Sauna culture is broad and has many practitioners. Kraja holiday village has a sauna raft available in summer, but they also offer ice-bathing and sauna in winter. – Very refreshing, says Charlotta Westberg about first heating yourself up in a sauna, then having a bath in a hole cut in the ice.
“If spirits, tar or sauna doesn’t help, death is near” – Finnish sauna proverb.
There is a very special sauna belt that runs around the Arctic Circle. From the indigenous people of North America across Siberia to Northern Scandinavia. The brightest sauna star shines over Finland. The Finnish word ‘sauna’ has spread all over the world and is part of Finnish national identity. Sweden is not far behind, and winter bathing is becoming increasingly popular.
Around the Arctic Circle you can practise cold baths in summer, too. But sometimes the water temperature rises to 25°C and above for longer periods of time, like it did in the summer of 2014.
At Kraja you can rent a sauna raft
Saunas have become increasingly popular in Arjeplog these last years. At the Kraja camp site and holiday village you can rent a sauna raft and go swimming in Sälla, a part of Hornavan. But was it possible to have a winter sauna there?
As it turned out, it was. Anders Westerlund, janitor, chopped up a hole in the ice and a few of us took up the challenge.
Maud Lestander very much enjoyed the sauna and icy bath. “I finally got the chance to do something I’ve been wanting to do for years”.
After half an hour of thorough warming up, it was time to step down the ladder and lie down in the zero-degree water. The temperature outside was -14°C.
– Not as bad as I thought, said Maud. It was actually really nice to first feel the heat, then the cold all over your body.
It wasn’t the first time Charlotta Westberg took a bath in a hole in the ice.
– It was incredibly refreshing and this time I didn’t need ice claws to get out. It was a lot easier with a ladder.
An icy bath is not recommended for those with a weak heart
– But it’s healthy, claims Pirkko Huttunen who researches cold at Oulu University in Finland.
– It can relieve rheumatism and it looks like a winter bath has the same effect, easing pain and inflammation.
In a study described in the magazine ‘Research & Progress’, she followed a group of winter bathers aged 30 to 68 years old. She also had a control group.
– During the test period the group who regularly went ice bathing had a substantially better health situation. During the period tension, fatigue, poor memory and bad mood were all considerably reduced. After four months all participants responded that they felt more energetic, active and healthy, and that they had better self-esteem than when they began in October. Additionally, those suffering from diagnosed rheumatism, fibromyalgia and asthma reported that winter bathing had reduced the pain.
The history of sauna culture
Sauna culture experienced a boost during the 1960s throughout the inner regions of northern Sweden. Before then, few had shower areas in their homes, much less a sauna. In Arjeplog there was a public bath with a sauna by the old fire station on the square. It was built in 1951. There used to be various kinds of saunas here and there. My uncle Folke Söderberg, 82 years old this year, tells me how he and his two brothers used a little hut they heated with a low-pressure boiler in the village Bellonäs in 1959.
– It was a barrel with a water tank, with hot steam coming out of it. Afterwards we threw ourselves into the snow and every now and then into a hole in the ice.
Lasse Lundqvist, 86 years old, remembers a wood-burning sauna on Kyrkholmen. It was used in the 1940s and was next to the first school house – known as the Red School – that has since been torn down.
– But we didn’t jump into the lake, he laughs.
Doctor Göran Wemmenborn moved to Arjeplog with his family in 1965. He remembers the joy of having a sauna in the house by Lillströmmen, in the middle of town.
– The sauna was often used and I remember how enjoyable it was to climb up the basement stairs with no clothes on to roll around in the beautiful, soft snow accompanied by a babbling brook and flaring northern lights. We learnt to put shoes or socks on after our feet had frozen to the stairs a couple of times.
Sauna in the sports hall
The sports and swimming hall was opened in 1966. There was a large sauna here where many people gathered.
– I remember Åke Wennström’s fantastic Monday gymnastics for us guys, followed by a sauna. Many great thoughts were born in that sauna. Creativity in a sauna can reach unfathomable heights, says Göran Wennerborn and sends his regards. He lives in Skåne these days, with a sauna in the house of course.
Sauna facts: Since ancient times, people have gathered around fire and heat. Switching between temperatures is also pure survival practice. The sauna is – whether in summer or winter – pleasure for body and soul. To quote a Finnish sauna saying: “If spirits, tar or sauna doesn’t help, death is near”.
Bathhouses with heated bathing houses have been around for a long time. In the Middle Ages there were public saunas in Northern and Central Europe. Men and women bathed at the same time, but that practice was banned over time as it was thought to spread diseases like syphilis, for example. In the Middle East the equivalent was the Hamam, a steam and hot-air bath originating in the 7th and the 8th centuries. During the Roman era many public bath establishments – thermer – were built. The word means warmth and heat, which was the result of the centrally-heated water.
Sources: Nationalencyklopedin & the magazine ‘Forskning och framsteg’ no. 10/2012.