Everything you ever wanted to know about the Northwoods Finnish sauna traditionDo you know how to spot a Northlander of non-Finnish descent? Ask them for a word describing a room/building in which folks pour water on super-hot rocks so they can sit and sweat. If they pronounce the word sauna as “sow-na” (rather than “saw-na” or sah-na”) then they’re likely Finnish.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Do you know how to spot a Northlander of non-Finnish descent?
Ask them for a word describing a room/building in which folks pour water on super-hot rocks so they can sit and sweat. If they pronounce the word sauna as “sow-na” (rather than “saw-na” or sah-na”) then they’re likely Finnish.
“While sauna by any name will cleanse as well and leave the slow practitioner just as refreshed, you will not get off on the right foot with an ardent purist by rhyming your pronunciation with “donna,” writes Michael Nordskog, who loves the Finnish sauna tradition so much he wrote a book about it.
“The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition” is packed with information and photos (by Aaron W. Hautala) galore. Coming in at close to 200 pages, the hardcover book covers everything from the early Finnish immigrants to the United States and their tradition of “savusauna” (smoke sauna) to the modern-day sauna experience (which does not include the hot and waterless rooms often found near hotel swimming pools, according to Nordskog). Numerous modern and historical saunas are featured, as are the people who occupied them, sweated in them and ran naked between them and the nearest lake.
Well-known Duluth architect David Salmela – who is described by Nordskog as the “foremost architect” of the sauna – wrote the forward for Nordskog’s book. Several of Salmela’s designs, including the award-winning Emerson sauna, are featured in one of the final chapters.
Fascinating, fun, and fabulously Finnish, this hard-cover book is worthy of any northern Minnesota coffee table, whether at home or in the cabin.
Nordskog is visiting Esko and Cloquet this weekend and will be available to answer questions, autograph books and more. In the meantime, the Pine Journal asked him a few questions for those who haven’t had a chance to read the book.
Pine Journal: How exactly did this book come about? What was the initial spark that made it all happen?
Nordskog: I wrote a magazine article about saunas in 2004 after completing some major repairs to the log sauna at our family’s cabin up in Brimson. Aaron Hautala did the photography for that cover story, and we quickly realized that the subject was ripe for a larger treatment because such a book had not been done about American saunas. Of course, the focus of our project was the Lake Superior region, because outbuilding saunas with wood burning stoves are so common here due to the level of Finnish immigration to the area.
PJ: For those who weren’t born and raised around here or who don’t have a Finnish bone in their body, what does the quintessential sauna experience involve? How many
people, what do you do, what do you wear, etc.?
I am often asked about the difference between “dry” sauna and “wet” sauna, and I always say that sauna without water isn’t sauna! After you enjoy the dry heat for awhile and break a sweat, you have to throw water on the rocks to raise the stakes. All the better if you splash water around while you are in there. The little ones can sit right in a big bucket on the floor, where it’s not as hot.
Nudity is optional, of course, but it makes a lot of sense if you are also bathing, and it certainly seems more natural, especially for a Saturday night family sauna. But saunas also serve a purpose as warming houses during long days of swimming in our often chilly northern lakes, and skinny dipping is probably best at night.
PJ: Can you share a favorite sauna memory with us?
The best experiences I have had were when I spent hours going back and forth from the sauna to the outdoors with one or two good friends, mostly silent. I recall floating on my back in the shallows of our lake one October night in very cool water, watching the stars, and feeling like I never needed to get out of the water. But seeing all three of my kids splashing in a warm bucket of water in a warm sauna as babies is my favorite memory.
PJ: How has the sauna experience in this part of the country changed from the early days of Finnish settlers to now?
The oldest Finnish homestead saunas served a variety of purposes on the farm, and the twice weekly baths were often gatherings of multiple families that served an important social function. Nowadays, sauna is popular even among many non-Finns, and the purpose is more recreational and wellness-based. Electric stoves have made it much easier and quicker to heat the sauna, though I have found that committing to a wood-fired bath is the best way to slow down and enjoy the timeless elements: wood, fire, stone and water.
PJ: If you could enjoy a sauna with any three people in the world, past or present, who would you invite and why? And which sauna would you choose?
It would have to be the sauna at our cabin, which seats four on the top bench comfortably. I’d invite Urho Kekkonen, the late president of Finland and a dedicated ambassador for sauna, because there would be no shame in leaving before him and dashing to the lake. The second would be Bob Dylan, because I’d be interested to know how familiar he was with sauna from his early years in the Lake Superior sauna belt. (If he declined, Virginia troubadour Paul Metsa could fill in.) The third would be Barack Obama, as I think a quiet evening near a Minnesota lake and a display of “sisu” (Finnish fortitude) from President Kekkonen would serve him well.