A Sauna…for Science

The sauna at Toolik Field Station

The sauna at Toolik Field Station (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Last night I celebrated my first summer solstice in the Arctic by participating in one of the most beloved activities here at Toolik Field Station.  I took a sauna. Then I jumped in the lake, which still had ice on it one week ago, according to the Toolik Naturalist’s Journal.  The sauna at Toolik is spoken about in almost reverential tones, and with good reason.  It’s a small wooden cabin a few dozen yards from the main camp, perched at the water’s edge, and there’s a window that lets you soak up the stunning expanse of lake, tundra, and mountains, while you warm your bones after a plunge in the frigid waters.  “Sauna Nirvana” was how one of the scientists described the experience.

But people don’t just love the sauna for the view and the warmth.  They also love it because here at Toolik, it’s the main way to get clean.  The process entails warming up in the sauna, running outside and dumping lake water over yourself, soaping up with some biodegradeable cleanser, dumping more lake water over yourself, and then running back into the sauna so you don’t freeze to death.  Or, if you are hard-core, you can skip the water-dumping part and just jump in the lake.

Pitchers for bathing, on hooks outside the sauna (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Pitchers for bathing, on hooks outside the sauna (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The station didn’t have any showers at all until 2001 (researchers have been coming here since 1975), and even now, residents are limited to two two-minute showers per week.  Water conservation here is taken very seriously, not because there isn’t enough supply, but because all of the waste water from the showers, kitchen, and outhouses, has to be trucked 140 miles north to Prudhoe Bay for disposal at a cost of $1.24 per gallon.  Because this is such an active research site, scientists aren’t too keen on the idea of a leach field right next to the spots where they are sampling nitrogen and phosphorus.  So, in the name of science, we sauna.

Last summer, 85,680 gallons of waste water were trucked out of Toolik, which translates to 9.77 gallons of water per day, per person, according to Michael Abels, the Toolik Operations Supervisor.   Compare that with the 99 gallons per day that San Franciscans use, per capita, or the 287 gallons in Sacramento.  True, the conditions here are pretty extreme, but it’s an interesting experiment to see what it’s like to get along on 10 gallons of water each day. Of course, no one here is watering any lawns or trying to keep a swimming pool full.  And since we’re only allowed one load of laundry every two weeks, maybe everyone smells a little differently than they do in the rest of the US–but I think most people here would agree that living on 10 gallons of water a day isn’t half bad.

  • http://www.birdingthecentralcoast.blogspot.com/ joyce cory

    Loved your description of going from Sauna into the frigid arctic lake. Actually got chills.

    I appreciate the water conservation that you are experiencing. I know of no one in my local on the central coast of Calif. that is not a water hog. I am going to turn of a new leaf. j

  • aysha

    I think the sauna think is very interesting. We have a bucket in our shower to collect all the water it takes to get warm water into our pipes. Then we shower with the bucket under us to catch the drips. The shower bucket water is dumped on our front porch flowers, the spanish broom, a butterfly bush we recently planted in the back yard, and an oleander that is in the process of establishing. I hope that counts for something in the scheme of things. Aysha