A northern Michigan way of life — and bonding.
By Ross Boissoneau | Jan. 18, 2020
You sit on a wooden bench, wearing a bathing suit (or less). The temperature rises to 100, then 120 degrees. You start to sweat, and then ladle water onto scalding-hot rocks. The temperature continues to climb, to more than 150 degrees, yet you continue to sit. And sweat. And sweat some more.
Welcome to the sauna (pronounced "sow-nah"; with the first syllable pronounced like the word for female pig). For those unfamiliar (generally, those who call it “saw-nah”), a sauna is both verb and noun, and in the latter form, a petite cedar-walled (and, usually, cedar-ceilinged and cedar-floored) structure specifically built to engulf users in sweltering steam.
For those familiar, it’s pure calescent bliss.
So says Norm Wheeler, for one. He and his wife, Mimi, erected a sauna about 15 steps up a wooded hill near their home between Empire and Glen Arbor.
“You get purified,” said Norm. “It brings your blood to the surface, it’s good for your kidneys, liver, skin.”
Saunas are a Scandinavian tradition. One of the first written descriptions of a sauna dates back to 1112, in Finland. Back then, saunas were typically small dwellings built into embankments, heated by wood-burning rock stoves. Instead of a chimney, a tiny wall cutout would vent the enclosure.
While Mimi Wheeler is originally from Denmark, Norm Wheeler’s passion for saunas was inspired by one of his college instructors.
“I had a prof at Olivet [College, in Michigan] who held classes at his house,” said Norm. Said professor was married to a Danish woman, and they had a sauna at their home. Following class, a number of the students would join the family in the sauna. “It turned a bunch of us into sauna friends.”
After graduation, he took that concept with him, building saunas at various homes he lived in over the years. He said he enjoys the sauna for its cleansing qualities, as well as how it unwinds a person and instills a sense of camaraderie among those partaking.
“It relaxes you, softens the muscles. There’s a group of us that go to each other’s homes, have sauna and a potluck,” he said.
For all the attention the heat gets, it alone doesn’t make a sauna experience. Equally critical, according to sauna fans from both Scandanvian countries and northern Michigan, is the kind of chill you rouse yourself with post-sauna or between several sauna “baths.”
Traditionally, that’s jumping in a cold lake, rolling in snow, or simply doing what the Wheelers do when lacking for lake or fresh flakes, according to Mimi Wheeler, as she pointed to an enclosure attached to their sauna building. “That’s a shower. We run a hose up here,” she said.
“When you feel hot, take a cold shower,” said Norm. “When there’s fresh snow, you can roll in it. Then go back in, and do it three or four times.”
While popular throughout Scandinavia, in Finland, saunas are pretty much an institution. According to the website This Is Finland, there are an estimated 2 million saunas in Finland, which has a population of 5.3 million. With a large population of Finnish descent in the Upper Peninsula, the sauna has become part of the culture there, and to a lesser extent, here under the bridge, too.
Patrick Niemisto grew up with saunas. “I was born and raised in the Western U.P. I’m 100 percent Finn, and it’s part of our culture,” said Niemisto. He remembers how his family would visit other families who had saunas, and afterwards the kids would play while the adults visited. “It was a social thing,” he said.
Like Wheeler, he said the sauna’s healing properties are treasured among the Finns. “There’s an old Finnish saying: A sauna is a poor man’s drugstore,” said Niemisto.
While there are a number of respected sauna manufacturers in the U.P., northwest Lower Michigan boasts its own as well. Leo Niipa, who changed his name to Nippa when he moved to the U.S., owns Nippa Sauna Stoves and Heaters of Beulah, which has been manufacturing wood, gas, and electric sauna stoves since 1930. (That’s 85 years — longer than Wonder Bread has been around, or Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, and even longer than the “Star Spangled Banner” has been the country’s official national anthem.) In addition to the stoves, the company sells a variety of accessories such as buckets, dippers, essence oils, thermometers, and hygrometers, as well as blueprints for building your own sauna.
You don’t have a sauna but you’d like to try steaming yourself up? Matt Nahnsen can help. The self-named Sauna Dude, he operates a portable sauna business based in Frankfort. He will transport his barrel sauna to wherever you desire. “I was at a buddy’s home sauna-ing, and it hit me: A mobile [sauna] rental would be a really cool business and expand the culture.”
So Nahnsen called a friend in the Upper Peninsula who had one on wheels, and he went up and brought it back. He will transport it to wherever it’s wanted — your home, your rental, the beach. While winter is typically the time of year most people use their saunas, Nahnsen said he has business year-round. “I’ll take it to different lakes, rivers. In the spring you can park it by the lake. In the heat of summer I still get some rentals,” he said.
Like other adherents, he said the appeal is both physical and mental. “It’s such a nice dedicated time. You’re not looking at a screen. Solo, it’s mentally relaxing. With friends you have nice conversations.”
Many, if not most, saunas use a wood stove for heat. Electric works as well, but for those like the Wheelers who don’t want to hook up an outbuilding to electricity, wood is the fuel of choice.
Want more proof of the sauna’s appeal? Last year the construction trades students at TBA and those at Northwestern Michigan College held a building competition. While the high school students constructed two utility buildings, the college students opted to build two saunas.
Niemisto understands the attraction. When he moved to this area in 1983, one of the first things he did was build one in his back yard. “My wife and I don’t use it as much, but when our kids come home, we use it all the time. Over the holidays, we used it a lot as a family.”
Song to Sauna By
As proof of its enduring appeal, Patrick Niemisto and Norm Wheeler wrote a rollicking song about a red-hot sauna, with lotsa nods to Michigan. Want to hear it? Search “The Sauna Song,” performed by New Third Coast, on YouTube.