Jenny Morber is a science writer.
In winter my home in the Pacific Northwest is wrought in a palette of green and grey. Low clouds leak decay into stumps, stems and windowsills, and life into moss, streams and occasional snow. People who arrive from drier, sunnier places complain about the dark, the fog, the rain, the muted air. They miss the sun’s brightness, the pleasure of warmth against skin. They grieve. They rage. They grow depressed. Many leave.
But I flourish. I love winter’s soft shadows and glistening paths. I enjoy bundled walks outside to feel coldness without being cold. Some days, coastal winds knock trees and whip froth onto bouncing swells, creating waves that meet land in explosive percussion. It feels raw and exciting, the air charged with friction. I pull on fluffy socks and trudge down forest trails, not a person or mosquito or in sight.
My favourite walks end at the shore. I love water’s changeability from teal to cerulean to slate, how some days I find velvet, and others the surface roils, how the spot I stand on today may tomorrow be two metres underwater. I am fascinated by how the tide line separates worlds – a real magic looking glass. So, last winter when I looked over the channel near my home, I felt compelled to dive in.
I knew better. Every year in my state a few dozen people drown in open water. Well before hypothermia, many succumb to cold water shock, an involuntary gasping in which people reflexively suck water into their lungs, or “swim failure” in which cold steals muscles’ ability to move.
Still, I want to go. I Google “surviving cold water,” “winter swim hazards,” “open water animal bites.” Nothing tells me it can’t be done. There are no dangerous currents. Predators will remain uninterested. Boat traffic is light. Some people do this in bathing suits?
So I cover myself in fake blubber. I lather my skin with lubricating conditioner and shimmy into 7-milimetre-thick neoprene, covering core, hands, feet and head. Later I add fins, a mask, snorkel and bright pink buoy. I drive to the road end, park, and question my choices. My husband has come to make sure I don’t die. I walk to the water’s edge. I look like a malformed sausage. I feel ridiculous.
But when my head slips under, I become a water creature. The cold is brief and unimportant. I look down and see metre-long tube worms swaying from the muddy bottom, then a massive field of sand dollars, edges embedded, waving dark purple filaments. They are feeding, in the millions. Like parting a curtain, I push my hands forward and pull open my arms.
As my shadow passes over, crabs scuttle into a bed of eel grass. The grass stands in an undulating forest that I had only ever seen felled and motionless at low tide. Small silver fish dart in front of me. A guillemot enshrouded in bubbles dives in to catch one. I am startled by how well it swims – as much a marine animal as one capable of flight.
I flick flippers and glide by a floating dock. On land it is an unremarkable, ugly even, a slow-rotting wooden platform. But underwater it is a castle of mussels, oysters, green and orange anemones, giant barnacles, tube worms, fish, crabs, and maybe, an eel. Nearby a submerged rock plays home to lampreys, chitons and millions of barnacles swaying their fernish fronds.
Kick. Pull. The water feels thick. Cold molecules bunch closer than warm. Am I sensing this? I move, look, move again, deaf to all but my raspy breath. It is thrilling. How ignorant we are, thinking we recognize our world. Have you ever dreamed you could poke your finger through reality and tear it open, revealing a world completely new? That is how it felt to put my face in the water.
But soon, my world pulls back. Fingers numb: pinkie first, then ring. Ears prickle. I realize I cannot feel my back side. My annoying humanness. I am an interloper, and my visa has expired. It would be easy to ignore these warnings, to keep going just over to there, and there and just there, to see that one last thing, like scrolling through Instagram, one more dopamine hit.
That is, I think to myself, how people die. I am leaking warmth, the literal energy of my cells, in an event so trivial to the water that its temperature fluctuates not even a fraction of a degree. Hypothermia, I realize, is less an event and more a soft crossing. The point of danger is so smudged it’s invisible. I force my legs down and touch bottom. Dripping, I trudge up the shore.
Back home, my extremities no longer obey my brain’s messages, and hands are fleshy clubs. Panic rises. Without help, I feel certain I would stay trapped in my wetsuit forever. Keeping me alive has taken all my energy. All I want to do is eat. Only a hot shower revives my bum.
But the next day I feel powerful and capable. My mind is clear, my worries less important. Everything – the whole world – looks better. Though it seemed at first wrong to place myself in such an inhospitable environment, I am hardly the first with this experience. Reading about cold water swimming, euphoria is almost universal. In Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, legendary open water swimmer Lynne Cox compares swimming to a drug: “Who needs psychedelics when you can just go for a swim in the ocean?”
She may not be far off. In Chill: The Cold Water Swim Cure, doctor Mark Harper compares cold water swimming and anesthesia. And the benefits are many. Last year, researchers from Norway published a scientific review that highlighted cold water immersion’s potential to improve cardiovascular health, reduce cholesterol, help treat autoimmune inflammation, reduce pain, speed recovery from injury, protect against insulin dependence, reduce depression and produce “a positive effect on mental health and brain development.” (People who wore wetsuits were excluded from the review, but I think we still count.)
When the spaces between swims stretch too long, my work and mental health suffer. I sit here tapping away at keys on a grey day, struggling to write one last good line. I need another dose of my own medicine, to slip back into that cold grey mirror.