I’m sitting in a sticky puddle of my own sweat, surrounded by dozens of naked men sprawled on wooden benches in a dark room. In the corner is a large iron furnace, and every few minutes, someone gets up and hurls water onto one ton of heated rock. This is greeted by grunts of approval. It is a time to meditate, catch up with friends, revitalize the body, or just debate the news. A tourist walks in from the showers wearing a bathing suit. He is greeted by moans in disapproval, and promptly removes it. Finns know the correct manner to enjoy a sauna. After all, they invented the word.
Finland has used traditional log-wood smoke saunas for centuries, and Lapland felt like the right place to experience one. The town of Rovaniemi acts as the centre for tourism in the region, sitting just shy of the Arctic Circle, offering camping, hiking and kayaking in the summer and dogsledding and skiing in the winter. They even have an official Santa Claus Post office, which has received more than 13 million letters.
The midnight sun is barely dipping on the horizon before starting to rise again. Caught in this nowhere land between sunset and sunrise, I headed to a nature park called the Vaattunki Lodge Estate, about 25 kilometres outside town. It offers cabins, a popular restaurant, canoe rides, nature walks and a steaming savasauna (wood sauna). Logs are fed into a stove for six to eight hours, heating rocks and smoking up a dark room with no chimneys. When the heat is at a suitable level (around 80 C), the smoke is cleared through the door and several small shutters until the sauna is ready for use. In Finland, the heat in a sauna is like a spirit, a character who shares the experience with you. Finns call this the löyly – respecting it, discussing its quality, offering to adjust it if it is too hot or, more often, too cold. Finland even hosts the Sauna World Cup, although its future is uncertain. Last year, one of the finalists collapsed and died from the intensity of the heat.
Having been tormented by Arctic mosquitoes – as big as flamingoes – I couldn’t wait to feel the heat. First, though, I had to collect birch branches for another sauna tradition: The sauna master explains that whipping the body with wet birch leaves stimulates blood cells, rejuvenates the skin and even contains some form of natural soap. Branches in hand, I enter the dark cabin. Within minutes, I am covered in sweat. The key to spending long periods of time in a sauna is controlling the humidity, and remaining hydrated. The savasauna has a soft heat, devoid of smoke and fragranced with the earthy tones of birch. I stay in as long as I can stand it. Just metres away flows a river where I wash away my sheen, still protected from the mosquitoes.
Back in Helsinki, I anticipated the grit of a public sauna. Most Finnish apartments and houses have their own sauna, but for those that don’t, or for those who prefer to interact with others soaked in sweat, community saunas serve the same function as they have for centuries. Built in 1928, the Kotiharju Sauna is the only remaining public wood-burning sauna in Helsinki. The large neon sign, and a dozen half-naked men outside the door, gave it away. Finns say the body looks its best only after 30 minutes in a sauna, but these guys, cooling off with a towel and a beer, might prove otherwise. I pay my €10 fee, and disrobe in a locker room among old naked men reading newspapers. It smells of time, wood and sweat.
Men and women are separated in public saunas, but there is a rotund female attendant in the men’s showers happy to scrub guys down with soap and sponge. Inside the sauna, whoever sits on the highest bench has the right to control the löyly. An old man invites me to join him on the topmost shelf. The heat is so intense that I get lightheaded, my ears literally burning in pain. The Finns have a word, “ sisu”, which translates as a combination of strength, spirit and courage. All the “ sisu” in the world couldn’t keep me on that upper bench for more than a minute. The temperature is easily over 120C. How the old man sat in that heat without spontaneously combusting is a mystery – although it could have something do with the fact that childbirth was common in Finnish saunas up to the 1930s.
Bravado is in full force here, and the löyly becomes especially feisty as local men take turns adding bursts of water to the furnace. It instantly increases the steam, heat – and likelihood of a tourist like me fainting. Eventually I crawl out, grab a beer and join the men cooling off outside in the summer rain.
As far as cultural experiences go, this one is pretty hot.
Watch Robin experience a traditional Lapland smoke sauna here.
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels . His website is moderngonzo.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail