I'm sort of a sauna snob. I have my standards - hidebound by family tradition and a righteous sense of my fourth generation Finnish American ownership of the tradition. I've been in lots of different saunas, but they're all judged against my grandfather's operation in Clatskanie.
I was reminded of this while sitting in a roomful of hot, sweaty women in the small sauna at the Oregon Country Fair, one of the most iconoclastic sauna facilities I've ever experienced. It's big (sauna rooms holding up to 100 people each), usually mixed gender (heaven forbid), cedar constructed and wood-fired (okay, that's traditional), with outdoor showers on a big deck where anyone and everyone present can see everybody else. In other words, hippie-dippy to the max.
The afternoon I was crammed into the smallest sauna (which will hold a maximum of ten people shoulder to slippery shoulder) was a women-only event. It could have been perfect because the little sauna is typically hot, dry and free of the dirty sock smell that can arise when too many wet feet are tromping in and out and too much water gets thrown on the sauna heater. In other words, the big saunas at the fair are overblown versions of my classic sauna experience and are designed to get the maximum number of people clean as opposed to providing an authentic sauna experience, which is possible in the dinky one.
Usually I can experience something close to my grandfather's gold standard by sticking to the smallest sauna, but on this particular afternoon, that was not to be. Immediately after sitting myself down among a group of quiet women, a newcomer entered, sat on the lowest bench, and began keening, chanting, and singing (I'm not sure which), dominating the emotional and interpersonal atmosphere of the whole group.
I felt my Finnish Lutheran judgmental streak warming up, wanting the noisy one to shut up. I thought to myself, "This must be what Native Americans feel like when we white-eyes mimic their spiritual traditions." Of course, that's presumptuous of me; I have only a few Native friends and I haven't bothered to ask them how they really feel about the pseudo-Natives that pop up, taking on new surnames like "Whitefeather" or "Silverfox."
It took a while for the chanter to take a breath, but when she did, I launched into a story about my grandpa's sauna, how it was built 300 yards from the house because an earlier version had caught fire and almost took the house with it. Grandpa would spend most of a Saturday firing up the sauna heater, primarily to heat the 60 gallons of hot water that would provide showers for the family, friends and neighbors who would take advantage of the monthly opportunity to sweat and have a bit of fun together.
I told the women there were strict rules about attendance: Women with women, men with men, a married couple perhaps with their small children, kids under 10 with their moms and boys after that age with their dads - none of this throwing together a motley crew of sexes and strangers. In spite of my family's general prudishness, we'd all laugh when neighbors would ask if they were supposed to wear bathing suits in the sauna. While sex was a taboo subject, the naked human body was not; at the very least, children knew what an adult member of their own sex looked like naked. (I'm always a bit amazed when a pre-pubescent girl in the swimming pool locker room stares at me while I'm dressing ... as if she's never seen a naked woman before.) Just about the best part of my childhood sauna experiences was walking back to the house in my PJs and being fed milk toast made with Home Bakery korpua and then tucked into bed. The cool night air provided a delightful contrast to the deep-inside heat of my body.
But there was not chanting, singing, keening. The sauna was fun, light, relaxing and practical. Not a spiritual overtone to be found. In other words, it ain't a sweat lodge - which I've also experienced a time or two - where there's a protocol for how to enter, when and how to leave, strict rules regarding who can be included, and how to behave once inside.
Perhaps therein lies an explanation for how the sauna tradition has been so watered down (literally): More people enjoy saunas than sweat lodges and they've taken our tradition to a new (lower) level.
Victoria Stoppiello is an Ilwaco freelance writer.