Reindeer in da Copper Country

Reindeer in da Copper Country

As da Finns around the U.P. would say:  We go Heikinpaiva today.  We go Copper Country.  We go Hancock and celebrate da middle of da winter, “when the bear rolls over on his side”.

Not being a born-and-bred Finn, I can only give an outsider’s perspective.  Here’s the scoop:  the Copper Country, that little jutting finger of land in the northwest part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, began hosting the Heikinpaiva mid-winter celebration way back in 1999.  It’s been celebrated in Finland for ages.  There’s fun and activities for all! 

Included in the festival (I am not kidding about any of these):  wife carrying, boot throwing, parade complete with reindeer, a market known as a Tori, dogsled demos, and other Finnish games. 

We missed the wife carrying, a fact I sincerely regret.  We did attend the children’s division of the boot throwing competition.  An announcer said “go” and the young ‘un tossed the boot with great gusto and fervor across the snow-covered playing field.  I believe the first boot almost hit the announcer.  One of the subsequent boots headed our way. 

Watch out for that boot!

Watch out for that boot!

The bank thermometer across the way announced 4 degrees.  The wind sneered at that and blew with fierce gusto, defying anyone to think it warm.  Photographers froze their fingers in less than a moment.  I struggled to learn how to take action shots and felt disappointed.  It’s much easier to photograph docile tree branches, isn’t it?

Guess what the big excitement of the afternoon was?  What would be the craziest most daring thing one could do at frigid temperatures?  How about take a plunge into the ice-covered Portage Canal in a bathing suit?

Yes, indeed, the Polar Plunge highlighted the afternoon’s festivities.  We were frozen icicles by the time it took to walk a half mile from our car to the lake.  What in the world would inspire a soul to strip down and dive into the freezing water?  Yet dozens and dozens of folks (mostly the younger generation) ran yelling and exuberant towards the hole cut in the ice and jumped in.

A little plunge in Lake Superior

A little plunge in Lake Superior

When two elementary-aged girls ran giggling and happily towards the ice, you could hear the crowd gasp.  Most of the plungers seemed like high school athletes or perhaps Michigan Technological University students wanting to spice up the weekend with some freaky entertainment.  You could almost imagine them calling home to Mom and Dad, “Hey, guess what I did this afternoon!”

Anyone want more history about this mid-winter event?  First of all, there’s lots of Finns living in the Copper Country.  Someone has suggested 40% of the population claimed Finnish ancestry during the last census. This holiday celebrates a fellow called St. Henrik, a patron saint of Finland.

I hesitate to repeat the sordid story of the saint’s murder, as it’s not pretty.  Here’s the link in case you choose to read for yourselves:  http://www.mtulode.com/node/460 .  What interested me was the grand finale of the tale.  After Henrik died and became a saint, the murderer spent the rest of his life being tormented by mice attempting to eat him alive.  (No one can say the Finns don’t know how to tell a good story….if you have an entire winter with nothing to do, read their mythology in a book called the Kalevala….)

Besides the saying about the bear rolling over in his den on this day, there’s a couple other proverbs tossed around to explain this mid-winter celebration.  One is “Heikki divides the hay” and the other is “winter’s back is broken.”  I kind of like the last saying.  It’s quite hopeful, isn’t it?  Winter’s back is broken and Spring must be….must be…..just around the corner.  (Even though my husband just reminded me.  We’re not really even close to half way towards warm weather.)

Go Boys!  It's only 6 degrees....run fast!

Go Boys! It's only 4 degrees....run fast!

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