I have a love-hate relationship with steam rooms; love the steam, kind of hate the room. Having been a tile setter and home renovator for a few more years than anticipated, I know what a good grout line looks like. I know what a poor one looks like too. That’s why visiting steam rooms is a strange experience to me. While I aim to be in a semi-meditative state for 20 minutes or so, my eyes promptly scan the walls to find imperfections in the grout lines. Is my glass half empty again? Yes, and I’m very aware of it, like that itchy spot on my back, always appearing with the start of the dry winter weather.
Outside, the temperature last night dropped to an unhealthy -34 degrees. Yes, Celsius that is. After a few days on ongoing clouds, nasty breezes and several inches of snow, this morning blue skies paint the mountain landscape with a soft brush. A mysterious mist hangs over parts of the slowly waking valley. For a few minutes, the scenery I observed through the window encouraged me to go outside, face the elements, and take some photographs.
Visually, I am attracted to vapour in the form of mist or fog. The spectacle that I am particularly drawn to is the mist that rises from creeks, lakes or rivers. “Steam fog” forms when cold air moves over relatively warm water. I say relative, because even in summer the water around here is frigid enough to give you an instant nipple burn. When cool air mixes with the warm moist air over the water, the moist air cools until its humidity reaches 100% and voila, fog forms. This type of fog takes on the appearance of wisps of steam rising off the surface of the water. Where I live, this phenomenon typically takes on a noticeable appearance when the temperature of the air is lower than -20 degrees Celsius.
When the temperature drops this low, the sun sits at the horizon and the wind turns silent, the world appears surreal. Parts of the creeks and river look like appealing hot springs. Fortress sized flumes of steam dance through the orange morning light. One moment, the steamy curtains form an impermeable wall to the photographer’s eye. Seconds later, like a curse lifted, the castle wall magically dissipates enough to get a clear view of the surroundings. Trickling sounds play a rhythmic baseline. Ravens crook and plonk from distant veiled trees, discussing the morning news. Despite the cold it’s a dreamy experience, being immersed in nature at the dawn of a spectacular blue bird day.
Mindful at -30, I’m scanning my body and breathe in deeply only to find my lungs shrink on the impact of arctic air. I’m very aware of my quickly numbing fingertips, palpitating toes and large ears poking from the narrow space between my toque and neck warmer. I have already ceased to feel my frozen nostrils. Frost is building itself an ice palace on my eyebrows. In the middle of the numbing cold, with the battery of my camera thinking slowly, I dream myself back into the comfort of the steam room I visited only the day before.
The impermeable steam outside is not unlike clouds I encountered upon entering the room yesterday. Contrary to outside, the air temperature in the steam room was so high that I immediately sweated like a Dutch cheese in the afternoon sun. The steam was hot enough to burn the skin. The misty atmosphere kept a surprise as to how many naked people actually sat in the room, only to reveal them in full glory when the watery dust settled. So I decided to keep my mind focused on slowly breathing, my eyes fixed on the tiles and crooked grout lines.
For some ten minutes I kept my composure, while my heart palpitated in an overly heated head. That was all I could handle. My prune-like and heat-drunk body waddled over to the showers to inspect the grout lines there. Not a bad job actually. Then off to the pool, where I aimed to swim one lap to satisfy the repetitive “you need to work out” bug in my head. I swim like a snorkeler on safari. Tiles are all I see. I end up finishing the night counting tiles, thousands of white ones and one long black line on the pool’s floor.
For some odd reason I figured I had time to shave myself this morning before braving the elements. Maybe I thought it was important to make a clean impression on the hard core outdoor enthusiasts I would encounter at these temperatures. After all that shaving effort, it turns out my face is not even visible this morning. I am currently disguised well enough to rob a bank. The shave was quick, but not clean. My razor-blade nipped me, of all places, in the nose and a steady stream of blood flowed from my nose until a ball of toilet paper finally plugged the eruption. Now, in the numbing morning cold, the cut has started bleeding again. I am smearing blood all over my gloves and camera.
My skinny office fingers are covered in specially selected thin gloves that stretch over my fingers and wrist like a second skin. The gloves are only a millimeter or 2 thick, perfect for handling camera buttons, as working a camera with thick gloves is like trying to type a text message with oven mitts on. But even with the technical blood-covered gloves from the outdoor supply store my bony tentacles inside quickly move outside of their intended comfort zone. My fingers get so numb, there’s no camera handling to be done, I might as well be typewriting on a cutting board. However, it’s a glorious middle-earth morning and I tend to make the most of it for a few more moments by attending to the shutter button with my knuckles.
“Oooooh, my god”, I cry out loud. It’s five minutes later I find myself back in the car, defrosting all near-dead parts of my body. It takes an eternity for the car stop stuttering. Shifting gear is a smooth as smearing frozen peanut butter on a freshly baked bun. It doesn’t matter. This morning has been a good, tough and short exercise in inhabiting uninhabitable conditions. It was a useful lesson in seeing what was right there in front of me to appreciate. I drive home using my teeth and elbows. With new respect for my northern compatriots, I slide into a warm bath at home. Steam slowly fills the room. Condensation builds on the tiles. The grout lines are perfect. I finally relax.