By Peter Armitage
Interested in trying an outdoor sauna on your next kayak camping trip? It's not hard to set up and use a sauna. Here's a brief explanation on how to do it. Note that this is not a no-trace, low-impact activity as you must build a substantial fire in order to heat the sauna stones, cut 8 alder sticks, and pick fir boughs for the flooring. Note also that there are some risks involved in this activity, namely, the risk of burning from contact with hot stones. Also, it's not a good idea to take a sauna and cold dip thereafter if you have pre-existing heart issues.
My approach is inspired by the Innu steam tent (sweat lodge) which is called matutishan (mutt-a-shan) in the Innu language. I've done three sweats in Max Penashue's sweat lodge in Labrador so I have a good idea of how's its done. Moreover, we tried it at the KNL kayak camping trip to Tickles, St. Mary's Bay, on June 28, 2008, so I know it works using our improvised method. Here's a couple photos of an Innu matutishan frame as well as one "in action."
Left and right - steam tent frames (8 alder poles, fir bough flooring). Centre - two Innu men taking a break in their small steam tent. Thumbnails - click on an image to enlarge.
1-2 tarps, 3 collapsible tent poles 4 metres in length (or 8 alder sticks 2 metres long each), fir boughs, 7 cobble stones/rocks, collapsible shovel (green one from Canadian Tire), twine, a large pot or plastic bucket for water, towels.
Steps in setting up and using a sauna
1. Select 7 cobble stones/rocks each about 25 cm (10 in) in diameter, preferably of granite or some other material that will not split apart easily in the intense heat of the fire.
2. Build a large fire early in the evening so that you can heat your 7 stones for a least 2 hours prior to use. The stones should be red hot by the time you are ready to start the sauna. Of course, you should not be building an outdoor fire if the nearby terrain is dry and the fire hazard high. Also, try to keep your environmental footprint to a minimum by burning driftwood (rather than standing deadwood), and by using an existing hearth should one exist.
3. Meanwhile, while your stones are baking in the fire, select some dry level ground nearby that is sheltered from the wind, yet close to the shore in the event that you want to go for a cool splash when finished in the tent. NB - the fire and the sauna must be close to one another so that you do not have far to carry the hot stones.
4. Create the frame using 8 alder sticks, one end jabbed into the ground, the thin ends tied together with twine at the centre, top. Each stick should be something like 2 metres in length. I knew prior to our arrival that there is no alder at Tickles, so I took along three break-apart tent poles to use that vary in length from 4 metres (12 ft) to 5.5 metres (17 ft). The ends of these were stuck in the ground at six places and they were tied together at the top where they crossed one another. Your tent should be able to accommodate 4 to 8 people with the stone pit "hearth" in the centre. A footprint for the sauna tent of about 2.5 x 2.5 metres should do the trick. You don't want it to be too large, however, or it will have trouble holding the heat.
5. Dig a small pit in the centre of the floor about 20 cm (8 in) deep, and 40 cm (16 in) x 40 cm square to hold your hot stones. An alternative to digging a pit is to lay out some flat slabs of rock where the hot stones will be placed. You need some insulation so that the hot stones do not ignite the grass or fir boughs.
6. Lay your fir bough flooring, one bough at a time, starting at the back of the sauna tent. You only need a thin layer, but it should completely cover the ground so that you have a comfortable carpet of boughs to sit on. The boughs must be laid with the flat undersides facing up. This produces a relatively flat surface on the floor. It will take about 3-4 very large arm loads of boughs to cover the tent floor. The boughs will exude a lovely odor as the hot steam fills the tent.
7. Cover the frame with one or more tarps. You will lift up one part of the tarp in order to enter and exit the tent. The entrance way should be close to your fire.
8. When ready for the sauna, gently lift the hot stones out of the fire, and carry them VERY CAREFULLY to the pit at the centre of your tent. They are friggin' hot so don't drop them on your feet. You'll need first aid if you do! Place the large pot or bucket of water inside the tent.
Tony Roestenberg lifting a hot stone into place while Ty Evans assists with the "door" (photo Martina Schaefer).
9. The participants are now ready to enter the tent. Be sure to warn people not to touch the hot stones, otherwise, they'll suffer a very serious burn. Once everyone is inside and the "door" shut, slowly poor the water on the hot stones being sure not to scald yourself with the hot steam coming off the stones. Add water as needed depending on your comfort level with the heat and the steam. When it starts to cool off a bit, add more water to jack up the heat.
Five of us participated in the sauna at Tickles. We were in it for about 30 minutes during which time we poured close to 10 gallons of water on the stones. We put five stones in for a start, and then two more about half way through so that we could keep the heat up.
It was a very good sweat, which two of us relieved with a quick dip in the cold water of Pinchgut Tickle. Towels are kept outside the sauna tent because the humidity inside is extreme.
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