so while I was having a particularly hot sauna last night, I was thinking about the steam baths I enjoyed in Kwethluk, Alaska a few years ago. the folks up there invited me into the steam bath and made me feel very welcome. I'm very grateful and I would like to do something for them in return.
I believe steam baths were introduced to Yup'ik folks by Russian fur traders and missionaries a while back, though there were Finnish settlements in the area as well. the steam baths in Kwethluk consist of a sort of dressing room/cooling off room and the hot room, which has a low ceiling maybe four feet high.
the stove is an oil drum on its side with a chimney. rocks on the top for steam. a square metal bucket full of water is set in the door of the stove to heat up the water to toss on the rocks. as I understood it, the barrel is packed entirely full of wood for one bath, though as many as fifteen folks will take part. the bath I used had a meat thermometer in the wall that I never saw go under 200 Fahrenheit.
the problem is fuel. the day I flew in, visibility was pretty good and I couldn't see a tree over twenty feet tall anywhere. wood is brought in on snow machines from I don't know where, but I can't imagine that they grow close by or very quickly.
the challenge: design a better heater for Yup'ik steam baths. by better, I mean more efficient.
Kwethluk, and many other Yup'ik towns, are only accessible by bush plane, snow machine, or driving on the rivers when they're frozen. there isn't a lot of building material available. plenty of oil drums, though. stovepipe is light, so that shouldn't be too much trouble to bring in.
it's got to be easy to build and operate. the current design is popular, despite the amount of wood it requires, because it's so simple. a new design could be a little more complicated, but not a lot. any added trouble in the construction or operation will have to be made up for in efficiency.
it's got to be relatively compact. the hot room of the steam baths are small. low ceilings, and at most 8' x 10'. six folks or more have to fit in there at a time with the stove.
anybody want to give it a try? if you like, I think this is the sort of thing that it would be easy to get grant money for. so if you want to pay yourself a little bit for your time, go that route. or throw out some ideas here. maybe some drawings. maybe a trip to the Alaskan bush will be in order once there's a promising design.