Winter Play!

Winter Play: Melting the stress of frigid cold at a Minnesota bath house

Two people smile while soaking in a pool
MPR News reporter Simone Cazares (right) and producer Samantha Matsumoto soak in the warm water pool at Watershed Spa in Minneapolis on Jan. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The cold river air blowing across the snow bites as we walk through northeast Minneapolis to our Winter Play assignment.

While other reporters chose to try outdoor adventures such as fat biking, dog sledding and even ice dipping, we decided to go the indoor route by checking out one of Minnesota’s newest bathhouses: Watershed Spa. 

Many cultures celebrate the spiritual and restorative aspects of steaming, sweating and plunging. From Native American sweat lodges, Finnish saunas and Korean jjimjilbangs, bath houses have a long history in Minnesota.

Now they are enjoying a new surge in popularity with over two dozen sauna businesses opening across the state in recent years. 

While there isn’t much data on the physical health benefits they provide, the New York Times reports an increase in sauna use post-pandemic has become a movement of fans who see the therapeutic health benefits in their own lives.

The bathing process

Watershed operates in the basement of the former historic Soap Factory building and our visit started with a quick tour from owner Nell Rueckl, who broke down the bathing process for us first-timers.

“If you think about it from how your skin behaves, you can do a full wash and you can do a scrub beforehand too,” she said. “But a scrub at the end is really great because your skin has been soaking, steaming, sauna-ing and detoxing so salt works really well for that as well. Then you're going to rinse and I recommend 10 to 12 minutes in the pools.”

Lounge chairs sit in a bathhouse
The cold water and warm water pools "really [help] reset the nervous system and kind of get you back in your body," staff say.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Since Watershed opened Rueckl has been learning how customers prefer to move through the process. She has her own routine too.

“One thing I'm noticing when people get in the pool is, it really helps reset the nervous system and kind of get you back in your body,” she said. “Then you can pick whether you want to steam or sauna next. I usually head into the steam for two cycles of the steam and sometimes if I'm not warm enough, I'll head into the sauna for a few minutes and then the cold plunge.”

And then she says, she goes back for more.

“Usually my second cycle doesn't behave the same way. I'll get back into pools, maybe not for as long and then I'll head to the sauna for a little while, and steam, depending on what I choose to do.”

Our orientation complete, we went straight to the changing rooms.

Watershed Spa requires visitors to wear bathing suits, but athletic clothing works well too. We felt most comfortable wearing a tank top and shorts for our visit.

This is how it went.

Two people walk through a bathhouse
MPR News reporter Simone Cazares, right, and producer Samantha Matsumoto walk through the bathhouse on Jan. 27 to escape the bitter cold.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Step one: Shower

First we headed to the showers to rinse off and set our intentions for the day. There’s a small tub full of salt you can use to scrub down before or after getting in the pools.

This was the first time either of us had ever been inside a bathhouse. It took us a few minutes to get in the zone. But with the warm water and a few deep breaths, we were ready to get started.

Step two: Soak

Two people soak in a pool lit by purple and blue lights
MPR News reporter Simone Cazares (right) and producer Samantha Matsumoto soak in the warm water pool on Jan. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Next we soaked.

It’s essentially a hot tub, just without the distraction of the loud jets. Set at 104 degrees, the water felt great compared to the cold winter air as we walked to the spa.

We took our time sitting in the pool and watching projections of falling snow floating down the walls (much more relaxing than the real white stuff outside). It also felt nice to float on our backs for a while.

Step three: Sauna

Two people sit in a wood sauna
MPR News reporter Simone Cazares (left) and producer Samantha Matsumoto take to the sauna next at Watershed Spa on Jan. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

We decided to take on the sauna next.

The room was warmly lit and we sat in the far back corner where it was hottest. Drying off in the hot sauna after getting out of the warm pool felt great. Before we left we added a little bit of water to the coals to see how hot the room would get.

It was a precursor to what came next.

Step four: Steam

Steam obscures the figures of two people
MPR News reporter Simone Cazares (left) and producer Samantha Matsumoto immerse themselves in the steam room on Jan. 27 (take our word for it!)
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Even with our experiment dripping water on the coals in the sauna, it was nothing compared to the steam room.

It was extremely humid. When we walked in we could barely see a thing and the water dripped off our skin. Rueckl recommended we stay in for two cycles of steam. Once we acclimated the steam felt good, despite being heavy to breathe.

After a while though, we were ready to cool off.

Step five: Cold Plunge

A person holds their nose as they plunge into a pool
MPR News reporter Simone Cazares plunges into the cold water soaking pool post-steam on Jan. 27.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The final step to the bathing process was the cold plunge.

Having learned the water temperature is set at 58 degrees, both of us were a little nervous about getting in. The ice-dippers will scoff, but water felt frigid.

We both lasted just a few seconds before getting out and it took us a few seconds to catch our breath afterwards. Rueckl insists the more cycles you complete the longer you’re able to stay in the pool.

So we tried again, and after dipping in the pool a few times we felt energized and ready to repeat the process again.

Final thoughts

We went through the cycle a second time on our own.

Neither of us typically budget for going to the spa, but we agreed we had benefited from our time at Watershed and would go back again.

As Minnesota transplants from Oregon and Florida we also think it’s important to acknowledge that adjusting to Minnesota winters can be a challenge.

For us, picking an outdoor adventure was not something we were comfortable with, and we’re OK with that. We enjoyed taking a little break from the cold and felt more ready to continue on with winter afterwards. 

A microphone stands over a pool while two people swim
MPR News reporter Simone Cazares (right) and producer Samantha Matsumoto relish in another soak.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

If you go

Where: Watershed Spa in northeast Minneapolis, 514 Second Street SE.

When: Year round, although the spa is often booked at least a month out during winter

Length: Watershed spa offers three-hour reservations for its bathing ritual.

How much: The bath experience at Watershed Spa costs $54. You can also add on other bath and traditional spa services for an additional fee. 

What to bring: Swimsuits are required. Visitors are also welcome to wear shorts and athletic clothing. Watershed Spa provides towels, sandals and drinking water.

A closeup of a pool's rippling surface
Water ripples in the cold water soaking pool in the bathhouse.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
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