By Tiffany Jarva
My earliest sauna memories are of my brother and me splashing around in a clawfoot porcelain tub filled with cool water, my mom and mummu (grandmother) on the top bench speaking Finn, swatting themselves with birch branches. At around ages 3 and 4 we would brave the heat and tumble out of the tub and sit on the lowest bench, or even the floor, until we couldn’t take it any longer—we were lucky to make it 30 seconds before we plunged back into the cool water, giggling. And always with the warnings: no running, and no touching the hot stove and rocks. Safety was probably our first sauna lesson—that and “close the door,” which was never, ever said in a patient, kind voice. It really was about respecting the heat.
Near the end of each sauna, my mom would lather our hair with what I always thought was special sauna shampoo, but learned years later was actually Agree. We made beards and mustaches from the bubbles while our mom and mummu threw one more ladle of water on to the rocks, us pretending to be jolly old men in a room full of steam until Mom climbed down through the mist and rinsed us off using the tub’s hand-held shower, returning us to our tiny, pink—and now super clean—selves.
At some point the bathtub in the sauna disappeared. By the time I was 8 or 9, I started eyeing up that top bench. It was now my personal goal to move beyond the first and second benches. I was going to reach that top bench, stretch across it, and outlast all other family members. But where to start? Every time I tried the top, my eyes stung and my chest felt like it was going to collapse. I had to build some sauna stamina. I learned to dip facecloths in cold water and place them on my face, breathing through the cooling cloth. I would dunk sauna buckets with cold water over my head and place my head between my knees. I floated up and down the benches. Sometimes I escaped to the dressing room or if at camp, I would jump in to a cool lake (and even snow!) returning back to the heat four or five times, hoping to last just a little longer each time. And eventually, one Christmas Eve, I did it. I was twelve. Alone, I laid on my back across that top bench, closed my eyes, breathed in my hot sauna success, and smiled.
Since I was about five, there would always be Pop Shoppe fizzy drinks after a sauna at my grandfather’s. Lime Ricky was my favourite, and I still feel like I can taste it after saunas today. We would drink our pop in the dressing area, wrapped in towels on the padded benches, our tiny legs swaying above colourful handmade woven mats. Our towels and clothing hung in a neat row on wooden hooks. It was also a Christmas Eve tradition to receive sauna towels as gifts—a tradition I started with my own son when he was young. As I got older, I also learned about the importance of sauna etiquette: making sure all the buckets were full of water before you leave, putting wood on the fire if wood fuelled, washing down the benches if you’re shutting down the sauna, respecting no-glass rules, chopping wood if required, etc.
Today most of my sauna moments are at camp. There is something truly fulfilling about getting camp sauna ready: chopping wood, starting the fire, and trekking to the lake to fill the sauna buckets. I still love the top bench. I still sauna with my mom and now I get to sauna with my son (whose first sauna experience was in a red bucket in my mom’s home town in Finland). I continue to jump into the lake to cool down, floating in the night water staring at the stars until returning to the sauna to warm up once more, combing conditioner through my lake-washed hair.
I missed the sauna community when I wasn’t living in Thunder Bay. I really do think it is embedded in our sense of place, Finn or not. When I went to visit my relatives in Finland, I wasn’t surprised that they all had saunas, including my great aunt who lived in an apartment. What I didn’t know is that neighbourhoods have public and community saunas where anyone is welcome to show up and enjoy a sauna. And I think, this sense of community is also alive and well in Thunder Bay. Thank goodness, because the sauna really does feel like home.