If you believe in national stereotypes, then Finns shun small talk in favour of getting straight down to deep philosophical matters. I was sat in a sauna with two Finns, Païvi and Tuomas, and we weren’t discussing the weather. Instead we were comparing how we had given up well-paid jobs so we could live beyond the 9 to 5 grind of office life and pursue our love of swimming. Perhaps I was a Finn in another life.
Finns are also masters of understatement. Finland is known as Land of a Thousand Lakes, although actually there are nearer 200,000 of them. We were staying the night in Villa Takila on the shore of one of them, Lake Päijänne, indulging in a last taste of luxury before an island swimming adventure, wild camping on Kelvenne Island.
The next morning we awoke to bright July sunshine and an early morning dip in the lake. Sitting on the jetty, eating yoghurt and handpicked blueberries, a glitter path glimmered out across the lake. It seemed to sum up summer in Finland – a heady few months, the darkness of winter forgotten, when anything seems possible. A time for adventures and new possibilities.
We lugged our camping gear and food to the end of the jetty and loaded up the small boat that would transport us to Kelvenne. Our pilot was Ismo, who owned the villa we had stayed in that night, and who would later return to Kelvenne to pick us up. We were joined by Markus, a tall and silent wildlife photographer, who was joining us to take photos of us swimming. The four of us squeezed into the small boat, perched precariously on our bags, and we set off to Kelvenne, 10km away.
The sunshine off the lake and the clouds rolling overhead were mesmerising. And then we neared Kelvenne, with its wooded bays, like something out of a children’s adventure story. Ismo drew the boat up alongside the shore and we threw our gear onto the beach. Tuomas lit a fire and brewed up some coffee while I attempted to hang my tentsile from three trees. Eventually I succeeded and lay suspended in mid-air with a view out across the lake and the forest close behind me.
Once we had all set up our tents and bivvies and stowed away our food, thoughts turned to swimming. Lietsaari island is 2.7km from Isohieta beach, where we were camped. We changed into our swimming kit and tied tow floats around our waists. Despite the warm sunshine I stuffed my wetsuit into my bag, just in case I got cold. The water was clear and, despite reading 18.5 degrees Celsius on the thermometer, there were sudden patches of cold. But it was a beautiful swim. We swam past a tiny island with a cairn of white rocks and then onto a spit of sand on Lietsaari. Once out the water we were all a bit shivery – even Tuomas, who was the first Finn to swim the English Channel and has a pioneering Gulf of Finland swim under his belt. I pulled on a jumper I had stowed in my tow float and Tuomas changed into Païvi’s wetsuit and we threw “ducks and drakes” across the lake (“throwing bread” in Finnish). Païvi meanwhile had gone to talk to the owners of a boat moored further up the beach and they invited us on-board for tea and biscuits. Amazingly they also had a sauna on their boat – unfortunately it was not fired up, but the tea was warming enough.
For the return 2.7km Païvi and I wore our wetsuits, while Tuomas swam skins to help with acclimatisation for his planned Strait of Gibraltar swim later in the summer.
Back on Kelvenne we lay in the sun and dozed on the beach. It was hot. Families had arrived in boats and were gathered around the communal cooking fires. Tuomas cooked us pasta with chicken sausage and nectarines. It was delicious and we drank beer and then dozed some more.
Later, we walked through the forest and foraged for mushrooms while being eaten by mosquitos. Back at camp we swam before lying on the sand as the sun set and discussed the importance of spending time in nature, before falling asleep on the beach.
We were awoken from our sleep by the sound of a drone – Markus at the other end of the island taking pictures from the air. We decided to follow him and set off into the forest lit only by the moon and a pink sky reflected in the water of the lake. We weaved through the trees and along deserted beaches, scrambling over rocks before finally catching up with him at the far end of the island. Thick moss carpeted the ground, and we stood on large rocks looking out across the water into the darkness.
Back at camp I climbed into my tentsile and fell asleep. Later I woke up because of the cold and lay looking out across the lake as the sun rose.
The next morning Ismo arrived with his boat to take us back. It had been a short but sweet excursion, and had left me wanting to experience more of Finland’s lakes in summer. But we still had one more swim in Päijänne, a 3km swim from Haukkasalo Island, the site of an elusive 5,000 year old painting of a moose, back to the shore. The water was cold but we pushed the pace to keep warm, swimming in a pod next to the boat. It was the perfect end to our mini-adventure, swimming side by side, a sense of connection with each other and with nature, despite being silent. How very Finnish.