Finnish Silent Retreat

Before leaving for this trip I had a bit of a leaving do at my parents house. My family and friends all agreed that the biggest challenge for me would be this stage. They seemed to think I wouldn't be able to remain silent for any prolonged period of time. I proved them wrong as they asked me to stay quiet for 10 minutes, and despite their best efforts to provoke me into speaking, my competitiveness allowed me to remain silent. Inside though it was torture. I was actually concerned that I really wouldn't handle not talking for a prolonged amount of time! So as we were told to pack our bags ready for trip to a cabin in the wilderness where there would be no running or water or electricity I expected the worst. 

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A 7km snowmobile ride took us to our new home in the forest. In my head we were going to this small hut where we would all be living on top of each other in a dark dingy room. Thankfully the place we pulled up to was nothing of the sort. It was a gorgeous wooden cabin with a massive front window looking out onto a lake and as we walked into the main double story room we were greeted by a hogwarts sized table big enough to feed 30 people. As we were shown to our rooms the child inside of me ‘shotgunned' the top triple bunk in the room despite their being 6 beds in each room making the ‘shotgun’ completely useless. Our first task was to get the fires going, there was the main one in the cabin then three in the sauna that we would need to light in order to give it a go later. Thankfully, having grown up in a family where a real fire is an essential part of the house I was fairly well trained in starting a fire, but it was nice to learn the Finnish way of curling the wood using our recently crafted puukkos. 

After the boys had filled the water tanks from the ice hole and Popil and I had become fire queens we just needed to wait as the sauna heated up. Now most of the team had been using the saunas in our previous hotel rooms where I myself found it all a bit bizarre. I didn’t quite understand when or why the Finnish would go the the sauna. Having avoided them at the gym, and having never enjoyed being excessively hot - even to the extent of resenting having a bath because I don’t enjoy just sitting in hot water. I wasn't exactly looking forward to my first traditional sauna. Anyway, we trudged down to the sauna cabin, a whole building dedicated to the pastime. Made up of a changing room/seating area then a shower/washing room then the wood fired sauna. Our host for the week Pyry would be teaching Popil and I how its done. We grabbed a cold beer, had a quick wash and headed to the heat. 

As I began to warm up and as we just lay there chatting, I began to see the attraction. When you are living in such a cold climate its really nice to properly warm your body up. It is just like a prolonged hot shower after a bike ride in the rain. It feels great as your body begins to really heat up. Also there is the social side of it. It was nice just to chat to the girls, to get to know Pyry better and have conversations you wouldn't have otherwise. As I was beginning to enjoy myself Pyry reminded us of the next stage of a traditional Finnish sauna…the ice dip. Now I’ve been know to have my shower temperature pretty cold (much to the annoyance of my housemate) but a cold shower and ice water are two very different things. As I geared myself up to walk down to the lake, which now seemed miles away, I reminded myself of the ‘great feeling’ that follows the dip in the water. Popil went for a more panicked sprint down to the hole where as I, for some reason, thought walking nonchalantly down would somehow physche me up for the dunk. It kind of worked. I was also aware that I would be waiting for Popil to go first so there was no rush. As I saw the blur of Popil retiring back the sauna screaming about her feet I readied myself for the shock. As I dunked my foot in the icy water it felt pretty damn cold but once I began to descend the ladder and submerse myself in the water it was nowhere near as bad as I had imagined. It wasn’t so enjoyable that I wanted to stay in the water any longer than necessary and I started my walk back to the sauna I felt a chill run through my body to remind me that I was half naked in -12. As Otso the cameraman began asking me questions I really started to feel how cold my feet had become and suddenly lost all composure and sprinted back to the sauna praying for those hot stones to warm me up quickly.

The tingly, adrenaline you feel after retiring back to the sauna is addictive and that night, and every other evening whilst we stayed in the cabin, we returned multiple times to the ice hole. Sometimes jumping in the snow or just sitting outside for 10 minutes gives you a similar buzz. As I walked back from that very first sauna I finally understood the appeal. You feel completely relaxed and refreshed after and as you wash yourself at the end you are recharged, ready to go but also, strangely, incredibly tired. We returned to the cabin with the anxious guys awaiting their turn. They could see instantly the effect the sauna had had on us and commented on our new relaxed personas.

To continue our introduction to becoming a true Finn, our wilderness guide with the new nickname of Sauna Jouni (being the 3rd Jouni we’d met so far we needed a way to distinguish each guide) put on an impressive BBQ in the large kotta. With a humungous fire blazing in the middle, we assembled meat skewers full of reindeer, alumni and peppers.  There was also grilled fish that were caught in the lake earlier.  There was even a king crab in the middle of table for Popil who isn't too big a fan of meat. It was an absolute feast. That combined with a few beers and a shot of petrol tasting Finnish alcohol made me reconsider my opinion of the so called ‘silent retreat’ 

The next morning was a slow paced one after the late night but once we had  the fires going we headed out with a local fisherman to check out his nets in the lake. Juoni ferried us out to the ice hole on the back on his snowmobile and as he rammed on the accelerator I was surprised how fast those things could go and could not wait to drive one myself! As we bounced over the ice I forgot the reason why we were powering over the ice and we drifted to a standstill by the ice hole. The fisherman got me to clear the ice whole with a shovel as he pulled out the first of his two nets. I asked him his prediction and he predicted maybe 2 or 3.  Well…. 32 fish later and I realised that the Finnish don’t like to boast. 

Having never really eaten fish before this trip meant that I’d never prepared them and especially not gutted one. So a quick 101 with Jouni on how and I soon had my fingers rammed in the fishes gills trying to extract its innards as elegantly as possible. Once I’d stopped knocking its poor head on the wrong side, and learnt which way to scrape the scales off properly I was making much less mess. With the boys limping out on this task, Popil and I got to work on the ever increasing pile of fish, trying my best not to tear through the fish eggs which apparently are tasty! My pukko (knife) was glad to be finally cutting something other than a kiwi fruit or apple, and despite it is still smelling of fish I really felt that was one of those life skill that I could tick of my imaginary list. 

Life in the cabin was very relaxed. It was a smooth, chilled environment where we were all just equally happy doing our own thing or chatting together. Evenings were spent drinking by the fires sharing stories about our lives back home or places we’d been. The great thing about travelling around with new people, and especially people from lots of different countries, is the conversation. Every day topics, like higher education, becomes so much more interesting when everyone has such a different experience. I often found myself just listening for hours to the stories silently hoping to one day to visit all these interesting countries. The programme till this point had been pretty full on so it felt refreshing to change speed and just chill.

Of course I can only do that for so long before I need to exert some energy in some form so Popil and I headed out for a run one morning. Initially I thought our biggest problem would be getting lost, so I made sure my Suunto watch was charged and if we got into any trouble I would just use the ‘breadcrumb’ feature to find our way back. Naively though our biggest issue was the snow. Mainly the fact that it was 3ft deep and impossible to run in. Even if we stuck to the snowmobile tracks your feet just sink into the ground and the leisurely jog round that forest turns into a stomping, grunting nightmare. We soon headed back. 

One afternoon we ventured away from the cabin on snowshoes and headed up the hill to find somewhere to make a camp. It felt so good just to roam around the forest making fresh tracks in the deep powder knowing that there was nobody around for miles. We stomped ourselves a bit of a camp and set up the reindeer skins in the snow as deck chairs. Jouni instructed us the best wood to use when starting the fire, so as everyone tried to tell the difference between birch and pine I looked for sausage sticks ready for our lunch. By sausage sticks I mean a stick which you can shape well into a ‘V’ in order to place a sausage on the end of it.  As we balanced our varied sized sticks loaded with sausages in the snow we once again relaxed by the fire and admired our incredible surroundings. Drinking yet another cup of coffee, the Finnish LOVE coffee, we discussed our plans for the run up to christmas and the extraordinary itinerary Pyry and Jouni had created. 

So the stage that I was actually the most concerned about turned into one of my favourites so far. Sometimes just relaxing with a cool bunch of people, with beautiful surroundings is all you need to be happy.