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Remembering steam-cleaned Finns

During last week’s hot streak, I spotted a sparrow sitting on my bird feeder. In his mouth was a seed, but he was too worn out from the heat to eat it.
Not far away was a squirrel, sprawled out on the tire of my son’s trailer. He was spreadeagle on the top of the tire in the shade. He looked exhausted.
My oldest brother in Arizona often tells me 100 degrees in the desert is a dry heat. So is sticking my head in an oven.
But the heat we Minnesotans experienced last week was anything but dry. With dew points in the astonishing 80-degree range, it was sweltering! It reminded me of being in a Finnish sauna, pronounced “sow-na,” for you non-Finns.
My grandparents came from Finland in the early 1900s, and that made my mother a full-blooded Finn. Since my Dad was Scotch, Irish and German with a splash of Canadian, that made him a “mutt” (his term) so I guess my brothers and I are half-Finn and half-mutt.
Which brings me back to the heat.
Growing up near Rainy Lake on the Canadian border, I heard the early arriving Finns of the area formed a club on property near the lake, built a club house and, of course, a communal sauna. Saturdays were sauna days for the local Finn families.
While the men played cards, drank beer and smoked in the club house, the older women sat on wooden benches around the sauna and gossiped in their native language. It was up to the mothers to get their families clean, which meant all getting into the sauna together. Not a thing for the bashful.
But first, each bather needed to gather two pails of cold water from the lake. One pail was for cleaning, and the other for stoking the steaming rocks of the sauna. The old-timers often used birch bows to beat themselves clean. They claimed it beat out the impurities while the body’s pores were wide open from the steam. As a little kid, I thought it was punishment for some dastardly deed.
Anyway, into the steamy sauna the family would trudge, pails of water in hand. You could always tell the old-timers; they sat on the top rung where the real steam rose. Us half-breeds were on all fours sniffing the bottom of the door looking for air … any air.
After one’s pores are opened, they need to close again. That’s where a quick dash out of the sauna and into ice-cold Rainy Lake came in handy. If your pores didn’t shut after that, well, you were probably beyond help.
In the winter, the old-timers would dash out of the sauna and into the snow to accomplish the same thing.
No one ever said Finns were sane, but at least they were clean.
Rich Glennie was the editor of The Chronicle for 23 years. He retired Aug. 1, 2014, but still plans to submit an occasional column.