Morsowanie – swim like a walrus

“Help me crack the ice with this log so we can climb in”

Not the most promising start to a recent trip to a local lake, into which I climbed – by choice – one frosty morning, with a more enthusiastic and determined friend. I did openly question said friendship and the person’s mental state as I descended the steps of my usual summer swimming spot, set between a forest and a misty village in southern Poland.

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‘Mors arktyczny’ – the Arctic walrus – lends its name to this curious sport. With the promise of an energy boost, reduced inflammation, better circulation and immune system health (as well as a general sense of strange achievement), more and more bathers are taking to the icy Polish waters during winter in both the sea and lakes across the country.

Since the fall of communism, in many ways Poland has sought to disassociate from its Slavic neighbours, particularly those to the east.  Many acknowledge and talk about the shared foods (whose beetroot soup?), linguistic roots and history but generally too many comparisons in terms of modern-day living can be met with embarrassment, jokes or even hostility. Ice-based bathing seems to fall into this category of ‘wild eastern-sounding’ activities that the typical Pole might shy away from.

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It certainly would be wrong to suggest that this is a widespread practice in Poland. Most Polish people I know react with a mixture of horror and amusement at the idea of climbing into icy water, and will take a lot of persuading to join our community event on the 1st January. Overall there is less of a ‘sauna’ culture compared to many of its neighbours too (e.g. Germany, Ukraine, Russia and across the sea in Sweden), which might be connected to the Catholic traditions and associated modesty, particularly strong here in Poland’s south east.

However, more recently there seems to have been a slight increase in interest in more ancient, Slavic and otherwise ‘eastern’ traditions: my previous article on the Slavic winter goddess being one of these. Whether it’s really connected to attitudes to the ‘east’ or not, ‘morsowanie’ is definitely a niche but growing pastime in Poland, with dozens of new organisations popping up and the promise of unusual social media posts attracting a younger audience. It seems on a similar level of popularity as outdoor winter swimming in the UK, where New Year’s Day beach swims and similar attract some media and public attention.

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Morsowanie survivor

There are some important rules to follow to keep it safe, though it’s unclear whether these are based on science or old wives’ tales. Wearing water socks keeps the feet protected; you are also advised to wear a hat and to avoid submerging your hands or neck. After a few minutes of intense wading around, it’s time to get out, dry off quickly and get back into warm clothes and drink something hot, before getting home to some much higher temperature bathing. Organisations also advise swimming in places that bathers know already from the summer season, to make sure the area is familiar and the exit from the water simple and safe.

It seems like the science of any long-term benefits of morsowanie is pretty limited, but it’s certainly fun, invigorating and a good way to get back into nature during a season that can feel sleepy and dark.

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