Welcome to Russia, where temperatures regularly plunge below freezing for four months of the year. To survive the cold here most people bundle up, but a select few strip down. They call themselves "morzhi," or walruses, and their passion is swimming … in subzero temperatures. At least every week, and as often as every day, these enthusiasts plunge into the icy depths of frozen lakes and rivers.
Morzhi claim that there are enormous health benefits to ice swimming. They say it improves circulation, helps with arthritis and rheumatism pains and rids the system of toxins. They also claim it can cure the heaviest of hangovers. For the most part, morzhi are very health conscious. Most don't drink or smoke and in some cases even have rules that forbid people from drinking before dunking.
"It gives you vital energy and strength," a devotee called Sasha told me on a chilly morning on the Moscow River. She was wearing nothing but a wet swimsuit as we chatted and I asked her whether she was cold. "I am warm, I am warm," she insisted. I told Sasha that I was planning to try dipping my toe in to see what it was all about. "The first time is horrific, but then it's normal," she assured me.
It was with some trepidation that I had decided to find out for myself whether these morzhi are enlightened or crazy. I bought a short-sleeve wetsuit, partially so as not to frighten people with the sight of my white flesh after a Moscow winter, and partially because I was concerned that my internal organs might shut down upon contact with the water. I had spent the week reading horror stories on the Internet about hypothermic shock and panic attacks and the sensation of not being able to breathe properly.
Watching the men and women, old and young, fat and thin, jog, casually into the water and splash around gaily, I suddenly felt rather foolish for my fears. It looked almost fun. I walked into the water purposefully and waded forward. At first it felt like little needles pricking my legs. Then, as the water got higher, I felt something like dizziness. I realized that I was making slightly strange whooping noises and that I was by now almost skipping through the water just to keep moving. By the time the water was just above my navel I decided that I had experienced enough of the icy waters for my first experience and I rapidly retreated to the changing room.
As soon as I was out of the water and felt the wind whipping against my frozen and numb extremities, a feeling of warmth and lucidity spread through my body and mind and I felt refreshed and invigorated in a way I am not sure I have ever felt before. I was ready to take the world head-on, I was ready to run a marathon, write a novel, climb a mountain. I had heard morzhi say that ice swimming is also a cure for depression and I can understand why. You will be hard-pressed to find another activity that gives you such a high.
For people looking for a detox with a distinctly Russian twist, ice swimming is for you. I like to think that next year I might give it another go, and this time try to get in all the way, and possibly without the aid of a wetsuit. In the meantime, however, I think I'll leave swimming in the ice to the ducks … and the morzhi.