Out Your Backdoor

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Build a Sauna in Your Shack

November 24, 2009

My pal Dave who owns the deer camp I went to last week built a sauna over the summer inside the porch of the old shack that's on the land.

It goes to show that you don't have to build an entirely separate building if you want a sauna. He took advantage of several pre-existing walls (and ceiling and floor) in the old porch.

He said if you looked around for a secondhand stove you could easily build a high-end cedar-lined sauna for under a grand. It's the best part of the house, by far.

I hadn't had saunas in over a decade. I'd gotten out of the sauna loop. They're really big in the Scandanavian northwoods of Michigan, that is, the UP side, especially along the shores of the big lakes. If you get into solid Finn country then you're over-the-top sauna.

Every evening after hunting the sun down, we'd wander on back to the shack and all go through a few cycles of getting hot, with a finish of a soapy rinse. What a wrap-up to a day sitting in a cold, windy tree (sipping hot cider, reading a book...ahem...) before having a tasty meal in the dining-shack which has its own woodstove and a huge table of hewn planks.

Didja know that you can find strict Lutherans way up north who are buttoned-up all day long, but when they get going sauna-style, everyone -- guys, gals, young and old -- all strip down buck-naked and get hot then run around outside, rolling in the snow or plunging in through a hole in the lake ice. Gender, age and a lot more fall away when it's just you, your skin and the heat. You can't get away from the aboriginal pagan stuff when you have woods in your blood.

Bathhouse culture has deep roots across many nations, with an occasional urban twist. I just read that in Finland the sauna was/is the second most holy place next to the church.

Saunas change you. They melt you. And you have to let them or you get hurt. You can't fight it. It teaches you to roll with nature, in a way. Relax, go to it...

The lailikas are really something. That's when you throw a pail of water onto the hot beach rocks after you've gotten as hot as you're going to get. That gives you the steam finish. Let the rocks heat back up and do it 3 times. You can even add in a few lashings with a birch bough once you're in deep.

One idea is that sauna get your heart-rate up while your muscles are loose. In every other situation you have to exert or tighten up in some way to get your heart pumping. Of course, that's where the idea of the "Banker's Workout" comes in: rich cats could get a cardio exercise without doing anything.

But there's nothing like the real thing. Sweat lodges count, too, I'm sure: all the northern peoples had saunas, doncha think? But the urban scene probably isn't the same. I've heard it's not. Downtown you can easily find bad air, bad heat, in the saunas. Head to the shores for the good stuff.

It's all heritage stuff on a Yooper beach. The rocks and wood come from the region. Black basalt from the Canadian shield is the best. But colorful, mineral-rich beach stones from Lake Superior will do you right, too. Use cedar from a dark grove off the beach a ways. I know of a sauna that used a black spruce about 10" in diameter that turned out to be 300 years old...

But don't overdo it. You need to train into it and adapt. Don't try to keep up with a local. A dab will do ya at first. Stay down on a lower bench and get out sooner, only do a few steam-blasts. Or you'll be wiped out. They can be rejuvenating, or exhausting, your call.

I couldn't google "lailika", but here's the wiki on sauna, anyway: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sauna

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