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Gather Sauna House Betters Bend

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By Tom Carlson, Photos by Gather Sauna House

Inspired by Löyly Spa in Portland, Oregon over 10 years ago, Halina Kowalski became obsessed with starting her own sauna venture. She envisioned a similar permanent brick-and-mortar location south of Portland in Bend and she got to work in her head. Halina spent years mentally planning her business before finally starting the conversation with her husband, Dorian. “We need to do it and I want you to build it for me.” The couple determined that a mobile sauna would be the best way to begin. In 2019, they started converting a horse trailer into Gather’s first unit.

Halina and Dorian, Gather’s first sauna in the background

Something’s Still Missing

As the physical structure took shape Halina sensed a missing aspect of the business’ identity. She knew nature, wellness, and community must play central roles in what her saunas would provide to the people of Bend but still felt a need for more…soul. In considering “how did my own ancestors heal?” and researching the answer she found her sauna’s spiritual home in the Latvian pirts (pronounced like “peerts”.) Halina took a deep dive into the world of pirts and its traditions in nature, especially adding foraged local herbs, wildflowers, and flora to the experience. Not just whisks of leaves and scents added to the water bucket but scrubs, steams, mists and creams.

Halina eventually took a trip to Latvia for immersive pirts training. She also connected with Leva Kolosova and Yuki Oyama of Forests Pirts and the three of them wrote what they believe is the first English-language introductory manual of pirts. Halina began incorporating her pirts knowledge into the Gather Sauna House experience and it became central to the business’ persona.

Helina with some of the tools of the pirts trade

Gather Grows and Evolves

Gather Sauna House held its first public session in 2020 and things took off quickly. The operation almost immediately outgrew their small sauna. Halina and Dorian began planning a second trailer. They again wanted to construct the sauna themselves, but needed it too quickly so they outsourced the build. Now most Gather sessions occur in that second, larger sauna. The building bug bit Dorian hard and the scope of Gather’s identity expanded to include “sauna builder.” Two more mobile units will join the fleet soon and they’ve already delivered mobile and stationary saunas to others.

Gather hosted at several sites around Bend during the initial years but found its favorite location in iconic Riverbend park. Each Fall Halina and Dorian set up their trailer in a beautiful spot beside the Deschutes river. The site features incredible views of the surrounding high dessert landscapes and easy access to river plunging between rounds. For the warmer half of the year, tubers start their journeys from the location; but when it gets too cold for tubing, Gather rolls in and doubles the benefit of this majestic site to Bend…ians? Benders?…Bendites!

Halina works as a mental health professional and researcher. She is studying and developing a sauna somatic therapy protocol for PTSD. By combining the therapeutic benefits of sauna sessions with practices in mental health treatment, this protocol will offer individuals suffering from PTSD a safe and supportive environment to address their symptoms and promote healing. Halina’s work and the resulting protocol will no doubt further evolve Gather’s approach and offerings

Second sauna in its natural habitat

Mobile Has Merit

Many consider a brick-and-mortar location the epitome of the public sauna experience. A permanent site offers many advantages over the mobile model. And these pros steered Gather’s original vision for the form factor of the business. The early choice of a mobile sauna represented compromise. The significantly lower-cost and -risk model catalyzed startup, but the couple planned to eventually evolve to a permanent home.

Now that Gather has some years of experience running mobile units, however, they’ve seen the many, many advantages mobile saunas offer. Halina said it best: “Now it feels like it would be wrong to put it in a box.” Mobility enables access, both to nature and…to sauna. Sites whose zoning allows such an operation and that provide the views and visibility, the solitude, the option to plunge in a natural body of water mere steps from the sauna door, rarely exist. And such locations are expensive, which can necessitate admission charges that would exclude many potential guests. Gather still eventually hopes to find a permanent or semi-permanent location. But the lessons learned in this more mobile period of Gather’s life will shape the site search.

Many a mobile sauna owner’s biggest early surprise is how much work it is to move the thing. But operating a mobile sauna doesn’t have to mean transporting it to a different home and back every weekend. Gather Sauna House’s hot rooms move quite infrequently, as little as a couple times per year. But that ability to relocate the sauna immeasurably expands the flexibility of what Gather can be.

Happy to Help

Halina would be glad to talk to other current and future sauna business owners about anything she’s learned along the way: working with government, Latvian pirts, pros and cons of mobile saunas, marketing, etc. She’s especially proud of shifting the Parks and Rec Department’s willingness to participate in a partnership. Halina’s persistent efforts moved them from repeated fast and hard no’s, through a very restricted permit, to a nearly unrestricted permit and enthusiastic “yes.” Now Bend Parks and Rec. considers the alliance with Gather innovative and seems happy to be a leader amongst similar government agencies in this regard.

So for finding an identity in Latvian pirts, working hard to park their trailers in great spots, and leveraging the advantages of mobile sauna to multiply accessibility, Sauna Times happily names Gather Sauna House the Public Sauna of the Month for April! Keep up the incredible work, Halina and Dorian! Find Gather and hundreds of other great businesses to visit on our Map.

Plunging in the Deschutes Rive
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