By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
Out of the cold and into the steam for a fire-and-ice (water) tour of saunas—from the Kennebec riverfront to the woods of Denmark—along with a massage, a few chants, and maybe a slice of pizza, too.
I didn't intend to jump in. In fact, I was sure I wouldn't. But the first time I sat with strangers in the heady steam of a Finnish-style sauna, the powerful heat and the feelings of camaraderie and curiosity took hold. Before long, I was following the others, bounding outside to the ice-covered Midwestern lake for a split-second plunge into a hole cut out of the ice. I jumped in two more times that day. Back in Maine, I've been searching for that exhilarating mix of hot and cold ever since.
On a Friday morning, we drive to a sauna in Bowdoinham, about an hour north of Portland off I-295. Along the way, I push my hands and feet closer to the vents of the car heater. And somewhere past the huddling ducks along the Kennebec River and Merrymeeting Bay, I open the window for a blast of cool wind. Peter Frank Edwards and I are headed to a farmhouse and property that dates back to the late 1700s. Up the driveway and just a few dozen yards from the antique Cape, I see a modest gray building with a garden-edged walkway curving to a red door. From the outside, it could be a garden shed, a workshop, or maybe a potter's studio. We've arrived at the Riverview Sauna Spa.
Darcy Thirwall, a petite woman with long brown hair, is waiting in the yard and shows us inside. I take in the soft light and orderly arrangement of furnishings, and I already feel a sense of calm. Inspired by spas she had frequented in California, Thirwall decided to create the Riverview out of a former farm shed that's now decorated with antique furniture, a blanketed massage table, soft rugs, and stacks of thick bath towels. A hot wood-burning stove topped with a cast-iron pot of water-doused local stones provides the heat and steam in an adjoining wood-paneled sauna room lit by candles. And just outside, a patio hot tub overlooks a garden, blackberry bushes, and woods. I'm ready to try out the private space. (Darcy explains that she books only one customer, couple, or group at a time, so you have the entire sauna and spa facility to yourself.) My primary focus is the sauna, and the Vermont Castings stove is fiery hot. When I pour more water over the stones, steam hisses and fills the room. This is a place to stretch out on the benches and breathe deeply, and I do. In one corner is a shower that only pipes in unheated water. Whenever I like, I can step underneath for a splash of cold to counteract the rising heat.
After a while, Thirwall knocks on the door to ask if I'm ready for a therapeutic massage. She and her partner, Ray Hall, are graduates of the Downeast School of Massage in Waldoboro. My muscles are warmed head to toe, and a massage sounds like a great idea. (Writers always carry stress in their shoulders and neck, don't they?) Afterward, I feel clean, light, and clear headed. We all stand outside in the bright day looking out across a road and fields that, I'm told, are planted with strawberries and lettuce in the summer. Hall, who's tall and trim, describes the terrific snowshoeing and cross-country skiing terrain that can be found along the Kennebec when the conditions are right. Nordic skiers often park at the spa and then return to use the sauna and hot tub after a run, he says. They come back to the steam "to figure out what life's all about." He recalls a ski he took one night along the river when the snow was sparkling under a full moon. "I was blinded by the moon," he says, and Thirwall smiles. I do too, now that I'm filled with warmth and poetry.
FULL STEAM AHEAD
I wake up Saturday thankful for the Finnish immigrants who first brought the sauna tradition to America—especially to cooler climates like Maine's. We plot a course for the day, beginning with a drive to the Sebago Lakes region. On the way, we pass places for warmth-seekers of different sorts, including the Mr. Scissors Hot Tub and Hair Salon in Windham and the William Perry Cigar Lounge in Bridgton. We save those diversions for another time. Heading west toward Fryeburg, we make a left down two miles of winding road lined with handsome farmhouses, stone walls, and clapboard barns. Our destination is a 33-acre eco-retreat in Denmark called Nurture Through Nature. I called ahead and talked with Jen Deraspe, who began building the retreat in 2003. She extended an invitation to join in on the monthly "community sauna" that day. For $15, guests can bring a towel and take part. A friend from Portland told me about this "peaceful place with yoga and cabins" last summer, and I'm eager to finally experience it for myself.
We enter along a driveway that's marked with Himalayan-style prayer flags. When we park under the tall trees and step out, everything is quiet but for the rush of a creek. I already smell the smoke from a wood fire, and a short hike on the steeply rising and falling path leads us to a six-sided sauna building ringed with stacks of firewood. The chimney rises from the center of the roof. Inside the sauna's entry room, we meet Bethany von Berold, a local midwifery student who's a caretaker at the retreat. She's just lit several olive oil candles and is setting a table with pitchers of ice water and slices of grapefruit. "Are you going to take a steam with us?" she asks. I'm ready to hang my coat on one of the wooden pegs and immediately step inside. But the fire isn't hot enough yet, so I wander around the property a bit and peek into one of the electricity-free cabins called the Robin's Nest, which is perched on a forested ridge and outfitted with bunk beds, a small table, candle lamps, and a wood stove. A remarkably handsome outhouse with forest-surrounding views and composting toilets is readily accessible off a nearby path.
Back at the sauna, three other young women from the Birthwise Midwifery School in Bridgton have arrived for the community session, along with a man who lives nearby in Denmark. Everyone is wearing bathing suits, and we quickly file into the sauna, careful to not hold open the door for very long. Inside, the fire is so hot that when water is poured over the stones I have to cover my mouth and eyes to stop the burning rush of steam. Several pots of chilled water are near at hand for those moments we need to pour some over our heads. When the rising heat becomes too much on the upper bench, I get some relief by sliding down to the lower one. Eventually, one of the women starts a chant, "The earth, the air, the fire, the water, return, return, return..." We all join in. Then someone else starts another chant about a river flowing down to the sea. Maybe the steam is fogging my brain, but at that moment in a sauna in the woods, I think the sound of our voices chanting in unison is wonderful.
At some point, von Berold stands up and declares that she's heading down to the creek. She's going for a plunge! I follow. The afternoon temperatures outside are in the upper 20s to low 30s and we're barefoot, so I try to be fast but careful as I step around the rocks on a path that descends for several yards to rushing water. Von Berold steps into a pool that's about calf deep, and she immediately plunks down, leans backward into the creek, and submerges herself. Then she stands and makes her way to a rock ledge where the water is gushing over, and she dips her head into the waterfall. When she hops out and makes her way back up the hill, it's my turn. This isn't a hole in the ice, but it definitely feels like ice water. I splash through the shallow pool and—yes—I dunk my head into that close-to-freezing waterfall a couple of times. The feeling is part ice cream headache and part triumph. I definitely know I'm alive. When I've had enough, I run back to the steaming sauna just up the hill to restore the balance.
SOUTH OF PARIS
With wet hair tucked under wool caps, we drive away from the sauna in Denmark. The sun has already set, but I'm aiming for another experience less than an hour away. Following ME-302 and then ME-117, we pass through Bridgton, Harrison, and Norway, and then across the railroad tracks and the Androscoggin River in South Paris. Dave's Sauna is located near several old warehouses on a site that's been known for on-again, off-again sauna operations since the 1970s. From the dirt parking lot, I can see a pool table and at least a couple dozen people through the picture windows. Inside, the place looks like a combination of a den—roaring fire in a big corner fireplace with families sitting around—and a roadhouse bar. This is quite a different scene from the other spas, and I'm taking it all in and looking for recognizable spa features when a Schlitz clock on the wall catches my eye. Maybe that's what I need. My order of a tall, cold can of beer leads to conversation. Willow, who hands me the can, is married to Will, one of the sons of Dave Graiver, the original owner. She gives me a tour. Besides the long front room with the bar and pool table, the primary feature here is a rear, wood-paneled hallway with numbered doors on either side. Willow opens one door to a recently renovated sauna room outfitted with a woodstove, benches, and cold-water shower. All along the walls in the hallway and front room are framed photos of Dave and his children and customers from years past. Willow explains that Dave's three adult children—Halyne, Will, and Loni, who are all in their 20s and 30s—recently took over the sauna business, and they've added pizza and beer to the offerings.
Just then, Loni Graiver comes out from another one of the hallway doors with a towel around his neck. A realtor and businessman from Falmouth, he's slightly flushed, and tells us he just finished a session in the sauna and feels great. Loni is another of Dave Graiver's sons, and he talks of his father in legendary terms. "He looked like a Greek Adonis, and he lived every moment," he says. "People came here for the saunas and for my father. He loved women of all shapes and sizes, and they loved him." So who comes to the sauna now? I ask. Finnish people, families, hippies, backpackers, he says. "And we used to get businessmen from Boston with their mistresses."
We sit near the fireplace for a while, and when I meet Will and Halyne—the sauna is obviously the family's gathering place—both of them refer me back to Loni for answers about the sauna's history. Loni shares more stories of the "anything goes" style that once characterized this unusual South Paris sauna. Although I don't end up trying one of the Dave's Sauna rooms that night, I'm glad to know the place is there. Sometimes, a dose of hot and cold is just what you need.