KEURUU, Finland — Summer in Finland is a brief, perfect moment made of a soothing sun that shines well into the night, scudding white and purple clouds, and birches and evergreens tossing in a lilting breeze. From the moment the sun begins its ascent into the sky in May, Finns escape to their cottages, retreats handed down through generations.
During our several visits to Finland, many of them artist residencies, we often ecountered friends and acquaintances on a Friday afternoon outside the market, where, pausing to stock up on essentials, they murmured something about hurrying off to the mökki, rustic cottages outfitted with wood-burning saunas. In early spring we had sailed through the iced archipelago between Helsinki and Stockholm, admiring the red and brown wood cottages dotting the myriad islands. But even more lay just a few hours away to the north, in the wonders of the lake region in a country lousy with lakes — 187,000 to be exact.
Back home we discovered that out of the roughly half million cottages (for a population of 5.3 million) there were plenty available for tourists, for rent on an individual basis, or at holiday villages and campgrounds. We researched artist residencies looking for one that would offer us a lakeside cottage. Thrilled with a subsequent invitation to Keuruu, a small town in central Finland, last August we headed for the shores of Keurusselkä.
After flying into Helsinki, we provisioned at the farmers’ market near the train station for the 3½-hour ride ahead. As the train stopped in small towns along the way we ate sweet fat peas in the pod and curried chicken sandwiches with cucumbers on thick, crusty bread.
Arriving in Keuruu, a small town of 11,000, we set out on the short walk to Santu’s House, named for a local artist whose estate left the cottage to the town. We found it just down a gravel lane, by the 18th-century Lutheran church: a brown wood cottage with ochre shutters and overhanging eaves set in a clutch of birch trees and a riot of raspberry canes that would be our home for the next month.
Only a walking path separated the cottage from Keurusselkä, one of Finland’s largest lakes, covering 45.3 square miles. The opposite shore was rimmed by a deep forest of evergreens and birches, punctuated by the occasional house or cottage barely perceptible through the trees.
Our first evening, we settled onto the back porch overlooking the water for a dinner of smoked mackerel smothered in rosépippuri, a dark red peppercorn with a sweet, moist center. A salad of tomatoes, cucumber, leaf lettuce, and fresh dill followed, and a fresh bread laden with pumpkin and sunflower seeds and split grains of whole rye, washed down with smoked beer.
Giddy with the light’s tenacious hold, we set off on a midnight walk to the island beach of Saurasauri. Only our footsteps and the slow drip of water from an earlier shower falling from the birches and evergreens broke the deep silence. Darkness never came. Instead there was perpetual twilight, all but the softest light drained from the sky.
The next day, despite intermittent showers, we followed the footpath near the cottage, climbing a hill to cross the lake and reach the nearby beach.
In this moment Keurusselkä was ours alone. Stepping in, the water was cold, probably 65 degrees, and tinged a remarkable beer bottle brown by sediment from the lake’s bottom. Waist deep, the sandy beach dropped off into mud. Swimming out we crossed currents, pockets of warm, then invigorating cold.
We slipped out of our suits in the beachside changing room and hurried home where the warm sauna waited. Inside its close pine walls, the sharp green smell of the birch branches we had gathered that morning greeted us.
The old Finnish proverb, Saun on koha apteet — “The sauna is the poor man’s apothecary” — took on new meaning. Besotted with the luxury of an at-home sauna, we found ourselves in the coming weeks seeking its warmth on chilly mornings, before and after swimming to leach out the chill of the lake, and at night to relax muscles tight from a day of hiking.
Over half of the world’s sauna sales are in Finland, evidenced by the sauna accessories found in every market in the village. We brought home bottled tar concentrate to mix with water and throw on the rocks to emulate the smell of the smoke sauna. We smeared ourselves with lavender honey that liquefied with the heat to moisturize the skin.
As the days bled pleasurably into one another we walked the intricate system of bike and walking paths that traverse Keuruu, making it possible to go nearly anywhere in town without encountering cars. We stopped to watch the clouds float over the lake, to listen to the water wash the shore, and to forage.
Like true Finns, we enjoyed “everyman’s right,” the unspoken law that allows hiking, picking berries, apples, mushrooms, and even short-term camping nearly anywhere. I grew accustomed to the taste of berries in my mouth and fingers stained accordingly. Here was the hill where bilberries, small cousins of the blueberry, and lingonberries flourished. The red of raspberries, huge and untouched, broke the green of the woods; currents and chokeberries begging to be preserved (we did, and shipped them home) proliferated on the vacant lot by the library. Nettles for soup lined the path, dandelion greens provided us with salad, and apple trees gave us more fruit. We swore off picking mushrooms after a photo e-mailed to a friend in Helsinki brought this rapid response: “Do not eat! This is kärpässieni, our most poisonous mushroom, also known as death cup and destroying angel.”
Instead, at the market we supplemented our wild bounty with fresh chanterelles and cepes, sautéing them with garlic and a bit of cream to serve over pasta; salmon and whitefish planked on birch and smoked over juniper branches; beet pancakes with sour cream; and an array of hearty rye breads.
By the end of our stay, the birches were just beginning to turn to gold, signaling the beginning of autumn. We would miss the cowberries, crowberries, and cranberries September would bring. But the act of scrubbing down the sauna and kitchen, sweeping out the porch, laundering the linens and hanging them to dry in the now crisp air, and closing the double-paned windows allowed us to feel we were readying the cottage for winter and engaging in a timeless ritual that reinforces Finns’ special bond with nature.