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Sauna

02/26/04 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(Host) During Vermont's long winters, commentator Caleb Daniloff finds that the perfect escape is as close as the nearest sauna.


(Daniloff) The other evening, I found myself in Duxbury, naked and facedown in the snow. And I don't even drink anymore. It was part of my visit with master sauna builder Nils Shenholm. He called out for me to count to ten. Ribbons of steam poured off my shoulders. My lungs seized, my breathing confused. I managed to make it to five.

Still gasping slightly, I joined Nils at the small porch to his sauna, a wooden hut-like structure in his backyard. Snow slid down me in sheets. Nils smiled. We stared at the cold, black sky for a few moments, small clouds of breath mingling with body steam. Then Nils opened the wooden door and we
stepped in for another round.

Within minutes, we were again covered in beads of sweat, sparkling in the candle light as if encrusted in jewels. Nils dripped eucalyptus oil into a ladle scoop of water, then doused the pan of rocks sitting atop the woodstove. The air was laced with a sweet evergreen scent.

Growing up in Soviet Moscow, the son of American journalists, I started taking saunas on family trips to Finland. My dad was an enthusiast, and we'd sometimes climb in together at the hotels.

Three years ago, I joined a local gym and became serious. After each swim, I'd step into the oven-like heat, the 180-degree air baking each underwater mile deep in my muscles. Now, it's hardly worth working out if I can't top off with a couple rounds. Sometimes I find myself fantasizing about the sauna museum outside Helsinki. Yep, a sauna dork.

"Sauna is my church," said Nils, who has been building them for almost two decades.

Indeed, the spiritual is part and parcel. The steam thrown off the rocks is considered the sauna's soul. The Finns call this essence "loyly." Akin to the Native American sweat lodge, where adherents commune with spirit in intense heat and total darkness. Nils mentioned that some detox clinics now use saunas as part of treatment.

Whether it's an endurance high or the excretion of the world's distractions, I'm not sure. One thing's certain though, when I step out that sauna door, I am centered, renewed and reborn. I have been in touch with something deep and basic, and nameless.

"There's really no such thing as coming out in a grumpy mood," Nils agreed, splashing the rocks.

He talked about the involvement of nature. The feeding of logs to the fire, then plunging into an icy lake. Through sauna, the extremes of the season are harnessed, the oppression embraced. And Vermont winters certainly have plenty to get your arms around.

A few minutes later, Nils and I stepped out again. I dove back into the snow, and this time made it past ten. By baring all to the elements, we were no longer separated from our environment. We had become part of it.

Overhead, the clouds had cleared and the stars had come out. Even without my glasses, I felt I could see every last one.

This is Caleb Daniloff from Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter and freelance journalist.
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