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Winter Survival in the Sauna

James Kudlack stands outside his sauna in the hills of Elberta. Photo by Robert Bushway Photography.

“Cadillac of sauna stoves” are made right here in Benzie

By Jacob Wheeler
Current Editor

It’s hot, damn hot, on the upper bench. The thermometer needle points into the red. Someone on the lower bench tosses a ladle of water on the rocks above the Nippa stove, unleashing a sizzle and a cloud of steam that rises to meet you.

“Breathe in,” your friend tells you. “It will feel great.”

All you can think about is how delicious a cool breeze or a chilly pool of water would feel on your overheating body. You begin counting the seconds before the sauna door will open and let you escape into the air outside. Even the thought of diving into a snowbank suddenly appeals to you. And you realize that—in longing for such extremes—you’ve been inducted into the sauna club.

The Finns brought their savusaunas to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when fleeing poverty and Russian domination in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With a tradition dating back more than a thousand years, these freestanding structures had a wood-burning stove in the middle and a changing room attached. Saunas were considered sacred, and there is a Finnish saying: “Act in the sauna as you would act in church.”

Before the Finns arrived here, the Native Americans performed sweat lodge ceremonies in domed structures, typically made with flexible willow branches and then covered with blankets and canvas. Participants would sit in a circle around a heated rock pit, while the leader of the ceremony poured water on the stones to create steam.

In fact, the practice of gathering in small groups in huts made of wood, earth, or stone and introducing fire or hot rocks to induce perspiration has been common to many civilizations throughout the ages. In the fourth century B.C., Hippocrates wrote, “Give me the power to create a fever, and I shall cure every illness.”

Built to Last

Here in Northern Michigan, we have suffered—no, enjoyed!—three consecutive bone-chilling winters. But those who speak the language of the sauna fear not the onset of temperatures that plummet to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, or below.

We also have the maker of the “Cadillac of sauna stoves” right here in Benzie County.

Nippa—whose factory is located along US-31, between Beulah and Honor—turns 85 this year and celebrates its 10th anniversary in Benzie County. Finnish immigrant Leo Nippa (pronounced Nee-pah) launched the company in 1930 in the village of Bruce Crossing in the Upper Peninsula. Nippa moved to Benzie in 2005 and was acquired in 2011 by Dean Michael.

A Nippa can cost anywhere from $900 to $2,250, but the quality is made to last.

Nippa’s claim to sauna fame comes from using a technique that has “promoted strength and lasting quality that, even in today’s high-tech world, remains unmatched,” according to the company’s website. By rolling the firebox, fewer welds are needed during manufacturing, which makes the product stronger.

The company’s stoves have been sold to hundreds of people in every state of the Union, as well as to Canada and Mexico. And Nippa’s website is full of testimonials by sauna enthusiasts who express adoration for their hot room stoves.

“We don’t know exactly how long the sauna has been [at our lake house in the Adirondacks],” writes Karen Scheer, of Upstate New York. “But no one can remember when it wasn’t there… The stove is still working like a champ, and we enjoy it immensely. Thanks for making a product that does withstand the passage of time.”

Another Nippa aficionado in Anchorage, Alaska, writes, “I got some great periodotite-type rocks from the Brooks Range while working as a geologist, and they kept the heat in well. I have to say, this stove is a bomber stove, durable as hell [and] simple to use.”

Here are a few avid sauna lovers in our Benzie County community who heat their hot rooms with Nippa stoves:

James Kudlack, who lives just south of Elberta, built his sauna with recycled materials that he salvaged in preparation to build his craftsman home in the woods.

“It’s funky but has good karma,” says Kudlack, who bought his stove from Nippa just before the company left the U.P. and moved to Beulah.

Kudlack’s sauna has several rooms, including a towel room where you can sit on cherry benches from lumber that he milled, gaze out through the tall French doors, and catch a view of Betsie Bay when the forest loses its leaves. The changing room also features an antique painting by Marc Chagall of a woman perspiring from the sauna and staring into the woods.

During the cold months, Kudlack typically fires up his sauna a couple of times a week, often on a Saturday night when he can listen to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio. Happy hour drinks and hors’deurves would follow the sweat, as he and his companions listen to the sound of the wind blowing through the dune and watch the setting sun cast shadows.

On some particularly still Friday nights, Kudlack can hear the cacophony of noises from a high school football game in Frankfort, which is two miles away as the crow flies. The marching band, the cheering, even the whispers in the huddle.

For Kudlack, the sauna is akin to a religious observance. A weekly or biweekly cleansing of the body, mind, and soul.

“Each week, it’s a spiritual awakening,” he says.

Joe Martin, who lives off M-115 near Crystal Mountain, has owned four Nippa stoves at different times. He and his wife currently have saunas at their cabin on the Betsie River and at their place on a small lake in the Upper Peninsula.

“We’ve been uniformly impressed with the quality of their construction and efficiency of operation,” Martin says. “We’ve never had a problem of any kind with any of them.”

Their Benzie sauna building sits on a “point” formed by a small creek and the Betsie River, high enough to afford a nice overview of forest, floodplains, and ravines, all just a few yards from the cabin door. The sauna gets used most during deer-hunting season and cross-country ski season.

“There’s no better way to get warm ‘to the bone’ after a day outside in the cold and wind than sitting in a 160- to 180-degree sauna; I typically will stay in the hot room until thoroughly warmed up, then cool off in the cold room before returning to the hot room one last time,” Martin says.

Martin confesses that he doesn’t roll in a snowdrift to cool down between hot-room sessions like his die-hard “yooper” friends do.

Eric Fernelius, who lives on Marshall Road outside of Beulah, purchased his Nippa stove in September 2012. His sauna occupies an old pump house building, about 50 yards from his main house.

Fernelius’s father was a Finn who lived in Detroit and had a sauna in his basement. When the family moved north to Roscommon, the portable sauna came with them. Now Eric and his brother carry on the Fernelius family tradition with saunas of their own.

A fire three years ago destroyed Fernelius’s previous sauna, which was heated with a stove that he built himself. So he searched for a top-of-the-line stove that would pass a building inspection. He settled on Nippa, in part because his grandparents in the Upper Peninsula were actually friends of the Nippas.

Saturday and Wednesday nights are typical sauna nights at the Fernelius residence. It’s a time-honored ritual, from the lighting of the stove to placing towels on the benches to casting water on the rocks to create steam, or löyly in Finnish. Saunas are traditionally taken in the nude, so Fernelius typically sweats at night under the stars, to provide privacy.

“Our saying is, ‘If you don’t have 180 degrees, you don’t have a sauna,’” Fernelius says. “I like to go three times into the hot room: the first time to get the sweat going, the second time to get up the steam, and the third time to get the sauna as hot as you can stand it.”

Each trip is punctuated by a brisk escape to his above-ground outdoor pool, filled with 45-degree water. With Fernelius’s sauna often at 220 degrees, that means his body goes through a 175-degree temperature change, and fast!

“It’s exhilarating,” he says. “A shocking rush that feels so good.”

To learn more about acquiring your own Nippa stove, call 231-882-7707 or stop into the showroom at 8862 US-31. Nippa is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 pm.

Feature photo: James Kudlack stands outside his sauna in the hills of Elberta. Photo by Robert Bushway Photography.

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