On The ‘Kalle Tihveräinen’ you can still sail on a steamship, on the wooden routes of Lake Saimaa

In central-eastern Finland there’s a water puzzle, where between 14.000 islands you can still meet sailors from hundreds of cities and villages, and thousands of Finnish traditions.

by Aldo Ciummo


To be in front of the Saimaa, almost 1500 kilometres of water, dividing in other lakes (Suur-Saimaa, Orivesi, Puruvesi, Haukivesi, Yövesi, Pihlajavesi, Pyhäselkä), is something that clears up every traveller’s mind, even when used to the Northern part of our Europe. You can see that the liquid mirror where you are does not end over the small boats and the visitors lying at the sun (which, for the rest of the summer, will be very shy in giving itself in Finland); it insinuates placidly in passages of which you cannot see the destination, like every lake that, combining togheter, form the Saimaa. The silence is only interrupted by few boats, quite small, that a hundred years ago would go to St. Petersburg through canals, carrying farmer products and coming back with luxury goods.


Fifty years ago the steamboats used to carry all the wood, even a ton of trunks in one travel fasten up in rafts, a system partially survived, even if today the most part of the traffic doesn’t need it anymore. Finnish friends brought me on one of these silent witness of those ten-yearly routes. I’ve known the heir families of the “Kalle Tihveräinen” and dozens of other stories keeping this tradition in central-eastern Finland. You only think you’re going up together with a cordial crew, but you soon find out that you’re literally entering the lakes, between people happy to share the place they live in, and that get on your boat and invite you at their house: they are people that at the beginning seem to linger behind a film of non-involvement towards the rest of the continent, but, with the same speed with which perceive a little of good faith, give you all the greetings they can, and it’s a lot of it.


I’ve heard that on the third of July the “Kalle Tihveräinen” would have partecipated to the regatta, a tradition that from more than fourty years represents for these people the reappearing of life on the lakes , but I also had the chance to meet the boys of Saimaa regions since the twentyfifth on June, the Juhannus that year (2010), the summer solstice holiday, the longest day, during which the sun does not really set. The steamship (Höyrylaiva) landed from Laaitatsilta, a small private port close to Savonlinna, in the middle of the lakes. Anton Lehto, nicknamed “Asseri”, used to take me to the quay, where his parents were, Tero and Rita, but also Kalle Vasara, Katariina Kokkonen, Paula Lehto, Siru Lilja and his daughter Mari, Pasi Luostarinen with his brother Jarmo and his wife Eija, all of them sailor since they where adolescents, and a lot of other people too.


In these tiny ports (kotisatama) people pleasantly get ready to leave, forming human chains that make piles of fire wood arrive from the quay and disappear in a trap door of the steamboat. It is “pikku” Kalle that puts it in our boiler: “My grandfather was an engineer of these boats. I live in Punkaharju and get on the boat anytime I can – Kalle says. I am the chief engineer, konepäällikö in Finnish. Once I used to spend all the summer long on the lake. Everybody here calles me pikku, that means small.” He always brings some friends between the sailors, and soon becomes friends with the others. You can see in a minute that who is used to stay here is not scary of the water: the little daughters of Anton and Paula, Stella and Nelli, wear a life vest, but they run peacefully around the boat.


“I used to sail since I was a little boy – says the Kalle Tihveräinen’s chaptain, Tero Lehto. I bought this boat in 1967 together with Pentti Roitto, that unfortunately died in 1988. After a period during which this boat used to drag tree trunks to become paper between 1958 and 1965, it stopped for a couple of years. In the 1956 it has also sank, and the Enso Gutzeit company, that brought it afloat, obtained the management of it, since the Saastamoinen company couldn’t afford to get the boat from the lake bed. In the end, as I told you before, we bought it and named it Kalle Tihverainen.You know, these are really meant to be named boats; during the first half of the 1900 they used to arrive up to Saint Petersburg.” Right. One of the first steamboats the Finnish saw arriving here, the Ishora, was coming just from Russia, the empire that comprised this region from 1809 to 1917. The Zar’ general governor (general Meshinkov) was on board. It was 1833: on the same year Finland had its first craft of this type, made by a sawmill’s owner, tired of the travels hazards, travels that were made hard by the narrow passages of the great lake and by the weather conditions, rarely mild, like the ones that frame with azure and grey my conversation with the nice captain Tero. The entrepreneur that started the season of steam in Finland was named Nils Ludwig Arppe. His engine was coming from Saint Petersburg, where the English engineer Mattew Clarkre had made it.


The Illmarinen, named like the Finnish national epic poem’s hero (il “Kalevala”), sailed from Puhos and arrived at Joutseno. From then to the end of the 1800, tens of sailors followed this example, on this big lake excavated by the receding of the ice at the end of the great glaciation, a basin where cities like Lapperaanta, Mikkeli, Savonlinna, Varkaus, Joensu show themselves“. In the 1960′s the steamboats where extinguishing – goes on Tero – the diesel fuel surpassed them, but we still wanted to keep sailing with these boats, that were piling up in small ports. Look how many are there around now”.


Tero makes the chimney whistle every time a similar boat appears; other captains do the same and the passengers lean out and greet. Sometimes they get closer, getting the ropes and watching together the hulls in a peaceful place of the lake; they make passengers get on and friends and relatives meet each other, as well as new faces and also a dog with a life vest peeping in from the prow. Many or them are growing up on the lake, as Pentti Roitto. Roitto died more than twenty years ago who, leaving intact his half of the “KalleTihveräinen“ through the “Pentti Roitto Foundation”, born in 1991, became an inextricable part of the memory of this lake. Siru Lilja, Timo’s wife (Timo was a friend of Pentti) confirmed it “I didn’t partecipated at the regatta all the years, for sure. At the beginnig I was at Lapperaanta, but for all my life I have been bind to this boat. My daughter Mari is an active part of the foundation. Spending our time bringing on these traditions in the most important days of the year makes us feel that the way of living we know in the central-eastern Finland keeps growing”. Also Saara Lilja, Mari’s sister, knows this place in the same way, being often present during these crossings.


So many people meet periodically on the lake, just like on our new trip, which in July the second will take us to the beautiful Porosalmi, and in the July the third’s regatta till Taipale Canal, close to Varkaus. So many persons sail with us or just get on for a few hours. Infact “the principal scope of the foundation – explains Esko Pakkanen, the actual president – is to keep high the culture of the steamboats; to make these means keep being used”. And the life of these silent water street’s witnesses that have always passed through the central-eastern Finland has so much to tell: “Ohionna”, build in 1898 and dismantled in 1960; “Ariadne”, nicknamed the queen of The Baltic sea, that followed the same sort in 1969; “Viola” (before “Frederic Wilhelm”) born in 1893 and sold abroad in 1940. The “Kalle Tihveräinen”, with its twentyseven metres for five, comes from the same event: from 1916 to 1956 it was named “Savo” and from 1958 to 1967 “Puristaja IV”. The story of the Finnish steamboat has also been written in a book by Erkki Rimala: The 150 years of the Finnish Steamship, a significant testimony of a state that has about 60000 basins of freshwater, 12000 of which forming toghether the Saimaa region. Those who are born in these places, apparently shy, are the most welcoming person you will ever find, after they have talked to you for a while. Arrived at Laukansaari, everybody is ready to celebrate the Juhannus. There are other boats, many persons approch the quay and stretch their hands as soon as they know that there are new friends, exclaiming “Terve!” (Hello!). Somebody prepares the fishing rods.


In Laukansaari one of the first things you notice is a building big enaugh, a school, where kids go coming from the islands by rowboats. Then, it has been substituted by the school of Savonlinna, when the connections became faster; it became a place where the “Finnish Steamer Yachting Association” teaches the youth how was the life here. “There are eighty steamboats on the lakes – the president of the Finnish Steamer Yachting Association, the commodore Ari Juva explained to me a few days later – the regatta that takes place between different landings keeps the tradition alive”. Infact, today the organization has three hundred members. In 1968, when those who wanted to see these steamboats survive got together, only four of these where part of the initiative. “Today, in the third July’s regatta on the Saimaa there are twentyfour boats and at least two hundred fifty persons”, remembered Ari Juva. The lake’s inhabitants come and go, they stay with us on the June twentyfifth’s night a Laukansaari. We enjoy a steam bath, a few glasses, some songs and then come back on the “Kalle Tihveräinen”, and they call us on their boat.


Some days later (the third of July) at Taipale Canal, every sailor’s meeting place, they wait on the mainland for a night of music, invite us running on the lake by motorboat and finally come back on board. It is like a single place, scattered on the Saimaa, where everybody knows immediately if you are there. Between the twentyfifth and the twentysixth of June, on a very narrow wood lined stripe of ground in front of Laukansaari, dozens of persons coming from different parts of this side of the lake light an enormous fire for the summer solstice, that burnt for hours, feeded by small boats that shuttle even to the island where we are staying, to carry branches. Those who row call us to come up and see them closer. “There are persons that only want to sail with their family; there are others that prefer sailing with their friends, but everybody is happy that a stranger knows directly our culture. Tonight, however, there must be somebody we know well, since we like to keep in touch with persons who want to share the things we live here and that know the story of the lakes and this region’s inhabitants”, says one of them.


When there was the first regatta, in 1968, my father Tero and my mother Rita, were already on the Kalle Tihveräinen and I was really young – remembers Anton Lehto – My father had the idea. We needed something to keep the culture of these small boats alive. And it worked: everyone knew somebody else and, slowly, years after the steamboats period for the Finnish economy, the lake Saimaa saw the increment of the use of these boats, this time for the private life of people, coming from all the cities of the zone and of the country for the regatta developing every year, without interruptions”. Pasi (evrybody call him Paji) has the same opinion: “the number of those that go on the water is growing. I have been here for sixteen years; someone I knew is not here anymore; some others are here on this night too. I was the stoker, we say Lammittaja.


The initiative of the boys and of their family involved over also high autorities, such as the President of the Republic: “I remember that once also Tarja Halonen got on our steamboat; it was between the 2002 and the 2003 – says Rita Lehto, Tero’s wife – a lot of other things come into my mind, because we have been spending every summer on this boat for more than fourty years It is hard to say how many friends have seen it or got on it. Bringing on a passion like this means a lot of work, but for me it is something that really gives you back the life inside the communities over the lakes”. A meeting that actually could hardly be repeated with the same sensations, of the time stucking pleasantly between a swim and a break by an old jetty and summer houses, so appreciated by the Finnish, in a season where the sun never sets, leaving the lakes and the islands laid down in a bright night that seems, in the middle of the summer, like a Christmas card. How many persons have been or have got on for a few days on the Kalle Tihveräinen: Satu, Jukka, Kati, Mika, Viljo, Joonas, Veera, Marjut, Oskari, Eero. The sunset keep not coming and, when it comes, is suddenly substituted by a downing light: the hours dilate and give more time to friendship. Or maybe are the corners of the Saimaa, lonely like the coast of the Koivukanta, or also enliven by the summer land, like Oravi, that extend the minutes and leave in the memory an exhibition of landscapes and voices, faster than you would expect a week to be.


Foto © Aldo Ciummo