This public sauna attracts tourists in search of nostalgia. And also camp counselors in desperate need of a shower. But as the doors are unlocked, the first ones to arrive are the regulars.
“What the hell’s going on?” Ray Marttila says as he arrives on a fall evening, his brow furrowed. “There’s nobody here tonight.”
“Not quite,” says Todd Crego, who works the front desk. “You’re No. 2.”
“I’ve been told that once or twice before,” says Marttila, 82, grinning as he pulls a ticket out of his wallet.
Since 1915, the Ely Steam Sauna has offered folks a hot room and a cold shower. For $7, a visitor gets a pair of towels — big enough to cover your top or bottom, but not both — a small bar of soap and an old-fashioned experience: a steam among friends. Back in the day, they were miners, gritty with taconite dust. On a recent Saturday, they were guys like Marttila, who relays his favorite sauna aphorisms in Finnish.
“You can always add more steam,” he says, translating. “But you can’t take it away.”
Another: “Throw on more steam, you ain’t supposed to freeze in the sauna.”
He grins, then adds: “Don’t pee on the rocks.”
Marttila has taken saunas “since I was born.” He lived along the Burntside River, its cool waters the perfect conclusion to a hot steam. “We’d break through the ice,” he explains. “That’s why Finlanders got hard heads.”
Marttila knows he could steam at home, as so many folks with cabins and lake places around here do. But then he’d miss the conversation. “It’s mostly a social thing,” he explains, just before heading up to the changing room outside of the men’s side of the sauna. “You come here, you can spread a little bull and hear a little, too.”
From behind the front desk, Crego laughs. “There’s as much hot air outside the sauna as inside the sauna,” he says.
This wood-paneled place opens at 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. So Crego arrives at 2:45 p.m. to crank the boiler, shutting the doors so the public and private rooms get toasty.
To add steam, sauna-goers pull on a chain, which dribbles water on the radiator, enclosed by wooden railings. Originally, the dry heat was stoked by a fire. But these days, the public sauna relies on boilers. There were two big, bulky models until one “took a dive a couple years ago,” says owner Nancy Petrzilka. “And now the other one has sprung a leak. We’re hanging on by our fingernails.”
This year, the place got good news: A low-interest loan, approved by the city of Ely, will help replace the remaining boiler.
Petrzilka and her husband, Richard, bought the sauna in 2001 from a Finnish family that had owned it for three generations.
“It’s not terribly profitable,” Petrzilka says. “But we’re going to keep it going as long as we can. I suppose it’s one of a kind.”
On a recent Saturday in early October, as the air is turning crisp, the sauna is busy. Crego chats with customers, answers calls.
“It depends on your comfort level, or if you’re doing the public or private,” he tells one caller. “Some people choose to wear bathing suits, some people don’t.”
That’s the No. 1 question, Crego says. What is the dress code? “My answer is, always, steamers’ discretion.” The regulars, he notes, go au naturel.
Crego takes a steam after each shift.
“Honestly, you’re not going to get cleaner any other way. You could take 10 showers, and you still don’t feel as clean as after a good steam.”
Three men walk in, with broad hats and dirty pants. “Howdy,” Crego greets them.
They had been in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for two weeks, going as far north as Ottertrack Lake. They’ve taken a similar trip 27 times together in the past 40 years. Each time, if the Ely Steam Sauna is open, they end with a steam.
“It’s like a tradition,” says Fred Moore, 59, of Traverse City, Mich. “Hopefully the old-timers in there will tell us some stories and try to roast us out of our spot.”
The friends head upstairs.
“I hope you don’t mind if I don’t rush through this,” one of them says. “This is one of my favorites.”