November 4: It’s winter in Finland and temperatures are touching single digits. Across the Arctic, from Burbank to Murmansk, the land is completely frozen. Suddenly a group of Finns appear with a pickaxe and drill a hole in the thick ice pack. Are they going to fish? So where are the rods?
Before you can blink a frozen eye, they have stripped down and stand shivering at the hole’s edge eyeing the chilly winter waters. Then, the bravest (or is it the most foolhardy?) splashes in!
Brrr! Unbelievable! As Obelix would say tapping his head “these Finns are crazy”. But it’s true. Figure skating and skiing are no longer “cool” in Finland. Ice swimming is what the Finns do to “chill out” these days, says a report in ‘The Asian Age’.
Ice swimming, which involves dipping into a hole cut over a frozen lake or river to bathe in the icy waters has been practiced in Finland for years. However, the current level of popularity that it has gained among the young and old is what is amazing.
Ice Ecstasy, a “how to” book for enthusiasts written by journalist Pasi Heikura, anthropologist Taina Kinnunen and forensic medical specialist Pirkko Huttenen is melting off the book shelves as quickly as it is stocked.
Over half a million Finns in a total population of 5.2 million have tried ice swimming at least once. Last winter 80,000 did it at least once a week!
A very popular sport in North America and Russia, regular ice swimming enthusiasts are known by such endearing names such as Polar Bear and Walrus among others. However, it is a sport definitely not for the faint hearted.
For a newcomer, the first splash is electrifying and shakes both body and mind. First timers gasp for air and thrash about on first contact with the heart-stopping cold water. However, after the first time, people want to go back again and again and soon get acclimatised to the cold.
Apart from the initial mind numbing cold, ice swimming refreshes the body and mind and increases stress tolerance, say experts. It also stimulates the hypothalamus and releases endorphins causing some people to get addicted to this sport.
If you are interested you can first try it out at home by taking a bottle of cold water from the fridge/freezer and pouring it over yourself. If you can take it, then Finland is only a snowball’s throw away.