A Sauna Transforms a South Portland Backyard into a Year-Round Oasis

Photographer and gallerist Meredith Perdue shares her health-boosting ritual and sauna tips.

Photographer and gallerist Meredith Perdue’s backyard sauna project started with a love for cold water—swimming, that is. Following Nordic trends, including hot-and-cold therapy that has long been a way of life in those countries’ oft-frigid climes, in the past few years Perdue has gotten into dipping and plunging into the ocean year-round. “I actually like to end on cold,” says Perdue, “so I’ll do a sauna and then go to the ocean.”

Perdue and her husband, Michael Cain, live in a renovated 1750s Cape in the Willard Beach neighborhood of South Portland, and the water is just a few blocks from their front door. After a vacation in Sweden in May 2018, where two of the hotels they visited had saunas on-site, the couple ordered one of their own. The kit came from Almost Heaven Saunas, a company based in West Virginia, and arrived with two preassembled barrel ends and cedar slats to attach between them. “My husband likes to compare it to a Lincoln Logs set,” says Perdue.

After tearing down an old, dilapidated shed, the perfect footprint for such a project, Perdue’s husband and stepfather got to work building a platform to act as both a level surface for the sauna and a visual break between the yard’s mulched garden beds and the keystone patio. The platform also provides a place for people to step out to when cooling down. Perdue stresses how easy the sauna was to put together, noting that the platform took longer to build than the sauna kit took to assemble. “It’s completely changed my outlook on winter,” she says. “Whether it’s a kit or some sort of DIY option, we have seen so many saunas pop up in the neighborhood. It feels like a natural fit for the Maine climate.”

How to Sauna

Wood-fired or electric?
Perdue’s sauna is electric, but if you want a more romantic feel as well as the ritual that comes with stoking a fire, consider a wood-burning version. “As two southerners,” Perdue says, “we just wanted something as easy as possible.” She loves being able to flip a switch to get it fired up. In the depths of winter, it takes just about an hour to reach 180 degrees. “We have rules where we can’t talk about stresses or work,” says Perdue. “No politics, nothing that would upset.”

The best time to sauna
“Because we’re just a five-minute bike ride to the beach, it’s the perfect location for completing hot-cold cycles—riding to the ocean for a dip, riding back for a sauna, and repeating the process a couple of times,” Perdue says. “The sweet spot for that is April and May, and then September through November, when the water is really cold but the weather is warm enough that you’ve either brought your bike out for the year or you’ve kept your bike out.” Don’t live close to the beach? Winter is the perfect time for breaking up your cycles with rolls in the snow. “I’ve also been known to just take a cold shower afterwards,” notes Perdue. “My perfect evening includes a sauna at some point because it helps me sleep.”

Make it social
None of Perdue’s friends have been in the sauna since COVID, but she’s looking forward to getting friends and family back into the heat. “We do birthday dips or New Year’s Day dips in the ocean with friends, where everyone then runs to the sauna,” she says. “It’s a nice way to do something social—dip, sauna, and then eat some food afterwards.”

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