A dog team yelps briefly in the starry night. Then quiet. Our boots squeak in the snow, the temperature hovering at 20 below. The hairs in my nostrils freeze, my lungs breathe in dry air. Clothes, frozen on the line, hang out to dry; stiff white sheets silent against a violet-black sky. We walk on a narrow path beaten down by pack boots and animal tracks; a path of least resistance through knee deep snow. The steam house stands in a small clearing surrounded by birch forest, interrupted by the light of a half moon.
It is almost like a dream to me now. I can’t place the village, and the experience is frozen in my mind. It was fourteen, maybe fifteen years past. I am traveling in Western Alaska, and visit many villages in the course of five days as an itinerant therapist. I remember a row of spruce-log cabins facing the airstrip, a modern schoolhouse perched atop a small rise, oil drums emerging from mounds of deep snow. Perhaps the village is New Stuyhawk, Inakpuk or as far north as Koliganek. The exact location puzzles, but a haunting memory lingers. I am washing my hair in a wide metal bowl, taking a steam with two of the local Eskimo women.
The heavy wooden door scrapes the icy ground when opened, and a warm rush of air billows out. I pull the door tight behind me, breathing in dry warming heat. In the small entryway, we remove boots and socks, and hang up our clothing on moose horn hooks. There is no light inside but the kerosene lantern one woman carries to lead our way.
Naked, we step into the heat room. At the far end of the enclosure is a 55 gallon fuel drum serving as a wood stove. The stove sits erect above a bed of river rocks. An old metal bucket and wooden scoop rest nearby.
They speak very little so I watch the women, and follow them. We sit on a long wooden bench against the wall. One woman dips the wooden scoop into a bucket of water and ladles it carefully over the rocks. Hissing steam pours forth and I breath in deeply the welcomed moisture. The women speak a few words in Yupik, laugh a little, then quiet. I close my eyes and feel my skin tingling. The heat deepens. Moisture collects along my hairline, in the creases behind my knees, between my breasts. Again a woman dips the scoop and pours water over rocks. More steam surges. I think, I don’t even know your names. She continues dipping and pouring until the whole room is filled with a relaxing warmth. I wait and watch. The floor is made of narrow slats of wood spaced an inch apart, allowing the water to drain. We slide from the bench to the floor and sit cross legged; I am handed a large wide metal bowl. One woman scoops water into the bowls. I am handed a bottle of shampoo. With rounded backs, they submerge their long black hair into their bowls and begin washing. I feel the warmth of the room, the sweat, the deepened glow of the wood stove. I am entranced by this rich moment, a simple elemental cleansing shared with two strangers.
We have steamed many times, my husband and I, while camping on the naked beaches of cold swift rivers. It is one of the many simple pleasures we enjoy after a long day of rowing, often in inclement weather. After assembling gear, preparing the evening meal, and erecting the tent, we are ready to begin the ritual. The forest offers many dead tree poles, and we choose a few six or seven footers to lash together at the top, making a simple teepee frame. We punch the ends of the poles into the beach sand and envelope the structure with a large plastic tarp. Inside, rocks are piled in a circular mound, and in the middle, a fire is built. As the heat builds, the sounds of fire and rock, popping and cracking echoes on the nearby water. We hunker down and let the steam do its work, draining our muscles of tension, putting bodies and minds at ease. Then within the heat of the smoldering fire, we discuss the next day's unfolding.
So that is the plan for us tonight. As I look out the window of my studio, there are two colors...black and white, with various shades of gray...a white winter landscape. We'll steam tonight, in the form of a dry sauna in our home, and a world apart from the rigors of a riverside camp or far-away village.
Still it will feel every bit as restorative and relaxing; not ancient or remote, but simply...good.