Duluth Family Sauna

After my final event at Barnes & Noble in Duluth, I ran a little trail race that took me along the Superior Hiking Trail from Duluth to a park about 31 miles south, and then back. By the end of the day I was exhausted, and on Sunday I was sore. Not so much that I couldn’t move, but still pretty sore. So I figured I’d do what any self-respecting Minnesotan would do at the end of a long week, to clean themselves up and loosen aching muscles.

I took a sauna.


The Duluth Family Sauna opened as a sauna (pronounced “sow-na”) and steam bath in the 1920s and has stayed in operation pretty much ever since. Bought by Herb Jensen in 1969, it is one of only a handful of public saunas and bath houses still in operation in Minnesota. Before the advent of indoor plumbing, public bath houses and saunas were in almost every major city in Minnesota. And for a place with a strong Finnish and Swedish heritage, the sauna was a necessity. The Finnish custom was to use the sauna as a place for weekly baths. On Saturday mornings, the stove would be heated so that by Saturday night, all year long, the sauna was heated and ready for using. After getting undressed, a person would enter the heat of the sauna and sit for a while while the heat penetrated their pores. The sweat would clean their skin from the inside. After a time in the heat, one would dip themselves in a cold lake (sauna’s were always built close to bodies of water), and then return to the heat of the sauna. Soap and buckets of water were used to clean the dirt and grime off the skin, and the lake again could be used to rinse off the soap.

For the Finns, who were not known for their extroverted social lives, the sauna provided a weekly opportunity to gather in a social setting. Men would sit together in the sauna and talk family or politics. Well known for their strong opinions, the Finns might discuss local Finnish organizations, of which their were probably plenty. One of the many jokes I’ve heard about the Finns in Minnesota is that if you put two of them in a room they’ll start three different organizations. One for each of them, and one for them to fight over. The women were similarly opinionated, and they sauna’d separately from the men.

The Duluth Family Sauna has a communal sauna in the basement, accessible for an all day pass. Alternatively, for shorter stays, one could opt for a two hour private sauna, which includes a private room. I didn’t really want the private sauna, preferring the communal space as an opportunity to tell more people about the book, but I also thought that two hours would be enough time to spend in the sauna. So I took the private space. The clerk directed me down a hallway and into a private room about twice as large as the twin bed that occupied it. A small white fan blew air across the room and a television with DVD player suspended from ceiling mount. The wooden walls looked to be made of cedar, though the rich aroma of that wood had long since vanished from the room. Aside from the entrydoor, there was another door which blended with the walls. Behind this door was another room, as big as this one, with concrete steps leading up to a wooden bench. Just to the left inside the door was a steam radiator, just like the ones I had in my apartments in New York City. A pipe ran from the floor up the wall and over the top of the radiator. When I turned a red knob on this pipe, hot water sprayed on the radiator which in turn heated the radiator and sent steam shooting to the ceiling. It took me half an hour to figure out the water part, and I laid on the bench wondering why the sauna wasn’t that hot. Once I started using the water, though, the room got so warm the sweat began to bead up my arms.

The feeling was exhilarating. I stayed in the room for long periods of time, stepping out for a moment to catch a cool breath of air, then went right back into the heat of the sauna. I became lost in the steam, the heat swallowing me the way a running a trail might begin to occupy all my thoughts. I imagined having one of these in my own backyard, and as I sat there the steam filled my head with plans about how I could build a sauna at home. Then I could have this experience all year round.

The stiffness was still in my legs, but my skin felt refreshed, relaxed, rejuvinated. With my two hour clock rapidly ticking down, I wished I had come earlier in the day and paid for an all day pass. But, I had to eat dinner and finish packing. So finally I filled a provided bucket with cold water and soaped up a provided wash cloth. Then I lathered myself clean and, instead of using the shower, poured the bucket of cold water over my head. A drain in the floor took the water away, and I filled the bucket two more times, emptying five gallons of cold, cold water over my tinglingly warm skin, while the radiator behind me rumbled and hissed.

I left the sauna feeling better than I had felt in weeks. Calmed and relaxed and, fittingly, clean as a Finn.