All the people out logging right now are laying in wood supplies to feed their wood stoves through the winter. Not so much to warm their houses, as most homes in Bethel are heated with fuel oil, though some have wood stoves as a back up. And with the cost of fuel oil up to $3.65/gallon, many people are planning to burn more wood and less oil. But most of the wood collected after spring break up goes to heat the steam bath.
The Eskimos call it muk’ee, and it is their traditional method of bathing. In a land where water is locked up in ice for the eight frozen months of the year, the people had to develop a system for bathing that required very little water. The steam bath gets you cleaner than a shower, and provides an opportunity for socializing as well.
In the villages, as well as in Bethel, most people have a steam bath. It is a small, two-room building made of logs or lumber. The smaller of the rooms has a six foot ceiling and is for changing clothes and for cooling down after coming out of the bath. The larger room is the bath itself. The ceiling is very low, usually less than four feet, so you can only sit or lie down inside. A portion of the floor is cut out to make a recessed space that holds a woodstove just below floor level. Really nice steam baths have a plywood floor coated in marine paint, which cuts down considerably on one of our dreaded-but-common problems, the BOB (boil on butt).
The traditional muk’ee is gender segregated, as this is a naked activity. The men steam together, usually first, and crank the woodstove as hot as it can get. The temperature in the bath may exceed 150 degrees F. A mark of Eskimo “machismo” is how hot you can take your steam. After the men are done, the women and children steam, usually at somewhat lower temperatures. Boys after the age of five steam with the men.
The Eskimo muk’ee is very different from the Native American sweat lodge, though both involve an intense heat source in a small space and lots of sweating. The sweat lodge is a spiritual experience, while the muk’ee is a purely social one.
When the woodstove is literally rocking from the violent forces of combustion within, and the stove pipe glows red hot nearly to the ceiling, the steam bath gets hot beyond all belief. Conversation stops. Everyone gets flat on the floor as the person hosting the steam bath pours ladles of water over the woodstove, instantly creating billows of steam. Though it is hotter with the steam, it is also easier to breathe. Sweat is rolling from every pore, and your skin is tingling all over, but especially the part facing the woodstove. By this point I am usually prone with my face to the wall, trying not to let my exhaled breath touch my skin anywhere—it burns when it does.
When you feel that you just can’t take the heat for another second, you may ask for the door to be opened. You slip out quickly, before too much heat is lost, and sit down in the dressing room to cool off and drink water. Loss of body fluids from sweating can be extreme, and dehydration headaches several hours after a steam bath are not unusual if the person hasn’t been replacing fluids adequately.
The sign that you’ve had a really hot steam is when you come out with “muk’ee skin”—a lacy pattern of redness known medically as reticularis livedo. In people who take steam infrequently, it is a temporary skin change that resolves in a few hours; but over a lifetime of frequent exposure, it becomes a permanent pigmentation pattern.
When the woodstove cools, each person brings in soap, shampoo, and a basin for water. After sweating oneself clean from the inside out, it is a small matter to “wash up,” and only requires about a gallon of water per person. And you feel so incredibly clean! The Eskimos believe our method of bathing, taking a shower or a tub bath, is only doing half the job. I have to agree; I’ve never felt cleaner than after taking steam. And it is followed by such a great night’s sleep.
One of the most memorable steams I can recall occurred on New Year’s Eve of Y2K (remember that?). I did not believe that the world would fall apart at midnight, but I wanted to be somewhere peaceful if it did. The following is what I wrote the day after:
January 1, 2000
Steaming in the New Year
It’s a quiet New Year’s Day, especially after all the hype and hoopla associated with this particular New Year’s Eve. There were parties all over town and I was invited to a couple, but chose instead to spend the evening at Henry’s taking a steam bath. He said the elders are saying that that is the best way to ring in the new year, and he agrees with them. I was thrilled; there is almost nothing I would rather do than take a steam.
Henry’s steam bath is exceptionally beautiful. It is a low log structure that he built from logs he salvaged out of the river about 25 years ago. The main room is about 6 feet by 10 feet, with a hole cut in the floor so the woodstove can sit directly on the ground. There is a small dressing room, about 6 feet by 3 feet, where you can step out if it gets too hot inside. The stove itself is a 55 gallon drum laid on its side with pipe out the roof and a square hole in front which is closed off by a big pot which holds water. River stones cover the top and sides, held in place with chicken wire. This increases the surface area to create more steam when hot water from the pot in the stove door is ladled over the hot stove. Several 5-gallon buckets of water have to be carried down to the steam house to use for drinking, washing, and making steam during the bath. The floor is plywood with an element of luxury--it is painted. This minimizes splinters in bare butts which often lead to boils.
The Eskimo tradition of steaming has more to do with hygiene than with spirituality. In a land which is frozen half the year, water is a precious resource, and conserved in all ways possible; chipping ice from the river, hauling it to the village in buckets and melting it over a fire is hard work. Some Eskimo villages in our region to this day have no running water and no sewer or septic system. They developed steam baths as a way for numerous people to bathe using minimal water. Last night there were 6 of us in the steam and we used about 10 gallons.
Generally we steam first and eat afterwards, but since we wanted to “steam in” the new year, we reversed it. After a light supper of shrimp and salad, we lit the fire in the bath house about 9:30. It was about 25 degrees below zero outside, so took some time to get the bath warmed up. Everyone else stayed up at the house during the warm up, but I was enjoying the quiet and peaceful solitude in the dark bath house with the fire crackling against the chill. It felt so good just to sit with the fire, eyes closed, and absorb the energy.
After a second wood stoking, the fire was roaring and the bath was hot. Henry and four other friends came down and we began ladling on the water. There is an art to proper ladling; if you just dump water on the stove, it splashes, which can burn people sitting close, and doesn’t make a lot of steam. Water must be slowly and carefully poured from the ladle while moving it over the surface of the stove. This produces maximum steam from each ladleful of water. The temperature in the bath goes up about 20 degrees with every ladleful. It quickly gets really hot. Some people stay in the bath the whole time and others go out to the dressing area to cool down and then come back in. It goes on for a couple of hours. The Eskimos say that in a steambath, you get clean from the inside out--much more than in a shower. After everyone has had enough, the floor is squeegied to leave it as dry as possible and any extra water in the buckets is dumped. The candles are put out, the fire is left to die, and the bath slips back into darkness until the next steam.
As I was leaving the bathhouse, the Alaska night presented me with the most awesome spectacle. The Northern Lights were flaming green across the sky. The crescent remnant of the waning moon was just rising and the stars were outrageously bright. The Big Dipper hung just over the steam house, which was a silhouette against the night sky with sparks coming from the stove pipe. It was breathtaking. I wanted to stand there forever, just looking at the majesty of it, filled with the beauty. With a start such as this, Y2K could only be good.
This is a photo from the interior of a muk'ee house in a small village on the Yukon River. It has seen almost daily use for forty years. Notice the water container sitting in the mouth of the stove--an old gasoline can! It is a common practice, but it still makes me nervous. As health care providers, we encourage the owners of the baths to clean with bleach between each use, and we encourage people using the bath to bring their own piece of clean cardboard to sit on. As this information has penetrated the culture, we have seen some reduction in boils caused by methicillin-resistant Staph. aureus (MRSA), a particularly nasty bug.
Labels: Life in Bethel