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Authentic Sauna Blog

The sauna journey to happiness

Guest post series continues.  Welcome Vern from Duluth, MN.  Vern is a seasoned sauna veteran..  Now retired, Vern enjoys the day to day chores at his cabin, staying fit, then settling into his daily sauna with mindfulness to enjoy the “Shining Moment in the Now.”

Enter Vern:

The Epiphany

I grew up at the “Head of the Lakes” in Duluth, Minnesota, located on the western tip of Lake Superior. Duluth is a port town, built mostly on a steep hillside above the shores of Lake Superior, and the port known as Duluth/Superior. During my childhood in the 50’s and 60’s the town had a population of about 106,000, and was amongst the busiest ports in all of the United States, shipping iron ore, grain, lumber and other products bound the world over.

We lived in a working class neighborhood “up the hill”, perhaps a mile from the Aerial Lift Bridge; the bridge which allowed ships to enter from the big lake through a canal into the harbor. From my bedroom I could watch the ore boats, ocean freighters, and pleasure craft enter and depart the harbor. When the fog was heavy the great old fog horn would lull me to sleep at night.

Life was good for a young boy in those years and in that town. Though winters were long and cold. Summers were endless days of baseball, bicycles, the beach that separated Lake Superior from the harbor, fishing with my dad in a rented boat at one of the local lakes, or at the stocked trout pond in a local park with my best buddy. I never really knew what a family vacation was. Both of my folks worked, so vacation for me meant long visits at my grandparent’s farm in western Minnesota, which in my mind couldn‘t have been a much better way for a town kid to spend a few weeks.

Then one summer, I suppose I was about 10 or 11, my parents, along with the parents of my best buddy, rented a cabin for a week at a lake about 50 miles from town. It was the first real “vacation” I have any memory of, and once we arrived at the lake I was pretty sure I had arrived in heaven. The days were filled with swimming, fishing from an old wooden row boat the our folks let me and my buddy take out alone, exploring the shoreline looking for frogs and turtles, and campfires every night at the sand beach next to the lake.

I don’t recall much about the cabin itself, most likely because about the only time I entered it was at night to fall exhausted into the bunk bed on the screen porch to fall asleep before my head hit the pillow. But I do remember this: there was a genuine sauna built right on the shoreline, maybe 30 feet from the water. I had heard of a sauna before. Of Norwegian heritage, of course I had heard of a sauna. I had just never experienced the joy of the sauna. It was, if it is possible for a 10-11 year old boy, an epiphany. The sauna stove would be started up in the afternoon. The wood smoke would waft across the grounds and you could even smell that delicious earthy, natural smell out on the lake. I vividly recall sitting on the lower bench with my buddy, our dads on the top bench tossing the water on the rocks, and the steam curling around, burning my nose, the sweat running down my face and whole body. Then following the example of our dads, running out of the sauna, across the sand and into the cool water of the lake. It was COLD! And it was wonderful.

When the week was over, there was growing in my mind, the idea that one day I would have a cabin of my own, and it would most definitely have a sauna. Through the rest of my childhood, into my teens and then young adulthood, that dream never vanished. If anything, it grew stronger.

I left Duluth when I was a young adult for military service and then to complete college studies and begin a career. The pull of the great Lake Superior, my hometown, and my dream of a cabin in the woods drew me back to Duluth just after my 31st birthday in 1981. I was married later that year, and our son was born in January, 1983. The birth of my son was, of course, special. But that was just the beginning of a special year.

In August, 1983, my wife and I learned of a small cabin, on a lake in the Superior National Forest on federal lease land. As we drove to first investigate the cabin up 25 miles of dirt county road out of Finland, Minnesota, a large white tail buck crossed the road in front of the car. We reached the narrow, winding ½ mile long dirt track leading to the cabin and almost ran over a ruffed grouse on the way in. We found the cabin in an open, but overgrown lot, with a beautiful old and very large birch tree growing majestically in front of the cabin. Before going into the cabin we walked down to the lakeshore and startled a small flock of mallards as we approached. I was beginning to think the owner of the cabin had staged this all. It was just too perfect.

The cabin itself was small, 18’X16’, and in serious need of some TLC. There was no electricity or running water, and there is not to this day. Aside from the fact that there was no sauna building, the price was right, the location was remote, but ideal for us, and in a few weeks we would find ourselves spending our first autumn weekend at the cabin. I knew there was work to be done, but to be honest, I didn’t realize how much. In fact, I am now into my 34th year there, and I have not once been short of a list of projects to finish or begin. And it has truly been a labor of love. But from day one, I knew that one day there would be a sauna on this lot.

Vern's cabin, circa 1983
Vern’s cabin, circa 1983

And So It Began

Our first trip to “our” cabin was several weeks later, early October 1983, for an extended weekend. The first thing we did was to introduce the two dogs, a 2 year old Black Lab and a 4 year old Chinese Pug, to the cabin and the surroundings. The Lab was, of course, ecstatic. The Pug, not so much. We did a thorough exploration of the cabin and the surrounding area, and then got to work cleaning and organizing. I have never enjoyed housework so much in my life. By the end of that weekend, the cabin was clean, organized, and livable. I built a fire pit down by the lakeshore, and we had our first official “camp fire” by Saturday night. We had arrived.

Before the snow fell in earnest in mid-December the small propane heater had been replaced with an old Franklin wood stove that was not exactly an efficient wood burner, but looked great and kept the place comfortably warm, and occasionally a little warmer than comfortable. I had cut, hauled, split and stacked about two cords of relatively dry firewood. We had met all of our neighbors, and driven the back roads for miles hunting grouse and getting to know the area. The second week of December we left our son with my sister and her husband and went up to the cabin with the dogs. On Saturday afternoon it began to snow, so I wisely drove the truck out to the county road and walked back the ½ mile to the cabin. By morning there was 14” of heavy, wet snow on the ground, and it was still snowing. It took 2 hours to get our gear and ourselves out to the truck. We made it down the county road about 5 miles to a small resort with cabins for rent. With 20 miles of slippery, desolate road ahead of us and a two wheel drive truck we put caution ahead of courage and rented a cabin. We were there for two days before the roads were plowed and we could get home to Duluth. It was a good learning experience.

By late April, 1984, we were able to drive into the cabin again. The first project was a new outhouse. I began digging the pit for the new privy about 10 feet from the original outhouse. This was no easy task as the ground was gravel and rocks. Golf ball size rocks, softball size rocks, basketball size rocks, and some even larger. Two days and many blisters later, I had a satisfactory 5 foot deep pit. I built the floor and frame for the new privy in the garage at home and brought them up to the cabin. The old outhouse was burned to the ground and the new outhouse up in one weekend.

The next major project involved jacking the cabin up and replacing and leveling the cinder block foundation. Then came new soffits and fascia. It had only just begun.

Over the next 3 years the siding was replaced, and an 18’X16’ deck was added. Then an 18’X10’ section of that deck was enclosed with a screen porch. After the screen porch was completed, I decided to add windows to make the porch a 3 season porch. A solid floor and carpet in the porch came next. All this was done with hand tools as there was no electricity available.

I finally realized I needed electricity so I invested in a portable generator. That of course necessitated the construction of a combination generator/tool shed. And of course once you have your own power available, you might as well wire the cabin for lights. Which I did.

By the summer of 1989 I was ready to get going with the sauna of my dreams. The year before I had run across a deal on a handmade sauna stove with an outside feeder door for $75.00, so had purchased it and it was sitting expectantly in my garage. I first needed permission from the Forest Service to build a sauna. That required paperwork, plans, material specs, and others I can’t even recall. It all took time, but was finally approved, and by late summer I was ready to start prepping the building site.

The sauna was to be located behind the cabin, up a slight hill, between the generator shed and the outhouse. The site was wooded and brushy, so the first thing was to cut down some trees and brush the site down to bare ground. I left a copse of trees between the cabin lot and the sauna site to provide some privacy. As the site was on an incline it needed to be built up level. Luckily for me there was a gravel pit a mile down the road that had just what was needed and I obtained permission to use. Unluckily for me, I did not have a dump truck or loader. So I started hauling one pickup load of gravel at a time, loading the truck a shovel full at a time. I then drove back to the cabin and unloaded the truck one shovel full at a time into a wheel borrow and brought it the 30 feet or so to the sauna site and dumped the gravel, then back and forth until the truck was empty. Then back to the gravel pit to start all over again. I am not sure how many pickup loads I hauled that late summer and fall, but it was many. Very many. But by the end of the 1989 season, the site was almost ready to pour the cement foundation. That would begin the spring of 1990.

Vern's cabin circa 2014
Vern’s cabin circa 2014

The Sauna Build

Most years I can plan on driving into the cabin about the 3rd week of April. But 1990 was truly an anomaly. Not a big snow year, rain in mid-March, and by the last week in March I was able to drive in and get the site work ready to pour the slab. I finished hauling gravel to level the site, brought in bag upon bag of cement, and more gravel for the aggregate. By the middle of April I was building forms for the pad in 70 degree weather. Because the pad would be “floating”, with no footings, I used 3”sheets of pink Styrofoam on the base, and then both rerod and rewire for strength.

I enlisted the help of two buddies to help me with the mixing and pouring the 3rd week of April. I rented a small cement mixer and hauled it up on a Friday afternoon. My two buddies joined me Friday evening. Everything was ready to start.

We woke in the morning to 42 degrees and rain coming down sideways! But we would not be denied. We mixed the first load, emptied into a wheel borrow, and wheeled it into one corner of the frame and dumped the mix. I swear it looked like someone had spit in the corner. It was going to be a long day. And indeed it was; long and wet and cold and exhausting. The rain stopped about 2:00 in the afternoon, but it never reached 50 degrees the whole day. The wind howled out of the east. We took a half hour break for lunch, but that was really about it. By 5:30 in the afternoon the concrete was poured, leveled, broomed and covered with plastic. We were some tired hombres. It is on days like this that you know what real friendship is about.

The weather, that had been so perfect in March and the 1st half of April turned normal again. By normal I mean 40’s and low 50’s for the next 3 weeks. But as it turns out, the weather was the best thing for a nice slow cure of the slab. Twenty seven years later there is not so much as a single crack in that slab.

Over the next few months I laid a cement block foundation and back wall. The sauna stove had an outside feeder throat so I literally built the back wall around the feeder throat. I then built the walls in sections, and with the assistance of one of my buddies who had helped with the cement slab, we cut the rafters in his garage and hoped that we had the dimensions right.

Once again I assembled my crew, consisting this time of 4 helpers and myself. The walls went up without a hitch, the rafters couldn’t have been a better fit. By the end of the weekend, except for windows and doors, the sauna building was up and enclosed. The end was actually in sight.

Over the next weeks, working mostly on my own, but on occasion with a little help, I installed the chimney, shingled the roof, installed the windows and doors, insulated the walls, installed tongue and groove cedar paneling, and built the steam room bench. Just before my 40th birthday, August, 1990, the sauna stove was fired up for the first time, and the sauna was initiated. I have to say, I thought I was just about the richest guy in the world that day.

Vern's sauna
Vern’s sauna

The Sauna way of Life

There has developed over the years a ritual of sorts. I don’t think it is too much to say my cabin time revolves around the sauna. Virtually every day, regardless of the weather, rain or shine, 90 above or 20 below, there will be a sauna. (although at 67 years old I have stopped the winter trips into the cabin)

Early to mid-afternoon I will lay the fire. This is done with care; first a layer of good size pieces of firewood, followed by homemade firestarter and kindling; then a layer of mid-sized burners. Depending on the weather, I may start the sauna then, or wait until later if the day is warm. Once started, the fire needs tending, so during breaks of whatever I am doing, or just because I want to, I will go make sure the fire is burning properly, check the sauna temperature, make sure the wash water is warming nicely. Tending the fire is an integral part of the ritual. It adds to the anticipation.

Tending to Vern's sauna stove
Tending to Vern’s sauna stove

The sauna is ready almost without exception by 5:30 in the afternoon. I think most folks will recommend that you not take a sauna too soon after eating a meal. Unless the day has involved a lot of hot, dirty work, which is not necessarily rare at the cabin, I do generally prefer to eat my evening meal first. That way, I can sauna at my leisure. If my wife is at the cabin with me, which is the usual case, we have supper around 5:30. Since she doesn’t like a long, or hot, sauna she will generally head up to the sauna for a quick wash up sauna shortly after supper. While my wife is taking a sauna, I will add a couple more pieces of firewood to the stove, and then read until she is done, and the sauna temp is up to snuff. (Up to snuff when I was younger meant about 185 degrees. Up to snuff nowadays means about 165),

Sauna and dressing room
Sauna and dressing room

Unless I have hunting or fishing buddies at the cabin, or have managed to inveigle a friend to help with a project by the promise of beer, steak dinner and a sauna, I usually sauna alone. This is not a bad thing. I find the time alone, allowing the heat and steam to seep into my muscles and bones; to feel a sense of total relaxation descend upon me, to be the epitome of peacefulness. The sweat washes away not just the toxins in the body, but the stress and worries of the world from the mind. Aches and pains disappear. The mind clears. Life is good.

The process of the sauna, if you will, also follows a well-ordered path. About 5 minutes after entering the sauna the first loyla is added to the rocks. Less is more, until the right balance is achieved. You will know it once you are there. After 15 or 20 minutes I will step outside and rinse with a few ladles of water over the head. Then back into the sauna until another good sweat is achieved, and then the cleanse begins. I prefer to soap and shampoo up, and then just sit with my eyes closed to keep the suds out, and allow the suds to slide away for 5 or 10 minutes. I then rinse, and step outside for a few more scoops of water over the head, and a few minutes to cool down. Then back into the sauna for one last good steam and sweat (at this point I tend to overdo the loyla a bit until I more or less force myself out of the sauna) before stepping outside to rinse off.

After drying off, and just sitting for a few minutes to let the joy of the sauna settle in, I return to the cabin to collect a cold drink and then down to the dock to sit and simply enjoy what has been gifted to me by a Higher Power. There are no troubles in the world. Soon sleep will come without dreams.

In The Cone

Although I usually sauna alone, a sauna with friends is just as enjoyable. It is a time for camaraderie and reflection. Discussions of times past, good times to come, and sharing of each others lives. But it is most important to understand that sauna times are “in the cone”. In other words, what is said in the sauna, stays in the sauna. This is a time you can open up and share what is on your mind, and just as the sauna sweats your cares away, you can share your thoughts, your dreams, and your problems with the knowledge that you are “in the cone”. And that my friends, is inviolate. It is a as sacred as the sauna itself.

So there you have it. A dream that started when I was 10, was kept alive and well until realized at age 40. For the last 33+ years my cabin has been my safe haven. It has come to define my life. For the last 26+ of those years, my sauna has been my refuge, a chapel, my Shangri-La. For me, the sauna is not just a pastime, it is a ritual, it is a way of life.

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5 thoughts on “The sauna journey to happiness”

  1. What a wonderful story and beautifully written! I really enjoyed experiencing your sauna journey and especially your personal sauna ritual. My own “cabin time revolves around the sauna” and has for the past 19 years. Wouldn’t have it any other way!

  2. Wow, Vern….now I get why David loves to go there with you! What a great and enjoyable piece of writing. Although I have never been there, I felt as if I was.

  3. Vern,
    I had the privilege of visiting your fine “waldehutte” or forest cabin, many years ago. It was shortly after completion of your, then new, sauna. I bear witness it is an exceptionally nice traditional Minnesota lake sauna. What could be better?

    Thank you for putting into words the sauna experience, which many of us consider to be quintessential to a good life well lived.

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