Heating up: Attendees discuss potential of a public sauna at Hancock forum

Hancock City Manager Mary Babcock talks during Saturday’s forum on creating a public sauna in Hancock. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo)

HANCOCK — Partway through a forum on public saunas, Jim Kurtti asked the crowd how many had gone to Finland, and then how many had gone to a public sauna. For both, about a third of the people, raised their hands.

“So you’ve become believers … it’s not just sweating,” said Kurtti, leader of Hancock’s Finnish Theme Committee. “It’s this whole thing where shy Finns who won’t speak to each other when they’re standing at a bus stop will go and be naked together and have a conversation. It’s a phenomenon. But those people who have experienced it understand the value of it.”

Saturday, about 30 people met to discuss what a public sauna could look like in Hancock as part of the Finlandia Foundation National’s Sauna Week activities. The event was hosted by the Finnish Theme Committee of Hancock, the local Finlandia Foundation chapter and the U.P. chapter of the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce.

Jack Steinmann of St. Paul presented on the benefits of public saunas and what they could bring, culturally and economically to Hancock.

The sauna industry is picking up, with 6% growth through 2027, Steinmann said. Some of that growth, Steinmann believes, comes from a renewed focus on community, as well as health and wellness.

While Hancock is the “nesting place of Finnish America,” the public sauna gap is partially being filled to the north, Steinmann said. He pointed to Mount Bohemia’s Nordic spa, and the Superior Ski sauna near Copper Harbor.

“Everyone here might say this guy’s crazy, but I think there should be a public sauna at Hancock and I think it should be the No. 1 destination for visitors as well as everybody else,” he said. “And I think it should as part of its existence help to bring the Finnish American Heritage Center right up to the top of that list as well.”

The sauna could enhance Hancock’s character, while also offering an authentic Finnish sauna experience. Along with a wood-fired sauna, it could also include a smoke sauna, Steinmann said; as far as he knows, it would be the first functional one in the U.S.

“It should cater equally to residents and families, students, tourists, business travelers,” he said. “Everyone should feel invited and welcomed.”

Ideally, it would be integrated with the landscape and built sustainably, he said. If located on the Portage Canal, it could also offer a natural opportunity for a cold plunge afterwards.

He showed examples of other public saunas in the world that served as large community centers, like one in Helsinki that also offers a restaurant cafe and bar.

After Steinmann’s presentation, members of the public weighed in, most in favor of a public sauna in some form.

Some favored larger structures of the type Steinmann discussed. Others said it could be smaller, referencing the ones stationed on Quincy Green for that day’s Sauna Expo.

This hasn’t been the first time the subject’s come up locally, said Kevin Manninen, president of the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce and co-director of the local FinnZone initiative. There are examples of large, multimillion-dollar buildings in some Finnish municipalities, he said.

Creating a public sauna here could involve using some of the area’s connections to Finland through the Finnish Sauna Society, Manninen said.

“The public sauna culture is something I think we need to learn more about,” he said. “It’s wonderful how young people get together — a typical Saturday night, they’ve got friends in town, let’s go rent a sauna for a couple hours.”

Haley Goodreau said the saunas could appeal to younger people looking for a third place that wasn’t geared around alcohol or other consumption.

“Having a space for people to go and be together in a community that’s not centered around consuming something, but that’s actually connecting us, I think would be awesome,” she said.

Having a public gathering place on the waterfront could be huge for Hancock, said Keith Meyers, vice-chair of the Chassell Township Planning Commission. The township is considering developing one in Chassell. He saw the saunas firsthand during a visit to Finland last year.

“When you go through that experience, it’s definitely something that sticks with you,” he said. “If people who visit the area have the opportunity to partake in something like that, it’s something that I think will really resonate with them, and something that they’ll really talk up about the areas as they speak to others about their experience being in the Keweenaw.”

Hancock City Manager Mary Babcock said the idea is promising, though she would need to look into the safety aspects. A sauna that had been built for a Heikinpaiva event in 2013 is currently at the campground, but had not been fully installed, she said.

She thanked people at the forum for bringing the need to light. There had been no resident comments regarding public saunas during the hearings for the city’s recent five-year recreation plan, she said.

“We do not currently have a lot of Finnish heritage on our city council,” she said. “And if we want that heritage to grow in the area, we need voices to exemplify and give us examples of how things can work because we are a municipality and we need residents and ideas from the area to help us move it along. And I think this is a great foundation to go on.”

The event also led off with clips of residents sharing their sauna memories, part of an ongoing project by 2nd Sandbar. The recordings are being archived at the Finnish American Heritage Center.

Later Saturday, people could also see saunas on display on Quincy Green as part of the Sauna Expo. In the final Sauna Week event, they could also go on a self-guided tour of five notable local saunas Sunday.


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