When I met Ida Lennestål for a swim on a cold January day, she pulled an ax from her car and switched to warmer boots. A few minutes later, she lit a fire in a nearby sauna—a small building cobbled together from a former fish house and an old stove—before we walked down the short slope to a frozen pond near her home in Georgetown, Maine.
She took the ax out onto the ice, hacking out a rectangular opening and dropping a layer of clothing as her body warmed from work. If her hands or back were tired, she would pause and stretch. Finally, her partner and children joined us, skating on the skates and whirling or waddling across the surface of the pond. Two friends from the area, Nicole Testa and Ariel Burns, also joined in, using a ladle to scoop chunks out of the water, clearing a path for their bodies.
Ida grew up in northern Sweden, near the Finnish border, in the arctic climate of her parents and grandparents. The practice of combining saunas and cold splashes, an aspect of her cultural and family traditions stretching back generations, is something she brought back to Maine; she sees it as a way to share her culture with her community and to feel connected to her home and to herself. “This became especially important during the pandemic, when the distance between me and my people at home felt even greater than before,” she said.
When the ice was ready and the sauna was warm, we all stripped down to our bathing suits and boots and took turns dipping our bodies in the cold water. The sun came out, but didn’t seem to provide any warmth.
“The sauna and dive is a way for me to get out of my head and into my body,” Ida said. “When I’m in a hot box”—what she often calls the sauna—”or in icy cold water, my body doesn’t worry about the future or the past, what it looks like or whether it’s loved. The body just is.”
After the first dive, our bodies felt calm and sluggish. It was time for the sauna. Inside, the air, which smelled of cedar, was hot enough to start sweating right away. My body seemed to enjoy the experience of opposites, the way the cold and heat affected my circulation and changed my breathing. The group repeated the dive three times: dive, sauna, dive, sauna, dive, sauna. Each transition felt like a small renewal.
“These sessions are a direct experience of the body and anchor me in the present moment,” Ida said. “It taught me to sit with the uncomfortable, both the hot and the cold, to breathe through it. Pay attention. It taught me to listen to my body and hear what it needs. It’s a ritual. Holy almost. And the bliss when it’s all over lasts for hours.”
Then, intrigued by the experience, I started asking around about other women seeking cold water. I had started winter surfing a few years ago and understood how the water could affect my body and mind, especially when it was cold. I usually surf with women, many of them are beginners like me. But the cold pour process, I discovered, was its own specific experience, with its own intent and power.
Later that winter, I parked my car at a farm in Bremen, Maine, and walked across a frozen meadow to the shores of a lake. The snow had frozen to a smooth crust. Undeterred, a small group carried provisions and snacks to share to the lake shore. Taking turns with an axe, hammer, saw and drill, the group spent hours carving a huge heart in the lake to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
A year earlier, Caitlin Hopkins and Kelsy Hartley, who organized the dive, had put up signs in their community in all caps: “VALENTINES DAY MERMAID SIGHTING!” They went to their local beach and swung in mermaid tails, playing on the rocks and in the water. A few families brought their children to witness the episode; some winter beach walkers were excited, the rest confused.
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That day, Caitlin and Kelsy began calling themselves Two Maine Mermaids. They dip all year round and in various locations, often in costumes or crowns and to celebrate new moons and full moons, sometimes under the name Ebb and Flow group. “We started with our small group celebrating birthdays, solstices, full moons and everything else we could think of at the start of Covid,” explains Caitlin Hopkins. “Some days it’s serene, peaceful and just calming. Sometimes it’s a party. Either way, the water always gives us exactly what we need – it never fails.”
Only half of the group decided to dive into the cut-out heart on that cold February day. In swimsuits, booties, and mittens (like the kind surfers wear), they sank into the water, mixed with tiny iceberg lettuce and melting snow. A few hugged the ice, or pulled their bodies onto the larger chunks, their spirits aroused. They watched the minutes to test endurance and protect their bodies from frostbite. Most stayed in for five minutes, a few seven. When they emerged, they smiled with bluish lips.
“When I’m out, I try not to run in my towel or dry coat,” Kelcy Engstrom said. “I prefer to stay in my swimming trunks for as long as possible. I just love the way my skin feels in the air after being in the water.”
“After swimming I feel very strong and happy and calm,” she added. “I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been in a bad mood after a dive.”
Katie Stevenson, who also immerses in Two Maine Mermaids, is taking a year off from medical school and has enrolled in a course on medical pastoral care. “I don’t practice a formal faith tradition at this point in my life, but being in the water feels more sacred to me than any church service I’ve ever attended,” she said.
“When I’m stressed in the hospital, I try to find the closest window with a view of water,” she told me. “I see myself in the water, I feel the waves lapping against my chest, the pressure of my lungs constricting and expanding in protest against the deep cold, concentrating my energy on slow, measured breaths, seeing what incredible sunrise, sunset or full moon whatever I saw last. Sometimes, when I have particularly troubling patient visits, I imagine the suffering I or the patient and their family experience being swept up by the waves.”
The annual polar bear dive tradition has been around for over 100 years in the United States and beyond. But casual cold dive groups seem to be proliferating: the Red Hot Chilly Dippers in Vermont; the Puget Sound Plungers in Washington State; the Bluetits Chill Swimmers and the Wild and Scilly Mermaids in Great Britain, just to name a few. What feels different lately is the sense of mindfulness around the process of the dive. Many of the people I met by the water told me they were there because cold diving gave them a way to live with a certain fullness. It gave them a process to have internal intimacy with sadness, trauma and pain, while connecting more challenging emotions with joy and humor.
Amy Hopkins hosts a group of dippers in York, Maine. They meet at local beaches and coves, sometimes with water so cold and muddy it has the consistency of a margarita. I met her and a group of women on the edge of the beach around sunrise on a misty morning, the sky milky and the sun slowly rising. They waded into the water and submerged their heads, their submersions swift as baptisms.
For them, the most rewarding part of the ritual is the immersion, a moment of total submission to the cold. “When your body is in that fight or flight, it’s shocking,” said Amy, who began her career as a labor and delivery nurse. “That cold temperature immediately causes everything to contract and protect. Blood flows to your vital organs.”
Amy found her way to cold water as she mourned the loss of her two parents and the collective loss of the pandemic. She now facilitates diving trips for women and works with school counselors to provide cold splashes to high school students at a company she’s the Saltwater Mountain Co. But she started hosting free, open community dives — like the one at the cold, misty bay — called Dip Down to Rise Up. In that post-dip feeling, participants often splash or hug each other and come out of the water hand in hand.
In a place like Maine, six months out of the year, the relationship with nature is one of hardship, even pain. The cold air hurts your exposed skin; the wind can burst your lips and make your eyes water. Shopping usually requires scraping the windshield and shoveling snow. Winter is harsh and erratic, but it’s also just long, maddening.
And so the prevailing culture retains a sense of pride in the toughness, an ability to find pleasure in the endurance of it all. Mainers understand that there is a symmetry in living in a place of extremes – that there is no heat without cold patches.
“You can’t think of a winter in Maine without talking about depression — the depression that comes from just being in a long winter,” said Amy Hopkins. “But with this exercise you will face the season. Instead of complaining, you meet the season.”
“I never liked winter until I started this,” she said.