Jump Right In

Last week, I agreed to go ice swimming with a guy I met at a bar in Helsinki. I would have been slightly nervous about the whole thing, but for one simple fact about dating: whenever you make plans over a few Belgian beers, they hardly ever happen.

That and I figured I probably didn’t hear him right anyway. Ice swimming? That sounded crazy at midnight, let alone in the light of day when I could see that the water in the harbor was covered in ice. I wouldn’t be able to swim in the Baltic Sea even if I wanted to, which was especially good news because I totally didn’t want to.

“He probably said ice fishing,” I thought to myself. “That sounds better. I could do that.”

Long story short, I was wrong about a few things: 1. Scandinavian people keep their word. 2. The word he used, coincidently, was not fishing. 3. And it is possible to swim in a body of water covered in ice so long as you crack the surface first and then use an industrial propellor to keep the ice chunks from floating back to the part you cleared.

There are plenty of people who will say “There is nothing in the world that could make me jump into ice water in the middle of March in Finland.”

And normally I would agree with them. But if the invitation comes from someone named Johann who looks like a professional skier and works at an art museum, then they might have a change of heart. I say that based on personal experience.

Ice swimming is pretty much what it sounds like. Except that the water is so cold this time of year that you can’t really stay in longer than a few seconds at a time. So it’s not so much swimming as plunging, sort of like the ice bucket challenge, but in reverse and instead of donating money to charity afterwards, you just sit in a sauna and talk about how brave you are.

The place I went to is is called Kulttuurisauna. It’s an eco-sauna located uncomfortably close to power plant in the Baltic Sea. It was a simple, trailer-like brick building equipped with two minimalistic wood saunas. Just behind the building was a wooden path that led to swimming pool-style ladder. Beyond that, a two-meter gap in the ice that people have paid $15 to climb into.

“The steps were damaged by the ice blocks during the high winds last night,” the man at the desk explained when we checked in. “So please be careful.”

I rolled my eyes. A broken step was low on my list of concerns – even lower than wearing a bikini on a first date. I was a little more worried about the plunge into water that was literally 32°F when the air was only 25.

I’m not going to lie: I regretted my decision. And I let that be known to Johann by muttering, “This is stupid. This is so fucking stupid,” over and over as we walked to the water’s edge in our bathing suits. But I felt I had to go. I was already there, for one thing. And there was this business of him paying my admission for another.

I walked down the steps as quickly as I could and then jumped off the bottom rung. I let the water rush up to my neck and spun around. I actually can’t tell you what it felt like because I don’t remember. I suppose that’s what happens when your body is in shock. When I snapped back to reality two seconds later, I was flailing my arms and I trying to grab back onto the ladder.

“I hate you,” I said to Johann as I clamored up the metal steps. “I hate you.”

And then I had to take it back. Because I felt it. A total rush as my entire body, not knowing if it was hot or cold, completely relaxed. It was the best natural high I ever had. Better than running. Better than sex. Even better than my old hobby of climbing a rope, knotting it around my ankles and then swinging headfirst to the ground.

I grabbed Johann by both elbows and said, “That was awesome.” And I meant it.

He laughed. “We’ll do it again,” he said.

And we did. Four more times. It was my Helsinki highlight by a mile.

Interestingly enough, I met Johann as I was reading a post by a fellow blogger, @alia15, about why it’s so hard to find someone decent to date. I was in the process of posting a comment agreeing with her when Johann walked over and launched into a minute-long speech that involved laughing at his own jokes and moving a chair. It was quite charming despite the fact that he did it all in Finnish and I had no idea what he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I only speak English.”

“Oh. English,” he replied. “Can I sit here?”

There seemed to be a lot lost in translation, up to and including a direct quote from the universe that said, “You might find meeting people a whole lot easier if you’d put down your phone for a goddamn minute.”

Regardless, I  said yes. Yes to the company. Yes to the invitation. Yes to a second drink. With ice.

***

Photography was not allowed at Kulttuurisauna, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it happened. But here are a few other shots from the day…

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16 Comments
    • right? as far as i’m concerned, if he’s the one asking you to jump in a frozen lake, the only appropriate response is “what time?”

  1. You are a brave & incredible woman! Sounds pretty exhilarating; sorry I doubted it and essentially called you nuts when you mentioned this on Twitter! Also, thanks for the shout-out – guess there ARE some nice ones out there. (Maybe just not in the US?)

    • Oh awesome! In truth, this wasn’t on my bucket list either, but it really should have been :) Out of curiosity, what’s the other thing you added?

  2. Wonderful that you got to enjoy some winter up here. I thought I recognized that harbor photo. Hope Helsinki was good to you otherwise, too. Good luck on the next stop.

    • It’s funny, I’ve never been a fan of winter, but something about Helsinki made me reconsider. Not sure why exactly, but I suspect it starts with a J and ends with an -ohann. :P Thanks for reading… I loved Finland! xx

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