Taking the Plunge in Winter Water

Posted on 28 February 2020

"Once she’s ready and in nothing but her swim suit, a pair of sneakers and a hat, she squeals and says 'Ok, I’m going!'"

Taking the Plunge

My mom, Kath, loves to swim outside. In Vermont. All year round. This unique habit started a few years ago when she discovered that a local woman she knew had been jumping into Lake Champlain at least once a month for over a decade. She was amazed and eventually let her curiosity get the better of her and gave it a shot for herself.

She does this regularly now and has been called a lot of things for it; there are positive reactions — “badass,” “brave,” “remarkable”  but “crazy” gets thrown in a lot, too. And I get why people would think that. I’ve jumped in with her 3 or 4 times and I have to say, although the rush of endorphins after the plunge feels great, it still seems a little nuts to me.

She’s winter plunged into the ocean, lakes, and even swimming holes (this one makes my skin crawl the most). Most often though, she’s jumping into Lake Champlain. It’s close, familiar and provides her with the aesthetic appeal that, as an artist, she inevitably seeks with these missions. I admit there is something special about winter water. It’s crisp and clean and when it’s sunny and there’s snow on the ground at the same time, there’s something about the yellow light hitting the blindingly white snow and the sound of the stirring water engulfed by the overwhelming silence of winter. That I do understand.

 

The winter hermit herself.The winter hermit herself. See Sweet Dreams.

Earlier this month, it was time for her plunge and I decided to tag along. She had been trying for a few days to swim in the lake but hadn’t found the proper elements. It can’t be too windy or the water too icy or slushy and inevitably in mid-February, rough conditions can be difficult to avoid. This day was the snowstorm of the winter, so far. It was absolutely dumping snow and there was a shortage of plows, so it was a “don’t-you-dare-drive-around-without-snow-tires-and-all-wheel-drive” storm. 


I arrive at Red Rocks and find the crampons she's left for me on top of her car. Off in the distance, I see a figure, but it’s snowing so much it’s hard to tell who it is or what they’re doing. As I get a little closer, I see a hermit standing guard over Red Rocks park, clothed in a full Carhaart one-piece suit and a snow-covered hat, then wrapped in a large wool blanket with a rake in hand held like a staff. I laugh to myself as I realize it is indeed my mother, the winter hermit herself.

“Holy crap, Mom, you look like the Yeti.” She just smiles and says, “Aren’t you glad I had those extra crampons for you?” I ask her what the rake is for and she tells me she may need it to create a “slush path” in the water. As we walk towards the beach, besides our banter and our cherished crampons hitting the ice underneath the snow, it’s eerily quiet amidst the deafening silence of the winter storm.

pre-swim ritual The pre-swim ritual.
Once we arrive at the powdery white beach and we see that the lake's surface isn't totally iced over, she begins the ritualistic pre-swim process that she’s perfected over the last few years. The trick, she says, is to prepare to be dry as quickly as possible once you get out. She places a blanket on the ground that she folds over, so later it can be unfolded and stood on—keeping your feet warm is important. She also has two dry towels rolled up in her bag and a pair of dry socks. She finally, and carefully, begins removing her Carharrt suit in a way that it can be easily stepped back into (folded over of course, to fend off the incessant precipitation).

Once she’s ready and in nothing but her swim suit, a pair of sneakers and a hat, she squeals and says “Ok, I’m going!”

"Ok, I'm going!"
Kath submerges in the icy shores of Lake Champlain near Red Rocks Park.

The rest is described better in photos. There was a large step / leap over an ice block, the dunk, then tripping over the same ice block on the way out. And smiling. the. entire. time. Like she can’t help it. 

Later, when I asked her to describe how she feels when she gets out, she referenced a quote from My Big White Thighs and Me, a self-shot short documentary made by a woman in England about trying to find clarity and peace by swimming in cold water once a month for a year.

"It's too shockingly cold to think of anything else, and once your heart has steadied, a wave of exhilaration hits you and you feel dizzyingly grateful to be alive. It is utterly, brain clearingly wonderful.”


Post-plunge endorphin rush.
Post-plunge endorphins. Explore Sweet Dreams.

• • •


Photography and words by Charlotte Dworshak. Featuring her mother, winter water lover and renowned Burlington-based watercolor artist, Katharine Montstream.

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