In Search of the Cold High

In Search of the Cold High

The power of swimming in the frigid waters of Eggemoggin Reach, the colder the better.

The first time I went cold water swimming, it was a New Year’s Day lark. The night before, two friends and I decided we were going in the water. A childhood friend who regularly polar bear swims texted tips including that we go in with full bladders because it acts like a hot water bottle inside your body. “Make sure to breathe because it can knock the wind out of you,” she texted. “But just wait, wait until you get a little rush. It will be worth it.” It sounded both intriguing and horrible. I wanted in.

Molly Dwyer Blake, left, and Brittney Carter, right, preparing themselves for an icy plunge. Photo by Nick Carter

We met at the frosty boat ramp in front of The Brooklin Boatyard. It was about 30 degrees. We had a few spectators, all of whom predicted we were going to die. My husband hated the idea so much he stayed home to nap. One friend had her phone out, ready to call 911. Our kids stood in the parking lot, holding the towels. Afterward, we went to a neighbor’s house, and sat by the fire, celebrating the fact that we didn’t die. We drank from a flask, marveling that it actually wasn’t that bad to go into the Atlantic Ocean, in Maine, on January 1st. We felt like champions.

I didn’t go winter swimming again for almost three years, until I heard about a person who went swimming once every month for the whole year. For some reason, that connected with a part of me that wanted and needed a challenge. My friend Brittney Carter and I swam in late October of 2018, on a cold, rainy day. She is a native Floridian who moved to Maine in the middle of a winter that was insanely snowy and harsh. That day our legs stung and ached with each step into the water. We stayed in for about two minutes and, as soon as we got out, we thought, “we can do that longer.”

“We drank from a flask, marveling that it wasn’t that bad to go into the Atlantic Ocean, in Maine, on January 1st. We felt like champions.”

After that, we started to go every week. Every swim we made a quick decision—Brittney will jump into my minivan full of trash at a moment’s notice—and every swim was radically different. Some days stung like mad, some days the chill sank in and required a long hot bath afterward. But the elation afterward was the same. We tried to figure out why some days the cold felt like a hammer hitting our fingers and toes and why other days we stood in our suits soaking wet and talked. It seemed that getting our blood flowing first made the swim less painful. We started doing calisthenics before we went in, kicking the frozen air, jumping on the snowy beach and laughing about how cold the water was going to be.

Dwyer Blake, left, and Carter, right, do calisthenics to get their blood flowing before stepping into the frigid waters. Photo by Nick Carter

I live here in Brooklin because it is the “Boatbuilding capital of the World” and my husband is a wooden boat builder. We moved here straight from the other Portland, 15 years ago, right after I finished school at Oregon College of Art and Craft. The transition to no movies, restaurants and the million miles to an airport seemed, at first, more than I could bear. The boatyard is a family though, and I felt instantly part of a tiny community, there for me in a way that I had not experienced before. After my first son, Cyrus, was born I was quietly taken care of for weeks with dinners, brownies and pop-ins from people I barely even knew. They gently walked me through postpartum doom and showed up even when I certainly didn’t ask but needed them.

Molly Dwyer Blake enlists her friend Brittney Carter in a winter swim. It feels, Dwyer Blake says, almost meditative to prepare to get in the water. Wool socks are a must. Photo by Nick Carter

In gratitude I throw one hell of a party and try to give back in some of the only ways I know how, food, drinks and generally meddling in people’s lives enough for them to know I am there for them too. Now, Cyrus is almost 15 and I have two more children, Lola, 6 and Asa, 5. I am in a car constantly, making endless snacks, play dates and playdough. I also am positive that now is the time for me to learn and do all the things that I have not given space for the last however many years. The sudden, urgent need to sail, skate, play sports, make my own art and find my own way is overwhelming and exhausting. Swimming sometimes tempers that urgency or shakes me to wake up, snap out of it and go do all the things. Feel all the feelings.

I have developed a routine. I know to wear clothes that are easy to slip on so that when my fingers are frozen I can still get dressed. I try to go in without my suit as much as possible so that I don’t always have a frozen bathing suit corpse on the car floor. I wear wool socks to protect my feet from sharp shells and rocks and I always tell someone where and when I am swimming.

Photo by Nick Carter

When I first started cold water swimming, I had residual symptoms from contracting Lyme twice, chronic muscle pain, foggy brain and generally feeling like I was 900 years old. It didn’t cross my mind that cold water swimming would be helpful. I had been taking antibiotics for a year and soon after, I stopped. Is cold water swimming the reason? All I know is that my body craved the cold water and I was less prone to colds, felt stronger and had more energy.

When I walk in, I relax my shoulders, feeling the cold creep up my legs, and take deep breaths to push all my thoughts out toward some of my favorite islands in the distance. This takes all my concentration. If I start to talk or laugh, I immediately feel the water sting again. I have to wait until I get a little bit of a high which I presume is from my body trying not to freeze to death. When I get out, I have a clearer mind, as if someone slapped me hard in the face. When I hear from friends who meditate, it sounds similar to what happens to me when I’m focused on being in the water.

Maine’s gray winter days can be filled with an overwhelming feeling of loss. I used to be more prone to uncomfortably cozying up with those feelings during the grim months. Now I text Brittney and tell her that we have to jump in the water because I’m going to lose it. That quick, cold reset is now an essential part of my winter.

Photo by Nick Carter

There are a few fishing boats moored where I normally swim in Eggemoggin Reach and occasionally the fishermen will be working on gear for scalloping season as I am getting ready to swim. At first, I would hide from them—I figured they would think I was drowning or trying to kill myself. Can a guy preparing for a day’s work in the bitter wind and cold understand the middle-aged woman taking a moment for her very odd, brutal hobby in the water he’s trying to stay out of? He may think I am an idiot. But I also know that he knows intimately the peace and beauty found on that water and I am certain he would understand parts of me.

When I tell people about winter swimming, they react the same way I used to react when someone tells me they are running a marathon, half curiosity, and half disgust. Now I understand that everyone needs to have their own thing. The thing that gives them a flood of life. I don’t care what their thing is; I believe them when they say it works.

Molly Dwyer Blake lives in Brooklin, Maine with her husband and wild children, making art, fun and work.

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Molly Dwyer Blake

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