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National Sauna Day 2016 celebrates its third year in Embarrass, MN

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Saturday June 4, National Sauna Day, started with an early summer drizzle and kept sputtering all day long.

We awoke from a convivial night’s sauna session at my cabin on Pine Island, Lake Vermilion (Sauna Talk podcast from hot room coming soon).  After a little breakfast and pep talk, we boated to mainland, then drove the 40 minutes to Embarrass, MN.  I was joined by three heavy duty sauna friends: Garrett Conover, who flew in from Maine to capture the event as well as other Northern Minnesota saunas for his latest book project.  There was esteemed associate JP, the founder and Chief Hot Room Officer for 612 Sauna Society,  and thirdly, our token Finn/American: Lee Sarkela, who not only looks the part, but true to his genetics, outlasted all of us on the bench and in the lake – with or without any Wim Hof training.

National Sauna Day 2016 flyer, Embarrass, MN
National Sauna Day 2016 flyer, Embarrass, MN


Upon our arrival, we were met with the jovial storytelling and guitar work of Casey Aro

Casey’s Finnish American folk tunes helped set the vibe of why we were all there – Finnish heritage and sauna.  The Helimark Homestead & Museum in Embarrass was our basecamp.  Here we were able to peruse the museum, sample some local breads and Minnesota’s version of Makkara sausage, then hop on the tour bus where a few miles and a couple dirt roads later, we pulled into the driveway of Chuck Neil, who inherited his house and sauna from his Uncle George Wahro.  The sauna was built at the turn of the century.  In 1929 it was moved and converted from a savusauna to a conventional wood burning sauna.  

Chuck Neil's Embarrass, MN sauna
Chuck Neil’s Embarrass, MN sauna

Chuck clarifies:  “We are Wednesday and Saturday sauna Finns, not Tuesday and Saturday sauna Finns.”  Chuck’s uncle laid down a bed of sand on the roof, as he thought it to be a good insulator.

Garrett snaps a shot of Chuck Neil's sauna, outside Embarrass, MN
Garrett Conover snaps a photo of Chuck Neil and of his sauna, outside Embarrass, MN

There’s a vaulted ceiling inside the hot room, and a Medium Kuuma stove with a ton of rocks, including a mesh wrap of rocks up the chimney pipe.  The hot room, as you can see, offers a big nod of tradition and history, albeit with some additional modern character such as LED lighting, giving us all a super comfy feeling.  The hot room vibe, coupled with Chuck’s amiable conversation, had me wishing we could have joined on the bench for a round or two.

Talking Loyly with JP inside Chuck Neil's Embarrass MN sauna
Talking Loyly with JP inside Chuck Neil’s Embarrass MN sauna

But we worked our way back onto the bus, and then a short drive later, we arrived at the Northern Comfort Bed & Breakfast.  Co-owner Pam was Scandinavianly low key, standing off to the side as we approached, letting her sauna speak for itself.

Pam shares a sauna story at her Northern Comfort Bed & Breakfast
Pam keeps a safe distance while sharing a story about her Northern Comfort Bed & Breakfast sauna.

For our third sauna on the tour, we visited the historic Pyhala homestead ,where a plaque tells us just about all we needed to know:pyhala savu sauna

But there was much to learn about early Finnish timber building.

We learned the differences between a saddle notch – which can be cut out with a knife, a lock notch, and a block notch, which calls for a notch along the entire length of the log so the log can nest tightly on top of the one below.

The saddle notch
Sauna Tour guide Mike Salo shows us the saddle notch
The lock notch
Mike Salo gets a kick out of the lock notch
The block notch
And here’s the block notch

For our last stop, we parked and marched up a hill, on top of sandy loam soil that allowed the Finns to raise potatoes in this harsh and unforgiving climate, to the former Hanka homestead.   Here we see Lee Sarkela demonstrating the “drunk fence” that not only keeps one from falling onto the sauna stove, but provides a foot ledge that elevates the sauna bathers’ legs allowing for better circulation and good vihta action, as simulated by Lee in his National Sauna Day uniform.

The Hanka Homestead sauna with a "drunk fence"
The Hanka Homestead sauna with a “drunk fence”

Thanks to Embarrass MN Historical Society for sharing the sauna tradition.  Folks came from far and wide to appreciate the importance of sauna within the context of the Finnish township of Embarrass, MN.  Though results are not yet tabulated, Garrett Conover is an early favorite to win the newly proclaimed Vihta Award, given to the guest who traveled greatest distance to attend the festival, 1294 miles from Hanover, Maine.  As sauna culture and awareness continues to get hotter and hotter, we at Saunatimes are excited to see what twists and turns are in store for National Sauna Day 2017.

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9 thoughts on “National Sauna Day 2016 celebrates its third year in Embarrass, MN”

  1. Thank you to all those who took the tour and gave recognition to this small portion of Finnish culture. And a big “thanks” to Casey Aro for the entertainment enjoyed at the Nelimark Homestead. We all look forward to Sauna Days 2017.

  2. This looks very inviting and interesting. My grandfather and family lived in Embarrass. We visited the grandparents, John and Mary Hill on their farm. We had a sauna at our home growing up and I still wish I did!

  3. I was not aware of this event, I’ll have to put it on our calendar for next year. We did attend an event in Embarrass 5 -7 years ago, but I don’t think it was called National Sauna Day. Is this something you will post on your website so we don’t miss it?
    We also have a cabin and Sauna on Lake Vermilion (Big Bay side of Echo Point). We built the Sauna in 2006-2007 and fire it with a Kuuma wood stove. Spend most of the summers at the lake.
    Enjoy your website.

  4. Carl: Kindred spirits for sure! Great to hear and I’ll most likely post dates and info. for National Sauna Day 2017. IDEA: What if we had a Vermilion offshoot of National Sauna Day 2017 that could include a Lake Vermilion sauna tour? Imaging the Vermilion lake map, and little red dots next to a bunch of our cabins, those who will fire up our saunas for passing sauna goers (by boat).
    We need a committee chairman for this project as i’m better with creating ideas than executing them right now. If we get traction, I’ll solicit for free rooms and free pontoon boats rentals at the Casino. We can invite distinguished guests from other places, and involve the Chamber of Commerce, as a community flag waving affair.

    Carl, I have a couple other ideas for sauna and Lake Vermilion involving Vermilion Houseboats, the new State Park, and here are a couple big clues, and it’ll be fun to get together over a beer if you’d like:

  5. Glen : I like the floating sauna, cooling off in a quiet bay with a cold barley pop and slip bobber fishing. As the saying goes “Does’t get better than that”.

  6. Interesting! My great grandfather, Isaac Salo is buried at the Embarrass Cemetary and would have enjoyed all this.

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