Inside the Times: A Photojournalist Takes a Cold Plunge

From a Times Insider column by Greta Rybus headlined “A Photojournalist Takes a Cold Plunge”:

Being a photojournalist means perpetually job shadowing; being a forever beginner; and a regular visitor. Each day, we learn how to navigate the world from the people willing to invite us into theirs.

I have worked in Maine for 11 years, usually focusing on stories about people’s relationships to the natural world and their expertise within it. I may find myself wobbling on a rocking boat while the fishermen remain stable, scrambling to keep up with a farmer briskly walking through a field, or struggling to hear a birdsong a scientist can easily identify from a distance. Recently I found myself plunging into waters that hover around the freezing mark with Maine’s very own ‘ice mermaids,’ wintertime swimmers and dippers who submerge themselves in cold water in pursuit of vigorous sensory experiences, healing and a sense of community. I photographed their practice for an article that appeared last week in the Travel desk’s World Through a Lens series.

The world of cold-water plunging was new, but also familiar, to me. About five years ago, I began learning to surf, finding that I liked the feeling I had after a cold-water session. Winter surfing feels like a cousin to cold plunging, and though I had never dipped into the icy water myself, I had seen the documentaries of Wim Hof, the Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete; photos of steely athletes in tubs of ice water and footage from polar plunge fund-raisers in which people gleefully run into cold water before running right back out again.

But during the early days of the pandemic, I started to notice that some people went into cold water and stayed there, making it a ritual or a party — and often, a combination of the two. There were people of many ages, body types and income levels who took part in these plunges, in lakes, streams and the sea.

Then, this January, I spent a few days living in a treehouse while on a writers retreat in Georgetown, Maine. Ida Lennestål, who built and operates the network of treehouses with her family, had posted photos of herself doing cold plunges in a nearby pond and I asked if I could join her on one.

Ida broke a hole through the ice with an ax, and I helped out when she needed a break. When it was time to dip, I did two cold plunges and the others did three, each submersion followed with time in a sauna Ida’s family had repurposed from an old smelt fishing shack. Though I had planned to plunge, I had not necessarily planned to photograph the experience, but I did end up taking some pictures. After dipping, I was intrigued enough to pursue a story on it.

So I started searching for other communities who loved cold water and I found a network of formal and informal groups that stretched across countries and continents. Where there is cold water, there is likely someone wading in, in search of something within themselves.

For this project, I stayed close to home, visiting the Two Maine Mermaids community (sometimes called Ebb and Flow) in February. The group carved a large hole on a frozen pond and lowered themselves into the water. I stayed on the ice and photographed the swimmers while they submerged themselves in the water for five to ten minutes.

When they emerged from the water with blue lips and big smiles, I put my camera away and dipped briefly, as if I were a tea bag. My feet were already cold from our hours on the ice, but I wanted to feel what they had described finding in the water: a sharp coldness, followed by calmness, relief and release.

Next, I visited the Dip Down to Rise Up community. The members, wearing only bathing suits, waded into the ocean holding hands and cheering. I waded into the surf alongside the group, this time with my camera in a waterproof case, and while wearing my winter wetsuit.

After each cold plunge I photographed, I always took a dip. But I never dipped with the stamina and fortitude of the ice mermaids. Like anything else, this practice takes … well, practice. They’ve put in the time and the work to hone their bodies and their mind-sets.

For most assignments, especially those that explore politics or power, it is essential that a journalist remains strictly an observer. But for some articles, engaging with a community, even if only briefly, is important to understanding the story. Because of my brief time in the icy water, I was able to appreciate both the pain and the elation of the process, and better grasp why these swimmers embrace the cold.

But I know that as in most of my projects, I was still only a visitor. The heart of the story always belonged to the regulars, those intimate with the process, the people who plunge often. Whatever novel or extreme thing I may document is someone else’s normal. But of course, there is no universal normal, just a billion different experiences of this weird and wild world, all worth documenting.

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