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  • I had been hired to rebuild a log house over on Little Gotts. Most of what I had learned in building my own house a couple of years before was what not to do. Design, technique, and materials, a trifecta of error. I figured I should practice getting it right so I decided to build a small log cabin as a skill builder.

    Back in the woods I opened a small clearing, dug out the soft forest duff, leveled the site, and hauled rocks, sand and cement to pour a slab. I stacked the lengths of log I cut and peeled. Each one milled on both sides to be six inches thick. For a small structure it was a lot of activity.

    Jeezus, Benjy, what the hell you got going back here?

    Old George edged his three wheeler along my trail. It was hunting season and his rifle hung in a long holster across the front of the vehicle.

    A sauna, I told him.

    A what? He walked around the rough form I had staked out for the concrete slab.

    A sauna, I repeated.

    That’ll be some nice in January , he said finally, pushing back his cap as though he could already appreciate the warmth.

    A sauna may seem an odd choice for a family living on the economic edge without running water or power caring for a mini-farm and a toddler.

    But George knew the island, he understood.

    Summer is a fleeting season out on the Maine islands. Even in July and August a fire in the woodstove is comforting when a dungeon fogs blow in cold and clinging off the icy water. It is easy to work up a sweat digging garden or working in the woods but by evening a skimpy bucket bath it less than inviting.

    Winter dark and chills settle into your bones and lodge there stubborn and draining. Add to that the smell of lobster bait I carried home each time I went out to haul my traps and there is a significant case for the practicality of a sauna.

    I had made little shack saunas in the past out of scavenged wood and rusty old woodstoves rescued from the scrap heap. I wanted this one to be special.

    The little log cabin grew out of the ground there in the clearing. I milled the boards for the thick plank door. Inside, the floor was rounded pebbles from the shore. An old but substantial woodstove could be fed all afternoon so, that by evening, even on the coldest days of January and February, the little house was cooking.

    We’d walk out through the snow, down the winding path from the house through the woods to the sauna. Shivering and wrapped tight in hats, scarfs boots, wool socks, parkas and sweaters, long underwear.

    Inside the sauna it was an almost desperate race to get rid of the stifling layers and there in the middle of winter tenseness, in the dark and uncertain times, there was a time and space to just let go.

    A candle lit and placed low on the stone floor so it wouldn’t melt made the shadows rich and wild. Along the flowing grain of the logs, the clean-planed knots made shifting faces and fantastic creatures.

    After a time, the heat and sweat drove us to shower with the water from the buckets heating on the stove.

    Afterwards, carrying coats, the air, now, just cool against bare skin, we walked back through the snow under the great skein of stars cast across the darkness. Refreshed, renewed, reborn.

    It has been years now since we lived year round on the island. The little sauna is now a guest cabin in the birch woods. But as I seek to regain an island life and put together an order for cedar for raised beds and a greenhouse frame, maybe I should add another 50 pieces and look for a site for the sauna to return.

    Note: I am much more practically motivated than ideologically of spiritually driven. I wanted a way to be clean in the winter. Only later did I learn about the ritual and traditions of saunas and sweat lodges, The sauna is an integral part of some cultures (Finnish). It is part of a way of life that is both practical and healthy in what it teaches about our bodies, our relationships, and the wholeness of mind-body-spirit. The sweat lodge is also a key feature of many other cultures but the sauna is unique I think in being a family affair and an event that brings people of all ages, male and female, together.
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