It all started innocently enough.
I was guiding a group of Europeans on a canoe trip in northestern Ontario’s Temagami Region, and we found ourselves wind-bound for two solid days on the south end of Lady Evelyn Lake. The group was growing more bored by the minute. I introduced a number of card games, and we all told stories and jokes twice and even three times over. Things were getting desperate though, so I sprang into action by suggesting we build a sauna along a nearby beach to help pass the time away.
Everyone seemed enthusiastic at getting a chance to sweat out their aching muscles and release their frustrations of being stuck at camp. So, I initiated the design layout and construction, remembering a few saunas I had built on past trips.
Building a camp sauna has been a common pastime in Temagami for years. It’s an old Finnish custom; perceived to be a very holy place where women would give birth, the sick would go to be healed and the dead would be washed before burial. Each sauna was also believed to house a gnome or "sauna elf" called who would punish people who behaved improper or acted “immoral.” That’s why there’s no gawking, gazing, staring or even peeking at others' private parts—and even though it was fun in the gym locker-room back in high school, no snapping of towels on someone’s bare skin.
Collection of wood for the frame was the first on our checklist. Saplings would have been nice to use, but the site we were camped on had seen enough abuse from past residents, so we made the wise decision to use deadfall for the frame instead.
A hoop design or cabin-type structure would be ideal, but because all of us lacked the expertise, we went with a simple teepee design. Three wood poles were lashed together with rope and a tent fly was draped over the structure, with corner points of the nylon cover staked or held down with small boulders. The door was just an opening in the corner of the tarp.
Construction was done on a beach, which made the second step far easier. We dug a small pit in the centre of the makeshift sauna, approximately a foot deep and a foot wide. A second fire pit was also built outside of the sauna where medium size rocks were buried in hot coals. Once the rocks were red hot, they were carefully brought into the sauna pit where a pot of water was ready to be poured over them.
Next was the fun part. The group was gathered and motioned to pack inside in an orderly fashion. And since I was the one who initiate it all, I was given the honour to enter first.
That’s when things got interesting. My naïve assumption was that campers making use of saunas should be naked. Heck, I didn’t even second-guess my decision to go nude because the group I was guiding was all European. So I crawled in, removed my towel and sat there cross-legged waiting for everyone to enter. And they did, all wearing bathing suits!
How embarrassing. The worst part wasn’t really being caught naked. It was having to stay in the sauna, chatting away about nothing in particular but staying put long enough so that when I did make an exit, it didn’t appear to be out of awkwardness.
Would I do it again? Definitely, in a heartbeat. A homemade sauna is one of the most rewarding activities during a camping trip. The only change, of course, is that I wouldn't choose to be the last person in—I'd check-out what everyone else was wearing before I decided to drop the towel.