It’s a peculiar Northwoods custom that drives out both grime and evil spirits. It’s part spa, part sanctuary, and a lot of ritual.
It involves entering a small building made into a 200-degree oven, where you’re seared with blasts of steam from water tossed onto hot rocks, whipped with birch boughs, and then sent out to jump into a lake. It sounds brutal, but it cleanses the pores, softens muscles, and relaxes the spirit.
Unlike a hotbox sauna typically found at a hotel, traditional saunas are fired by a woodstove and meant to be enjoyed with cold water or snow. It’s a few hours to gather with friends and family, and relax into the basics of fire, water, and air. While saunas soothe us with a dose of steam, they also salve deeper needs, creating custom, memories, and relationships.
To the uninitiated, it may seem strange and even mysterious, this steamy, dark hobby. But for a growing number of enthusiasts, saunas are a return to tradition and connection, making the old-fashioned Finnish sauna the new Saturday night.
Across The Ocean
When Scandinavian immigrants poured into Northwoods lumber camps and iron mines, sauna tradition arrived with them. For Finns, the sauna was the first building erected on the homestead while the main house was built. It would remain the family bath house, birthing house, and death house. Minimally, the fire was stoked midweek on Wednesdays, and Saturday night. Families would attend Sunday church scrubbed clean.
The Finns don’t mess around. Sauna culture was named to UNESCO’s “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2020. As far back as 1122, Nestor the Chronicler told of "hot wooden saunas in which naked bathers beat themselves with branches and finally pour cold water over themselves.” Even today, all Finnish embassies, consulates, and residences have their own saunas. In fact, Finland has more saunas per capita than anywhere else: 1.5 people for every sauna.
Sauna is steeped in ritual passed down through families, wherein reverence is given to quite ordinary chores, such as striking the match to kindling, hauling water, and lighting candles. To heat the sauna, you must light the fire a few hours ahead, then tend the fire. The goal is löyly – the steam that rises from the stove, which is also a Finnish word for both spirit and life. It’s a process, not an event.
The interior is usually divided into two rooms, a dressing room and a sauna room. Stacks of towels, a small window to allow candlelight into the sauna room, and an old rug on the floorboards keep it simple.
Birch boughs are tied into bunches, which are then used to slap oneself, which increases the circulation to the skin, helping keep you cool in the heat. But birch also contains an essential oil that works a little like soap, washing grease and dirt away. It also seems to soothe itchy mosquito bites.
After heating and slapping for about 20 minutes, a most dedicated sauna-er will plunge into something cold, whether that be a mid-winter snow angel or perhaps Lake Superior. Some prefer a less shocking dose of cool water over the head and a few minutes of steaming in the cool evening air. Repeat.
After a thorough heat and a complete head-to-toe scrub, it’s time for clean clothes, followed by a waiting plate of salty foods and cold drinks to replenish electrolytes on the porch.
Naked and Together
The rumor is true – most people prefer to sauna naked. In a hot, dark room that’s designed to make you sweat, a sticky swimsuit feels like a sleeping bag. But know it’s not just for comfort; nakedness is a means to an end. The Finns say you cannot be angry in the sauna, nor can you hide. When it’s down to skin, bones, and sweat, our differences seem to melt.
“It was a great time to talk about things,” said Stephanie Maki, of Minnesota, who grew up using the sauna with her extended family at their cabin near Biwabik, Minnesota. “I remember being in the sauna with my mom and being able to talk to her about things that I just couldn’t otherwise. There was openness and non-judgement for me growing up. There was no shame or embarrassment about body sizes or changes as people age. This is what I am bringing to my family.”
Feeling a bit shy? No shame in that. A swimsuit or a towel is acceptable sauna wear, especially with strangers. But don’t be surprised if you long to strip down to nothing.
Ready for Heat
Sauna is being brought to the masses by people like Ben Burger, who runs a website that’s a little bit like a sauna Airbnb. “If you have a cabin and your own sauna, that’s awesome,” Burger said. “But if you live in the city, you can rent a mobile sauna to be dropped off in your driveway with wood.”
Or try “Thermaculture Thursdays” at Minneapolis’s Hewing Hotel, where guests 21 and older are invited to a gentle steam meditation with essential oils, followed by a rooftop hot pool soak and social – no nakedness involved. The guided sessions consist of three rounds of heat followed by a 20-minute cool-down session, during which you have the opportunity to use the cold plunge, rehydrate, sample essential oils, and enjoy a spectacular view of the Minneapolis skyline from the pool.
It gets better. In Helsinki, Finland, there is the Skysauna, which is a sauna cabin that rotates on a Ferris wheel overlooking the Baltic Sea capital. The cabin holds six, and you can get off and into either a cold tub or a hot tub as you wait for your sauna to return to the platform.If you’re new to sauna, check out “The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition,” by Michael Nordskog and Aaron W. Hautala. The photos alone will make you long for Saturday night.