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COLUMNIST: My very own sauna

Before I moved to New York Mills, a sauna was an odd contrivance located in the homes of the overly privileged. My high-school boyfriend's dad had a sauna in his house. It was a curiosity to me. Not something I ever tried, just something for the adults in the house to use when they were looking for something luxurious to do. My first real experience with a sauna came when I visited Finland on a business trip. I hadn't thought to bring a swimsuit, until my colleagues informed me that the Helsinki hotel had a wonderful sauna and that experiencing Finnish culture required that I try it. The hotel's sauna was co-ed, and for reasons of hygiene and modesty, I would need a bathing suit.

I am not in the habit of spending excessive amounts money on items that I already have at home, so I asked around to find out if there was a thrift store or flea market in the area. Turns out, there was a flea market selling used goods that very day, so off I went to navigate the unfamiliar streets of Helsinki to find the flea market. I twisted and turned through the glorious stone-lined alleyways and avenues, summer sunlight touching the remarkable buildings with gold. I found the flea market in an old-European-style square, surrounded by billboards for cellphones and computers. Set up around the square were collapsible tables covered with pre-loved and pre-worn items. I scoured the market for anything looking like a swimsuit, and struck gold with a yellow-flowered bikini on sale for the extremely affordable sum of 1 Euro (at that time, about $1.25). I grabbed it and headed back to the hotel. After a slap-dash handwashing in the hotel's bathroom sink, on the swimsuit went, and out the door I went to find the beautiful modern glass and steel sauna given its place of honor on the top floor.

That was my introduction to saunas. Little did I know that a few years later, I'd have my very own.

I didn't expect the prevalence of saunas around New York Mills. As a treat for the rich, I didn't think there would be so many unassuming people with their own saunas in their homes. As I learned more about the Finnish culture in my own neighborhood, it became clear to me that saunas are not luxury, rather they are a staple of life in a cold climate. The pleasure of immersing one's body in extreme heat after the Minnesota cold gets into one's bones is hard to extol highly enough.

The fact that I ended up with a sauna owes a lot to my husband's infatuation with sauna culture. Not officially of Finnish stock--his forebearers were German immigrants--Chris's father Ken's New York Mills upbringing may explain some of Chris's familiarity with saunas. But Chris's deep enthusiasm for them is all his own. He and his childhood friends even have their very own sauna rituals involving mispronounced Finnish words and numeric countdowns to leaving the sauna in an imitation of Winston Churchill. Sauna quirks aside, there is not doubt to me that Chris has sisu. I am still in the process of developing some.

The idea of our own sauna became even more likely when we learned that there a dismantled sauna complete with stove was available in Brainerd for a steal. With a borrowed pick-up, the pile of cedar planks and metal stove ended up at our house. It lived on our veranda over the summer, and then it was then separated into two discrete elements of home décor for the winter: cedar plank sculpture in our basement and sauna door and stove display in our garage where my car was supposed to go. The sauna building blocks sat for nine months taking up space. Finally, finally, we had the time, money, and inclination to contact our neighbor, the fine contractor, builder, and genuine Finn, Jim Kytta.

Jim was faced with the great sauna jigsaw puzzle. He had to fit 500 planks of wood into a unique and uncommonly sized space in a basement area that was part-bathroom, part-closet. One week, numerous visits, the electrical help of Leaf River Services, and the plumbing assistance of Mike's Plumbing and Heating later, our house had its very own sauna.

I took my first sauna in my very own home two weeks ago. It was a cold day outside, 20 degrees or so, but the sauna was deliciously warm. After I'd collected enough heat, I barreled up the stairs and out of our front door to watch the steam rise from my arms into the frozen winter night. There's nothing like spending time in a large outdoor freezer to balance out the heat of a sauna. Who says there's nothing to love about winter in Minnesota?