Father's Day sauna tale, the urban muk'eevik

In a blog where I write about the good life of solar showers, soaking and saunas, it is important to explore the origins of my interest in this subject. For Father’s Day, here, I share the story of my father’s steam bath, its origins and the important influence it had on my own enthusiasm for a good sweat. (Thank you, Dad!) This particular sauna is where I learned my love for the activity. It remains to this day my all time favorite and not just because of the memories. It has more to do with its character, its proper proportions, patina and location as an urban Alaskan sauna.

The specific details of the steam bath’s origin are a little obscure but I can offer an outline. For starters, I should note that this was constructed to be a proper Alaskan “steam,” not a fussy and sometimes overly austere and minimalist Finnish sauna. I use the two terms interchangeably but favor “steam” over “sauna” for a variety of reasons. An Alaskan steam is different than a sauna. Really it is more like a Russian banya, with more water. It is its own unique creature that has historical antecedents in mining/fishing/logging camps, the Russian colonial period and native traditions.

Dad was inspired to undertake his backyard steam after spending time in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area of Alaska. In the late 1970s Mr. McCabe worked as a contractor to the villages of Naknek, King Salmon and Dillingham. He was the hired gun to either clean up or establish property tax rolls for these villages. In this part of Alaska there is a deep tradition of steams. Many folks have them outside their houses in the native villages. In Yupik they are called muk'ee. “Muk'ee” means bath and “vik” house.

The McCabe steam was converted from an old shed. The shed came from an equally old small house in the working class neighborhood of Fairview in Anchorage. The shed was probably built in the 1920s and is constructed out of whatever the builder could get his hands on, spare boards and even doors. One side looks like it was made of recycled tongue and groove doors. There is even an old keyhole cover and escutcheon plate for an old rim lock door strike mechanism still attached to one of the old door-now-siding pieces. The above photo would have worked better if I had taken it horizontally which would show better how this is a door laid on its side. (If you look closely the slots on the screws of the two plates are still aligned, all vertically, at least in relation to the door.)

The doors and other siding appear as if they might have had some use in the railroad. The Alaska Railroad was headquartered, and has its repair yards, not too far away.

To start the project, the shed was moved to the backyard of our house off of K Street. I remember a bunch of my dad’s friends helped lift the shed over the cinder block wall in the alley and set it in place on top of a wood platform in the back yard. There was lots of grunting, and yelling at me to stay out of the way and to watch my fingers.

Then came the very long process of finishing the interior. There wasn’t a heck of a lot of work to be done but it took a number of years. I helped out a bit here and there. I remember evenings in the backyard with dad puttering away on the project. The garage door would be open. He had a Craftsman radial arm saw, peanut butter jars full of nails and a constantly-full coffee mug of low-grade red wine. We listened to the relatively-new-at-the-time local public radio station, KSKA. I remember listening to salsa, blue grass (incredibly popular in the state at the time) and even a locally-produced gay and lesbian talk show. For the time--I’m guessing around 1977--it must have been politically loaded especially for a small state like Alaska, but then again, Alaska was far less conservative then than it is now.

Up went the insulation, the plastic sheeting and rough-sawn boards for the ceiling. The walls and benches were redwood. Even then they were expensive. A perennial cheap skate, Dad took great care not to mess up his cuts. When he did I heard about it.

The effort to do this finish work slowed to a crawl. Some work would get done and then it would sit for months. From start to finish the project may have taken two years to complete. Once it was done there were a few parties where friends, particularly those who helped move the shed, were invited to steam. Then, maybe kind of like the family boat, it didn’t get used so much.

We were in Hawaii on vacation, I’m guessing in 1978 when my parents took a phone call from the hotel. The tenants who were living in the family’s basement apartment called to say that there had been a fire in the steam. Someone had lit it, presumably to use it. The sauna got too hot and it caught on fire. The tenants discovered it burning and called the fire department. The interior was pretty uniformly charred. It was a sad sight with much hard work lost.

The fire also drew some attention from the authorities. The shed did not meet lot line set back requirements and the wood stove was certainly much too close to the interior walls. We may have received a letter from the city about this, but after a while the violations were forgotten. The steam sat in it’s burned state for a year or so and then Dad set about rebuilding it. Charred wood, particularly from a house fire, can have a very unsettling smell to some folks. In spite of this, my father’s approach to restoring things was to simply flip the charred redwood boards. Those boards cost a lot of money, you know. At the time I was a little appalled. For three or four years the sauna retained the strong burned wood smell but eventually it went away or at least blended into all of the other aromas of a good steam. I look back on this now and appreciate the burned wood actually. The fire in the steam might be considered as if it went through a conditioning stage. Like primitive Finnish saunas and Native American sweat lodges, the room is first filled with smoke from an open fire. Then it's opened up to clear the smoke before people enter to sweat. The smoke aroma is part of the experience.

When I was in high school, the steam bath was used more frequently with friends. It wasn’t until my brother’s generation arrived that the steam really got a regular workout and I more profoundly learned to appreciate the virtues of the steam/sauna.

My brother Michael, largely in cooperation with one particular friend, Paul Adasiak, had sauna parties with his high school friends. All long-time Alaskans, they may not have experienced many other Alaskan saunas or steams, but they intuitively understood the vital role a good steam plays in lifting spirits in a dark cold winter or how it was an excellent way to appreciate the glory of the endless Alaskan summer sunset.

During college I spent a year living in Anchorage. At this time my brother’s crowd began having more frequent sauna gatherings. I would tag along. I have to admit, sometimes I found them a little unsettling. Here were late-teenage boys in the throes of teenage-ness. There was alcohol, shit talking, hair-brained philosophizing, high energy and passion, but mostly we had a lot of laughter and fun.

Michael and Paul, were unabashed hedonists and they took their hedonism to new levels. Certain rituals evolved from their own peculiar form of steaming. They would cook for a while then the water came out. First on the rocks. Then it would be slowly and sensually poured down neighbor’s backs. Folks would scrub each other’s backs with loofa pods. Almond-scented Doctor Bronner’s castile soap was popular for some reason. The steam sessions were mostly young men but they were almost always coed. The evening often would end in a large group shower inside the house where people would soap each other down and rinse off. I used to joke it was like a softcore porn party. As far as I know, no one ever got overly aroused (or, ahem, turgid) but it was little too far-out for me. Predisposed to being reserved and uptight, I would sit the showers out.

Still, one of the reasons I appreciate the steam bath so much is that it is an express train to sensuality. I live in my head a lot and the steam is a very sensual, physical experience. It helps ground me back in the world of physical sensation. I bet this is a reason why it is so popular in Finland. The Finns are notorious for being uptight and reserved. Perhaps the sauna is a pleasurable way to forcibly compensate for a national tendency towards being uptight? At any rate the degree to which my younger brother's crowd took their pursuit of relaxation and pleasure taught me a lot. And it was the frequency of these guys using the sauna that conditioned me to acquire a taste for the steaming habit.

After college the steam bath sessions turned into a more mature crowd. I'd fire up the sauna about once a week. There was a regular crowd of friends. It was a fantastic way for people to get caught up with each other's lives. Sometimes the conversations were mundane. Sometimes we'd voyage into uncharted philosophical territory. During this period the steam was more of a salon of good conversation.

As mentioned earlier, Dad's steam was an urban Alaskan steam bath. It was built very much influenced by native village muk'eevik and cabin saunas but it is located not far from downtown Anchorage in a relatively dense residential neighborhood. The steam opens up out onto the back alley. It was always convenient for a friend to drive or bike up in the evening. They could just roll up, strip down and join in. We’d often all pour out and run up and down the alley to get the circulation moving. It was fun to dive into a snow bank or roll down the grassy hill in the yard opposite the steam. 

We could stand outside, drinking beers, steam rolling off our bodies, and watch the traffic go down the busy L Street artery. Occasionally this would surprise a hotel guest, looking down at us from the nearby Inlet Towers, or an unsuspecting driver going down the alley.

Like my backyard sauna in Portland, Oregon, it’s great to take a primordial experience with smoke and fire and sensuality and drop it into an urban setting. There is something liberating and revolutionary about being this free in the middle of the city. It’s not the shock value but being in a completely different and somewhat heightened (or at least altered) physical and mental state in the context of cars, pavement and houses.

In the early days, Michael and I steamed with Dad and his friends. Later there were times when Dad would come down to visit while we steamed. He steamed with us once in a while but I think the conversation got a little too rambunctious. It was great to have him sit around for a bit, maybe drinking a beer with us while we cooled off outside. I’m sure he enjoyed seeing the sauna well-used and appreciated. We thank you, Dad, for the vision to build an Alaskan steam in your backyard.

Too bad neither Michael nor I live in Alaska to continue its regular use. For now we need to focus our attention on making repairs so it doesn’t deteriorate. The rolled roof is completely missing in some places and water is coming in around the chimney.