lushed and sweating, I threw open the door and sprinted naked across the ice in the frigid winter darkness. I couldn’t explain precisely why--perhaps the neurons in my brain were firing a little sluggishly in the sub-freezing temperatures, or maybe the long northern nights were beginning to take their toll.
Whatever the reason, there was one fact I couldn’t escape; there was a hole in the ice, and I was about to plunge my skinny, poorly insulated, buck naked self right through it into the icy waters of the Baltic Sea. To make matters worse, I was about to do it on purpose.
In the summertime, the coast of southwest Finland is an beautiful vacation spot with an idyllic blend of trees, rock and water. Lichen-covered granite boulders mottle the landscape under an endless forest. Summer houses give way to sailboats as the land splashes headlong into the Baltic in an island-rich archipelago.
But during the winter, it’s just plain inhospitable The islands are sealed in a sheet of ice. Temperatures drop and the nights grow long.
And I was there because I thought it would be fun.
It all started innocently enough with an invitation to join two Finnish friends for a mid-winter weekend in a cabin on the coast. The delighted gleam in their eyes should have warned me, but they caught me blissfully unaware when they said, "We’re going to jump through a hole in the ice. Are you going to join us?"
What could I say? There I was, a lone representative of the land of the free and home of the brave, home of Rambo, Rocky, and the Marlboro Man. I couldn’t very well tuck my tail between my run, could I? Determined to cover up my involuntary whimpers, I blustered enthusiastically, "You bet!" My fate was sealed.
Once there, we bored, hacked, chopped, and splashed the tidy little 4’x4’ hole that was to be my nemesis. I eyed it apprehensively. By the flickering light of our oil lanterns the water looked ominously black and forboding—I was convinced that I was about to die.
At the water’s edge, the heat in the woodburning sauna that would make our folly possible had been slowly building. It was now a toasty 185 degrees Fahrenheit, and ready for business. We dropped our clothes hastily at the door and stepped in through a wall of heat. The dense air enveloped me and warmed me from the inside as it filled my lungs.
The sauna first entered written history a thousand years ago, and for at least that long it has been an integral part of the Finnish culture and way of life. It began as a place to bathe during the long winter months. The sterile environment it provided even created the ideal delivery room for countless generations of Finnish babies.
Now, however, it is a place to relax, to socialize, even to do business. It’s not unheard of for business deals to close amid the hot blasts of löyly, as the Finns call the steam created by throwing water on the rocks.
The Finns are proud of their saunas, and from to time will let you in on little snippets of sauna trivia. For example, did you know that this little country of 5 million people has over 1.5 million saunas? Or that the first Finnish saunas came into use 2000 years ago? More importantly, did you know that if you pour beer on the rocks of a sauna, it smells like a bakery?
As an honored (if slightly unbalanced) guest, I claimed first rights to the water. Not because I was so brave, and certainly not because I was so eager. No, the primary reason was that I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in that sauna of going through with it if I actually saw somebody else do it first. The only hope was to keep my brain as blissfully ignorant as possible of the experience that lay ahead.
I leaned back on the wooden bench, slowly baking, and repeated my mantra: "This is crazy. This is stupid. This is crazy. This is stupid." I dipped the ladle into the wooden bucket and doused the stones with water. "This is a heart attack waiting to happen," I groused nervously as I screwed my eyes shut against the hot slap of steam.
My friends continued to assure me that they had done it many times, with no adverse effects. I thought perhaps the adverse effects had simply addled their brains enough that they were willing to do it again.
I knew, of course, that it wasn’t just my friends who had done this and survived. It’s a time honored Finnish tradition to defy the elements with a refreshing post-sauna dip through a hole in the ice or a powdery snowbank. And there did still seem to be a lot of Finns around...so maybe there was some hope for survival after all.
As I sat there, dripping with sweat and condensed löyly, I could feel myself getting hotter, and hotter, and hotter. Finally, I had had enough. There was no escaping the inevitable now; it was time to face the black hole.
I threw the door open and sprinted furiously. I flung myself in the water, promptly entering that sublimely rigid state where the thought of finding one’s underwear unexpectedly stuffed chock full of ice cubes seems, relatively speaking, a warm and cozy idea.
I was in and out in record time, but I had done it! I had conquered the cold! I stood there on the ice, invincible, with arms akimbo in my best superhero stance. In my shock induced euphoria, I even took another dip before heading back to the sauna. The whole thing was strangely exhilerating.
Back in the sauna, I began to shiver in the 185 degree heat.
A proper sauna is taken, of course, in the buff. So the next day, as we sat in the sauna preparing for yet another plunge, we were suitably attired. I was an old hand by this time, with numerous trips to the ice under my belt (figuratively speaking of course, since I was naked). This time, there was no frantic, panic-stricken sprint for the ice. This time I opened up the door and strode out confidently, jogging down to the ice with a steady, loping stride. This time I ruled my world! This time...
This time there was an elderly couple walking their dog right past the hole. They looked at me and smiled.
My mastery of the world vanished. I froze. What could they be thinking as this lobster-red gang, obviously of questionable sanity, streaked down toward them as they took a leisurely Sunday morning stroll? I had visions of the weekend ending in the back of a police car as they hauled me away for moral turpitude, or at the very least, for dangling my bits in public
Then I remembered. This was Finland. In the summertime, half the Finnish population would be doing this same thing, in a similar state of undress. This wasn’t behavior that merited a call to the local sherriff. I smiled back and waved, grabbed hold of the ladder, and plunged myself through the ice.
Those Finns may be crazy, but they sure know a thing or two about living.