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Illustration by Drew Shannon

Selkies are mysterious seal women in Northern Scottish mythology, who sometimes shed their sealskins and take on human form. They are also older women in Victoria, who shock their friends and families by swimming in the chilly Salish Sea. Either way, Selkies are impressive.

I first learned about the Swimmin’ Women Selkies last summer from a member of my writing group. Her poem described floral bathing caps bobbing in a peppermint sea, framed by floating bladderwrack. It also spoke about the camaraderie afterward sipping hot ginger tea, while burrowing under fleecy ponchos. It was the ginger tea that convinced me. I wanted to be there.

On my initial foray into the North Pacific, I had none of the right equipment – only a bathing suit and a pair of water sandals. It was early September. How cold could it be? Very cold, I discovered the moment I stepped in. Pam, the founder of the group, chanted, “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish,” and everyone dunked into the frigid ocean.

Except me. In water up to my hips, I stood there stalling: “Red fish, blue fish, turquoise fish, periwinkle fish, chartreuse fish …” Five heads, immersed to the neck in numbing water, grinned at me. “I know a lot of colour words,” I explained sheepishly.

“Get in or get out,” they chorused with the mirth of seasoned cold-water swimmers.

Reluctantly, I squatted down and leapt up immediately with a squawk. Once I was wet, it was easier to immerse again and just hang in the buoyant salt water. After five minutes I had to get out because a thousand ice needles were stabbing my feet. I could barely walk. Dropping to all fours, I crawled onto the sand of Willows Beach and huddled under my towel until the others emerged 15 minutes later. I joined them for herbal tea, but the poem failed to mention a porcelain cup to drink from in order to warm chilled fingers. I sipped from my thermos, but no heat radiated through to soothe my fingers stinging with cold.

Six months later I have fully embraced cold water swimming. Some of the Selkies list the health benefits to justify our unconventional hobby, but I say that I swim because it makes me feel so alive. I am completely immersed in the moment, every nerve ending in my body tingles, and the environment fills my senses. The water pulses with different hues, the silvery driftwood glows and the sky radiates light.

I’ve now got the right equipment and understand the routines, too. My first task was to acquire neoprene footwear. Luckily my daughter had booties and gloves that she used to wear surfing. Voila! Properly outfitted without needing to scour the internet.

One time in November I drove to the southern tip of Victoria to swim in a lagoon, newly discovered by one of our members. While unpacking my bag, I made my own new discovery. I had forgotten my booties! What could I do to protect my feet?

“I didn’t drive this far to watch the rest of you swim,” I proclaimed, tugging my neoprene gloves as far as I could over my feet. I waddled into the water with the fingers of the gloves flapping in front of my toes like the flippers on a seal. My hands I held in the air like a person under arrest. My exposed heels did not complain for the next 10 minutes, which made me wonder: Are most of the nerve endings in the front half of the feet?

When I first joined the group we submerged for 20 minutes. Then I learned about the concept of “after-drop,” when body temperature keeps falling after emerging from the water. On one of my early swims, the after-drop hit me while I was driving home. I started shivering so badly that I had to pull the car over, turn the heater up full blast and wait while my body warmed. I concluded that 20 minutes was too long for me.

In order to avoid feeling cold for the rest of the day, we decided to limit our immersion to one minute for each degree of water temperature. That is seven minutes in winter. We now know there is a honeymoon period of about four minutes after swimming before your wet body starts shivering. Don’t stand around exulting in dripping bathing suits! Use the time productively – get dressed.

Attend to your upper body first. Start by pouring a four-litre jug of warm water down your front and back. Then towel dry quickly. Pull on those three woollen sweaters, neck warmer and hat. Then address the legs and feet. Hopefully, save some of that warm water for your feet. I wear baggy sweatpants, because tight-fitting clothes do not pull up easily over damp skin, and pull-on boots, so chilled fingers don’t have to tie laces.

The only dedicated purchase I made is a tent coat for changing inside. When I joined the Selkies last fall, we wiggled and giggled inside these coats to protect our modesty. Now that the eight of us know each other better, we have thrown decorum to the four winds. It is much quicker to yank the bathing suit down to the hips with a towel draped over the shoulders. In a flash, the first warm sweater is on. Now I use the tent coat to snuggle inside after I’m dressed.

We swim three times a week in three different locations. Two of them are secluded lagoons, so it would require binoculars for anyone in the few nearby homes to observe us changing. It is only the open sweep of Willows Beach that caused some hesitation at first. Now we don’t care. If the old guys shuffling by on the promenade behind us catch a brief glimpse of a senior bosom, so be it.

Every swim surprises us because the tide is at a different height, the water is calm or choppy and visiting wildlife come and go. Recently, a bald eagle flew back and forth only 20 feet over our heads. On other swims, we have seen sea lions, otters, herons and even an orca breaching just beyond our rocks.

After each swim we linger on the beach, relaxing against large logs, hot water bottles tucked against tummies and cold fingers clutching warm cups of tea. Someone passes around a dark chocolate bar – mint, coconut, orange or ginger. Each segment tastes exquisite. We congratulate each other for our endurance and swap stories of friends who keep telling us we’re crazy.

We are the Selkies, a collection of wild old ladies with a shared passion for fun that’s environmentally sustainable – local and free.

Anne Dalziel Patton lives in Victoria.