Tucked in the woods on the edge of a northern lake, a small cabin beckons at dusk. Smoke curls from the metal stovepipe atop the peaked roof. Golden light glows from the lone window on its door. However, this is no cabin—this is a sauna. And this northern lake is in Finland, not Canada.
Inside, the temperature soars over 90 degrees Celsius. You drop your drawers, step inside and feel the warmth roll over your body from head to toe. The smell of cedar fills your nostrils as you find your place on the upper bench, where you get maximum heat impact. Someone dips water from a wooden bucket and splashes it on the stones that simmer on the sauna stove, which evaporates into an intense steam wave that hits you in the face. Someone else whips a towel around to distribute the heat to all who have come to participate in the ritual. Once you're drenched in sweat and steam, and the heat becomes too hot to bear, you burst from the sauna and leap into the lake. Lingering until cool, you emerge from the waters invigorated, refreshed, reborn.
I love saunas—not only how great they make you feel, but the whole aesthetic and ritual. I have a neighbour at our family cottage in his mid-70s who stokes his wood stove sauna and hits it religiously every night at 6 p.m., so I join him whenever I can, no matter what the season. Where I live in North Vancouver, a friend of mine put one into his backyard recently and I visit that as often as I can, too.
Wherever I travel, I try to ferret out local saunas any chance I get, so this summer I'm going to feed my obsession by taking on the ultimate sauna tour with my good friend and trusted expedition partner Todd McGowan: an 800-kilometre canoe trip through Finland's Lakeland District from the town of Nurmes to the capitol of Helsinki.
I've looked at this line for years, ever since I completed a canoe trip across Scandinavia in 2004. I didn't get a chance to hit the Lakeland District that time around, but it's been on the list ever since. Poring over a map of the world, looking for Canadian shield-like webs of connected lakes and rivers, the only other place on the planet outside of Canada and northern Minnesota that has this geography is Eastern Finland.
Naturally, the best way to explore this area is from the very Canadian perspective of the canoe. More of a cultural odyssey than a true wilderness journey, our plan is to hit as many saunas as possible along the way as we delve deep into Finland's sauna culture. With over three million saunas for a country of five million people, it's an understatement to say that sauna is important to the Fins. It's an integral part of their day to day lives that's more like religion than mere pastime—a key to lifelong physical and mental health. By immersing ourselves into this ritual throughout the journey, we'll come back with a unique tale from the heart of Saunaland, producing a feature article and photo essay on the experience.
Map created by Reddit user iBleeedorange
We'll be bringing along everything we need from Canada to complete the journey, including our 'boat in a bag' canoe in the form of the Pakboats Pakcanoe 165. Versatile enough to handle the mix of lake, river and sea we'll face, this crafty craft also adds the travel convenience of being transportable by plane and train to get to our put-in at Nurmes. The days will be long as we're starting above 63 degrees latitude so we'll be styled and protected in our Julbo sunglasses (great polarized protection that cuts the sky and water glare combination we'll be out in all day long).
We'll power the canoe with our Grey Owl Touring 12° paddles, while camping in the comfort of our light and roomy MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2-person tent atop the pillowy luxury of Thermarest Neo Air Xtherm sleeping pads.
For food, we'll pick up muesli for breakfast, Finncrisp and cheese for lunch, and... well, I'm not sure what for dinner. We'll see what catches our eye in the stores over there. One thing I know is we'll be drinking lots of coffee as Finland has the highest per capita coffee consumption on the planet. At 12 kilograms of coffee consumed per person annually, they're over two kilograms clear of Norway, their nearest coffee-addicted competitor. We'll be boiling up the elixir every morning on our MSR Reactor stove... and am sure we’ll consume a cup or two après sauna.
You can follow our odyssey via the link here, which includes a map tracker, images and words (probably haikus written in sweat during the course of a sauna session).
P.S. Want to follow Frank Wolf's adventures in print?
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