Cold water, hot sauna

Emma O'Kelly on why winter swims go hand in hand with 85 degree dry heat

“Sauna and sisu are the great Finnish superpowers,” explains Maija. “I mean, how else can we survive the -25-degree winters and months of darkness?”

Sisu comes from ‘sisus’ which means ‘guts’ in Finnish and refers to toughness, practicality and resilience in the face of difficult challenges. It was embraced by the new powers that be as a particularly Finnish quality after the country gained independence from Russia in 1917 and is still seen as the ‘social glue’ that holds society together. A bit of British Stiff Upper Lip, if you will.

Katja Pantzar is an author who lives in Helsinki and has written two books on sisu. She found hers when she moved to Finland started swimming in the sea in the winter. In her first book, the Power of Sisu, she writes: ‘this unique culture of resilience helps me transition from being a weaker, more passive person, scared of trying new things, into someone who feels better and stronger both physically and mentally.”

With the cold swimming came a love of sauna. “As a teen in North America, I found sauna unthinkable on so many levels; the heat, the nudity. It was not for me. Then I started winter swimming and I grew to love, appreciate and understand it. You dip, get cold and do something extreme, then you go into the sauna and relax in the soothing steam. It’s heaven; like sitting round the camp fire; we chat, there’s no agenda, people talk about everything. It’s the best way to de-stress.” But if you’re new to sauna might you need some sisu to get you through? “Whenever you try something that is foreign, or new that might make you feel uncomfortable, you need sisu,” says Katja. “And if you’re uncomfortable being naked, or getting hot and steamy with strangers in a public sauna, you have to tap into it.”

Katja is a member of winter swimming club along with four female friends who call themselves the Cold Sisters. One of them is Päivi Pälvimäki, Finland’s most famous wild swimmer. In her new book, Swim Trekking in Finland, Päivi documents around 50 of Finland’s best wild bathing spots, swimming one kilometre, 10-kilometre, 30-kilometre journeys to find them, towing her belongings on a wooden raft behind her. She has sisu in spades. “I no longer need to call on sisu to swim,” she proclaims, “and I never check the weather. I just get on with it because I know that a swim will never let me down. If there’s a snowstorm and I’m getting into sub-zero waters, I don’t listen to voices in my head.” Proper sisu. And her humility about not even recognising she has sisu is also sisu. “The Finns are very non-market-y and low key. It’s not good to boast or brag,” explains Katja.

In Helsinki’s 13 winter swimming clubs ‘contrast therapy’ –  blasting the body with hot and cold – has been the norm for years

Sometimes Päivi will dig her own ice hole (more sisu) carving her way through 50 or 60cm of frozen surface water with her ice saw. “I believe sisu is why Finland has been nominated happiest country for the fifth year in a row,” she says. “We don’t think about the perfect. We just take what we have.”

Katja’s winter swimming club is called Katajanokka’s Icebreakers as it’s near the fleet of icebreakers that carve channels through the harbour in the winter (one of these is called sisu). It’s one of Helsinki’s 13 winter swimming clubs where ‘contrast therapy’ –  blasting the body with hot and cold – have been the norm for years, has a warm changing room and an ice hole into the sea. Winter swimming clubs feature in most Nordic cities. “In Copenhagen, there is a waiting list of more than 10,000 people keen to join its bathing clubs, and that’s before you count the people who want it do it occasionally” says Kasper Eich-Romme, co-founder eco-picnic boat rental company GoBoat. Around 15 years ago, Copenhagen city invested more than 1 billion kroner clearing up the harbour, and since then nine bathing spots have sprung up, with zoned swimming areas, changing rooms and saunas. And that’s before you count the public beaches.

Rebel sauna

In Helsinki, Sompasauna was a rebel yell against the authorities. Illegally constructed from found materials on a plot ear-marked for development in 2011, Sompasauna was an experiment in DIY architecture and grassroots action. Free for everyone, it’s open 24/7 and serviced by a help-yourself-pile of firewood restocked by volunteers. Nudity, beers and the threat of demolition are the norm. What started as two fingers up to the city council has evolved into a movement and a landmark attraction and it has been pulled down, rebuilt and relocated no less than six times. Its mix of ancient sauna traditions, talkoo (community spirit) and citizen-driven activism are what UNESCO was keen to protect to when it added Finnish sauna to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2019.

Emma O'Kelly