By Darren Lum
Most people bundle up during the winter to shield against the cold, but one small group of swimmers is bucking the trend this year, shedding their clothing every month and embracing the waters of winter.
Call them names. They don’t mind.
“We are crazy!” Joleen Thomas of Carnarvon wrote in a text about the Twelve Mile Lake Group. “The crazy keeps us coming back for more! Girls are challenging themselves to dunk this time, stay in longer, take a few more strokes.”
The mother of three school-aged children points out all of the members of the group are strong swimmers, who know their limits and don’t have any underlying health challenges that could be brought on by cold water. She also acknowledges they are taking “calculated risks” and that winter swimming and wading isn’t for everyone.
This group may be brave to swim in open winter waters, but they are also prepared.
Thomas said the group employs a buddy system any time they swim, whether it’s in the summer or winter, and for longer swims in the spring and summer a volunteer spotter watches swimmers in case of distress.
As preparation for the cold water, she wears her wetsuit during her travel to meet the others so she’s sweating by the time she hits the water.
She also referenced some of the safety tips outlined by the article, Swimming in Cold Water – A Guide to Temperature, which was published in October on the website for the Outdoor Swimmer magazine. It listed cold water shock, swim failure, hypothermia and after drop as things to be concerned about when swimming in cold water.
Local medical doctor Norm Bottum of the Haliburton Highlands Family Health Team – who has been practicing for 33 years – reiterated a few of the points the article presented and offered six points from his perspective: one, make sure there is a support person on-site for assistance, if needed; two, expect an initial shock, which can cause panic, especially with first timers that could create a risk of drowning; three, initial shock could also be a risk to those with heart disease, hypertension, or other cardiovascular conditions; four, hypothermia is a risk so limit exposure and ease into the practice and have methods to warm up after because the air temperature will be less than the water temperature where hypothermia could set in; five, despite the perception that cold water immersion will strengthen the immune system, he has not seen research to support it; and six, he recognizes there is likely a “great sense of accomplishment, as long as it is done safely.”
Inspired by the departure of one member, Anje Hilkers, who left the Highlands for the Netherlands, the Twelve Mile Lake Group vowed to continue swimming this winter as a tribute to her, and provides inspiration through social media posts during these challenging times. The past few months the group has been meeting once a month, picking days when the forecast is ideal with temperatures and conditions that are not extremely cold or windy. There is also a list of criteria used when picking locations, as water ways start to freeze: ease of access to and from the water such as a shallow beach, ramp entrance that can be used on foot; a lack of steep banks; accessible parking and access from the car to water. The previous 11 years of the group’s existence they met up for regular swims during the spring and summer on Twelve Mile Lake, which also included their children as young as 10 years.
Every member of this swimming group has their own reasons for participation, and include different comfort levels of immersion, whether it’s walking in, dunking their bodies, or a short swim of 100 metres.
Linda Shantz of Haliburton said this monthly practice and this group provided her strength when she felt her lowest after her father died recently. She recounts her experience of returning from the water, heavy with emotion, but became buoyed by the support from the spirit of sisterhood they all share. Although the mother of two young adult sons said the swim is the only time where they all come together, she said seeing them on shore waiting for her to come in from the water provided the strength to know things will be alright.
“I wouldn’t do it if they weren’t there … it was like a reset,” she said.
With the emotions of losing her father still fresh, she expressed an appreciation for being able to swim at all, cold water or not.
“I’m doing this because he can’t,” she said, referring to how her father was an avid swimmer, spending years swimming in Georgian Bay while at the cottage.
The newest member to the group is Leslie O’Brien, who just joined a few months ago in November. The mother of three is a yoga and meditation teacher that has seen personal growth through this experience.
“This, for me, is a practice of persevering through the discomfort and nourishing my spirit. It builds my sense of self, that I can do things I don’t wanna do because I will feel better on the other side,” she wrote in an email.
O’Brien said it was through her connection with Thomas when they met five years ago through the Haliburton County homeschool community that got her out to swim this winter.
This experience has enabled O’Brien to learn about herself in ways she hasn’t before.
“I have progressed through the courage of the other swimmers. The first time I walked in to my thighs and walked back out. Second time was similar. Third time walked in up-to my waist and walked back out,” she wrote. “Last time, I walked in to my knees and fully submerged and quickly walked back out. It was excruciating but I felt invigorated by the experience and my own (and everyone’s’) courage.
O’Brien said she believes there are health benefits to cold therapy, which she said can help lower inflammation. She also cited well-known Dutch extreme athlete, Wim Hof, or Iceman, who is famous for withstanding cold and other extreme conditions. Hof is a Guinness world record holder for his cold exposure exploits such as the longest swim under ice, and bases his abilities on his Wim Hof method of conditioning incorporating breathing, commitment and cold therapy.
She said her first exposure to cold water therapy was as a kundalini yoga teacher. O’Brien said ishnaan is an ancient practice calling “the cold shower you should take everyday to stay happy and healthy.”
Thomas said each member has taken their own personal journey the past several months in regards to open water swimming.
“We started swimming in May. We meet daily in summer, and well into September. Then started the challenge in October. I am the only one that swims any cold water distance. The other girls each do a version that challenges them. Some a few strokes, some a dunk, some a quick in and out,” she wrote. “But, as the months have progressed, each person has challenged themselves to a little bit more than last month because they feel more confident and comfortable.”
Some of the members wear a three-quarter to full body wetsuit, while others wear a swimsuit, but they all have transitioned to more and more immersion to acclimatize their bodies to open water swimming, which has temperatures that fluctuate and change to the season.
As boundaries go, everyone has their own.
Thomas so far has swam the greatest distance and hopes to keep progressing.
“It was really cold in January, more so than Christmas Eve, (I may have been lacking in calories after a long ski before) but it was challenging to feel comfortable for more than 100 metres. I wanted to swim down stream from bridge to bridge [on the Gull River] for maybe March. But I might need a buddy to push me,” she said.
She adds getting in the water during these colder days isn’t the issue.
“It’s easy to run in the water. The hardest part is envisioning how you will warm up afterwards!” she wrote in a text.