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  • Duncan Mackay

IMPROBABLE JOURNEY#2: STEAMING TO SUONTEE; SAUNA, SAHTI AND A SCARY UFO


Helsinki central station is one of those icons of Art Nouveau architecture whose global importance could be easily overlooked because of its everyday use as a railway concourse. Its lamp holding Sculptural entrance Giants offer illumination to all travellers although it must be said I had no idea where I was being taken that hour, that day. It was somewhere in the middle. It was called Pyssyniemi.


The shiny sparky electric train to Lahti was smooth enough but the train to Heinola waiting for our changeover was something else. In a land of trees and timber but no coal then steam power could be easily provided by lumber. So, warm and hissing at the platform, like a Kelly kettle on wheels, was one of the last of VR’s stock of wood-powered locomotives. It took us on a leisurely paced sooty but kippery olfactory journey with a connecting bus waiting onwards to Joutsa. After a short post office coffee bar wait there was a post bus to a drop off on a frost heaved cracked gravel road some way past a pretty wooden bridge. Trees, rocks, small fields of rye, brown wooden farms and barns, glimpses of lakes and streams, tracks into the woods, the hum of insects and fluffy white clouds in a big sunny blue sky. The whole of summery Keski Suomi, the middle part of Finland, could thus be simply described, if it wasn’t for the fascinating micro landscapes and tiny cultural details. Any summary would not do it justice. Apart from the obvious aspects to absorb I had no idea where I was in Europe’s seventh largest country. I was in desperate need of a decent map.

Although you can wander at will nearly everywhere in this vast landscape, nobody goes anywhere in Finland without coffee and buns. There was an old wooden farm by the gravel road and a visit had to be made, formal introductions given to the elderly farming duo and hospitality rolled out in the dark wooden interior. This farm had a bread oven and once a week it seemed all the unseen surrounding farmers came to make bread or buy bread. The details were hazy but this was the local motherlode for traditional rye bread made to rise slowly in wooden sourdough buckets. One taste and I was hooked (I remain so today but despite my continued experimentation I have never recaptured the exact taste of that first dark bite). It lingers in a dim summer memory like a tantalising mind-dumpling.


The grassy path was a red spotted spangled mat woven by wild strawberries with tendrils seeking new gaps in the granite grit to grow next year’s tiny chemical sweet berries. You can make a wayfarers yummy stick here. A stiff grass is the skewer and wild strawberries are added while looking for the acid sweet bilberries and wild raspberries growing beneath the cover of the embracing forest to add to this joyous fruity kebab. The path, with tree obscured sizzles of distant electric blue water, rolled downhill slightly then more steeply; insects buzzed quietly then more angrily. There were dark pools of tree shadow to avoid where the mosquitoes and horseflies lurked waiting for something to bite. The moose-flies were still making their way up the vegetation and growing their glider wings that in September would launch them dumbly like Buzzbomb rockets at any passing dark shape. Flying ticks with just a one shot flight to find a blood hostage before shedding their wings and burying their mouths to suck beneath the skin. How innovative nature can be in its luncheon design school but thankfully for us on that warm day not us and not just yet. 


Finland is slashed and spattered by over 188,000 lakes like a living Jackson Pollock canvas. One of them, Suontee, slowly emerged from its woodland clothing like a gradually opening zipper in a green tunic to show a shimmering blue vest. Snugly perched above it on a low rocky headland was a log cabin hewn from the very trees that had once stood there. Below by the lakeside was the other key ingredient in the Finnish recipe of a wonderful life, a wooden sauna with steps leading to a granite sand beach of sorts sloping into a fringe of reeds with an opening to the wide lake. Beyond, the sky merged with a dotted horizontal line of water, rocks and tree’d tiny islands. Apart from humming insects, bird calls and the sound of shimmering leaves there were no sounds of human existence.


There were humans but they were busy collecting yellow fungi on a green island in the blue lake. There were then more introductions to make to immediate family, girlfriends and cousins, there was more coffee and, of course, buns. However, there was no electricity, piped water or gas bottles here just wood, oil lamps, candles and well water. A long drop toilet did for business. There were bears in the woods but not round here, or at least not very often. It was magical like a fairy glen where the timeless sprites of nature shared a cosy coexistence with the here and now realm of human life. It felt utterly peaceful and very, very special. My improbable journey made possible.


There were rules to make this special relationship work. No pissing in the lake, only take what you need from nature, waste nothing, burn paper rubbish, put plant based waste, poo and wee in the composter, keep the well covered so the water stays  pure, dry birch logs for two years before use, eat wild food fresh and any surplus to be preserved; and life to be enjoyed to the full. It was a busy peace with endless job functionality to keep everyone fed and watered. The lake was full of edible fish; pike, perch, zander, whitefish, vendace, bream and orfe with freshwater crayfish too. The woods were flush with fruit (and fruit eating birds) and, armed with a peinette, buckets of bilberries, raspberries, strawberries, crow berries, rowan berries, arctic bramble berries, lingonberries occasionally cloudberries could be scooped or plucked. Wrapped head to toe in sweaty anti-mosquito netting hats and gloves there were everyday opportunities to forage for masses of fungi with most attention given over to the collection of chanterelles, penny buns, black trumpets, orange birch boletus and milk caps. Each wild food not only had a carefully observed and warmly anticipated peak season but also different hunting strategies, preparations and cooking or preserving techniques. False morels, once a much treasured species, need to be boiled three times to release its toxic load but even then they carry a cumulative dose like radiation, which if exceeded could be fatal. Knowledge and respect were key and, for the larger mammals like moose, a collective hunting work effort that then shared the spoils whenever a large source of meat was culled from the wild stock in the autumn. Barley beer (sahti) and rye bread were made at the farm with butter, cream and milk from the weirdly wood wandering cows too. Illegal distilling took place in quiet corners to make pontikka, the Finnish firewater, strong enough to melt the hairs in your nose. All other alcohol could only be bought at state alcohol shops with strict opening hours and age controls. To keep food and drink things cool there was an insulated space under the house where the cold rock retained the savage winter temperatures and acted as a simple but highly effective fridge.


There were apples, herbs, dill, spring onions and potatoes in the small cottage garden plot but soil (and its worms) was a rarity in a land of boulders, pine needles and glacial sand so composting the substrate to create a humic growing medium was critical for the short but intense high summer with almost 24 hour light. Dawn to dusk work could be a 22 hour operation if needed at this latitude with a brief period when the sun dipped its headlights for a couple of sleepy hours. You slept and ate when you felt sleepy or hungry but hard work together required communal food stops. At some point somebody would light a birch log fire on a grilli or set up a smoker to cook the fish or later, over the cooler embers, to make barley flour crepes with wild fruit jams and syrups. Starvation was out of the question.


Cooking over wood, or with wood for smoking, and eating outdoors is one of life’s greatest pleasures. The joy of the grate, outdoors! It takes skill and practice to do it right and generous forbearance to forgive the occasional charring errors. The smell, sound and salivary anticipation are supreme . The little muikka (a form of freshwater salmonid) gutted and dipped in seasoned rye flour and cooked in butter briskly over a birch log fire hiss and sizzle in a way that was described as ‘the sound of the soul of Suomi’ and the spiritual essence of Finland. They are eaten hot, whole, bones and all. Other firm favourites were pan-fried perch fillets, nailed whitefish smoke-cooked on an angled plank against a fire, pike stew, alder smoked bream and all manner of fish soups with fresh dill and wild fungi. 


Fishing was done with a rowing boat by float netting with two different gauges, one with heavier sinkers for the shoals of smaller vendace (muikka) and another for surface whitefish, perch, pike and bream. Larger pike and aggressive zander had to be night fished with stronger gear although smaller pike and perch could also be line fished with spinners. Crayfish could be potted with baited traps during a strict licensing season but not on this area of the lake. After use the nets were left to dry on a wooden frame and have the snags of fish slime, leaves and twigs removed. 


Wood powered everything steamy, smoky and fiery and environmental awareness of trees and their future growth alongside that of future generations sounded like a pension salesman’s pitch. This was long before eco-anything was a topic of conversation elsewhere. Here a rangy sun-seeking birch tree of 60-80 feet would be assessed for the number of saunas it would provide. Smaller trees would be ‘promised’ for as yet unborn children or grandchildren and if kept in a good place would grow with them to provide their saunas for their lifetimes. By the lakeside, alder overhung the water binding the edges against windy waves from the north and the ice of winter but the orange-red wood also flavoured smoked fish. A rare oak harboured giant blue butterflies but also a source of twig sawdust for smoke cooked meats. Scots pine and larch made a refuge for Camberwell Beauties but provided quick burn water heater wood for clothes laundry, and body washing after sauna. The number one wood was silver birch. 


Birch here is beautifully managed, sensuously regarded, admired like a long term lover, kept in birch temples to dry and used for a dozen functions. Summer Birch  leaves on their twigs are bound into bundles to make a vihta, the switch or ‘whisk’ that is used in the sauna to stimulate the nerves of the skin by gentle beatings. The young leaves are saponacious, the spring-rising sap can be tapped and drunk as mineral rich birch water and the thin twigs used as the woven frame for a girl’s midsummer crown of flowers. The bark burns with an intense smoky flame and can be used in a tight twist as a candle but is mostly applied as a firefighter. Tars, xylitol and chemicals can be extracted too. Panelling, furniture and flooring adorned many a house. However, it is the simple act of burning birch wood that is most precious to Finns. Burning it in the sauna or on the lakeside grilli was the last pleasurable act of a long lumbering slow process. Even the timing of felling a selected tree is controversial with a choice of winter or high summer. The latter ‘Swedish’ method allows the leaves to remain active on the intact branches continuing to transpire and drying the felled wood through the summer months. In winter, access is often easier as the sometimes boggy ground is then frozen or iced over lakes can be used as haul routes. After felling, the bole is cut into rounds like fat draughts and the small wood branches further reduced. Nothing is wasted. After drying outside the rounds are split by axe and the splinters stacked in carefully constructed flat beehive circular shapes with the small branches lodged in the centre. These are covered and left through another winter. The following summer the results are transferred to house or sauna log stores to be stacked again. These seasoned dry logs,  as long as a forearm and twice as thick, can be axed into smaller pieces for open fire cooking or whole for the ever eager flames of the sauna stove. Thus prepared it burns very hot.


My first communal sauna was only shocking because of the heat. Stripping off with strangers was not uncomfortable and sitting together like scalded rotisserie chickens on a high pine bench with a beautiful lake through the eye level window was only mildly surreal. Then they hit the ‘on’ button and started pouring ladle after ladle of water onto the hot stones with immense hissing. At first the noise is prominent but seconds later the invisible steam curls off the low ceiling, down your neck, across your shoulders and enters your nose, bites your lips and swirls across every bare inch of skin. This is the löyly moment and is a sensory version of naked steam flagellation done to innocents by crazy zealots. Immediately afterwards your body says oi, oi, and starts squirting salty water through every pore until you sit in your own sodium chloride slick gasping for breath with blood pumping madly in your brain pleading for a get out. There is a door, but beyond it your options are compromised by having to jump into a cold lake or look like a wuss. However, the water is like silk and your brain cools quickly enough to recognise that you are still alive and breathing. This in-out, hot-cold, routine is then repeated a few times until serenity (or heart failure) descends like a fluffy bathrobe and the slow swirling sun setting lake reflecting sky takes you to another dimension. Salty snack things and beer appear and appreciative conversation warmed to the collective mood of calm. Even the zizzing mosquitoes partially, reverentially, relent.


It is never really black night just a darker light with a glow in the north so a steady row to the middle of the lake in the wooden skiff to watch the brightest of the silent stars, listen to the loons and hear the surface stirrings of unseen fish is emotional entertainment enough. There were other games. By day there was frisbee, a 3-a side football pitch girt by the flatter lakeside, an air rifle shooting competition, wooden log sailing boat construction with birch bark sails (competitively raced) and, for just one hour only amidst the endless polka, pop music on Finnish National radio. ‘Waterloo Sunset’ never sounded so right. By night there was dual language Yahtzee by oil lamp and scientific moth collecting by nets and torches.


One night, it was suggested that I go pike and zander fishing with the house expert north of the island of Liukosaari. This involved a long row past the tiny tree-girt islands to get to the deeper waters. There was darkish sky by midnight, a darker smudge of trees on the new horizon and the rippling reflective lake mildly amplifying any of the available light. A torch was required in the boat to set up the hooks, baits and weights and plop our jigging lines into the depths. Apart from the twitch of our trembling lines it was utterly silent and we kept our peace intent on the focus required to lure the toothy predators into our treble hooked trap. With eyes downwards in water we didn’t notice what was happening upwards in air. Maybe there was a flicker of red light across the water that should not have been there that made us look north and up. 


The red ball of solid light stood stock still in the sky. For minutes it was simply immobile but then it began to zig, then zag in perfectly controlled spatial distances as if precisely searching for something. We sat shock still, then a dog began to bark somewhere on the dark far lake shoreline north of our nearest island of Liukosaari and kept barking. Sound carries perfectly across the lake at night and it may have been five miles away or much closer. The non-flashing red light might have been that distance too but it was impossible to gauge without precise landmarks or perspective. We watched its progress but nearly fell overboard when the light blinked out and immediately reappeared hundreds of feet below its previous position. This was not normal. This was not some soundless secret helicopter. This was not a candle in a balloon basket or a tiny red Venus, ball lightning or marsh gas. The pattern of hover, zig-zag, blink out and reappear (but this second time upwards), repeated for five minutes or more. Then the zig-zags discernibly, and seemingly purposefully, started to move in our direction. We suddenly felt very exposed and very alone on a big expanse of dark water and a tingle of adrenaline stimulated flight. Fishing foregone, we rapidly hauled up our gear, scarily took the oars and briskly rowed for the direction of the Pyssyniemi haven of boathouse and oil lamp home with eyes on the blob and ears on the dog. Both continued to do what they were doing until suddenly the light just went out. Implausible, maybe, but also absolutely true.


(It wasn’t until 30 years later that I heard of one of Finland’s most intriguing UFO events that might have some geographical relevance. It occurred about 40 miles away but exactly due south of here at Imjärvi in winter 1970, just two and a half years earlier)



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