expanding the parameters of finnishness

sauna exists, therefore i am

Posted by Markus Raty on August 8, 2006

One of the great mysteries in life is why so few Canadians have adopted the sauna culture at their cottages. Of the fifteen or so pals of mine who have family cottages, only ours is sauna-equipped. It seems like such a no-brainer; extends the season, mitigates the weather, cleanses the body and soul..the list goes on.

This past weekend I had the good fortune of being ‘up north’ at our Parry Sound cottage. As it is water-access only we dont often venture too far while up there. This time however, I had been invited to the Glass (Paula and Samantha) cottage over on Porno Järvi (youll get it shortly). Turns out that some 19km east on 124, just past Waubamik, there lies a small lake known to some as Vowel Lake and to others as Porno Järvi. A healthy mix of Finns and Canadians have been cottaging here since the early 1900’s and as the Finns are wont to do, they cottage naked. Ok, at least they sauna naked..for the most part. Hence the moniker (which means Porno Lake) given the lake by the Canadians.

In any case, in my short afternoon there, I found myself immersed 
amongst a gaggle of Finns and managed to sample four delicious saunas, enjoying a hearty löyly in each of them. Although not as lively a bunch as they were in the 60s and 70s, this gang, ranging in age from oh 6 or 7 all the way up to somewhere in the 60s put on a clinic of cottaging camaraderie. And how.

Over the years not only have they managed to keep their community tight-knit, they have inculcated the Canadians on the lake in our famed sauna culture. Almost every non-Finn cottage on the lake had a sauna perched on shore, often built by one of the Finns themselves! After saunas and a cold beverage or two I reluctantly made my way back to our slice of Finland some 19 km westward.

But yet another example of random Finnishness sprouting up in this great country of ours.

Spending time in saunas of all shapes and sizes, and in our humble Parry Sound sauna in particular, is one of my lifelong passions. Cliche, you might say, but I jest not nor do I hyperbolize. How saunaing and the sauna culture shapes who we are both physically and mentally is one of the subjects I hold nearest to my heart. Be forewarned.


21 Responses to “sauna exists, therefore i am”

  1. Adriana said

    I stayed at a hotel resort which will not be named in the Canadian Rockies some years ago. I went with a friend of mine and we were excited to learn that it had a sauna. We went in and noticed right away that the kauha and kiulu were missing so we were quick to point this out to one of the staff. Her reponse was as follows, “This is a traditional Finnish sauna. It’s a dry sauna.” Needless to say I just about had a heart attack.

    I am not a Finn, but I have embraced this element of Finnishness. I am embarassed to say that this summer I finally went to a real Finnish sauna after 8 years of going without! I seriously need to build one…

  2. markusraty said

    your story reminds me of a hotel we stayed at as kids. And I will name it. It was the Holiday Inn in Sault Ste Marie. Dad took all three of us for a sauna and of course soon we wanted a löyly. But, there, above the kiaus, was a sign that said: “Do not throw water on the rocks, heater may explode.” I kid you not.

    let me know when youre ready to build one, i can recommend some excellent preparatory reading. cheers, markus

  3. Lily said

    Sounds like the sauna at my gym…it drives me insane! There’s a perfectly good sauna going to waste cause they won’t let me throw löyly. If I remember correctly, the sign says “Do not throw water on the stones, you may get electrocuted.” grr….

  4. I remember as a kid going to the local YMCA. They too has a great sauna, but no water allowed on the rocks due to insurance concerns. They told me that they are afraid that if an old person with heart problems goes in there and cranks up the heat with water and has a heart attack in there, they would be liable and could be sued by the next of kin! Why then is that not a concern in the homeland? No dry saunas to be found in Finland. Maybe we need to have a media campaign to educate the dry sauna fanatics in Canada to the proper usage of the hallowed sauna. Just my two cents….great job on this blog, by the way, Markus…keep up the good work!

  5. Tanja said

    Well in case anyone is interested, there is a place in Concord that sells “assemble yourself saunas” I can’t remember what thay are called but as soon as I save enough I am getting one to enjoy all year !!cheers

  6. Piika5 said

    most of my English friends are terrified of the sauna….a popular phrase wimpily bleeted: “i can’t breathe”….
    i was at a sauna in a hotel in Collingwood that was so feeble i wondered if it really was one – just barely warm and had a lock on the thermostat because they didn’t want people turning it up!!!

  7. Paula said

    Went to a hotel in Calgary a few years ago while attenging one of the Finnish Festivals. As the first Finns to arrive we told them at check in to crank up the Sauna because the Finns were on their way!. They did amazingly.The Sauna itself was located down 3 carpeted halls away from pool and hot tub next to the utility room and some other closets.The Sauna door handle was made of a nice scalding metal.The sign saying no water had been put up with plastic push pins that had melted down the wall.To get a little water there for the stove I tried to ring out my wet hair over the rocks or grab some ice from the machine on my way by. I knew we were in business when on my way down the numerous corridors towards the Sauna I found a fellow Finn hauling his hotel garbage can full of water. What nice steam from then on! Where there’s a will there’s a way.

  8. djskip said

    Soccer Canada
    Finland vs. Canada-U20 Women’s
    08:00 a.m. ET
    on Roger’s Sportsnet

  9. chris said

    Hi Markus, I am a Canadian married to a Finn, currently staying in Finland for the summer. Wrote a piece about the sauna at

  10. TryingtobeFinn said

    I’d really like to know of someone who could install a sauna in my basement, or, where I could purchase the pieces. Wet sauna of course!

  11. stevealanko said

    Don’t get mad, get steaming
    Your cottage neighbours to the right have the best dock and boathouse on the lake. To the left, there’s a fantastic deck. But you can one-up everyone — with a great waterfront sauna

    Iris Benaroia
    National Post

    Thursday, August 17, 2006

    There’s insanity to this nippy afternoon in Huntsville. Wearing a boxy, one-piece bathing suit, I’m racing down a dock towards Skeleton Lake. I don’t know what’s more surprising: My oncoming leap or that I’m permitting a pair of statuesque Finnish brothers in their 20s to gaze at my bobbing buttocks.

    Suddenly I jump. My winter-white bits sharply slice into the cold water. It’s still early in the season and, at 6C, it jolts me out of my weary city-slicker existence. Wait a second, are those trees I’m seeing? Is this air I’m breathing? Water I’m feeling? Is that falsetto a loon? No wonder the dogs here literally spring through the air with glee. That’s nature. It taps into your inner Thoreau, reminding you where you come from and what you’re missing.

    Moments ago, I was sweating inside a 100C sauna wedged between two slick-skinned Finns — the Alanko brothers, Mike and Stephen — and my friend Tanya. We drove up to the Alanko family cottage, purveyors of Muskoka Sauna, for an authentic sweat. In this case, it’s a quaint wood-fired cedar box, set apart from the cottage, with a change area and mini-fridge. Built by their dad, Jukka, a structure like this would set you back $45,000.

    Tanya and I are urbanites — we eat sushi and wear makeup. As such, the concept of sauna has limited meaning: It’s wet or dry. Cedar or tiled. There’s no ventilation. It often smells of chlorine. And if you’re at the YMCA, chances are it includes stray hairs.

    Finns believe if you haven’t got a lake to leap into, or snow to roll around in after the sweat, you haven’t had a real sauna. After this experience, I’m inclined to agree.

    “Few of us think of a native-style animal-skin sweat lodge with stones heated over a wood fire when we hear the word ‘sauna,’ but to a Scandinavian that’s exactly what comes to mind,” says Mike Alanko, a second-generation Finn. In Finland, the trend is toward the old-style savusauna — the smoke sauna — where there is limited ventilation, so the smoke is contained inside the room, but just prior to use is let out so you don’t breathe it in. After some years, though, the smoke gets absorbed into the walls and ceiling, creating a darkened, den-like chamber.

    Amazingly, for a country of just five million people, Finland boasts 178,000 lakes and 1.6 million saunas. Much like the ubiquitous hot-dog carts in downtown Toronto, there’s a sauna around every bend. Not only are they used for bathing, Finns also conduct business meetings during a sauna, and, long ago, even gave birth and performed surgeries in them.

    Inside, it’s all about the loyly (steam), Mike Alanko says as he grabs a ladle and throws lake water on to the 350 kg kiuas filled with rocks, setting off a cumulus of ferocious steam that is momentarily paralyzing. It’s so hot I forget to suck in my stomach, cute Finnish brothers or not. Tanya and I sit like a pair of Cryovac vegetables.

    Mike suggests we relocate to a lower rung where it’s relatively cooler. “The benches are designed in a staggered pattern; that way you can control how hot you want to be,” he tells us.

    After about 10 minutes in the heat, it’s baptism time again. The cold lake water is a stress-relieving salve that’s better than a therapist’s couch or yoga. And nothing beats the towering trees and the sound of splashing dogs.

    At the right time of year, he says, you can finish off by whipping yourself — or each other — with a vihta, a bundle of fresh-cut birch twigs. Sounds kinky, but the gentle flagellation is meant to promote circulation and to release the leaves’ perfumed oils on to the skin. Afterwards, tradition calls for beer and sausage to replenish the salt. Before heading home, Tanya and I indulge in Carol Alanko’s cardamom cookies and drink tea next to the fire. It’s bliss in the middle of nature.

    If you spend more time lolling in a Jacuzzi than a lake, an infra-red sauna might be for you. The small chamber is a tanning-bed-meets-sauna, with equipment similar to the “heat lamps they use for fast food,” Mike Alanko says.

    “Finns don’t like infrared saunas,” says Mike Wynn of Toronto-based Saunafin, a knowledgeable sauna devotee whose DIY infrared units sell for $2,500 (with frills, they run up to $5,000). These are more suited to the urbanite’s lifestyle. Although they’ve been on the market for 15 years, they’ve only become trendy in the past four. “They’re an Internet phenomena because they’re promoted for their health angle,” he says. Sold as a remedy for depression, infrared saunas also purport to lower your blood pressure. “I don’t know how true or not that is,” Mr. Wynn says.

    Instead of steam, these saunas emit rays. And they’re tiny cubicles, though admittedly they are attractive and inexpensive — they resemble those cute mall photo booths, only with a glass and wood exterior. “Infrared heat has a range of 20 inches. To penetrate skin to work effectively, they can’t be more than four feet deep because you want to be sitting close to the emitters,” Mr. Wynn says.

    There’s no traditional sauna heater, so the air stays cool. “For those who want the detoxification, it’s a milder environment,” he says. That may be, but nothing beats real roses and the sun, no matter how realistic the plastic flowers and how hot the tanning bed.

    Here’s a crafty idea. How about lounging in a sauna that’s been moulded out of a shipping container? Complete with fuzzy iPod holder, shower, solar panel, hand-carved stone stools and wood-burning stove, the sandblasted 8×8-foot unit is the work of Castor Canadensis, an artsy collective made up of Brian Richer and Ryan Taylor, who also make tees, toques and recycled light fixtures.

    Mr. Richer meets me at their west-end Toronto studio covered in chalky white dust. He’s a stone carver by trade. His partner is a graphic designer and photographer. The first thing Mr. Richer says is, “We’re not in the sauna business. [Our portable sauna] is a bespoke piece of furniture. It’s a whole aesthetic you’re buying.”

    “We make objects, non-objects,” Mr. Taylor adds mysteriously. “We’re somewhere between artists and designers.”

    Their nifty rustic sauna box can be transported anywhere — to the back of a home off Queen West, as one recently was, or to a rural landscape. Made to order and shipped by flatbed truck, they cost $20,000 to $25,000. Rusty on the outside, it’s a fully functioning sauna on the inside.

    If you decide to order one of these showpieces, just don’t forget to ship it next to a lake.

    As Mr. Alanko recommends, for a true Finnish experience “there should be the crackling of fire, the lapping of waves and that unmistakable crack when the water hits the rocks and explodes into that big, soft, room-filling steam.”

    Now sweat your buns off and get into that lake.
    © National Post 2006

  12. markusraty said

    Dear TryingtobeFinn:

    Check out the post after yours and contact the Alankos at Muskoka Sauna.

    Or, check out the folks at Finntastic Saunas in Thunder Bay. they also do a lot of business in TO.

  13. TryingtobeFinn said

    Thanks for the info Markus. I’ve bookmarked the links.

  14. endrick said

    “Wet sauna of course!” — not necessarily! löyly does not make it a “wet”sauna. you only do it once or twice during an evening, sparing amounts of water to get the real, invisible steam.
    I have built two myself, helped on two others – all from scratch. the two were in our basements – we moved, so I did it all over. not too large, with space for four, or five in a pinch, can be done by anyone who can use a saw and hammer. I like to use clear cedar and insulate properly. 4000 – 5000 W element will work for a 5 x 5 or 5 x 6 layout, and yes, no problem with water in the above amounts. if you have access to a chimney, a wood burning sauna heater is naturally a better choice.
    of course there are kits, but the other way is much more fun, and a lot cheaper.

  15. tryingtobefinn said

    Thanks, Endrick. The thrifty way is probably my way, especially since I have electricians in the family.

    Any suggestions on where to locate such an element?

  16. endrick said

    try here:

    or here

    good luck

  17. Yes as you say the list goes on. A good suana can do so much for your state of mind. Relax you and destress you, and that’s got to be good.

  18. JoJo said

    Nice site – Like what you did. Wishing you and yours a very happy and prosperous new year !

  19. John.Jnr said

    Like what you did. Here’s wishing you and yours a very happy and prosperous new year !

  20. anonymous finn said

    you only do it once or twice during an evening, sparing amounts of water to get the real, invisible steam

    I bet you also swim in an empty pool.

    • Endrick said

      kind of silly comment from a Finn – if you are. A sauna, at least as I know it, is not a steam bath. To have a löyly more often than once or twice per session would cool the rocks off too much to get the kind of super-heated steam one wants to get. But everyone to according to his/her own fashion……

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