Sauna Amid The Mountains

March 22, 2014:

View over Kluane Lake toward Sheep Mountain

View over Kluane Lake toward Sheep Mountain

A warning to the reader:

For you picture perusers out there, this is the last picture you will see in this blog post. So if you are only into looking at the pictures, my suggestion is to turn back now. I promise that more pictures are soon to come from beautiful Haines, Alaska. However, if you are looking for a good story and some lovely scenes painted in words, please forge ahead.

From Squirrel Camp it’s about a 30 minute drive to Base Camp, which sits on the edge of Kluane Lake.  Officially known as  the “Kluane Lake Research Station”, this time of year Base is mostly deserted- although we come here often in the summer to play frisbee with the researchers and students that live and work at Base. We have been warned that it is a good 10-15 minute walk to the sauna so we are all bundled up in snow pants and jackets, under which we wear warm loose layers to cover our bathing suits and other sauna clothing of choice. Our walk takes us past now-abandoned buildings and shacks that will spring to life with the coming of summer, but now sit dark and cold, their plastic windows catching the last faint rays of colour from the setting sun. Through the trees to our left we catch glimpses of Kluane Lake. The actual shoreline, where water meets land is obscured by the continuous white landscape of snow and ice. By this time the sun has set and the mountains are darkened by shadow, the once vibrant pink and purple sky smudged like a bruise above the peaks.  We wend our way through snow now deep enough to make me breathe heavy. We have brought three sleds loaded down with wood, but the sleds easily toss and tip in our new-cut path and I am stopping every third step to pick up a piece of wood that has fallen from the sled in front of me. So even though my snowshoes dangle from my right hand, I am loath to stop and put them on, as it would mean displacing everything that’s in my arms.

The sauna, when we reach it, is dark and cold and not easily reconcilable with a place that we will soon sit nearly naked in. The stove looks precarious at best- an old red pot bellied thing with stones strapped half on top and falling down the sides with what looks like chicken fencing. The pipe is a patched together affair of metal scraps and I am uncertain if it will keep the fire in and let the smoke out. It seems unlikely and I imagine roasting to death in this little dark shack- a two and a half hour drive and 15 minute walk from the middle of anywhere. But I light a fire anyway, laying it log cabin style and within ten minutes it is blazing merrily. But apparently I know little and less about proper sauna fires because Kristen adds six or seven more pieces of wood on top of the seven I already have burning. My fears about burning to death skyrocket.

The majority of the group runs down to the lake laughing and tripping over the snow while they wait for the sauna to warm. Lisa and I hang back watching the last vestiges of light over the mountains and listening to their laughter float high around us. All else is still and silent. Even though the group has not gone that far from the sauna the still appear as tiny silhouettes against the vast expanse of frozen lake and the darkening mountains that rise behind them. They start running back to us suddenly and I find myself wishing fiercely that they would stay and maintain that moment of absolute perfect stillness- five figures tangled amid the branches of aspen in my vision, dark against light, tiny and insignificant amid such a vast landscape. I can hear the crackle and pop of the fire behind me, but I don’t crave the warmth. I crave only this moment and the stillness around me.

Later on, when Speedy and Shannon arrive, I join them in romping down to the lake. Not far out from where I imagine the shoreline must be, the ice is buckled and heaved, forming a mini-range of “ice mountains” that parallels the shoreline. Now it is true twilight verging on night and the first few stars have begun to poke their heads out of the darkening sky. When I look back the way I came I can see the little hut peeking out of the forest- smoke and a few embers snaking their way into the night sky. I am struck, both by the fact that there is actually smoke coming out of the chimney and by the utter perfection of it. I could live here, I think for a moment. And it is not so much “here” as in this location, but “here” in this moment with the little cabin’s fire winking at me in the darkness, the mountains rising high and unfathomable above, and the stars just coming out to play. And I know just for this moment that this is what I was born to love- the light and the air and the darkness, and the promise that the untouched world holds, just dipping under the blanket of night.

Now chilled, we run back across the ice in the darkness, an awkward sort of gait, half stumbling through the snow and half plowing through it. By the time we get back everyone is already in the sauna and so we are left to brave the cold, stripping off layers as quickly as possible while stuffing them in pockets and crevices where we won’t lose them and they won’t end up full of snow. All the while we try to remain balanced on top of our boots to keep our bare feet out of the snow as long as possible. When our toes finally do hit the snow in our dash for the sauna door, it is excruciating- by far the worst part of being almost naked in -15° weather.  In the sauna I can barely hobble my way over to the bench my feet hurt so bad, and it takes a couple minutes for the warmth to start seeping in. But gradually I feel the heat and the steam in every pore. Shannon is throwing snow from a bucket on the stove that is glowing cherry hot, in part I think to prevent the stove from collapsing in on itself in a molten pot of metal, as well as to provide the steam for the sauna.

Within minutes, an hour, two hours, time loses all meaning amid the mind numbing heat, I start to feel the sweat slide down my body. That long awaited feel of slow cleansing. The slow, smooth, painfully slow roll of water over flesh that makes your skin feel alive. In the light of the candles I watch the water bead on my shoulder and watch it slide down my arm, curving to the muscle before disappearing into the darkness where my elbow should be.

The heat, deep, dark and utterly drenching permeates everything, every breath, every sigh, every languid stretch of arms and legs. I want to crawl into it at the same time that I want to stretch for the sky and feel the sweat run down me until I am nothing more that a puddle on the rough stone floor.

At some point I step outside, both for a breath of fresh air and to retrieve the water bottle that I left lying by my clothes. The sky is a veritable carpet of stars, so dense that you feel like perhaps the sky is more light than dark. Around you the steam rising off your body swirls like some essence of your being rising to the heavens, and the air is so crisp and clear that you feel like you can watch it rise for miles. I could stand there for hours (ok maybe minutes) if not for the pain in my feet that brings me running back inside. By the time I step back in the sauna my feet cramp so bad that I almost go to my knees.

Shortly after we blow out the candles and we breathe and laugh and sweat in the darkness. People stumble out for air and stumble back in, touching shoulders and hands to find their way back to a seat in the darkness. At some point I start to rub my legs and am horrified to feel layers of dead skin balling under my finders. I keep rubbing, hoping to peel away the last of the dead cells, but the skin keeps coming, until I am trying to wipe it off my hands in the darkness. But with all the sweat it just sticks to every part of me that I touch. I have quite suddenly gone from feeling cathartically clean to feeling unmistakably, irreversibly dirty. Now there is now way to wash this dead skin of me, and I would literally need to sweat buckets in order to wash it off myself. The though of putting on clothes and having to live with dead skin caked legs for the next week is revolting.

So I am more than a little relieved when Shannon says, half shyly, half laughing, “I can’t believe how much dead skin is coming off my legs.” I want to hoot, I want to holler, but I settle for laughing out loud and yelling “me too!”, perhaps a little too excitedly.  Amazingly almost every girl in the room is in agreement and we all share a good laugh, part embarrassment, part relief, and part pure disgust.

As the fire dies down I am dreading dragging my sweaty, wet body into the cold to pull icy clothes over a bathing suit that is as wet as if I have just gone for a swim. But after a brief sprint into the cold I am able to bring my clothes back inside and change in the warm darkness. It feels like an amazing luxury and almost unfair that I shouldn’t have to suffer through the cold in return for the spectacular heat.

Afterward Lisa and I walk quickly back to the car, banking on the fact that there is only one path to follow because in the dark I am unfamiliar with this landscape and have no way of knowing if I make a wrong turn. I am amazed at how much heat my body has retained. I am only wearing sweatpants and a heavy jacket over my top layers, not bothering to have pulled my snow pants on after my boots were laced. Yet I hardly feel the cold and my limbs move with a freeness of movement that I haven’t felt in days.

When we reach the car I have no interest in getting in. It feels like a metal trap after the freeness and vast openness of the past few hours. Instead I shut off my headlamp and stand staring at the stars. I can make out a few old friends- Orion, the Big Dipper, Canis Major. The Little Dipper is almost lost amid the vast milieu of pinpricks of light. I stand, and I breathe, and I smile. And eventually I get in the car.

By the time I reach our hut it is almost 1 am, an incredibly late night for squirrel camp. We were smart enough to preheat our hut before we left so now it is toasty as can be, the condensation sliding off the windows in rivulets that reminds me of my own sweat beading down my skin only hours before. My muscles are so relaxed and warm that my limbs feel like jelly. All the cold and tension from three weeks of tromping through snow has been eased and evaporated away. I curl into my sleeping bag, pulled close to the edges of my face that I know will soon be exposed to the cold, and fall into the soundest sleep that I’ve had in weeks.

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