The Icy Plunge

The Nordic waters are black, bleak, and cold in the winter, and something dangerous and eerily alluring lurks in their depths. Who can be enticed down below the surface? Old and young alike, it turns out, people in search of the calm and bodily wellbeing that have otherwise been lost in the stress of everyday life and the all-pervasive Scandinavian efficiency. In recent years the ancient tradition of winter bathing has become increasingly popular as a part of a modern, Nordic lifestyle reflecting a yearning for a simpler and healthier life.

Camilla Leslie Lang’s bare feet step cautiously onto the bathing jetty. She is wearing a bathing suit and a robe. The air temperature is five degrees Celsius, but the wind chill factor makes it seem colder. The sea is just below seven degrees and looks downright arctic. It is blue-black and the small waves rolling ashore have white, foamy crests. The water is clear and there are rocks of varying sizes at the bottom and a bit of kelp drifting lazily around the jetty’s stakes. Fine conditions for a brief swim, according to Camilla Leslie Lang, who steps out of her robe without a moment’s hesitation and glides into the water. Ahead is an indescribable rush of joy and bodily gratification that she will not go without under any circumstances. The colder and wilder, the greater the satisfaction.

The previous winter was exceptionally cold in Scandinavia. In Denmark the hard winter lasted from mid-November to late March. At several locations the coasts were heavy with undulating brash ice and close to heaven for die-hard polar bears. A clear and frosty January morning gave Camilla Leslie Lang a perfect opportunity for a refreshing maiden voyage.

“That day I almost had to rotate and twist to get through the ice, and afterwards I had lumps of ice in my panties and the most fabulous feeling coursing through my body. I remember sitting in the sauna later with an elderly lady, and her eyes were just shining with enthusiasm over the cold and the ice, because winters of that degree of intensity are few and far between,” she says.

It is the endorphin rush that makes Camilla frequent a small bathing club in Snekkersten, north of Copenhagen, on a weekly basis. That and the feeling of pushing her own envelope, so to speak. It is a source of satisfaction to dare. To get out on a slippery bathing jetty. Hold on to the banister on the way down into the deep. Concentrate on breathing calmly so that the body does not panic when the water envelops it. And then to glide out and feel how the water hurts and caresses at the same time. Everything contracts. Camilla Leslie Lang describes it as a kind of paralysis of the body while the heart is pounding away. And then up and into the sauna before it gets genuinely dangerous.

“Sometimes I feel almost annoyed that I can’t stay in the water longer. Especially the second plunge, when I still have that sauna heat in my body, then I really just want to be in the cold, but my body tells me in no uncertain terms that enough is enough. All of a sudden I can’t feel my arms anymore, and then I know it’s time to get up.”

Continue reading in Oak volume Four