A love-heat relationship: Duluth couple launches mobile sauna Hiki Hut
Every year, Kelby and Whitney Sundquist do something as a couple that's a little out of their comfort zone. Travel to Iceland, city-to-city bike tours, rappelling down the side of a canyon. Their latest was to build a mobile sauna and start a business.
Hiki Hut hit Duluth streets in December, and so far, the bright blue sauna on wheels has made its way to events like the Superior Ice Festival and the Duluth Winter Village, and pop-ups at Lester Park and Hartley Nature Center.
The idea was spawned from the Duluth couple's first visit to the cooperative 612 Sauna Society in the Cities. It was Whitney Sundquist's introduction to taking a sauna, and she said you didn't know the people, but you felt compelled to talk.
"The vibe was really unpretentious and unassuming. ... It's hard to have ego when it's this hot, you're sweating just like everybody else."
The Sundquists moved to Duluth three years ago, and saw the Twin Ports as a prime place for a mobile sauna because of the lake access, the nature and the small business community. "We've seen how cities and people can really squelch ideas and motivation, so coming here and seeing that it's actually the opposite of that, was really inspiring," she said.
Now, they're business people — she's an accountant, he's a supervisor — but figuring out how to renovate a 6½-by-16 fish house, how to pull it down the road, and how to develop a business model were new challenges, they said.
"If you can get through the really scary things, then the mundane, 'Who's gonna do the dishes,' doesn't seem like that big of a deal," Whitney Sundquist said.
The key for construction was insulation, which was already sound in a Northland fish house, but they added more, in the floor and in the walls to contain the sauna-level heat, Kelby Sundquist said.
They figured out the aesthetics, what they wanted for the size of the changing room, how their solar circuit would work and how to build it with renewable energy in mind. The stove runs on wood, and the solar system powers the battery.
"It lets us go entirely remote in the middle of the lake, in the woods or in the driveway without a power source," he said.
Together, they chose a name that pays homage. "Hiki," pronounced "hickey," is the Finnish word for "sweat." There was a learning curve, like figuring out the best wood to use. They "weekend warrior-ed it," and after a year in the making, they said they're happy with what they've built.
On a chilly Friday, it was easy to spot the bright blue trailer parked along Brighton Beach. The smell of the wood fire greeted with the sound of crashing waves.
Inside the hut, there's a changing room on the right, the sauna on the left, a cutout of Lake Superior, a dock station for music, and a tiny door near the floor, where they can feed the sauna's wood-fired stove without losing the heat.
In the sauna, there's room for six, along with a bucket and ladle, essential oils in sweet marjoram and eucalyptus, and sunlight cascading in from windows on both sides. The Sundquists like to keep the temperature at around 190 degrees, and it takes about an hour to warm up.
They see everyone from "hardcore Finns" to sauna newbies, and it's a fairly new service, so they get a lot of questions. Do you build these? Can I rent this? How does this work?
But, it's all about that bench time.
They offer sessions for 60 and 90 minutes, and some take breaks by rolling in the snow or jumping in the lake. For those who want to chill, literally, the Sundquists have lawn furniture spread out over a nearby rug. There's also a shoe shelf and a table with a water cooler, cups, towels.
Visitors are required to wear suits inside, and not the birthday kind. But, clients haven't asked about saunaing naked. "In our culture, especially in Minnesota, everybody's a little bit more timid about that," said Whitney Sundquist. People are visiting in T-shirts, yoga clothes and gym shorts.
Outside the Hiki Hut, wind swirled off of Lake Superior and steam rose from Josie Jorris and Nick Mazzoni during a break in their session. They recalled their visit during a Park Point pop-up. It was night-time, and the Sundquists had lanterns leading to the lake.
Jorris has gone halfway in the lake to cool off, Mazzoni goes all the way. "I've never felt more alive," he said, recalling his frozen sandals.
Jorris called visiting the mobile sauna "a new self-care routine" before the cold ushered them back inside.
Justin Juntunen, of Duluth, relaxed in swim trunks outside the Hiki Hut. He grew up taking saunas in Esko, where his Finnish ancestors settled.
Taking a sauna is a process that includes a cultural, social and a spiritual component, and he values the tradition and ethnic heritage of the practice, he said. "Löyly" is a Finnish word that means "spirit" or "life," as well as sauna steam.
There's also no ego in that space. Some may consider sauna time as a sort of competition, but it's customary to bend to the person newest in the room. "It's the experience of acknowledging we're all one in this spot... and it's inherently transformative."
If you go
- • What: Hiki Hut at the Lake Superior Ice Festival
- • When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 16
- • Where: Hartley Nature Center
- • Book a spot: hikihut.com/reserve-your-spot