Craving some warmth? Try a 180-degree backyard sauna
Nils Shenholm lives in an 1850s farmhouse at the top of a steep road in Duxbury. For the past 30 years, he’s made a living building saunas in the Finnish tradition. And recently, he invited me to try out the sauna in his backyard, to help us kick off the Vermont Public newsroom's "Heat" series.
Shenholm's list of what to bring with me is short: bathing suit, towel, water bottle, and a cloth to wipe my face.
We patter out the farmhouse's back door onto the snow. A short path takes us to the first sauna he ever built — a little red and green wood building with a gabled roof and small porch. He completed it in 1990, and it's still going strong.
"It’s a low door, so don’t forget to duck," he warns me as we step in.
Inside, a little wood stove is churning out intense heat. "Anywhere in the 180-190 [degrees Fahrenheit] range, you’re right in the sweet spot," he says. "And if you do it on a routine basis, you really need that. Like, right now it feels a little on the wimpy side."
He ladles water onto stones on top of the wood stove. A wave of steam wafts up, spreads across the ceiling, and slowly descends down.
At this point, we’re both pouring sweat. My heart rate kicks up a notch.
Shenholm seems like he could withstand any amount of heat, but he says he does have a limit. "Anything above around 205 [degrees Fahrenheit], and the hair inside my nose starts to feel like it’s on fire," he tells me. "And I don’t really like that. You have to mouth breathe, which is lame."
After about 15 minutes of schvitzing, we take a short break and go stand outside in the snow. Then, it’s right back in.
Once you settle into the sauna experience, all five of your senses kick into full gear. There's the woody smell of the stove, punctuated by the slight scent of your own sweat. The taste of cool water, a memory. The sounds of flames rumbling, and wood crackling. The creep of sweat rising from your pores. The sunlight peeking in from the windows.
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Sauna culture came to the U.S. via the Finns. People swear by the associated health benefits, including relieving stress and tension. It also creates a way to socialize and relax in places with long, dark winters.
"The winter blahs — winter can be hard," Shenholm says. "This is more than a refuge and a release and a rejuvenation. It’s a whole mindset."
Shenholm had his first, formative sauna experience at a YMCA in Maine back in the 1970s. He now runs his own design and build company, Solhem Sauna, from his workshop in Duxbury, where he builds saunas for private clients and consults on larger projects. He saw a swell of interest in sauna culture when the pandemic started, and it hasn’t let up. He's already booked out through the end of 2024.
"It makes a difference in people’s lives, absolutely," Shenholm says. "It’s definitely made a huge difference in my life."
When we’re done, we go outside, and Shenholm pours a bucket of cool water over my head. It feels amazing — less like a polar plunge (another recent trend), and more like purification.
We look out on the snow for a few minutes. Then, the familiar winter chill starts to spread again, up through my toes. It’s time to head in.
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