The ancient rite of sauna still beats strong in the heart of the Upper Peninsula

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This article was pulled from our Traverse Northern Michigan magazine classics collection and last updated for February 2024.

Outside, a clear February night cools the U.P. timberland to a frosty 10 degrees. But I pay the cold no mind because inside the sauna where I sit, it’s a bone-warming 200 degrees. I’m naked except for a pen, a writing pad, and a Labatt’s, interviewing two men—also naked—whom I’ve never met before. I’m hoping Fred Huffman and Steve Hampton, each 48, can answer the question that’s brought me here. How is it that, in this electronically buzzed up, bright-light world, the ancient rite of sauna still beats strong in the heart of the U.P.?

Fred wipes the sweat from his gray beard and shares a sauna tale. “Late one night, some college friends and I were playing burnout—last one to stand the sauna heat wins. The heat kept rising and finally one guy said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m headed to the lake.’ He rushed into the night and down the hill to the dock. The rest of us followed right behind and saw his silhouette against the stars in a perfect swan dive. Then, THUD! Instead of the lake, he dove into the row boat.” Laughter all around.

Between tales, we breathe the heat, waiting for the next thought to rise. Sometimes a minute, two or three passes. The only light in the sauna is a pale orange glow that leaks from holes rusted through the wood stove. Fred stands and ladles water over fist-sized stones from Lake Superior that are packed against the stove. We listen to the hiss and watch the steam rise. The scent of burning maple and yellow birch fills the small space.

Unless you hail from the U.P. or have Nordic blood in your veins, you might consider a sauna like a shower—a pleasant but brief interlude in the day. But to a Yooper—what folks from the U.P. call themselves—sauna is temple, cleansing ritual and meditation, fellowship, family and community.

In the U.P. you’ll find the longest continually running public sauna in Michigan, a sauna makkara (a type of Finnish sausage you eat before the sauna) and even a Finnish reggae band with a sauna beat. And it’s here where they pronounce “sauna” the right way. “Sauna rhymes with COW-na, not fauna,” Huffman says.

For a most Yooper-esque display of sauna solidarity, look no further than The World’s Largest Sauna. The festivity took place during Marquette’s FinnFest USA in 1996, when more than 600 people sweated together on bleachers under a tent on a university football field.  One of the organizers of the World’s Largest Sauna, Jorma (pronounced Yorma) Lankinen, recalls where the idea came from. “Well, it was no big scientific thing,” he says. “We were having some beers and somebody had a brain fart and we all concurred.”

Lankinen also figured out how to heat the tent to 160 degrees, a challenge because the fire marshal forbade live fire. “We contacted American Eagle and they loaned us two huge heaters they use to de-ice jumbo jets,” Lankinen says. The company even sent a technician to run them. He cranked up the blowers and blasted out heat from 2-foot diameter pipes for 10 hours to get the makeshift sauna up to temp. Planners also staged a couple of giant kettles that they pretended to pour water over rocks as a tape recording of steam hissed from speakers. People sang traditional sauna songs, and they played tapes from the local Finnish reggae band, Conga Se Mene, the band with the sauna beat.

“Fortunately, everybody kept their swimsuits on,” Lankinen says. “The fear was that people would do the traditional Finnish way and take their suits off.”

On Fred Huffman’s office wall hangs a plaque commemorating his breaking a sweat at the World’s Largest Sauna. When he looks at it, he gets, well, a bit sentimental. “That was one of the proudest moments of my life,” he says. He’s not kidding. For Huffman, the only disappointment was that the sauna lasted just an hour and a half. “We were just getting ready to head to the store to come back with some beers and pops when they turned the heat off.”

One evening I stop into Marquette’s Landmark Inn for dinner and mention my quest to Terrence Lyons, night manager. The tall, dark 33-year-old can’t help himself: he must tell me his sauna past. He grew up in Marquette and left in his 20s. He lived in Seattle four years; lived in Europe another two. He likes being on the go. But something about Marquette and his U.P. sauna memories pulled him back. By nature, Lyons talks fast. But when he tells of saunas past, his voice slows, softens.

Lyons grew up going to sauna at his grandpa Emil Merriala’s house in Ishpeming, just west of Marquette. Lyons’ grandmother Mildred made soaps from flowers she picked, and the scents of lilac, lilies of the valley and any wildflower she could find would fill the sauna year round. His grandpa was particular about the size and shape of the Lake Superior stones that he’d place against the stove—flat or egg-shaped, the size of apples. “Whenever we would go on an adventure to the lakeshore, my grandfather would pick a stone to take back to the sauna,” Lyons says. His grandpa passed away a year ago, but when Lyons looks at one sauna stone or another, he recalls a vivid image: a particular moment when his grandpa stooped to pocket that rock.

Lyons’ grandpa would always have a pile of snow near the sauna door during parties—a Finn’s idea of a treat. After jumping in the snow, the boys and men would head back into the sauna’s heat. “That’s when the slapping with branches would begin,” Lyons says, “when your skin was still numb from the snow.” He refers to an ancient Finnish practice of using juniper or birch bows to slap
one’s own or another’s back and thighs in the belief that it improves circulation.

The sauna tradition, Lyons says, gives families a time to sit back and share their lore. “I learned more about my grandfather, my father and his brothers in the sauna than I did anywhere else. I feel the women in the sauna did the same thing. There you are, naked, bared to all.” The stories come forth.

Some Finns view the sharing of stories as much a part of the cleansing as the sweat itself. “As my grandfather said, ‘you go in as a bahaboika [Finnish for bad boy] and you come out a hyvä [good boy],’” Lyons says. He pauses, reflects. “I can remember being in there from the moment I can start remembering.”

I find that childhood memories form a curiously powerful part of the sauna experience for many a Yooper. When I call the Marquette Country Convention & Visitors Bureau and ask the director, Sherry Dillard, to recommend a hotel she tells me this story. She remembers a time in the 1940s, growing up in Ironwood, when to live meant hard, physical labor. Families needed a reprieve, and they found it at Saturday night sauna.

Dillard recalls driving to her grandparents’ home in a nearby farming community to share in the sauna rite. Few farms had plumbing, so the sauna [remember: COW-na] served as both social event and cleansing time. “Every farm that had a sauna would take turns inviting the neighborhood,” Dillard says. “Neighborhood” included people who lived 20 or 30 miles away. Dozens of adults and children—60 people or so—gathered for the weekly sauna eve. “They would put the cows to bed and head over,” Dillard says.

Saunas stood separate from houses and were four times the size of ones you see today. A dozen or more people could easily sit in. Starting off the evening, mothers and young children would head to the sauna’s dim closeness. There they would share stories in the heat, steam and dark. After a while, they poured heated water over themselves and bathed. Some of the older ladies slapped each other with branches.

When clean, the ladies and children marched back inside the home and served coffee, cakes and donuts. Meanwhile, the men took their turns. The women shut the curtains because the men were outside naked rolling in the snow or jumping in a nearby pond—too foolish for the children to see. The other side of Dillard’s family was English, “and they had nothing comparable.” A measure of pity tempers her voice when she says so.

The advent of plumbing and the ability to bathe in the home snuffed this rural saunapalooza. “When my grandparents installed plumbing they didn’t go

Whether patriotic Yoopers like to admit it or not, European Communists deserve a good bit of credit for planting sauna culture in the U.P. Back in the late 1800s, they caused social unrest in Finland that convinced thousands of Finns to flee their homeland. The Finns flocked here, having heard that the U.P. held plentiful mining jobs and lots of land to farm. Besides, it’s cold, the way they like it.

When Finns settled, oft-times the first structures they built were not houses, but saunas. The sauna provided everything families needed to survive. They found protection from the elements. They cooked on the stove. They slept on the benches. They bathed. Many families lived in the sauna through their first winter and would begin their houses come spring.

Finns are devoted to their saunas because they believe that sweating purifies the body from the inside out. The heat opens pores and allows toxins to flow from the body, they say. Finns who practiced blood letting in the sauna took the cleansing ethic a step further. They’d cut into a vein and drain blood into a cow’s horn, believing that this would expel even more toxins. Some people believe sauna bloodletting might even be secretly practiced today.

Where Finns settled in mining communities like Ishpeming, Marquette, Houghton and Ironwood, Finnish entrepreneurs would build public saunas. As recently as the ’50s there were dozens of such saunas in towns across the U.P., though most were clustered in the western half where Finns settled near copper and iron mines.

Weekly ritual included family walks to the sauna to cleanse with heat, sweat and warm water. “It was poor man’s therapy,” says Carl Pellonpaa, 68, the honorary consul of Finland in the U.P. He also founded and has hosted for 38 years the TV show “Finland Calling” (Suomi Kutsuu), the longest running, regularly scheduled, weekly ethnic television program in America.

Pellonpaa grew up in a section of Ishpeming called the Cleveland Location, a Finnish neighborhood for workers of the Cleveland Cliffs iron mine. As a
child, he remembers each Saturday his mom, dad, brothers and sisters packing towels and changes of underwear and walking a few blocks to Erkkila’s public sauna.

The whole Pellonpaa family could sauna for about a dollar. Other Finnish families bathed there too on Saturday nights. It was a time of gathering and sharing news. “After you were in the sauna, it took a long time to cool off, and it didn’t bother anybody walking home in the cold,” Pellonpaa says. How cold? That’d be 10, 20, even 30 degrees on the wrong side of zero.

Over the years, the public sauna tradition has dwindled and would be extinct if not for a few entrepreneurs, like Bruce Carlson, owner of Marquette’s Second Street Sauna. I meet him at 9 o’clock on a Saturday night, when he’s inspecting his sauna rooms. He bends over to pick up two beer cans left behind by a couple of sauna customers who, cleaned and combed, just headed out for a night on Marquette.

Carlson towels off the benches, tightens the steam knob on the sauna stove, peers into the dark corners of the room looking for litter. “I just want people to leave it the way they found it,” he says. He stands and absentmindedly wipes the sweat from his balding pate. In the background, steam rattles through pipes that feed stoves in the five saunas that make up his establishment. The scent of Ivory soap and cedar mingle in the damp air.

Opened in 1929, the Second Street Sauna is the longest continuously operating public sauna in Michigan, according to Carlson, and is possibly the only remaining year-round public sauna in the U.P. Carlson, a massage therapist, bought the place in 1987 and has been slowly remodeling ever since. He covered old plaster with cedar and gave an individual theme to each sauna: a dinosaur theme, a nautical theme (that’s a salmon skeleton in the fish net), a tree theme. It’s U.P. homey all the way.

Carlson charges $5 a person for 45 minutes of heat. “But if it’s not crowded, I let them go longer. I don’t want people in there thinking, ‘oh man, I got five minutes left, I better get sweating.’”

Snowstorms that shut down Marquette give the Second Street Sauna its busiest days. Neighbors ski, snowshoe or snowmobile over at all times of day and night. “They know I live upstairs and I’ll let ‘em in,” Carlson says.

Each private sauna suite has a changing room, a shower and the sauna itself. Some people like a dry sauna: just crank up the stove and don’t add water over the rocks. Others prefer what Carlson calls a “moisty.” That’s a steam sauna.

When Carlson saunas he sits for a few minutes in dry heat and then adds steam. “I get it as hot as I can stand it. Lots of steam. Really break a sweat,” he says. Then he steps into the shower and soaps up, washes his hair and rinses. Next, it’s back to the sauna. “I get that heat cranking again till I break another sweat.” That opens the pores and removes the soap residue and excess oils, according to Carlson. The final touch is to shower again with no soap and then dry off. “Here’s the secret to withstanding the intense heat,” Carlson says. He picks up a towel, dunks it in a bucket of cold water and then holds it over his mouth and nose. “When it gets too hot, breathe through the towel and it cools the air for your lungs.”

It works for me and helps me stay in the steam. Afterward, as I change in a room with dinosaurs on the wall, I feel squeaky clean, skin taught, maybe even lighter in spirit. But Brian, the photographer, says he has a headache. Bruce looks a little hurt and offers a free massage.

For Huffman, the high holy days on the sauna calendar have arrived. It’s the weekend of the Big Bay Ice Fishing Derby, when he meets friends at his Big Bay camp—the term Yoopers use for cabins—to fish, eat and bask in sauna tradition. For a dozen years, he lived outside the U.P., working near Detroit and then in Florida with the Army Corps of Engineers. It was in part the sauna tradition that brought him back.

To keep sauna in his life when he was away, Huffman searched out recreation centers, Vic Tannys, marinas, saunas in friends’ homes. He found saunas in the most basic sense—small rooms with heaters—but he didn’t find the authentic sauna ritual he craved. “They all had electric stoves, not wood burning. They weren’t rustic. It wasn’t the same thing,” Huffman says. “A lot of them that I saw got used once or twice a year. It was just another thing they had to have to make their house complete.”

Out on the lake, Huffman’s high school pal Steve Hampton has spent 10 hours huddled in an ice shanty angling for a lunker to win the Big Bay derby. No luck so far. But Hampton’s world is good regardless, because dinner and Huffman’s Big Bay sauna await. Hampton’s work—he teaches high school math—lies at the farthest reaches of his thought. He climbs on his snowmobile and, with the orange and aqua hues of sunset coloring the sky, lays a track back ashore to Fred’s camp.

While Steve fished, I helped Fred dig through three feet of snow to open the sauna door and stoke the stove. Smoke now drifts from the stack, but a couple hours must pass before the temperature reaches 200 degrees.

In the cabin, Hampton cleans fish, grabs another can of Labatt’s, and adds the filets to a bowl of more than a hundred other perch filets sitting on the counter. He breads them, throws them in a deep-fryer basket and eases them into the oil. Bustling outside, he checks the barbecue coals and lays on the grill 15 filet mignons wrapped in bacon—for five people. Spoke, Steve’s dog, will eat whatever’s left.

Midway through dinner, neighbor Dennis Humpula drops in. After a couple of polite refusals, he slides a filet mignon front and center. He says that he has three saunas: one at home in Marquette, one at his lake camp next door and one at his hunting camp halfway to Escanaba. He also built the sauna for Fred’s other next-door neighbors, Hank and Sy. Above their sauna door, a sign reads Sy’s Kitchen. See, Sy wanted a new kitchen, but Hank wanted a sauna.

An hour later, the food is gone—the dog got nothing. We head outside to the sauna, every few steps sinking mid thigh in snow. Stars shimmer above. We strip in the changing room that’s in the sauna and head into the heat. An old bait bucket and ladle—each tinted orange with mineral deposits—stand ready with water for when time comes to add steam.

Chitchat and quiet moments pass, and then Steve recalls a memorable sauna day. He met an old friend named Michael at the Thunder Bay Inn. “He invited me to his camp in the backcountry down Clear Creek Road. We got to Michael’s and we started shooting pistols. It was just fantastic—.357 magnums, .44 magnums. We spent the whole afternoon firing away. He had targets everywhere. More than 200 rounds each. Then we took a sauna.” He sighs. “A wood fired sauna.” Silence settles as the men reflect on this shimmering shard of U.P. life. After a minute, Steve adds. “Never done that before, shot 200 pistol rounds.” Silence.

Fred’s turn. “I talk about the social aspects of the sauna,” he says. “But I tell you, some of the best times I’ve ever had in the sauna have been by myself right in here at one thirty in the morning when I come back from the Lumberjack [a tavern in Big Bay]. I’ll go in the sauna—I’ll have fired it up before I left. Then I’ll stoke it up when I get back. I take my clothes off and go in there for a half-hour. Then I’ll go down to the end of the dock. It’s one of these brilliant nights when there’s nothing but stars over Lake Independence and the Huron Mountains. I’m just like in heaven. It’s complete

For over 30 years the staff at Traverse Magazine has written about the history and natural world of our region.

Photo(s) by Brian Confer