Sauna | My Place of Rest by Joe Eskola
The following guest blog is an essay submitted by Joe Eskola to the publication Further North (volume 2: 2011). Joe Eskola is a Research Associate at Michigan Technological University and a part time student of Scientific and Technical Communication. He, his wife Kathryn, and their kids live in Ahmeek, Michigan. He shares a love of ice hockey with his boys, an addiction to reading with his girls, and a need for sauna with sensible people everywhere.
Sauna | My Place of Rest by Joe Eskola
In my world a sauna is essential, falling somewhere between food and shoes as a life or death necessity. I’m not talking about one of those clammy, chlorinated, electric hotel saunas with hours-of-use posted next to the key-card swipe. I mean a genuine, backyard two-room, wood fired, steam-crashing, 175 degree, spirit scouring Finnish sauna. It’s a thing I’ve been blessed to enjoy with deepening addiction all my life, but never actually owned until I built one for myself last year - it’s a very big deal.
A proper outdoor wood-fired sauna is like nothing else on earth. However often I use it, I’m left feeling reborn. Even when I try, I find it impossible to hang on to any consideration of a weekday mental stressor while taking a sauna. These things are just scoured away by the steam and water.
The first time I fired up my own sauna, my joy and fulfillment felt almost like getting married did eleven years ago. My wife, Kathryn, and I bought a house in Ahmeek MIne Location, Michigan - a small town in the maw of the wolf’s head that Lake Superior resembles on a map. What would become our sauna was a century-old stable in the backyard which I’d been renovating in my daydreams since before we had met any of our six children.
What I call a stable was a simple 12-foot square building of rough-sawn northern white cedar, wrapped in heavy tarpaper, which sat on just a plank floor over dirt. As far as I know it dates to the construction of our house and the village in the early 1900’s by the Calumet & Hecla Mining Co. I told Kathryn from the beginning that it would be our sauna eventually, although it took some imagination to see and I don’t think she quite believed me. Last spring I pulled dense wads of straw out of the loft and walls; it had apparently been used as insulation for livestock against the bitter winter winds that blow in off the lake. I jacked the building up onto beams and pulled out the rotting floor and deritus that was packed between its joists. With indispensable help from a couple of my stout brothers I installed plumbing, wiring and a permanent concrete slab.
I was thrilled to find dozens of artifacts in the course of the work, including a neatly preserved stash of antique beer bottles from some of the many breweries that were active here before Prohibition shut them down. Like much of the Keweenaw Peninsula’s former industry and populace, the brewers never returned - the copper mines closed and our company town became lodging for a few university commuters, independent tradesmen, and retirees who are too stubborn or too smart to move away from our punishing climate to join the crowds of the South. I found other thinks like wood slats from dynamite crates (stamped "Danger-High Explosives”), which were salvaged from mining operations and used to patch over knotholes in the walls. They will remain as part of the rustic decor of my sauna’s dressing room. The original whitewashed shiplap boards are untouched as the primary wall covering.
I think it’s my Finnish heritage that compels me to hold onto these old things.
I’m two and three generations removed from northern Finland, born of people who value the preservation of traditions like few others. In Finland, records of sauna go back as far as records themselves. The high importance placed on the act of sauna is reflected in long passages of the national epic poem The Kalevala, and it seems, in every conversation had or article written about the country’s culture; yet its importance may be understated.
While steam baths in various forms once populated nearly every corner of the globe, it was the backwater, snowbound Finns who held to the tradition of sauna through the puritanical purging of the public baths in Europe. After Western culture gained a weight of its own during the Enlightenment, it was the Finns who reintroduced sauna to the West. Its more recent broadening of popularity is surely due to something more than the sum of heat, steam, soap and water. Last year I saw Finnleo sauna stoves while window shopping in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii-which is equally distant whether you travel east or west from Helsinki.
Finnish-American immigrants of a century ago were tough, hardened people who had in times of famine tried to subsist on bread made of a mock flour ground from the inner bark of pine trees. But the one thing they never did without was the sauna, which had already given birth to a distinct Finnish culture. When they arrived in America, the small log sauna in the middle of the glacier-scraped homestead also gave birth to the family farm they had dreamed of owning while they had been only tenants in the old country. Eventually, the farms wives would give literal birth to their children in the sauna, taking advantage of the warm, clean space as a maternity ward. It was only following the completion of a sauna that the Finnish settlers worried about less important matters like crops and houses.
The rumors of old Scandinavian ways might give pause to a novice’s consideration of taking steam. Yes, they had babies in the sauna; but obviously, the fire wouldn’t have been blazing away during labor, and the privacy and cleanliness of a small wood-paneled steam room is very restful. And I don’t blame you if you have no desire to get nude with Grandma. Believe me, neither do I-I haven’t had a sauna with a woman other than my wife since I was too young to bathe myself. In my experience, saunas are valued as often for privacy as for the unguarded conversation that makes a "visiting” sauna so enjoyable in same-sex company.
From my dad, I inherited an appreciation for the solitary sauna. On winter nights when I was a kid and he’d been out there for more than an hour, Mom would send me after him. I’d usually find him slumped over on the top bench, snoozing contentedly in the heat, the brittle stress of a week spent teaching Art and English to recalcitrant high school juniors melted away like a bar of soap someone had left behind in the steam room.
By building my own sauna, I’ve laid claim to my heritage. Now I step out the back door after a good meal and an early northern sunset and walk down the short path to its front door. The chimney smoke stands tall and white in starlight or merges with blown snow. I flick on the light and undress quickly in the cool five-foot wide dressing room, leaving towel, clothes and cares heaped on a wide varnished bench along the outside wall. I grab a couple of chunks of dried hard maple and step through a hand-made swinging door into the steam room, which is usually lit only indirectly by a tall side-light window in the partition wall.
To my right the stove throws heat like a little roaring sun, orange fire looking out through the vents, heaped with pieces of shattered granite. It’s backed by a six-foot high brick wall I’ve assembled of reclaimed bricks from a collapsed C&H "dry house” of the old days. From the top course of worn red bricks, and mottled gray, room-width stucco arch curves up to meet the pine-paneled ceiling.
I remember my maternal grandfather just ashore and alone at seventeen years old. With no knowledge of the English language or American exchange rates he had felt compelled to eat, during his long solitary train ride to Upper Michigan, a massive sack of sweet pastries he had confusingly purchased from a New York sidewalk vendor. Along with the certain knowledge that he had left his childhood home for good and was facing decades of labor to build a new life and family this side of the ocean, I think he probably looked forward to relaxing in the hot sauna he knew he’d find on his relatives’ lonely farm in Daggett.
I stoke the fire, clunk the stove door shut and check that the hot water tank is full and perking. I move to the other end of the room, around the kid-sized tub and cold water spigot with its coiled hose, and climb to the highest penkki [bench], I lean back against the wall twice, first testing and then accepting its heat against my awakening skin. In the quiet I can hear embers popping and the iron stove expanding around the flames. A mail order catalog might provide a resting place for my eyes, but I won’t remember anything I read.
I dip warm water from the bucket in the lower bench, and toss it on the rocks. There’s a prolonged, tapering crash that sounds like a breaking whitecap, as if the ocean doesn’t divide us after all but is here echoing loud in this little room. The steam climbs the bricks and jumps out to fill the room, surging right through the light from the dressing room window. It descends on me, a blessing from above; my ears, then neck, shoulders and back sting. Every extremity pinks up. Sweat leaps out and washes away uninhibited. My lungs relax, my body wilts. I’m here, at home. Maybe I’ll close my eyes for a while.