As Temps Fall, Swimmers Raise Their Spirits With Morning Laps in Lake Champlain | Outdoors & Recreation | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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As Temps Fall, Swimmers Raise Their Spirits With Morning Laps in Lake Champlain

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Cecelia Wu - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Cecelia Wu

It was 42 degrees outside as I left my house at 6:45 a.m. and drove to Charlotte Beach for my first cold-weather swim. It was still dark — and not the kind of serene, salmon-streaked-twilight-sky dark that encourages you to relax on the porch with a cup of coffee and take in the sunrise. This was a raw, overcast, blustery dark. Even my neighbors' roosters were sleeping in.

Honestly, I wasn't looking forward to this assignment. It's not that I'm averse to the cold; I prefer 10-degree days to 90-degree ones. I also like to swim. I just hate waking up early.

Weeks earlier, I had responded to an open invitation on Front Porch Forum to join a group of cold-weather swimmers, who meet most mornings in Charlotte for a few laps in Lake Champlain.

As I pulled into the beach parking lot, I realized that my brain had frozen up even before my feet touched water: I'd forgotten a towel, an oversight on par with trying to grill hamburgers without a spatula. I'd have to make do with the blankets and dog towels in the back of my Subaru.

Among the four fellow swimmers who greeted me were Charlotte residents Julie Postlewaite and Susan Blood. The invitation I had answered came from Blood, 53, who had herself responded to a similar post two years earlier from Postlewaite, now 48, an Alaska native who swims almost every morning, sometimes twice a day.

Postlewaite took up winter swimming in her mid-40s after she become overly sensitive to the cold. She was inclined to attribute the change to her age until she read a book by Wim Hof, the 61-year-old international cold-weather guru known as "The Iceman." Hof, who is Dutch, teaches deep-breathing techniques useful in cold-water plunges. He's helped train Navy SEALs to survive frigid immersions. He's even run up Mount Kilimanjaro half naked in the snow.

After doing some morning winter swims on her own, Postlewaite convinced Blood to join her. Blood took her first cold-weather swim on January 5, 2019 — her birthday — a decision she half jokingly described as "a little crazy."

Only a month into swimming together, the pair participated in the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival in Newport, held in late February. The annual event draws serious cold-weather swimmers from as far away as Finland, including some who have swum the English Channel.

"It completely changes the way you experience winter," Postlewaite told me later. "You can have a gray, dreary day that would otherwise bring you down. But if you're swimming in it, it's exciting."

I assumed that all four women at the lake that day were hard-core open-water swimmers, as they'd all shown up with neoprene swim caps, goggles and flotation buoys. But in fact, two of them were relative newcomers.

Tanna Kelton just started at the end of September. Like me, she answered Blood's Front Porch Forum invitation and had never previously tried cold-water swimming, though she, too, was familiar with Hof.

"When this opportunity popped up, it was an immediate yes for me," she said. "And I'll go as long as I can."

"It's just an amazing way to start the day," Blood added. "And the lake looks different every morning."

Indeed, at that hour Lake Champlain was gorgeous, albeit uninviting. With 18 mph winds and gusts up to 22 mph, the whitecaps made it look more like the North Atlantic. At least the sky was brightening. As the opening scene of Jaws taught me, it's not safe to swim in open water when it's dark, even if the only creatures likely to draw blood are zebra mussels.

"There's sort of a rule that, for every one degree Celsius, it's totally safe to stay in for one minute," Blood explained as we walked down to the beach. "Today, the water is about 52 degrees Fahrenheit, or 11 degrees Celsius. So 11 minutes is safe."

"I'm game," I chirped unconvincingly.

Though my inaugural swim seemed daunting, it barely compared with Blood's first season of winter swimming, when she and Postlewaite swam virtually every day until the lake froze over. One morning, Postlewaite showed up with an ax to cut them a hole in the ice.

Despite the obvious risks, such as hypothermia, winter swimmers are very safety conscious, especially when ice is present. Blood said they always make sure to have safe entrance and exit routes, and they prefer not to swim alone. One member of the group even offered me an inflatable, hunter-orange swim buoy — presumably so I'd be visible if the Coast Guard needed to recover my body. I politely declined.

From left: Lori Lustberg, Roberta Nubile, Sean Postlewaite, Julie Postlewaite, Cecelia Wu, Tana Kelton and Susan Blood - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • From left: Lori Lustberg, Roberta Nubile, Sean Postlewaite, Julie Postlewaite, Cecelia Wu, Tana Kelton and Susan Blood

As I peeled off my sweatpants and donned a pair of water shoes — protection against the aforementioned zebra mussels — I discovered that I'd also left my swim goggles in the car. To reiterate: not a morning person.

"It's the before and after that's hard," Roberta Nubile of Shelburne said as we all waded into the lake together. Nubile herself had just taken up cold-weather swimming a few weeks earlier; this was her 10th swim.

"Before, it's the psychological, and after, it's being freaking cold," she added. "But during, it's fantastic!"

Many Vermonters have seen or done a polar bear plunge, in which participants typically jump in an icy lake and rush straight out to be greeted by supporters who wrap them in towels and post photos to social media before the plungers' hair is dry. Winter swimming is a whole different ballgame; as Blood had indicated, the Charlotte group does laps for several minutes at a time.

As waves crashed against my thighs, and I endured the pain that crept up my lower extremities, I waited for the others to dive rather than wade in. When none of them did, I plunged in headfirst to get it over with.

I'd made another newbie mistake — and one that could have been dangerous in colder water. According to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, "cold shock response" — the sudden lowering of skin temperature from cold-water immersion — can cause instant hyperventilation, spikes in your heart rate and blood pressure, disorientation, fear, and panic. And if your first, involuntary gasp for air happens while you're underwater, it's likely to be your last.

Fortuitously, as Blood had noted, the water was a balmy 50 degrees, so after the 43-degree air, it actually felt warmer than I'd expected. But to call what I did "swimming" would be a generous overstatement. I sidestroked for a short while, always staying close to shore and able to touch bottom. When I asked Blood how long we'd been in, I was surprised to hear three minutes. It felt longer.

Cold-weather swimming isn't a new sport; Scandinavians have done it for decades or centuries. The trend has caught on in the U.S. more recently, and many of those who've been bitten by the cold-water bug speak passionately about the sport's physical and psychological benefits.

"When you're out there in the middle of winter, and it's a sunny day, and you come out when there's ice on the shore ... it's the most amazing experience," Postlewaite said. "If you try it and do it for three days, you'll probably become addicted to it."

Her addiction reference wasn't completely metaphorical. Immersion in cold water triggers a massive release of endorphins, as well as cortisol, a pain-relieving hormone that creates a euphoria some people feel for hours afterward. Some studies suggest that cold-water immersion improves circulation, speeds metabolism, reduces inflammation and fights depression. Because it boosts the immune system, it might even keep you healthy in a pandemic.

In all, I swam for about eight minutes; the longest swim in our group was 13 minutes. I got out before the others did to grab my phone and snap some photos — only to discover that I'd left it in the car, too. Just as well. My fingers were probably too cold to operate a touch screen.

As the other swimmers emerged from the lake, I vigorously dried my hair with a blanket coated in dog hair. Nubile was right; it was freaking cold, especially when the wind gusted. I pulled my sweatpants over my wet bathing suit and fumbled to remove my water shoes. Pulling dry wool socks over wet feet was a no-go with my fingers functioning as poorly as my brain. I jammed my bare feet into my boots, mulling how quickly this recreational activity could turn into a survival scenario.

As we walked back to our cars, Blood explained a dangerous condition known as "after drop." It happens when the cold blood in the extremities returns to the body's core during rapid rewarming, causing the body's temperature to keep plummeting and the person to lose consciousness. It's one reason people suffering from hypothermia shouldn't be rewarmed too quickly. But, as Postlewaite learned from reading Hof's book, swimmers can easily avoid hypothermia by gradually conditioning themselves to the cold, controlling their breathing and not pushing far beyond their comfort level.

I, for one, was eager to warm up as quickly as possible. Back in the car, I cranked up the heat and wondered whether it was safe to drive. My teeth chattered uncontrollably, and my toes were numb. Days later, as I listened to a voice recording I made while driving home, I was jarred by the sound of my slurred words, an early warning sign — along with shivering, confusion, memory loss and fumbling hands — of hypothermia.

After I arrived home at 7:45, my teeth chattered for another 20 minutes, even in a hot shower. But I'll freely admit to feeling unusually alert, even a bit euphoric, for the rest of the day.

Blood and Postlewaite attended the Winter Swimming World Championships in Slovenia in February 2020. Blood said one of the best parts of her daily immersion ritual, aside from the community of people she's met, is seeing how Lake Champlain changes daily.

I can totally appreciate the appeal, and I've considered going back, even as lake temperatures continue to fall. But, given my aversion to early mornings, I'm more inclined to dip my toe in again after the crack of noon.

Learn more at the International Winter Swimming Association, iwsa.world.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Cold Play | As temps fall, swimmers raise their spirits with morning laps in Lake Champlain"