Yukonomist: Call of the Sauna Queen


Have you been pondering your future over the summer? You’ve successfully coaxed the lawn back to life, finished that book you started last winter and relaxed with friends and family on the deck, but something still feels missing?

I have a suggestion.

You should re-invent yourself, just a bit. Become a Sauna Queen.

I was first introduced to the concept of the Sauna Queen in an old Tsarist-era Russian bathhouse in Moscow. A dozen Russian and foreign biznesmen and I trooped into a large sauna, looking forward to some heat before dipping into hot, medium and cold plunge baths.

The sweat was flowing nicely when things took a turn for the weird. A large Russian man with a special felt sauna hat and an enormous potbelly stood up and turned to face us, the towel around his waist somehow defying gravity. He paused for a second to survey the group and adjust his sauna hat.

Then he barked some instructions in Russian we couldn’t understand and dumped a huge bucket of water on the hot rocks. An instant mushroom cloud of steam shot to the ceiling. He produced another towel and swung it vigorously over his head. He roared as he swung his towel just below the ceiling like a helicopter rotor, driving the steam down onto the rest of us.

The other biznesmen and I screamed and dove for cover, some crawling on the floor for the exit.

A few excruciating seconds later, we all were fully steamed and smiles replaced the looks of panic. It was time for the three plunge baths and, eventually, shrimp, beer and wild tales of the Russian stock market.

Since that moment, I have learned that there are many ways to be a Sauna Queen. Some are friendly sauna guides, constantly fretting to get the heat and steam just right for their friends. Some are heat fiends, reveling in stories of plastic thermometers melting off the walls. Others insist on sauna closure, demanding the opportunity to roll in the snow or dip through a hole chopped in the ice.

Two summers ago, on the banks of a Yukon river, our Sauna Queen worked all day tending a fire to heat rocks. We rolled them into a pit, huddled under a tarp and applied the water. When the screaming was over, our Sauna Queen threw back the tarp and led the dash to the river, his eyes glinting with messianic fervour.

If Whitehorse was located in Scandinavia, there would probably be 10 times more saunas in town. Many North Americans think of saunas as wooden boxes where you get too hot, show off a bit too much sweaty skin to acquaintances and then get peer-pressured into rolling in the snow.

But just as there are many ways to be a Sauna Queen, there are also many different kinds of sauna.

On the easier end, you can make an outing of it and go to the sauna at the Canada Games Centre or the new spa at Takhini Hot Springs.

Spas from Germany to Las Vegas are taking the sauna experience in new directions with a trend known as aufguss. This involves a combination of aromatic oils, wellness buzzwords and performance art. The sauna may have neon lights and pulsing music, with the Sauna Queen performing an elaborate rhythmic dance with towels.

At the other end of the spectrum is buying a tarp and some steel tongs to move red-hot rocks.

You can also go online and order delivery of a Westinghouse two-person Infrared Sauna, a kind of big wooden telephone booth designed to be easily installed in your home. Regularly $3,199.99, but currently $500 off at Best Buy.

If you really want to be your own Sauna Queen, however, you should build your own sauna. There are lots of clever designs online, ranging from simple 8’x8’ boxes to more elaborate options. If you are on grid, you can go with safe and convenient electric heaters.

You can also build a rustic classic at the cabin with a (carefully installed) wood stove.

As Sauna Queen, you will also get to decide which weird foreign customs to adopt in your sauna. Russian sauna hats? Bathing suits or au naturel? Slapping your friends with bundles of aromatic birch branches, like the Finns, to stimulate the circulation?

Or perhaps you can decide to leave the weirdness to our European friends and simply build a nice deck to relax on as you cool down.

You can enjoy saunas year round in the Yukon. However, building them is a summer job. So if being a Sauna Queen is on your bucket list, you should get started.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.