Just warming up

Whether you fancy something traditional or a sleeker style, a well-designed sauna can help you extend the cottage season

By Brett Tryon

It’s one of those classic shoulder season days—when the fog is clinging to the water, it’s misty, maybe even raining a little bit, and the lake is flat, like glass. It’s the type of day that’s best enjoyed in the warmth of a sauna. Saunas aren’t a new cottage accessory, but they have evolved—ranging from traditional designs to sleeker, modern structures with big windows—yes, windows!—to showcase the view, whatever the weather.

Upcycled beauty

The sauna at McGillivray Pass Lodge sits atop a rock in a glacial lake north of Whistler, B.C. Many of the nearby hiking trails converge at the lake, so owner Lars Andrews and lodge manager Stefan Shier envisioned adding a sauna that would cap off the hikes. “One of my operations managers had spent some time at Nimmo Bay,” says Lars. It was that visit that inspired Lars and Stefan to get their plans in motion.

To design and build their sauna, Lars hired Ryan Standerwick, the carpenter who built his home. “We ordered extra windows for our house because we were worried some would break, so we had three left over,” says Lars. Ryan designed the structure around those three rake windows, which slant to match the roofline. (Rake windows are windows with irregular angles and sides.) “Transporting them to the site was a challenge,” says Lars. “We had a special rack built to carry them, and we slung it under a helicopter.” They constructed the rest of the sauna off-site in Squamish with locally milled cedar, then transported it to the lodge by helicopter too. One of the most successful parts of the design is its minimal impact on the environment. “If we were to ever take it down or move it, there would only be four little rebar holes in the rock left behind,” says Lars.

This charming bunkie is actually a functioning bird house

And the finished sauna is a hit. “Everyone asks about it,” says Lars. “There are other amazing hiking destinations in the area near the lodge, but anybody who has heard about our sauna wants to go there.”

Tradition, with a twist

The sauna at Stephen Smith’s Crouse Island, Ont., cottage was a labour of love—even if it didn’t start out that way. He and his wife, Cathy, bought the cottage in 1997, and after a few years, they decided to hire a crew to build a sauna by the water. “We felt it would enhance the cottage experience for us and our kids and also help us extend the season,” says Stephen. The design was traditional, partly inspired by Cathy’s youth using the sauna at her uncle’s cottage on Georgian Bay, but with a couple of tweaks: this sauna would have a change room and, most importantly, a window to let in light and their spectacular island view. 

But soon after the structure was framed, Stephen arrived one weekend to find that the contractors “had installed a bedroom door with a hole for a metal handle…in a hot sauna.” If they weren’t thinking through basic details like that, Stephen wondered, what else could they be missing?

After discovering that finding someone else to take on a half-finished job on an island that’s 25 minutes from the landing was a chore, he decided to take over himself.

A banker by trade (and this was before YouTube), Stephen learned as he went: how to brick a chimney, insulate the wall, install cedar lining, and build stairs. He picked up little tricks such as screwing in seats from underneath so you don’t “burn your butt” on metal screws. The guy who sold him the firebox advised him to use clear cedar, a more expensive grade with less knots. “He said, ‘If you sit on a knot, it’ll burn your ass,’ ” says Stephen. “And I thought, Well, the same logic probably applies to the screws.”

How a timely reno turned this 1970s cabin into a modern retreat

Beyond the original design, which fits 10 people, they added another window in the change room and a diving board out front. In the end, it became a group project. “It took me years to finish it with my wife and friends,” he says, “but now you look at the sauna and remember who helped you and the great time you had building it.” While Cathy passed away in 2012, for Stephen and their now-adult children, the sauna is still one of the best parts of the cottage, especially at night. “You use it, you jump in the water, you flip on your back, you look at the stars and think, Wow, what did I do to deserve this?” 

A floating oasis

This dramatic floating sauna in Port McNeill, B.C., began as many brilliant ideas do: it was drawn on a napkin.

Fraser Murray, the manager of the Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, was living in a small, off-grid float house with his family when his parents founded the lodge in 1981. “We had to walk to the waterfall to get water, we only had kerosene lanterns and a woodstove,” he says. Eventually, the float house came down, but Fraser always dreamed of replacing it in some way. He had never heard of a floating sauna, but the concept seemed obvious. “I thought it would be beautiful, going straight from the sauna to the ocean,” he says. A floating sauna could also be towed to a neighbouring bay for guests to use and then back to the lodge for Fraser to use with his family.

Before Fraser could have his floating sauna, he needed a floating dock—a big one. He hired Dave Parker, a local dock builder, who constructed the dock to accommodate the sauna, but also a picnic table, loungers, and even a wood-fired hot tub. The dock has 18-inch steel pins and 8-by-10 inch beams with decking on top. After the dock was complete, Fraser and his wife, Becky, along with some friends, built the sauna in one weekend.

This couple turned a workshop into a charming retreat—on a modest budget

A main feature of the design is the large window. “I looked for the biggest one we could find,” says Fraser. It’s tempered glass, which is heat-safe up to 475°F. “Even when you dump water on the rocks, it doesn’t steam up.”

The novelty of the sauna hasn’t worn off. “The sauna is great, but with the beautiful mountain in front of you, the forest, the wildlife—it’s the location that’s magical.”

Fraser’s next project will take the design even further. “I’m building two more saunas,” he says. “One with an outboard that we could tow on excursions about an hour away and one that we could lift with a helicopter and place on a mountain or a glacier.” He’s going to need a bigger napkin.

Brett Tryon’s work has also appeared in Today’s Parent and Chatelaine.