One of my favorite adventures during our Baltics trip was taking a hike through an Estonian bog and then visiting a smokehouse sauna afterward. Both were so unique to the area and vital to the Estonian culture.
The bogs were absolutely beautiful. We were there on a foggy November Friday. The temperature had dropped from unseasonably warm weather and we had the bogs entirely to ourselves. There was not another soul there, which is not that usual. In fact, our guide told us that sometimes there are tour buses that stop there because so many people have never been to bogs. I’m so glad that was not the case when we went.
Our time there was completely still and serene. The silence almost seemed to echo. There were no birds. No cars nearby. No running water sounds. No noise at all.
The Bog Hike
We walked along the single-file boardwalk trail, which is replaced every few years because over time, it sinks down into the bog. There was a metal screen covering the wood which helped make it a little less slick. There was frost the morning we went, so I can only imagine how slippery it could be at times without this extra measure of adding traction.
Some people wear bog shoes when they hike through a bog. They’re similar to snowshoes and help you from sinking into the marshy masses, though to the untrained eye, I think it might be hard to determine the good places to step. Our guide gave us a crash course. When you see a green area, you shouldn’t step there; it’s likely green atop bird droppings.
Some of the plants that grow there form a sort of pillow as the stalks grow long enough to lean. Peat moss is the main flora. Our guide scooped up a small handful and squeezed it like a sponge.
“Nature’s diaper,” she said. It’s so absorbent, I could imagine that people once DID use it as a diaper. “In the first world war, they used it like a bandage, too. It is antibacterial because the Ph levels are so high. And it soaks up all the blood.”
I am constantly amazed at the natural remedies and cures around us.
She then plucked a few needles from another plant and rolled it between her finger a few times before handing it to us to smell.
“In the summer, the smell is very strong. We call it ‘bog smell.’ It’s called Labrador and it’s used to keep moths away.” It did smell something like a mothball. She said people also use it to make tea, but too much can make you feel sick.
One treat we found in the bog that doesn’t make you sick were cranberries. We stooped to pick up a few here and there. They were small and quite juicy. The flavor was richer than the cranberries I’m accustomed to eating at home. It was a joy to plop a few in our mouths as we hiked. Apparently, in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, they would sometimes have a set day for the villagers to come and gather cranberries: the second Saturday of September. The idea was that the crop would ripen longer and everyone could gather them in time to make jams for winter. But I was unclear whether it did more harm to the ecosystem of the bogs to have so many people tromping through them at the same time, or whether it was better that they guarded the berries until that assigned date. Either way, the tradition has passed.
“In the winter, the bog lakes freeze and you can go ice-skating here. Or ski across. In some parts of eastern Estonia, there are winter roads where the lakes are frozen. Once there is 25cm of ice, the cars can go on it.” I cannot imagine how slippery that drive would be!
As we hiked, the fog began to burn off and we were struck again by the stunning beauty of the bogs.
Later, we went to Soesauna: a smokehouse sauna at the home of a woman who only speaks Russian. We were disappointed that we couldn’t talk to her, but our guide explained things to us.
“You keep adding water over the hot stones so that it steams. If the air is too dry in there, it’s not good. Add water. Then, you can go jump into the pond for a winter swim and then go back in the sauna to get warm again. Do this 3 or 4 times, maybe?”
In Estonia, Latvia, Finland and other nearby areas, taking a sauna can be hours long. You may go with friends or family. Many people enjoy taking sauna in the nude among mixed company — not something I was prepared to do with my son and daughter-in-law! We wore bathing suits.
At first, as we ladled water over the stones, the heat was so intense that it hurt to breathe. My daughter-in-law and I both covered our mouths and for a minute, I thought I might have to walk out and come back in and take a little time to adjust to it. But we stayed put and in a few minutes, it was very comfortable. We let the temperature get to about 67 degrees Celsius, which isn’t as hot as many people prefer it. Once we started to sweat, we decided it was time to take our first polar plunge.
The Polar Plunge
We walked outside and steam rose off of us. My son started into the water first, but I stopped him so I could get my camera and the cold water was burning his feet so badly that he didn’t go in any further. My daughter-in-law bravely waded into the water and all of a sudden she was swimming! A few quick strokes and she was out and we all hurried back into the sauna. (I chickened out after hearing them exclaim that it was so cold it hurt.)
It took a few minutes to warm back up in the sauna. But soon we were nice and toasty again, so we decided it must be time for polar plunge #2. This time my son went in all the way and then hurried back out and we all scrambled back into the sauna. (Once again, I chickened out. The cold air outside was enough to cool me off.)
We sweated through more ladles of water poured onto the stones and then we went out for one last polar plunge. This time they threatened to push me in if they had to. I knew they meant it, so I stepped into the water voluntarily. It was bitingly cold! So cold it burned! I didn’t want to go in further, but I knew they’d drag me in if I didn’t, so I took another step and then I was sliding down the muddy slope and was submerged up to my shoulders in the freezing cold water. I scrambled out as though my life depended on it. In a way, I think it did; too long in that water and my heart would have probably stopped.
I ran back to the sauna and we all laughed in the now-familiar warm relief that we’d done it. My daughter-in-law confessed that she hadn’t been brave at all when she went in and swam; she’d slid down into the water, too, and swam to get back out as quickly as she could. We laughed through the experience and relaxed as our body temperatures rose again. All too soon, it was time to go. I think we easily could have stayed all day. No wonder the Estonians do!
As we showered off the pond water and sweat and layered up in our clothes again, we all felt relaxed in the way that only a day spent in nature can make you feel. My mind went back to the bogs and the mystical solitude I’d felt there. My muscles were relaxed from the sauna. I felt invigorated from the fresh air and cold water. I felt like a new woman after the hectic pace of two weeks of traveling.
I think the Estonian lifestyle is one I could easily embrace.
Have you ever taken a polar plunge? Or hiked through bogs?