I had buried the idea of ice swimming in Finland somewhere deep in the back of my mind. In my immediate vicinity, there were no Finns who enjoyed this sport. At least that was what I thought. On one of my last weekends in this lovely country, R. received an e-mail asking us if we wanted to try it. S. (R.s friend) had done it some odd ten years ago, knew where to go and wanted to take us along. My heart made a jump and screamed: YES! R. got soft knees. Wading into water always took some time for her. Wading into 0,6-degree cold water would almost certainly not resemble her idea of relaxation. Seeing my eagerness, she pushed herself and grabbed everything we would need: bathing suits, a large and a small towel for showers and the sauna, crocks, beanies and lemonade. In the car, I felt sick to my stomach. I had claimed that this would be great, but I wasn't so sure about it anymore. Was I insane? The Finns were crazy. That was undisputed, but me? Why did I want to do this? Swimming in ice is absurd!
We drove through a forest to a beautifully located lake that was also a spring. When ten minutes later we stood in a dark parking lot, surrounded by pine trees in the middle of a forest, my stomach had sunken to my knees. Damn it. Since my two companions thought similarly, we went to the water and looked at the whole thing first. A steady stream of elderly individuals with caps, rubber boots and swim trousers or bathing suits walked past us into the water, lingered there for a few minutes and then went back to the small wooden buildings. Everyone commented on our uncertain looks and gave us little encouragements. Because there were only friendly Finns, there was no going back.
When we entered the sauna, we were welcomed by a beautiful picture that I will never, ever forget. Women of various ages occupied the top bank. They all wore their bathing suits. Some of them also wore wool caps or felt hats to keep the head temperature constant. Never in my life would I have dreamed that there was such a thing in reality. The women moved closer together so that we three also found a place. They were real character types. R. told me later that the conversations moved from the way the husbands went to the toilet, the best way of sorting kitchen utensils, to participating in ice swimming competitions. They were shameless and wonderful. I saw my feelings reflected on R.'s face. We were in good company. The lady's announcement at the entrance "In the sauna, you will meet friends" was merely describing reality. Here, dyed skinny blondes and overweight natural women met and spent their time in the sauna with prejudice-free chatter. Unlike in Germany, the sauna was not a temple of relaxation, but a social event. This, of course, is not a general fact. There are many different facets of how to experience a sauna, and for the Finns, there is only one rule: no rules.
The wonderfully soft and warm water vapour felt like water in a hot bathtub. With each infusion, the perceived temperature rose until I could only breathe through my mouth, as my nasal mucous membrane was close to burning. The sauna with its 90 degrees didn't get any hotter. Only the water transferred the heat onto my skin more directly. For a long time, it had trickled down my arms, and the small square towel on which I was sitting was dripping wet. I felt my head become empty and my eyes blurry. I had to get out of here.
The cold night air brought immediate relief. In goose-march, we walked on slightly shivering feet to the ice hole. The water was clear, the ice thick and covered with fresh snow. A pump kept the water moving and the hole open. The people at the hole were giving encouragements. The news that there were newbies seemed to have spread like wildfire. Everybody knew. A little awkward, I tried to shoot a few pictures. After all, I would need proof. I wanted to show my brothers how tough I was. My camera was not working well with these fluctuating temperatures, and the autofocus only worked every third time. I realised I would better describe this with words.
The first step into the cold water was like stepping into a thousand needles. Slowly I sank into the cold while trying hard to keep breathing regularly. Once submerged, it was smartest not to move any further, for every movement felt like the skin would crack.
The cold was like the fulfilment of a long-cherished dream. I felt the heat evaporate and my head clear. It took only a few seconds, but then I felt the cold sink into my skin. Shortly after, I no longer felt my legs or arms, just my skin. Slowly, I got up and went back to shore. The next couple of seconds were painful and insecure I stood on my feet. Since I had no feeling in them, I thought they could turn away at any moment. When I looked down, they were pushed through. No risk of collapse.
The feeling slowly returned to my limbs. Only from afar I listened to the comments of the other ice swimmers. It felt like fireworks on my skin as if every pore woke up from their frozen state and expanded slowly, bumping into each other in the process, reminding themselves and me of the fabric that makes the skin the biggest organ in the human body. I couldn't help it. A smile spread across my face.
While standing in the fresh night air, the skin felt hot, but when we arrived at the sauna every last bit of warmth had left my body. Entering the half-lit room brought much relief as leaving did five minutes earlier. Again the water covered us; again we were caught in a warm pillow of air, again we were included in the conversation. Did we like it? Would we do it again? Yes and of course!
With the warmth, the feeling in my fingers returned. For the longest time I didn't know, was I warm or cold? In five different places on my shrivelled hands, I felt warmth and coldness, often in places directly next to each other. It took me approximately ten minutes until my eyes were heavy again, my head started to feel empty, and I had to start breathing through my mouth. It was time for the second round. Overall, I went four times. Each time my body expanded and tightened in the cold. I slowly learned to breathe through the discomfort and enjoy every single phase. Soon I managed to move in the water. With every time I felt less hurt.
The last time was the best. My companions had decided that they had had enough and were getting dressed. I scurried to the lake for one last time. I had the ice hole to myself and was able to relax watching the distant lights on the other side of the water and the vast sky filled with stars. It was delightful. The silence felt otherworldly.
It got cold, and it was time for me to get out of the water. Slowly and hesitantly, I stood up and moved toward the shore. I had grown accustomed to the feeling of not being the master of my limbs and was expecting monumental fireworks on my skin. They came. It was a pain-like feeling, which ebbed through my body and became softer until it was no more than a tingling sensation. With a wide grin, I slowly went back to one last round of sauna. "Like a pro!" Shouted the older gentleman, who had seen me from afar. Yes, like a pro.