The Finnish Smoke Sauna

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So this is what the inside of the smoke sauna at Basecamp Oulanka looks like when it’s cold and just opened up for use. For those who have stayed at Basecamp during the winter, like me you’ll just have walked past the building and wondered what was inside…so I hope you find this little insight interesting..

I was invited to learn about and experience the smoke sauna at Basecamp Oulanka by heating it up from the start…some 5 hours before use…yes, that was 5 hours. I still can’t get over it, I may need to do it again 😀

At around 10am I took my instructions, which I have by my side now, and went down to get started. First thing to do was to remove the wooden seats and mat from the sauna then open the three vents – the photo above is taken at the point that was complete.

Next comes the fun bit..getting the fire going. I’m a girl guider so I should know what I’m doing in that respect..but it proved frustrating, I think I was impatient 🙂 I had been told to start with a small fire, using only birch wood (plenty of that around at Basecamp) to gently warm the stones up and to keep it small for about 20 minutes. The photo below shows my lovely small fire…before it went out…

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Eventually I got it going again, after a telling off for putting big logs on too soon, and the smoke started to rise through the stones..cue next photo below where you’ll see the (too) big logs and you might also spot the obligatory designated poking stick 🙂

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It was interesting to see how the smoke rose and filtered out of the sauna in a way that gave a clear and smoke free lower level so I was able to sit low to stoke the fire without getting the smoke in my eyes and throat. Despite what you may think about such a smoke filled space, it is interestingly such a clean environment that in days gone by smoke saunas were the place where babies were born and bodies prepared for funerals.

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After 20 mins of warming with the small fire, I was at the next stage; time to throw on the big logs and stack them right up. All this time the sauna door and all the vents are still open. The birch burns quickly so I was in and out stocking up on logs and finding space to fit them in. It soon started to feel very hot but it was important to keep the fire full for another 3-4 hours.

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At about 2pm it was time to stop stoking and let the fire burn out. At that point all the vents are closed up and the door closed. It is important to remain by the sauna and check on it every 15mins or so as this is the time when the sauna is most likely to catch fire. Not too much pressure on me then 😮 Another interesting fact – most smoke saunas have a five year life span due to the likelihood of it catching fire. The smoke sauna at Basecamp is older than that…and was still standing when i left 🙂

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(note the poking stick survived, although there were a few moments of panic when I thought I had thrown it on by mistake. It makes me smile to see that picture of it 🙂 )

After about another hour or so, it is time to get the leather gloves on (yes, don’t touch any of the metal without them..ahem) and clear out the ashes. A couple of cups of water are then poured onto the top rocks, the railings cleaned off from the smoke and the seats put back into place.

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It is then ready for occupation!

Despite being called a smoke sauna, and somewhat surprisingly from the amount of smoke produced during heating, when people sit in there, there is no smoke. It is very hot, especially when you have a Finn throwing more water on just when you’re getting used to it, but I felt that I could take the heat in there more than I could in the electric sauna. It didn’t feel such a dry heat..or maybe it was just after so many hours of tending to it and worrying that I would get enough of a fire going for the temperature to gain Finnish approval, I was determined to stick it out!

I was happy to follow the tradition of taking a drink into the sauna with me but I drew the line at then running down to jump in the lake, standing outside for a few minutes was enough of a cool down for me. I was also spared the blushes of following other traditions although I like to think I’d have given it a go – well, when in Finland.. 🙂

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