Throughout most of the country, the middle of February signals winter’s last call. But in a certain tiny island at the top of the world (or at least at the top of the Midwest), it means the season is just hitting its peak.
Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is a landscape of snow-shaggy evergreens, pearly sunsets, and sub-zero temperatures that will put hair on your chest. Life here revolves around the weather patterns dictated by Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake. A Keweenaw winter combines the midwest’s legendary winter storms with “lake effect” snow, smothering this isolated region in an average 12 feet of powder.
That extra helping of snow means world-class Nordic skiing, the best alpine skiing in the Midwest, and guaranteed conditions for snowmobilers, snowshoers, and backcountry enthusiasts a good six weeks longer than anywhere else nearby. But for the miners and lumbermen of past centuries, it meant no travel for local residents between December and March.
For this reason, midwinter in the Keweenaw is an occasion for a weird and wonderful festival known as Heikinpaiva. Originating from a traditional Finnish saint’s day long since abandoned by the old country, this festival gives the typically stoic Yoopers a chance to loosen up in some old-fashioned tomfoolery.
Lasting nearly a month, Heikinpaiva includes an array of outdoor games, community gatherings, and customs dredged up from the ancient past. Here are some of the weirdest and most wonderful highlights from this month-long winter extravaganza in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.
All images courtesy of Chelsea Batten/The Manual.
According to a Finnish proverb, midwinter is when “the bear rolls over onto his other side.” It’s unclear whether the hijinks of Heikinpaiva are celebrating the downhill side of winter, or if it’s celebrating the fact that while the rest of the country contends with black ice and salt damage, they’ve still got a good three months of skiing, ice fishing, and glorious boreal sunsets ahead of them. (We’re guessing the latter.)
Heikinpaiva kicks off with a parade down the main street of Hancock, a town at the base of the Keweenaw. Anchored by the Hankooki Heiki, a local do-gooder chosen for their contribution to Finnish culture, the parade features characters from Finnish legend, the scantily clad marching band of nearby Michigan Technological University, and just about anybody with enthusiasm and an eye-catching costume. At the close of the parade, participants and spectators join hands in a spiraling dance known as karhunpeijäiset.
The most popular event of Heikinpaiva is the wife-carrying contest, a competition requiring strength, speed, and a sense of humor about gender roles. Basic rules require one spouse to carry the other through an obstacle course featuring scenes of traditional Keweenaw domestic life.
Sometimes Husband-Carrying Contest …
This event is more egalitarian than it might seem. Sometimes a woman is not equal to a man — sometimes she is much, much stronger.
Runaway Wife Train
Veteran wife-carriers will tell you the biggest rookie mistake is the “Runaway Wife Train.” Too much momentum plus an invisible snow drift will send both spouses face-planting into the hard pack while everyone laughs.
The Polar Plunge sees hardy locals of all ages cross the frozen Portage River barefoot and launch themselves into a hole in the ice. What looks insane to you and me is, for a Yooper, just a way to get the blood moving. That frozen river is probably only a little colder than the water they bathe in.
We were most amazed at the fact not one contestant flinched when it was their turn to jump into the icy water. To be fair, the water was 20 degrees warmer than the air that day. So, you know, NBD.
Cheesy Finnish Cuisine
Traditional Finnish culture is not necessarily known for its cuisine. One high point, however, is the delicious squeaky cheese called justoaa. With a texture like tofu and a caramelly crust, it tastes like magic when heated in a frying pan and eaten with a blob of raspberry jam.
Even in this proudly historic region, cheesemaking isn’t widely practiced these days. However, the justooa-making workshop at Heikinpaiva might have changed that. Participants young and old shared stories about helping their grandmothers stir the curds, or watching a father slurp his justooa down by the spoonful after soaking a slice in sweet coffee. Also, it unearthed some long-forgotten recipe, such as this gem: “Grandma always used to bake the justooa while she was boiling fish heads for kalamoijakka. When the eyes popped out of the heads, it meant both were done.”
The Finnish kicksled dates back centuries, but it’s still made the same way today: two long runners on the back of a bentwood seat. Powered by core strength and sheer determination, it’s easily the fiercest event of Heikinpaiva (even if it is just for the kids).
Kicksled racing figured as a major event in the Nordic Games, the forerunner of today’s Winter Olympics. If contestant intensity is anything to judge by, it’s probably time to bring it back.
Mentioned in the Kalevala (Finland’s answer to Beowulf), the jouhikko is a musical instrument shrouded in mystery. Related to similar instruments from Wales, Estonia, and Russia, its shape and sound place it somewhere between a harp and a fiddle. With a range of just six notes, the music it makes has a transfixing drone quality that casts a spell over an audience.
The jouhikko has been enjoying a revival in recent years; new players have adapted it to everything from medieval and Renaissance polyphony to modern folk and rock music. Cultural historians reckon this revival is at least partly owing to its popularity as a subject for artistic woodworkers.
Other aspects of Heikinpaiva might be considered a young man’s game, but the elders get their moment to shine during the folk dance that closes the festival’s main weekend. Accompanied by the lilting vowels and skirling melodies of a live Finnish folk band, partners reel around the floor with seemingly effortless footwork, their gaunt faces fixed in scowls of ecstasy.