There is a Finnish saying that, if pine tar and the steam of the sauna won’t cure you, then nothing will. It’s an idea that still envelops Thunder Bay, Ont.

“Who doesn’t like the heat?” asks Allan Onchulenko, co-owner of Kangas Sauna. “It’s the feeling afterward. You go in stressed or sore, and you let all that melt away.”

Located on Oliver Road, Kangas is the last operating public sauna in this city of 110,000 people. With prices starting at $22, you can rent one of its 18 saunas for an hour and a half and experience a Finnish way of life. “Every part of our community enjoys sauna, from the young to the old. We have customers who have been coming here for 40 years,” says Allan, who bought the business with his wife, Calley, in 2003. “We can’t imagine it not being a part of what we do.”

Opened in 1968 by the Kangas family, the business is part of a tradition in Thunder Bay where families who lived in homes without running water, or labourers returning to the city after working in the woods, could visit a sauna to bathe and relax. 

“It’s where you go to heal the mind, body and soul. Sauna is everything.” —Kathy Toivonen, Thunder Bay resident

Each of the rooms at Kangas includes an outer change area, middle shower and inner sauna. The saunas are clad in heat-darkened cedar boards covered in the carved names of the generations who have come here to commune with the stones and steam. “This is a ‘good’ place to go,” says Calley. “It’s a positive atmosphere. And, when people leave, they are happy. You will see four generations coming here together.”

“[This] has been happening long before Kangas opened,” says Allan. “There are more than 100 years of sauna culture in Thunder Bay.”

To understand how enshrined Finnish culture is in the city, visit the corner of Bay and Algoma streets, near where the Finnish Labour Temple has stood since 1910. Blue-and-white signs, the colours of the Finnish flag, line the streets, while businesses, such as Finnport, sell Marimekko fabrics, Iittala glass and products featuring the Moomins, hippopotamus-like characters from a beloved children’s book series. 

“Growing up, I didn’t even know to look for my Finnish-ness,” says artist and writer Kathy Toivonen, one of the estimated 15,000 residents of Finnish descent in the city. She grew up surrounded by the food, language and culture of Suomi—Finnish for Finland. 

Illustration by Sally Caulwell.

Toivonen says Finns started immigrating to Canada in the latter half of the 1800s and found a land similar to their own. While Canada was much bigger, its forests, agricultural land and smaller lakes next to a large body of water—Lake Superior rather than the Baltic Sea—was similar to their homeland. Among the first things Finns did when they arrived, even before building their homes, was to construct a sauna. “Sauna is both a noun and a verb,” Toivonen says. “It’s where you go to heal the mind, body and soul.” 

It’s less common today to hear Finnish being spoken and there are fewer stores selling products from Suomi in Thunder Bay. But sauna culture has remained. While many in Northwestern Ontario have saunas at home, Kangas still exists because locals and visitors have embraced it as a way of life. “We had a young fellow in from Toronto and he came in with no idea what to expect,” Calley says. “I showed him around and his reaction was, ‘This is great.’ I came in the next night and guess who was here again?”

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The Finnish Book Store

The Finnish Book Store. Photograph by The Canadian Press.

Opened in 1954 as a place to purchase Finnish-language books, this store now also carries kitchen items, giftware and foods from Finland, including salmiakki (salty licorice). The words, “Got sisu?” are painted on the side of the building. “Sisu has always had a double meaning. In the olden days it was used to mean willful or stubborn children,” says artist and writer Kathy Toivonen. “But today, it is more often used to describe a sense of pride and tenacity and strength.”

This article appears in the February 2020 issue of WestJet Magazine.