DENMARK — As Jesse Stevens of Sweden rolled in the snow in his swimming trunks and pulled snow on top of him, he wore a contented smile.

Nearby, John Abare of Portland stood in a bathing suit even though it was just 30 degrees. He made snowballs to throw at Nicole French of Gorham, who also was in the snow in a bathing suit.

All three had just emerged from a hot wood-fired sauna heated to 160 degrees in the middle of the woods of western Maine. They were part of a group of almost two dozen visitors who came here last Saturday to enjoy the dry heat combined with the frozen snow outside at Nurture Through Nature’s community sauna event, called Sauna Saturdays.

Saunas have been around for centuries and are a way of life in many European countries such as Germany, Austria and Finland. They are not as popular in Maine, but there are many who find their way to the one in Denmark – the western Maine town at the foothills of the White Mountains.

At the 33-acre holistic retreat, this outdoor European tradition takes place every weekend from October through March when the sauna is open to the public. Then a small community of sauna enthusiasts hike through the woods for a $15 visit.

The sauna at Nurture Through Nature is a traditional Finnish wood-fired sauna. Three windows look out to the forest around what owner Jen Deraspe calls her “healing temple.”

In the round, cedar building oils such as those from eucalyptus and oranges are poured over the hot rocks, infusing the steam with rich smells. Slats in the floor allow visitors to pour frigid spring water over their bodies to the forest floor below.

Deraspe opened the eco-retreat in 1999 after leaving a job in sports medicine. She wanted to help people better connect with nature. The sauna was built in 2009 at her wilderness center that offers yoga, meditation and healing arts classes. Deraspe said it’s proven her greatest inspiration yet.

It is used in group retreats and rented to private groups. Then there are Sauna Saturdays.

“It’s a group of strangers who just come together,” Deraspe said. “You can never anticipate how many will show up. Most of the time everyone fits. There is a flow. Some stay 45 minutes, some stay two hours. It seems like a safe space to be real, to be yourself, to relax and connect with nature.”

Sauna keeper Nina Britton said the age-old principle in the sauna is used – with intense heat being paired with the snow or frigid spring water outside. The combination of extremes is believed to push toxins out of the body.

Britton feeds the sauna fire with wood, bringing the temperature to 160 or 170 degrees. She also hauls five-gallon buckets of spring water from the brook outside to the sauna for visitors to pour over themselves.

Deraspe said people come to Dennark – about 10 miles west of Bridgton – from a few hours and even a few states away to enjoy the sauna, as well as the community experience.

“We get a lot of people from Portland, Portsmouth, Boston, and Cambridge,” Deraspe said. “There’s something about the deprivation they feel from the natural world living in the city.”

Many of the Sauna Saturday visitors last weekend said the relaxing experience affects their mood, their productivity and their energy level.

“It’s detoxifying. It’s the spring water and the fresh air,” said Diana Jacobson of Windham, a regular.

“It de-stresses you, it’s healthy, it enlightens you, it gives you focus. I feel ready for anything after this. I’m a med tech at a nursing home so that’s very demanding.”

Abare of Portland said he started coming after a shoulder injury last December.

“I thought this would be good with the inflammation and healing process,” Abare said. “I think it’s improved my range of motion. I’ve been kind of tracking that and this has really helped.”

French took the ladle and poured spring water over the hot rocks in the sauna to send a searing steam through the dark room, which comfortably housed 18 adults.

She said the sauna experience wouldn’t be the same in a gym or at a spa in a building. For her, the sauna in the woods is a needed escape from a job in information technology.

“I’ve been coming since it started,” French said. “It’s cleansing. It’s so simple here in the trees and beside the brook. For some reason, when you’re in nature it feels like you return to your true nature, your natural element. You have to walk the land to get here, follow the woods trail. It feels like you find more of yourself here.”

Elizabeth McKinnon of Center Conway, New Hampshire, said the community that gathers at the Sauna Saturdays is always welcoming. She’s learned of two good restaurants in Portland.

She listened to Stevens tell Abare about a secret beach in western Maine.

“This has a lot of health benefits,” McKinnon said. “It’s also very relaxing. It’s very meditative. I like to come outside the sauna and sit on this bench, and look at the sun set behind the mountains. I am an outdoors person. I hike and do a lot of Nordic skiing. But the sauna lets me sweat out the toxins. I come a few times a month.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

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