“Those people are crazy,” I thought, watching through the steam of the hot tub as the rest of my group trekked into the snowy woods.
It was nearly 20 degrees below freezing, typical for this part of the Finnish Arctic Circle in March. The ground had been frozen solid for months. But there they were, clad in bikinis and swim trunks, walking barefoot to a hole carved in the frozen shell of a nearby lake.
Every few minutes there was a splash, a scream, then laughter from behind the trees.
I sunk with my beer deeper into the hot tub and watched for the Northern Lights.
It was my second day in Finland. I had met these people 12 hours earlier in the lobby of a chic Helsinki hotel where we introduced ourselves over a breakfast of salmon and coffee. All of us were here on a press trip with Nokia to test their new Lumia phones in the unique light of the Finnish Lapland region.
After breakfast we flew two hours to Levi, a frozen resort town where reindeer outnumbered people.
We were given a brief orientation with the phones and then handed a pile of more winter clothes than this Florida girl had ever seen: long underwear, scarves, gloves, face masks, waterproof suspenders, giant winter boots.
After spending 15 minutes getting dressed, we were ready for a snowmobile ride to the nearby village of Köngäs.
We stopped often during that fast and frigid 45-minute ride. Our Nokia trainers paused at lookout points so we could take pictures of the sunset with our phones. After several failed attempts to take decent shots in my bulky ski gloves, I removed them and shot bare-handed in the Arctic air.
My right hand was numb but the pictures were awesome.
When we reached our destination, the Taivaanvalkeat Recreational Center, we were given a hot cloudberry toddy and a few minutes to change from snow gear to bathing suits for a session in the backyard sauna.
“Where is it?” I asked, peering into the darkness.
“Oh, just 100 yards or so,” the trainer said. “It’s just a quick run through the snow.”
I went back to the dressing room for my boots.
The group sprinted (and I plodded) through the snow in our bathing suits and bathrobes. Our mission was to steam out impurities in the Finnish sauna then refresh with a rinse in the frozen lake.
“You may have to break the ice before jumping in,” the staff warned.
I was more excited about the sauna than the ice.
In Finland, saunas – pronounced saa-ooh-nahs – are a place to bath and meditate. The cleaning ritual dates back about 1,000 years. Today the country is home to about 5 million people, and 2 million saunas.
Traditionally it’s a privilege to share a long sauna with family and friends, but after a few minutes I felt terrible.
Saunas normally hit temperatures of at least 175 degrees Fahrenheit. I hadn’t been in the snow for years and the quick transition from freezing air to dry burn left me lightheaded. My necklace seared my skin and I fought the urge to ralph.
Perhaps this was the beginning of an epic cleanse that would have rid me of three decades of impurities, but I couldn’t take it. I slipped outside, darted for the wooden hut that held our clothes, (and more importantly, a small fridge of beer), and settled on the deck.
Here, a spinning hot tub seemed more my speed.
While the rest of the group sweated it out, I bobbed in the bubbles and watched a long and subtle sunset. They told us the light in this region was amazing. They were right. The sky turned yellow to purple then blue. The light became a green I hadn’t seen before, and finally everything was a bluish-black. The stars were brilliant.
The sauna door opened and a woman asked if I was coming to the lake.
“You go ahead,” I said and watched them slip into the woods.
I was the only one that night who didn’t do the sauna and ice swimming cleanse. I’m sure I missed out. But I tell you, that sunset was amazing.