Sauna – My roots, my therapy and my Saturday night

Diane Ring Johnson’s sauna. She heartily recommends you build your own - read on!

A FARM IN NASELLE was my childhood home. Our Finnish family rounded out each week with a communal Saturday night sauna, a ritual that found us perched like towel-draped chickens, sweating together in a cedar henhouse-like structure. A wood stove was banked with coals that, in turn, heated rocks that rested above the coals. By dashing the rocks with cold water, great spattering sounds and vast clouds of volcanic steam were emitted. Ahhhhhhhh. Those who sat on upper benches received the largest blasts of heat and sweated out more toxins than the bathers below. Cold showers flavored with pine tar soap completed the experience, closed our pores and revived us through next Saturday night.

In Naselle, sauna stories still abound. Take the story of the two new city teachers who had been imported into the valley. Accordingly, the young women were initiated in the art of sauna. Instructions: “If it gets too hot in there, just throw water on the rocks.” Which they did. According to lore, the miserably hot teachers continued dashing the rocks with water. When, at last they were overwhelmed by the heat and steam, they bolted in their natural states into an appreciative audience of local pranksters.

Moving back to the Astoria/Peninsula area was almost satisfaction enough for one who had been far afield for many years. Incorporating one of the most nostalgic elements of childhood has completed the return journey. Uppermost on the resettling Feel Good list was the sauna (said with a fond sigh). Building it myself doubled the giddiness factor.

Actual construction of my sauna was completed over the course of one winter. Preparation, however, took a years worth of gleaning. The outbuilding, an excellent 8’ x 10’ structure,  existed as a tool shed in the back yard. While the Finnish tend to use plentiful birch, we Northwestern colonists substitute birch for abundant cedar. Cedar boards used in the interior came from many sources, mostly discards from scrapheaps. Once used cedar shakes and shingles, used on interior and exterior walls, were found abandoned as well. Pieces of my oak dining table were recycled as curved guards to protect against bodily contact with the sauna stove. The outer door was a found, broken screen door; the interior door I built from used cedar boards. A small window was a cast off, added to cleanse the room of humidity and sweat after bathing. The window also adds a bit of light to the cedar box structure and staves off feelings of claustrobia. Two vents, necessary for proper air conduction, were ancient gifts of small wooden shutters from The Sea Chest art gallery. The total cost of the project was further kept to a minimum by purchasing a brightly enameled red scratch-and-dent Finnlandia sauna stove at half of the original price. New materials included exactly ten new cedar fence boards, three rolls of insulation material, countless sandpaper discs and gross quantities of nails.  It warms the heart, as well as heats the sauna, to realize the potential of using used, going green, and staying true to the frugal Finn within.

Building an old country sauna was, ironically, accomplished via the new age internet. My plans, researched online, stayed true to traditional layouts and features such as ventilation requirements that have been used throughout time in Finland. A dilemma common to sauna enthusiasts is often the heat source. Electric or wood? Wood or electric? This is a major core decision. Modern Finns have flocked to the conveniences afforded by the electric heater. In addition to shaving off labor intensive hours of stocking wood and burning it to the requisite temperature, neolithic sauna bathers preset their electronic controls to the precise hour when they roll in from their day’s work, ready for relaxation.

Contemporary touches also include the addition of aroma therapies derived from birchwood and pine. These scents, or others of the bather’s choice, infuse the water used in dousing the hot rocks.  ‘Going electric’ means missing out on the authentic essence of wood smoke. To compensate and borrow from the old ways of double-duty sauna usage (hanging meat to cure inside the hot space), I load my Little Chief smoker with brined fish, place it inside the sauna, and allow the smells of smoking fish to permeate the cedar walls. The result is heady, not fishy, smokey-wood-chip-aromatic, as well as practical, sauna scent.

Diane's sauna awaits.

It was wrenching to watch the recent closing and gutting of The Union Steam Baths.  Situated amidst the canneries and docks of Astoria’s Uniontown, the Baths had served laborers and lovers of sauna since 1928.  Throughout those years, the “Hottest Spot in Town” was a highlight of my trips back home. It is still wondrous to conjure up its aromas of fresh linens, cedar cooling-off rooms and the sweetness of Ivory soap. Pulling on a wooden peg emitted more steam from the diesel boilers into the vast tiled and tiered bathing areas. Buckets of cold water provided rinses and sealed pores between hot steams.  Before the demise of The Union Steam Baths, a porn shop opened and operated on the second floor, just above the Baths. The juxtaposition of the squeaky clean and the smutty was odd and reprehensible to many but failed to deter those who loved the experience of the baths.

If you love the idea of sharing the events of the week in an intimately communal manner, if you desire the benefits of weekly exfoliating and detoxing, or if you long for nostalgia and dreadfully miss The Union Steam Baths, consider building your own unique sauna. I will happily offer encouragement and building advice through e-mail……….just don’t expect to hear from me on Saturday nights; I am enjoying my sauna.
Diana Ring Johnson’s email:

Note: Naselle, Washington is a small community that lies 15 minutes NE of Astoria. It is the site of a large semi-annual Finnish Festival that celebrates the rich heritage of its founders.