Aaron Hautala is the photographer behind the University of MN Press book "The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna". The book was a project with writer Michael Nordskog.
Aaron recently joined us on the KAXE Morning Show to share his love story of saunas. You can hear his conversation here... and read his essay below.
During my youth in northern Minnesota, sauna was a Saturday night tradition at many homesteads, including the Hautala family household of Biwabik Township.
My earliest childhood memories center around sauna.
Sitting on the bottom bench in a bucket of water, I remember looking left, up over my shoulder, to where my older brother and father sat atop the highest bench, reveling in pride and accomplishment following every blast of steam.
My father’s voice still echoes in my head, almost singing as he bathed me in the sauna. “Got to get you clean, got to clean between your buns,” he sang. It’s the phrase I now sing with pride to my own son during bath time.
I recall my siblings taking great joy in the introduction of sauna to their babies, just weeks after birth. Rosy cheeks and all smiles, these babes would emerge from the sauna after their baptism with steam. Years later, they would emerge from the sauna naked, running all over the house in post-sauna delight.
I recall being introduced to the eternal concepts of Heaven and Hell in the sauna.
“If you think this is hot, just image what hell would feel like,” I can hear my father say.
After losing 23-0 in a squirt hockey game against Hoyt Lakes, sauna was my counselor. After winning the Minnesota State High School Hockey Championship in Minneapolis, we celebrated with sauna.
When home from college one frigid winter weekend, I walked outside naked at 46 below zero following sauna. It was bitter cold and cut like a knife, but the memories are warm.
Then one day, my career took me away from the North Woods and into Brainerd’s Lake Country. To my surprise, I made new friends who had never experienced sauna.
Looking back, I knew what sauna was about. But today, my vision has been refined. Sauna is larger than a wood fired outbuilding and deeper than an electric basement hot box.
During my three-year photographic journey with author Michael Nordskog creating The Opposite of Cold, my appreciation of sauna has been, and continues to be, reshaped and deepened. This understanding comes as a result of experiencing countless saunas across the globe, and through the friendship of wonderful people who are keepers of the sauna flame.
At the public steam sauna in Ely, we felt the tradition, the camaraderie, and the legacy of Saturday night saunas taken and enjoyed down through the decades by countless wilderness explorers and weekend warriors.
On the shores of Lake Superior near Grand Marais we were graced by the beauty of God’s creation, and the wonderful placement of a Scandinavian timber-frame sauna, which threatened to rival the setting.
In Makinen, Cokato, Embarrass, and New York Mills, the determination and sisu of our northern European forefathers is visually evident in every swipe the broad axe left on the historic savusauna walls.
In Duluth, overlooking Canal Park, we were greeted by the future of sauna in David Salmela’s architecture. His bright, bold, and clean sauna designs honor the original Finnish outbuilding while exploring modern forms.
In Bemidji, we visited with the fiery Finns of Salolampi at the Concordia Finnish Language Camp. They boldly honor the sauna tradition and annually re-ignite the Finnish language fire, enlightening youth and adults.
In Finland, we were baptized by steam for two weeks straight into the purity of traditional sauna. A time-honored belief grounds all that is sauna: No politics, no business, no religion in the sauna. If you’re going to talk, it must be about you only—personal and real.
I’ve been asked many times why sauna is so essential. And to this I had no adequate response. But now, after years of photography, countless conversations with sauna lovers from around the globe, and the release of this book, the answer has finally hit me.
Sauna isn’t a building,
Sauna isn’t heat.
Sauna isn’t sweat.
Sauna isn’t steam.
Sauna is life.
Sauna is story.
Sauna is family, safety, strength, nobility, and honor. Sauna is warmth mixed with humility and candor.
Sauna is respect and the cherished memories of those who no longer join us in the sauna.
Sauna is a way of life, a right of passage, and part of a rich, a warm history.
This winter season light the Saturday night sauna, stoke the stove, pour the water, and take in the steam whether in your own sauna, or that of a sauna friend.