Nothing Like a Winter Sauna

The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition
by Michael Nordskog
Photography by Aaron W. Hautala
University of Minnesota Press, 2010

Quite luckily, I had the obscure pleasure of growing up in the middle of sauna (pronounced “sow-na” with a diphthong drawing out the “a” sound into the “u” sound) country. While I’m sure you know of steam rooms and saunas in gyms and spas, nothing compares to the classic experience of enjoying a traditional steam bath in a wood constructed sauna. The sauna, introduced to America by Finnish immigrants, is a staple of the landscape of Northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Finnish Americans over the generations have preserved Finnish traditions while at the same time creating their own cultural norms of what it means to sauna. While there is some difference in construction and the practices of saunas among native Finns and Finnish Americans, the core essentials of the sauna remain the same.  When the Finns migrated to the Copper Country, the region said a warm tervetuloa (welcome) to the sauna.  Saunas are a regular fixture at many lakeside homes and cottages throughout the UP.  One of the best parts about visiting my in-laws in Twin Lakes is the custom built sauna in their new home.

A great introduction to the meaning of saunas is The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition by Michael Nordskog. This book is a celebration of the cultural practices as well as the stunning architecture of historic and modern saunas in the Lake Superior region. Since Nordskog is from Minnesota, a bulk of the areas profiled are from northern Minnesota, but there is also a fair share of Finnish sauna information as well as stories and history relating to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and parts of Wisconsin. This book gracefully explores the sauna tradition in Finland then takes it stateside and lakeside to define sauna culture in the Midwestern United states. It looks primarily at the construction, use, and instance of wood constructed saunas. Such out buildings were a major element of the homestead landscape and they were very much a part of the fabric of everyday life for Finnish immigrants and their descendents.

One place profiled in this book is the Hanka Homestead. In Tapiola, Michigan, about 20 miles from where I grew up, the Hanka farm and homestead stands as a living museum to tell the story of Finnish immigrants in the Copper Country. One of the most interesting buildings on the property is the savusauna (smoke sauna) which tells a story of bathing, traditional bloodletting (an ancient therapeutic ritual), and more practical functions such as smoking. The construction of the building also serves as a biographical tool, providing evidence of Herman Hanka and his mining accident. When the family first moved to the region Herman took work in the copper mines. It was a dangerous occupation and after a horrific explosion killed his coworker and destroyed Herman’s hearing he left the mines to focus solely on farming and building a homestead in Tapiola. The construction of the sauna provides some evidence to this moment in family history. The first part of the sauna is constructed with spruce logs, with latter parts being in pine and cedar. The lower walls are at first normal, and then become increasingly crudely notched and stacked. Midway through the construction the type of wood changes with the upper walls and they show precision and expert finishing. Museum curators believed this is because Herman started the sauna, but with diminished skills and patience after his mining accident, his sons most likely finished it for (or with) him. The fact that Hanka continued working on the sauna after being severely injured shows how important the sauna was for daily life. It wasn’t the aesthetics or construction of the building, but what the building stood for on the farm and for the family that really mattered. This example illustrates the important role of savusaunas and saunas. This book is filled with such anecdotes and for anyone interested to learn more about the history of sauna practice and the architecture of these lovely buildings should check out this book. It is a book of great architecture, great storytelling, and great history.

(This post is re-posted from my book review blog)

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One thought on “Nothing Like a Winter Sauna

  1. Pingback: Home in Copper Country Sauna Joints | Homeincoppercountry.com

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