Chilling with Maine’s ‘The Little Mermaid’

When I met Ida Lennestål for a run on a cold January day, she was pulling an ax from her car and switching to warmer boots. A few minutes later, she lit a fire in a nearby sauna – a small building made up of an old fish house and an old kitchen – before we walked down a short slope down to a frozen pond. near her home in Georgetown, Maine.

She took the ax to the iceberg, cut a rectangular hole, and stripped off a layer of clothing as her body warmed up from work. When her arms or back get tired, she will stop and stretch. Finally her mate and children joined us, lacing up their skates and swirling or gliding along the surface of the pond. Two friends from the area, Nicole Testa and Ariel Burns, also joined in, using a ladle to scoop blocks from the water, clearing the way for their bodies.

Ida grew up in Northern Sweden, near the Finnish border, in the arctic climate of her parents and grandparents. Her practice of combining saunas and cold soaks, an aspect of her cultural and family tradition spanning generations, is something she brought with her when she came to Maine; she sees it as a way to share her culture with the community and feel connected to her home and to herself. “This becomes especially important during a pandemic when the distance between me and people back home is even greater than before,” she said.

When the ice was ready and the bathroom was warm, we all took off our bathing suits, put on our boots, and took turns soaking in the cold water. The sun came out, but there didn’t seem to be any warmth.

“Steam baths and soaks are a way to get out of the head and into the body,” says Ida. “When I am in a hot box” – what she often calls a sauna – “or in a body of ice-cold water, my body does not worry about the future or the past, it looks like or whether it is loved or not. . Body only To be. “

After the first plunge, our body feels calm and slows down. It’s time for the sauna. Inside, the air, which smelled of cedar, was hot enough to instantly pull sweat. My body seemed to enjoy the experience of the opposite, the cold and the heat affecting my circulation and altering my breathing. The group repeated three times: plunge, steam, steam, steam, steam, steam. Each transition is like a bit of innovation.

“These sessions are a first-hand experience of the body, helping me stay in the moment,” says Ida. “It taught me how to sit with the uncomfortable, both the heat and the cold, to breathe through it. Attention. It has taught me to listen to my body and hear what it needs. It is a ritual. Almost sacred. And the happiness when it all ended lasted for hours.”

Then, intrigued by the experience, I started asking around about other women who were looking for cold water. I started surfing in the winter a few years ago and understand how water can impact my body and mind, especially when it’s cold. I often surf with women, many of whom are just starting out like me. But the cold plunge is, I see, a distinct experience of its own, with its own intent and strength.

Later that winter, I parked by a farmhouse in Bremen, Maine, and walked across an icy meadow to the lakeside. The snow had frozen into a slick crust. Undeterred, a small group of people brought supplies and snacks to split down the lake. Taking turns with axes, hammers, saws and drills, the group spent hours cutting a giant heart into the lake to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

A year ago, Caitlin Hopkins and Kelsy Hartley, the organizers of the dip, posted signs around their community in all capital letters: “DAY OF VALENTINE MERMAID SIGHTING!” They go to their local beach and transform into mermaid tails, playing on rocks and in the water. A few families brought their children to witness the episode; Some winter beach walkers were excited, others confused.

That day, Caitlin and Kelsy began calling themselves the Two Maine Mermaids. They soak year-round and in different locations, often in costumes or crowns and to celebrate new and full moons, sometimes using the group names Ebb and Flow. Caitlin Hopkins explains: “We started with our small team celebrating birthdays, holidays, full moons and whatever else we could think of at the very beginning of Covid. “Some days are serene, peaceful and calming. Sometimes it’s a party. Either way, water always gives us exactly what we need – it never goes out of style.”

Only half of the group decided to dive into the cute heart on a cold February day. In swimsuits, boots, and open-toed gloves (like the kind that surfers wear), they lower themselves into the water, soak up the icebergs, and slide. A few hug the iceberg or pull their bodies onto larger rocks, elevating their spirits. They tracked the record both to test endurance and protect the body from frostbite. Most stay for five minutes, some for seven. When they surfaced, they smiled through their bluish lips.

“After I’m out, I don’t try to rush into a towel or dry robe,” says Kelcy Engstrom. “I like to wear a swimsuit for as long as possible. I just love how my skin perceives the air after being in the water.”

“After swimming, I feel very strong and happy, calm,” she added. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a bad mood after a dip.”

Katie Stevenson, who also starred with The Two Maine Mermaids, is taking a year off from medical school and has signed up for a course in medical chaplaincy. “I do not practice any formal faith tradition at this point in my life, but being in the water feels more sacred than any church service I have ever attended,” she said.

“When I was stressed in the hospital, I tried to find the closest window that could see the water,” she told me. “I envision myself in the water, feeling the waves lapping against my chest, the pressure on my lungs contracting and expanding against the deep cold, focusing my energy on slow breathing, seeing anything worthwhile. marvel at sunrise, sunset or full moon. I have seen most recently. Sometimes when I have particularly difficult patient visits, I picture the suffering that I or the patient and their family are going through being swept away by the waves.”

The annual tradition of polar bear plunges has existed in the United States and beyond for over 100 years. But informal dive groups seem to be on the rise: Red Hot Chilly Dippers in Vermont; the Puget Sound Plungers in Washington State; the Bluetits Chill Swimmers and Wild and scary mermaid in the UK, just a few names. Lately, what feels different is the sense of mindfulness surrounding the plunge. Many people I meet by the water tell me they are there because a dip in the cold has given them a way of life to a certain fullness. It gives them a process to gain inner closeness to grief, trauma, and pain, and to connect more challenging emotions with joy and humor.

Amy Hopkins hosts a group of miners in York, Maine. They meet at local beaches and bays, sometimes the water is too cold and pasty to have a margarine consistency. I met her and a group of women at the edge of the beach at dawn on a foggy morning, the sky white, and the sun coming out. They wade into the water with their heads submerged, sinking as fast as baptism.

For them, the ritual’s greatest reward is the act of soaking, a moment of total submission to the cold. “When your body is in that fight or flight, it’s shocking,” said Amy, who began her career as a birth and labor nurse. “That frigid temperature instantly causes everything to shrink and protect. Blood rushes to your vital organs.”

Amy reached for a bucket of cold water while mourning the loss of her parents and the collective loss of the pandemic. She currently facilitates women’s immersion trips and works with school counselors to provide cold tours for high school students in a business she names Saltwater Mountain Co. But she started by organizing free, open communities – like in a cold foggy cove – under the name Dip Down to Rise Up. In the post-dip sensation, the participants often splashed or hugged each other, emerged from the water, and held hands.

In a place like Maine, for six months of the year, a relationship with nature is difficult, even painful. Cold air damages your exposed skin; The wind can tighten your lips and make your eyes water. Running errands often involves scraping windshields and shoveling snow. Winter is harsh and erratic, but it’s also long, sadly.

And so the prevailing culture retains a sense of pride in the harshness, the ability to find joy in the suffering of it all. Plumbers understand that there is a symmetry to living in a place with extremes – that there is no warmth without cold.

“You can’t think of a winter in Maine without talking about depression — the depression that comes from spending a long winter,” says Amy Hopkins. “But with this approach, you are having a season. Instead of complaining, you are having the season.”

“I never loved winter until I started doing it,” she says.

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