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Winter in the Arrowhead, Northeast Minnesota: recreation, beauty and even warmth.

light steam graphic

My friend Brian Peterson, photographer from the Star Tribune, joined me and my good friend Tom at his Lake Superior Sauna for a winter magical outing.  Brian spent a lot of time in the Northeast corner of Minnesota this winter to putting together this piece From the Travel Desk:  Minnesota’s Four Corners and Seasons.

Tom and I spent a lot less time.  We call it the 24 hour health and wellness retreat.  We leave The Twin Cities around noon, and find ourselves back again around the same time the next day.

We have the Superior Retreat down to a science.

We arrive in the afternoon, stomaches full and email inboxes empty.  Both Tom and I are (heavily) in sales, so the drive up is filled with us both yapping away on our cell phones, and taking turns driving and punching away on our smart phones.  As we get close to Tom’s place (I call it Uncle Tom’s Cabin), he begins outlining the “critical path” to getting things prepped for the night.  This involves:

  1. Turning up the heat.
  2. Unpacking provisions.
  3. Starting the wood burning pizza oven.
  4. Starting the wood burning sauna.
  5. Shoveling.
  6. If no shoveling needed, i’ll dash off for a cross country ski.  Tom will go for a run.


It’s Sauna Time.

Our work is done.  Tom and I are like kids, packing up provisions for the sauna session.  Some beers, water, towels, bathrobes.  We work our way from the house down to the sauna, set by the rocky shore of Lake Superior.  It can be a question whether the walk TO the sauna is more fun than the walk FROM the sauna, yet mostly, this is a question not worth considering.  Both are euphoric for different reasons: one is anticipation, the other appreciation.  I check on the hot room.  The sauna stove is brittle and hot, awaiting our arrival.  I toss in one more log, close down the damper a bit, and smile at the thermometer – a perfect 180 degree f.

The changing room is winter cold, but the sharp pings against our bare skin give us no pain, just pleasure, knowing what kind of wonderful heat is steps away.  Undressing, the metaphor”leaving our busy world behind” continues.  Perhaps a faux pas to the authentic Finnish sauna regimen, but we enjoy music in the changing room.  The sound system, like the air outside, is crisp and clear.  I not only built the sauna, but I made sure to include a decent sound system and lighting.  Atmosphere is about feel, look, and sound.  This sauna building has it all.

The First Round.

Before stepping into the hot room, I like to embrace the cold.  Like one more set of push ups, or a fast sprint at the end of a run, taking in the cold takes one to an extra special place.  An extra shot of endorphins.  Enough of that, finally, we grab a water and enter the hot room, settling in our spots on the upper bench.  A deep breath.  Everything today is a lead up to this moment.  And the moment has arrived.  Sitting in a well built and authentic hot sauna presents a great feeling no matter where it is.  However, as we look out the hot room window, we are reminded of our place: steps from Lake Superior, the worlds largest fresh water lake.  The vastness is undeniable.

After a few minutes muscles start to relax and it’s time for the first splash of water on the sauna rocks.  The stove barks back hard, instantly turning the water to steam.  The Loyly waves over us, and we stop our chatter to take in this special, intense feeling.  As the steam hits our skin, it amplifies the sweat on our bodies, and the mix is most welcome.   It’s a relief to start focusing within, instead of always having to be conscious of the overstimulated world around us.  As round one in the hot room builds, everything starts to become clear.  Earth, Fire, Water, Air.  People write books about connecting with these natural elements.  For now, instead of reading about it, it is a pleasure to be simply living it.

The Cool Down.

It’s a fair debate about what feels better, the heat up or the cool down.  There is no rule about when to leave the hot room.  Sauna has few rules beyond “close the door!”  You just know.  I toss another splash of water on the rocks and feel a heavier blast of steam.  Riding out this intensity, I go through the escape plan: fill a jug of water, leave the sauna, dump some water over my head outside on the deck, and take it from there.  I follow the plan.  Standing on the deck, the ice cold water shocks me to new heights. I come back to my senses and start to take in the vista: miles of lake and majestic shoreline.  My body starts to come back to equilibrium.  In this moment one cannot keep a broad smile off their face.  Steam billows off in waves.  Cool air clings to my skin, yet my body core fights it off.  An inexperienced sauna bather may reach for cover back in the hot room, but we sauna enthusiasts know the importance of listening to our core, not our skin.

Tom reaches down into a snow pile:  “beer?”

“Of course” I reply, with a smile.

At this moment, there is nothing but the present.  Cool fresh air.  Skin flushed clean.  Muscles and mind relaxed.

As a rule of thumb, it’s great to enjoy at least as much time cooling down as heating up.  A sip of ice cold beer, a swig of water, silent contemplation of “Grace amid a snowy world”, laughter and conversation with a dear friend.  After loosing myself in these moments for awhile, a good idea comes forth:

“You ready for another round?”

photo by Brian Peterson

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