A Proper Sauna

It’s in our bones

Mitchell Peterson

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Keweenaw Peninsula sauna. Photo by ViennaGlenn.

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Wood — often cedar, a touch of smoke, and a hint of must: that’s the smell of a proper sauna. Every one is a positive for humanity, but the best saunas are ancient, tiny stand-alone buildings the size of a shed or small garage; they have a little changing room with colorful old rag rugs covering a cement floor, thin embroidered curtains over small windows, and wooden hooks at eye level holding faded beach towels, random swimwear, and the odd pair of goggles.

The perfect saunas are within fifty yards of a cold body of water — Lake Superior being the ultimate.

And because people are running between the lake and the hot wooden benches, a great sauna has a shallow bucket near the door with water scooped directly from the lake, used to quickly dip the feet clean before entering, a thin layer of sand settled at the bottom and a bit of grass floating at the top.

The Keweenaw is loaded with perfect saunas.

I’ve been fortunate enough since childhood to utilize many of them during Michigan’s short but epic summers.

A quick but very important note: the proper pronunciation is “sow-na” and not “saw-na.” Because the word comes from Finland, and that’s how they say it.

That pronunciation and the saunas themselves came to the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan in the late nineteenth century as immigrants from across Europe flooded the area for abundant copper mining jobs.

Finns are sauna fiends, and their country has more saunas per capita than any other with only five million people and over two million saunas. I don’t think we track that data in America state or county-wide, but I’d be more than…

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Mitchell Peterson

Freelance writer who spent nine years outside the US, currently in rural America writing the Substack bestseller 18 Uncles.