The fuels may be different, but many geographical regions embrace steam and sauna.
The Richmond Saunas in rural Richmond Corners, Maine -- about 40 minutes up Route 295 from Portland -- are heated by wood. In the corner of each sauna, private and communal, stands a wood burning stove and a cauldron of water which is used to douse the cairn of rocks sitting atop the stove.
In Colorado, and elsewhere in the West, lovers of steam and heat use vast geothermal hot springs to calm nerves, soothe aching muscles and sweat. From Idaho Hot Springs, Steamboat, Ouray, Granite, Bozeman to Thermopolis...from New Mexico to Montana, I've soaked in many.
In Richmond, perched on a top plank, in the corner of the communal sauna, naked and arms wrapped around my crossed legs, I meet a very large welder from Saco, a slight visitor from Massachusetts and a pleasant older man from I don't know where. It is strange sitting in this confined space...in New England...watching the cauldron burble, snow piled to the windows and sleet slicking the window, sweating among these strangers...naked, large and small, hirsute and corporally-bald men.
This particular evening in this particular sauna doesn't have nearly the same joie de vivre as the time I met a young musician at the Strawberry Park Hot Springs in Colorado; he was to fly home the next day to take a job with the Vermont Symphony. I watched him sit for a long time at the edge of an outdoor stone pool. When he finally stripped down and slipped into the water, he told me he was waiting for sunset when "clothing optional" would take effect. An east-coaster, beaming, he was gleeful to have permission to skinny dip in public.
Amidst the strangeness, steaming in a wood sauna strikes me, once again, that climate and geography and local resources must dictate sustainable energy practices. Maine has a lot of wood; the West has a lot of geothermal. Maine has a lot (a lot!) of water which it has used for hydro-electricity, and the West has a lot (a lot!) of coal...and wind. Both have a lot of sun, but as yet, I have not run across a solar-powered sauna. There is talk here in Maine of tapping geothermal for geoexchange heat pumps using vertical loops. And there's the wide-eyed talk by homeowners of mounting small-scale wind turbines on their roofs and in their fields. Mainers have used coal to heat their homes, and I hear it is an option considered by some here these days...and, indeed, there are hydro-electrical plants in the West.
But coal for Maine and water for an arid West are kind of like New Englanders sitting around naked, sweating in mixed company. As my brother in New York might observe, with dismay, "that's just wrong."
Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, is a consultant in sustainability. She currently manages a home performance program in Maine and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. In 2006, she built out a biobus using green building materials and wrote on cleantechblog of her drive from Colorado to Maine and her quest for biofuels. In 2007, she began renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.