:: Article

The Sauna King

Words by Des Barry.

Photography by Kristian Helgesen.



We’re in search of moonshine. I’m in a car with Diego Vidart, a Uruguayan photographer, and Kristian Helgesen, a Norwegian photographer.  We’re heading from Helsinki to Kitee, a small town among the woods and lakes on the Finnish-Russian border, somewhere northeast of St Petersburg. The organizers of the Montevideo Biennale of Photography want us to install an exhibition ‘to explore the narrative limits of photography.’ To do this Diego has created an alter-ego, Esko Tikanmäki, son of a Finnish Tango musician, Matti Tikanmäki. We aim to gather ‘evidence’ to make the existence of Esko Tikanmaki Portogales real. And to do that we want to go to the village where Esko’s father died, drunk on pontika, the Finnish version of moonshine.

I’ve worked with Diego previously on two projects: one in the Falklands to mark the 25th anniversary of the war, and the other a multiplatform project about the disappearance of a theatre director in Argentina. Kristian, a friend of Diego, works for VG, Norway’s main newspaper. Kristian has been in the Congo six times. He covered the trial of two Norwegian mercenaries who had been sentenced to death for the murder of their driver.

On the first night in Kitee – or twilight because it never really gets dark in June – we explore some derelict houses on the Kitee lakeside. On the lakeshore, we come across a local photographer, Aladar Bayer, who’s covering a father-son fishing competition on a nearby jetty. It seems coincidental that our story concerns a fictional father and son from Kitee. Bayer happens to speak Spanish as well as English because he’s lived in Barcelona.

‘We want to find some moonshiners,’ Kristian says.

Bayer shakes his head. He asks if we’re trying to present his hometown as a cross between Kaurismaki and David Lynch. But he invites us to come to his office the next day, so he can interview us.

The next morning, at the newspaper office, he apologises for having to do a really formal interview with us ‘but it’s the paper’s style.’ Midway through the interview a big bearded guy comes in wearing a black tee shirt with the slogan ‘Rakia – Connecting People’. His name, he says, is Plamen Dimov, and he’s heard that we’re looking for pontika… rakia… moonshine. He offers to meet us the next day and drive us into the woods. Not twenty-four hours in Kitee and we have a lead.

The next day, Plamen is wearing a black tee shirt emblazoned with the word ‘Nightwish’. Plamen drives a battered Mercedes. We get in.

‘Nightwish are the biggest metal export from Finland,’ he says. ‘And I taught them all how to play.’

He slides a CD into the sound system. We get deeper into the woods on dirt roads.

‘This sounds like Carmina Burana,’ I say to Kristian.

‘It’s operatic metal;’ Kristian says, ‘you get dark lyrics sung sweetly against metal riffs. Some of the bands in Norway are a lot darker. They use Norse mythology and some of them are Nazis… Satanists… Some of these metal fans burned down about fifty churches in the nineties. One guy in Norway — Varg Vikernes stabbed a guy to death. That’s the crazy end of the spectrum.’

‘I have a studio,’ Plamen says. ‘Nightwish all started there.’

I try to keep track of the turns we make on the dirt roads but I’m lost after the first four or five. We pull up at a lakeside house, a long low log cabin looking out over a vast calm lake.

‘These are some friends of mine,’ Plamen says. ‘Jouko and Pirjo.’ 

A couple who appear to be in their sixties come off the veranda to greet us. Jouko is short, well built under a red and white striped shirt and black shorts, with long grey blond hair, a gold earring, glasses and a circular medallion around his neck with runes and a strange arcane symbol. His wife, Pirjo, has brown hair, neatly cut, and a Marimekko top over a dark skirt. They invite us into their home. We sit down in the living room. It’s spacious and everything is polished wood.

Jouko pours each of us a glass of pontika. He doesn’t pour a glass for himself.

‘I don’t drink any more,’ he says.

Pirjo sits on the veranda and leaves us to talk. The clear liquid is smooth and strong. It tastes too good to be backwoods moonshine.

‘What’s on the medallion?’ I said.

‘This is my family symbol,’ Jouko says. ‘It dates from 1452.’

‘Jouko and I are of the same clan,’ Plamen says. I know that Plamen is Bulgarian so I assume he must be related through his wife, Leena.

The runes on Jouko’s medallion are neither Cyrillic nor Latin. The symbol is a cross with a diagonal arm.

We leave the house and go out onto the peninsula that is on a vast lake that stretches out to the horizon.

‘This is the second deepest lake in Finland,’Plamen says, ‘ocean ships can sail on it.’

Jouko has seven saunas on his land —on the lakeside to see the sunset, deep in the pine woods, small saunas for him and Pirjo.

‘This is the first sauna I built,’Jouko says. ‘Then I built the house. But let’s go to the savusauna –the smoke sauna.’

Smoke sauna is the most ancient form of Finnish sauna. Something totally elemental about it: fire, wood, water, heat, air, earth and darkness. The savusauna building is black among the pines and aspens. The logs are massive. The only wood that isn’t black is the door.

‘This sauna almost burned down,’ Jouko says. ‘Some guests were here from Helsinki. The stones inside were red hot and they tried to make them white hot. Then someone opened the door and the air rushed in and the whole sauna burst into flame. Luckily no one was killed.’

‘They were all drunk on pontika,’ Plamen says. ‘Jouko had about a litre inside him. He was a hell of a drinker once. But he doesn’t drink any more.’

‘The fire brigade managed to put the fire out and save the sauna,’ Jouko says.

‘He called me that night,’ Plamen says. ‘Told me the sauna was burning. I said, “My god, that cost you 100,000 Euros.” And Jouko said, ‘I don’t care about the money, I just want to enjoy my sauna.” This is all he cares about. One time he was wandering about for weeks from sauna to sauna, naked as a baby. Pirjo was worried about him. But then he stopped drinking.’

Inside the black sauna, to our left, stands the wood stove covered by a pile of massive stones. The whole building reeks of smoke. It’s dark inside. Only two small shutters are open to let in the light. They’d be used to let out the smoke after the wood firing. And then shut again to keep in the heat. Jouko climbs the stairs to the first level.

‘This level is for women and children,’ he says.

We climb a couple of meters onto the next platform.

‘This is the medium level.’

We climb to the highest point in the roof.

‘This is where I sit,’ says Jouko.

‘It’s his throne,’ says Plamen. ‘He’s the Sauna King. He was in the national sauna competition once… a few years before the one where a guy got killed. Jouko came second.’

‘Come back in Sunday,’ Jouko says. ‘I’ll prepare this sauna for you.’


Jouko’s white hair falls to his shoulders from under a soot-covered Russian Army Airborne cap that has King embroidered above and Nuutinen below the red star. His body is pink and plump and all he’s wearing – other than the cap – is a gold earring in his left ear and the gold medallion around his neck with the strange cross-like symbol. He’s standing outside his smoke sauna with a massive hand-carved wooden ladle in his hands. The huge logs of the two-story building are blackened with soot. The door looks new. On the outside wall hangs a carved relief of two storytellers, their hands entwined, an image from the Kalevala. On another carving over the door is the name of the smoke sauna, Joukahainen, for a hero in the ancient Finnish epic.

This savusauna has three tons of stone inside which he has heated by burning a massive wood fire inside for about five hours. There is no chimney so the building fills up with smoke. Then Jouko opens two small shutters on the first and second levels to let the smoke out. When the air is breathable, we can go inside.

‘Is it hot?’ Plamen asks Jouko.

‘Not hot,’ Jouko says. ‘Just ready.’

We all drop our clothes and hang them on the veranda pegs.

‘Look at his chest,’ Plamen says. ‘He was wearing an eagle medallion in there once and it left that round scar on him.’

Jouko laughs. He takes off his medallion and his earring.

‘Let’s go inside,’ he says. ‘Bring some water buckets.’

Inside it’s black. Two narrow shafts of light come through the shutters above us. To our left, stands the wood stove; and upon it, the huge pile of hot stones that radiate intense heat.

‘Be careful of them,’ Jouko says.

Jouko is carrying the huge carved ladle and a whisk of fresh birch twigs. We balance up the stairs to the middle platform with a bucket in each hand. Jouko puts down the ladle and puts the whisk, leaves first, in one of the water buckets. He splashes water on to the wooden benches to cool them down so we can sit. The bench is still hot when my bare thighs press onto it. The air is hot and dry. I start to sweat. Plamen is to my right, Diego and Kristian to my left.

Jouko picks up the huge carved ladle and dips it into a bucket of water. He hurls the water onto the stones. A roar and a hiss and few seconds later a cloud of intense steam heat blooms around my body. I breathe in heat. I fear for my nasal and bronchial passages and my eyelids. It’s dark in there. Above us the shutters are only half open to keep the heat in.

I’m aware that extreme sauna and sweat lodge experiences have been subject to legal scrutiny because of two incidents: the death of one finalist – and the hospitalization of another – in the Finnish national sauna competition of August 2010; and the conviction of James Arthur Ray for negligent homicide in a sweat lodge in Arizona where three people died and eighteen injured during a New Age version of the ritual.

Jouko laughs as I recover from the burst of steam. Plamen is impassive. Okay. This is a macho thing. Jouko hurls another dipper full of water onto the stones. A roar. A wave of heat comes up from below and rolls over us. Steam penetrates my bronchial passages and the pores of my body. I’m dripping. I can’t decide whether it’s better to breathe through my nose or my mouth. I can’t get enough air in my lungs through my mouth and I’m worried that the inside of my nose will scorch but that’s the way I get the most oxygen so that’s what I do. I’m determined to stay here. To my left, Diego and Kristian go down a level. Presumably it’s a little less intense down there.

Jouko throws another dipper full of water onto the stones and I try to relax into the sensation. The heat drives all thoughts out of my head.

‘It’s primordial,’ Plamen says.

I concentrate on breathing. Sweat is pouring off my body. I don’t know how long we sit in the burning darkness, heat and wood smoke. I am just dealing with the raw sensation of present moment.

‘Now we go to the lake,’ Jouko says.

A sense of relief. Jouko leads the way downstairs.

The sunlight is bright through the trees. We waddle toward the lakeshore: fat, naked, spindly arms and legs like babies, and wade into the cold water. Jouko dives underwater. I dive forward. Diego and Kristian follow with cameras. Plamen has stayed on the sauna veranda.

I swim forward. The cold is intense. My tackle shrivels up in the freezing water. At fifteen I would have been shy about this but at my age I’m happy to be how I am and what I am. The cold is as intense as the heat and I like it less. I swim to the shore. Diego and Kristian have been in the water but they want to shoot some pictures.

I follow Jouko back up the path to the black sauna. He dips his feet in a bucket of water to free them of pine needles and leaf mold. I do the same. All of us sit on the benches below the woodcarving on the wall and drink a little water, a little beer.

‘My wife Pirjo named each of the saunas after a different character in the Kalevala,’ Jouko says.

‘What’s happening in the story depicted in the carving?’ I ask.

‘Better ask Pirjo,’ he says.

Jouko doesn’t talk a lot at all. He does laugh a lot. I’m getting chilly sitting naked outside the sauna. I’m glad when we go back inside. Jouko takes the birch whisk out its bucket of water and slaps at his body to stimulate the circulation. He dips the leaves in the bucket again and hands the whisk to me. The wet green leaves are soft as I slap at my skin. I put the whisk back in the bucket.

Jouko hurls another dipper full of water onto the stones: roar, hiss and the bloom of the heat cloud. My skin is blotched red. The heat relaxes my muscles; drives away all thought.

Plamen says, ‘I asked Jouko if he would get the sauna to its hottest, but he said, “No, they’re guests, they have to enjoy their first real experience of sauna.”’

I tell Jouko and Plamen about the sweat lodges that I experienced in the USA. How for five years, I had never felt at home in the Americas until I’d gone through that experience in the woods in Massachusetts.

‘I know how to make them,’ Jouko says.

He doesn’t say any more. He just throws more water on the stones and the heat rolls over us. We sit in silence for a while. I take the handle of the birch whisk and it’s hot. I dip the handle in the water bucket to cool it down. I slap at my body and I can’t tell whether my body is running with sweat or water from the leaves.

Plamen is the first to move. Jouko and I go down to the lake again and dive in. Kristian is behind us with a camera. Diego stays with Plamen on the veranda. Jouko hangs his cap on the branch of a tree. The sun is lower over the lake and a chill in the air. Kristian shoots pictures. The water feels colder this time and I’m happy to get out of it.

Jouko puts his cap back on. When we get back to the veranda, Plamen says, ‘Look at this man, he doesn’t have skin, he has leather.’

Jouko laughs and heads back into the sauna. I follow him in.

Jouko and I sit in the heat and the darkness before the others enter again.

‘What do you get… psychologically… from the sauna?’ I ask.

Jouko looks at me in silence for a while and then he says, ‘I can’t put it into words. I just feel so good in sauna. I enjoy so much.’

His red face is relaxed. His long wet hair hangs to his shoulders. The sooty cap rests on his head. My hair is hot. Is this why he wears the cap, to protect his head? Plamen, Diego and Kristian come in. Jouko throws a dipper full of water onto the stones. The heat blooms and it’s too intense to think.

Is this why Jouko is so happy? No thought, pure presence.

Jouko is sharing something with us out of the pure pleasure of sharing his pure pleasure. I feel sad when Jouko gets up to go to the lake again. I follow him down there because I feel I have to. Kristian is filming again. The lake is far too cold now. Jouko and I wade out onto the shore. Kristian has a towel around his waist, a camera in his hand.

‘Are you the Sauna King?’ he asks.

‘What, here?’ Jouko says waving a hand around his land.

‘In Finland,’ Kristian says.

‘Once there was a competition,’ Jouko says, ‘and I came second. I should have come first but I came second.’

He looks a little disappointed, but not much.

Jouko pulls on his old Russian Airborne hat embroidered in red with the words King Nuutinen. He lifts a hand toward his house, his six smaller saunas, his wife’s private chapel in the woods, and the massive black smoke sauna among the trees.

‘You see?’ he says, ‘You see? This is paradise.’


Des Barry has published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. His PhD thesis called The Escape of the Imaginary Author is about David Enrique Spellman and the multi-platform novel Far South. His shorter prose has been published in The New YorkerGranta and in anthologies including Sea Stories andLondon Noir. His first novel, The Chivalry of Crime, won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. He tweets from @farsouthproject.


Kristian Helgesen was born in Trondheim, Norway in 1983. After finishing a degree in Documentary Photography at University of Wales, Newport, he returned to Norway working for national newspapers and magazines, and pursuing personal projects.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 13th, 2014.