Todd McGowan and I paddled into Helsinki harbour 800 kilometres after beginning our canoe journey in the village of Nurmes 20 days ago. Along the way, we passed through Finland’s Lakeland, travelled the length of the Kymijoki River and paddled a good chunk of the Gulf of Finland.
Our mission was to immerse ourselves in sauna culture. We experienced portable saunas, various public saunas and traditional saunas in cabins, getting a great sweat on throughout the process, and feeling invigorated—if not rubber-legged—from blasts of loyly (sauna steam created when water hits the heated rocks on top of the stove) that would drive us out of the sauna and into whatever cool lake it was parked in front of. I took pictures of over 400 saunas en-route, which I plan to turn into a giant tribute collage to sauna architecture.
Our final target was clear.
Sompasauna sits on the tip of an industrial peninsula. Comprised of three wood-fired saunas, it is a completely free, open-air, communal, 24-hour sauna that exemplifies everything sauna is about. Decorated with colourful art and a giant metal elephant, Sompa is as much an art installation as a practical sauna. A piano sits in the middle of the area, free to play.
We arrived early in the morning. A man stumbled out of a side shed and mumbled something to us in Finnish as he went about collecting beer cans to deliver to the recycling depot. The cans go toward the maintenance and upkeep of this completely volunteer-run establishment. None of the saunas were going, so I asked him if he needed to start it. He laughed and pointed at me, ”You… we… everyone do sauna.” He pointed to the best sauna, then pointed to a pile of wood, then proceeded to drive off in his van full of cans. We were suddenly in charge of getting things started for the day.
As there was little cut wood left to stoke the sauna, Todd and I set about chopping and sawing pieces from the heap of salvaged lumber. I stoked one of the saunas and kept it cranking for about 45 minutes until the guage read 120 Celsius. Black smoke rose from the stack, and we settled in for our first session, quickly getting an overwhelming, nostril-burning sweat that drove us to a set of stairs leading to the waters of the harbour. Plunging in, we were instantly cooled.
By the time we left, others drifted in and joined us in the freshly heated sauna in a gathering of communal joy, banter and perspiration. It felt great to be involved and to be able to contribute to the whole process. With men and women of all walks and ages, shedding clothes, inhibition, and toxins in a gathering of equals—it was the perfect way to end our canoe expedition through ’Saunaland.’
P.S. Want to follow Frank Wolf's adventures in print?
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