There’s something ethereal about the bog in Lahemaa National Park, and its many colours: red spongey plants in the water, weird grey-green lichen and moss growing everywhere, and total silence. No wonder Estonians revere the bogs, which cover a fifth of the country.
I arrived with a group at about 5am, hoping to see the sunrise, but it wasn’t to be – cloud cover got the better of us, resolutely refusing to let the sun skim the trees. Nevertheless, we ploughed on, with our guide pointing out the different types of plants and trees surrounding us as the rain tapped out a rhythm on our collection of plastic macs in various sludgy hues.
I had visions of bog walking as being some kind of Tough Mudder-type horror show, where men on steroids shouted at me to move faster and get a grip. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Bog walking in Estonia means walking on wooden paths laid on top of ancient bogs, not wading through them (I may have confused this with bog snorkelling, which is much messier).
You don’t need special kit, just trainers and some insect repellent, sun cream and waterproofs, depending on the weather. Every path in the bog walking landscape, except for a large wooden viewing platform, is accessible for those with buggies or wheelchairs. The scenery isn’t for everyone – it’s flat and sometimes quite bleak – but I loved it. I can do bleak. Give me cloud and mist and I feel soothed by it.
Bog swimming, as opposed to walking is slightly different: you’re not supposed to stand on the bog’s plant life (apparently it can take seven years for a footprint to disappear from the bog; this also explains why the ancient bog bodies I spotted in museums in Dublin and Copenhagen were so well-preserved), but you can swim in the water, as many do.
With the rain not showing any signs of stopping, and the mosquitoes still lunging at me through the clammy air, there was nothing to lose by slipping into the depths, despite not having a bikini and not feeling body-confident.
To quote an Estonian proverb, ‘Kes ei riski, see šampust ei joo’ (s/he who doesn’t take risks won’t drink Champagne). A few of us peeled off our anoraks and trousers and gave into the lure of the bog, as raindrops still hit on the surface and a light mist lingered in the air.
The water wasn’t cold, just refreshing and peaceful. I swam a slow breast-stroke to one of the clumps of matted plant matter, springy and brown, stretching far under the water line. Hauling myself up onto the edge of this makeshift island, I found I’d washed away the effects of just a few hours’ sleep, and I felt suddenly clear-headed. For once, I didn’t have my usual fears of wild swimming (creatures brushing my leg; reeds catching my feet; some kind of water-borne disease lurking underneath). Neither did I feel I was lagging behind the other stronger swimmers. I just felt calm.
Emerging dripping wet and suddenly alert, before it was even 7am, I couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate start to the day in eco-friendly Estonia.