In Photos: Finland’s folk ice swimming fanatics

In Photos: Finland’s folk ice swimming fanatics

To survive their savage winter, many Finns swear by the miraculous benefits of Avanto: cutting an ice hole on a frozen lake and taking a dip.

Pain. Immense pain. There’s no other way to describe the experience of Avanto, or Finnish ice swimming. The first step into the near-freezing water send shivers running up the legs, straight to the brain. Without allowing a moment for hesitation, I keep following the stairs down into the dark waters. As each new piece of bare skin makes contact with the water, alarm signals flood the brain and muscle control shifts to autopilot.

Avanto is a Finnish folk tradition to which its devotees ascribe remarkable health and wellness benefits. Each winter, once Finland’s countless lakes freeze over, holes are cut – which range from tiny plunge pools to small makeshift swimming pools – and locals brave the near-freezing waters for as long as they can bear. Recently, it has inspired a global trend, with everyone from Premiership footballers to Instagram models dipping into ice baths to stimulate blood flow, improve circulation, help recovery and, some claim, slow down the aging process.

But for locals in Tampere, nothing can compare to the experience of ice swimming in a real frozen lake. For many of the people we speak to, Avanto is crucial to helping them get through Finland’s long and brutal winters. Here in southern Finland, days shorten to just a few hours but in the country’s north, people don’t see the sun at all in the depths of winter. Connecting with nature and with others, Avanto’s benefits go beyond the physical: we hear tales of how it has helped people beat depression, process bereavement or even overcome addiction.

I pause for a second, looking out over the vast expanse of ice before me, surrounded by dark pines trees, barely visible on the distant horizon. My heart can feel the cold blood already returning from my extremities and the chest tenses. At the last step, I push out into the near-frozen expanse of water, with all but my head immersed and somehow manage to make strokes towards the exposed edge of the ice on the other side of the pool. I’m barely aware of my breathing, it feels like my lungs have frozen shut. Time slows down.

Touching the edge of the ice, barely ten metres away from the steps, feels like a major achievement. My whole body is in a state of shock. As I turn, I’m feeling less in control of my movement but more conscious of a pins-and-needles sensation spreading throughout my hands and feet. Somehow, my limbs do move, almost through survival instinct, and eventually I’m grasping at the steps to pull myself from this water torture.

Last time I checked, the outside air temperature was hovering around minus eight Celsius but initially it feels like a gust of warm air. Walking away from the pool, the skin tightens as if it’s frozen and the surface is about to crack into pieces. I follow a group into the sauna, whose skin is steaming demonically in the sub-zero night air. I sit down inside and look up at the temperature gauge hovering just above a hundred but I can’t feel the heat just yet. I wonder if this is the moment when you’re most at risk of a heart attack.

Tampere is nestled between two enormous lakes and has a river running through its centre, which provides for a diverse range of Avanto spots across the city. Some of the larger Avanto spots also have public saunas perched on the lake’s edge, others just have small changing facilities, while some, like the spot near Tahmelan Huvila cultural centre in Pirkkala, are just small holes drilled into the ice.

The next morning, as we’re walking through the forest on the edge of Pyhäjärvi lake, we see a small figure with a red beanie hurl themselves onto the ice and continue running towards some bits of wood poking out of the frozen lake. Heini Luotola is one of Finland’s top female pro skaters and this is their morning routine: taking an icy plunge before teaching skate lessons for local skateboarder’s association Kaarikoirat.

“Before getting in, it’s always feels brutal but you feel the goodness afterwards,” Heini explains as she starts stripping down on the ice. Gingerly, she steps down the wooden ladder into the hole, which is barely large enough to fit her. She raises her hands above her head, closes her eyes, inhales and exhales deeply, then plunges herself down into the icy water, disappearing from view.

“The longer you’re underneath the water, the greater the effects on your body,” Heini explains later. Heini has been doing Avanto since she was a child but really embraced it after breaking her ankle severely in 2020. Ice swimming helped her with the physical rehabilitation but also the boredom and mental frustration of not being able to get back on the board.

“During the healing process I got into the Wim Hof style breathing and trying to stay in the water for minutes at a time – and you know how horrible it can be to stay there for just fifteen or thirty seconds. But when you start training yourself to stay for two minutes, three minutes… up to six minutes, which is my maximum, then you really start to feel all kinds of health benefits. For me, the routine of helping your body to heal from huge trauma also supported me mentally.”

Avanto is not solely the preserve of young athletes. There are plenty of older people and retirees, with the oldest person we speak to in their late seventies. Kirsti has been ice swimming regularly for nearly three decades. “First you go to Avanto, the hole in the ice, then the sauna,” she says. “Finally, before leaving, we do Avanto again and get dressed. That’s the routine my friend Liisa who introduced me to Avanto recommended and I have followed this advice for about the last 27 years.”

After developing osteoarthritis early, in her forties, the distances that Kirsti could walk without crippling pain shrank and shrank. “I noticed that the cold helps the pain,” she says. “With the help of Avanto and sauna, I was able to maintain my exercise and functional ability until I was ‘old’ enough to get a new hip.” 

Kristi met her husband Pekka and got engaged at the Avanto championships in Ikaalis, before marrying at Tampere’s lakeside Kaupinojan Sauna in February 2002. “Death separated us on March 23, 2023,” she says. “When I was left alone, I realised how important it is that I have my Avanto community. The Tampereen Talviuimarit (Tampere Winter Swimming) Association has brought a lot of good into my life and many great friends. It’s a community where I always feel welcome and where my husband Pekka is remembered.”

Much of Finland – like much of northern Europe – is suffering from population decline and an aging population, as the young leave rural areas for an easier and more exciting life in the major urban centres. But Tampere is part of the fastest growing region in the country. It’s due in large part to a post-industrial transformation strategy that places wellbeing, young people and culture at its heart. Its packed cultural calendar includes everything from Sastamala Gregoriana, a festival of pre-modern music performed in old churches; Tytöt Shreddaa, an annual women’s and non-binary skate jam; to the widely respected Tampere Film Festival.

Tampere also dubs itself the ‘Sauna Capital of the world’ and we meet two guys who have come all the way from Japan to experience the fabled Rauhaniemi Folk Spa, which sits on the edge of Näsijärvi lake and dates back to 1929. The regulars here are much more diverse than you might expect, with many creeds and colours represented and sauna conversations taking places in multiple languages beyond Finnish and English.

Severino and Italo

Perhaps the most unlikely Tampere transplant is Italo José, a pro skater who rides for adidas, originally from Fortaleza in Brazil. Italo found Tampere to be the perfect base from which to skate around Europe and also tour with his jazz band, TI Boyz from Brazil. But Rauhaniemi has a special place in his heart and the winter routine he has developed here is perhaps the biggest reason he chose to stay.

“I’m Brazilian, the lifestyle here is diametrically opposite to my personality and my default programming,” he reflects. “But Rauhaniemi is a special place. The name translates roughly as ‘temple of peace.’ This is a place where you come to reset, to wash capitalism out of your organism: the crud of society that accumulates when humans have to earn a living from cash. You come here and you reset your machine, as if the lake has cleansed all of that out of your skin, out of your mind. It brings you closer to nature, reconnecting you with the earth and bringing you home.”

Follow photographer Ossi Piispanen on Instagram.

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