July, Finland. The season of festivals and hedonism, the great collective unwinding of a nation. Heavyweights such as Ilosaari Rock, Tuska, Pori Jazz, and Ruisrock. Festivals that are on the rise, such as Bättre Folk, and the seemingly-endless grassroots community initiatives. No matter your predilection, you can find something that suits you festival-wise. Arriving in Kajaani, Kainuu region, I was presented with something entirely unique – Oulujärven Rock-risteily.
Kajaani sits on the edge of Oulujärvi, Finland’s fifth largest lake, which can be broken up into multiple järvenselkä (open lakes). Affectionately referred to as ‘The sea of Kainuu’, it’s a dominating feature and wholly representative of the natural beauty that Finland has on offer. Within Oulujärvi resides Ärjänselkä (ärjä means ‘a windy place’), one of Finland’s most extensive inland open lakes. In the middle, you can draw a circle about the size of 80 square kilometres, within which not a single island resides. Needless to say, it resembles more of an open sea than a lake.
The weather was perfect on a Saturday morning – a moderate breeze, around twenty degrees, and the endless summer sun that maintained the necessary vibe, while perfunctorily committing to its energy role. An idyllic setting for a boat full of people ready to see Oulujärvi, listen to bands onboard and in harbours, all while voyaging to the well-regarded Ärjänsaari and back. For the second year running, Rock-risteily (Rock Cruise) is a collaboration between Rauniokaupunki ry (a local events and culture promoter) and Oulujärven Laiva-Osakeyhtiö (Oulu Lake Shipbuilding Company) – the former organises the event, provides the bands and patrons, and the latter arranges the transport – the enchanting SS Kouta.
SS Kouta was constructed in the 1920s and acted as a transport for fifteen years. Speaking to one of the co-owners, Ollis, he filled me in a little of its original purpose. “The passenger route operated from Kajaani to Sotkamo. The marketplace was in Kajaani, so every morning it took people from Sotkamo and all the places along the way, and brought people to the marketplace, and then took them home.” Following the construction of roads in the area and increasing the popularity of personal vehicles, it continued its life as a tugboat after the need for passenger services diminished. “For 30 years it worked as a tug: in the summertime, it pulled logs. On Monday morning they left and returned on the weekend, living in the docks.” The ship’s history book on board attests to this period, filled with the kind of debauchery you’d expect from sailors living on the ship for most of the week at ‘sea’.
For ten years, SS Kouta sat as its future was undecided. In 1975 it was purchased by new owners, and rebuilt as a passenger ship, and since the 1980s, it has been operating as a passenger ship in Oulujärvi. Ollis and his co-owner, Ari, bought the vessel in 2011, six summers ago.
“This is a hobby, but the other owner (Ari) and I, we have been on these boats from a young age. Ari has a degree in steam engineering, and I have a skipper degree, though just the mandatory one.” In between our conversation, the steam engine reliably clanks along, creating a somewhat soothing rhythm as background noise. More apparent though is the smell: Kouta is fragranced with burning birch, which is now used instead of oil to power the steam engine. “From the beginning, the previous owners had an oil heater as the main power source. For the first couple of years, we had that, but we threw it away.” The engine and boiler are still the originals and are soon approaching a centenary of service. “The boat was in very good shape when I got it. The previous owners had looked after it. We had to rebuild a little of the hull, the iron needed changing… a bit too rusty. We changed the pipe, and a little painting here and there, that kind of stuff. In the 1920s, they made it to last.”
The crowd slowly assembled at Kalkkisilta pier in Kajaani before the 11am departure. As the Kouta could legally carry sixty people, twenty were to be performers, and the remainder patrons and staff. The demographic assembling was not immediately identifiable: young musicians, older locals, and a smattering of individuals. One man had reportedly tried to sell his ticket prior as his friends had changed their mind, but he was unable to find a buyer. Fortunately, he came armed with an insulated ‘travel suitcase’, concealing a wine sack nestled carefully inside, and a convenient opening to place the tap through. He wouldn’t be concerned by the lack of company and would have trouble walking by the day’s close.
Leaving Kajaani, Kouta was resplendent with its cargo of people warming up to the summer’s energy. The boat screamed a high pitch whistle just after a bridge was opened via a remote control onboard: the final barrier before the open expanse of Oulujärvi. We passed the docks where Kouta rests, along with other steamboats in the area. Ollis quickly clarified the numbers and Kouta’s position. “We want to maintain the steamboat culture, and this is northernmost inland steamboat in the world. There are about 96 or 98 steamboats in Finland, and then most of them are privately owned and used. As a passenger ship and use, maybe 10-15. Most of them are in the Saimaa area.” As the boat progressed to its first port of call, the resident DJ eased the patrons’ with some enthusiastic choices and a carefree attitude. It was hard to not get sucked into the charms of the boat and open water, in addition to Finns ready to let loose.
I couldn’t wait any longer: the engine room beckoned and I had many questions to ask the local expert, Ari. As the SS Kouta is a museum boat, it is subject to special allowances. The engine room access is not restricted, nor are many of the openings in the boat, giving it a very authentic feeling and adding to the openness of the event. Anyone onboard was welcome to descend the two access points and have a chat. Stepping down into the engine room, the temperature was immediately apparent and visible on the worker’s’ faces. Two men worked down below, feeding wood into a long and cavernous fire. At the captain’s directive, a bell would grab the worker’s attention, where you could then place your ear and listen to his voice through a metal tube that ran all the way up to the wheelhouse. The temperature gauge read 45 degrees, yet the boisterous guts of the ship provided distraction from the temperature. Ari, the other owner of the ship, explained the inner-workings of the steam-engine and fielded answers to all of my predictably naive questions.
From cold, the engine room takes eight hours to heat, and only one and a half if it’s already warm. Birch is the choice of fuel as it’s widely available in Finland and burns well. Every now and again, a private contractor twenty kilometres away delivers the wood via tractor, and the engine chews through ¼ cubic metre per hour. “If you take that as heat converted to mechanical power, you get 10% efficiency”, Ari reels off with ease and confidence that speaks to his expertise. It’s reportedly a fairly common percentage. Thankfully, the water for the steam engine is taken from the lake, given that is so clean and devoid of salt. The ‘open lake’ has its advantages.
The first port was Paltaniemi pier, a popular beach that we had a little break on. Included in the programme was a drama performance, which I unfortunately missed as food was being served before arrival and I lost focus, but at least the morning swim was seized. It was a brief stop to relax and take in the views, before continuing our journey to Ärjänsaari. The first band performed in between the harbours: Tämän Oven Takana. The band played in the ship’s cabin as it putted to the next destination, large enough to house around twenty people. The music spilled out the sides, so it wasn’t essential to pack in like sardines. The acoustic guitar, jazz-styled brushes on the drums, and Finnish lyrics melded together to warm up the boat as we entered the more open expanses of the lake. Soon enough, the distinctive features of Ärjänsaari were visible, punctuated by the dramatic clouds near the horizon. Behind SS Kouta followed boats that got intrigued by the day’s activities, knowing that music would be showcased at each stop from hereon in.
Ärjänsaari is an island famed for its numerous beaches: around 10 kilometres in total of sand-covered beaches. Its unusually steep dunes sit on the water’s edge, with dense pine forests visible on top, making the island owned by Kajaani an object of desire for holidaymakers, particularly given that it has no permanent inhabitants. Its size and isolation are impressive after bobbing along the water, as is the harbour that greets you – filled with visitor’s boats and people embracing the sandy beaches and cool water.
It was the midpoint of the cruise and another drama performance began on arrival. On the bow, pirates screamed the announcement of our docking, brandishing swords and suitable eye makeup, taking members of the staff captive in the process. Everyone on board got a kick out of it and it heralded more entertainment to come as the pirates transformed back into to regular members of the boat. The local Kajaani band Fluxo Duro were getting set up on the bow of Kouta. Given the bossa nova / Latin focus of the music, the band included two percussionists and managed to squeeze them in with the remainder of the band in a tight space. People disembarked to walk on the long beaches, swim in the water or wander into the forest, while the mixer rapidly assembled equipment on the pier. After arriving in the steamboat with pirates on board yelling, people were naturally curious. As cables were being laid, the P.A system mounted, and the mixing desk moved up the pier, a small crowd of holidaymakers amassed near the ship. Others stayed in their boats, or in their coveted positions on the beach. Yet the excitement was palpable.
Arriving via SS Kouta is odd enough, nestling itself amongst smaller vessels and day-trips setups. The whistle on board grabs the attention of the entire island, as does the age of the ship. Yet arriving at a popular island with a performance, and then bossa nova being belted out for an hour or more – the feeling was certainly sublime and unique, especially given it was in Finland in high summer. Fluxo Duro commanded the “stage” and the crowd, who just couldn’t get enough, cheering for more and dancing in the heat, with some people from the island enjoy the service a little too much, and in the process, trying to board the ship to use the toilet.
People danced on the pier and seemed deflated after the final song, as Kouta prepared to leave again, giving the requisite whistles to make sure no one was left behind on the way back to Paltaniemi pier. Shortly after leaving, The Jarkko Kumpulainen duo soothed any one who was distressed at the cessation of Fluxo Duro, with the pair playing in the main cabin to a packed room intently listening to the somewhat typical and comforting Finnish simplicity, emphasising lyrics and space in the music.
When I asked about the decision to buy the boat, a large grin comes across Ollis’ bearded face, complete with skipper’s hat and a black uniform. “There is a story that our spouses tell… my spouse, she was at work, and her colleague came and said that her colleague’s partner had bought a small motorboat, and not told her about it. She remarked, ‘How can men be so stupid to buy a boat and not tell their partner?’ My wife then responded, “But hey, Ollis came home one day and said that he had bought a steamboat.” From the time that Ari and Ollis discussed the idea of buying a ship in a sauna, it took one year to make the purchase. Ollis elaborated further: “I believe that in business that you always have to find the customers first. I already had 5 customers interested in purchasing a cruise. Then when we had those, we knew that ok, this could work. We closed the deal on the ship and started in 2011. Taking companies out is our main business, in addition to these kinds of cruises.” For example, Oulujärven Laiva-Osakeyhtiö is working on a similar jazz-themed concept for later in the summer.
The idea of a ship touring with bands on board is not unheard of in Finland. Lake Saimaa, the largest lake in Finland, played host to a documentary filmed by the famed Aki & Mika Kaurismäki, Saimaa-ilmiö (Saimaa Gesture). It followed the tour of three Finnish bands, Hassisen Kone, Eppu Normaali, and Juice Leskinen Slam on their Tuuliajolla tour, as a boat stopped at various cities and piers to perform to the locals. Similarly, it was on SS Heinävesi, another steamboat in operation, and it must have served as an inspiration for Oulujärven Rock-risteily.
Arriving back at Paltaniemi pier, the process was familiar by now. The people on board disembarked again and found positions on the grass opposite the boat, as Kaneli, three sisters from nearby Vaala, setup on the side of the boat. There were some complications with the speakers which caused a significant delay to the schedule, but it was a non-issue: the weather was unbeatable, the island quiet, and the lake in full splendour in its idyllic season. Sandwiches were handed out by staff to keep people going, and the band finally got underway, pumping out a captivating blend of rock, folk, and grunge, wrapped up in a tidy package of the three singing together.
Hurrying back to Kalkkisilta, the DJ soothed the weary, sun-soaked passengers. The final band performing their debut show, Kero, were scheduled for 9pm. Even though we arrived at 10pm, there was a group of locals to greet us, and the band was soon underway. Unfortunately I had to leave at that point, and missed Kero, but the feeling of walking away from SS Kouta was one of satisfaction and good fortune: I had born witness to an entirely unique festival in a majestic part of Finland, got to speak to people from the area, and felt as though I had a better appreciation for the splendour, freedom, and abandon of the summer festival season.