“Are you crazy?” he asked me. It’s not unusual for my boyfriend to ask me this so I ignored him and carried on getting ready, wondering what to take with me even though all I’d been firmly advised to bring was “just a towel”.
“You don’t have to go,” he suggested gently and I stopped rolling up my “just a towel” and turned to him before putting my coat on.
“But I want to do it,” I explained after the shortest of pauses. Maybe I’ll pack two towels, I thought to myself.
“You want to plunge your body into a hole in a frozen lake in these temperatures?” His eyebrows were raised and his fingers were no longer tapping away on his laptop as they always seem to be. He must be seriously worried. “It must be minus something by now,”
We both looked outside at the dark that falls on Lapland by mid-afternoon at this time of year. We’d grown used to it, but the cold was a different matter. Unless you had three layers on the bottom of your body and a minimum of five on the top, venturing outside could be very a painful affair, particularly at night, which we were fast approaching as I stood with my “just a towel” ready to go ice-dipping for the first time..
“Well, when in Rome…” I muttered my voice trailing off into the uncertainty that had kept me company since I’d accepted my invitation to go ice-dipping.
“Except we’re not in Rome. We’re in Finland. Lapland!” He exclaimed laughing. “And you’re going to do all this naked?”
Suddenly my mind drifted off elsewhere. “Yeah, it’s a shame I don’t have time to do my bikini line…”
Moments later I’d left my boyfriend rolling his eyes in the comfort of our warm holiday apartment and I walked off to meet Joanna, a weekly ice dipper who was keen for me to experience not only this but also a proper Finnish sauna,which was a revelation in itself. My previous experience of saunas involve a small wooden box in the gyms I used to go to in London that people lie in wrapped in towels or wearing bathing suits. I’d heard about how the Europeans did it – i.e. NAKED – but I’d never before been fully exposed to this, in more ways than one, until now…
We arrived at a wooden hut on the edge of a snow covered frozen lake in the beautiful village of Äkäslompolo which is one of the main settlements from which you can explore Ylläs National Park and ski area in the Kolari region of Finnish Lapland. A hole a couple of metres wide had been shaped out of the ice and a small motorised turbine was running to keep the exposed water from freezing again. We passed a group of men – each carrying “just a towel” – as we walked towards the hut. They had had their session before us women and they politely reassured me that I would love my first ice-dipping experience. I think I smiled and nodded back to them but by this point I was a little frozen with fear or with the cold night air, who could tell…
I couldn’t help but notice the thermometer that hung on the side of the entrance to the small hut in which was the sauna – a huge wood burning stove – and a cozy changing room where a log fire was burning enthusiastically. The mercury read -4 celsius and I heard myself gulp.
Once inside I felt suddenly awkward but had little time to dwell on it as other women arrived and immediately started to talk and undress. I started to strip quickly almost throwing my clothes around the room trying to keep up with them; I did not want to appear the prudish British girl who didn’t want to get naked. Instead they probably now think I’m the strange British girl who is rather clumsy and disorganised when getting undressed.
As I walked into the steamy warmth of the sauna I ignored the snowy “gangplank” that I could see through the window. It was lit up by fairy lights and lanterns and if it wan’t leading to the icy waters I was expected to dip my body in, I would have thought it quite a romantic scene. Inside the sauna I sat on a wooden bench and relaxed. Maybe I could stay here forever, not bother with that ice dipping part…
Thanks to the warm hearts of the (naked) Finnish women I shared my sauna with I was educated on the history and importance of having a sauna in Finnish Lapland. After about thirty seconds I forgot I was completely naked as I chatted to women who work in Ylläs and I learnt that saunas in Nordic Europe, particularly in the colder climes like in Lapland, were historically and traditionally the time when you would wash using boiling water heated by the sauna’s stove, which you would mix with cold water. They are the equivalent of historic bathing halls before hot water was available in everyone’s home. I asked questions and the women answered in perfect English. It was clearly a subject close to their hearts. Then we all sat in a comfortable silence, feeling and appreciating the heat. Perhaps I’d imagined the ice-dipping part…
“The third dip is the best,” Joanna explained to me, reminding me what I was here to do.
The third? I thought I only had to do it once! I thought to myself, alarmed.
I successfully hid my shock and replied with a nervous laugh and a nod. I felt my body get hotter and hotter thanks to the water that was almost continuously poured onto the sauna whose coals hissed and fizzed hot steam at us. I was beginning to feel uncomfortably hot and wiped the sweat off my face with my equally as sweaty hands. I eventually got to a point where I was surprisingly relieved when Joanna suggested we go for our first ice dip. I wanted to get away from the extreme and uncomfortable heat.
I didn’t feel cold until I was a metre away from the steps that descended down into the water.
I didn’t not want to do it until I’d put my first toe in the water and my body screamed “GET BACK IN THAT SAUNA!”.
I didn’t fully realise what I was doing as I stepped down backwards until I was able to bend my knees and plunge my body in up to my neck.
I didn’t appreciate, thankfully, quite how cold it was until I was climbing out and running back to the sauna.
I did, however, feel many rushes of wonderful feelings; triumph, pride, bravery, elation and a brand new physical sensation, like my skin was tingling from head to toe. I returned to the sauna to a room full of knowing smiles and congratulations.
And yes, Joanna is right. The third dip is definitely the best.
Additional photos from Ylläksen Yopuu where you can find out more information about hiring this sauna.
This post was written by Frankie Thompson who was a Travelette from 2012 – 2015. Originally from London, UK, Frankie was nomadic for several years before settling in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where she lives with her Australian partner and baby boy. She spends her time buying vintage dresses, riding a rusty old bike around the canals and writing books inspired by her travels. Frankie blogs about travel, writing and motherhood at As the Bird flies blog.Tweet