FinnFest 2013 wraps up in a blaze of glory


TOIVOLA – A Finnish midsummer tradition – Juhannus – helped signal the beginning of summer on the calendar and the unofficial end of FinnFest USA 2013.

More than a thousand people made their way to Agate Beach in Toivola on Saturday to enjoy the approximately 20-foot high kokko (bonfire) and the company of fellow Finns and Finnish-Americans.

“Usually we have 250-300 people. I would think it’s well over 1,000 people,” said Becky Hoekstra, who along with her husband, Garry, co-chaired the Juhannus planning committee. “Everything fell into place.”

The weather sure did after early-morning fog and on-and-off rain Saturday afternoon threatened to lower attendance at the traditional celebration, which has taken place in Toivola more than 100 years.

“We just said it was going to go rain or shine, and everything went well,” Hoekstra said. “It’s gorgeous.”

Shuttle buses had to drive some people in from their cars, parked a mile away on Agate Beach Road, and people all gathered around for the lighting of the kokko by the Toivola Volunteer Fire Department at about 9:45 p.m. Saturday. Local musicians were performing throughout the day from 3 p.m. on, and they continued until midnight using spotlights throughout the site.

As the fire started crackling, singers from the Sami Jienat Choir, representing Finland, Sweden and Norway, sang Finnish songs for the gathering crowd, which stood all around the fire, with a calm Lake Superior just a few feet away.

“To come up here, see all the birch trees, all the Finns, the nature is pretty much like Finland, this kokko is like from Finland. It’s like being in Finland but you drove there with your car,” said Jan Mikael Pennanen, who along with his wife Sari, are first-generation Finnish immigrants.

The Pennanens now live in Florida with their 17-year-old son, Oliver, and 12-year-old son, Anton, and they had FinnFest as part of their family vacation plans at the end of a roadtrip that started June 6.

“I think this is the best thing we’ve done as a family for a long time,” said Pennanen, who sang at several different places throughout FinnFest. “… If you’re a Finn and you’ve done this in Finland a thousand times, this is as good if not even better.

“I would say even better because when you’re in Finland you take all this for granted. Here it’s a really special thing. I think people get more out of experiencing it here than back there. I would say just fantastic. This was more than I expected.”