Balmy for bear: Finnish fun times at Heikinpaiva festival

HANCOCK – Traditionally, at Heikinpaiva’s culmination, the mythical bear celebrates midwinter by rolling over. On Saturday, the weather was so warm the bear may have thought it was spring – at least two bears were spotted in the Heikinpaiva parade, up out of their dens and enjoying the sunlight.

Another tradition, according to long-time Heikinpaiva organizer Jim Kurtti, is that Heikinpaiva gets the best crowds when the weather is coldest. The crowds sided with the bear on this one, braving balmy temperatures in the 40s to pack Quincy Street for the annual parade, and the more frigid Portage Waterway shoreline for the Polar Bear Dive.

“It was a big turnout, excellent,” noted one parade bear, who sounded suspiciously like local radio personality Kris Kyro.

On Saturday, three weeks of Heikinpaiva events culminated with food, fun, competition and even some ceremony. Along with the parade, spectators enjoyed a wife-carrying contest and kids’ kicksled races on Quincy Green, along with Molkky tournaments, an ice carving demonstration and a whipsled for dad to push the kids in circles.

For those looking for some home-make bakery or a gift to remember the day, there was the Tori market; for those looking to make their own memory, the Polar Bear Dive.

There was even some high ceremony, when Finnish Consul General Jukka Pietikainen knighted long-time Finlandia benefactor John Kiltinen and honored his wife Pauline Kiltinen at a dinner and dance at the Finnish American Heritage Center.

Randy Karpinen, who teaches Finnish classes at Finlandia, marched in the parade as the mythic god Vainamoinen, carrying the traditional kantele made from a pike’s jaw. It was his first Heikinpaiva in many years after leaving the area to work and to study in Finland, and he was impressed with the effort to keep the Kalevala – the Finnish national epic – central to the celebrations.

“I remember my grandfather telling me, ‘You’re a Finn, you’ve got sisu,'” Karpinen said of his cultural journey. “So eventually I went to Finland to study.”

At the Polar Bear Dive, area residents who may never have seen ice outside of a glass before coming to the Copper Country showed they had some guts – the most common translation of sisu – as well.

An estimated 50 people plunged through ice in front of the Copper Island Beach Club, and several represented warmer-weather nations, including Spain, Mexico, Brazil and Iran, with an honorable mention for an American Floridian.

The women’s winners, judged for the style of the their leap and their costumes, were Tech student Marine Foucher from France and Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly intern Irene Corrales from Spain. The pair dressed as cats, and Corrales lured a reluctant Foucher into the water with a mouse on a string.

Foucher said she’d been struggling with the decision to dive for three years before Corrales talked her into it. Corrales said she’d been in equally-cold water before, but there’d been a sauna on hand to make things easier.

The $50 prize was nice, she said, but the dive was largely about bragging rights and memories.

“The experience will be there forever,” she said.

Kurtti admitted to a good turnout despite the warm weather and said he’s impressed how much Heikinpaiva has grown over the years, despite sticking mostly with the same slate of events.

“People look forward to it,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of changes, but people come every year to get their Finn fix.”