My Varusteleka haul




I recently discovered the weird and wonderful Finnish military surplus store, Varusteleka. I've always had a soft spot for surplus. Wool is a great fabric and practical utilitarian clothing tends to be my style. The site often has pretty darn funny, self-effacing descriptions of certain items. (Take for example these now-sold-out Russian army surplus boots.) Plus being in Europe, they have access to more exotic items, particularly former East Block stuff. There's a brick and mortar store in Helsinki but they currently offer $10 flat-rate shipping to the U.S. This makes it hard to resist making orders even for clothing where the fit might be questionable.

Related to this blog, I was surprised to find a couple really useful items for my sauna/bathing/swimming enthusiasm. Here's what I scored:



Towels! 
These are almost certainly from the former socialist republic of Czechoslovakia. Being small they were definitely intended as institutional/military towels. They were designed to get men dried with industrial efficiency. One towel is just large enough to dry someone off. While a few in the batch I got are sort of a dimpled textured cotton, none are terry cloth. For some this may be a no-go. Most Americans these days take for granted a flat piece of fabric is not a towel. (Those who feel this way have not discovered the wonderful Turkish towel tradition of the peshtemal, but more on that later.) 

For me, however, this is exactly what makes them great: The small size means that they work well for fitting in travel bags. I can pack two if I go out to a friend's sauna or, when visiting a public sauna, I can save a few dollars on the towel fee. I always keep one in my shoulder bag now for impromptu swimming in the Willamette River or laps at the local community pool. Since they are not terry cloth, they air dry more quickly and therefore tend to not get as smelly. They all come with a little loop so I can hang them up at work for on-the-go drying.

Why else do I love these towels? A few of them are cotton. But most seem to be a linen blend. This makes them softer and more absorbent. A few I absolutely treasure, as they are almost certainly 100% linen. They have a subtle sheen that is similar to my fancy vintage estate sale dinner napkins. They are silky smooth on the skin. Deelish!!!

It took about two and a half weeks for the box to arrive from Finland. Opening it up, I encountered a mysterious and compelling bouquet. Partly it was that characteristic military surplus odor. (What is that anyway? Rotting rubber?) This was mingled with a cloying but exotic Third-World-ish floral detergent fragrance. Bleech!!! I had to wash them all. Unfortunately, this messed up how they had arrived perfectly laundered and pressed. Since many of the towels are linen (or have a high linen content) they needed to be ironed. It's a huge time suck but I get an odd relaxing satisfaction with ironing these. (Maybe, if I keep buying them, I'll have to invest in an industrial pressing mangle?)

I ordered a fair number, all told I have somewhere around 50 now. Am I out of control? My intention is for them to live at the family cabin in Alaska. They can be used for the sauna there. The towels' inherent efficiency will work well for this purpose: They won't take up too much space. I can store a number of them in case we have guests and they will be easy to wash and identify as designated "sauna" towels. There will be enough so some can stay in rotation even while dirty ones are in Anchorage getting laundered.

Don't hate me! I may have bought them all out. There is however this Hungarian version still in stock--another small towel with hanging loop. They're just maybe not linen but still great!

Sandals!
One difficult lesson I've learned with "sauna-ing" in Alaska is that you really need proper footwear when standing outside in the snow. For my Dad's urban Anchorage sauna, to cool off we usually run around in the back alley. It's relatively private and/or it's fun to, on rare occasions, alarm the new neighbors or tourists with nudity. There's a vacant lot to roll in the snow and the alley is a good place to move around and air out as you cool off, getting the core temperature down for the next sauna hot cycle.

Over the years I've toughened myself up (or gotten used to) dunking in extremely cold water or giving myself snow baths. In fact I love this and saunas just don't feel as good without it. But the one thing I can't get used to is having my bare feet freeze while standing on ice or snow. Oddly enough, it's ok to be completely naked in even subzero temperatures but with bare feet on ice, it doesn't take long for them to hurt really badly even if it's comparatively warm out.


photo credit: Varusteleka.com

Whenever I visit Alaska somehow I never seem to have the right footwear for the sauna. I've often settled for awkwardly slipping into a pair of Sorel boots or lace-up shoes just so I have something to wear in the snow. Then I found these sandals at Varustelka. Sure I could pick up some dollar store flip-flops or maybe some no-name Crocs but these are just too cool! Being army fatigue green, my feet will be camouflaged if shit gets real. The Russian star and Cyrillic writing on the sole adds proper pro-level banya street cred to my sweat bathing. I've ordered enough to have a small sandal army for the saunas in Anchorage and at the cabin. No more frozen feet and we will be bathing in style! Plus they fit great: They're easy to slip on and off and they stay on my feet comfortably.  

I can imagine lots of Finns buying these for just the same purpose. I bet they are popular so the site seems to restock them in small quantities so they don't all sell out at once. Good luck grabbing some.





Sauna inspired, not dog-tired, A rememberance of the Green Tortoise sauna




There are a few saunas that stand out as "most-famous" in the United States. Up near the top is one from the post-1960s American counterculture scene. This is the Green Tortoise sauna at Cow Creek, Oregon. In the 1980s up into the 2000s, two different saunas here were frequented by tens of thousands of travelers.

Today most people know of the Green Tortoise as two hostels, one in Seattle (Pike's Place Market) and the other in San Francisco (North Beach). They are noted for their laid-back anti-consumerist ethos and cooperative community spirit. But the hostels grew out of what was once the Green Tortoise's primary business: an alternative travel bus service. The main route went between Los Angles and Seattle. (Buses still run but they are now exclusively for "adventure travel," excursions to specific destinations like Alaska, Yosemite, or Baja.) Sometime in the early 1990s I traveled this West Coast route, starting in San Jose (I think) to Portland. Back then fliers for this particular line peppered college campuses, record stores and food coops up and down the West Coast.

Here's what I remember: After a long nighttime journey the bus arrived early in the morning at some midway point. I woke up to see we had turned off of Interstate 5 and were driving into the woods. I was disoriented and a little alarmed. Weird! What was going on here? Were we being abducted? Someone allayed my fears, explaining that we were headed to a secluded camp--owned and maintained by the Green Tortoise--about 10 minutes off of I5. The land was purchased specifically so it could be used as a rest/layover space. I'd later find out that this was just inside the Oregon side of the California/Oregon boarder in Cow Creek, Oregon.

Eventually the bus rumbled up a narrow dirt driveway, tree branches crowding in and brushing the sides. We stopped in a spot surrounded by woods. I was still bleary-eyed and groggy. In spite of it still being pretty early, the travelers piled out of the bus. The experienced knew what to do and you could tell they were looking forward to it. They made a beeline for the sauna! Modest, shy and unfamiliar, somehow I knew that I needed this. I followed some people through a forest path to the river and the sauna. I overcame my trepidation and off came the clothes and I crawled in.

I'm not sure if I remember weed or chanting or drumming. I do remember the shared experience of the serenity of the space and the slow awakening of mind and body as my temperature rose and the sweat began to roll. We listened to the water hissing on the rocks and watched the billowing of the steam through the narrow rays of morning light coming through a crack in the door. Then came the river plunge. Cow Creek is really more of a river and there is ample room to swim in a bend. A number of people were lounging on a sandy beach. Unfortunately I wasn't sure of the process and I didn't want to miss the bus, so I missed out on more than one hot to cold cycle.

We ate our breakfast (partly prepared by our fellow travelers), helped clean up, and we were on our way, headed north through the Willamette Valley to Portland. Thanks to the good food and the rawness of morning bathing in a sauna and swimming in a cold wild river, I was delightfully awake and alive. Looking out the window I physically felt and understood the famous Green Tortoise sales line: "Arrive inspired, not dog tired."

That was my experience. Maybe if I was older I would have appreciated the wondrous location more: the clean air, the isolated natural setting, the wild river and the amazing communal sauna. But recently I got to re-visit the spot. Using my Tinygogo press credentials (bah!!!), I contacted the illustrious Gardner Kent, the founder of the Green Tortoise franchise. I asked if I could pay a visit to Cow Creek to help memorialize the sauna. Gardner was super cool and accessible and I got the green light. (Thanks, man!)


The Cow Creek encampment is still remarkably preserved. The geodesic dome where the travelers disembarked and meals were served is still standing. The covering is gone now though. 



I was put in contact with Debi Sulliven. "Tortoise Deb" arrived at the property in 1999 and hasn't really ever left. Even though the buses no longer run, she remains on as one of the property caretakers. She helps keep the place up and today it is an amazing time capsule of the bus route's glory days. At night around a camp fire Deb told tales of the Green Tortoise's heyday.

Like clock work, buses would arrive four days a week. There were two morning days and two evening days. The travelers' layover was a leisurely three hours (longer than I remembered), 7 am to 10 am and 7 pm to 10 pm. Shortly before arrival it was always crazy busy. The prep work required of just a few people could be intense. There were two fires to build, one in the dome where people were fed and one on the beach by the river. Food needed to be prepped and cooked (though, travelers were expected to help with the meal prep and clean up.)

Deb related that the Green Tortoise operation was proud of the quality of the food that was served. Typically for breakfast there were pancakes, fruit salad and tea or coffee. The pancakes were made with real butter and real maple syrup. Dinner might include seasonal fish, steamed vegetables, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, tossed green salad. Pies were made by someone's mom from Eugene. Real wild and local chanterelle mushrooms were used when they were in season. The blueberries came from a local farm.

Of course the sauna also needed to be prepped and pre-heated four times a week. Fortunately the system was remarkably easy to run. It was a marvel, both carefully considered and constructed. Sometime in the 1990s a flood on the river washed away the original sauna (the one I had used) and a new one a little higher up on the river bank was built.

Below is mostly a photo journal of what remains of Cow Creek's second sauna.


Here is the sauna. It is a hexagonal structure constructed of logs and a cedar shingle roof. There's a roof dormer bump-out to accommodate a short door and single window.


Around back and just below is the remarkable heating system for the sauna. It's really quite ingenious. A large propane burner heats up huge pieces of scrap steel sitting in a barrel or inverted pipeline pipe section (above). This, in turn, sits on a roll cart outside the structure. When the cart-cum-burner is hot enough, a heavy but counter-weighted lid is swung off the barrel. The nearly red hot iron in the barrel is then rolled under the structure by means of an old mining ore cart and rail track! (Where would you even buy these implements if you wanted to? I imagine this stuff was scavenged from an old mine in the backwoods nearby.)


Here's the lid which swings on a counter weight, a whimsical play on the duality of the sexes?


A view down below with the lid off: we see heavy steel that would get heated up. Stars and lighting! You can see steel gears and other high-mass "heatable" iron items in the background to the right. This was probably a reserve pile that never got used.


This was lying on the ground. I kicked it over. It may have been discarded from too much use, rotted away after years of repeated heating and water dousing.

A sauna session required a 45 minute propane burn to get the cart material hot enough. A second round would take another 15 or so minutes reheating. To do the second round, the process was repeated with the barrel rolled outside and blasted again with flame.

The cart hadn't rolled in years. I cleared off the tracks and pushed it under the sauna for the sake of better demonstrating how the system worked. Here below, my dear reader, is a photo demonstration:


The door to the crawl space is closed and the furnace is outside at the heating station.


The lid is lifted off, the crawlspace door under the sauna is opened and the cart rolled in.




The cart would be placed in here. Above you can see the joists supporting underside of the sauna. The cart with hot metal would rest just under the cement chimney. The crawl space door would be closed and expectant bathers could then ladle water over a grate in the middle of the floor from above. The water would fall on the cart to release the steam. Brilliant!


This is a shot from inside the sauna of the grate in the center of floor. Pour water here!


Imagine working up a nice sweat and going down to the river to cool off.


For the wrap-up cool down you could chill out on your choice of deck tiers.

A few more photos because this is important:



The sauna is the creation of Mike Cobisky who was also the primary mechanic on the Green Tortoise buses. He was responsible for buying old buses and refurbishing them mechanically. Based on the work put into the sauna, I sort of also suspect he was the guiding hand in the interior design of the buses which were well known and admired for their carefully considered details and how they intelligently converted from daytime travel to sleepers. Maybe someday I can speak with him and pick his brain on sweat bathing?

The sauna is more or less still intact. In a pinch and with a lot of effort it could probably be fired up. Unfortunately the beautiful interwoven log structure was built directly over a wood deck. Both the lowest logs and some of the deck boards are really starting to deteriorate. Parts of the deck flooring have been covered with plywood where boards have given way. But these are just patches and they aren't fixing the decomposing wood.

If there was such a thing as a National Register of Historic American Counter Culture, the Cow Creek sauna would certainly get my nomination. The Green Tortoise, the Cow Creek compound and this sauna influenced many people for a number of decades. It was a place that helped people see a new way to live, where like-minded people could cultivate trust and cooperation. Mike Cobisky's stunningly beautiful sauna was right at the center of it all. Also for literally thousands of people, this was where their first sweat bathing experience happened. If you are going to be initiated to the world of the sauna this is certainly a wonderful and safe place for this to happen.

Restoration is possible but it would take a big effort. Maybe we could all pitch in? Kinda like making breakfast on the Green Tortoise.




Moiling for darkness



Here at Tinygogo headquarters we believe in celebrating Christmas, not so much with Santa, the tree or the questionable actual birthday of an important religious figure. We celebrate the return of light to the earth. Before this can happen we must go deep into the darkness. And tonight is the darkest longest night. 

Below is a tribute to the darkness. Facing our shadows--the fear and the emptiness--helps give us courage, strength and hope to carry on in a difficult world. There is no better tale which comes closer to this than The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service. (Someday I'll find a recitation of this story on Youtube that is to my liking. For now you get this one.)  

This is sauna related because warmth and fire are both at the core of a good sauna and this story. Growing up in Alaska, I can certainly relate to Sam McGee's desire to warm his bones. Fire is part of what gives us humans courage to go deep into our spiritual cave.  

As we say in my family's sauna vernacular: "STFD, shut the fucking door! "

Merry Christmas everyone!


Plenty of lemons for lemonade in my sauna life

Neighborhood gentrification continues full kilter here in Portland, Oregon and it only seems to be picking up speed. The character of the neighborhood has changed. Off street parking has dried up--and along with it comes the incessant chirping and staccato honks of people locking their cars with their remotes. (Why, people?! Why?! It doesn't make you safer. It's just annoying.) 

The casualties mount: One of my favorite local groceries, Mercado Don Poncho, was pushed out for more up-scale retail. The Know, a cool pretty authentic punk venue will be leaving soon. Both places will probably be replaced by shoe stores or some such. Neighbors I know and care about have become financially stressed and/or are disenchanted and are moving on. 

One new characteristic of this growth is that there has been an uptick in new home construction. Older houses are getting torn down, replaced with bigger or multiple homes. Lots with big yards are being divided and long-vacant lots are being developed. We've heard a lot of hammering lately.

For me there has been one small recompense: free wood! I've been trolling the neighborhood with my pull wagon, bicycle (with bike buckets) and truck, scavenging scrap wood from the construction sites. Much I've burned in the sauna already but I do also have the beginnings of a proper wood pile.

Behold!



Many of these lumber pieces are 2X6s. The building code requires them for exterior walls. Maybe the ceiling of the second floors are a little shorter now or they had to use 10 footers? I'm not sure but there were a lot of short perfectly-cut-for-my-stove 18 inches 2X6s. Heaven! 

My new rule this summer for rooting through the scrap wood piles: pick up nothing that I have to cut--only short pieces. Skip the tiny scraps too. There's such an abundance of wood, why make work for myself? The vertical pieces in the foreground are me failing with this rule. Discipline, Dave! Discipline.

I love burning lumber. Yes, it lacks the concentrated BTUs of hardwood but fir and hemlock burns fast and hot which I think works best in an undampered sauna stove. Plus cut lumber stacks densely--Tetris style!


Waterfest! Manitou Springs' gathering to celebrate mineral water

Here we are just helping spread the word about this cool upcoming event, Manitou Waterfest




Mineral water is kind of an amusing side interest for me here at Tinygogo. Previously we wrote about the wonderful water of Manitou Springs (here). The water is indeed wonderful. Although admittedly part of this is the hype/civic booster-ism that accompanied the growth of Manitou Springs during the early years. Manitou Springs remains a quaint historic throwback, it's hard not to love this place.

An attendee of The Perfect Sweat Summit, BANA (Balneology Association of North America), will be a sponsor of the event. 

I probably won't make it but please feel free to share a report with me!



The hot springs of Hot Lake Resort


Lost in remote Eastern Oregon (yet conveniently only five miles off of I-84) is Hot Lake Springs Resort--a grand historic mineral hot springs resort that is remarkably open again for business.

If you are traveling on I-84, Hot Lake Springs can serve as a wonderful (if weird) layover. Or, if the timing is not quite right for spending the night, a short stop for a recuperative soak can be just the ticket for improving one's disposition during a long stint of driving.



The resort is steeped in the history of Europe and America's obsession with mineral water health spas and is one of many that thrived in the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the century. What compelled people to travel so far and spend so much time and money to soak in these remote mineral water baths?

When Hot Lake Springs was first built this spot must have seemed impressively isolated.  There was of course the city of La Grande, a mere 8 miles further down the line. In its heyday of the 1910s and 20s, La Grande was a small but well-established full-service western desert railroad/cattle town. But  you wouldn't really be aware of this if you got off the train at Hot Lake Sanitorium (sic). You could do this because Hot Lake had it's own train station (and post office). This enabled visitors to come directly from all over the U.S.

I imagine people traveling from the East Coast and getting off directly at Hot Lake.  Stepping off the train onto the platform at the station must have been something. Looking around you'd see great stretches of emptiness. But behind the lake of geothermally-heated mineral water with vapor wafting up into the hills, was the giant "modern" resort, seemingly plopped down in the middle of nowhere. A traveler might have been on trains for days clattering through the desolation of the Great Plains, the Rockies and eastern Oregon desert only to step off into an oasis resort of high grandeur. Visitors could maintain serious bragging rights of having traveled deep into to the Great American West without ever really having suffered the loss of any modern convenience.




Given the relatively isolated location, and considering when it was built, the facility was remarkably big and modern. The brick addition (as pictured above at the left) was completed in 1908 and became the new focal point of the complex. This three-story structure is most of what remains today. When completed, it boasted full modern appointments: indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity. Residents' rooms were airy and well lit: with tall ceilings, awning lights above the doors and big exterior windows. The third floor was a dedicated and modern medical facility which included a surgery. Contemporary accounts often refer to these services as the "Mayo Clinic of the West."


Photo Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group Hot Lake Resort (link at end of article)


Photo Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group, Hot Lake Resort






Look at that tile! Yowza! The counter top may be newer.


Photo: Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group Hot Lake Resort 

As stated, the 1908 brick structure was an add-on to an even earlier Victorian-era wood structure that was more-or-less built over the source waters of the hot spring. This earlier wood portion burned down in 1934. Even though the business recovered and carried on, the original section was never rebuilt. Since the original structure appears to have been built directly over the springs, I'm curious to know how it was utilized. Where and how did the Victorians take their water?


Photo: Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group Hot Lake Resort
At one point water from Hot Lake, as with many mineral water resorts of their day, bottled and sold the source mineral water.

A big part of the Hot Lake Resort story is its miraculous resurrection. Moving into the 20th century modern medicine replaced mineral hydrotherapy and business died off.  The resort closed in the 1950s and for the next few decades there were a succession of other tenants using the space. For a number of years it was completely vacant. The facility slowly crept into dereliction. At the its low point, vandals had smashed out all of the glass windows and the roof was seriously leaking and even missing in some sections.


Photo: Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group, Hot Lake Resort (link at end of article.)

In 2003 a family bought and began a significant rehabilitation. While the restoration is a blessing for bathing and history enthusiasts, here the story turns a little weird.

The restoration considers the building's history but in a way that is really odd. It's not so much a restoration as someone's fantasy/nostalgia recreation. The hotel rooms are redone with faux historical elements and are drenched in what I refer to as "potpourri excess." It's bed-and-breakfast cute gone wild. Here are some photos of my room:














And it's not just the excessive frill and artificial fragrance. Watch out for the the flocks of peacocks and geese on the grounds who tend to honk (at least in the case of the geese) and poop everywhere. Speakers outside and in the common areas play canned Big Band-era music from morning to evening. To make matters worse it was the same hour or so tape loop. I don't know how many times I heard Glen Miller's In the Mood. It made me feel rather crabby.

In spite of my complaints we are extremely lucky to have Hot Lake Resort back in business and the water, as it has been for thousands of years, is no joke. It comes out hot, 208 degrees, and is mineral laden. Sampling it with a good soak helps you understand why this place was so popular a hundred years ago. After a relaxing bath, all (most) of my grievances about the stay were forgiven.




There are a number of different soaking options at Hot Lake:

There is what remains of the old spring house that is filled with acrylic hot tubs and artificial plants.












Around the back of the spring house I thought these two outdoor claw-foot tubs had potential. Were they intended as cool-down cold plunge tubs or will they be set up for outdoor soaking? I would sure rather soak in the wonderful outdoors in these instead of the plastic tubs inside.

There's also the relic of an old brick structure. The water in here was super hot, almost too hot to stand, but I had the space to myself and it was wonderful.


 You can close this gate for a little privacy.


Stepping in the gate and just to the right is this little semi-private deck next to the private soaking area. The chairs face the soaking pool to the left.


Ahhhh!, a private pool of super hot water! The open trellised roof, old brick and vines winding down to the water made for wonderful atmosphere. The only negative was that soaking in this water with really challenging. It took me a while to adjust and even then and I could only stand soaking for five or so minutes at a time, after that I was cooked!

Next to this brick hot soaking relic is a neat-o waterwheel contraption that lifts, slows and cools the water for a series of outdoor soaking tubs. The water, at 208 degrees, as it comes out of the hillside, is near boiling so it needs this process to cool off for the next series of soaking pools.

From Hot Lake Resort, La Grande, Oregon

Water from the wheel pours  into a gutter which is channeled into the outdoor pools.



Again, I'm not a big fan of acrylic tubs.

My favorite was this one (above), a pool made out of cement and local rocks. The trouble with it was that it was the farthest one away from the water wheel and it was hard to keep it sufficiently hot. There was a fair amount of lake algae as well. I was warned about this by the staff but it didn't bother me at all. Relaxing, looking out over the lake, made it all worthwhile.


Here's another view of the cement outdoor pool taken from above, water vapor lifting up off the lake.




There is a very good Flickr group of photos of the resort/sanitarium. I used some of the photos for this post from that group. Thanks to Allen Sandquist, in particular, for making his collection available.