I had to set an alarm clock only once on a mid-June trip to Scandinavia. I wanted to be up by 6 a.m. from my berth in the humming, windowless steerage of an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki. The previous evening, I had watched from the rear deck as the sun-bathed Swedish archipelago dissolved into a few sea-swept skerries. But as M/S Gabriella entered Helsinki harbor, a low Baltic mist shrouded our arrival, obscuring the light.
Travel for a purpose on a tight schedule, in my case exploring cultural artifacts for a book about saunas, is seldom restful. But when your journey occurs during the longest days of the year at high latitude, you can at least count on solar energy to keep you moving. And I had timed my visit to coincide with the summer solstice, a time of celebration in Finland.
Soon after docking, I went to the airport to collect Aaron Hautala, the book's photographer. We headed for our first destination -- Lauttasaari, an island west of downtown Helsinki -- before Aaron had a chance to unpack. His jet lag would likely prove no match for an evening at the Finnish Sauna Society. We closed out the afternoon progressing through increasingly hotter wood-fired saunas and invigorating dips in the chilly, brackish Baltic. "Check out that sky," Aaron said, and I noticed that the cold rain had stopped.
The long evening began with shafts of light breaking out of the northwest. Aaron prowled the grounds, negotiating pictures of naked Finnish men he had only recently met, sufficiently fluent in the pronunciation of his last name alone. I enjoyed a beer and smoked fish with our host, who markets smoked reindeer (poro) to the rest of Europe. "Where are you and Aaron staying?" he asked, then made a quick call to a friend. "You are set for Friday night at the Klaus K," he said of a new design hotel downtown, adding that we would find plenty of poro at the free breakfast buffet.
Summer solstice celebrated
The next morning broke brilliant over the Gulf of Finland, with clear skies and a light breeze. We spent the morning wandering the waterfront open market, where local cherries, tulips and greens complemented the pastels of the old Russian imperial district. Helsinki's Esplanadi was alive with tourists, and I did a double-take when I saw Russian plates on Range Rovers and BMWs -- the last time I had visited this city was in the early months of glasnost, when Helsinki was still a last outpost of open commerce and vivid advertising.
Before a clear midsummer sky, the grandest building of the Grand Duchy, St. Nicholas' Church (now Suurkirkko/Helsinki Cathedral), looked as if it had been built only to evoke the fierce blue and white of Finland's flag.
Finns celebrate the summer solstice on Juhannus (St. John's Day) with the fervor of Americans on Independence Day, absent the bombs bursting in air. We started off the holiday weekend at Seurasaari, a historical island park in the middle of the Helsinki metro. Thousands who had not already skipped town arrived to celebrate the marriage of a chosen couple in a 17th-century chapel. After the wedding, the nuptials were broadcast to the city via a huge offshore bonfire that the duo lit from the prow of a longboat, while their distant kin lined the shores, sang folk songs and danced into the long twilight.
The sun does actually set over most of Finland at the solstice -- the Arctic Circle lies north of the far-reaching Gulf of Bothnia. But it does not set deep, nor for long.
North toward sunset
We started our tour of Finland's forest and lake interior near Tampere at the weekend farm of a friend, Kaius Niemi. Because most of the country is shuttered for the celebratory weekend, we stayed put for an entire day and two nights.
In the company of Kaius and his family, we enjoy a lengthy midsummer feast and conversation that took us far beyond the wheat fields and woodlands that surround the farm, which has been in the family for generations. As the sun kissed the northern horizon and slanted below the trees, we men retreated to the sauna with fresh birch vihta, the traditional sauna whisk that stimulates the skin.
Later, as I drifted off to my first deep sleep of the trip, I recalled a conversation several days before with a docent in Sweden who described how her ancestors would gather flowers at midsummer and dry them in the rafters to feed sick cows in winter, or use a cloth to absorb the solstice morning dew and transfer it to small bottles to preserve as drams of goodness when darkness prevails.
Into the woods
We spent the next several days exploring the rocky, forested heart of Finland, from Lake Päijänne to the coastal port at Vasa. While Finns from all corners of the country migrated to North America in the late 19th century and well into the 20th, the greatest proportion of them came from tenant farms in Ostrobothnia/Pohjanmaa. The culmination of this woodland culture can be seen at the church at Petäjävesi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which can have few rivals as the most impressive log building in the world.
We arced northwest on back roads that evoke northern Minnesota down to the smallest detail, aside from the distinctly Finnish brand of trucks hauling logs and other loads in every direction.
"Do you feel that?" Aaron said as I slowed for a truck to pass on a narrow gravel shortcut. "I don't," I said, just before a low flying Finnish fighter jet strafed the spruce tops with a peal of thunder that left us clinging to the door handles. "These people are not kidding around," he said, with a hint of pride. Centuries in the shadow of imperial neighbors have tempered Finland's toughness and resilience.
By late afternoon we arrived in the village of Nurmo to learn what we could about the Hautalas who emigrated to the Iron Range in the 1920s. We hit paydirt in the local office of the national Lutheran church, and soon found ourselves at a former cemetery crossroads -- "hauta" is the word for grave; "la" means place. As we neared the entrance of the parish church, Aaron recognized a carved figure from family legend, a little boy who had his hand out, with a slot to put money in.
After reaching our northernmost point three degrees shy of the Arctic, we retreated to the beauty of southwestern Finland's coastal sea and countless islands. After a brief stop in the charming center of Rauma, first chartered in 1442, we followed a winding coastal road. But we soon returned to the expressway, heading for a visit to Moomin World, the island theme park in Naantali harbor dedicated to the vision of Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson, where Mickey and Goofy meet bohemian existentialism.
The next day, we left the breezy charm of Naantali's harbor for the old-world authenticity of Turku (Åbo), the center of the Swedish administration of Finland prior to the Russian period and independence. Its medieval castle dates to 1280 and its cathedral to 1300, and as we strolled from one to the other along the confined banks of the Aurajoki River, we saw layers of ancient cobbles and middens at several active archaeological digs. "Looks like that guy just climbed out," Aaron said, drawing my attention to a hairy blacksmith snoring beneath a pile of furs at noon, clearly no stranger to midsummer revelry. We lucked into the Medieval Market, an annual historical reenactment in Turku's Old Great Square. Hundreds of performers, artisans and vendors in period costume thronged the cobblestone streets, and a fair percentage of them looked like they fiercely preferred Baltic life a few centuries prior to the rise of Nokia and Marimekko.
Aaron and I both remarked at the good fortune of saving Turku for the end of our journey, and it was hard to depart this beautiful district and its many unvisited charms. By midafternoon, we headed back east to Helsinki on a speedy freeway for one last shoot in Finland's metropolis.
Easy sleep awaited on the return flight, but only after we drew the blinds against the dazzling brilliance of Greenland below, and the sun above.
"The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition," by writer Michael Nordskog and photographer Aaron Hautala, will be released by the University of Minnesota Press in October.