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Image of sauna.

Through the Ice, Beneath the Stars

Friends savor a mix of fire and chill.

by Peter M. Leschak

Sten was in from Germany. He phoned late morning to see if I'd join him and his father Harold for a sauna out on The Island that evening. Certainly. If necessary, I would've canceled almost any previous engagement.

Gracing big Sturgeon Lake, The Island is a glacial artifact studded with mature red and white pines, home to a fecund bald eagles' nest and perches for ospreys and owls. Harold's log cabin on the south end is heated with wood and lit by kerosene lamps. Water is pumped by hand. As Harold approaches 80, it's more challenging for him to get out there in winter, so a February sauna on The Island is especially welcome. Sten, who works in Europe as a dancer, actor, and teacher, had not been in Side Lake since October—the last time the sauna was hot. I asked him if he needed anything; he said 'no,' of course, so I began mulling what I could portage in that might be novel and appreciated. I settled on ruffed grouse and cranberries. I had two birds in the freezer from last autumn's hunt, and in the pantry found a jar of cranberries that I'd picked in the bog and processed into a chunky, tangy sauce. After a final search for shotgun pellets in the grouse, I prepared them in a pressure cooker and set them aside to cool.

After nightfall, I drove to the end of Greenrock Road and parked in a wide spot flanked by snowbanks. Hefting a small pack, I trod slowly down to Harold's mainland slip, allowing my vision to adapt to the dark.

The sky was partly cloudy, but Orion sparkled prominently in the south, and Ursa Major balanced on its tail in the north. The Island is about a quarter mile from that shore, and as I hiked across the ice I saw a red-orange glint of flames blinking through the slotted draft on the firebox door of the sauna stove. To the left, and higher, the glow of a lantern framed by massive pine trunks marked the cabin. In a few minutes, I shouldered open the door with a greeting and a flourish, and my eyeglasses instantly fogged. It was snug inside.

As the sauna heated up we gathered around the wood cookstove in Harold's kitchen, sipping beer and whiskey and allowing conversation to ramble. We spoke of lynx and timber wolves, white pine seedlings and forest fires, books and local gossip, and ventilated the political views we share. Sten told of travels in Norway and England. We ate the grouse and cranberries.

When the sauna—stoked with seasoned birch—reached 160 degrees (and climbing), we gratefully entered the sanctum of humidity and heat. It was superb contrast to the dry 10 degrees outside. Soon the thermometer topped 175, and water flung on the rocks hissed into stinging, rapturous steam.

Using a chisel and handsaw, Sten had cut a window in the ice that afternoon, piling the blocks he removed into a low wall on the north side. He'd stationed a kerosene lantern so it glowed through the translucent parapet. He'd also laid a trail of boards across the snow, and when we were sufficiently flushed, he and I gingerly trod on bare feet to the rim of his pool. A veneer of new ice had formed, so we shattered it with the chisel, then leaped into the lake, splashing through shards of crystal, yelping and hooting in the quick ecstasy of the plunge.

Back on the ice, steaming like roasted trout, we savored a mix of fire and chill beneath the stars. The sensation of profound well-being was a tonic; we were freshly baptized into an intensity of pure feeling; life was utterly worthwhile, and winter too short.

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