Sweat Equity

The north is the same wherever it might be.
—Sigurd Olson, Listening Point

Soon after I was born, my grandparents bought a cabin on a small lake in the Arrowhead, not far from my hometown of Two Harbors. My parents, in turn, took over the property after my grandfather died a few years later. With two brothers, I had ready companions to explore its woods, and to hunt, swim, and fish. Without hesitation, I would claim that the finest feature of the property is a seventy-year-old cedar-log sauna near the edge of the lake. The structure is both simple and elegant: two rooms, one for dressing, the other lined with benches and dominated by a cast-iron stove. A framework atop the stove cradles a bushel of smooth stones, heated to produce löyly, the tonic steam described in the Kalevala, the Finnish national myth. When our sauna is lit, the smoke rushes windborne up the hill from the clear lake, through birch, spruce, balsam, and pine, and out over the roadless, empty North Woods. I have spent countless winter evenings and quiet summer afternoons in this building. As boys, we would push the limits of human respiration and tempt the dermal flash point, emerging red-eared and hot-haired to plunge into the cool water. As an adult, I have practiced the immobility that such a room requires, the slowness of breath, the silent trickle of sweat down the spine, afterward gazing comfortably at winter stars in five-degree air, steam rising from my skin.

By the mid-nineties, the sauna was rotting into the earth, its logs at ground level turning to compost. The top of its doorway had sunk to the level of my chin. Inside, the wall separating the two rooms sank beneath the weight of the brick chimney. Strongly sensing the building’s importance, not simply as a cache of family memories, but also as folk architecture, I plotted to stop its decay. My father was skeptical. He advocated doing away with the old in favor of something new, tightly constructed from a truckload of Menards lumber. He questioned, not unreasonably, the feasibility of restoration: We were not masons, let alone Finn carpenters. This was not the sort of project we undertook. Everyone in my family knows their way around a toolbox, but this project appeared to require skills long since dead to our line. Then again, my father didn’t take saunas, a habit I had sorely missed during many years away from Minnesota. My efforts to convince him proceeded at a glacial pace, hampered by our ham-fisted communication; meanwhile, the sauna stovepipe canted farther earthward. Smoke billowed forth whenever the stove door was opened, filling the room. Finally, with the sauna nearly unusable, I saw no choice but to begin, knowing that sometimes forgiveness comes more easily than permission.

It was an improbable task, but my ambitions were affirmed by two sources. The first was Sigurd Olson, Minnesota’s conservationist emeritus, the legendary writer and adventurer who helped secure the Boundary Waters wilderness. In Listening Point, he recalls the creation of his own lakeside retreat. Foregoing the idea of a new cabin, he searched the backroads around Ely for a particular style of Finnish outbuilding he had always admired:

Built of tamarack, jackpine, or cedar, with dovetailed corners, these cabins are so expertly hewn, their logs fitted so tightly, that chinking is seldom necessary. The result of a long tradition of construction in the far north of Europe, they were designed to keep out the bitter winds. The settlers brought their broadaxes with them to Minnesota, and, more than that, skills perfected by necessity. Such a cabin, it seemed to us, would fit the point, for it would have tradition behind it, and in its soft grayness there would be no jarring note.

That description evoked our sauna: cabinetry writ rough and large. The first owner of such an outbuilding that Olson approached would not sell, but the next parted willingly, wondering why anyone would want to bother with such an old-fashioned hulk. Olson disassembled the old logs and rebuilt the cabin on his rocky point on Burntside Lake.

I also recalled the research of cultural geographer Matti Kaups. In the 1950s he had studied Finnish saunas in mining communities throughout the Lake Superior region, from the copper shafts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the iron pits of the Arrowhead. He described the typical Finnish-American farm sauna as eight by fifteen feet, constructed of squared logs, with two rooms inside, a window between them for a lantern to illuminate both the sauna and the dressing room, and passage outside from the dressing room. Ninety percent of Finnish-American farmsteads had a sauna (a higher percentage than farmsteads in Finland), and saunas were common at all types of Finnish residences. Kaups found that the sauna competed favorably with television as an evening activity among Finnish Minnesotans. While Finns were considered an obtuse, clannish lot in other neighborhoods of Minnesota iron ore towns, Kaups found them to be “most cordial and cooperative.”

I began the restoration of the structure by myself, ripping out the simple moldings, the wallboard, and the old studs. I removed the chimney brick by brick—a light tap of the hammer was all that was required to release the old mortar. One feature betrayed the economy of the original builders: When I removed the ceiling above the sauna room, I was showered with a mixture of stones and various materials that generations of squirrels had imported, stashed, processed, and forgotten. My predecessors had poured four inches of gravel between the rafters as insulation.

For the unpredictable task of jacking up the structure, I recruited my brother Tim, a man whose fearless mechanical skills I have always respected, if mostly from a safe distance. We had considered breaking down the building piece by piece, as Olson had done with his cabin. But we worried that the logs, once released from the structure, might warp or somehow need refitting. And in any case, the seventy-year-old roof only needed new shingles—ripping it apart would require much unnecessary effort. After several experiments, we ultimately used a single Hi-Lift jack, a larger version of the gadget that once inhabited the trunk of every American car. Alternating between the ends of the structure, we would insert the lip of the jack between the rotting lowest log and the log immediately above, jacking enough on one end to chock up the progress with cinder blocks before moving to the other. We strung winches to nearby trees to keep the structure from wandering horizontally, since with each upward tick of the jack, it wanted to lean. By sunset, the log structure rode high across two massive beams borrowed from our elderly neighbors, Merle and Fran, who had encouraged our progress all day long from nearby lawn chairs while draining a pitcher of whiskey sours.

Excavation for a new foundation came next. The sauna room had a concrete floor sloped to a drain, a necessary feature for a proper bath. I briefly contemplated removing that floor, which was perfectly intact. Noting after a few swings of the sledgehammer that the builders had embedded small-gauge train rails as rebar, I turned to a path of less resistance. It would be enough to cap it with another four inches of concrete, part of a new slab. I began digging around the perimeter of the sauna to make space for footings, but found them already there—football-sized stones buried beneath the walls. The Finns had built a mud sill—a base of large stones mortared with clay, something we non-Finns had never considered while mocking them for placing a log structure on the ground. Back in the day, Portland cement would have been hauled along logging trails from the rail stop at Rollins four miles away, and so was limited and saved for the floor of the bathing area; the materials for a mud sill were freely at hand. But seventy years of freezing and thawing, from the nineties in August to fifty-below in January, had quietly buried the mud sill, gravity’s r
elentless pull.

If water, vodka, and sauna does not help,
the condition is mortal.
—Finnish proverb

Heat, steam, and sweat have been essential components of bathing traditions and rituals in many cultures. Most indigenous North Americans used some variant of the sweat lodge. The Anishinabe of the Lake Superior region heated stones on a fire outside a small wigwam before bringing them inside. This soft-sided sauna had ceremonial, therapeutic, and spiritual uses. The anthropologist Frances Densmore described a four-stone arrangement, with three providing the base for the fourth, a red-hot orb etched with an ancient face—a messenger to deliver one’s appeal through the hot vapor to the other side. Not surprisingly, such traditions are most pronounced among residents of the high plains and taiga—the subarctic evergreen forests of North America and northern Eurasia. One can imagine the formidable psychological hedge that such an institution would supply against a hyperborean winter. The simple power of a community to not only repel but vanquish the long dark season with ritual might even be vital. But how that leads to a desire to plunge into icy water requires a deeper understanding.

The details may vary, but the activity is simple: heat rocks above a vigorous flame. Throw water on them. Sweat hard. Cool off, either with a swim, a shower, or a roll in fresh snow (for the uninitiated, the sensation is like rolling in flour). Repeat until you can endure no more. The sense of well-being and peaceful sleep that follow are unmatched. My preference is for a wood-fired stove (rather than an electric element, a modern corruption), untreated cedar-paneled walls, and a swim afterwards, as long as the lake is ice-free. Maybe a few drops of birch oil in the water to be poured on the rocks, which lends a bracing freshness to the blast.

The right stones are important—in our case, smooth, palm-fitting Lake Superior beach stones—and the more the better, heated thoroughly so that they will produce steam even after the fire has died. The earliest Finnish sauna, and the most authentic to contemporary purists, is the smoke sauna, which features an open central fire, stones generously piled within. There is no chimney; the smoke fills the room and is vented through the walls or roof, and the participants don’t enter until the smoke has cleared. The walls become sooty, but soot helps to scrub the skin and the smoke-cured interior is said to flavor the experience.

As I sifted through the sparse literature on saunas, I was pleased to find a map locating extant structures from the eighteenth century. All but one of these were in Finland, the exception being a smoke sauna at a hembygdsgården (homestead museum) in a village in western Sweden. This was a remarkable coincidence for me: Twenty years ago, a few weeks after my high school graduation, I had visited that very site. During that visit to relatives in Gräsmark, the old Swedes, who were my grandmother’s age, told me that the museum’s farmhouse was the childhood home of my great-grandfather Karl Hagberg, who had emigrated in the 1890s. Was it possible that he and his family were Finns? That something within me had been the target of all those “finlander” jokes I had heard as a kid?

Reenter Matti Kaups. His research suggests that the experience of Finnish settlers in the colony of New Sweden along the shores of the Delaware River in the seventeenth century was deeply engraved upon American backwoods colonization thenceforth. His primary evidence is an examination of frontier log structures across two continents, from the bog-edges of northern Europe to the hardwood forests of middle America. The architectural forebears of the American log cabin are scattered throughout the interior of Finland and the Swedish highlands. Kaups explains that a particularly zealous variety of Finnish homesteader (their Finnish name, kirvesmiehet, means “ax wielders”) was recruited by the Swedish crown, initially to settle the desolate mountain forests of Sweden. It turns out that the Gräsmark museum’s mission is to preserve this Finnish cultural imprint on the landscape in the heart of western Sweden’s mountain forest—the Finnskog. In other words, my Swedish great-grandfather was actually a closeted Finn.

Finns began emigrating to northeastern Minnesota in the 1880s, when the discovery of rich iron veins in the Lake Superior uplands transformed a wilderness into a serpentine collection of settlements called “locations,” kindling townsites built for the swelling population of miners and their families. (Gilbert is among the few that survived.) America’s westward progress was already running up against the Pacific, but this undeveloped region had been left in its wake. The Arrowhead rides the southernmost lobe of the Canadian Shield, the bedrock heart of North America, and it bears no resemblance underfoot to Minnesota’s rolling prairie and its basement of rich, black soil.

Norwegians, Germans, and Swedes fueled the agrarian settlement of Minnesota. Finns, along with Croats, Serbs, and Italians, arrived with the region’s extractive economy—first in upper Michigan’s copper mines during the Civil War, then west into Minnesota’s Iron Range.

Finns were also the region’s ethnic scapegoat. I grew up with “finlander” jokes, a species that amused those unfamiliar with the Arrowhead for its sheer improbability. “How many finlanders does it take to build a mine shaft? Who cares, they’re cheaper by the dozen.” Few had ever contemplated a Finnish brand of Americana, any more than they imagined Sibelius scoring the Three Stooges. But Finnish-Americans helped bring Duluth a socialist mayor in 1904. Gus Hall, the perennial Communist candidate for U.S. president, was a Finn from the Iron Range. Finns were perpetual outsiders milling at the edges of Scandinavian outposts, and there was discord. In 1920, a Wright County farmer brought suit against his Finnish neighbors to disband their use of a sauna as a “pagan temple.” In 1918, a Duluth mob frothing with patriotic fervor tarred, feathered, and lynched a Finnish socialist named Olli Kinkkonen, whose simple headstone is inscribed “Victim of Warmongers.” These incidents were the manifestation of a deep cultural fissure.

Finns were as likely to work the forests as the mines. They also doggedly farmed the Arrowhead’s thin soil, founding communities where wolves, caribou, and moose had roamed: Palo, Makinen, Toimi, Toivola, Esko. They seldom mixed with their neighbors. Finnish is incomprehensible to a Swede or a Norwegian, while Swedish and Norwegian are linguistic siblings. Finland seldom knew self-rule, passing mostly beneath the competing shadows of the Swedish and Russian empires until the twentieth century.

In America, Finns founded mercantile cooperatives where Finnish was spoken and a family could acquire everything from diapers to caskets. These co-ops sold to Finnish miners who had been blacklisted by local merchants following strikes and other uprisings. The fields of those who farmed yielded bumper crops of football-sized stones every spring, heaved high by the frozen extremes of winter. But the farms were consciously self-sufficient.

Most of these people did not seek riches. To the contrary, Finnish Apostolic Lutherans extolled the virtues of agrarian life as an escape from the ruthless cash economy of the mines. Finns were among the most literate of immigrants of the early twentieth century, yet they had the lowest-paying jobs. What they sought was escape from the shadow of Russians, Swedes, and now Yankees; they cared about autonomy. Saturday nights, in the depth of dark winter, they gathered in their hand-hewn log buildings to bathe, launder the aches of another week’s toil, and sit at the hearth of a chosen community. From our current perch, that seems at the very least modest, sustainable, and noble.

The sauna on my family’s property had clearly been the result of a thrifty form of
prosperity. It was built in the 1930s from wieldy red trunks of local cedar, with effort and time, by skilled hands using tried and trusted tools. But what mystery is that? This was the Great Depression in northern Minnesota, a boom-and-bust mining outpost, and the state of the national economy demanded little in the way of lumber or iron ore. I don’t know precisely how the Finnish-American business owners of our cabin fared during those times, but they were probably living lean. Maybe the breadwinner was clinging to a good railroad job. Or maybe they had nothing but time on their hands. But they owned a leisure property, a lakeside parcel that they acquired in 1931 from the company that had logged the Cloquet River Valley for forty years. And I like to think that in times of short work, this family devoted themselves to improving their retreat. Eventually, they sold the property to my grandparents and moved to Florida, exchanging the sauna for the beach.

For there ain’t nothin’ here now to hold ’em.
—Bob Dylan, “North Country Blues”

I tacked new shingles on the roof during a rare May scorcher, struggling not to inhale the cloud of black flies that hovered in my lee while a hot wind blew off the lake. Tim and I moved the heavy stove back inside on the freshly cured concrete. The remaining jobs were mostly things I could do by myself. I framed the sauna room around the stove, which was aglow again by winter. The new internal wall had no chimney at all—its slender steel replacement went straight through the roof. Inside the tightly puzzled log walls, I installed paneling and built benches from cedar grown in Idaho and hauled from Duluth atop my Swedish car. Meanwhile, the county paved the final six miles of a gravel road leading to our lake. Times had changed.

As had my awareness of my great-grandfather’s origins. I have long enjoyed and respected the products of Finnish culture: Sibelius’s Valse Triste during a calm summer sunset in the lake country; the playful fling of Saarinen’s Gateway Arch; the way a Nokia feels in your hand—and the idea that everyone should, every once in a while, get naked and sit together in a hot room until they can’t stand it anymore. But I still don’t seem to quite believe this revelation about my roots. You never really expect to become “the other,” even if you fancy it. Anyway, in America, the other eventually becomes you. The larger part of ethnic identity ultimately succumbs to a desire for more of the same. Someone eventually builds a better TV. (Perhaps, even, a better sauna: According to Matti Kaups, Hammacher Schlemmer sold a build-it-yourself sauna in 1963 for $2,395, more than our project cost at the turn of the millennium.)

Our old sauna sits refreshed, its decay forestalled for a few more generations. The stove burns hot enough to vigorously boil your average melting pot. Last July, a family reunion brought all of the cousins of my generation and their kids to the lake for an afternoon. They arrived in a downpour, and we all packed into the cabin for an hour as the humid summer storm lashed the pines. The sauna smoked down by the lake, baking the stones. Eventually, nine of us clambered onto the benches, only three adults among a pack of boys. Other than me, this crowd was all from Oklahoma, expatriates.

We enjoyed the implacable dry heat for a while, adjusting slowly to the relatively mild temperature of a hundred and fifty degrees. “Let’s call this one Duluth, maybe once a summer when the wind’s not blowing off the lake,” I said, tossing the first ladleful of water onto the stove. The rocks clicked, popped, and sighed heavily. Everyone braced, and the littlest ones scooted to the lower bench. We eased our way toward the idea of two ladles: “Definitely Dallas in August,” said the twelve-year-old, picking up the thread. Four ladles conjured Monterrey at midday while sipping habañero soup; you draw a steady breath before the sear hits you, exhale slowly, and turn inward while it passes. Minutes elapsed, everyone quiet, but all still accounted for. “Next stop Mercury,” I warned, tossing the bucket as six boys ran screaming for the clear and cool lake, feet thundering down the dock.