Water Anyone?

After the sauna.

Every expectation we had about reuniting with Alicia after her year overseas as a Fulbright researcher has been fulfilled. Helsinki is a dynamic city that we’ve found easy to navigate and the weather has been marvelous. It helps that her apartment is located within walking distance to just about everything downtown.

One highlight, however, was outside Helsinki. After a 30 minute bus ride, we arrived at Kuusijårvi, a privately-owned resort that features one of the finest “smoke” saunas in Finland. Since this was our inaugural visit to one of Finland’s most popular pastimes, Alicia prepared us by explaining the fundamentals of sauna etiquette. When using an “electric” sauna commonly found in the home, one first showers and then enters the heated area, blissfully soaking up the 80° C. heat. You then shower again, and reenter the sauna; this time, however, splashing a cup of water onto the heating element. This quickly produces steam that temporarily (and significantly) raises the temperature. The sauna experience was explained by Finnish friends as a gathering place of friends where everyone relaxes and enjoys the company—entering and leaving the heat at a leisurely pace—for an hour or so. Not only is the body heated to the core, but also the heart and mind.

Our experience at the public, outdoor smoke sauna was profoundly different. The heat is generated by a wood fire that is started at 8 a.m. The fire is unvented and slowly heats the room and seasons the interior with a smokey atmosphere that is highly regarded by sauna purists. Around noon, the smoke is discharged and a couple hours later the sauna is ready. Since this was a public place and we’ll be swimming in the nearby lake between sauna sessions, bathing suits are required. Square sitting boards are provided so you didn’t soil your garments on the sooty residue from the smoke. When entering the heated room, it’s polite to ask if anyone wants any water because the temperature inside that oven was, unbelievably, 140° C. (280° F.) and we nearly fainted after our initial exposure. Consuming water moistens the trachea that, like the rest of your body, has been impacted by the incredible heat. It also cools the wooden floor. I later learned that sprinkling water on my particularly hot body parts wasn’t wise because it tends to boil. Our niece Catie, who joined us on this adventure, later said she thought her hair was going to spontaneously ignite. Mind you, the intensity of this heat was no mistake; it was simply way off the charts of our comfort level. There were others in the small room—some sitting near the floor where it’s “cooler” but most climbing the stairs to the bench near the top where the heat is most intense.

As for the congenial gathering of friends for a leisurely hour basking in the cleansing heat, this was hardly that. I later read that there are competitions in Finland where individuals vie for the dubious distinction of having survived the longest in the hottest sauna possible. Our sessions were generally 2-3 minutes before making a quick exit to a cool plunge in the adjoining lake. A vigorous swim reduced the body temperature somewhat, and it was back into the sauna, rejoining the Finns who made the sauna-to-swim transition about once for every three of ours. Sooney and Catie listened to reason and threw in the towel after a couple of visits. Alicia and I stuck it out for about 30 minutes (that’s quite a few swims and manageable since the temperature had dropped to 130° C.) and then stretched out on the grass in the embracing sun, our capillaries doing summersaults in the reprieve from the abusive heat. It was one of those moments where I could actually hear the blood passing through the membranes of my ear—a high pitch; almost a whine.

We then showered and I marveled at how red my back, arms, and upper thighs were where the heated steam molecules had most easily settled on my skin. After dressing and enjoying the serenity of the forested environment, we dozed on the comfortable bus ride back to Alicia’s apartment in Helsinki. I was alarmed later that evening by the red splotches on my upper arms and back, fearing serious (but so far, painless, burns), but they disappeared by morning and I chalked it up to yet another adventure while on life’s amazing journey.

We have since departed Helsinki and taken up in a furnished apartment arranged for by Sooney’s sister, Carol. Each accommodation has its own sauna, and while Alicia and Catie were checking mail downstairs, Sooney and I repeated the sauna experience a bit more sensibly. The 80° C. temperature was like bath water and we thoroughly enjoyed the back-and-forth between showering and cleansing, happily accepting defeat in the ridiculous competition for high heat honors. We’ve finally discovered the even tenor of the Finnish sauna, and we eagerly anticipate this wonderful ritual during the several weeks remaining on this holiday.