to go outside. We rinsed off, donned bathrobes, and went out on the back patio to the comforting chill of the evening air. Leaving Markku to his beer, I went back for another round and Tip joined me. Despite being accustomed to the heat of her home in Bangkok, she was not a big fan. I, on the other hand, perhaps sensing an atavistic urge, found the whole thing invigorating. Back out on the patio, I thought, “I could get used to this.”
Saunas aren’t simply recreation. Before the age of indoor plumbing and hot water heaters, the practice provided basic hygiene in Finland. When my great-grandparents settled in northern Wisconsin they also had a sauna out on the farm. The history of the sauna (SOW-na, not SAW-na as I often say it, unabashedly Wisconsinny) goes back at least 2,000 years when they were spaces dug out of the earth or hillside. A weekly sauna served to sweat off the week’s grime and then you’d rinse in a nearby water source.
Claims of health benefits are many, including skin improvements, immunity boost or treatment for colds, allergies or mosquito bites. A sauna was good for cleansing toxins, clearing minds, burning calories, raising spirits, lowering stress, and improving circulation and heart health. It’s even recommended for sunburn, maybe in the way that rubbing a dog’s nose in his mess on the carpet discourages him from repeating the mistake. “How does THAT feel, huh? See if you ever go without sunscreen again!”
Days later when I went for sauna in Irene’s home, they had to prepare the wood-stove, which also provides the home’s hot water, well in advance. Irene gave me a small silver birch branch with leaves still on it. I was instructed to whack the branch all over my skin like an aromatic form of medieval self-flagellation. Good for a massaging effect, a nice smell, and mosquito bite relief. I needed it after cooling off outside the back door where a few clever biters awaited.
Where There’s Smoke, There’s Sauna
Irene’s itinerary as we headed farther north included a visit to a smoke sauna at a resort in Kiilopää a fell area famous for hiking, biking, skiing and Northern Lights viewing near Saariselka. I envisioned an awful hot enclosure that now added ritual cedar-wood smoke to provide a vision-quest journey into the Arctic Circle of the dead a la Carlos Castenada. Before the modern era, of course, the sauna took its heat from a wood fire. Savu (smoke) sauna, in fact, did fill up with smoke, but only during the long preparation time as the wood fire heated up the rocks. The smoke would be vented out before bathers entered. At Kiilopää, we’d have a chance to experience a real savu sauna.
Guests at the Fell Centre Kiilopää/Hotelli Niilanpää as well as general public clients could visit the smoke sauna. As this is a mixed public sauna, guests all went in with bathing suits. From the changing room I hobbled along the strip of turf rug down a hall to the outside. At the bottom of some steps a boardwalk with rubber mats wired to melt ice in winter followed left along the edge of a small pond created by a rock dam on the creek running through the resort. Steps with a wooden railing went straight into the icy water. Ten paces to our left stood a timber structure with an earth-and-turf roof and warm chambers on either side of the actual sauna room. We left our robes on hooks and entered. The only light inside came from the door as we opened it. To our left at the floor was a small metal door on a massive brick oven covered with dark rocks; and on hooks to our right, flat pieces of wood hung like clipboards or serving trays for us to sit upon. I handed one to Tip and we climbed a few steps into the hottest part of the room, stumbled about trying not to reach out for balance on the people lined up on the wooden benches. We found two empty spaces and plopped onto our cafeteria trays.
Almost immediately Tip leaned over, “Oh my god…” I understood. This was definitely not the beginner’s round of 65 degrees Celsius. We had entered triple digits for sure. Right about then a man who was over the hill and halfway down the other side stood up on sturdy legs, crossed over to a bucket, filled a large ladle, and didn’t just toss it on the large bed of hot stones, but poured it slowly, almost lovingly, so that nary a drop escaped instant evaporation on its journey through the hell stones.
Sauna steam doesn’t come at you like you might expect. The cloud burst of angry vapor leaps straight up leaving you thinking you’ve dodged that bullet. But then it curls along the ceiling until it finds the wall behind you, then pounces on your backside a couple seconds after you think you’ve escaped the steam punch. Tip and I both slid forward on the bench like children squirming in church, the darkness shielding our contorted facial expressions from public display.
There was a pause, and then: “Done!” Tip stood up, grabbed her cafeteria tray, and turned to me with surprise. “Are you staying??”
“Just a bit longer.”
She climbed down the steps, and fled. I survived another ten minutes, rushed to the outdoors where I couldn’t even feel the cold air. I made my way for the steps into the water. The water thermometer read 5 degrees. (TimesTwoMinusTenPercentPlusThirtyTwo) – forty-one degrees! But considering there was no ice and snow as in the hotel brochure, I suppose it might be considered balmy. I can do this, I thought. My knuckles white where I clutched the wooden hand rail, I worked my way into the water, step by step, the water counterintuitively burning my skin. I got as far as the bottom of my shorts, that point of no return, the tipping point of the testicles, after which nothing really matters. What? That water’s cold on your shoulder? Shocking when it hits your neck? A chilling tickle at your ribs? Please. But there I stood, one more step to irrepressible gasps of “mother of god!” and then, blurring the line between literal and figurative, I froze. Nope. And right back out I stumbled with legs like the Tin Man. I could no longer feel the scratchy artificial turf beneath my feet. Tip still in a robe fresh from one of the heated rooms kept herself warm with belly laughs. “That’s it?”
Pride thawed and poked at me. “No. I have to try again. I did it wrong.”
I went back into the sauna and parboiled. Old man winter still sat there in the dark, cool as a Karelian cucumber, moving only to dump another liter of water into the stones. I braced for the hellfire from above and behind. When the heat finally reached the marrow, I rinsed off the cafeteria tray by the door and strode out into the night, firm feet pounding the deck with determination. I barely paused at the top of the steps and went straight down – one, two, three, four steps. When my feet felt the stony river bed, I grasped the blue guide rope and dunked myself completely, feeling the icy water sluice up through my hair and the nerves in my skin trying to sort out if they were confronting fire or ice.
Counting it like a pin in wrestling or the iron cross in Olympic gymnastics where you have to hold the position for a minimum number of seconds, I stayed in the water for all of perhaps four Mississippi before my victory run back to the changing room.
From Kiilopää, Irene drove us north and dropped us off in Inari where we spent two nights at Hotel Inari (before our Aurora Holidays stay, where yes, we also had a sauna in our cabin) at Hotel Inari. The bathroom in our room contained a small sauna with an electric stove which needed to be turned on at least an hour before the sauna was ready. Tip and I walked to the local supermarket to collect various snacks, cheeses, pastries and beverages – cultural research – while the sauna warmed up. She held up a package of sausages. “Hey, do you think we could cook these on the sauna stove?” She can thank her Thai genes that she can spend so much time and energy finding and consuming food. I rolled my eyes at her. “Honey…” I said in a scolding tone, “No, of course you can’t.”
At the end of the trip, back at Cousin Irene’s home, they prepared the sauna. “Would you like to cook some sausage in the sauna?” Tip laughed, “I told you!” Irene showed us a foil bag specially made for this purpose and she placed a sausage, as mild as ring bologna, inside. This rested above the coals while I took the last sauna of our Finland trip. We washed down our sauna sausage with sauna beer, and life was good.
See more from our Finland Trip