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Cold-Plunging With Maine’s ‘Ice Mermaids’


After I met Ida Lennestål for a plunge on a chilly January day, she was pulling an ax from her automobile and switching into warmer boots. A number of minutes later, she lit a fireplace in a close-by sauna — a small constructing cobbled together from a former fish house and an old stove — before we walked the short slope right down to a frozen pond near her home in Georgetown, Maine.

She took to the ice with the ax, chipping away at an oblong opening and shedding a layer of clothing as her body warmed from the work. When her hands or back were drained, she’d pause and stretch. Eventually her partner and youngsters joined us, lacing up skates and swirling or toddling along the pond’s surface. Two friends from the world, Nicole Testa and Ariel Burns, joined, too, using a ladle to scoop chunks from the water, clearing a path for his or her bodies.

Ida grew up in Northern Sweden, near the Finnish border, within the arctic climate of her parents and grandparents. The practice of mixing saunas and cold plunges, a side of her cultural and familial traditions that stretches back for generations, is something she brought together with her to Maine; she sees it as a solution to share her culture together with her community and to feel connected to her home and to herself. “This became especially essential throughout the pandemic when the space between me and my people back home felt even larger than before,” she said.

When the ice was ready and the sauna was warm, all of us stripped to our bathing suits and boots and took turns dipping our bodies into the cold water. The sun got here out, however it appeared to offer no warmth.

“The sauna and dip for me is a solution to get out of my head and into my body,” Ida said. “After I’m in a hot box” — what she often calls the sauna — “or in an ice-cold body of water, my body doesn’t worry concerning the future or the past, the way it looks or whether it’s loved. The body just is.”

After the initial plunge, our bodies felt calm and slow. It was time for the sauna. Inside, the air, which smelled like cedar, was hot enough to drag sweat immediately. My body appeared to relish the experience of opposites, the best way the cold and the warmth affected my circulation and altered my respiration. The group repeated the plunge 3 times: plunge, sauna, plunge, sauna, plunge, sauna. Each transition felt like a bit of renewal.

“These sessions are a direct experience of the body, anchoring me into the current moment,” Ida said. “It has taught me to take a seat with the uncomfortable, each the new and the cold, to breathe through it. To concentrate. It has taught me to take heed to my body and listen to what it needs. It’s a ritual. Sacred almost. And the bliss when it’s throughout lasts for hours.”

Afterward, intrigued by the experience, I began asking around about other women who hunt down cold water. I’d began winter browsing a couple of years ago and understood the ways the water could impact my body and mind, especially when it was cold. I often surf with women, a lot of them beginners like me. However the strategy of cold plunging, I discovered, was its own distinct experience, with its own intention and power.

Later that winter, I parked my automobile by a farmhouse in Bremen, Maine, and walked across an icebound meadow to the shores of a lake. The snow had frozen right into a slick crust. Undaunted, a small group carried provisions and snacks to share right down to the lakeside. Taking turns with an ax, hammer, saw and drill, the group spent hours cutting an infinite heart into the lake to rejoice Valentine’s Day.

A 12 months before, Caitlin Hopkins and Kelsy Hartley, who organized the dip, had posted signs around their community in all caps: “VALENTINE’S DAY MERMAID SIGHTING!” They went to their local beach and shimmied into mermaid tails, playing on the rocks and within the water. A number of families brought their kids to witness the episode; some winter beach walkers were thrilled, the remainder befuddled.

The glories of the U.S. national park system draw a whole bunch of hundreds of thousands of holiday makers annually.

That day, Caitlin and Kelsy began calling themselves Two Maine Mermaids. They dip year-round and in several locations, often in costumes or crowns and to rejoice latest moons and full moons, sometimes using the name the Ebb and Flow group. “We began with our small group celebrating birthdays, solstices, full moons and the rest we could consider right firstly of Covid,” Caitlin Hopkins explained. “Some days it’s serene, peaceful and just calming. Sometimes it’s a celebration. Either way, the water all the time gives us exactly what we want — never fails.”

Only half of the group decided to plunge into the cutout heart on that cold day in February. In swimsuits, booties and mitts (like the type surfers wear), they lowered themselves into the water, mingling with little icebergs and slush. A number of hugged the ice, or pulled their bodies onto the larger chunks, their spirits buoyant. They monitored the minutes each to check stamina and to guard their bodies from frostbite. Most stayed in for five minutes, a couple of for seven. After they emerged, they smiled through bluish lips.

“After I get out, I don’t try to rush into my towel or dryrobe,” said Kelcy Engstrom. “I wish to stay in my swimsuit so long as possible. I similar to the best way my skin feels within the air after being within the water.”

“After swimming, I feel very strong and joyful and calm,” she added. “I truthfully don’t think I’ve ever been in a nasty mood after a dip.”

Katie Stevenson, who also dips with Two Maine Mermaids, is taking a 12 months off from medical school and has enrolled in a course about medical chaplaincy. “I don’t practice a proper faith tradition at this point in my life, but being within the water feels more sacred to me than any church service I’ve ever attended,” she said.

“After I’m stressed within the hospital, I try to search out the closest window with a view of any water,” she told me. “I envision myself within the water, feeling the lapping of the waves against my chest, the pressure of my lungs contracting and expanding in protest to the deep cold, focusing my energy on slow measured breaths, seeing whatever incredible sunrise, sunset or full moon I saw most recently. Sometimes when I actually have particularly troubling patient visits, I envision the suffering that I or the patient and their family are experiencing getting carried away by the waves.”

The annual tradition of the polar bear plunge has existed in the USA and beyond for greater than 100 years. But informal cold plunging groups appear 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 Britain, to call only a couple of. Recently, what feels different is the sense of mindfulness across the strategy of the plunge. Lots of the people I met by the water told me they were there because cold plunging gave them a solution to live with a certain fullness. It gave them a process to have internal intimacy with grief, trauma and pain, while connecting tougher emotions with joy and humor.

Amy Hopkins organizes a bunch of dippers in York, Maine. They meet at local beaches and bays, sometimes with water so cold and slushy it has the consistency of a margarita. I met her and a bunch of ladies at the sting of the beach around sunrise on a foggy morning, the sky milky and the sun slow to emerge. They waded into the water and submerged their heads, their dips quick like baptisms.

For them, probably the most rewarding a part of the ritual is the act of submersion, 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 profession as a labor and delivery nurse. “That cold temperature immediately makes every thing constrict and protect. Blood rushes to your vital organs.”

Amy found her solution to cold water while mourning the lack of her two parents and the collective lack of the pandemic. She is now facilitating dip trips for girls and dealing with school counselors to supply cold plunges for top schoolers in a business she has named the Saltwater Mountain Co. But she began by organizing free, open community plunges — just like the one on the cold, foggy cove — under the name Dip Right down to Rise Up. In that post-dip feeling, participants often splash or hug each other, emerging from the water holding hands.

In a spot like Maine, for six months out of the 12 months, the connection with nature is one among hardship, even pain. The cold air hurts your exposed skin; the wind can chap your lips and make your eyes water. Running errands often requires scraping the windshield and shoveling snow. Winter is harsh and erratic, however it’s also just long, maddeningly so.

And so the prevailing culture retains a way of pride regarding the harshness, a capability to search out pleasure within the endurance of all of it. Mainers understand that there’s a symmetry in living in a spot with extremes — that there is no such thing as a warmth without stretches of cold.

“You’ll be able to’t take into consideration a Maine winter without talking about depression — the depression that comes from just being in an extended winter,” Amy Hopkins said. “But with this practice, you’re meeting the season. As an alternative of complaining, you might be meeting the season.”

“I never loved winter until I began doing this,” she said.

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