When I met Ida Lennestål for a plunge on a cold January day, she was pulling an ax from her car and switching into 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 the short slope down to a frozen pond near her home in Georgetown, Maine.
She took to the ice with the ax, chipping away at a rectangular opening and shedding a layer of clothing as her body warmed from the work. When her hands or back were tired, she’d pause and stretch. Eventually her partner and children joined us, lacing up skates and swirling or toddling along the pond’s surface. Two friends from the area, Nicole Testa and Ariel Burns, joined, too, using a ladle to scoop chunks from the water, clearing a path for their bodies.
Ida grew up in Northern Sweden, close to the Finnish border, in the arctic climate of her parents and grandparents. The practice of combining saunas and cold plunges, an aspect of her cultural and familial traditions that stretches back for generations, is something she brought with her 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 back home felt even bigger than before,” she said.
When the ice was ready and the sauna was warm, we all stripped to our bathing suits and boots and took turns dipping our bodies into the cold water. The sun came out, but it seemed to offer no warmth.
“The sauna and dip for me is a way 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 an ice-cold body of water, my body doesn’t worry about the future or the past, how it looks or whether it is 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 pull sweat immediately. My body seemed to relish the experience of opposites, the way the cold and the heat affected my circulation and altered my breathing. The group repeated the plunge three times: plunge, sauna, plunge, sauna, plunge, sauna. Each transition felt like a little renewal.
“These sessions are a direct experience of the body, anchoring me into the present moment,” Ida said. “It has taught me to sit with the uncomfortable, both the hot and the cold, to breathe through it. To pay attention. It has taught me to listen to my body and hear what it needs. It’s a ritual. Sacred almost. And the bliss when it’s all over lasts for hours.”
Afterward, intrigued by the experience, I started asking around about other women who seek out cold water. I’d started winter surfing a few years ago and understood the ways the water could impact my body and mind, especially when it was cold. I usually surf with women, many of them beginners like me. But the process of cold plunging, I found, was its own distinct experience, with its own intention and power.
Later that winter, I parked my car by a farmhouse in Bremen, Maine, and walked across an icebound meadow to the shores of a lake. The snow had frozen into a slick crust. Undaunted, a small group carried provisions and snacks to share down to the lakeside. Taking turns with an ax, hammer, saw and drill, the group spent hours cutting an enormous heart into the lake to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
A year 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 in the water. A few families brought their kids to witness the episode; some winter beach walkers were thrilled, the rest befuddled.
Exploring America’s National Parks
The glories of the U.S. national park system draw hundreds of millions of visitors each year.
That day, Caitlin and Kelsy began calling themselves Two Maine Mermaids. They dip year-round and in different locations, often in costumes or crowns and to celebrate new moons and full moons, sometimes using the name the Ebb and Flow group. “We started with our small group celebrating birthdays, solstices, full moons and anything else we could think of right at the beginning of Covid,” Caitlin Hopkins explained. “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 — 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 kind surfers wear), they lowered themselves into the water, mingling with little icebergs and slush. A few hugged the ice, or pulled their bodies onto the larger chunks, their spirits buoyant. They monitored the minutes both to test stamina and to protect their bodies from frostbite. Most stayed in for five minutes, a few for seven. When they emerged, they smiled through bluish lips.
“After I get out, I don’t try and rush into my towel or dryrobe,” said Kelcy Engstrom. “I like to stay in my swimsuit as long as possible. I just like 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 dip.”
Katie Stevenson, who also dips with Two Maine Mermaids, is taking a year off from medical school and has enrolled in a course about medical chaplaincy. “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 nearest window with a view of any water,” she told me. “I envision myself in 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 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 United States and beyond for more than 100 years. But informal cold plunging 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 Britain, to name only a few. Recently, what feels different is the sense of mindfulness around the process of the plunge. Many of the people I met by the water told me they were there because cold plunging gave them a way to live with a certain fullness. It gave them a process to have internal intimacy with grief, trauma and pain, while connecting more challenging emotions with joy and humor.
Amy Hopkins organizes a group 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 group of women at the edge 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, the most rewarding 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 started her career as a labor and delivery nurse. “That cold temperature immediately makes everything constrict and protect. Blood rushes to your vital organs.”
Amy found her way to cold water while mourning the loss of her two parents and the collective loss of the pandemic. She is now facilitating dip trips for women and working with school counselors to provide cold plunges for high schoolers in a business she has named the Saltwater Mountain Co. But she started by organizing free, open community plunges — like the one at the cold, foggy cove — under the name Dip Down to Rise Up. In that post-dip feeling, participants often splash or hug one another, emerging from the water holding hands.
In a place like Maine, for 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 chap your lips and make your eyes water. Running errands usually requires scraping the windshield and shoveling snow. Winter is harsh and erratic, but it’s also just long, maddeningly so.
And so the prevailing culture retains a sense of pride regarding the harshness, an ability to find pleasure in the endurance of it all. Mainers understand that there is a symmetry in living in a place with extremes — that there is no warmth without stretches of cold.
“You can’t think about a Maine winter without talking about depression — the depression that comes from just being in a long winter,” Amy Hopkins said. “But with this practice, you’re meeting the season. Instead of complaining, you are meeting the season.”
“I never loved winter until I started doing this,” she said.