Hailing from Johannesburg, South Africa where an ‘extreme’ winter involves frost on the grass and a maximum temperature that dares to dip into the lower double digits (Celsius), I’ve always been attracted to the snowy wastelands of northern climes. Snow was a novelty, a white Christmas something only seen in the movies and 4 hours of sunlight a day ludicrous and inconceivable.But then I moved to Finland.
Finland, sandwiched between Russia and Sweden, shares its northerly latitude with the Scandinavian countries, Siberia, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. Ask anyone what these places have in common and they’ll say snow, cold and darkness. And they’d be right. These countries creeping towards the Arctic circle definitely experience extreme winters, not only with plummeting temperatures and blizzards but days with little to no sun at all depending on just how far North you go.
For a South African, experiencing an extreme winter for the first time taught me some important and somewhat painful lessons. Many of these things may seem obvious, but for a first timer they’re easy to overlook.
To survive an extreme winter you need proper clothing, preferably take a local northerner with you when you go in search of winter attire. Shoes with a warm interior that are water proof and have a good tread for dealing with icy sidewalks are a must. Frostbite is a very real and present danger so don’t skimp on footwear and also invest in a pair or two of woollen socks. The overcoat, just as important as the shoes. A good winter coat is really all you need, it should be wind resistant, water proof and should definitely have a hood. I’ve found that I don’t need to bulk up with sweaters and vests if I’ve got a good jacket to keep me warm. But even with a good jacket, do not underestimate the power of layering. Vest, shirt, sweater. Leggings, long socks, thick pants. You are not weak, you are not a wus for wearing thermal underwear and woollen sweaters – you are wise and warm while others suffer the cold because they’re too cool for long underwear. The last line of defence against the elements includes a scarf, gloves/mittens and preferably a hat that covers your ears. Scarf wearing is an art unto itself and I recommend a close study of local traditions before stepping outside with your scarf incorrectly fastened. Fashion trends aside, as long as you’re warm, who cares.
Clothing helps against the cold but there is another more insidious winter fiend to combat: darkness. Prolonged darkness can really be depressing especially for people who go to work before 10am in the dark and return home any time after 2pm again in the dark. If you blink, you miss the day and most of the time that day isn’t really sunshiny, just an insipid gray. Winter darkness can have a very real effect on the chemical composition of the human body. Seasonal Affective Disorder (with the apt acronym of SAD) is when a person with generally good mental health experiences bouts of depression during a particular season on an annual basis. The winter blues are the most common symptom of SAD. Experiencing direct sunlight on your skin is the main way in which the body produces Vitamin D. In winter, bundled up beneath a gray sky, Vitamin D levels drop and this can result in mood swings leading to depression.
Most northern countries offer a variety of Vitamin D supplements to their citizens in the form of tablets and even enrich local milk products to help citizens ward off depression. Supplements should be available from local pharmacies but if Vitamin D tablets aren’t improving your winter attitude then light therapy might be something to try. In Canada and America, bright light therapy or phototherapy is highly recommended and studies show that as little as 20 minutes of exposure a day can alleviate symptoms of depression. In Finland, bright lights are expensive but popular additions to the bed side table and can make waking up that much easier when the bedroom looks flooded with sunlight. Solariums and beauty salons with sunbeds also provide a means to escape the winter blues but the best natural remedy is to get outside as often as you can whenever there’s even the faintest glimmer of sunshine on the snow. Exercise is another natural remedy and if you’ve never tried winter sports like ice skating and skiing then during a bout of winter blues is the perfect time to try something new and get the adrenaline pumping.
Coping with extreme winters can be can tricky, especially in near perpetual darkness, so shake off the melancholy and gloom, dress properly, stock up on Vitamin D and go build a snowman.