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How Finland Copes with Its Dark, Frozen Winters

A Personal Perspective: Life near the Russian border.

By Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle

On a late autumn day, I watched a four-year-old Finnish girl walk toward a hole in the solid ice surface of a freezing lake.

The sky was gray, twilight was already approaching at 3:45 pm, and the water temperature in the lake was about 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

My family was living in Finland’s rural North Karelia district on the Russian border, at a spot further north than Anchorage, Alaska.

The girl’s name was Pinja, which means “Pine” in Finnish, and she was the daughter of a local family friend. What she did next gave me a clue of how I could conquer my fear of the notorious Finnish winter, and its guarantee of nearly five months of pulverizing cold and darkness.

Wearing only a bathing suit, Pinja climbed down a ladder directly into the freezing lake, plunged right in and submerged herself neck-deep in the icy water. She began swimming, her face a portrait of confidence and delight. Then she climbed up the ladder and walked on a short bridge back to a sauna house.

“Well, if she can do it,” I thought, “so can I.”

I slowly slipped through the ice hole and into the inky water. Mind-bending shockwaves of cold detonated into every molecule of my body. They were too severe to process or properly register in my brain. I pushed on.

And then they stopped. Once in the water, I was enveloped with invigorating sensations. As Finns helpfully point out, “The temperature under the water is higher than the air outside.” Still, I was ready to jump out. I wrapped myself in an oversized towel.

My husband William descended down the ladder and jumped into the water with a victorious cry that was mixed with pain and joy. He swam around and laughed out loud.

We joined Pinja and her father Juhamatti in the nearby communal sauna of the Joensuun Jääkarhut, or Winter Swimming Center, otherwise known as the Polar Bears ice swimming club of Joensuu, the capital city of North Karelia. There, we sat on wooden benches and warmed up in 190 degree Fahrenheit steam for about 10 minutes in the company of 20 Finns and their families. Pinja was a sauna veteran who began going to the family sauna at the age of three months. Then we walked down to the lake and plunged through the ice again. It felt easier the second and third times.

Pinja’s father Juhamatti told us, “This is one of the best things you can do for your health.” He had a point. The old Finnish proverb sauna on köyhän apteekki—“the sauna is the poor man's apothecary”—has a basis in science. Recent research has suggested that sauna bathing is associated with reduced cardiovascular mortality and reduction in the risks of high blood pressure, stroke, neurocognitive diseases, pulmonary diseases, dementia, and all-cause mortality.

This rhythm, of stoically embracing, plunging into, immersing oneself in, and conquering the savage winter, is how many Finns cope, and thrive, in the cold and darkness, year in and year out.

Several years ago, when William first got the news that he had been selected as a Fulbright Scholar to study and write about the world-renowned Finnish public school system, I thought, “this does not look good at all.”

We were going to move from the heart of Manhattan to remote Finland with our 7-year-old son. I was a full-time stay-at-home parent at the time. I knew almost nothing of Finland, except that it was somewhere in the Nordic region atop Europe, and it was supposed to have good public schools. Suddenly realizing that Finland was to be my new home, I plunged into online research and searched out books at the library.

The more I read, the more I worried.

I was going to live for six months in a far-off land, in the most sparsely populated, northernmost country in the European Union. Joensuu, I learned, was the provincial capital of a forest-and-lake district that was the easternmost municipality in the continental EU. We were headed, in other words, to the absolute edge of Western civilization.

According to the few books and articles I could find, Finland seemed like a truly lonely place. I worried. About cold. About darkness. New York City had plenty of both in wintertime, too. I could barely make it through New York winters, and by March I usually was, like many other New Yorkers, cranky and nearly stir-crazy from being confined indoors with little sunlight and fresh air for four months. Winters in Finland were reportedly incredibly dark and cold, and the nation had its share of related depression, suicide, alcoholism, and domestic violence, as many northern populations experience.

Once we were in Finland, I was surprised to learn that many Finns themselves have never fully adjusted to the reality of twilight falling so early in the mid-afternoons, and some of them become downright gloomy at the looming prospect of winter.

But I saw many Finns stoically take the winter in stride. Life goes on. I watched elderly people use walkers to venture to the grocery store on snowy sidewalks from my kitchen window, providing me encouragement to keep on moving. I saw workers commuting to their offices on cross-country skis. Many women and couples walked around briskly with Nordic poles, a pastime called “Nordic walking” that originated in Finland.

Naomi Moriyama
Source: Naomi Moriyama

I was startled to see hundreds of Joensuu adults and children flying around the ice-packed, snow-packed streets and sidewalks of the city on bicycles, and somehow managing not to wipe out. The secret: snow tires for your bike, and lots of practice. Half the students in our son’s primary school got to school this way, even children as young as seven and eight years old. Joensuu was the site of a recent global “Winter Cycling Congress,” a niche event if ever there was one.

In winter, Finnish schoolchildren continue going outdoors to enjoy recess for 15 minutes every single hour of the school day, even on sub-zero, blindingly snowy days. Science and physical education classes were held outdoors in thick, snowy woods. As Finns say, “There is no bad weather, only inadequate clothing.” In winter, many young people in Joensuu got to school on cross-country skis and shifted to ice skating, snowshoe walking, skiing, and indoor sports to adapt to the season. The indoor municipal swimming pool and the city library were packed on weekends with people of all ages.

Winter was the time of year when I originally expected to feel miserable, push the eject button, and flee back to New York City. But with the help of my Finnish friends, I felt the opposite: completely relaxed and content in my home in the enchanted forest of Finland. The darkness and cold weren’t much worse than what I was used to in New York.

The secret was simply to keep on moving, get outside, be creative, be social, and defy the darkness and cold—by embracing it.

One night in late December, my family ventured outside in near zero-degree temperature after a long blizzard that created towering snowdrifts and several feet of fresh packed snow and ice.

It was a ghost town. On street after street, there were absolutely no people, no cars, no bikes, no skis. Absolutely nothing, no sounds, and no life.

Aha, I thought, even the Finns can’t handle a snowstorm like this! They must be inside, watching TV, or fast asleep like hibernating bears.

After we walked a couple of blocks, we heard soft music way in the distance, in the direction of the city center.

We trudged toward the sound, but still no people, only desolate sidewalks.

When we turned the final corner leading to the Tori, or market square, I froze in my tracks. It was like a mini-Woodstock. Hundreds and hundreds of packed-together, bundled-up people were greeting each other. A group of children in Santa hats was singing holiday hymns. I had never seen so many people in one place in Finland. I was certain every single person in the city had flocked there.

Small children perched on top of a mountain of plowed snow nearly two stories high. Our son climbed up hands and knees on the snow mountain, turned to us and waved triumphantly.

Fireworks crackled and filled the sky above the city hall next to the Tori.

No longer did I fear the Finnish winter.


This is an adapted excerpt from The Sisterhood of the Enchanted Forest: Sustenance, Wisdom and Awakening in Finland’s Karelia by Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle

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