Anica Lee northern Ontario

Find your inner Finn in Thunder Bay

The Anica Lee is no stranger to the waters of  Nipigon Bay in northern Ontario. (Bowman Island Lodge photo)

Story by Rod Charles Deputy Editor

THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO — From the moment our day began at Bay and Algoma in Thunder Bay, I had to check to make sure that I hadn’t been transported to Finland.

Bay Street couldn’t have more of a Finnish influence if it tried. The blue colours of the Finnish flag abound on this street, with a Finnish Book Store and a Scandinavian deli.

We sit down to eat at Hoito Restaurant, located on the ground floor of the Finlandia Club. The place has the scattered look and feel of a church basement, with wooden chairs and folding tables covering the entire floor of the room. I half expect a United Church Women’s meeting to break out.

The only religious experience you’ll find in this building, though, is breakfast, which is served until 7:30 pm. I try out the Karjalan Piirakka with egg salad ($3.30) as an appetizer before turning my attention to the pancakes with sausages, done Finnish style ($7.70), three layers of thin pancakes underneath a healthy serving of maple syrup and butter.

If breakfast at Hoito is one religious experience you’ll find in Thunder Bay (population 122,000), the second is the sauna. Make no mistake — our Finnish friends take their saunas seriously. In these parts the sauna is king and the Finnish influence is strong. Still, I’m surprised just how many cottages and homes have saunas on their properties.

Oh, and by the way … the correct pronunciation of sauna sounds like sow-na, not saw-na. Expect to be admonished with an eyeroll and an enthusiastic finger wag if you say it the wrong way.

Thunder Bay already has a public sauna called Kangas Restaurant and Sauna. And there’s even a store that sells sauna accessories at the corner of Bay and Secord Streets called Finntastic Sauna.

“We’ve got one of the largest populations of Finns living outside Finland, and they’ve experienced the sauna,” says Finntastic Sauna co-owner Eija Pyykkonen, adding that interest in saunas are as strong as ever in the Thunder Bay area. “A lot of university kids come here from all over the world and will go home and build their own saunas in their own homes.”

According to “The first Finnish immigrants to Thunder Bay district arrived before the turn of the century. The number of Finnish people in Thunder Bay district is difficult to determine – a figure of 15,000 is often quoted.”

The forest industry brought the first Finns to the region and their influence has only grown as their numbers ballooned. The saunas, the shops of “Little Finland” on Bay Street and Nordic-style skiing are among the examples of the Finnish heritage in this city on Lake Superior.

Pyykkonen, who moved to Thunder Bay from Toronto, went on to say that when she and her husband were looking for their home, she found that almost every second house they saw had its own sauna.

“In Toronto, homes that have saunas often use them for storage,” said Pyykkonen. “In Thunder Bay, they’re used.”

Finding Finland in Northern Ontario

After breakfast our tour takes us to Nipigon where we’re scheduled to board the Anica Lee, a 45-foot blue and white trawler captained by Gary Lange. I’m a little disappointed. You can’t visit England without eating fish and chips. You can’t visit Daytona Beach without checking out Daytona International Speedway. And now I’ve decided that you can’t visit Thunder Bay without eating a Karjalan Piirakka and visiting a sauna each day.

The journey is peaceful and calm. At the Nipigon Marina we begin our lovely four-hour journey south on the Nipigon River and into Nipigon Bay.

We cruise across Nipigon Bay. The grassy bay at the mouth of the Nipigon River was purchased by the Thunder Bay Field Naturalist, where we see Native pictographs that are believed to be hundreds of years old. The pictographs appear on granite cliffs in places where First Nations ancestors would trade and gather centuries ago.

These pictographs near Thunder Bay are more than 400 years old. (Gary Lange photo)

We dock at Bowman Island Lodge and get settled in for the evening. The lodge is open until the end of October, which is generally about the time winter rolls in. It usually opens around the second week of May, with the level of ice determining the date the tourist season begins.

Captain Lange has a barbecue ready to go within minutes and before long we sit down to a mooseburger, stuffed pork tenderloin with baby potatoes and a tossed salad.

The place has pine walls and three rust-coloured leather couches with windows overlooking the patio and the setting sun. There’s a fisherman’s wheel clock, a picture of a moose, and pictures of speckled trout lining the walls. Lange says that the lodge has had repeat customers for many years.

“For the one group of eight fishermen from Toronto, next year will be their 25th year coming back here,” he said.

Cutting-edge Technology Near Thunder Bay

The art might be a little rustic in this four-bedroom getaway but the kitchen isn’t, with all the trappings of home. There’s a cabin here that can fit another family. There is a flush toilet in the lodge and two outhouses, but no hot water.

There’s also a 1,400-watt array of solar panels that charge batteries to power to a 4,000-watt invertor in the basement that supplies all of the electrical demand at the lodge. Really cool technology. But what’s even cooler is the sauna located just a few yards away from the main building.

Like many cottages, lodges, cabins and homes in the region, Bowman Island Lodge also has a fully functional sauna in the middle of the forest. I can’t wait to get in there and try it out. It’s not that I haven’t been in a sauna before, but to sit in one in the middle of the bush is a new experience.

A large metal pot is connected to the fireplace in the sauna. The water is heated to the boiling point by the same heat source that heats the sauna.

“The water is boiling hot, so you have to be very careful,” warns Lange. “Take out the hot water with the pot and use the cold water from the hose to get it to a temperature you like.”

The next morning I’m up at 5:50. I get the fire started and climb back into bed. A couple hours later I’m back. The water in the pot was warm from the night before but now it’s boiling hot. I take some out and put into a red plastic container and use a water hose to pump in some cold water.

After that, it’s as simple as pouring the warm water over your body for a bona fide cottage shower and a morning steam. I stay there for about 20 minutes and enjoy.

Just another way that you can find your inner Finn on the northern shore of Lake Superior.


Address: Bowman Island Charters  RR #1, Nipigon, Ontario
Phone: 1-807-886-2504
Price: The price for a stay at the lodge ranges from $150 to $250 per day assuming double occupancy and the number of persons in the group. Snacks are served on the boat — more substantial meals are served if guests have a full meal plan.

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