Finland’s Frozen Thrills
flurry of snow and ice surrounds me. The Arctic wind whips my red cheeks, rosy from both the sub-zero temperature and the adrenaline rush. My body trembles, with nothing between my bare skin and the cold.
Last minute doubts are starting to kick in as I jog down the steps leading towards the ice-pool in Lake Pyhäjärvi at Nokia, 10 miles (16km) west of Tampere. The name of the small town is, of course, recognized throughout the world for its well-known telecommunications giant.
Hundreds of spectators are standing on the pool embankment watching the Finnish Winter Swimming Championships, cheering on the participants. Indeed, winter swimming is a popular activity in Finland, with almost 800 swimmers participating in these annual competitions. Most are Finns but Russians, Latvians, a handful of Brits and a single New Zealander are also taking part in this year’s race. Locals have been telling me it keeps them healthy and strengthens their immune system.
“Emerging from the pool following a winter swim is the best sensation in the world,” says one of my local friends who swims in winter just for the fun of it.
Along with five other competitors, I’m taken into a tent next to the pool and the rules are explained, in Finnish then English. The key point that I have to remember is not to put my head under the surface of the water, which has a temperature of just over 33.8°F (1°C). It will mean disqualification, but more importantly, it also increases the risk of us passing out. Professional divers, I’m assured, sit waiting in dry suits in case of emergencies.
It’s time to head outside for the race. My heart pumps louder than before, pounding like a drum roll. My awareness heightens as I realize that it is too late to back out. I clench my teeth to prepare for the numbing chill as I lower my foot into the water.
Yet the cold of the water clearly heightens my perception as I’m able to understand whatever Finnish is for “take your marks” before the buzzer sounds. The race is just 25 meters but this isn’t like swimming in a standard pool; I have to concentrate, forcing my arms to pull through the strokes and my legs to kick. Even though the contest takes just a matter of seconds I can hardly feel my arms and legs as I approach the finishing mark.
Breathing harder than usual, I climb out of the pool and a tingling feeling ricochets through my body like low voltage electric shocks. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline rush or the sense of achievement, but a renewed energy quickly replaces the electric bolts.
Over the next few days, I learn that winter doesn’t necessarily keep the Finnish indoors. To seek out more of Finland’s winter pursuits, I head to Tampere, the lively university city 106 miles (170km) north west of the capital, Helsinki.
With over 215,000 residents, Tampere is the biggest inland city in any of the Scandinavian or Nordic countries. It was founded as an industrial town on the isthmus between two lakes, Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, which are now largely used for outdoor activities. Despite drastic urban development, backcountry adventures can still be found in the outskirts of the city.
I join an outdoor adventure tour guide, Liisa, by the shore of Lake Näsijärvi, where she selects a pair of snowshoes for me. Looking down at the ice and the fissures that run deep beneath its surface, I tap to see how thin the layer of ice actually is. “Don’t worry, the lake will hold your weight,” she assures me.
The snow shoes’ teeth grip tightly onto the surface, which makes moving around surprisingly straightforward. I’m impressed by how quickly we can move with these snowshoes, which are shaped more like squat skies than the tennis rackets you see in cartoons. No wonder it’s a hit amongst the locals –snowshoeing makes for an excellent workout and gets you soaking up nature.
In the middle of the frozen lake, we pause to chat with a tall, white-haired man fishing through small holes bored into the ice. He sees that I’m fascinated and shows me how easy it is to burrow a hole using nothing more than a five-foot-long handdrill. It takes him less than a minute before water gushes upwards through the threads of the drill. He then hooks a catch as I watch. He learnt this trick from his father, who had picked it up from his grandfather.
The tradition has been passed on for generations – and from what we can see – it hasn’t changed much in the past few decades. With the sky gray and a dusting of snow on the lake’s icy surface, we move on, leaving the fisherman to his solitude.
Back on land, we tramp over white powdery snow, to get to a wooden hut ensconced within a thick pine forest. After working up quite an appetite, we find ourselves at a wooden hut, and Liisa invites us to enter.
Inside, fat pork sausages grill over a wood-fuelled fire that wafts the faint fragrance of pine. We lean over the crackling logs to warm ourselves and Liisa heats a pot of coffee over the fire. My face flushes hot as the low flames exorcize the cold and the coffee warms me from within. We chat and unwind after a day of action out in the cold. The Finns, as I learn, sure know how to pamper their guests.
Before heading home, I have one more challenge awaiting in Tampere: rally driving at the Motor Space circuit. Ice covers the meandering track, set on a clearing among pine trees. This is the most challenging time to race on the circuit, which is open throughout the year.
Popular among bachelor parties and corporate groups, it offers curious revelers the chance to race the rear-wheel drive Volvos with manual gearshifts. What might be team building to some is just a session of mechanized fun for me. Dressed in blue racing overalls and a helmet, I take on the driver’s seat in the bare interior, stripped down to the essentials to reduce weight. I’m immediately fired up and ready for the challenge.
I channel my enthusiasm by thrusting the accelerator, making good time on the first half of the track. Keeping to the racing line, I feel in control and want to inject even more speed, but as I come out of the last corner I hit the gas and the car spirals out of control. Despite desperately turning the wheel to regain command of the vehicle, I pirouette beyond 90 degrees and slam into the embankment of snow. Fortunately I’m safe and sound, but my heart is palpitating and my pride injured; I slam my palm against the steering wheel, frustrated that the race is over for me.
Despite the Arctic conditions, I’m leaving Finland with a warm feeling and blood-rushing sensation. The cold really isn’t that intimidating after all. Maybe I need to go and cool off with a swim?
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Issue 5 (Winter 2012).