Wild winter swimmers embrace the chill factor

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By MARCIA JANSEN

Driftwood Contributor

Wild swimming — in lakes, rivers and the ocean — has gained popularity in the past years, and particularly during COVID-19. Even in winter. 

The ocean is calm on a late winter morning at the beginning of March. It’s sunny, the air is cool, but people are floating in the ocean or are getting ready to get into the water. With his back against a log, Kipp Nash is doing his breathing exercises before his dip in the ocean. 

“I started doing this two years ago,” said Nash, who was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour in January 2018. “A friend of mine told me about the Wim Hof Method and what it can do for your health. I was hesitant at first, but then he asked me: ‘What are you scared of? Healing?’”   

Frequent exposure to cold is linked to several different health benefits. 

“We all have our aches and pains, and cold therapy has so many proven benefits,” said Nash. “It can boost your immune system, it stimulates your metabolism, it is a natural anti-inflammatory and is an antidote for depression. After my most recent round of radiation, the MRI showed that the tumour in my head had stopped growing. The last MRI even revealed that it is shrinking, which rarely ever happens. I believe it is because of this.” 

Kate and Kipp Nash.

Swimming in cold water is a weekly routine for Nash. 

“I am at Beddis Beach a couple times a week and we have a pond at our property where I can swim as well. Depending on the water and outside temperatures, I am in the water for between five and 10 minutes. It is pretty uncomfortable in the beginning. But at some point, you get used to the cold, and when you are out of the water again, you feel absolutely great. It is a real re-set. After you’ve done this, you feel like you can do anything.”

Swimming in cold water is not only a great start of the day for Nash, but also for many others. Since COVID-19 hit, more and more Salt Springers have taken to the cold waters. They are not only at Beddis Beach, but also in Vesuvius. 

“For me, it is a mental thing,” said James Acken. 

He started swimming in the ocean in November 2020, followed by his wife Danielle and a bunch of friends a few months later.  

“When you’re in the water, you can only focus on that and nothing else. We always say it’s a real bullshit-cleanser; all your worries are gone for a moment.”

Wild water swimming, even in winter, might be popular right now, but the Salt Spring Seals were well ahead of that trend. Diana Hayes was the first-ever Seal in 2002. 

“She started to swim in the ocean as a way to deal with the stress after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and the passing of her mom,” said Catherine Griffiths, a long-time Seal herself. “I’ve always been a runner, but when a hip injury sidelined me, I started to join Diana in 2003. I was a scuba diver, so I had the gear, and I always loved swimming, so that became a new way of exercising for me.” 

Health benefits are not the only reasons why Griffiths jumps in the ocean once or twice a week. 

“I had a hip replacement, I recovered from breast and uterine cancer in the past years, and I always kept swimming, even during radiation. But what I really enjoy about swimming in the ocean is the wildlife. We see seals all the time, I’ve encountered a female sea lion, spotted an octopus and a cormorant, and we regularly see starfish, herring and squid when it is the season. It’s amazing.” 

The Salt Spring Seals swim year-round in diving wetsuits and snorkelling gear. 

“Vesuvius is our favourite spot in the winter because it doesn’t get as cold there as in other places. But we get cold sometimes, and changing afterwards can be a challenge. It is definitely not for everybody. You have to go out of your comfort zone for sure. But over the years we gathered a steady pod of 16 swimmers, and we hope to celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2022.” 

Richard Hayden is also swimming in Vesuvius Bay once a week; between 1,500 metres and two kilometres at a time. But if you’d told him that a year ago, he probably would have laughed. 

“I didn’t plan on swimming outdoor year-round. It just happened,” said Hayden, who is an avid triathlete. “When COVID-19 hit last year, and the pool on Salt Spring Island closed, I started to swim outside in April, which is pretty early for me. I normally swim outdoor all summer, and I kept swimming in the fall because it is really hard to book a lane in the pool. I am an exercise junkie and a crappy swimmer,” he said with a smile. “If I don’t swim three times a week, I become even more crappy, and I don’t want that.”  

Richard Hayden, left, and Marcia Jansen ready to swim in Vesuvius Bay.

When the temperatures started to fall in October, Hayden moved from Cusheon Lake to St. Mary Lake and eventually the ocean. 

“The ocean is warmer than the lakes right now. I swim in a wetsuit, with an extra neoprene vest underneath, a dive hoodie and neoprene socks and gloves, and that is actually quite comfortable. The first hundred metres are the worst, but when my face starts to get numb the cold doesn’t bother me anymore.” 

Hayden admits that swimming in the ocean can be scary. 

“The current can be unpredictable, and I definitely feel more comfortable in the lake. I never go alone in the ocean and I try to plan our swims when the tides come in, and the island in the bay is still visible.” 

Catherine Griffiths agrees with Hayden. 

“We always swim in a group. It is too dangerous to go by yourself, even when you are just taking a dip.”

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