With the first snow of the winter, we crossed the bog with snowshoes on and followed our guide’s footsteps faithfully, all in a line. “People disappear in the water,” our guide said matter-of-factly, demonstrating with his snowshoe how bouncy the surface was and how some areas were more watery than others.
We were visiting Estonia with our girls in 2016, exploring national parks and wilderness areas from old-growth coastal spruce forests on the Baltic Sea to little-known inland treasures that are so particular to this region and had reached Soomaa National Park, a raised bog formed of various mosses, lichens and bog plants, all happily acting as sponge to retain water above ground.
This bog grows by 1mm per year and was 8m above sea level when we visited. Make that 8,000+ years of slow moss growth, creeping upwards in a region that counts five seasons every year – the fifth being annual floods that turns roads into waterways. Depending on when you visit, you can either walk the trails or canoe above the flooded trails, which sounds deliciously wicked.
Arriving at a lake featuring a swimming board (for summer visitors) by a small cluster of spruce trees, our guide announced, “This is a bottomless lake.” Lake? I had all my swimming gear in my backpack. I said I wanted to grab a quick swim and he answered placidly, “All right. We take a break, then.” Our guide didn’t act the least surprised. When I asked, his answer was too Estonian to be true: “My sister, she swims all winter in the sea in Tallinn. She does like you, winter swimming. Winters are cold in Estonia. Minus 20, minus 30. Still, she swims.” Of course, I’d heard of Estonia winter swimmers. Really hardcore lot. Deciding there was nothing more to add, he shrugged and headed for a spot where he could quietly while away the snowfall while I changed into my swimming costume. “Make it quick,” my husband told me. “It’s bloody cold out here and it’s starting to rain.” Fair enough, the fresh snow was turning to slush as the air temperature was reaching the positives.
I'd heard of Estonia winter swimmers. Really hardcore lot.
The board was white with snow and the odd dark spots of weathered wood showed through. Barefoot, I made my way to the ladder, all the while considering the meaning of “bottomless lake.” Could bottomless mean more than 8m by any stroke of bad luck? As I stepped onto the first rung of the ladder, I looked at the water. Pitch black is what it was, and intimidating too – but I could see my foot on the slippery wooden rung. Surely, that was a good sign. At least, the water was clear. With only a woollen hat on my head to keep me warm, I slid into the water. It was cold, probably 5C or less, and the otherworldliness of the landscape made it seem quite surreal. Embracing winter, I dared not disturb the mirror-like surface of the water and started with the gentlest of breaststrokes, keeping my eyes on the snowy edges and shrubs across the lake. If there were fishes in there, I didn’t want to know.
Ironically, I dared not extend my legs downwards completely because of the reference to the lake being bottomless, as if the bottomless lake could somehow suck me in. I preferred to have my lower limbs closer to the surface where I could see them. The idea that a dark medieval beast could come to grab my feet did tickle my imagination and how could it not? The place was gloomy at best. This Estonian bog was a featureless landscape to the untrained eye. No hills, no bigger trees, no visible landmarks to break the black and white horizon. It stretched on for miles and miles and miles.
I dared not extend my legs downwards completely because of the reference to the lake being bottomless, as if the bottomless lake could somehow suck me in.
Roughly in the middle of the lake (a glorified pond, really), I turned around and waved to my husband and two girls. They were sipping hot tea from a flask and seemed happy enough. Floating on my back, I savoured the moment and looked at my legs—they were blood red underwater. After a quick moment of panic, I decided to be rational. Only now did I notice that the lake smelled of iron – or maybe I imagined the metallic smell, but the colour was definitely striking and slightly disturbing. This peat-lined bog was certainly rich in minerals and God knows what else. Oh, what a place it would be to write dramatic fairy tales.
In a few strokes, I quickly made it back to the ladder and this time, it looked as inviting as an extended hand. Still slippery, though. This lake was alive, take my word for it. From the swimming board, I looked back. The last ripples were quickly fading on the surface and the sky was leaden grey, merging on the horizon with a darker line of spruce trees. It was raining a cold miserable November rain. What a swim to remember.
This lake was alive, take my word for it.