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Perkolations: Winter sauna time

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It would be great if I could describe to you the feeling of jumping into 32-degree water. If I could tell you that you really don’t feel the cold water, and it’s cold, but really it’s not that bad.

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At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

I couldn’t tell you how the cold water took my breath away, or how I frantically scrambled out of the water.

I could only tell you how cold the water was on my big toe. My knowledge of the Polar Plunge has always ended there.

There’s a sauna in the yard, and conveniently there’s a river down the hill that never freezes. The scenario lends itself to getting really warm in the sauna, then jumping in the river.

Here’s what generally happens. I’m in the sauna for a while, and ready to get out and cool off. At this point, I might have in my mind the vague intention of going down to the river and jumping in. That turns out to be wishful thinking.

I step out of the sauna, put my boots on and jog down about 40 yards to the dock, down some snowy, slippery steps and make my way out to the end. The problem is, by this time, I’m already cold.

Then I have to struggle to get my boots off. I’m having serious second-guesses. I’m shivering. I start to go down the ladder. My toe touches the water — it’s frigid. Nope, not going in any farther.

Even without a cold plunge, the sauna is one of my favorite winter activities. I didn’t really experience it much until I came to Minnesota, so I consider it a special regional activity.

The recent cold snaps have made the sauna ideal. When the wood stove is cranking, I’m fascinated at how there’s much more than a 100-degree difference between the inside and outside of the sauna. It balances the extreme cold with extreme heat.

I did a little reading on saunas in a book called “The Opposite of Cold” by Michael Nordskog and Aaron Hautala. The book said that saunas were often the only form of bathing for homesteading families in Minnesota. They were sometimes the place where women gave birth and where the dead were prepared for burial.

I would say this makes them a central place in those folks’ life.

Early saunas were savusaunas, or smoke saunas. A fire was lit beneath a pile of rocks in a mostly enclosed building. After the fire burned out and the smoke cleared, the savusauna was ready. The inside of the sauna would be black with soot.

I enjoy a wood-fired sauna, the smell of cedar and the heavy, warm air after water’s thrown on the rocks. I like feeling warm from the inside out on the coldest days of the year.

And just the other night, I finally did it — I jumped in the river. It was cold, but the sauna was warm.

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