There are few pleasures that can top the warm and relaxing steamy heat of a sauna, especially on our cold winter evenings.  It’s not hard to warm yourself, even to a sweat, snow shoeing, skiing, sledding or even hauling wood.  But even after doing those activities comes a chill that is best melted away by stepping into a nice hot sauna.

Some friends and I have this established tradition of taking sauna after our weekly volley ball games.  As I sit on that upper bench, eyes closed and head bowed and arms hanging over my bent knees, every muscle slowly releases and relaxes.  The steam gradually accumulates on the skin while every pour in the body opens up and releases in sweat all that it has been held tight.  Together they form little streams that run down my back, belly and arms.  I watch the droplets form on the tips of my fingers and drop off, one by one, like cares falling off into obviation.  I throw more cedar water onto the piping hot Lake Superior rocks and enjoy the colors and patterns on them that are, to an extent, otherwise hidden when they are dry.  Quickly that water rises as steam and the rock’s shiny luster evaporates as they give it up.

After several years I can still recall and visualize the day we went out to collect those rocks.  It was on a cold December 7th day several years ago.  We knew our time was running out before the shoreline would be locked in ice for the winter.  The last of the cedar boards had all been put on the ceiling and walls and the benches built to accommodate high and low seating.  The homemade water tank had been piped into the stove and the stove was all hooked up to the outside chimney.  Capping it off, dowels had been whittled and stuck into a few strategic knot holes to hang ladles, and loofas from.  And a fine hand carved rail was attached to the wall.  The construction was completed.  Now was the time for the crowning act; the gathering of the stones.  I have seen many different kinds of stone used in sauna stoves, but none hold a candle to Lake Superior’s hard, smooth gems.

I was honored to be involved in gathering these stones.  Snow and ice lined the shores, but we knew of a place where we hoped would still have open water and a treasure house full of small cobble.

My friend and I gave each other a big grin with raised eyebrows when we arrived there and saw that yes, there was still open water, but it was out a ways, under a foot or so of ledge ice.  My friend slipped into his waders.  We grabbed buckets and a sled, and headed out over the ice covered boulders making our way to the lapping water’s edge.  My waders were safe at home, so our jobs were automatically assigned.  He was able to slide into the icy water and not be over the tops of his hip boots as I stood on the ice as the gatherer.  With a #2 shovel he drew from under the lake’s cold water, one stone at a time, raising it for my inspection.  They had to be just right to pass my picky scrutiny.  I am a great lover of rocks; what can I say?  We both knew the size and shape needed but the color and designs were analyzed and also given carefully consideration.  Some we knew, as soon as we saw them, would be top stones to be appreciated again and again with every ladle toss of water to the stove.  As he raised each stone out of the water that was deemed worthy he would toss it up onto the ice where I stood ready to examine it even more closely and place it into the bucket.  Before each one even made it to the bucket a thin coating of ice would form on it.  How cold they had already become laying there on the bottom of the lake!  The freezing air easily worked its magic, spreading feather-like ice patterns around each one as I held it.  I just smiled, knowing that by night fall these same stones would be hotter than they’d ever been even on the hottest sunny summer day.  That night it took a long hot fire to bring them to temperature as they rested in their well placed spots on top of the sauna stove.  But once they reached it, the steam they produced when the cedar water fell upon them was the best the world has known.  As it turned out, our gathering adventure was the last available window.  The following day Superior’s winter ice had gripped the shoreline, not to release it again until spring.

While at the lake shore, we also had gathered softball size chunks of Lake Superior ice that we took back and also set on the hot rocks of the sauna as a fit christening to this wonderful sauna that has since brought us dozens and dozens of steam-filled relaxations.

I have only once left a hot sauna and jumped into a snow bank (as so many people think you would do in the U.P.)  It was not a fun experience or one I would ever do again.  Sharp crystals form all around you as your body heat melts the snow while the remaining snow freezes it back into ice instantaneously.  It becomes sharp and prickly and it hurts. Not to mention it is such a shock to your skin and muscles that the heat and steam has opened and relaxed.  Such snow is almost a violent attack on your body.  I do however love stepping out into the cold night air, stark naked and steaming, and stand staring up at Orion and or the moon.  It is amazing how long you can stand naked in even freezing temperatures after being heated to your core in a sauna.   Often times frost will form on my eyelashes as the strands of my hair will freeze so stiff I’m afraid if I bent them they would break right off.  On summer nights or while indoors, with the temperature being so much warmer we use splayed out turkey tails as fans to bring cooling relief between and after steamings.

A couple summers ago I was in desperate need of a positive focus in my life.  So much of my life had taken a huge turn and I feared my sanity might take a vacation.  Actively taking positive steps into an unknown future is always a bit unsettling.  But the thought came to me that this might be the right time for me to build my own longed-for sauna.  I walked around the open area of my land and finally settled on what I believed would be the perfect spot.  My only reservation was that it would entail removing a huge spruce tree that towered high above all the other trees.  But as so many things in life go, all things started falling into place.  A highly skilled woodworking neighbor, not too far down the road, just happened to have a portable saw milling machine that he was more than happy to bring over. The tree was felled, and cut into logs.  And not too many days after, at the end of a very short day, three of us had loaded, milled and stacked that tree into a tall neat stickered pile of usable lumber.  When the boards were eventually nailed up as siding and trim, one by one, I was given the realization of how this cherished tree did not leave nor die, but it had actually metamorphosed into a new life, that I would cherish as much as I had while it towered in the landscape of the sanctuary of my homestead for the past 35 years.  I cannot look at my sauna without seeing my beloved spruce.  They have become one and the same now.

I never cease to be amazed at how things evolve.  And so I hold out the hope that what one day may seem sad and tragic can and will evolve into the prospects of a new and interesting future.

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