Posted by Ken Campbell September 6, 2010 0 Comment 944 views

It has been a while since I set up a wilderness sweat lodge. I’ve done it on a few different occasions, with a variety of people and groups, but I think the best one I ever built was one that I put together on a solo trip.

It was November and I was on Sucia Island in the northern San Juans. I was taking a few days off, had set up camp on Sucia and was spending my days going over to Matia or Patos, then coming back to where I started. I had the whole of Shallow Bay to myself, a place that, in the summer, often resembles a backcountry mosh pit. (There are over 50 floats in Echo Bay alone and the number of campsites on the island is large enough that you’d never think it would fill up. But it does.)

One day, after a morning paddle around most of the island, I parked myself on the beach just below my camp. I dug a hole in the sand about 3 feet deep and lined it with large sections of bark. Into the hole went rocks, a couple dozen of them about the size of grapefruits, piled on top of each other until they reached the level of the sand. I built the fire right on top of them.

As the fire burned, the coals dropped down into the hole, into the spaces between the rocks. There they glowed and popped, steadily heating the stones until they glowed as well. While the fire was burning, I made a small shelter with my tent fly about ten feet away, using a huge beach log as one wall and carving out another small area where the heated stones would be placed.

When the time came, I swept the fire off of the rocks and carried them one by one to the sweat lodge. When they had all been piled inside, I grabbed a bottle of water and went into the enclosure, zipping the door closed behind me. The night air was cold and I could hear a wind blowing in the high branches but the air inside the sweat lodge was already hot. Beyond hot. From time to time I’d splash some water on the stones, listen to them hiss and steam as I breathed in the super-heated air.

When I couldn’t stand it anymore, when the heat got too intense, I went back outside, trotted down to the water of the cove and dove under the surface. The cold was shocking, but my core still stayed warm. I stood in the shallows looking up at the stars for a few minutes until I started to shiver. Then I went back again for the next round.

I’m going to Sucia again this week. It may be time to build another one.

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