Steambaths have been an important part of the lives of most Alaskans
for centuries. Beyond the obvious purpose of being a place to get
clean, they have been the center for decision making and spiritual
Many good illustrations of science principles are found in the
It takes heat to evaporate water. In a steambath, our body perspires,
attempting to cool by evaporation. As our bodies sacrifice water
through the skin, the evaporation of that water cools the body.
The perspiration that emits from the skin carries with it toxins
and other unclean substances. We are cleaned, not just skin deep,
but deeper than skin deep.
Some people lightly whip themselves with small bundles of brush.
This stimulates blood circulation that helps bring blood to the
surface of the skin.
Dry wood is very important for a steambath. Damp wood cannot give
An old man on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta used wood scraps from
a construction site. Among the wood scraps were pieces of green,
pressure-treated lumber. The old man died from the gasses given
off. Pressure-treated wood contains arsenic.
A 1, 2
D 1, 3, 4
Rocks, Steam and Condensation
are important in a steambath because they have enough mass to hold
heat and keep the temperature in the bath steady. If there were
no rocks, the temperature in the bath would rise and fall quickly.
When water is spilled onto the rocks, the heat in the bath feels
more intense. Why?
Evaporation of water requires heat. Condensation releases heat.
When we spill water on the rocks, heat is taken from the rocks to
evaporate the water into steam. When the steam condenses into water
on our skin, the latent heat of the steam is released onto our bodies.
This is why people put grass in their mouths. The steam condenses
in the grass, not the lungs.
Kinds of Rocks
I first learned about steambaths, people constantly talked about
using white rocks and warned against using black rocks in the bath.
Further inquiry showed that many black rocks contain enough water
that they will often explode dangerously as the internal water turns
to steam. When rocks explode, they sound like a gun blast and pieces
of rock fly in every direction.
Most white rocks in Interior Alaska are volcanic (igneous), whereas
most of the black ones are sedimentary with considerable water trapped
Long ago, before 55 gallon drums were available to heat the baths,
people heated rocks in a campfire outside of the bath. They moved
heated rocks into the bath, removing the ones that had cooled. This
tedious method is still used when people are camping far away from
Hot Air Rises
Everyone who has taken a steambath knows that hot air rises. The
higher the individual sits, the higher the temperature. For relief,
people often lay as close to the floor as possible.
understand soap, we must understand polar and nonpolar substances.
Water is a polar substanceeach molecule is similar to a
magnet. One end of the molecule has a partial positive charge, and
the other end has a partial negative charge. The materials that
dissolve in water are also polar, like salt.
Some things, like grease, dont dissolve in water. Grease
is nonpolar. The molecules are not like magnets, they are balanced.
Nonpolar liquids, like oil, will dissolve nonpolar substances,
like grease, fat, spruce pitch, and some plastics.
Soap Is the Link
One end of a soap molecule is polar. The other end is nonpolar.
It will dissolve a little in water. It will dissolve greases, fats,
and other nonpolar substances. It is a link between water and greasy
dirt that water alone cannot remove.
Showers and bathtubs have replaced the steambath in many situations,
but the satisfaction of a good steambath cannot be imitated. Steambaths
are not likely to be replaced in time, as they provide an arena
for social events as well as a thorough cleaning.
Pour rubbing alcohol into your hand. Blow on it. Does it feel
cold? Why? Try the same thing with a small amount of gasoline.
Try now with water. Which cools your hand the most? What causes
Did/do people in your village whip themselves with brush in
the steambath? If so, identify the type of brush used in your
Bring a thermometer into the steambath. What is the temperature
on the floor? At shoulder height? At ceiling height?
Pour water onto the rocks. Does the temperature actually rise,
or does it just feel hotter?
Ask the people in your village about the best rocks for a steambath.
Where do they get them? Ask them which rocks are not good, and
why. Ask someone who knows about welding and cutting with an acetylene
torch what they can tell you about cutting on concrete. Do you
see any similarities?
Try to clean grease from your hand with water. Try to remove
it with soap. Soak the soap in water. Does it dissolve? Put the
soap in a little stove oil or vegetable oil. Does it dissolve?
What can you say about soap dissolving in both oil and water?
Ask the oldtimers how they used to make steambaths when they
were away from the village.
Ask the oldtimers if there were other reasons for taking steambaths
Look up igneous and sedimentary. What
is the difference in their formation.
How does perspiring help to cool us off in a steambath?
Why do people whip themselves with brush?
Why are rocks important in a steambath?
Why are white rocks desirable rather than black ones?
Why is the bath hotter at the ceiling than on the floor?
Why does soap work well to remove grease and oily dirt?
What are polar and nonpolar substances?
My friend Joe takes a steambath every night of the week. From
the time he makes the bath to the time he gets done it takes him
about 2 1/2 hours. What fraction of his life is spent at the steambath?