Dozens of sunrise swimmers and strollers enjoyed a warmup before and after their exertions Friday morning as they slipped inside a mobile sauna unit parked at Lee Street Beach.

The Sauna Club mobile unit requires no electricity. It is heated by firewood and features a solar panel to power interior lighting. Credit: Ryan Cohler

The event was organized by Sauna Club, a new Evanston business whose owner Ryan Cohler aims to bring the pleasures and health benefits of the ancient Nordic tradition to Chicago’s North Shore. His 120-square-foot traveling sauna can be rented for private parties or special events and delivered right to your door.

Outside the mercury on Oct. 21 hovered around 45 degrees, but inside the wood-fired, cedar-lined sauna temperatures fluctuated luxuriously between 160 and 180.

A glimpse inside the traveling sauna. Heat in the sauna starts out dry, but as water is thrown on the rocks, light steam is produced. Credit: Ryan Cohler

Cohler encouraged folks to alternate between enjoying the heat and cooling off with a dip in the lake or a few minutes of fresh air.

“The in-between is where the magic happens,” he said.

Cohler said he has always been a fan of saunas, so much so that during the COVID-19 lockdown he was inspired to build his own backyard unit from salvaged materials.

“The Y shut down,” he recalled, “and I was like I’m really going a miss the sauna and the steam room because that’s kind of where I fell in love with the whole thing.”

Over the next six months Cohler, who is also a painting contractor, constructed a sauna using wood reclaimed from construction dumpsters and tiles from his own home renovation projects.

He bought a steel stove for $25 on Craigslist. Cedar for the interior walls came from a shuttered Spice House shop in Chicago. A neighbor who was doing updates provided an all-weather glass door. “I’m kind of thrifty,” said Cohler, “and I like the idea of reusing and repurposing stuff that’s in good shape.”

Ryan Cohler, owner of Sauna Club. Credit: Nancy McLaughlin

In the year that followed, Cohler’s family, friends and neighbors enjoyed the sauna so much, he began thinking about ways to share the joy on a larger scale.

“I went down the rabbit hole of the whole sauna culture,” he said. “It’s this offbeat group of weird but awesome people. I noticed these different pockets of the sauna culture popping up, especially in the Twin Cities and Duluth, which is the epicenter of the North American movement.”

After taking a six-month course in sauna entrepreneurship, Cohler purchased a fully constructed mobile unit from an outfit in Minnesota and Sauna Club was born. In September he did the rounds at a few local block parties, warmed up revelers at the Main and Dempster Mile Fall Fest and trekked out to South Elgin for the town’s annual Scandinavian Fest. 

More pop-up events are in works and starting next week the mobile sauna will be a fixture every Tuesday evening at Sketchbook Brewing in Skokie. Patrons can sign up in advance for one-hour sessions on the Sauna Club website. The cost is $30 for individuals or $125 for a private booking for up to six people. 

After a warming session, Mariana Romano, Lisa Crowe and Jessica Tava are eager to return to the lake. Credit: Nancy McLaughlin

Cohler extols the virtues of sauna bathing, which has been proven to improve cardiovascular health, help manage stress, promote healthy sleep patterns and even reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

A recent study at the University of Eastern Finland followed 2,300 Finnish men over 20 years and concluded that those who went to the sauna four to seven times a week were 66% less likely to be diagnosed with dementia and 65% less likely to succumb to Alzheimer’s disease.

And that’s not all. According to Cohler, sauna benefits go beyond the physical and provide a valuable opportunity to rebalance mentally and connect with others. “It’s all about relaxing,” he said. “Talking to people or not talking to people. For some people, it’s social. For some, it’s about solitude. It’s fantastic.”

Lee Street swimmers line up for their sauna warmup. Credit: Ryan Cohler

Nancy McLaughlin

Nancy McLaughlin is an Evanston-based freelance writer who has a fascination for the everyday events that shape our community in extraordinary ways. She covers human interest stories for the RoundTable.

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