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The Icemen Swimmeth

On a sunny, stormy Sunday in late February we took ourselves and our goldendoodle, The Dood, to the broad beach at the mouth of the Genesee to watch the spindrift and to chase castaway flip flops. The Dood can run down the flotsam we toss, but being only 50% retriever, he hasn’t yet mastered the trick of bringing it back. In any case, with no bathers to bother, it’s an ideal spot for a full throttle chase. A place with no bathers to bother, or so we assumed.

At this point enter Daav, Jeremy, and Jenny, twenty-somethings, students. The Dood is off to make friends. Jenny has sensibly bundled up against the 60 mile-per-hour gusts in a red track suit. Her two companions, however, sport knee-length swim trunks. With bergs on the beach, they’re walking barefoot. Jenny carries a camera.

I asked, “Going swimming?” They confirmed the suspicion. “You guys know that it’s February?” They did. “OK then, who knows CPR?” Jenny knew CPR.

They wanted to know if I’d ever taken a polar bear plunge. I admitted that, come to think of it, I had; it was Memorial Day and long ago on Grand Traverse Bay. I’d jumped, with two others, into 37˚ water, swam a few strokes, and rocketed out again. The experience, while gripping and memorable, provided little incentive to linger. We’d reported no fatalities—the mammalian diving reflex provided briefly for this contingency—but I conceded to Daav, Jeremy, and Jenny, that I’d just recently begun to warm up.

In a high state of expectation, Jeremy and Daav threw off their jackets, and after a countdown, ran for the surf. Here I ask you to imagine the whooping and hollering that followed.

Physiologists tell us that immersion in water this cold prompts an involuntary gasp; ventilation (air in and out) increases by 1,000% over the first minute or two. Hyperventilation, like this, lowers dissolved carbon dioxide and raises blood PH levels. The heart rate climbs and blood pressure peaks above 175 as expectation gives way to “cold shock” and then exhilaration. This elation helps account for the growing popularity of winter swimming. In Finland (where else?), 80,000 people regularly delight in swimming in frigid water for fun, a pursuit they call avantouinti (ice hole swimming). For some, the feeling of well-being from the icy dip persists and they attest to feeling less stress.

After this arctic interlude, feeling giddy and pumped up with gleeful male bravado and surplus oxygen, Daav and Jeremy obligingly posed for Jenny’s photos.

I wanted to know how it was. “Cold!” they said in unison. “But great, not that bad!” When I told them where I work, they said, “play, we’re all over that!” Evidently. But after they toweled off they turned reflective. Daav allowed that the winter swim gave him an occasion to create a life-long memory, that play this gripping furnished him an experience that he found deeply affirming and authenticating.

I’ll say it again. When we play to lose ourselves we may end by finding ourselves.