In the Tradition of Saunas

         People from Thunder Bay are lunatics. This is what I determined after my Calgary-raised boyfriend met my parents at our camp in rural Northwestern Ontario.

          If you’re from Thunder Bay, I do not need to explain that by camp, I do not mean a Bible Camp, or Band Camp, or even, a Fat Camp. No, the explanation that follows is strictly meant for the approximately 6,000,900,000 other people here on Planet Earth.

          You see, “camp”, in this context, means any lake-side dwelling, on any of the hundreds of lakes scattered across the District of Thunder Bay, so long as it has a sauna. See also: cottage, cabin, or even, a summer home. “Camps” range from trailers perched on the Canadian Shield to mansions with wine cellars, jacuzzis, and winter storage for the float plane. If it’s on a lake and it’s got a sauna, it’s a “camp”. Got it?

          Use the phrase “camp” around someone from Calgary, and they’ll look at you puzzled, wondering if it’s a place you drill oil.

          Betray your heritage, by calling it anything but a “camp”, and you’ll be put to tribal council and get voted off the island. I made that mistake once. Sitting with my law school peers, reminiscing about our childhoods over sushi (the food of choice in landlocked Winnipeg). “I mostly grew up at the cottage,” I brag, while dipping toro sashimi in soy sauce, brain farting that B is also from Northwestern, Ontario.  

          “What did you say?” he asks, with an accusatory tone, like the crown prosecutor he is training to be. “BLASPHEMY!”

          Somehow, they still let me in their borders.

          “Google Maps doesn’t work,” I caution my boyfriend, K, when he suggests we let Siri be our guide, not quite trusting my memory or instincts. “Look, it’s labelled as Burk Lake. That’s not what its called. If Google can’t get its name right, I’m not relying on it for directions. Trust me, my camp is on One Island Lake.”

          I should know, I grew up there. Both my parental and maternal grandparents had camps on the lake, which were magnets for Aunts, Uncles, and best of all, cousins. My summers were spent in life jackets motoring between the two camps, building forts, engaging in full-out water gun war, and swimming, swimming, swimming.   

          K begrudgingly relies on my just-in-the-nick of time “LEFT!”s and “RIGHT!”s to drive us to camp.

           “Remember your Aunt C—Uncle D’s ex-wife? Well, her father was a surveyor,” my mom explains, while cooking five dishes simultaneously in honour of her admittedly spoiled, visiting daughter, “And, he wanted the lake named after him. Tried to get it changed from One Island for years. Eventually he convinced the Ministry that there are two lakes here, where there is, obviously, only one. And the second, make-belief lake, he called Burk, after himself. I guess it stuck.” She shrugs, whisk in one hand, handheld blender in the other.

          Such are the makings of Thunder Bay legends. Nanabijou, the Sleeping Giant. Princess Green Mantle, of Kakabeka Falls. Now, Burk Lake.

           After dinner, nix that, feast, it’s K’s induction to The Sauna. Of course, he’s had a sauna before, but never a Thunder Bay Sauna.

          It’s said Thunder Bay has the largest population of Finnish people, per capita, outside of Finland itself. On One Island Lake, Finnish flags fly proud and wood-engraved signs point to camps owned by families with last names like Koivu, Heikkinen, and Nieminen. Our pancakes are thin like crepes. We eat cured fish on rye bread. And, we love to sauna.

          There are five million people who live in Finland, and three million saunas. It’s a way of life. This tradition made the leap over from the motherland, and transcended to become part of Thunder Bay’s culture. My Italian and Anglo-Saxon friends sauna almost as religiously as my Finnish family. There is at least one sauna on each property on One Island Lake.   

          The traditional Finnish sauna involves sitting on cedar benches and throwing water on hot stones to produce steam. Then, you beat yourself with a bunch of leafy birch leaves. When the heat gets unbearable, you jump into a cold lake or snowbank.

          That’s mostly how it’s done in Thunder Bay, but swap the birch beatings with guzzling hot cans of Molson Canadian.

          “OK, it’s 80 degrees now,” I note.

          “And, 80’s about 30 Celsius?” K asks, face pink, but smiling.

          “No, it’s 80 degrees Celsius,” I correct him. Beads of sweat roll down his skin. He’s concerned. I try to get him excited by explaining how awesome sauna’ing is. He’s in for a treat!

          “Now, what we do is throw a bunch of water on the rocks, get a lot of steam going, until it’s about 100 degrees. Then, we ride it out. If it gets hard to breathe, just put a damp cloth over your mouth. Or, if you’re really a wimp, sit on the lower bench. When we can’t take it any longer, we run out into the lake. It’s freezing, so you’ll cool off quick. Then we do it again!”

          See? Lunatics!

          OK, I get why an outsider may find this intense.  

          “Ah, maybe I’ll ease into the experience,” K suggests.

          “Oh, and, watch out for the mosquitoes!” I add. “There are swarms like zombies! They’ll eat you alive when you get out of the lake. Suck your blood dry. Leave you with welts. But don’t worry, the sauna helps get rid of the itch.”

          I throw the first scoop of water onto the rocks.  

          “Isn’t camp awesome?”


Photo: View From Here by Laura-Lynn Petrick is Copyright, 2016.

7 thoughts on “Camp

  1. Hi,
    It’s exciting to read about your descriptions about Finland and Finns.
    Do you speak any Finnish? It would open to you a door to this part of the world. I live in Lapland close to Swedish border.
    All the best to you from Finland =
    Kaikkea hyvää sinulle täältä Suomesta

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Wow, to have someone from Finland read this is such a pleasure! I should learn Finn. We have an old Bible with handwriting in Finnish in the front and back pages by my great great grandma from Helsinki that we are trying to get translated 🙂


      1. You’re welcome.
        Have you typed the text and tried the Google translator. It does a bad job with Finnish but the idea might come clear. It goes particularly astray with sentence structions because the verbs in English doesn’t agree with the subject (the one who does the action) and you don’t have cases which are 15 in Finnish.
        Try the Google and if there is something which doesn’t clarify to you don’t hesitate to ask.
        Take care


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