Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Fire and Ice

Sunrise @ -51

My hovel is perched upon a naked outcrop of bedrock on the top of a ridge above a small lake. It was built in the early seventies by an energetic hippie who would later become quite a successful contractor. This was his first building, and as such suffers from quite a few flaws, one of which is insufficient insulation. Through the years I have addressed this where possible, tripling the thermal blanket in the roof, building out the walls, finishing a crawl space. The remaining thermal gaps are a major project requiring a cash infusion that my existence does not allow, so until I win the lotto or a heretofore unknown rich relative dies I make up for the gaps by burning wood.

In the course of building the hovel the energetic hippie fell in love with and married a local woman of Finnish descent. When they added plumbing and a bathroom it included a small (4X8 feet) wood-fired sauna. During spells of extreme cold (and it gets very cold in northern Minnesota) I fire the sauna in an attempt to slow the steady creep of cold from the edges of the hovel. If the temperature is well below zero the sauna is fired, once the rocks are heated all that is required to work a sweat is to close the door and wait ten minutes.

I’ve baked in saunas and cooled myself by a sudden plunge through a hole cut in the ice of a frozen lake. I’ve run steaming and naked to roll in snow and charge back to that welcoming cedar clad heat cave. These are extreme actions, not befitting the contemplative nature of the sauna. My preference, my ritual, my method for bridging that gap between fire and ice is much more measured. I lie on the topmost cedar bench, still and quiet in the dark, and listen to the pop of the stove. I let the sweat slowly build until I feel it streaming from my skin. Then I began to douse the rocks with water, the steam rising and then washing over me, a skin searing cloud. When I cannot bear it any longer I rise and push through the wall of heat in front of the door, shove my feet into slippers and stand on my deck and lean back and watch the steam rise from my flesh into the clear star spackled sky.

On one still night I stood naked upon my deck listening to the crack and pop of freezing trees and the groan of ice on the lake below the ridge. It was –40, with a full moon and a sky empty of clouds. My head was thrown back, the steam rising from my body obscured the black sky. As my body gave up its heat I caught sight of faint glints and gleams at the corners of my vision. I stared and watched as the sweat from my body fell from the sky transformed into a fine and scarcely perceptible dust of ice.

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