Jody says saunas connect her with her Finnish heritage, promote wellness, and have given her lasting memories.
Last weekend, we were invited to our neighbor’s sauna. It was a last-minute invitation, and I was in the middle of baking Korvapuusti, which are Finnish cinnamon rolls. I was just setting them to rise for 30 minutes before they were to go in the oven. I had spent a considerable amount of time preparing them. I decided to shut the oven off and risk ruining them. All for a sauna!
I gathered my sauna bag and hopped into my Jeep. My quick run to take a sauna turned into a two-hour steam session in the log sauna that sits on the shore of Farm Lake. We brought swimsuits, drinks, music, and four of us packed into the hot, steamy room. I don’t recommend a two-hour long sauna, as it was a bit much. However, the four trips outside to roll in the snow helped cool me off and the laughs and screams that went along with it were hilarious. Once back home, I popped the cinnamon rolls (which were fine) in the oven and they were the perfect ending to the perfect day. Food always has to follow sauna.
For most of us that grew up in northern Minnesota, sauna was a part of everyday life, or at the very least not a foreign concept. I was lucky enough to grow up in a home with two saunas—an electric indoor sauna and a wood-fired outdoor sauna. It was on the land that was part of the original family homestead. It was where my great-parents settled after moving to America from Finland. My maternal grandmother, Helen, was born there—in the sauna!
My dad’s parents who lived just down the road also had two saunas. I recall going there for sauna, which was followed by Grandma’s homemade jelly-filled Bismark doughnuts, or rice pudding and Lawrence Welk playing on the television in the background. One of my greatest sorrows now is not having my own sauna as an adult.
Saunas are a part of the Finnish culture that I grew up in. Saunas have rocks on the stove that you throw water on, and it produces steam. The steam is called löyly in Finnish. I once read it means “spirit, breath, soul.” The steam makes the sauna hotter which makes you sweat. Traditional saunas are heated by wood burned in a stove with a chimney. It can also be burned in a stove with no chimney. That is the original sauna and is called a smoke sauna. The smoke is allowed out of the door prior to the sauna-goer entering.
I was able to experience a smoke sauna when I was in Helsinki. A smoke sauna followed by a jump into the Baltic Sea will be a sauna I will always remember. I like to refer to it as being “baptized” in Finland. We also got to sauna at our family’s cabin that was near where my great-grandparents were born. Having the opportunity to experience sauna in Finland was like bringing my Finnish heritage full circle.
The Nordic culture has taken off here in America. People are looking to the Nordic countries for input on wellness. The Finnish sauna trend has also become a trend globally. There has been a renewal of interest in public saunas. The new public sauna Löyly in Helsinki (complete with a restaurant and bar) was one of the first stops I made when I was in Helsinki in 2019. It is a cool, community gathering place.
That was my first introduction to public saunas. I had grown up thinking all public saunas were nothing more than places of “ill repute.” Here in Minnesota the new Sisu and Löyly Nordic Sauna in Grand Marais offers an authentic sauna and an amazing view on the shore of Lake Superior.
Public saunas are back and have gained respect.
Recently, I visited the Ely Steam Sauna that finally opened again after closing for two years during COVID. The Ely Steam Sauna has a long history and originally opened in 1915. It was once the bathing place for generation of locals, including miners, loggers, and trappers. It has become my home-away-from-home sauna. They offer some fun products for sale like shower steamers with essential oils and loofa soaps, which make it more of a spa experience. I carry a set of sauna essential oils in my bag—birch, tar, eucalyptus, and smoke sauna. The other day someone was telling me about sauna hats. They protect your head and hair from the heat of the sauna. It sounds strange to wear a hat in the sauna, but I guess it works. I may have to add one to my sauna bag.
My first experience at the Ely Steam Sauna was comically memorable. I reserved a private sauna that had its own dressing room and a shower in the sauna. As I entered the sauna my first reaction was that it wasn’t very hot. Unbeknownst to me, it was, it just needed a little shot of steam. I spied the steam chain right away and before even sitting down I pulled the chain hard three times. Within seconds a billow of steam filled the room and I leaned back and sighed. I soon noticed that the steam never lifted like it normally does. It just kept filling the tiny room. Wow! I thought. I guess three pulls was a little aggressive.
No, what I did not understand until the staff person came knocking at the door was that the steam lever was stuck, and water had kept pouring onto the rocks. She told me to bump the lever back up. Within seconds I was back in business. Meanwhile, the steam had drifted out of the sauna, into the dressing room and down the hall. I was a little embarrassed. I have been back since though and have proven to be a sauna enthusiast without another incident.
Sales of barrel saunas skyrocketed during the pandemic. New sauna alternatives have given people an easier way to participate in the sauna lifestyle rather than remodeling their house. Portable saunas have also become popular to visit, purchase or rent. You can visit a portable sauna in Duluth at Cedar and Stone Nordic Sauna on Canal Park Drive.
Another new trend is the sauna tent. Sauna tents are affordable, portable, and promise an authentic wood-fired sauna experience in your backyard. The insulated tents come with wood-burning stoves and can double as a winter camping tent. They heat to up to 200 degrees and they are easy to assemble and disassemble. They are perfect to take along on adventures and can be set up anywhere. Imagine a tent sauna set up at your hunting shack or near the lake edge while camping!
Over the years, I have collected some awesome sauna stories and experiences. I have decided if you don’t have it, find it. Someday I hope to have a sauna of my own. Until then, I will be making my way down to the public sauna, where I will find some steam and relaxation. And who knows? Maybe one of these days you may find me taking a sauna in a sauna tent out on a frozen lake. Why? Because I have never forgotten one of my most memorable saunas at Camp Du Nord here in Ely where I had my first experience with jumping into an ice hole after sauna!
Jody Rae lives in Ely. She spends most of her time on the water or in the woods, where she is always planning her next adventures, both near and far.
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