Author’s note: Amanda and I are no longer in Sweden but I still have a bunch of content that I need to post from our time there.
Swedes are known for many things such as IKEA, Swedish pancakes, Swedish meatballs, Swedish massages, Volvos, still having a king and queen, and saunas (bastu in Swedish). The sauna is a great way to restore a normal body temperature to your frozen body by subjecting it to temperatures approaching 200°F (which sounds way more impressive than 95°C). After a cold day (-35°F for example) a sauna is just the right place to warm up. Tommy, one of Saltoluokta’s chefs, says that people are like clams in the sauna, opening up in the heat and sharing deeply with strangers and friends alike. Indeed the hot dry air, dim lighting, and the hiss of water evaporating on hot stones is a perfect place to talk, tell stories, listen and sweat. Lucky for me, Saltoluokta had a sauna, well actually 4 saunas: a wood burning sauna, a staff sauna, and two saunas for the guests, both male and female.
Prior to Sweden, my sauna experience was limited to the saunas that can occasionally be found at swimming pools. I find that Americans generally prefer hot tubs or Jacuzzis. However, I believe saunas have several important advantages over Jacuzzis. Firstly one can spend a long time in the sauna without suffering from the classic hot tub ailments: pruning syndrome and nauseating overheating. As long as you cool yourself off occasionally from the sauna, the body seems to be able to spend a whole day in the there, even when drinking beer.
Secondly, you can cool yourself off in a sauna, which I figured out myself. Swedes have been sitting around in saunas forever (in a historical context), but they can still learn a few things from dimwitted Americans like myself. At a sauna party, I went outside and mined a chunk of snow the size of an English Springer Spaniel which I carried into the sauna. As I passed people outside the sauna they looked at me quizzically.
“What are you going to do with that they asked?” (in Swedish).
“I am going to…give it…hugs?” I replied in hesitant Swedish with confidence.
It was an instant hit, and we even broke off small bits of snow that we put on our heads for a peppermint-patty refreshing feeling. The snow hugs were great, and throwing bits of snow at the ceiling was also a favorite activity.
There are a few general rules that one should respect when sauna-ing: the people who sit on the top level (where it is the hottest because of gravity I think) are the ones who are allowed to throw scoopfuls of water on the hot rocks to create the steam which makes the sauna feel much hotter. If you are not on the top, then you don’t add water or you may end up cooking the people on top (who are generally languishing in a heat-induced stupor). Sometimes people pour a little beer on the hot rocks, which makes the sauna smell like the combination of a gym locker and a fraternity but with nice caramelized roasted barley aromas. Apparently pouring vodka on the hot rocks causes a two stage process that begins with the pourer losing his or her eyebrows and then the rest of the people becoming almost instantly but fleetingly drunk. I have not had the opportunity to experience this yet, but I am not looking forward to it.
Swedes have a different view on nudity than Americans, so “mixed” saunas happen regularly. Everyone keeps their eyes mostly to themselves and there are generally no problems. Not wearing clothes mean that running outside to roll in the snow or jump in a lake is an easy maneuver. My favorite sauna tip for the winter is to put your snow boots on before you go out. Bare feet on ice and snow makes for quick re-entry, but if your feet are warm, you can enjoy the night air for many minutes before the freezing temperatures drive you back in to the hot wood sauna.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned about saunas is that they are not just for cold days. Swedes use saunas year round, both as relaxing experience but also as a type of outdoor shower. In the north of Sweden many people have rustic cabins up in the remote mountains that have no running water. Almost all of these remote cabins have a sauna somewhere (often one sauna for several cabins). These saunas are simple wood structures with a wood burning stove that has a water jacket around it and rocks piled on top. As the sauna heats the room, it also heats the water which can be tempered with cold water and used to take a hot bucket shower right inside the sauna room. The floor has spaces that allow the water to drain out, so even at very cold temperatures one can take a hot shower in a hot room. Some saunas are fancy affairs with planed cedar planks, wooden buckets and ladles, glass doors and picture windows. Other saunas are extremely basic with sap oozing pine boards, plastic buckets, and an old wood stove. No matter what the circumstances, I enjoyed every sauna I had the pleasure of sitting in. (and now I hope I’ve inspired a few state-side friends to build their own saunas. I’m happy to offer my consulting services).