My husband and I started 2009 with a New Year's Day sauna in our backyard.
We bought this two-person sauna in 2001 and were fortunate that it wasn't wrecked the first season because we set it on a covered slab next to our back porch. When the rains came Mike wrapped it in tarps and bungied them securely. Needless to say, that made for hassles when we wanted to take a sauna.
Our sauna was made in Finland and sold here by Finnleo. It has a little electric stove sufficient to heat the area more than satisfactorily after about three hours. The wood is so beautiful, tight grained, full of rich hues and still extremely sweet-smelling when we pour water over the hot rocks and the sauna fills with steam, unlocking the secrets of the green Finnish forests where the wood originated. (I notice at the website that the company now uses wood from the U.S., Canada, and Scandinavia.)
The summer following our purchase of the sauna we bought a wood shed kit from Home Depot and Mike designed window boxes to fit under the roof, giving us privacy with natural light and a view of our three Sequoia trees in the backyard. Raising the roof also gave a more spacious feeling inside the sauna shed. I helped build the window boxes and it was a project I thoroughly enjoyed.
With no intentions of running plumbing out to the sauna we use a portable camp shower/shelter combo, similar to this. The shower hangs on a hook in the eaves of the roof over a metal farm animal watering trough that we stand in. It's very utilitarian and works just fine. There's room for a small wooden bench facing the door to the sauna and I covered the floors there with rugs that were hand-made by my grandparents, evidently a joint project they enjoyed. We have some hooks on the walls for robes and towels. A beautiful plaque that my sister, Nel, sent for my birthday one year hangs in a spot near the inside peak of the roof. That's about it; any more would be excess.
My first sauna experience was the real deal. I was in Duluth, Minnesota, to meet the Finnish side of my family. I was 21. My paternal grandparents, who immigrated from Finland, were living in their apartment overlooking Lake Superior. My visit with them was the first and only in my life, but it was rich with stories and traditions. I stayed with my brother, Tony, and his family....the first time I'd met any of them, also. Tony's wife was a Finn, and, where they weren't old-school traditionalists, they were very at home with a group of Finn friends there in Duluth. One, now dead, was a man named Penti Korpi. He lived with his wife and children outside of the city, where he had built their sauna according to the specifications he probably recalled as a boy. There was a hand-carved sign on the sauna wall that said it was made by Penti Korpi. The structure was away from the house. It was quite large, suitable for perhaps ten people. I don't recall what powered the stove, but it, too, was large, with big gray stones where I learned we would drop the liquid essence of a piney tar that was marvelous to smell and helped to open the sinuses.
They pronounced it the Finn way: sow-na instead of saw-na (about the pronunciation of sauna). It took me a long time to get used to that, but now sow-na rolls off my tongue easily, and Mike's too.
All the women and girls took a sauna together before the men. My brother's wife showed me the dipper near the water pail and I had my first experience of going from the super-hot dry sauna to an instant steam bath. When we'd had enough the girls ran ahead of us outside where, for the first time, I realized the sauna had been built near a small stream. Yes, we actually did splash around in it and the little girls tore young branches from the trees nearby and demonstrated how they lightly slapped one another to rev up the circulation (it was very stimulating), after which we all returned for one more go of it in the sauna. Then it was the guys' turn and when they were finished with their saunas we all ate and drank in the house while loud balalaika music played in competition with boisterous conversation.
Have I ever told Tony that it was a defining night in my life? I don't think so and I must.
Last August, J.T. of Finland Blog wrote a wonderful post with pictures of Finnish summer cottages with saunas (here's the link to that post). J.T. has a great blog that he maintains when he's not out at sea sometimes for months at a stretch. It's a blog worth a look, most definitely.
There's a comprehensive history of the Finnish Sauna to read here.