By Kathleen Bortolin
I can’t remember what it was exactly that encouraged me to wade into winter waters. Maybe it was a social media post I had scrolled past or an article I had read on the benefits of cold water immersion. I sometimes prefer to think that I was called to the water, some primal connection to the sea compelling my Viking soul to obey.
Regardless of the origins, a few years ago, I found myself walking hesitantly into the chilly waters off the coast of Port Renfrew.
Once shoulder-deep, I gasped, my body innately reminding me of the danger I was in. I felt the sting of the cold embrace my skin. A hundred frozen knives. In the midst of the pain, I counted and breathed. Somewhere around number 10, the discomfort subsided. The madness hushed. And I was alone in the cold ocean, my eyes hovering above the water line, fully enveloped and very much alive.
I felt a remarkable sense of peace in the water that day, despite the chill, or perhaps because of it. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I got out. Towelled off. My capillaries opened back up, warm blood returned from organs to extremities and a sharp calm, both physical and emotional, set in deeply for the rest of the day. I was hooked.
Recently, a group of Ladysmithsonians have discovered the joyful madness of cold water immersion.
Led by Stephanie Steele, the Transfer Beach Dippers meet daily (sometimes twice a day) for a dip in the cold waters of the Salish Sea off Transfer Beach. The Facebook group has swelled to near 104 members, with a core committed group of swimmers of about 30. Those who do meet to take the waters are discovering for themselves the many benefits of cold water swimming, noticing that beyond the thrill and initial shock are many physical and mental benefits.
I joined the group one morning to partake in the social experience of cold water dipping. It’s quiet at the beach. The water is grey and still. Fiona Steeves, a regular dipper is the first to join me. I know her vaguely from around town, but we begin talking right away, our novel pursuit of swimming in cold water an immediate gateway to conversation. Soon, Stephanie joins and we’re stripping down to our suits, slipping into our neoprene booties.
We wade slowly into the water, pausing for a few minutes as our bodies adjust. We let the water climb first to our ankles, then to our knees, then boldly to our hips. Eventually, we let the water cover our shoulders. We all gasp a little. As we bob and float, we talk about the water, and what we love about it. Fiona, having recently completed her 21st dip, comments on how the water looks different every time she comes.
“It’s nice to experience the many moods of Transfer Beach,” she said.
Stephanie is a nurse at the Nanaimo Hospital, and like many in the health profession, has experienced a shift in anxiety and stress since the COVID-19 crisis started. One day, her coworker, Mercedes Zetino, posted that they were swimming at Departure Bay, and mentioned the mental health benefits of cold water dipping.
Stephanie decided to join them, on the hunt for something to disrupt her own anxiety. Like many who take the plunge, Stephanie was hooked when she immediately started to notice a change.
“It doesn’t make your anxiety go away, but it makes it better, easier to handle,” she said.
Not wanting to travel to Departure Bay for her daily dips, but not wanting to swim alone, Stephanie started a Facebook group in Ladysmith and encouraged her friends to join her. She shared openly her reasons for dipping, committing to 21 dips to battle mental health challenges like stress and anxiety. The group took off quickly, a testament to Stephanie’s humble and honest approach. It’s hard not to be inspired by Stephanie and all the dippers, seeing their courage and enthusiasm and the way they are celebrating and supporting one another.
Many of the dippers will say that they were slightly hesitant at first.
Michele Loeffler, one of the group’s regulars, suggests that when she first heard of the group she paused.
“I thought there was no way I could do it as I hate being cold. But it made me think of a quote from The Frey Life: ‘Do what you think you can’t do.’ I did it and now I’m hooked,” she said.
“For those 10 minutes you’re in the water, you are thinking of nothing else other than your breathing and telling yourself you can do it.”
In addition to sleeping more soundly and feeling better equipped to handle the stress of the day, Michele says that her favourite part of the group is the people.
“We encourage support each other and lift each other up.”
Lifting each other up is what many of us need right now. Locked down. Isolated from friends and family. Anxious about the future. Stressed. Although I usually find dipping a solitary pursuit, preferring to seek out wild and quiet places where I can be alone with the water, I loved my morning with the dippers, and the comradery it held. It did in fact feel like we were holding each other up.
As we lingered in the water, Fiona, Stephanie and I talk about the research on cold water immersion, as well as the various anecdotal health benefits members are noticing.
Many dippers have indicated that they are sleeping better, especially those who dip in the evenings. Some have suggested that chronic pain is lessened. Some have seen a decrease in hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. And countless members talk about a feeling of calm and relaxation that sticks with them during the day, a weapon in the arsenal against stress and anxiety.
Local dipper Jen Silvey says that it provides a peaceful reset for her, allowing her to stay grounded amid the daily challenges of working in education during a pandemic.
“The ocean at sunrise is spiritual for me. It’s my serenity,” she said.
Jen added dipping helps her gracefully pivot with the ongoing changes and challenges through the day, something many of us can relate to.
“I’ve found myself again,” says Mercedes Zetino, the dipper who inspired Stephanie to take the plunge. “I find the cold water dips provide a sense of vibrancy that does not compare to anything else.”
We exit the water and quickly change, Fiona like a magician, Stephanie and I under our ponchos designed for discreet changes. Stephanie reminds me that she also collects money and donations for the Ladysmith Resource Centre Association (LRCA) as part of the dipping.
“We wanted to improve our own mental health by doing these dips and give back to those in our community that are suffering with mental health as well,” Stephanie said.
I’m back home in 10 minutes, showering off and warming up. My spirits are definitely buoyed, my Viking soul soothed, connected to humans again. I carry on my day, feeling relaxed and more ready for the madness.
I feel that I will replace my solitary dips with the supportive friendship of the Transfer Beach Dippers. And I feel a deep sense of gratitude wash over me being part of this community, connected to its soul not only through its waters but through amazing women like Stephanie Steele. Many of us are living our most challenging years yet, yet the challenges are made easier with groups like the Transfer Beach Dippers, and through the connection, support and benefits they provide.