Florida Man Experiences Frigid Winter in Tartu – Brandon (USA)

A phrase I was introduced on the first day at UT is, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” I know that is true when I saw some Estonians jog outside in icy and snowy conditions. In the winter of 2020, Tartu has been blessed by a freezing and snowy winter. The winter of 2019 barely had any snow and was rarely below freezing for consecutive days. For two months, it has been below freezing, getting all the way to -20℃. Brrrr! Along with the cold has been plenty of snowfall! Estonians, I know, say a proper winter has finally arrived. 

As a Florida Man, I’ve lived in Florida for my entire life. The weather is subtropical, and it never snows, rarely even cold. Moving to Tartu changed my perspective completely. The summers in Tartu are like the winters in Florida. One big change was switching from the Fahrenheit to Celsius temperature system. Americans like to say that Fahrenheit can tell you the feel of the weather out. The scale of Fahrenheit goes like this every 10-degree increment:

  • > 90 (>32℃): burning
  • 80 to 90 (26℃ to 32℃): hot
  • 70 to 80 (21℃ to 26℃): warm
  • 60 to 70 (15℃ to 21℃): chilly
  • 50 to 60 (10℃ to 15℃): cold
  • 40 to 50 (4℃ to 10℃): very cold
  • < 40 (< 4℃): never occurs in Florida

After knowing the Celsius system, it makes more sense. Knowing when the weather is below or above freezing outside determines how you will dress for the day. 

I take every opportunity to go out and explore something new in the winter. When there is fresh powder snow, I walk through it. When the lake freezes up, I walk on it. When I see others jumping in ice-cold water, I jump in. It is interesting for me to see how the Estonians enjoy winter. There is a lake near me called Anne Kanal, that I often take walks near. When the temperature finally reached below -10℃ for a couple of days. The locals bulldozed an ice skating rink around the entire circumference of the lake!

Anne Kanal ice skate path

In the Anne Kanal, a pier with a swimming lane dug out for people to take a dip. I had to join in and try this as well! You change into your swimming clothes in the house by the pier, except there is no sauna available to get warm before getting into the cold water! You walk out onto the pier with a towel, sandals, and a hat. The hat is essential as it keeps your head from getting too cold! Walking into the icy water feels like your whole body becomes numb. It doesn’t hurt as bad as you think; it is only your mind that you need to trick. Staying in the water for 30 seconds is enough for me, but some people can stay in for what seems like 5 minutes. When they get out, their whole body is red like a lobster! Make sure to dry off properly, so you don’t freeze in the cold air. As I was changing, there was a weird sensation; I felt warm. I was still wet, in my bathing suit, and the room was still cold. Slowly warmth began to creep back into the parts of my body that had lost all my feeling. I felt good and powerful. :) 

Ice swimming hole in Anne Kanal
Brandon swimming in the ice hole

I did cross country skiing at the Tähtvere park in Tartu. You might think this is skiing across a country, but it is a form of skiing where skiers use their bodies to move across snowy terrain. The whole experience went great but was way more challenging than I had imagined. Skiing for 2 hours felt like you were running the entire time. I managed to get around the 800m track six times, and that was plenty. What I learned is that there is a special technique to move across the snow. I tried my best to copy others, but this ended up in me falling multiple times. There are two different techniques that I saw, called the Classic and Skate Skiing. Classic is like taking big steps with the skis in the ski lanes while also pushing forward with the poles. Skate Skiing is like the ice skating technique of pushing yourself forward in a V shape made with your skis and pushing forward with the poles. Both require immense coordination, balance, and full-body strength. I ended up with a completely sore body, sweaty clothes, and a black eye.

A skier utilizing the Skate Skiing technique
The Tähtvere skiing tracks

Another way Estonians know how to enjoy Winter is through sledding. You will see families dragging their children in a sled throughout the town to get to the big hill. Sometimes the big hill comes to you as well! One day, I noticed some snow trucks dumping massive amounts of snow in a pile that seems too big to be a snow pile. Then came the heavy machine to pack the snow tall. Finally came the workers to shape the snow into a sledding track! I finally broke down and spent some money on my sled to enjoy this fun. There are also commercial sledding sites such as the Tartu Snow Park with massive sled tracks.

Man-made sledding hill
Toome Hill with families sledding down

One day, the temperature reached a freezing -17℃! Usually, people would stay inside and keep warm, but not me! It is my opportunity to see how I can handle this cold. I put on the warmest clothes I had and started my walk. As I walked, I could feel the ice build-up on my eyebrows and eyelashes and then melt into my face. Only the skin on my face was exposed, which had started to hurt. The Emajogi rive was frozen all the way entirely. It looked as though you could walk on it. Estonians have warned me never to walk on a frozen river. If you fall, the water current can take you under the ice. After 20 minutes of walking, I had enough of the cold and turned around to warm up in the nearest building.

Delta building, Emajõgi river, and arch bridge

This winter in Tartu has been everything I’ve been dreaming of since I moved here. The best way to enjoy where you’re at is to look at the locals. 

All photos are the courtesy of the author.