Sacred, or awkward? Ritualistic, or wacky? No matter how you interpret sauna culture, Canal Park in Duluth was the place to be on Sunday afternoon to get your deep cleanse going. The inaugural Great Duluth Sweat Together featured 12 mobile saunas and tents open to the public to enjoy for free. That’s right—come hop into a to 190-degree trailer with total strangers.
This outdoor block party, albeit in bathing suits, in March, was a fundraiser for Life House, a Duluth charity organization that supports homeless youth, adolescents, and young families. Sauna-goers donated to Life House as a way of saying thanks for being able to walk around in their bathrobe in public.
Rod Raymond, who organized the Sweat Together, opened the community sauna party at 3:15 p.m. together with Duluth Mayor Emily Larson. From there, people headed to the various saunas of all shapes and sizes. There were round, wooden barrel saunas, floorless, portable canvas tents set up right in the snow, and deluxe trailer saunas outfitted with gigantic Kuuma woodstoves. Participants could sign up at the sauna of their choice and be inside throwing water on the blazing hot rocks, steaming out your cares, within minutes.
My 12-year-old daughter thought it would be a fantastic idea to take a sauna with hundreds of other people, and convinced me to go to the Lakewalk with her to check it out. We brought bathing suits (mandatory), towels, and water shoes. We changed in the women’s and men’s tent-based changing rooms, then set out to try five different saunas, with cool down breaks in between.
The big, scary question looming in the back of my mind (and most people’s minds, I think) was to jump—or not to jump—in Lake Superior? Was I really going to let my 12-year-old persuade me to submerge myself in 32-degree water in front of a crowd of onlookers?
But the answer was never in doubt. When you’re that close to Lake Superior (about a 200-foot sprint away from the nearest sauna), with your adrenaline pumping, it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll dive into the Big Lake. For me, 20 seconds was plenty. Other, braver souls, boasted of staying in the ice-cold water for 10 minutes at a time.
Annaliisa Kovanen, a sauna professional who works as a sauna guide at Cedar + Stone Nordic Sauna along the Lakewalk, shared tips on how to approach the sauna experience as a newcomer: “If somebody’s never done it before, I tell them about the thermal cycles: hot, cold, rest, rehydrate, repeat. Then I tell people to listen to their bodies. Whatever feels good is the correct amount of time to get in and out of the sauna. And since it’s Duluth, we have snow 9 months of the year, so you can just go outside, roll around in the snow, or use the cold plunge option to cool off.”
Kovanen joins the Duluth Coldwater Dolphins, a group of like-minded cold-water enthusiasts, on regular dips into Lake Superior. For Kovanen, “Lake Superior makes it so special, because every day is different in the lake. The endorphin rush you get from it is incredible, and I feel good the whole rest of the day.”
For the record, my daughter and I both ran into the lake up to our necks three times.
Highlights of the Sweat Together included people watching and playfulness under the bright March sun. The Parade of Robe/Slippers and outdoor snow-ga by Evolve Yoga were both hits. The crowds were building, and the sauna fires were crackling.
Raymond said he intended the event to be “irreverent and wacky,” but with community benefits as well: “I just wanted to make a shoulder season event that’s built around community and wellness.”
Kai Stenlund, owner of Stonegrove Saunas, which is a mobile sauna rental company, says his aim at joining the event was to expand the sauna community of Minnesota: “We specifically love the community aspect of saunaing. Being here is awesome because we love seeing all the different types of saunas. We can share ideas and dive into the community, which is really fun.”
“Diving in” was the theme of the day for our family. Now that the euphoria has subsided, it feels great to be dressed, indoors, and part of a new community of fun-loving sauna-goers.