The cold nylon of my swimming trunks crackles beneath snow-pants. My wool socks are damp, pooled around my ankles, snow finding its way down the top of my untied boots. My daughter and I are looking for the sauna. It’s 8pm in a far-northern latitude; moonless and black. The snow is gray and luminescent as we puff through drifts, crunch over ice.
She’s giddy. And terrified. Her first time, in a new swimsuit her mom packed, with questions about how it will all work.
“Will it hurt, Dad? Is it dangerous?”
I tell her it won’t, and it isn’t, even though I don’t really know (being a first-timer myself).
And finally we find it. A hundred years old; giant black logs stacked and packed with pitch by hands long-since departed.
The ante-room is wet and warm, lit poorly by a buzzing yellow safety light. We step out of boots and jackets onto the cold, watery, wooden floor, stocking-footed. Then the socks come off too and I shoo her through the door into the hot room as fast as possible, trying to conserve heat.
She looks around. Another family is there, boys in their underwear, everyone breathing slow and shallow. We find a spot on the first-level bench. Someone ladles water onto the rocks, which hiss and groan, blooming warmth.
“Daddy, what does it say?”, she tugs on my elbow.
The thermometer reads 185.
“Hot, honey … pretty hot.”
We move up a level, and rub our arms and legs with the pads of our fingers. Involuntarily, we slouch forward, forearms on thighs.
The other family gets up to go. They amass at the lakeside door, its bottom crack admitting the tiniest trickle of frozen air. Ready? On three!
They stream out and down the ramp and from inside we hear their splashes, one at a time, and screams, unanimously. She looks up at me, and I can’t read her expression. There’s no way she’s going to do that, I think. There’s no way I’m going to do that, I think.
But then she cracks a grin. “Awesome,” she squeals. “I’m so excited!” Vibrating. Rubbing her hands together.
And again, as usual, she surprises me. This little person whose first breath I watched, who never wanted to sleep, who never even used to exist. She’s always surprising me.
Ten minutes later we can’t take it anymore. My face is beaded with sweat, my hair is soaked. I lean back against the ancient walls and jump away, zapped by a super-heated nail in the wood.
To the door. I grab the thick handle, count us off, and whoosh. Holding her hand tight we scuttle down the ramp, feet melting the snow and scraping on ice. We steam in the light of a billion stars and before us, at the near side of the vast frozen lake, is a square hole with an ice-crusted wooden ladder struggling to escape.
We stand at the edge. “You first,” I say, wincing at the sight of the water’s surface, which has already started freezing over in the few minutes since the last group jumped.
“Okay,” she says.
She hesitates a fraction of a second, tensing her little legs, before leaping in.
This part I can’t remember, to be honest. She shrieked, I guess, and kicked and wriggled and gasped, perhaps. And somehow she was up the ladder saying “Go, daddy! Go! It’s awesome!“.
Well, if she can do it … splash!
My feet hit the bottom, my whole body lights up, my brain scrubbed of all thoughts. I scramble up the ice ladder, bashing a shin as I come to stand next to her. We hold hands, warm – so warm, you would not believe – and look out across the lake, at the sky, and the moon ascending.
“C’mon, c’mon c’mon!” she pleads, and we head back around to the front, through the wet room, past another family just taking off their gear. They look at us, questioningly.
Back in the sauna, temperature rising again, she leans over to me, smiles, and whispers, “Must be their first time.”