Lola Akinmade Åkerström has long been fascinated by ice swimming and how easily Finns submerge themselves into freezing waters. Can she too find her inner sisu?
It’s easily 15 degrees Celsius below zero. Wearing nothing more than a woolen hat and swimming trunks, Dave calmly walks to a wooden ladder—caked with snow and ice—that disappears down a hole. After a few deep breaths, he quietly climbs down and submerges his body neck-deep into the only patch of inky blue water that isn’t frozen over in Lake Päijänne, Finland’s second largest lake. After silently treading for a few seconds, he swims a few feet from the ladder, and just as silently makes his way back out.
I eye him suspiciously. Could it really be that effortless?
Now it’s my turn. I shuffle inelegantly along the jetty, walking barefoot on snow and wincing loudly with each icy step. Grabbing onto the ladder’s cold metal railings elicits an expletive, and as I make my way down, each step punctuated by screams of “oh shit!”, the freezing water feels like little knives stabbing with each advance. It is excruciating, terrifying, and yet invigorating all at once. That initial piercing feeling morphs into needles poking my skin, somewhat pleasantly, like acupuncture.
But I’m not sure I want that stabbing feeling around my chest quite yet, no matter how relaxing. So, after popping out twice to pre-emptively avoid going into cardiac arrest, I settle for two waist-high dips. And this is my first attempt at ice swimming in Finland.
To casually throw one’s body into freezing waters is to begin to understand the Finnish word sisu—which means courageously pushing yourself beyond your self-imposed mental and physical limits.
Centuries of hacking out an existence against harsh winter conditions builds a certain grit, one that can toss its scantily-clad self into a frozen lake without so much as a peep. A cultural closeness to nature that’s been fostered over generations means Finns are usually pushing—and punishing, it seems—themselves outdoors.
When I think of sisu personified, I think of my feisty Finnish friend Inna-Pirjetta Lahti who has been swimming every morning for at least five years, launching herself off a rocky beach into the sea from April to November. From December to March, she “only” swims twice a week in freezing waters. “It’s a great way to start your day, to get your energy flowing,” she assures me. “It also affects my health because my immunity is much stronger.”
She notes that when it’s windy and stormy out, it requires a lot of willpower—let me guess, sisu—to push through. “But you feel so fresh and good and ready for a new day with the feeling that anything is possible.”
Immersing one’s self in cold water helps reduce blood pressure, builds immunity, and triggers the brain’s endorphins which increase your resistance to pain and envelopes you in a sense of euphoria that helps battle depression.
Inna’s energy is clear evidence of this, but after I’d observed Englishman Dave Brett serenely swim, I realized that sisu can be cultivated over time, regardless of your background, and isn’t inherently Finnish. “It’s easy to become hooked on Finland when you get a taste of sisu,” Dave tells me. Having lived in Finland the past three years, the adventure and travel blogger takes every opportunity to swim during the throes of winter. “Finland can get very dark and depressing, but going for an ice dip keeps you going through the hard months,” he says.
Several scientific studies back up Dave’s reflections. Immersing one’s self in cold water helps reduce blood pressure, builds immunity, and triggers the brain’s endorphins which increase your resistance to pain and envelopes you in a sense of euphoria that helps battle depression.
Dating back to the 17th century, ice swimming (avanto in Finnish) is revered in this Nordic country and it’s said that the first clubs promoting this invigorating lifestyle were founded in the early 20th century. Today, there are over 260 swimming locations and registered clubs, such as Uunisaari Arctic Swimming Club, which has roughly 220 members. In Helsinki alone, there are at least 14 places where you can take a chilly dip; the winter swimming season usually starts when temperatures fall below 10 degrees Celsius.
Plus, anyone with prime real estate access to a lake or the bay in their backyard can bore ice holes with chainsaws, dig them out with spades, and make their own frosty swimming pools. The rules for ice swimming are quite simple, really. Don’t put your head under water and always keep your body at neck or chest level. Other than that, it’s all about taking a deep breath and slowly lowering yourself down the ladder into the ice hole.
Since 1989, national championships have been held every year to crown Finland’s ice swimming bad-asses. Drawing over 800 participants vying for the title, events such as 25- and 50-meter breaststrokes, freestyle, and four-person relays are organized with competitors ranging in age from pre-teens to grandmas.
It seems intense pain and exquisite pleasure are tightly coupled in Finland … It’s about consciously slowing down—mentally and physically— so you can simultaneously survive and enjoy the experience.
While many Finns take early morning dips to get their blood flowing before heading to work, ice swimming is often coupled with and enjoyed after a traditional Finnish sauna experience. The sauna tradition is deeply entrenched in Finnish culture—according to the Finnish Sauna Society, founded in 1937 with over 4,000 members, there are around two million saunas in Finland, and the country itself has a population a little over five million.
While living here in the Nordics means I’ve been privileged to indulge in saunas several times, my first truly traditional Finnish experience is at Lehmonkärki eco-lodge in the heart of Finland’s Lahti region known for its many lakes. It’s also here where traditional folk healer and Finnish sauna specialist Maaria Alén is going to whip me with juniper branches … “The traditional sauna healing is based on Finnish folk traditions.” Maaria says. “It strengthens our connection to our roots. It helps us understand better who we are, where we come from and what is valuable and worth saving in our culture.”
Traditional saunas are usually wooden chambers with a stove, called löyly in Finnish, which give off steam once water is thrown on it. You control the temperature based on how much water you toss. Saunas are used to de-stress and remove toxins from your body while the follow-up chilly dip reinvigorates the body. For sauna novices, the warm moisture might make you feel like you’re choking and losing oxygen, but rest assured, it’s all in your head. Once you push past that restrictive feeling with a healthy sprinkling of sisu, you’ll start to relax. It’s not dissimilar to the jarring experience of ice swimming, that supposedly gives way to a form of euphoria.
It seems intense pain and exquisite pleasure are tightly coupled in Finland. “The feeling you get from an ice dip is the closest you’ll ever get to traveling to the third dimension,” Dave tells me. “The trick is to go from the sauna very slowly. Lower yourself into the water very slowly, ensuring your heart rate can be slowed down, then try to stay in the ice water for about 30-60 seconds, going into a form of meditational trance.”
In other words, it’s about consciously slowing down—mentally and physically— so you can simultaneously survive and enjoy the experience. While on my first try, I never did experience that quiet meditation-esque trance due to my gut-wrenching screams, I did promise myself the next time around, I’ll go neck-deep.
Silence not guaranteed, though.