While I grew up on the Canadian prairie, my family always celebrated the Scandinavian connection we had through my grandfather. His parents were immigrants from Scandinavia, and as their great-grandson I can’t speak any Scandinavian languages, but more and more I identify with their culture. I feel as if my Scandinavian heritage has predisposed me towards saunas. I have always liked them. Whenever I am breathing in the hot fragrant air of a sauna, the combination of wood, fire, smoke and steam elicits a cerebral response in me and I can tell that this experience is imprinted somewhere way back in my psyche.
Residing in Winnipeg, a city which reaches winter temperatures that easily classify it as one of the coldest urban centres in the world, I’m a little envious of other Nordic countries like Finland where saunas are part of the everyday culture. What a powerful way to nullify the cold and embrace winter’s elements. As a designer, I’m attracted to the structures and spaces that make up the Finnish sauna experience too. Rough-hewn timber architecture, wood burning stoves, red hot stones, and rustic wooden furniture all create a primal yet sophisticated atmosphere. A cosmic, centuries-old spa treatment that always feels fresh and invigorating.
Lately I’ve fantasized about the saunas my ancestors may have used. I imagine walking out through the snow towards my own savusauna early one frigid winter morning. The icy wind howls through my bathrobe, but I don’t mind because I know it’s only a few more steps away to the warmth of the sauna. Hot air welcomes me as soon as I step inside the timber cabin where the temperature is almost ninety degrees Celsius. A large stack of rocks held above the woodstove is heated to glowing hot and a ladle of water from the bucket instantly sends a plume of steam rising from the rocks towards the ceiling. A few more ladles and the room is completely filled and cloudy. Sitting back on the wooden bench I inhale hot humid air and bathe in the steam.
After resting a while, I gently swat my back and legs using boughs of birch, a strange seeming gesture but I can feel built up tension in my muscles easing. The birch vahti also gives off a refreshing woody fragrance that adds another dimension to the bouquet of natural aromas in the cabin. The heat is almost overwhelming. Moisture covers me, and my head and lungs seem steam saturated. I rise off the bench, and feeling slightly light headed, I steady myself for the bracing cold of the lake water dip that comes next.
I hastily exit the savusauna and make a direct path towards the dark mouth of the avanto, a hole cut through the ice. Without hesitating, I plunge feet first into the super-chilled lake water and a collision of burning and tingling sensations electrify my body. I wait, bobbing in the dark water for a few moments to savour the dual sensations of warm inner core and icy skin surface. Bursting back up through the water’s surface I waste little time in grabbing my robe and towel while scrambling through the blowing snow back to my family’s farmhouse.
Sitting by the crackling fireplace, I sip on chilled low-proof kalja and savour pork sausages and piirakk with crispy rye crusts. Through design and architecture systems which humans perfected centuries ago, the sauna’s confluence of fire, steam, heat and ice somehow transports me to a different mind space. Winter is lovely.