Morning mist rises from the water. Rocky, pine-clustered islands reflect perfectly in the glassy surface of the lake. A broad slab of metamorphic rock juts out from shore at our campsite, the ideal entrance for my post-breakfast swim.

It’s 7 a.m. on a late July morning, but the sun has already been up for hours. Todd McGowan and I clutch our coffees, taking sips and soaking in the start of another fabulous day on trip. Ahh, nothing like being on a canoe journey in northern Ontario.

Canoeing in Finland
Saunas are a cornerstone in Finnish culture, says explorer Frank Wolf. Photo: Frank Wolf

A pair of loons swim by and one of them… croaks? I look closer and see these loons are different—they have grey heads instead of black and lack the mournful cry of the common loon. This red-eyed species instead sounds like Grover from Sesame Street. I’m snapped from my trance and reminded I am not in Canada, but instead on a 500-mile route through Finland.

WHEN TO GO

June and August boast long days with decent temperatures and miss the crowds of July. The best chance for paddlers to see the aurora is in September, however days are shorter and cool.

PROTECTION

The insect season is short, but the clouds of mosquitoes, gnats, black flies and horseflies make the most of it.

DON’T MISS

August’s Siirrettavien Saunojen, a two-day festival where entrants vie for the most unusual homemade sauna. The only rules are that it must fit at least one person, and it must be mobile.

MORE INFO

Find recommendations for outfitters, accommodations, can’t-miss sights and more on visitfinland.com.

After 12 straight years of extended canoe trips in some of the remotest regions of Canada, I was looking for something different. I love boreal trips but craved a trip abroad—a wilderness experience but also a cultural odyssey. I scoured Google Earth to see if there was somewhere else on the planet with the characteristic traits of the Canadian Shield. I was looking for a place where I could create a unique route and travel a diverse, ever-changing and dynamic waterscape of river, lake and ocean.

My sleuthing led me to Finnish Lakeland. This region, which comprises the southeast quarter of Finland along the Russian border, is the largest geographical area in the country.

Claiming almost 188,000 lakes—most of which are in Lakeland—Finland is a canoe tripper’s dream. Like in Canada, you can spend weeks in your canoe traveling a labyrinth of waterways in whatever direction you please. I decided on my route based on how I could get the best bang for my buck, and mapped out a line that would showcase the greatest possible expanse of Finland’s inland paddling paradise.

Cost and logistics-wise, it’s cheaper for a North American tripper to head over to Finland than to one of Canada’s remote northern regions. The biggest expense was our $1,200 round-trip tickets to Helsinki—still far less than flying out one-way from somewhere like Baker Lake after a Thelon River trip in Nunavut.

Our craft of choice was a folding Pakboat canoe, as it can be checked as a piece of luggage. Once in Helsinki, we paid €50 to hop on a day-long train ride carrying us from the capitol to a small town called Nurmes in the northernmost reaches of Lakeland.

In Nurmes, we shopped for food at the local market and shoved off from the harbor by the train station. Depending on how much time you have, you could do anywhere from a week to a month-long trip, with train access to multiple points along our route.

Visiting saunas in Finland
Frank Wolf about to bask in the glorious heat of Sauna Saari, on the second-last day of the journey. | Photo: Frank Wolf

As far as camping goes, Finland has Everyman’s Right, which allows anyone to temporarily camp out overnight, anywhere as long as it causes no damage or disturbance to the landowner. Despite going through populated areas on occasion, it’s exceedingly easy to set up your tent pretty much wherever you please. Just stay a reasonable distance from homes, which is never a problem in this heavily forested, sparsely inhabited and park-filled nation.

Perhaps the most significant underlying reason for this journey—and the distinct cultural aspect of it—is I’m a huge fan of saunas. Nothing feels better at the end of a long day of canoeing than getting an excruciatingly hot sauna sweat on, followed by a plunge into the cold waters of a lake. As you paddle through Lakeland, you can count on finding a public sauna in any village harbor along the way.

Saunas are Finland’s most famous export, and it’s not an exaggeration to say every single house and cabin in the country has one. This simple wooden structure forms the foundation of Finnish life. In old times they did their washing, cooking and even childbearing in the sauna, and it remains part of the daily ritual for most.

As part of our cultural investigation, Todd and I discovered a quirky trait we’d read about was a real thing. As we paddled through the country, we found the locals were more likely to turn away from a friendly canoe wave than return it.

We found the key to unlocking Finnish hearts lies within the sauna ritual. Once inside its hot and cozy confines, locals transformed from introverts into the friendliest, most open folks you could ever hope to meet.

Sauna is an equalizer: everyone is naked, sweating and bathed in endorphins. Pretense is stripped away. Löyly is the Finnish word for the steam rising from the super-heated rocks, and also refers to the human soul. During our 20-day trip, our most meaningful interactions with the Finnish people occurred during sauna sessions across the land.

One evening, I sit glowing and glistening from repeated blasts of löyly conjured by a gregarious old fellow named Terri in the Tykkimäen public sauna. My ears and nostrils sting from the steam. I hunch down to withstand the next wave as Terri splashes ladle upon ladle of water on the rocks and coolly claims this is “the best sauna in all of Finland.” He drives 40 miles from his home four times a week to spend time here.

We pulled our canoe up on the shores of Kyrlämpi Lake just an hour earlier. Like moths to the light, we were drawn in from a grey, cool day of paddling by the towering, 50-foot sauna sign we spotted from across the water. Arto, a man I’ve been chatting with about Finnish players in the NHL, follows up on Terri’s remark by turning to me on our shared pine bench and stating, “For us Fins, the sauna is our church.” 

I can relate. Like canoeing in the wilderness, a sauna is similarly meditative and cleansing. Our journey through Saunaland is the perfect amalgamation of the Canadian canoe and the Finnish sauna—cultural cornerstones from two different countries that complement each other in every way. 

Frank Wolf is a Canadian filmmaker, adventurer, writer and environmentalist known for his wilderness documentaries.

This article was first published in Paddling Magazine Issue 62. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions here , or browse the archives here.


Saunas are a cornerstone in Finnish culture, says explorer Frank Wolf. |Photo: Frank Wolf

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