Archive for January 1st, 2007

Happy New Year to everybody! 

It is indeed a very marvelous morning here in the Ozarks.  The sun is shining in a bright blue sky.  It is a crisp morning, with enough wind to put any fantasies about floating today right out of my head as soon as I emerge from the back door.  In spite of the bright sun, it really is not time to open the cold frames yet.

The party we attended last night was a splendid one indeed.   It was a potluck, like our parties usually are.  Everyone went all out to bring the best stuff to eat.  The tables were laden with delicacies, from crudites to home made truffles, flourless chocolate cake (Death by Chocolate), smoked salmon, cheese, homemade pizza, cookies, dried fruit soaked in port and stuffed with chocolate.   Everyone was in a good mood. 

The temperature last night was right above the freezing point of water, so we didn’t have to worry about the wash deck turning into a sheet of ice like we have on some sauna nights.  It was a little breezy, but not too bad in the valley where the house was located.   As you stood or sat around on the cooling deck, you could hear the wind howling across the ridges and through the tree tops above us.  It hadn’t abated much when it came time to drive home, there was an interesting cross wind.

Our sauna at home is equipped with a water tank that uses the heat from the wood stove to warm the water in it.   That is plumbed to an outside shower, so you can choose just how cold the water you rinse off with is.  At the place we were at last night, the rinsing water comes straight from the well and runs up the hill to the sauna through a long, green garden hose.  There is a bucket available in the sauna that has warm water in it that can be used to rinse, if you just don’t feel up to a big shock. 

Last night, I was feeling strong and tough.  Must be all those tales of the North I have been telling lately.   Anyway, I was using the water straight from the hose to rinse with, and thanking my stars that there was no ice in it when I suddenly had a flashback to the first sauna I ever experienced.

It was after a University/Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra concert, and we had gathered at somebody’s home to have a potluck and a party afterwards.   I was still a freshman, and had already experienced my first Arctic Chamber Orchestra tour.  I was ready and waiting for new challenges to be thrown my direction.

People kept disappearing from the party, saying “I guess I’ll go sauna now.”  I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.  But finally, one of my comrades asked me if I was going to sauna, and I admitted to her that I did not really know what they were talking about.  So, she explained the benefits of the Finnish sauna experience and how you took one. 

It would be a totally new experience for me, but I was game.  We repaired to the back room where there were piles of clothes pretty much every where, and disrobed. She inspected me and told me to remove my jewelry as well.  The metal can become superheated in a sauna and cause rather serious burns.

As I recall, it was around 35 below zero that night.  We slipped our shoes on over our bare feet and used our towels as shawls during the brisk walk down to the little hut that was the sauna.  I almost cannot believe that we were traipsing along a snowy path at that temperature dressed only in shoes and a towel, but that is exactly what we did.  

It wasn’t really very far, which was a darned good thing considering how bare to the freezing cold we were.  When we got down to the sauna, I was astonished to see one of the trumpet players standing barefoot in the snow rubbing that substance all over his body.  He steamed in the frigid air.  We slipped our shoes off outside the door.  I remember how my feet tried to levitate me away from the snow they were contacting, how strange it was to feel slippery ice right under their soles.  Without any ado, we entered the room.

It was a small, low cabin made from logs, dimly lit by a couple of candles stuck in wine bottles.  It took a couple of minutes to get oriented once we had entered.  In the middle there was  stove made from an old 55 gallon oil drum.  The top of the stove had a flat sheet of steel welded on it, which had a bunch of rocks piled on it.  The chimney and back wall of the stove were red hot.   Around the walls were simple benches to sit on.  As we entered the room, the frigid air that came in with us made a momentary wall of fog.

The occupants of the sauna were sitting around the room on the benches, naked as the day they were born.  Someone in the corner was gently slapping his legs and back with a bundle of twigs.  It seemed like there was no room for any other butts on the benches, but as soon as we came in, people moved over and suddenly there was just room for two more people to sit down. 

Before we sat, I followed the example of my guide and poured some water over my head from a bucket near the stove.  This was to keep my hair from being damaged by the heat, I was told.  I was also advised to put my towel on the bench to sit on to prevent burning certain tender portions of my anatomy.  Turned out to be darned good advice.  I discovered it was a good idea to be careful about how you leaned against the wall behind you, too.

We had barely gotten settled down when the trumpet player who had been outside re-entered the room.   At that point, there was a space crunch, but there were a couple of people who said in rather melted tones that they figured they were done anyway, and they left.  This alleviated the crowding somewhat.  

It already felt like we were trying to emulate the fires of hell, as far as I was concerned.  But someone thought that we ought to feed the fire, and so a couple of more pieces of wood got pitched into the stove.   At that point, someone else asked for steam, and the guy sitting closest to the bucket took a ladle full of water and threw it onto the pile of rocks on top of the stove.   A cloud of super heated steam burst into the air of the room.  He added a couple of more measures of water, for good measure.  The hissing and crackling of the water evaporating from the rocks was punctuated by deep breaths and a few groans from the people in the room.

It didn’t take very long for sweat to start pouring off me.  It was either sweat, or the steamy air in the sauna condensing on my body.  I started to feel very hot.  My initiator urged me to drink some water from the jug she was carrying.  “Make sure you don’t get dehydrated.  It is important not to drink too much alcohol before you sauna, too.”  This was not a great concern for me at the time.  I was still under-age for drinking, and had not learned to like wine or beer.  I was strictly an herbal tea girl at that stage of my life. 

There was a heated political discussion going on in one corner.  I contented myself with soaking in the heat, and listening.   My companions all knew I was a novice sauna-er, and so pretty soon they changed the subject and started talking about how you should cool yourself off once you had gotten very hot.  We were not located near any water source, so the general consensus seemed to be that one should throw oneself into a snow bank and roll around in it to cool off.  There were some people who demurred, feeling that it was sufficient to just stand outside and let the sub-zero air do the job, but the vast majority of the occupants of the room insisted on the snow bank method.

After a while, I started to feel extremely hot, even uncomfortable.  My guide had informed me that it was important during the sauna process to listen to your body and not stay in too long before you went out to cool off.  It wasn’t until a lot later in my life that I became introduced to the more refined sauna experience that includes a dressing room, cooling deck, and water source for rinsing.  This sauna had none of those amenities.  Our shoes were all piled just outside the door under the overhang of the roof where there was less snow. 

I left the sauna, slipped on my shoes, and stood outside, trying to nerve myself to rub some snow on me as I had seen the trumpet player doing earlier.   I picked up a handful, and my God, it was cold.   I rubbed a little up and down my forearms, and put some on my face.  Then I got real brave and actually touched the back of my neck with some.  That was enough for me.   There were a few pale wisps of aurora waving about above me.  I admired them for a few moments, and then re-entered the sauna.

“Did you roll in the snow?”  was the first thing I heard when I sat back down.

“No, I did not.  You people must be insane.”  My reply was greeted with a chorus of catcalls and teasing.  Someone opined that you couldn’t be a “Real Alaskan” unless you had actually rolled in the snow during a sauna.  I was young, and my dander got up, I have to admit. 

We sat, and sweated.   It was incredibly relaxing.   It was so hot, the candle nearest the stove began to melt and bend over.   Before it could completely disintegrate and cause a fire hazard, it got moved closer to the door, where its slow yield to gravity and heat ceased. 

Once again, I reached the limit of my heat tolerance.   At the same time as I did, one of the younger brass players left the sauna with me.   “Here, I’ll show you how it’s done,” he said, and threw himself into a snow bank right by the path.  He gasped and yelled in a reflex action as he hit the snow.   I watched in astonished disbelief as he flailed around at my feet.  He jumped up and briskly rubbed snow all over his torso.  Clouds of steam rose off him as he danced around.   “Come on, try it out,” he urged me.  “It isn’t as bad as you think.”

Well, I wanted to be a Real Alaskan in the worst way, and the teasing I had endured before was still rankling a bit.   Before I had a chance to reconsider, I followed his example and jumped into the snow bank he had just left.  I think I must have screamed.  I’m not sure.   But I discovered why he was rolling around while I was watching him.   It seemed like all my muscles were trying to keep me from being in contact with the amazingly cold substance that surrounded me.   I am sure my heart stopped beating for a couple of seconds.  I know that after my initial startled scream, I seemed to have lost the ability to breathe.   I levitated out of the snow bank, and picked up some snow and rubbed it on myself, just to complete the experience.  I just had to prove I was as tough as anybody else.

“Isn’t it great!?” he exclaimed, as I stood shaking snow off myself, and willing my physiological systems to begin functioning again.  

I had no breath to speak with, I shook the snow off myself and plunged back into the sauna.  The heat embraced me, and suddenly I felt more alive than I had ever been before.  But at the same time, I also felt that perhaps I had stressed my body enough for the evening.   So I took my towel, and picked up my shoes and ran back to the house. 

It wasn’t until I got there, and was drying off and putting my clothes back on, that I realized that I had run a 50 yard dash through the frozen winter night completely naked and barefoot.   I thought my mother would probably have a litter of kittens if she knew, and decided that this was an experience I would share later in my life.  Much later.

There wasn’t any snow to roll in last night.   But I found myself enjoying the shock of the cold well water as I sluiced it over my body, and felt a connection to that young, rather wild girl 35 years ago.

I’m looking forward to whatever new experiences await me this year!

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