Minnesota News

Finnish cultural tradition of sauna gains steam in Minnesota

Megan Kress, an owner of Sauna du Nord
Megan Kress, an owner of Sauna du Nord, talks to sauna-goers about the sauna process on April 28 in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Brooke Wetmore steps out of a sauna built on a small trailer that's parked outside a cross country ski chalet in Duluth. Inside, it's 190 degrees. Outside? 40 and rainy.

Steam rises from her shoulders as she walks down to Amity Creek, swollen with spring snowmelt. 

As people cheer her on, she wades into the creek, slowly lays down backwards and dunks her head in the rushing water. 

“That felt really good!” she says as she steps out, breathing hard. “I like that it pushes your bounds. It’s also wonderful when it’s just cold outside and you can feel the warmth in your bones.”

Cooling off outside in a sports bra, Danielle Tikalsky of Duluth said she appreciates the community she finds in sitting on a sauna bench with friends, and even strangers. 

“It’s kind of like the equivalent of sitting around a campfire. You get that nice toasty warm, but in a way that leaves you super refreshed. You walk out and you just can’t help being in a good mood,” Tikalsky said.  

Natalie Christian enjoys a quite moment in the waters
Natalie Christian enjoys a quiet moment in the waters of Amity Creek on April 28 after spending time inside the mobile sauna Sauna du Nord in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

After several minutes, they both step back inside the sauna that's owned by Megan Kress, who started her business Sauna du Nord in October. 

She spent $30,000 to have the mobile sauna custom built. Now she trailers it to community saunas like this one, and also does private rentals.

Kress says she didn't quite realize just how many people are interested in experiencing a sauna until she took part in a mobile sauna village at the Great Northern Festival in Minneapolis this winter. 

“They had 1,500 people go through in the first weekend, and I just sort of said, ‘Holy cow. What have I done?’ So yeah, I didn't know I was on the wave until I looked around and realized, ‘I am riding this wave.’”

Nickolas Monson works on a sauna
Nickolas Monson works on a sauna on April 28 at Cedar and Stone Nordic Sauna in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Kress is one of many self-described “saunapreneurs” who have started sauna-related businesses in the past few years all around Minnesota. The startups are offering sauna experiences on hotel rooftops, on the shore of Lake Superior, and on trailers in front of businesses. They're also building saunas for customers — in homes, backyards and even out of tents. 

“I think there’s a renaissance happening,” said Justin Juntunen, founder of Cedar and Stone Nordic Sauna in Duluth, which hosts a public sauna on the Duluth Harbor and also builds custom saunas for people around the country. 

“Sauna has the potential to do what yoga has done in the past 10-15 years, from this crunchy, niche thing, to now there's a yoga studio in every neighborhood of every city and in many small towns. Sauna is doing a similar thing," he said. 

Leif Gilsvik reacts to the cooler temperatures outside
Leif Gilsvik reacts to the cooler temperatures outside Sauna du Nord on April 28 in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The ‘epicenter’ of sauna

While interest in saunas has really heated up in the past several years, Glenn Auerbach has been a sauna evangelist in Minnesota for more than three decades, ever since he first experienced taking a Finnish sauna and jumping in the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea while traveling in northern Europe as a college student. 

“For me, sauna is physical, it's mental, it's spiritual. It's this beautiful practice that just really resonates,” explained Auerbach.

When he returned to Minnesota, he built his first sauna on an island on Lake Vermillion. Then, in the early 1990s, he built one in his Minneapolis backyard. 

“At the time that was unique. No one was really doing that. All my neighbors thought I was crazy. And ironically, now they all want a seat on the sauna bench,” Auerbach said.  

Auerbach launched the website Sauna Times in 2008 and published an e-book guide to building your own backyard sauna. 

A model sauna unit as seen
A model sauna unit is seen on April 28 behind the headquarters of Cedar and Stone Nordic Sauna in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Auerbach said he first noticed a real surge in interest in sauna about seven years ago, when researchers published several peer-reviewed studies suggesting that sauna bathing may be linked to several health benefits, including a reduction in fatal heart disease, high blood pressure and dementia. 

“And so, what you had were people jumping on the health bandwagon of sauna, and then it became exponential when COVID hit.”

Auerbach said that’s when backyard sauna building really took off. He found himself shipping his e-book all across the country, to Texas, Florida, the Carolinas, California — far beyond his typical markets in the Upper Midwest and Northeast. 

And now, Auerbach said, the “cold plunge” trend, where people submerge themselves in ice-cold water, is kindling even more interest in sauna, which has in turn sparked a rapid growth in sauna-related businesses in Minnesota.

“In our climate in Minnesota, with our ethnic background and 10,000 Lakes, we have this excellent environment to make good sauna,” he said. “I'm just super proud of the ‘saunapreneuers’ in the business of bringing good heat to others. This is the epicenter.” 

A group of people talk and enjoy the mobile sauna
A group of people talk and enjoy the mobile sauna, Sauna du Nord on April 28 in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Stress Relief

The fresh scent of cedar permeates the air in the offices of Cedar and Stone Nordic Sauna in Duluth, a small business that encapsulates the sauna industry’s rapid growth. 

The company started just before the pandemic, offering public sauna experiences along Lake Superior. Now the company also designs and builds high-end saunas at its shop in Duluth that are shipped all over the country. They’ve delivered 30 saunas so far, by truck, barge and even crane. 

“We're in a sense just a stress relief company. We just destroy anxiety every day and we do that through sauna,” said founder Justin Juntunen. 

Their average project last year cost about $60,000, Juntunen said. And they can't keep up with demand. They have a six-month waiting list. They've grown to 24 employees. They host thousands of people every year at a public sauna they built on the Duluth Harbor outside the Pier B Resort Hotel. 

Two person swimming
Elena Gilsvik (bottom) emerges from the waters of Amity Creek while her husband Leif Gilsvik cheers her on April 28 in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

This summer, they plan to unveil what they believe will be the first public floating sauna on a barge on the harbor, where guests can step out of the sauna and immediately plunge into Lake Superior. 

Cedar and Stone even offers a six-month training program for new sauna entrepreneurs, “Where they learn the ins and outs of how to host people, how to do it safely,” Juntunen explained. “That's been really fun. We're graduating our 55th business out of that later this summer.”

The heating up of the sauna industry is being felt way up in Tower, Minn., where Lamppa Manufacturing has been making wood-burning sauna stoves since the 1930s, when Garrett Lamppa’s great grandfather built them for Finnish immigrants. 

For years, he said, the company sold 80-100 stoves a year. Now he said they sell more than 500 annually, all around the country. 

“We’re five times bigger than we were five years ago,” said Lamppa. 

In Minneapolis, John Pederson co-founded Stokeyard Outfitters in 2017, which operates three mobile saunas and also offers public sauna experiences on the rooftop of the Hewing Hotel downtown. 

Pederson said business was booming before the pandemic. He thought he might have to change careers when COVID hit. “It came back so much faster than I ever expected,” he said. 

Pederson also co-founded the 612 Sauna Society in 2016. He and others raised money through a Kickstarter campaign to build a cooperatively owned mobile sauna.

Kirk Jensen, a volunteer board member for the group, said there are now 260 members who each pay a $250 membership fee, for which they get reduced rates and advanced bookings. 

He said the group is at a “tipping point,” and is talking about expanding to a second sauna. Jensen said it’s become a part of people’s weekly routines. 

“I see the same people every Sunday night for sauna. It’s just something they put on their calendar, like book club or a bowling league. It’s doing something that’s good for your body and feels good, and the whole social aspect of just conversing and hanging out.” 

That’s why sauna entrepreneurs in Minnesota don’t think the surge in interest in sauna is a passing wellness fad. They see it as a wave that has yet to crest.

“America is trying to become more healthy. And this is a really interesting way to do it,” said Juntunen. "And it feels good. Like there is that moment of euphoria after a sauna and you pop out of the cold plunge, and you feel more alive.”

Condensation rolls down one of the windows
Condensation rolls down one of the windows in a changing room inside the mobile sauna Sauna du Nord on April 28 in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News
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