How I Became the "Sauna Guy"
My First Sauna, a Cold Start
It was the summer of 1985. My friend John and I were hitchhiking around Europe. We had made our way up into Scandinavia. The summer of 1985 was especially cold and wet. After several days, our clothes were soaked, our sleeping bags wet. We were hungry, tired, and we were out in the middle of nowhere. We stood waiting for a car to pass at a desolate intersection. There were very few cars. The only sign of life was a thick swarm of extremely aggressive mosquitoes. I don’t know how things could be any worse, but thankfully, they were about to get better very quickly.
A Volvo From Heaven
A lone car appeared on the horizon, a first in what could have been hours. Even more amazing is that it stopped to pick us up. I was ecstatic. Finally, we were out of the cold drizzle rain and away from the mosquitoes! I remember squashing with pleasure the few extra aggressive ones that had followed us into the car. Upon hearing of our lack of agenda, dry clothes or any common sense, the husband and wife brought us to their home. He was the dentist in town. His practice was on the main street, their house in the back. The couple owned a quaint apartment above the dental office. The apartment was conveniently vacant and seemed ready for our arrival.
A Turn of the Timer
After a welcome tour of the apartment, the wife pulled out a couple bathrobes and with a smile and a heavy accent said “you can enjoy a warm sauna before dinner in a couple hours.” With that, she turned a sauna timer on the wall and excused herself down the stairs. I looked at my friend John with a look of “can you believe our fortune?” I began unraveling my soaked clothes from my rucksack. John was busy scratching his mosquito bites. This was to be my first sauna. After a few minutes of the stove clanking away it felt mighty warm in the hot room, which is all the encouragement I needed to shed my wet clothes and settle myself onto the upper sauna bench. The blast of dry warm air felt wonderful against my clammy skin. I summoned for my buddy John to Join. As my tight muscles started to loosen up, I quickly realized that I just found heaven on earth, in a small wood paneled room in a little town in the middle of nowhere. After a couple 15-20 minute rounds, showering between, I felt clean, refreshed, and as an even unfathomable bonus, all our mosquito bites were miraculously gone. Gone!
You Know a Sauna is Great for Your Skin if It Can Get Rid of Mosquito Bites!
So, John and I did our best to advance American diplomacy. Even if just the roof over our heads was enough, we were incredibly grateful for the hospitality. We were hosted to a wonderful meal, and a home baked cake for dessert. I kept looking for hidden cameras, and people to jump into the room, yelling “surprise.” After dinner, we were exhausted and yet completely satisfied. We slept great. In the morning, we were treated to a grand breakfast, and after warm thank you’s and goodbyes, we were sent off with a bag lunch and dry clothes in our packs.
Sauna on the Island
Days later, we were on a ferry cutting through the islands in the Baltic Archipelago. On the ferry, we ran into a guy who was heading off to help his buddy rebuild a house on one of the islands. We joined their work crew. Four of us. We quickly immersed ourselves into the work routine. We’d knock off work in the evening, and head to another Uncle’s island by boat. On that island, me and Gunner would fire up the sauna stove and begin peeling potatoes. John and Thomas would pull up Perch and Flounder from nets, and clean them for dinner. We’d sauna and jump into the Baltic. Between sauna rounds, we’d drink a beer and stretch out from the hard day’s labor on the roof or on scaffolding. We’d eat our home cooked dinner and afterwards. They’d pull out the vodka and John and I would look out and marvel over the cove as twilight lingered. This was a formidable experience for me.
Kicked out of Europe
After too long in exile, I returned to the States and felt like a fish out of water. I decided that in order to keep sane, that I needed to continue the vibe of discovery and vagabonding, so I packed up my belongings and drove to Minnesota. I knew Minnesota called for me and for the right reasons. Hockey, nature, and Minneapolis is one of the closest cities to a European city I could muster. I moved in Summertime, and remember doing the backstroke in the middle of Lake Calhoun. As I looked past the Northern Shoreline, I could see the skyline over the trees and I convinced myself right then that this would be my city. Minneapolis became my city.
The Summer 1988: a Summer of Lake Discovery
My first summer in Minneapolis, I rented an apartment and worked two jobs. I saved a bunch of cash. I met a foxy great girl within a couple days of my arrival. the idea of settling down was far from my mind. I tried all summer not to like her as much as I did. It was the summer of 1988, and a drought summer. Hot, dry, sticky. The grass turned brown. She and I would swim in the lakes in town.
It wasn’t long until our relationship grew. We would take road trips to different lakes on the weekends. We had identical interests. I’d look at the map and zero in on a lake area that looked cool and I’d ask her what she thought about checking it out. She’d say yes, and we’d go. We’d camp on an island or rent a canoe or a boat and just be young and free. Spontaneous road trips were a fabulous way to get out of town and enjoy this hot summer. Spoiler: I married this girl in 1991 and she and I have been married over 30 years.
Found My Lake, Found My Island
Summer wained. September came upon us. At work, her boss suggested we check out Lake Vermilion. She called me on the phone. “He says it has islands and is close to the Boundary Waters and Canada.” I spread out the map on the table and I thought, wow, now THIS is a lake! Not round but lots of bays and inlets. And the lake was dotted with Islands. We drove up two days later. As I got out of the car and looked at the lake, I felt it right away.
It felt like I was sipping vodka after sauna on the Baltic Archipelago. Birches, pines, granite outcroppings, islands, bays, inlets. Similar vibe. Hard nature. We had a great fall weekend on Lake Vermilion, and that was the end of our lake season. Winter came fast, and I skated on Minneapolis lakes. I kept thinking about nature and the North. That spring, Julia’s boss put an advertisement on her desk, from the back of the local paper near Lake Vermilion:
“For sale, Island. Wooded. Small cabin. Dock. $25,000.”
We drove up from Minneapolis on a Thursday evening and I bought the island that night. I found my lake and found my island.
The realtor turned out to be a great guy. He’d come pick us up on our dock and take us to other people’s cabins that he knew. He basically knew everybody around the lake. He was a sauna nut, too and he’d invite me to other people’s sauna. Boating to other islands and inlets, it felt and looked like the Baltic Archipelago. I could not have been happier.
My First Sauna Stove: Fall of 1989
Warming Up to Daryl Lamppa
Kuuma Sauna Stove Action
I was enamored with the performance of the Kuuma stove. I was enthralled at how Daryl hand made his stoves “from the ground up” in his small factory in Tower, MN (population 436). I remember the jacket Daryl wore. Burn marks and duct taped on the sleeves. He shared a few stories (very short stories) of how he, and his father, and his father’s father would spend hours and hours in his grandfather’s garage, testing and refining how to make their stove burn clean and efficient.. and hot! the Kuuma stove. (kuuma means hot in Finnish).
No Man is an Island
Julia and I married in 1991. We honeymooned on our island. Our eldest son was born on our island. Well, almost. We brought our son to the island when he was 6 days old. Our island was great when it was two of us, but a third body, even an infant changed our small island. Julia and I realized that we had outgrown our Paradise Island.
You’d think this realization would be met with sadness, but for me and Julia, and unbeknownstd to little Grant, we were excited with the idea of selling our own island and moving to a bigger island. We both love hiking. The idea of walking out our cabin door and hiking on a big island was about the best idea we could ever imagine. Well, I take that back. The idea of walking out of our cabin door, hiking on a big island and then going to sauna is about the best idea I could ever imagine. Well, amongst the top ideas. We found land for sale on the largest island on Lake Vermilion. Like the previous island, we bought this land the day we visited it. It was heavily wooded, but she and I could see the potential right away.
First Sauna Build: 1996
My high school buddy John, the same John who worked with me on that island on the Baltic Archipelago, designed and built my first sauna on our new land on the bigger island in Northern Minnesota. I didn’t know about the Finnish tradition of building the sauna first, before the homestead, but this is exactly what we did. We designed and built a 12’x16′ (3.66m x 4.88m) sauna guest cabin. We cut back trees and brush and sited the guest cabin. We dug footings by hand and hauled building material out in my small fishing boat. We framed, roofed, and insulated the guest cabin. We created an adequate structure to keep us warm, keep out the mosquitos, and a roof over our head. We enjoyed a busy summer living in our sauna guest cabin.
The sauna was every bit as good as my memories of the Baltic Archipelago sauna experience.
We installed the Kuuma wood burning sauna stove in the hot room. We added a futon to the adjacent cool down room. And a microwave and hot plate for cooking. We moved our family of three into the sauna cabin. We felt fortunate and rich beyond our dreams.
We had plenty of work to do on our new land that summer. We cleared brush and dug holes for the foundation of our cabin. In late afternoon, I’d lay down my shovel and fire up the sauna stove. Settling onto the sauna bench, I felt not only the deep resonating heat, but also a deep level of pride and satisfaction. My lake plunges between sauna rounds felt euphoric and medicinal, just as they feel to this day.
The Backyard Sauna: 2000
Building on an island creates an additional, obvious challenge. Every tool, every board, every screw and nail has to be loaded from mainland onto a boat, then unloaded on the island dock, then hauled up to the job sight. Each phase and process must be well thought out. The island building constraint teaches us to be organized and resourceful. I embraced this constraint. Also, being on an island means that we couldn’t access our cabin all year round. Ice too unsafe early and late in winter meant long stretches for me without sauna. This would not do.
We had a sliver of dead space behind our garage in Minneapolis, where unruly raspberry plants had taken over. I framed out and extended the roof line of our garage, capturing this neglected corner for my first backyard sauna.
I applied the same building techniques that I learned with my buddy John, from the Baltic Archipelago and from our island cabin sauna build. I “phoned a friend” several times, learning that with will, information, and time, one can build a sauna on their own.
Now I had two saunas. One in my backyard and one at our cabin. Same stove, same vibe, same deep resonating awesome heat. I settled into sauna sessions three times a week, and apply this practice to this day. I’d invite friends over to sauna, or sauna alone. With Minneapolis saunas, I have memories of standing outside between sauna rounds, in total silence. Cold winter nights, steam billowing and stars shining.
More Backyard Sauna Builds
Nobody had backyard saunas back then. Well, nobody I knew anyway. Several neighbors thought I was the crazy guy down the street. I didn’t help my reputation, I suppose, as I would often shovel snow wrapped only in a towel around my waist. I wasn’t trying to show off. I was just being utilitarian. I enjoy sauna when it snows. And often, it is more fun and efficient to shovel between sauna rounds, then enjoy a final round or two relaxed and with a satisfied feeling of accomplishment.
Some of my buddies who I’d invite to sauna started getting the sauna bug. I built saunas for a few of them. I’m sure I charged way too little, but my sauna philanthropy helped me hone my craft. There wasn’t much internet back then. I learned the nuances of sauna building from practical old timers up north. I was curious and open minded. I try to be this way today. I developed a sauna building method whereby the home owner can hire a shed company to build them a shed, and “what happens inside our shed is our own business.”
For Finns, sauna is everywhere. Obtaining permits and approval for sauna is understood by municipal authorities, insurance agents, and the city inspector showing up with a clipboard. But in Minneapolis, city inspectors are known to red flag projects that don’t fit into a prescribed box. They like to find a reason to say no. (liability rules!).
Saunatimes.com Founded in 2008
I found myself becoming more and more of an evangelist of several aspects of the awesomeness of goods sauna. Several buddies, sauna and otherwise, suggested I start a website to share my thoughts, research, and other people’s approach to such things as good heat, good sauna vibes, and nuances like how great we feel the morning after a good night’s sleep after sauna. I hired my friend Scott to design and build Saunatimes.com. “Your guide to a healthy escape” was born.
I had (have!) no dollar signs in my eyes when it comes to helping other realize their authentic sauna dreams. Saunatimes was born and is driven on free relevant information. And in the wake of bait and switch marketers promoting infrared therapy rooms as sauna, well, this compels me all the more to be promoting the authentic.
A Superior Sauna in 2013
I got a call from Tom, a lifelong sauna enthusiast, looking for someone to build him a kick ass sauna. Tom interviewed me on the phone. He didn’t seem phased that I wasn’t a licensed contractor or builder by trade. He wanted a sauna in his suburban Minneapolis backyard. I showed him what I had done for others, and he hired me right away. I built a great sauna for Tom.
A couple years later, Tom called me with excitement in his voice. He had just pulled the trigger on a property on the North Shore of Lake Superior. “You’ve got to build me a sauna here.” He closed on a Tuesday, and I was up there on Wednesday. I met the Home Depot delivery vehicle, and stowed all the materials. I dove into this sauna build on the shores of Lake Superior.
iI had no intent on writing a book on how to build a sauna. But I documented my progress and took a few photos every day of this build. The documentation process was cathartic. “Sauna Build, From Start to Finnish” was born along the shores of Lake Superior.
The spirit of “Sauna Build, From Start to Finnish” is written as a guide to to help folks through their own sauna build, from location, to design, to construction, all the way to the “Finnish” line. I have helped hundreds, thousands build their own sauna, and I’m very pleased to help you too.
Sauna Talk Podcast - 2016
Being half Italian, I am no stranger to talking. I get energized by Sauna Talk, and learning about other people’s experience around sauna. Several encouraged me to start a podcast about sauna. I recorded my first episode in 2016 with my friend Tom as guest, right there on the sauna bench, inside the sauna I built for him along the shores of Lake Superior.
Sauna Builders and Helping Televise the Mobile Sauna Revolution
I have helped several sauna builders and mobile sauna businesses get rolling. For example, I was the lead builder for the 612 Sauna Society sauna. Currently I am Vice President on the board of the 612 Sauna Society. Another example is Voyageur Saunas. I helped Eric transform his business from building ice fish houses to mobile saunas. Our relationship goes back to 2015, when I tracked Eric down at an ice fishing trade show. It was my idea to build saunas using the chassis for ice fish houses. As the wheels can be brought down “on grade” I recognized the much more friendly transition to go from the hot room bench to cold plunge or hang out in the garden, all misty wet with rain between sauna rounds. The mobile sauna revolution is being televised all over North America, and I like helping others bring good, quality sauna to others in their communities
The Sauna Research Institute
I am proud and pleased to be a founding board member and current President of The Sauna Research Institute. The idea for SRI came about during my podcast interview with Dr. Jari Laukkanen, the global leader in sauna research. His vision of global, collaborative research in the area of hot/cold contrast therapy helped build the structure for SRI. SRI is a non profit 501c3. There are several projects in the works, with room for researches and organizations to join and collaborate in peered reviewed studies, papers, and projects.