Saunatimes interview series continues. John Reeves lives by a pond in Iowa. He has built his own floating sauna on the pond and has welcomed and developed a community of authentic sauna enthusiasts. John weaves us through a range of his experiences and discoveries: Alaska, sweat lodges, Fairfield, IA, vegan bagels, maple sap essences, Nepal, and considerations for his next “five star” sauna.
Hi John, so let’s start at the beginning, how and when did you first become exposed to sauna?
I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hence no early sauna exposure except for recreation centers, where as a kid you had to sneak into the sauna. At around age 15 I got my first taste of authentic sauna at some remote northern lake while vacationing with a friend’s parents. The heat from the woodstove was awesome. When I came out and jumped off the dock, they gave me waterskis and the boat pulled me once around the lake to finish cooling off in the evening air. Later I hitch-hiked to Alaska with a friend when I was 17 – lived there from 1971 to `1986. One of our rides stopped at a “sauna by the hour” place on the Alaska Highway (I think to clean us up), also awesome. My first few years in rural Alaska were pretty much as a wandering woods hippie. Memories of sometimes awesome, sometime crude remote Alaskan homestead saunas, and later (having worked my way to being someone you might actually invite to your house in town), being on the sauna “circuit” around Fairbanks. A LOT of Scandinavians up there. They usually built their sauna before they built their house. Memories of cold rivers and lakes and deep snow for cool down . . . never went to a sauna where people weren’t naked . . . watched old Yule Kilcher (the now-fabled patriarch of the “Life on the Last Frontier” over-dramatization on TV) make a perfectly-tuned flute from a length of 1/2 inch copper pipe with just his Swiss army knife . . . my friends and I skied back in the moonlight from that sauna to our hippie ghetto cabins in the (much colder) flats down below . . . major facial pain as we hit the flats . . . it was about 40 below . . . our body cores were still warm from sauna, but my friend’s long hair was still wet and he didn’t duck for some branches and broke a bunch of hair off on one side.
You’ve had some experience with building and enjoying your own sauna. Can you tell us more?
I am not a carpenter, but I have built, or helped build, a number of things – including four saunas. I like figuring things out – partly with a plan and partly freestyle. After moving to our Iowa farm, about five miles outside of Fairfield, Iowa, we hosted people running traditional Sweat Lodges on the back of our 30-acre property. Very special, usually an all-Saturday ceremony requiring nearly a quarter cord of wood. After three years of apprenticing as fire-keeper, I still wasn’t allowed to run my own sweat as water-pourer. (It was suggested I go spend time on a rez.) I respect Native American ways, but finally decided to honor my Native European ancestors, and went back to sauna. Around 2003 I built my floating sauna on our two-acre farm pond – sweat equity on our liquid asset. Built the four wall panels on land and then tipped them up together out on the dock, then put the roof over it. Cut a trap door in the floor which made a fun option for cool down. One armload of wood fuels a hot sauna for two hours. We initially recruited at the public sauna, got a bit over-crowded, and now there are several private saunas on the local “circuit”, and more being built. Amazingly, an early picture of my floating sauna has survived for 10+ years at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sauna#North_America_and_Central_America
How has the community aspect to sauna played a part in your sauna experiences?
Shortly after moving to rural Iowa, I became a part of the “regulars” at Fairfield’s public sauna. Fairfield, Iowa is a very diverse, sometimes divided, community – but we mixed well at the public sauna. I eventually recalled how nice the private sauna circuit was in Fairbanks, but building a sauna community in Fairfield has been interesting. “Planet” Fairfield is where the transcendental meditation folks have established Maharishi University, and even beyond “TM,” Fairfield is known for its spiritual/meditation culture (think Boulder, CO, but a mostly Hindu instead of Buddhism flavor), overlaid on conservative small town Iowa (non Scandinavian) culture. Over the past decade, I would say hundreds have passed through our saunas – from all over the U.S. and probably 20 countries. Many were students, most were first-timers, and some of those have reported back that they have started sauna communities in places like rural Utah (a nice Mormon girl, you would definitely accept her invite to sauna). In Fairfield sauna community, in the same sauna you might find older “local” guys and gals, who address each other in Southern Iowa accents, “Hey Bawb.” “Hey Jawn.” We talk about our gardens, projects and maybe the brisket slow-cooking on the smoker at home. Meanwhile an esoteric debate on “human design” or “jyotish astrology” or “incredible vegan bagels” might be happening on the bench next to us. No matter, we all sit in each other’s sweat, and share that bond if nothing else. Looking back, an old local guy talked me into joining Kiwanis, and young “Sustainable Living” students talked me into doing thermal composting on my farm – both a good thing in my life now – neither of which I would be involved in if it wasn’t for our community sauna circuit. Picture attached of my floating sauna and one of our international guests, a former Mountain Guide from Nepal (still had frostbite scars) who came to U.S. for Chef School. Said he’d never been in a sauna, and his blog, where he also posted this picture, goes into some detail to explain what a sauna is to his rural Nepalese friends. Not sure if they’ve built one yet.
For you, personally, tell us about your sauna regime. How often, temp? How does sauna work for you?
I sauna five or six days a week – one or two of those at the tolerable public sauna. I usually take Saturday off since I have farm chores (and sauna 2.0 to build). Once a week my wife and I host the Sunday Sauna at Six of the Iowa Pond Sauna Tribe. As I write this, I am missing the Sunday Morning Sauna at another location – one of three weekly saunas he hosts at his large hexagon sauna – but several of that group will make it to our sauna tonight. Last week my friend Dr. Bill did three saunas in 24 hours and said it felt great. He’s 65 (pays particular attention to mineral replenishment when he saunas a lot). Neither of us have had an “emergency sit down” from over-sauna-ing for several years, so we must have a tolerance and good self-regulation. The temperature I shoot for at the start of my sauna is 160-180 F at chest level. Depending on who shows up, and the weather, I might go up to 200, or let it cruise along at 150-160. I have had it up to 250 without anything melting or cracking. Each spring I boil maple sap into syrup in our sauna – leaves a wonderful smell. We also drink maple sap in the spring, and later watermelon (I am a grower) to hydrate. We don’t drink alcohol at our saunas (I know, this goes against some traditions). Another big aspect of our sauna circuit is olfactory. Try pouring maple sap on the rocks! We have a small wine collection but a fairly huge essential oil collection. Top favorite: Spruce (Black Wild) followed closely by the classic Eucalyptus Radiati and Cedarwood (Atlas) – but I have dozens more, mostly from https://www.newdirectionsaromatics.com/products/essential-oils/. For awhile we enjoyed the oak and birch whisks, but I got tired of cleaning up leaves and twigs. After our Sunday sauna, we come back to the house for a potluck at 8. Done by 9.
What’s next for John and sauna?
Sauna 2.0! I recall I predicting that the floating sauna I built 13 years ago on our pond would last at least 20 years. That was a miscalculation on the longevity of green-treated lumber (especially the 5/4″ decking), plastic 55-gallon drums (are muskrats biting them?) and the screws, hinges, etc.. – although the cedar inside the sauna is still in good shape. I guess some advice I wish I had given myself would be “build to last, because you never know how long you are going to live, or how much you will love having your own sauna.” But having a floating sauna did rock. Especially in fierce storms, ha.
In a book called “The Art of Sauna Building” there is a description of what is called a “Five-star” sauna. In a separate-from-the-house building: there is sauna, changing room, shower, bathroom, and a room to lie down in between rounds, and perhaps a room to share a meal in afterwards. My plan is for maybe a 3.5 star sauna. Inside a 12’x20′ building: an 8’x’8′ sauna, a private changing area where rinse-off with (stored) water can be done, a 12’x12′ room where people can sit between rounds and potluck afterwards, a loft above the sauna for lying down, and a big deck outside over the pond. The site is too far out for hooking up water or electric, or sewer, from our house – so city guests will have to rough it “off grid”, if only for the two-hour sauna experience. A Northern European woman assured me this 3.5 approach is going to be wonderful – a similar building is her favorite place at her in-law’s rural farm. Here are a couple crude sketches of my plans: