For a community of hardy souls in Maine, there’s no better way to feel fully alive in winter than immersing yourself in the frigid Atlantic. Yes, the entrance is jolting. But if you take it slow, you allow for what members of the group call “a conversation with the nervous system” that produces a sensation you can’t achieve any other way: a powerful, blossoming inner warmth that’s both delightful and grounding, leaving you with a lasting elevated mood and enhanced feelings of empathy and responsiveness. In this episode, from our friends at the Outside/In podcast, we learn how the dippers found their way to this bold practice, and why they’ll never give it up.
Interested in trying cold-water immersion? Outside/In offers some safety tips before you get started.
Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.
Michael Roberts: From Outside magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
Michael: About five years ago, journalist Bonnie Tsui was working on a book about swimming. For her research, she spent time with an accomplished open-water swimmer named Kim Chambers, who was the first woman to swim from the Farallon islands to the Golden Gate Bridge That's a 30-mile swim in the very cold Pacific Ocean. To understand some of what Kim had endured, Bonnie joined her for a much shorter swim in the San Francisco Bay, which is also chilly. Bonnie remembers being nervous -- and marveling out how calm Kim was.
Bonnie: A cold January morning, it's drizzling and it just looks extremely uninviting to get into the water. And I just remember looking at her and she just was so relaxed. And for me, I had to really gird myself and dive in.
And then when I dove in, it was a shock. But it didn't feel cold. It felt hot,
Michael: Bonnie describes feeling what she calls "ice fire."
Bonnie: That kind of flamed all over my body and it just sort of went all across the surface of my skin. And then strangely enough, I didn't feel anything. I mean, I felt totally normal swimming around. And, you know, you have this period, this like blessed grace period of like, it just feels good.
Michael: Bonnie is a strong swimmer who'd spent years training in pools. She'd also swam in the Bay before, though always with a wetsuit. This time she only worse a swimsuit and goggles. She says the 50-degree water made her feel alive and sharp. She was loving it.
Bonnie: It was almost like I passed through some portal, where heat flames, ice flames like race across my body and then I'm just swimming. And then it just felt really great.
Michael: After 20 minutes, Kim insisted they get out, explaining that because Bonnie wasn't used to the cold water, she'd soon be experiencing early stage hypothermia. They were at the Dolphin Club, a legendary San Francisco outfit that has this classic boathouse next to the water with hot showers and a sauna.
Bonnie: And I just remember walking outta the water, onto the beach and feeling just energized. And then we start walking into the club. And we walk into the locker room. And before I get to the shower I remember starting to shiver.
Michael: She blasted the hot water and stood under it for ten minutes before she finally stopped shivering.
Bonnie: And we go into the sauna and it really is like the warm heart of this club and this community where you go in and you're chatting and your body is coming back to itself. But it's—there's the camaraderie in there, but there's also this wonderful sense of having shared this morning ritual or this collective experience of something pretty awesome.
Michael: That does sound awesome, though I've lived in the San Francisco area for most of my life and I've never been inclined to swim in the Bay in winter, even after reading Bonnie's excellent book, Why We Swim.
I'm Michael Roberts, and as we move through the dark days of winter I've been thinking about how hard it can be sometimes to get outside in the cold. Heading to a ski area on a bluebird powder day doesn't count—that's easy. I'm talking about venturing into the woods on a nasty, rainy morning. Or going for a run in your neighborhood when there's crusty snow on the ground. Or, most daring of all, how about submerging yourself in bone-chilling water in one of the coldest places in the country? All those scenarios might sound terrible to you, but for the brave souls who motivate to get out there, it's when they have their happiest moments.
Recently, the Outside/In podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio published an episode about a practice known as cold-water dipping. To put it together, producer Justin Paradis spent time with a very hardy community of women in Maine. Today, we're delighted to share the piece with you. If you like it as much we do, listen to Outside/In. They do a great job.
Kelsy Hartley: I started my cold water swimming journey actually when I was about six months sober, so it was kind of a new experience for me of, uh, living in a way that was, that had a lot more information coming to me. There's a lot more clarity in my life. And that shift from kind of a dissociated life to one that was full of lots of new information was a little bit like information overload. And, um, one of the ways I used to kind of feel better in my body was to start cold water swimming.
The first day I did it, I was like, ‘All right, I'm going to get in the water.’ And it was May, so it was freezing. And I think I got, like, up to my ankles. I was like, that was it. I was like, okay, that was good for today. The next day I was like, ‘Alright, like at least shins.’ And then I got up to my knees and then I think it was like the third or fourth day. I was like, ‘All right, Hartley, like, get in the water.’
Just at that point, I dove in and it was just so exhilarating. You know, that experience of being a little kid again where you're just like everything in your whole body, like, comes online all at once. And I just remember, like, getting out of the water, like, laughing like I hadn't laughed in years. And I was like, I think there might be something to this. So I just kept coming back for it.
I started posting about it in Instagram and friends of mine said, ‘Oh, we have this other friend that is doing this crazy thing that you're doing. You guys should hang out.’ And so the community started building from there.
Caitlin Hopkins: My name is Caitlin Hopkins.
Betsy Dawkins: Well, I’m Betsy Lou Dawkins.
Puranjot Kaur: My name is Puranjot Kaur.
Judy Greene-Janse: Judith Greene-Janse.
Kesly Hartley: Kelsy Hartley. I’m a Mainer.
Judy Greene-Janse: Who I am? I am who I am. I’m a painter at the moment.
Caitlin Hopkins: I have like a few different jobs right now.
Puranjot Kaur: I am from Bar Harbor, Maine.
Betsy Dawkins: I moved here in ‘82.
Judy Greene-Janse: My mother’s family comes from here, so I’ve been coming to Maine my whole life.
Caitlin Hopkins: Part-time make oyster bags for a local oyster farmer.
Puranjot Kaur: I belong to a group called Cold Tits Warm Hearts.
Kelsy Hartley: Two Maine Mermaids is a Cold Water Community here in Portland Maine. I’m 38.
Betsy Dawkins: I’m 72.
Puranjot Kaur: … an ultra distance open water marathon swimmer but also a cold-water dipper, throughout the whole year up in Maine.
Betsy Dawkins: Winter immersion, we call it dipping, is we go in in the absolute bracing cold. Maybe you move the ice aside, and get in the water and just go up to my neck. And I have a wool hat on and I still just have my bathing suit on. I don't have a suit, neoprene suit, on – just gloves and booties. And then just stay in the water as long as you can.
Judy Greene-Janse: it's so weird if people who would see us, who would walk by, even though it's super early in the morning, it's like women in a hot tub. I mean, some of them had like the towel wrapped around their head, like, you know, like a turban and just just sitting there and chatting about like their weekend and stuff.
Caitlin Hopkins: I get excited about the thought of, like, slushy ocean. Which I didn’t even know happened!
Betsy Dawkins: And you know, the biggest question is: ‘is it cold?’ You bet your sweet ass it’s cold!
Caitlin Hopkins: Before you touch the water, lay a towel out. Put your dry towel on top of that towel. And think about, genuinely take a beat to think about: Okay, my hands are going to be numb. I can't tie my shoes. I can't zip. And think to yourself like what you're going to do when you get out.
Kelsy Hartley: You wanna know where everything is, yeah. You wanna make sure that you can get into your car as soon as possible.
Betsy Dawkins: Well, the hardest part for me is the moment you take your warm coat off and you're standing in the hopefully not a breeze, but many times it is a breeze… and you're freezing!
As you hit the water, like, first foot into the water, it's that like initial jolt of, okay, this is really happening to me at this point.
Betsy Dawkins: I know when I step in that water, it's going to be a wonderful shock. A jolt of lightning or something, probably going through you – [gasp]
Caitlin Hopkins: A lot of the danger in plunging or, like, when you hear people like jumping into an ice hole and dying is because there's a cold shock response and so you're gasping once you hit that cold water and inhaling water.
Puranjot Kaur: I’ll see videos of people jumping into cold water and my first reaction is oh my gosh, don’t do that. Especially having the face go in first.
Caitlin Hopkins: And so to counter that and to also, like, encourage like a super embodied experience, we encourage people to take a nice slow walk in.
Kelsy Hartley: This slowly walking in, at least in the style that we do it… it's allowing a conversation with the nervous system.
Caitlin Hopkins: Oh, that’s cold, okay. Yup.
Kelsy Hartley: Getting the toes in.
Caitlin Hopkins: I’m here by choice. This feels good.
Kelsy Hartley: And then knees, and then from there the negotiations get a little bit, a little bit harder.
Caitlin Hopkins: Tits and pits, that’s the hardest part, right? But once you get past that, there’s this really amazing feeling that happens.
Kelsy Hartley: Once you’re up around your shoulders, the body starts to take its blood supply in the muscles and will turn it to the core… and that's your body saving you from dying. But that's where it starts to feel really good. So you'll get this really warm, um, people have called it like blossoming.
Caitlin Hopkins: A blossoming warmth inside of you. And you tend to not experience that if you run in, dunk, and then get back out.
Purajot Kaur: There’s nowhere else to be. There’s nowhere else to, nothing else to think about. You’re just forced into that present moment of, like, here I am in the cold.
Kelsy Hartley: It's almost like the heat source turns on in your midline and you almost feel like you're radiating warmth, so your hands and toes will continue to always be freezing. It's not that you're not cold, it's just that there's a new sensation and, like, a new directionality in your body. So, you know, everything that we're doing in general is processing outward information in. And this shift takes the information that you're very aware of is coming from inside. And that's just like a very, very enjoyable experience and pretty novel and very grounding in my opinion.
Judy Greene-Janse: Because you just feel so alive. It's like the cold water is exhilarating, you know? And it's just, it's, like, you're super aware. It's almost frightening in that you can keep going like that longer than you should, you know, because at a certain point, you don't even notice that you're cold at all. So I really, I rely on my watch. If I can't find my watch in the morning, I don't go.
Betsy Dawkins: We time ourselves. In the dead of winter, when the water temperature is maybe 38, you know, I can stay in, I think it’s about 5 minutes.
Judy Greene-Janse: You need to know how long you're in the water. I mean, even though you watch all kinds of of top notch people doing these long ice swims and stuff like that, you have to remember who you are and how your body reacts, you know, and what your limits are.
Kelsy Hartley: So once that blossoming happens… it's time to get warm relatively soon.
Caitlin Hopkins: I think the most dangerous part is when you get out of the water.
Betsy Dawkins: It’s a mad rush to get dressed as fast as you can. Because for one thing, your hands don’t work very well. They become very clumsy. You can’t zip things. So you have to get what clothes you want on as quick as possible. Then get a big coat on.
Judy Greene-Janse: I mean, I copied immediately what I saw Penny had. I went home and bought some fabric and sewed one for myself. It's, like, uh, basically a giant pillowcase out of fleece. The idea: you put over your head, as soon as you get out of the water and then you take off, because they told me it's important to get the suit off immediately.
Betsy Dawkins: And then afterward, you know, I get to sit here in front of my fireplace. Oh, it feel so good. And then you take it, you get in the shower and that is absolutely heaven to be in the shower afterward. There are some precautions you have to take… because of the change, abrupt changes in your blood pressure and stuff.
It’s not something you do frivolously. You know, you have to really give it some thought and be careful and the first times you go, you go with people. Hopefully some people that are knowledgeable.
Caitlin Hopkins: I can tell when I haven't dipped in a few days, like I try to go three times a week and if I get beyond three days, it's not nice. My capacity to be empathetic and, like, responsive rather than reactive is so much lower.
Judy Greene-Janse: 1998. 1999. We had been trying to have a third child and I had a few miscarriages. And so we kind of said, ‘okay, never mind, we're happy. We have two boys. We're happy.’ You know? And then so in 2000, I was 40. And then I did an Alcatraz race in 2000 to 2003, 2004. And they were amazing. I mean, they were just amazing. And then 2005, I got pregnant. So I was 45 at that point. And I really do count that up for, to cold water swimming. I mean, the feeling I have when I get out of the cold water is just tremendous.
Betsy Dawkins: For myself, I was able to get to the point where I could tolerate it and then it becomes sort of addictive. And it's like you really, you enjoy that cold. I, uh, I'm, uh, uh, in recovery from alcohol abuse and and it's a real high for me and that's one of the beauties of it is, you know, I'm not smoking marijuana or I'm not doing drugs. I'm just getting in the cold water and I get this wonderful high, and I do love that.
Kesly Hartley: One of the things that when I first started swimming in that kind of early sobriety process, it is going to release a little bit of dopamine. It is an incredible mood booster, that’s probably similar physiology to working out or something. It's this kind of internally resourced capacity to make us feel better.
I feel very accomplished after I've done a dip. I feel like the rest of the day is gravy. It does make the cold less scary. It makes the dark less scary. And I think just having this practice and knowing that going into to, this is my third season doing it, I'm looking forward to the winter and I'm not afraid of the doldrums and I'm not afraid of the cold. And just knowing that feels kind of satisfying.
Betsy Dawkins: It's not for bragging rights for me. I, I really like being able to do something that is, is that other people would think would be hard to do. It's just the challenge to me that, you know, can you really go on a day like today? It's it's pretty nasty outside and it's like, yeah, I did it.
Michael Roberts: If you now find yourself interested in cold-water dipping, Outside/In has some smart safety tips in the show notes to this story on their website, outsideinradio.org
This piece was was reported, produced, and mixed by Justine Paradis for the Outside/In podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio. It was edited by Taylor Quimby. Music by Blue Dot Sessions, Quesa, and Autohacker.
Thanks to Bonnie Tsui for speaking with me for the introduction. Her books include Why We Swim and Sarah and the Big Wave.
I'm Michael Roberts and you're listening to the Outside Podcast. Our show is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn about the many benefits of membership and join us at outsideonline.com/podplus.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.