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.


  1. I remember that. What a vision! Great job documenting it.

  2. Still an excellent article and a great ode to Mikey... However the construction of the rail, concrete block and decks were done by me and my buddy Danny, as part of my stint as a caretaker at Cow Creek for year. Lots of photos here:

  3. I spent some weeks at cow creek cooking for travelers and enjoying the sauna in 1997. What great memories. Thanks for posting your pictures and story.

  4. I love this so much, thank you for sharing! I was researching, trying to find out where the heck this was after telling my hubby a story about my time living on this land. I hopped off the Tortoise on my way down to SF from Seattle in 1998! I spent almost two months living in the old caretakers bus that was about 8 ft away from the caretakers at the time (an "older" Mormon couple who spoke lived in a motorhome, drank diet Pepsi, and spoke of a day when we'd all need to fight for our freedom). I worked in exchange for room and board - shopped, set up the food and the cook bus, went into town to wash the towels for the sauna - it was such a magical space. The caretaker's dog followed me around and kept me warm at night (in addition to the wood stove in the bus). I had full intentions of coming back, and left a big package of momentos there. I stayed for a few months, then, right before thanksgiving I decided to leave. I hopped on the next Tortoise out, and landed in SF safely. One of the drivers at the time even spent a few days showing me around SF. My plan was to come back for a van I'd been told I could have and the dog! Lol. I was only 18 at the time, and never did make it back. Life took over! It feels a bit like a dream now really.