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Imagine a Waterfront Sauna in Vancouver

A public waterfront sauna in Varberg, Sweden. A creative commons licensed photograph.

If you've ever participated in the New Year's Polar Bear Swim at English Bay, you know the spectacular feeling of plunging into freezing cold water. You take a deep breath, and then you go in. Almost immediately a tingling sensation overcomes your body, sometimes at an alarming speed. Your toes go slightly numb and you might feel as if you're about to lose your breath. After scrambling out of the water an intense feeling of warmth and wellbeing takes over. Your heart is beating fast and you can feel the blood flowing through your veins, yet at the same time you feel completely relaxed. My friend Heidi calls it "the invisible feeling." Scientists explain that as your body becomes submerged in cold water, your blood vessels contract to prevent excessive heat loss. At the same time, endorphins -- the body's natural painkillers and joy factories -- are released into your bloodstream. These effects are further intensified if, instead of going straight into the water, you first sit in a hot sauna.

In the coastal Swedish town where I grew up, there is a public waterfront sauna where you can do exactly this for the price of a little over three dollars. My friends and I used to go to the sauna at least once a month throughout the winter season. The building, a beautiful old bathhouse from the early 1820s, stands on thick wooden poles about thirty meters out in the water, and is connected to the shore by a pier. Inside, there are separate areas for men and women as well as a co-ed section, each comprising a sauna with large windows facing the sea, a change room with showers, and an enclosed outdoor deck with stairs leading down to the water. While the structure looks quite impressive from the outside, with onion domes and wooden ornaments, the interior is very modest. It feels like a casual place to meet your friends or drop in after work, not a luxury spa.

It would be amazing if Vancouver had something similar! Imagine enjoying the views of the North Shore Mountains from a hot sauna, followed by a quick dip in the frigid ocean water. A publicly operated sauna would allow more people to enjoy the waterfront and the Strait even during the coldest, rainiest and darkest months of the year.

A waterfront sauna could also become a place for people to meet new and old friends. In my experience, public saunas are especially conducive to unusual and thought-provoking conversations. They are places where it's not just acceptable, but expected, to take off your professional and public hats. This creates a very unique atmosphere and allows for dialogue between people who otherwise might not talk to each other.

Public saunas are usually safe, comfortable and non-sexualized environments. This is partly because a sauna is one of the few places where you encounter real people with real and imperfectly perfect bodies. In that sense, a public waterfront sauna in Vancouver could provide somewhat of an antidote to the highly sexualized corporate advertisements that dominate many other public spaces in this city.

Importantly, this public sauna would be a comfortable, non-commercialized environment. Think about it -- where in Vancouver can you go in the middle of winter and not have to pay a high admission fee or feel pressured to buy something?

The Vancouver Park Board currently operates a number of facilities around the city, ranging from playing fields to water parks and golf courses. A waterfront sauna would be a pretty wonderful and sociable addition to these public amenities, especially since it would be open during those months of the year when the tennis courts and outdoor pools are all closed. There is great potential for a waterfront sauna to be a place for people to connect both with nature and with each other, and an enormously valuable addition to Vancouver's public spaces.

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