Clumsy Girl's Guide to Russian Snow
My skating skills are seriously rusty and the thought of skiing down a hill terrifies me. And I don't even own a hockey stick. But it would be a shame to miss out on all the fun you can have in the snow.
Set a new speed record on a vatrushka. When we were kids, we’d slide down icy hills and lake banks on something called “ledyanki,” essentially a piece of plastic with a handle. Things have improved a lot. Now you can pick up serious speed without turning your bum into a giant bruise on an inflated “doughnut” called “vatrushka,” which when it doesn’t refer to a sledding device means a round cheese pastry. The ride is just as sweet! Just watch out for other sliders near you and get out of the way at the bottom. Somehow everyone, including kids, rides vatrushkas without helmets or any protection, which makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, but when my three-year-old son wanted to give it a shot, it was impossible to say no.
Get into a snow fight. You don’t even have to know how to make a snowball. Or get your mittens wet. You can just buy a snow-ball-maker-and-thrower and deliver perfectly round, hard-hitting snowballs without fail. Works on powder and packed snow. Looks a little odd but delivers. Just remember that with great power comes great responsibility.
Let Samoyed dogs pull your sled. You don’t have to travel to Siberia or Alaska to get the thrill of a noisy and enthusiastic team of these fluffy white guys rushing you down a snowy path. There’s a Samoyed kennel just north of St. Petersburg that will let you try your skills as a musher, managing a sled team of Samoyeds, or just offer lots of opportunities for petting and taking photos.
Cool off after sauna. Are you ready to brave one of Russia’s most exciting practices? After a session in the blistering steam in a sauna, or banya, you’ll find your comrades jumping into an icy plunge pool or just rubbing the snow all over their bodies. Supposedly it gives your cardiovascular system a workout, and for sure indulges the Russian love of the extremes. If you’re not looking for either, it will certainly provide a fun social experience, and something to write home about.
Enjoy winter wonderland. If you’ve never been in an actual forest in the winter, it’s certainly worth a trip. Giant evergreens are topped with snow, which makes for a perfect “snow shower” if you shake a branch. Trees that have lost their leaves look like fragile frost-crusted works of art. If you go to the beach of the Gulf of Finland, you might also see ice piled high into incredible structures, but be careful not to walk on them.
One of my favorite places to go is Zubrovnik, a bison reserve about 15 minutes north of St. Petersburg. You can feed a giant, snow-covered bison a carrot or a pear, ride a horse-drawn sleigh, and walk on a wooden hanging bridge deep in the forest. It’s close enough to town that you can be home for lunch, and far enough away that it feels like a different planet.