HELSINKI, Finland — I stepped outside in my simple black two piece bathing suit, bare feet and hair tied up. The cold air hit my flushed skin and filled my desperate lungs. I could see my breath cloud in front of me. I walked along the deck, down the steps and to the ladder at the edge.
I looked down, hands clasped tight in front of my chest. The water was clear, shallow enough to see the rocks at the bottom. I looked across the shore at the larger rocks still capped in snow, the sky beginning to change color with the sunset.
I was standing on the edge of the Baltic Sea in one degree Celsius weather wearing only a swimsuit, and I actually thought it felt good.
I must be insane. I must really be insane because I wasn’t just standing, I was preparing to jump in.
The Finns believe in living life to the extreme, and the most popular way they do so is by sitting in 100 plus degree saunas then countering it with a dip in the sea.
As soon as I stepped outside in Helsinki, I regretted my commitment to participate in the Finnish tradition. Granted, there wasn’t any real commitment, but I’d already told my boyfriend and mom what I was planning. My mom’s only response had been to “not catch pneumonia.” So now it had to be done.
The other girls and I had started in the smoke sauna — something we’d been told could potentially make us smell like a cooked ham for days due to the lack of a chimney.
It wasn’t bad at first. Then a man walked into the small, dark room and added more water to the hot rocks. A few seconds later and the air was practically intolerable. The steam fogged my vision and burned my nose or throat with every intake.
I could feel the sweat beginning to pool on my forehead and run down the back of my neck. Finally, we couldn’t take it any longer and walked as quickly as we could down the steep steps and out the door.
The air outside felt amazingly refreshing.
I contemplated the water and watched as a classmate took the plunge. I decided to soak in the regular sauna for just a bit longer before doing it myself.
The regular sauna was nicer — more open and light compared to the dark, oven-like smoke sauna. But it still had the potential to reach 100 degrees Celsius and, eventually, the sweat began to form again.
Once it felt as though my skin must be burnt and there was fire in my lungs, I decided it was time and headed outside.
I touched the ladder’s curved metal railing: bad idea, it felt worse than ice. I went slow, one rung at a time, still keeping my feet just above the water.
I tried to think about how everyone always says to just jump, as opposed to wading in, because then it won’t feel as cold. But I couldn’t help it. I dipped the tip of my big toe in.
It was a bad idea. Now I knew just how cold the water was, and I knew that I just had to do it — a leap of faith.
I let go of the railing, leaped backwards, and went under. For a split second, my mind did stop. And then the cold sank in.
I popped my head out of the water, gasping, and reached as quickly as I could for the steps to pull myself out.
Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.
I ran up the steps toward the sauna building and back down to where the others were still waiting. Oh my god. It was all I could get out, all I could think.
The air stung my skin making it feel like I was still in the water, or having ice cubes poured over my body. We soon returned to the warmth of the sauna.
Then we were ready to do it again.
I thought it would be easier the second time. Maybe I would be able to stay in the water longer. Instead, I found myself again teetering on the water’s edge.
But I jumped, my foot hitting a surprisingly smooth rock at the bottom. And again, my only objective became to get out of the water as quickly as possible.
Talking about a potential third jump, I realized that the process was addicting. Both extremes — your sweat being instantly replaced by goosebumps, gasping for air and out of shock, the rising feeling as your body takes in heat again. It was exhilarating.
I didn’t jump again, but tried for more time. I managed to get down to the last step of the ladder, the water coming up to my knees, and lasted no more than a minute.
Back in the sauna, I finally understood the saying “ice in your veins.” My toes were numb and my calves began to tingle. It hurt at first, but then became oddly relaxing.
I sat back, closed my eyes, and took in another drag of hot air, letting the heat cleanse the cold saltwater from my skin.