Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sigurd Olson and his sauna

At the Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards in Duluth in late May, I had the good fortune to be placed next to Kristin Eggerling who’d been nominated for her children’s biography “Breath of Wilderness: The Life of Sigurd Olson.” 

We chatted, found common ground (both graduates of Augsburg College!) — and exchanged books.

How serendipitous to be reminded of Sigurd Olson’s contributions to the north woods.

After devouring her book, I looked on my shelves — and found 2 copies of “Singing Wilderness.” The public library had them all. I chose “Runes of the North,” a collection of legends, reflections and adventures following voyageur trails in the Quetico-Superior to Hudson Bay, Yukon and Alaska.

Of course Sig Olson had something to say about saunas: a whole chapter in “Runes.” 

I liked how he built his sauna — primitive, “one step removed from the first excavations in the hillsides of Finland.” He nestled his 10-by-10-foot log structure in a grove of cedars and aspens, among the birds and paved a trail to the lake with large mossy stones.

And I loved his lyrical recounting of a September sauna with his son, selecting spruce to burn, cedar for switches. They enjoyed the full course — three steams, three swims in the lake, enjoying the temperature differences.

“The water was like silk to us and we did not feel the cold, were conscious only of floating without effort and drifting in a medium as warm as our own bodies.”

Afterwards, they finished a pot of coffee noticing the changing light of the sunset on the water, the smoky smell mixed with cedar, the loons' wild laughing and mournful calls, the breeze ruffling the trees, a sliver of new moon and a few stars.

“There was nothing of great moment to talk about, but within us was a feeling of well-being in which the affairs of the world seemed far away and unimportant. Ours was a sense of fullness and belonging to a past of simple ways. … This was the time of magic when the world was still, the the feel of dawns and of awakenings at night, of hush and quiet. Life was simple and complete.”

Perfectly said.

Plus, he began — and ended — his book with quotes from the Kalevala.