Just over a year ago in the Finnish wilderness, I found myself on a strange sojourn with a friend. With no wifi, electricity, or cafes nearby, mornings were purely for slow awakenings and brewing coffee. The days were spent reading, picking berries, and studying the forests and lakes. Then of course, the evenings were reserved for the ever holy sauna. As memory serves...
The journey out of Helsinki is surreal, even cinematic. A four-hour train ride leads to an evening tea party at Grandmother's. Her cups are shiny black, gold rimmed, and made in the USSR. Afterwards, we stop by the local grocery store in Savonlinna to stock up on food supplies and Karhu “Bear Beer.” Hours further on the road, a ferryboat ride takes us across sinister waters to an island, darker still. I re-start the ignition and drive dirt roads through pitch black forests.
"Stop! There, there, there!" I slam on the brakes, reverse, and turn down a steep hill side. In the light of the headlamps, a wooden cabin eerily overlooks a silent and sleeping lake. Exhausted, we build a fire and drink Portuguese wine until the embers draw us down into slumber.
Through the following mornings, I climb up the crag to overlook a lake stretching out beneath me. The first perception is utter silence, pure and eternal. But still your breathing, and you’ll hear a rustling borne out of the West and carried over the ancient hills, relics of the Ice Age.
The forest pines rise to greet that melody, while shy yellows sway and dance over the water. An occasional pike perch leaps out, spreading ripples of gold and blue. Ducks head south in formation, their calls coming in faint. And above, an armada of clouds sail by to the tempo of an everlasting orchestra.
As a stranger in a strange land, you too strangely find yourself bound to the calm as the days stretch on. Conversations become hushed, sometimes whispered. Footsteps turn lighter and softened, careful so as not to crush the forest berries and flora. Your eyes drift over the landscape, unaware of time, listening to the simple murmurs of the wilderness.
We're out of drinking water. Cheerfully, a solution is presented by the native Finn. "We have rainwater. It's straight from the sky, naturally filtered. So no fish pee." I find its taste mellow, silky and lightly sweet. We make coffee with it and boil eggs for breakfast. The table is then set with lingonberry porridge and buttered rye bread. The day calls for exploration.
A rowboat sits on the shore. Backpack stuffed with extra jumpers, scarves, and beer, we push off from shore. I learn where the beaver lives. And which island of ferocious birds to avoid. In this land of a thousand lakes, "they keep connecting on forever, so if you don't remember your course, you'll never find your way home."
Ruska (Finnish): The browning
or the turning of leaves into autumn.
Only a few houses dot the shoreline. Most seem vacant and the water is eerily silent, save our presence. With each row, the boat hull groans and the wooden oars creak with age. As the light dips behind the tree line, the shadows lengthen, the winds calm, and shores swirl down to lick the bow of our pirate ship.
With the onset of early evenings, I am introduced to, and survive, my first true Finnish sauna experience. The etymology is an ancient word for a steam bathhouse. "It's a sacred place of truth and equality," I am told. Besides, according to the Zenophobe's Guide to the Finns, it is also "a fact of life that the Finns don't function properly if they can't bathe in the sauna regularly."
So in the spirit of functioning properly…
The initial experience is comparable to an unholy nightmare of fire breathing steam demons. But resist the urge to run out screaming bloody murder and the human body surprisingly goes into auto-adjust mode. Later, it's with body steaming in cold air that I fly off the sauna deck like a bat out of hell into the heart-crushing lake waters of early October Finland. The air explodes out of my lungs, blood soars to my brain, and life intensifies. I dare say, I'm addicted.
For a few moments between the heat of the sauna and the onset of hypothermia, I float on my back. The Milky Way blazes, and I sense the immensity of the world in which we exist. Gasping for breath in the cold, I'm a humbled observer to the silent theatre above. A childish urge takes over and I raise a hand in a wave to the distant voyagers of our grand galaxy.
And so, a week passes far too quickly and in a blink, the brutal ferry engines are gunning and tugging us back into civilization. As the shoreline of the lake islands recede into the distance, I tell myself I'm on to new voyages and stories. But I, a nostalgic, suspect this place will haunt me for years to come.
"I will miss the silvered blue of a forest lake, warm wool and the sharp scent of red pine, the peaceful company of fellow dreamers, and losing hours sipping whiskey in the warmth of a fire. Such simplicity and their memories... they could never be bought."
Text & Photography: Mr. Vagabond