Thursday, December 16, 2010

An Ode to the Sauna

This is the time of the year when living in the sophisitcated, high density, sustainable urban environment really stinks. We have snow, which is great for cross country skiing after work (bad for poorly thought out Teflon roofed stadiums) but horrible given the collective intelligence of the average Twin Cities driver. The sight of cars in the ditch on a brilliantly sunny 15F afternoon, puzzled looking drivers looking at the car as if it were some sort of treacherous adversary, always makes me think of Charles Darwin and the H.M.S. Beagle. He would have a field day around here. The complaint about urban life that always lurks in the back of my mind though, is that I don't have a nice wood fired sauna to clear the brain after dodging the above knuckleheads as I go about my daily business. My last good sauna was the last weekend of deer camp after a satisfying afternoon of getting my buck into the cooler. The fire box was stoked hard and we savored the dry heat before hitting the rocks with the water and absorbing the cleansing blast of steam. This wonderful ritual is described in perfect detail in a new coffee table book, The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition, written by Michael Nordskog, photographed by Aaron Hautala, and published by the University of Minnesota Press.

The book has wonderful photos of saunas across the northland. It's not just a coffee table picture book however. It details the history of the Finnish sauna tradition in the northland as well as current practices, both around the Lake Superior basin and in Finland. It also speaks to the experiences, feelings, and mindset that many of us sauna aficionados have; its a place to push in the mental clutch, let the racing brain motor idle, and savor the moment. I've often said that a person never feels as clean as after they have gone through the dry heat sweat, cool down, another steam assisted sweat, and then the final cool down.

I've been in many saunas over the years and have become sort of a snob. It's a rare occasion that will find me in a sterile, chronically under heated electric motel sauna. These contraptions are more so hotels, motels, and 'health clubs' can put the word 'sauna' in their marketing materials and bear little resemblance to a real sauna. Check here for a handful of great commercial saunas. No, the smell of the wood and the feel and nature of the heat make the wood fired sauna the only way to go. At the deer camp we usually stoke the stove initially with fast burning and high BTU producing popple or aspen. We then complain and argue about who has to walk down the hill for the second stoking with oak or maple. He who pumps the water usually doesn't have to carry the buckets down the hill and it all seems to work out.

One of the more interesting saunas in the past years was a visit to the sauna on Thompson Island, a long skinny island in Lake Superior between the US-Canadian border and Thunder Bay. Photos and a history of this sauna are in the book and the BadHatter, RangerMark, and I took advantage of it on our fall paddle trip. We brought the saw and added some wood to the pile, proper etiquette when using this private yet public facility. As I recall, the sauna fire can be fed from outside the sauna room proper, and we got 'er fired up and ready to go. There was some concern about jumping into Lake Superior, not because of the cold and certain shrinkage, but because of the coed boaters along the shore. I quickly explained that a person has two choices when determing a course of action for a questionable activity. The 'small world' theory, or the 'they'll never see me again' theory. As we raced off the end of the dock, naked as jaybirds, and hit the cold water, it was apparent that the correct choice had been made.

If you know a sauna fan, are one yourself, or just want to know what the heck all this sauna stuff is about, this would be the book to get. Now if I can only track down a wood fired sauna in the urban environment......or maybe I just head north.


rocksandfeathers said...

The first time I was in a sauna was on Lake Superior. I think my heart about stopped when I jumped into the cold lake after the sauna - but it was fun! Thanks for reminding me of some good memories. I'm really enjoying your blog.

Anonymous said...

Some years ago, I was invited to a friend's sauna, a small converted boathouse on a lake by Rhinelander. It was hot, close, sweaty, and felt like it had been there for a century. When we were cooked, we trotted out to the end of the dock and dunked in a hole chopped into the ice (supposedly kept open by muskrats). Afterward, standing steaming on the end of the dock, I never felt so alive.

Neil Dalby said...

That book sounds fantastic! It would certainly pique the interest of sauna aficionados. And it seems like you had your share of sauna experiences! Well, I can’t blame you for liking this practice. Saunas offer a lof of advantages to people. One is it detoxifies the body from free radicals through sweating. It also relieves stress and promotes cardio-vascular health. It is also a great social activity as you can enjoy this with family and friends.

Neil Dalby