Markku pitched a couple scoops of water onto the stones atop an electric-powered stove. From my perch on the bench, I stared at the glowing red number on the thermostat: 65 degrees Celsius. That’s 149 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Sixty-five, eh?” I asked Markku, not exactly coolly.
“Yes, we turned it down for you.”
“Normally for Finnish people it is at least 100 Celsius.”
At least? “Uh, that’s the boiling point.”
He shrugged, sipping his sauna beer with a smile.
To say the sauna is central to Finnish culture might be an understatement. For two weeks, my wife Tip and I were hosted by my cousin Irene and her family in Kuusamo and a few places north into Lapland, exploring my Finnish roots. And at every turn we found a sauna: our hotel rooms, cousins’ homes and apartments, at the lakeside near Teeriniemi on what was once my great-great grandparents’ land, in the middle of the forest inside national parks, and even at a Burger King in Helsinki. Want a sauna with your Whopper? Have it your way, Finland!
Finland is Saunaland, with an estimate of between 2 and 3 million saunas to 5 million Finns, on average a sauna for every household. The moment of discomfort for a newbie like me was that the Finns go to the sauna the same way they came into the world—buck naked. Even whole families together. For a culture that often jokes about being a bit introverted, that’s unexpected. There’s an amusing meme about the Finns, who typically like their personal space. One photo shows a bus stop with folks in winter coats standing several paces apart along the curb; the other photo has naked people all squished together shoulder to shoulder sitting on a sauna bench.
Before dinner at my cousin Tanja’s home in Kuusamo, I joined her husband Markku in a rather sizable sauna beyond their laundry room. Markku offered me a “sauna beer” and I stared at it as if it was a plastic bag I was supposed to pull down over my face for the next half hour. To be fair, there is a definite risk to drinking heavily or hitting the sauna with a hangover, but sauna beer is “lawnmower” beer, a pale pilsner with modest alcohol content. After about 15 minutes, Markku said it was time to go outside. We rinsed off, donned bathrobes, and sat on the patio in the chilly evening air. Leaving Markku to his beer, I went back for another round and Tip joined me. She had grown up in tropical heat but was not a fan. I, on the other hand, perhaps sensing an atavistic urge, found the whole thing invigorating. “I could get used to this,” I said.
The history of the sauna goes back at least 2,000 years when they were often just spaces dug out of a hillside. Before indoor plumbing and water heaters, the sauna provided basic hygiene, to sweat off the grime and rinse in a nearby water source. When my Finnish great-grandparents settled in northern Wisconsin they had a sauna out on the farm.
Regular sauna use is purported to be good for health. A good hot sweat releases toxins, clears minds, burns calories, raises spirits, lowers stress, and improves circulation.
At her home out in the country, cousin Irene fired up the sauna for me and gave me a “vihta,” a freshly cut birch branch. I was instructed to whack the branch all over my skin like an aromatic form of medieval self-flagellation. Good for a massaging effect, a nice smell, and mosquito bite relief. I needed it after cooling off outside the back door where a few clever biters awaited.
Farther north, Tip and I spent two nights in a hotel in Inari. Our bathroom featured a small electric-stove sauna in the corner, like a shower stall. We walked to a grocery store while it heated up. As we stocked up on snacks, Tip held up a package of sausages. “Hey, do you think we could cook these on the sauna stove?” I rolled my eyes at her. “Honey …” I said in a scolding tone. “No, of course you can’t.”
Where There’s Smoke, There’s Sauna
Before the modern era, of course, the sauna took its heat from a wood fire. The “savusauna” (smoke sauna) at the Fell Centre Kiilopaa/Hotelli Niilanpaa is such a spa, and the smell of wood smoke permeates the space. It is public, so everyone wears bathing suits. Built with dark timbers and an earth and grass roof, the sauna sits at the edge of a spring-fed creek where steps descend into the icy water. I opened the door to a deep dark space, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust enough that I could pick up what resembled a cafeteria tray and fumble along past the jutting knees of a dozen people to take my seat on the tray on the bench along the wall.
No one had set the temperature to amateur foreigner. A man old enough to be a great-grandfather stood up and ladled water on the rocks. Not a sloppy splash, but a slow, steady drizzle to be sure not a single drop escaped instant evaporation on its journey through the hell stones. The steam didn’t hit me in the face. Rather, the blistering vapor jumped straight to the ceiling, then curled along its surface to the wall, where it descended like eagle talons into your tender flesh from behind. The darkness hid my contortions of body and face.
I endured 10 minutes before slipping outside where the water thermometer showed 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Finns lounged in it like it was a hot tub. I eased into the water as far as the bottom of my shorts, and then, blurring the line between literal and figurative, I froze. Nope. I hopped back out, suddenly numb. A total failure.
My pride thawed and I went back into the sauna and parboiled. The old man winter hadn’t even taken a break, and sat there in the dark, cool as a cucumber, moving only to dump more water onto the stones. When the heat finally reached my marrow, I rushed outside again, barely pausing at the top of the steps, and jumped right in, all the nerves in my body unsure if it was fire or ice that made them burn so. With as much swagger as I could muster, I hobbled back to the changing room, victorious.
At the end of the trip, Irene prepared another sauna for us at her home. Irene opened the fridge and asked, “Would you like to cook some sausage in the sauna?” Tip laughed, vindicated: “I told you!” Irene showed us a foil bag specially made for this purpose and she placed a sausage, as mild as ring bologna, inside. It cooked on top of the rocks while we enjoyed our last sauna experience of the trip.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and his website is TheMadTraveler.com