After a long day of outdoor work or adventure in Vermont’s winter environment, there’s nothing more rejuvenating than baking in a wood-fired sauna.
I was reminded of that earlier this month after a cold morning rain turned to wind-driven snowfall, and I spent the afternoon backcountry skiing with my wife and a close friend. No matter how much we bundled up and kept our bodies moving, by sunset we couldn’t shake off the bone-deep chill.
Back at home, our woodstove offered warmth and comfort, but it wasn’t until a couple of hours later, after a round in the sauna, that I was finally warm again — and this was standing unclothed beneath the stars and falling snow. My skin tingled with the rush of blood to the capillaries. The burble of a nearby stream calmed my mind. I was more relaxed than I’d been in days.
Then, back in the sauna for another session. The thermometer topped 190 degrees. A few friends and I poured water over the rocks on the woodstove, filling the room with an invigorating steam. We talked about skiing, community, the impact of higher fuel prices … and before long, most of us were outside again, lying in the stream and rolling in the snow.
Later, as we wrapped up our third round of heat and steam, I finished off another liter of water while watching snow swirl outside a small window. The thermometer read 205 degrees. Having held off on eating since lunchtime — taking a sauna with a full stomach isn’t a good idea — I started to think about the hot soup awaiting us in the house. I ducked through the door and wandered down to the stream, where I opted this time to dump buckets of water over my body.
A few days later, I had a talk with Nils Shenholm of Duxbury, owner of Solhem Sauna. The master builder has had a hand in the design and construction of more than 200 saunas.
“The sauna has a very unique way of making you warm again,” says Shenholm, whose family emigrated from Sweden to the Midwest in the mid-1900s. “It’s much more effective than a hot shower or hot tub.”
Shenholm builds most of his saunas in the Finnish tradition — they are small, simply designed, often wood-heated spaces designed to get nice and hot. Finns traditionally enter the sauna when the temperature is at least 170 degrees, and it’s not uncommon for temperatures to reach 210 degrees during the final sweat. The idea is to go through at least three cycles of heating and cooling, using water or snow to rinse off sweat and cool down between heating sessions. Shenholm’s saunas are a far cry from those typically found in contemporary spas or sports centers, which are removed from nature and insufficiently hot.
“The sauna’s ability to rejuvenate our bodies and minds has a thousands-of-years-old basis in cultures sharing the same kind of climate we have here in Vermont,” says Shenholm, referring to the sauna culture of northern countries including Finland, Estonia and Russia. “It’s an incredible way to connect with friends, to relax. Saunas also stimulate the production of endorphins,” Shenholm adds. “There’s no such thing as coming out of a sauna unhappy or grumpy.”
Both the Finnish and North American sauna societies attest to the numerous beneficial qualities of saunas, as do studies conducted across Finland and Germany. The short list of benefits includes soothing and relaxing muscles, improving circulation, lowering blood pressure, relieving stress, detoxifying the body, increasing resistance to illness and congestion, and facilitating more restful sleep. As for possible risks, the studies attribute them primarily to the improper use of a sauna by persons with existing health problems such as fever, inflammation or heart conditions; or by persons who are under the influence of alcohol or not properly hydrated.
For Shenholm, who stokes the fire in his own personal sauna at least twice a week, this is a way of life. It’s a key component of feeling happy and healthy, not only in winter but throughout the year. “I can’t imagine life in this climate without one,” he says.