The sweat life of urban saunas in Minnesota
E. Katie Holm
It's hot, damn hot, on the upper bench. The thermometer needle points into the red. Someone on the lower bench tosses a ladle of water on the rocks above the stove, unleashing a sizzle and a cloud of steam that rises to meet you.
"Breathe in," your friend tells you. "It will feel great."
All you can think about is how delicious a cool breeze or a chilly pool of water would feel on your overheating body. You begin counting the seconds before the sauna door will open and let you escape into the air outside. Even the thought of diving into a snowbank suddenly appeals to you. And you realize that, in longing for such extremes, you've been inducted into the sauna club.
During the worst winter in 30 years, Glenn Auerbach would step out of his 180-degree sauna and stand in the backyard of his home near Minnehaha Creek, wearing nothing but a bathing suit. With steam rising from his body, Auerbach would dump a pail of cold water over his head and shoulders, let out a "whoop!" and drink Summit IPA from his homemade "nICEMug" — a beer stein molded out of ice.
For Auerbach, a gregarious 50-year-old salesman for Nestle, sweating in the sauna is a therapeutic and thrilling way to survive the winter. It's also his way of upholding a time-honored tradition.
The Finns brought their savusaunas to Minnesota, building the first in 1868 in Cokato, one hour west of Minneapolis. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, three Finnish immigrant families — the Barbergs, the Selväläs, and the Salmonsons — shared the sauna after settling on the rich farmland three years earlier.
The Lakota Native Americans performed sweat lodge ceremonies in domed structures typically made with flexible willow branches and covered with blankets and canvas. Participants would sit in a circle around a heated rock pit, while the leader of the ceremony poured water on the stones to create steam.
In fact, the practice of gathering in small groups in huts made of wood, earth, or stone and introducing fire or hot rocks to induce perspiration has been common to many civilizations throughout the ages. In the fourth century B.C., Hippocrates wrote, "Give me the power to create a fever and I shall cure every illness."
Immigrants to Minnesota brought their sweat culture with them. Those from the Nordic countries built saunas across the forests of the northern Midwest, from the Iron Range to Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. Eastern European immigrants working in industrial factories and living in squalid urban quarters at the turn of the 20th century frequented community bathhouses, which offered their only opportunity to wash. One of the remaining few, the Division Street bathhouse in Chicago's Ukrainian Village, inspired these words from Saul Bellow: "Down in the super-heated subcellars all these Slavonic cavemen and wood demons with hanging laps of fat and legs of stone and lichen boil themselves and splash ice water on their heads by the bucket."
Saunas remain common in northern Minnesota — who hasn't enjoyed a good schvitz after a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters? — but they have largely disappeared from the Twin Cities. Late 20th-century homes near Lake Harriett had saunas in their basements that are now mothballed or used for storage.
Auerbach is trying to change that. His backyard sauna is one of a dozen he has built since moving to Minnesota in 1988 — four for himself and eight for others. The backyard hot room is part of a 22'x28' two-car garage and features a comfortable changing room and an attic, lounge, and office above the sauna. Auerbach has built audio speakers into all four corners of this temple of sweat; he prefers to listen to mellow jazz, reggae, or Afro-pop, but never rock 'n' roll or music heavy on the vocals. Only mellow music enters the sauna.
In 2008 he launched the website SaunaTimes.com, which promotes sauna tradition and lore and extolls the physical and mental health benefits. Auerbach has mentored several younger sauna aficionados and helped them build their own huts.
"I love the health and wellness benefits of saunas, and it's exciting to build saunas," Auerbach says. "I did the website not to monetize, but to share the joy of sauna culture."
Auerbach's fascination with saunas began in the summer of 1985 when he and his friend John Barnett were hitchhiking through Scandinavia. It was a cold summer, and the gray Nordic skies showered rain on the travelers, soaking their sleeping bags and tents.
As luck would have it, a local woman took pity on them and brought them to her home in a Swedish village, where she and her husband lived in a quaint apartment above a dental office.
The Swedes fired up their sauna, and once Auerbach and Barnett emerged, the host had prepared Swedish meatballs and baked a cake for dessert that, in the Scandinavian tradition, sported little Swedish and American flags.
"That was my first real sauna, and it was the first time in weeks I was actually dry," Auerbach remembers. "The mosquitoes were wicked that summer, too. The sauna warmed me, and got rid of the mosquito bites."
Two weeks later, the vagabonds found themselves on a boat in the Swedish archipelago, where they took jobs rebuilding cabins on an island. Every night after work, they visited someone's uncle's cabin, which invariably had a wood-burning sauna.
Life on the road was bliss. Auerbach stuck around Europe finding odd jobs. He worked as a bartender in Paris for a spell, then picked grapes in Germany. Eventually, he returned to the United States "to get a real job."
But his native Buffalo held little allure. The lake country of Sweden had gotten into Auerbach's blood. So he moved to Minnesota in 1988, building a cabin and sauna — with Barnett's help — on Pine Island in Lake Vermilion, west of Ely in the Iron Range.
"The real coup for me was lake culture," Auerbach says. "I wanted to buy land on a lake."
After launching SaunaTimes.com six years ago, Auerbach built what he calls "Mobile Sauna 1.0." The portable sweat house featured a 6'x8' changing room and a 6'x8' hot room, and boasts what Auerbach calls a "kick-ass wood-burning stove." He transports the mobile sauna to public gatherings around the Twin Cities, such as the Luminary Loppet and the Polar Plunge.
At these events, Auerbach invites everyone to take a turn. The reactions he witnesses vary from "this is totally whack" to "this reminds me of my grandparents' cabin in the north woods" to "what the heck, let's try it!"
While some sauna cultures celebrate nudity, visitors are required to wear bathing suits in the mobile sauna. Some sauna rules are universal, however. The most important one is "close the door!" If a hot room reaches 180 degrees or 200 degrees Fahrenheit, the host intended for it to be that hot, and leaving the door open will kill the heat.
Auerbach also discourages excess drinking or hard liquor consumption in the sauna. The act of sweating is, of course, a process of dehydration. An acquaintance named Marty, who found Auerbach via SaunaTimes, once drove down from the northern suburbs to visit the backyard sauna with a half-finished bottle of rum in tow. When the visitor arrived, he was inebriated, and he got more hammered inside the sauna. Auerbach encourages drinking a couple of beers in moderation during a sauna experience.
As for how long to remain in the hot room, Auerbach encourages the saunagoer to "listen to your core, not to your skin.... Heat up for a good amount of time, and cool down for a good amount of time. Push it a little bit until you're really sweating. Then go chill outside. But when you feel the cold, don't rush back in, but expand the cycle."
The size of the hot room is also one of Auerbach's obsessions. His "magic dimension" is 6'x8'x7'. "That's all you need. The beauty of an urban sauna is that you don't need a big footprint. You don't need to waste energy with excessive cubic feet."
John Pederson, an Auerbach protégé who built his own mobile sauna last year, also fell in love with the sauna culture while traveling in Scandinavia. The 31-year-old St. Cloud native and entrepreneur studied abroad for a semester in Helsinki during his junior year of college at the University of Wisconsin. Pederson remembers that the person who picked him up at the airport took him directly to a public sauna before he was delivered to his new apartment.
"For not speaking the language and being totally out of my element, I felt immediately comfortable and settled down after the long plane ride," Pederson recalls. "I felt in sync with whatever was happening."
A Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor alludes to the importance of saunas in Finnish social life in his poem "The Finn Who Would Not Take a Sauna," which recounts the travails of Toyvle, an immigrant to the Minnesota Iron Range who "although he was Finnish / the joys of winter had for him / long started to diminish. He was a Finn / the only Finn / who would not take a sauna." Eventually, Toyvle submits to the sweat and jumps into a frozen lake to prove his manhood.
Pederson needed no such prodding. The sauna became the central point of his social life in Helsinki. Before going out on the town, the first thing friends would do was visit someone's sauna and decompress after a busy day.
"Taking a sauna together would put everyone on the same wavelength. It would sync people for the evening, before we went out for dinner and drinks," says Pederson. "Sometimes the mood in the sauna was raucous; sometimes it was chill. It was just a space for whatever wanted to be there."
Except for one occasion, when machismo, and perhaps a little Cold War angst, prompted a friendly hot room competition.
"The Russians began stoking the stove to show us how tough they were and to see how much we could take," Pederson says. "I remember my nostrils and hair on my ears felt like they were melting. We tried to be tough and represent. But I felt like my face would start on fire. I came bolting out of the sauna, and the Russian and Finnish dudes laughed!"
Back in Minnesota, Pederson long wanted to build his own sauna. But he didn't own a house or land. His interest in creative architecture led him to the Tiny House movement, which seeks to downsize dwellings and make better use of space.
"The project actually started as a tiny house build," said Pederson. "But I realized that I didn't need a different living space — I needed a different social space and a personal retreat, which led me back to the sauna."
On a whim, Pederson bought a tire-hauling trailer online for $1,300 (half his savings), and with the help of Tiny House builder Jim Wilkins, mounted a very small cabin onto the trailer. Pederson's Tiny House eventually landed at the Hack Factory cooperative workstation in the Seward neighborhood. Still, the Tiny House was not yet a sauna; it needed interior walls, benches, lighting, and, most importantly, a wood stove that could elevate the interior temperature to 180 degrees.
Pederson's passion for saunas led him to Auerbach, who agreed to offer consultations in exchange for online help with his nICEMug Kickstarter campaign. "Actually he said, 'Buy me a cup of coffee; this sounds like a cool project,'" Pederson recalls. The cup of coffee led to the mentor helping the understudy for many bone-chilling hours last winter, hammering, sawing, and building what would become Pederson's "612 Sauna."
"I thought it would take three to four months, and instead it took 15," Pederson says with a laugh. "But at the Hack Factory, you just make things work with recycled materials that are lying around. People would see me standing outside and they'd walk over and help me. This project has been a community effort from the start — and that's where a sauna belongs."
The 612 Sauna left the Hack Factory last fall and settled in a friend's backyard just a block south of Lake Street. The sauna took her maiden voyage on December 15 when Pederson cranked the heat to 180 degrees. Meanwhile, the temperature outside dropped to 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the midst of the polar vortex.
"John and I have this connection over the mobile sauna," says Auerbach. "There's something magical about the story that he doesn't need to buy land to have a sauna."
For Molly Reichert, an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture, building a "sauna shanty" was an opportunity to put her creative design skills to use and share the space with many.
The Hopkins native returned to the Twin Cities three years ago after spending a decade in Brooklyn and the Bay Area. Her parents wanted to renovate their newly purchased Linden Hills home, and it fell on Reichert, the architecture student, to redesign it.
"I saw lots of opportunity here for doing creative work outside the box," says Reichert. "I was able to connect with people who had similar ideas about community and make spaces that support community."
Reichert joined forces with four friends (Emily Stover, John Moore, John Kim, and Daniel Dean) to build a sauna shanty they would call the TönöSauna ("tönö" is Finnish for "shack"). Finnsisu, an outfitter based in nearby Lauderdale, sold them a wood stove at a bargain price. They envisioned the TönöSauna as an alternative social and civic space, and a mobile platform for public talks, art, and presentations.
No one in the group had Scandinavian ancestors, but they consulted a Finnish sauna enthusiast who offered valuable advice. Feed the fire with tamarack or other slow-burning wood, they were told; take at least four trips inside and outside the sauna to adjust the body's perception of hot and cold.
They gutted a 1966 aluminum Avion travel trailer, which they had purchased for $800. The process was fraught with hurdles. On the way to pick it up in Spicer, Reichert's friend ran into a deer and totaled her car. The entire interior of the trailer had to be retrofitted in order to subject the TönöSauna to temperatures of over 200 degrees.
The group ultimately separated the interior into a sauna room and a changing area. Using computational design and fabrication, Reichert came up with beautiful, ergonomic benches of kiln-dried red cedar that look like the ribcage of a skeleton. For the benches Reichert used "new wood" made out of composite plastic and wood sheet material that is waterproof, nontoxic, and able to withstand extreme heat.
In 2012, the TönöSauna appeared at Art Shanty, a four-week art event on frozen Medicine Lake, and at the Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Wisconsin, where it accommodated as many as 10 people at one time. Some came to sweat, others to enjoy the creative interior design and opportunity to hang out in an unregulated public space.
"By making the sauna mobile, we can bring it to Twin Cities neighborhoods unfamiliar or undeserved by such a needed social space," says Reichert. "There's a need for communal gatherings in the wintertime when many Minnesotans tend toward being standoffish. They think they can get social time out of their system in the fall and then hibernate until spring."
Clint Carlson, who lives south of Lake Harriet, built his backyard sauna out of a desire to entertain and share the experience. He constructed his 7'x7' hot room in the corner of his garage. It comfortably seats about eight people on two benches. The outside of Carlson's sauna is covered in reclaimed tin from his grandfather's barn that was built in the 1930s. He also has speakers and a volume control inside the sauna.
"I love saunas because it's the most relaxing thing I've ever discovered," says Carlson, who moved to International Falls in high school and remembers taking saunas with his friends on Rainy Lake, where he could run right off the dock and into the lake on moonlit nights. "The best way I can describe taking a good sauna is that it hits my system reset button. It refreshes my perspective and reminds me not to take things too seriously."
Carlson is surprised by the frequency of visitors to his sauna who have never before enjoyed the authentic experience. To him, sitting in a gym sauna for five minutes after a workout doesn't count; a proper sauna requires at least an hour of one's time. He believes it's his mission to reintroduce Minnesotans to sauna culture.
"It surprises me that there isn't a stronger sauna culture here," says Carlson. "I spread sauna culture every chance I get. I'd love to see a resurgence here in the Twin Cities."
Auerbach, Pederson, Reichert, and Carlson were all featured speakers at the first ever "Perfect Sweat Summit," which was held in mid-March at the Archimedes Banya, a Russian-style bathhouse in San Francisco. The summit was the brainchild of Mikkel Aalund, author of the book Sweat, a 1978 cult classic for sauna lovers.
Aalund gathered 50 experts and sauna aficionados in San Francisco to "explore the growing body of research that corroborates and expands on what the ancients have long known: that sweating is a valuable aid to healing and health."
The ambitious summit sought to analyze the sauna concept through the following lenses: sweat etiquette, spiritual sweating, healthy sweating, and more.
"We hope the findings and collective brainstorming that will come out of this in-gathering of sweat cognoscenti will bring more attention and respect to this worldwide tradition that brings together people in a healthy and meaningful way," Aalund says.
Carlson agrees. Here in Minnesota, where saunas are part of the fabric of the immigrant tapestry, it would be a shame to let this tradition die. Whether to promote health or to maintain a cultural legacy, he thinks saunas still have plenty to offer.
"Most cultures around the globe have developed some kind of sweating ritual throughout the ages," says Carlson. "There is a reason for that."
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