By Drew Salazar
After a few months getting acquainted with the new culture and surprisingly hospitable climate of southern Sweden on my study abroad program at Malmö University, my new friends and I felt the itch to see the coldest parts of Scandinavia, so we traveled to Helsinki. Now, Helsinki in late February is chilly, don’t get me wrong – averaging below freezing day and night – but we were looking for something a little more… “frozen”. So we took a twenty-hour, all-night bus north to Saariselkä, a small town in the heart of Lapland, stopping only in the odd, small towns of Viitasaari, Kempele, Kemi, and Rovaniemi. Pleasantly surprised with the -5°F weather on arrival, we explored our new environment: we hiked the nearest mountain (more of a tall hill, really), saw the Aurora Borealis, visited the modest town pub, had snowball fights, rented snow-mobiles, shredded the snowscape with some newly acquired snowboarding skills, and learned the pleasure of a hot sauna crammed with all your best friends after a long day in the freezing cold. Despite the collection of picture-perfect memories we made that week, we wanted to do and see a little more. That’s when someone proposed going further north, into Norway and taking a dip in the Arctic Ocean – the perfect end to the perfect week I thought.
We all agreed on the escapade and hopped on a bus over the border from Finland to Norway – a border so remote it was like crossing state lines, greeted by nothing but a sign – and within a few hours we were in the northernmost part of the Scandinavian peninsula, Norwegian Finnmark. Soon thereafter, the trees faded from the horizon, allowing the white, snow-covered ground to meet the white, low-hanging clouds. The only sign of life for miles was the feint tire tracks left in our own bus’s wake. And soon after that, the Arctic Ocean, which, was already thawed, according to the bus driver, due to warm currents from the south and its high natural saline content. The bus stopped at the smallest, most remote, but surprisingly quaint fishing village I’ve ever seen: Bugøynes, Norway, population 300. Stepping off the bus, we were greeted by brisk -10°F weather, immediately putting off some to our impromptu polar plunge challenge.
Nevertheless, we kept on and continued to our destination: a small slice of frozen beach positioned near a convenient sauna. Those of us still brave enough to take the challenge convened at the sauna in nothing but our swimwear and a towel. We sat in the sauna and sang fight songs, chants, and our favorite meme-songs, Allstar by Smashmouth and Mamma Mia by ABBA, to get our nerves up. By the time we had mustered the courage to charge the roughly 50-meter distance to the water, the sky had clouded over, dropping the temperature another few degrees, but we carried on.
We ran, some slipping off the trail into snowbanks several feet higher than themselves, some crashing into each other, but eventually toes reaching the absurdly cold, Arctic water. We pushed through the initial shock, determined to go a little farther, a little deeper than the rest of the group. We stayed in, splashing each other, making sure everyone got a full face-full of salty, Arctic water, for about a minute, when the voice of reason in the group reminded us to get out before we froze. We ran back to the sauna in a frenzy, again slipping on the icy path, pausing for pictures and laughs. We enjoyed the whole experience so much, we did the whole thing again, slipping, splashing, pictures and all, even convincing some others to join us.
I didn’t even mention that those friends were from all over the world, not one from a place that regularly experienced snow: Australia, Spain, Italy, Malta, Germany, Canada (TORONTO, but okay, sure, one…). I made the best friends I’ll ever know on the most spontaneous, most outlandish, utterly insane trip I’ve ever been on. Those are friends I’m going to visit after graduation and, hopefully, we’ll have more insane, story-worthy adventures.