“Wherever you go …there you are”.
If anyone knows about the outdoor Nordic elements, it’s the Finns. For that matter, most of the Scandinavian countries have developed their cultures around dealing with cold, long, dark days of winter.
“Little darling it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter”George Harrison, ABBEY ROAD, Here Comes the Sun
One of their fabulous contributions to the world is the sauna. It’s been a staple in Finland for a few thousand years to promote health through dry or wet heat sessions.
In fact, for Finns, the sauna often gets built first – then the house. There is approximately 1 sauna per household in Finland. The sauna served as the birthing area for new Finns and the preparation place for departure from this life. In a bygone era, Finns would find themselves entering and leaving the world from the sauna. The sauna is yet another ingredient in the recipe for health and ‘hygge’. Hygge, a Danish term, has been much touted recently in the pursuit of comfort, relaxation and coziness. (Think a fire, a real candle, a nice dinner, friends etc.) But ‘hygge’ knows no political, social or geographical boundaries which means we can have it too ( if we want it).
Sure we have saunas in Canada. But we don’t do the sauna thing particularly well. Clubs I have been affiliated seem let them fall into disrepair (many built in the last half of the 20th century) often removing them to make more room for members or constantly fixing them. A few of our friends have them but they don’t always get used. I have a friend who lives outside Whitehorse who has a beauty and it gets great use. Another friend with a cottage in Muskoka has a small one right on an island on lake…..sauna….plunk in the lake …..sauna. Perfect. Great view.
A few years ago we looked into building one on our property by the pond – stream network. There were a number of barriers. First, it was tough to find a contractor who specialized in sauna construction. Secondly, we had to deal with the local conservation authority. There were permits and restrictions. Then there was the cost of red cedar from British Columbia. Ultimately, it didn’t get built.
Recently, I caught up with an adventure-seeking, enterprising family from nearby Rockwood, Ontario with a whole new sauna construct.
Rockwood is a small town tucked away between Guelph and Toronto. Jennifer and Ian Banfield live there in a small suburban neighbourhood with their children Elyse (10) and Ethan (12). They love to spend time wilderness camping (summer and winter) in a variety of northern locations. They welcome the outdoors whether it’s hiking, skiing (both kinds), or canoe tripping. They are always planning their next outing.
I had a chance to talk to Ian and Jennifer about their new creation – a mobile sauna. Like some of their friends, I was skeptical and dubious about such an idea. But, dear reader, they convinced me otherwise!
I was reminded of Comedian Steve Martin’s quip years ago. He humorously said, “they say you can’t take it with you ……I’m taking it with me.” (I think he was in his Egyptian phase with King Tut).
So are the Banfields – to beautiful locations where a sauna parked nearby provides an added luxury.
Jennifer and Ian started planning and researching their ‘sauna on wheels’ about a year ago. “You don’t just plan to lay out over $15,000 on a project without conferring with your partner and mapping out the details.” admitted Jennifer.
Ian was influenced by a fellow he communicated with in Minnesota who was converting a number of his ice fishing hut chassis into mobile saunas for customers (the fish might be breathing easier in Minnesota).
The Banfields told me their inspiration for the mobile sauna was to “live more simply and seek out solitude as part of their outdoor adventure lifestyle. “It’s the best way to finish an outdoor workout along with a dip in a body of water.” said Ian. “Scandinavian countries tend to have a high standard of living and level of happiness and we were after a bit of that”.
The sauna seems to to be the perfect mate to the polar dip (the sauna seems to be missing from those crazy New Years dips). They are definitely two extremes but made for each other.
The couple lives near a local conservation area and have already tried it there and various other locations. But a sauna is glorious right around the four seasons. With a pandemic raging, it is clear that Canadians are seeking out the comfort and solitude of trails and outdoor locations at a fever pitch.
In February, on Family Day weekend, the Banfields are heading out to do some winter camping near Huntsville and be safe in their family “bubble”. The sauna will tag along. Ian told me “a sauna built on a property always has the same view – with our mobile sauna the landscape and view is always changing.” He went on to say, “they call the Finnish sauna the “poor man’s pharmacy”. “Really”, I said, “How come?” “Well”, said Ian, “if neither liquor nor a sauna can’t heal you, it must be fatal.” I got a good laugh out of that one. While you do have to be careful in a sauna given the heat, it does have the affect of helping with blood pressure, stress reduction, and contributes to other positive wellness for the body (mind and spirit).
I asked him a bit about the construction of the sauna. They wanted to spend top dollar and do it right. The biggest cost was the aluminum trailer (close to ½ the cost) which they picked up in Guelph. The wood, red cedar, comes from BC and is available at most lumber stores. Ian told me; “I could have gone with pine in the change room and reduced the cost but we did cedar throughout.” The inside of the sauna needs cedar to handle heat and moisture.
The premium stove came all the way from Estonia. The chimney is actually a product of Russia. The heater is powered by firewood (birch most often Canadian). The unit even has a shower and a window to let in light. Ian has configured a power source with lights, a holding tank for water reserves, and a safe ramp for exiting the sauna. As a builder, Ian is a bit of a perfectionist. He wanted to take a look at what other sauna creators have made and make improvements. “I learned from my research and wanted to make it the best sauna ever”, said Banfield. To quote Red Green, “if the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.” Luckily for Ian he’s got plenty of both.
Ian told me that his main tool was a mitre saw for precision cutting of the cedar. One of the other benefits of cedar indoors is its glorious scent.
Jennifer is in sales with Align Orthodonics. She says the sauna and a cold dip helps her “come off the ‘hamster wheel’ from her daily stresses. It’s also a way to leave the digital devices behind, something the whole family can use relief from. The sauna gives them a definite heightened quality of life.
Ian is a contractor most of the year but could make room for a new business for 3-4 winter months. “I’ve been contemplating a possible start-up during the slower winter months and building a few units for potential customers.”
Ian and Jennifer studied their construction closely to ensure they built it with the right dimensions, ventilation, and moisture control.
As Ian added, “a mobile sauna is not for everyone. But Canadians do pull plenty of costly boats, snowmobiles and other recreational vehicles and products behind their vehicles, so why not a sauna?”
It was a team effort getting it built. Their kids love it too. Daughter Elyse told me she “loves to roll in the snow after emerging from the warmth of the sauna”. Son Ethan wrote about it in a back to school “how I spent the Christmas holidays” assignment at school.
It certainly doesn’t look like a sauna from the outside. “When we pull into a spot to use the sauna, and unlock the back gate and crank up the stove, people often drop by for a look and can’t believe what we’ve done inside,” Jennifer says. “It’s a bit of a magnet and a conversation starter for sure”. Most of the time they are in remote places away from ‘sauna gawkers’.
The Scandinavian influence has been evident in North America since the 1800s. Northern Ontario and Minnesota boast significant numbers of folks with Nordic/ Scandivavian roots. The sauna is but one strong export of that culture. Time will tell if there will be a new surge and interest in saunas in Canada. Perhaps the mobile sauna will lead the charge.
After all, who can quibble with the idea of cleansing and meeting with others in a cozy place where everyone is equal? Now that’s “hygge riffic.”
Ok, don’t just stand there, go cut a hole in the ice and jump in the lake. May you be so lucky to have a sauna nearby. You don’t have to go all the way to Finland.
- The Little Book of Hygge – The Danish Way to Live Well, Meik Wiking, Penguin 2016. A good primer on the delicate art of ‘hygge’ for those who want more comfort in their lives – and who doesn’t?
- The Almost Nearly Perfect People – The Truth About the Nordic Miracle, Michael Booth, Jonathan Cape, 2014. Learn more about the five Nordic countries of Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland – full of humour and “I didn’t know that”.
- www.saunatimes.com – a great site with plenty of sauna advice for those interested. Glenn (in Minnesota) is the contact – he has years of experience – has been to Scandinavia but refers to himself as “Joe American”.
- There is a Finnish Canadian making mobile saunas in Revelstoke, BC. Here are a few links for you to take a look at:
A Few Resources:
- Outside Online: Coolest Saunas on Wheels
- Traditional Finnish Sauna Comes to Vancouver, British Columbia
You can reach Ian Banfield at: (647) 449-6117 or [email protected]
Michael Schultz is a freelance writer living in Halton Hills who would like to be taken out of a sauna ‘feet first’.
Michael Schultz is a freelance writer and an educator living in Halton Hills, Ontario. He and his wife Madeleine enjoy the country lifestyle.
New projects this spring include building a cold frame for veggies and a sugaring off stove made of cement blocks for his evaporator pans.