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The Sweat That Binds Us

du Nord sauna at night

Before we get our story rolling, let’s get this out of the way. There’s only one way to say this word, and the Finlandia Foundation National offers a helpful explanation on its Web site:

“It is natural for Americans to pronounce it as saw-nuh, rhyming with fauna, but the word should really have an “ow” sound, as in sow-nuh. How, now, brown, sauna!”

Got it?

Like most things in this magazine, we begin with a first. In 1933 a group of Finnish carpenters arrived on Burnside Lake to build what would first become a privately run resort, and eventually, YMCA Camp du Nord. The first building they built was the sauna, which served as their bunkhouse as they constructed the cabins (did you say it right?).

When the YMCA of Greater Saint Paul purchased the property in 1960, its sauna was an important selling point, and early promotional materials touted the “Finnish bath” as a main attraction.

Camp du Nord’s history book, “All Nature Sings,” practically gushes about the sauna’s importance:

“Of all the traditions at Camp du Nord — and there are many — none dates back as far as the time-honored ritual of the sauna. For many campers, it is camp’s centerpiece.” Today that’s not even close to an overstatement. This little building, and the “sauna culture” it promotes, is perhaps the most universal touchpoint du Nord has to offer.

So just what’s the big deal about sweating in a hot room?

Some say it’s the smell – woodsmoke baked into the sauna’s timbers and benches, flavored with aromas of birch and white pine.

Others cite the peaceful embrace of the hot darkness, or the relationships — built drop by sweated drop. There is camaraderie there, and a rugged individualism too.

For some, it’s the sudden immersion in the cool waters of Burntside — or even avantouinti — a Finnish word for ice hole swimming, the more extreme, icy wintertime option some du Norders love best. Many sauna lovers extol its health virtues, or laud the enchanting view, whether of Burntsides’ clear waters and forested shoreline or fields of blazing stars over a snowy icescape.

As you can surmise, sauna-ing happens year-round and at all times of the day or night. And you can do it to your taste- whether you are a night owl who enjoys cooling off under the stars or if you prefer to go first thing in the morning. Sauna sessions can be single gender and during those times, some people choose to leave all their clothes behind. There are times set aside for a slightly cooler sauna temperature, allowing families to sauna together in an all-ages session. Some people prefer quiet sauna time, enjoying the solitude with small groups with nary a word spoken. For many, it’s a time to “sweat out the toxins and everything else.” These folks swear the best sleep comes after a sauna.

The sauna is a uniter, a place where people with diverse stories, backgrounds, and loves come together to spend time in almost every element and condition the Northwoods has to offer.

Tales from the bench

Camp du Nord Executive Director Andy Sinykin claims he is “never more relaxed than after a sauna.”

Du Nord alum Danny Baldus-Strauss described the sauna: “For me, it’s the place I feel the most amount of solitude, but also feel the most community. When I think of the sauna, I think of the late nights with just a few guys, a lantern flickering, the smell of the wood, the quiet. The water is so still and calm and you are under the stars. It’s the people together, sharing the experience, it’s a community.”

Danny grew up attending du Nord with his family in the late 1990s, joined the Leadership Development Program, and after a few summers away, returned to summer staff from 2009-13. His favorite spot at camp was the sauna, especially the 10p.m. to midnight men’s sauna time, where he would take his guitar and spend time relaxing, chatting, connecting, and reflecting.

Community, fitness, the feeling of being at camp. These things came together, and he founded his company Sauna Camp. Sauna Camp launched in the winter of 2023 with a goal of “fostering a sense of togetherness, creating an environment where the spirit of adventure and relaxation intertwine outside in nature.” Describing his business, Danny said, “We take our physical and mental health seriously, and think community plays an important role in both.”

Dan Morlock, du Nord camper and staff alum also described the sauna as a place of community. He has fond memories “sitting with people you don’t know, talking, telling jokes, jumping in the water to cool off, looking at the stars. Relaxing.”

One of his favorite times to sauna is in the winter. For those who haven’t experienced winter sauna-ing, there are a few things to know: you need to wear wool socks so your feet don’t stick to the ice. To cool down you can either roll around in the snow or you can jump into a hole in the ice, and despite freezing cold temperatures, when you get out of the sauna, you will be able to stand outside comfortably because your body is so warm.

Keely Young-Dixon, du Nord alum and current board member describes it best, “It must be something about the vulnerability of sitting in a dark room full of strangers or doing something new, different, or a little scary (there is the supposed snapping turtle lurking in the dark water after all, and the water temperature even in early June is no joke), that gives people the confidence to let their guard down. I always leave the sauna feeling a lovely warm glow, but also feeling like I was a part of a somewhat magical community. I won’t recognize faces in the daylight, but I somehow feel closer to those I sat, sweating, shoulder to shoulder with, marveled over the moon reflecting on the water as we swam, and learned about life from. This community aspect is what sets the du Nord sauna experience apart from any other. You can sauna in many different places, but I have yet to find one that involves such a strong feeling of community.”

Ready to step inside?

There is a reverence for the sauna, almost spiritual the way that people speak of their experience. Described as “peaceful, tranquil, relaxing, quiet, slow, comfortable, a release, cleansing, a place for connection.” There is another Finnish word — sisu, which means fortitude and grit. For Danny, this is the best description of what it means to sauna.

Danny shared, “there’s no right or wrong way to sauna. Come to it with an open heart, an open mind, and ready to connect with your breath. There’s no competition. Do what feels right for your body. Don’t be intimidated.”

No indeed. Be welcome. Come and enjoy.

Sauna Locations

YMCA of the North camps are home to 10 saunas.