• Who doesn’t love a sauna?

    Saunas travel well

    I love saunas. I can remember when I first discovered the wood-fired version on a Swedish archipelago. The health-giving properties are obvious. It transforms your skin. You feel great – especially after the cold plunge. 

    But to the Anglo mind, it has always been an exotic, foreign kind of experience. For some reason, the sauna idea didn’t travel with the Vikings. That’s surprising, since it’s an idea that clearly spread far. 

    Everyone loves a sauna

    Of course, as soon as I’d discovered the Swedish sauna, I discovered it wasn’t the preserve of the Swedes. In fact, sauna isn’t even a Swedish word. It’s Finnish. Swedes call them bastu

    Russians have their banya. The Turks have their hammam. And then there are the amazing historical discoveries…

    I’m reading the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. (Why, you ask? That’s another story). In them, he relates his time in the Pacific North-West in 1852, when he rubbed shoulders with local native tribes. 

    This is what he has to say about a strange practice they used for curing illness:

    Something like a bake-oven was built, large enough to admit a man lying down. Bushes were stuck in the ground in two rows, about six feet long and some two or three feet apart; other bushes connected the rows at one end. The tops of the bushes were drawn together to interlace, and confined in that position; the whole was then plastered over with wet clay until every opening was filled. Just inside the open end of the oven the floor was scooped out so as to make a hole that would hold a bucket or two of water. These ovens were always built on the banks of a stream, a big spring, or pool of water. When a patient required a bath, a fire was built near the oven and a pile of stones put upon it. The cavity at the front was then filled with water. When the stones were sufficiently heated, the patient would draw himself into the oven; a blanket would be thrown over the open end, and hot stones put into the water until the patient could stand it no longer. He was then withdrawn from his steam bath and doused into the cold stream near by. 

    Just one more thing that came across the Bering Strait to the Americas long before the European discovery. 

    While we’re talking saunas, fancy a cold plunge? Read about The Baltic Cure For Fear

  • Where is the USA on a map?

    A map of the United States
    The USA: just lines on a map? (Photo by John-Mark Smith)

    Is there anything as immutable as the map of the USA in today’s political geography? Its shape is like a branding iron on the surface of North America — an indelible shape. Yet the accidents of history that brought it about — like all states — was revealed to me on a road trip around Washington State.

    As I drove north through the state of Oregon, I came to a dramatic natural barrier — the vast Columbia River. It is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, with a basin of 258,000 square miles, running from the Rockies out into the Pacific Ocean. It feels like a serious boundary line — and it nearly was.

    As you cross a tall steel bridge over the river, you enter a town called Vancouver. But wait, surely too soon? Nope, this is Vancouver, Washington State. It is 300 miles almost due south of Vancouver, British Columbia, and is some 29 years older. It is the original Vancouver, and was very nearly the boundary between the USA and Canada.

    The Oregon Question

    It all came down to the Oregon boundary dispute between Britain (which owned Canada) and the USA. This was in the 1840s, by which time Russia and Mexico no longer laid any claim to the Pacific Northwest. The USA wanted everything north to Alaska, and Britain everything south to California, but soon the dispute focused in on one area: modern-day Washington State.

    The two sides eventually agreed on the 49th Parallel, until the Strait of Georgia. The border was then to follow the channel south, making all of Vancouver Island Canadian, as it is today. But the San Juan Islands in the channel remained disputed until 1872, when German Kaiser Wilhelm I arbitrated on the dispute and gave the islands to — you guessed it — the USA.

    A lovely postscript

    Point Roberts, a tiny tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula just south of Vancouver, BC, which lies below the 49th Parallel, but east of the Strait of Georgia, is American soil to this day, despite its population of a little over 1,000 having to travel 25 miles through Canada to reach the rest of the USA.

    For more on how the borders of the USA were made, listen to Misha Glenny’s excellent episode The Borderlands, from the BBC Radio 4 series How to Invent a Country