Friday, February 10, 2012

Finnish sauna & ice hole swimming at Kuusijärvi, Vantaa

I never expected that my job would take me to a frozen lake in Finland, surrounded by coworkers from across Europe and the former Soviet Union, the lone American bobbing in a hole cut in the ice. Intentionally. And for fun.

I came to Helsinki for a BHL-Europe partner meeting. It's February, and daily peak temperatures hover around -15C. We've had a 700m walk from the hotel to the (charming & hospitable) meeting room each day, and everyone has commented how brutally cold it is outside.

The group and I were invited by Evgeniy Meyke, a technology developer & collaborator for the Biodiversity Heritage Library who happens to live outside Helsinki, to experience a traditional Finnish sauna followed by quick swims in freezing water. My thought: Well, when in Finland... I'm unlikely to make this trip again, so might as well embrace the craziness of it all and do it - a once in a lifetime chance.

Flash forward to this afternoon and we're riding on a bus headed 30 minutes north of Helsinki to Kuusijärvi, Vantaa, now officially the furthest point North I've ever been. We had 5 guys & 1 gal participating, and the wife of one of the men who wanted to come along to take pictures & fish us out if needed. We got off the bus in the middle of a snow-encrusted country forest (read: the middle of nowhere) and met Evginey at the entrance to the outdoor recreation area. It was just past 4:30pm and the sun was making a slow descent. Lovely. And cold.

So the whole thing goes down like this: You pay your 10euro at the main house, and grab a pair of the motley assortment of waterproof shoes available. Men & women split up into separate locker rooms and change into swimsuits. In most Finnish saunas you go in without clothing, but this is a public sauna and so you wear a suit. You throw on your shoes, grab your towel, and walk out into the open air, which by this time is well below the balmy -15C we had during days in the city.

You start off by warming up in the smoke sauna. In this particular setting there are 4 cabins. Each has a little entry room where you take off your shoes and drop off your towel, then walk into the main room of the sauna. There are two rows of wood seating in an L-shape around a brick oven heaped with coals. The room fits 8-10 people. And like in every other sauna, you sit there & stew. You throw water on the coals which produces steam and releases an intense blast of heat, and so you get all toasty & sweaty. You do that as long as you can stand (usually less than 10 minutes for the non-Finns) and then you put your shoes back on & head back out into the open air.

Now this is what was amazing: It felt absolutely wonderful to be standing outside, drenched in sweat, in below freezing cold air. And then you walk down to the water (maybe 15m). And here's where it gets crazy.

There's a square hole cut in the thick ice on the lake. There are wooden steps leading down into the water. The top step and the hand rails are covered in ice. You kick off your shoes and start walking down the steps, while your hands and feet freeze to the ice on the steps and rails. And then you walk into the ice cold water and submerge yourself up to your neck.

My first trip in, I stayed in for maybe 3 seconds and then hurried back up the stairs. The Finns behind me were a little annoyed that I barely even made it into the water before jumping out, because I was in their way. It's a psychological thing - your brain is yelling "Get out of the water, you stupid American!"

In reality, the water is warmer than the air outside. But, yeah, it's COLD, and goes against everything we've ever learned about getting out on frozen lakes in the US. So then you walk up the stairs, your skin sticking to the stairs (i
f you'll notice on the picture with this post, I'm about to put my hand on a freezing pile of ice), jam your frozen feet into your frozen shoes, and once again marvel that you're standing outside, dripping wet, this time from cold water, and yet you feel completely comfortable. Being the manly men we were, we hooted & hollered about our achievement and stood in the snow to snap some pictures. Larissa, our female partner in the polar bear plunge, seems to have intentionally dodged the camera, but she was there, hooting & hollering along with us. By this time my hair & beard had started to ice.

And then you walk back to the sauna and do the whole bloody routine again as many times as you can tolerate. On my second attempt I cleared my mind and stayed in the water for probably 10-15 seconds, paddled a bit, and got out. 3rd time out I just walked around the outside of the cabin and didn't take a dip. 4th time out we bypassed the water & headed inside to shower and change. Normally your sauna excursion ends with warm tea or beer in the cafe the house runs, but we had a dinner back in Helsinki to attend. I felt calm, my skin felt great, and when we reached the restaurant I was starving. Luckily dinner was Nepalese - rich, warm & delicious.

Will I do it again? Probably not, unfortunately, because I doubt I'll be back in Finland again in the winter. But WOULD I do it again? Absolutely! It's a crazy, marvelous experience that makes you feel totally invigorated - your heart's pumping, your blood's circulating, and every nasty toxin your body has been storing up has been magically wicked away from your skin by the alternating heat/cold. I'm now 6 hours from my last trip to the water and I still feel great.

I don't know that there's any global truths to be learned here, or that I can wrap this up so that it all comes together in some meaningful way. I traveled out to the Finnish countryside with co-workers who have become great friends, sat in a hot room & swam in a frozen lake. Insane! But I enjoyed the heck out of it, and if you ever get the chance I would highly recommend it.

Here's a video someone posted to YouTube, showing a dip in the same spot & steps...but without 6" of ice!


Suz said...

Awesome. So glad you did it and shared your experience

Henning Scholz said...

Stupid idea, this is not serious - that was my first thought, but it was really really great. The implications of low and high temperatures are completely changed. It really was a fantastic opportunity, just the right weather and just the perfect group of people for such an event. I have enjoyed it, thanks to Chris for driving this idea forward.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this!

I had been looking for an ice swimming place in the Helsinki area and thanks to your very detailed blog post I found exactly what I was looking for.

Nate Dilworth said...

Hi Chris,
Found your blog while searching some stuff so this is my first visit here and must say great read. Glad that you have made it and congratulations to you. I have been doing swimming since last 2 years and found great to strengthen back, shoulders, arms and hips muscles.

Cerys said...

This is awesome!

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