Winter Swimming! (Guest Post)

by Diane Harper

I have been swimming with a small group of women for about 15 years now. I met the core group at a city-run weekly swim practice. One year when the pool was closed for major repairs, we started going to swim at a lake in nearby Gatineau Park. Eventually the pool reopened, but by then most of us had joined other swim clubs, so long lake swims became our way to connect. We usually wound up our season with a Labour Day post-swim lunch of hot soup and sweet baked goods on the beach.

A line of women in colourful bathing suits, at a lake shore

In 2014, we decided to see how long past Labour Day we could keep going to the lake. We didn’t get very far that year, but a few of us were in quite early the following spring. The following year we did our first-ever Vampire Swim, which is held on or around October 31, ideally in costume, and aims to encourage blood donations or raise funds for the Red Cross. The minimum distance was 25M. To set it up with the city, we had to have paramedics on site for safety – we laugh about that now!

After the Vampire Swim, we decided to go back the next day so we could claim we had swum in November, then we did a polar bear dip to get a December dip done, and by then we were hooked on the idea of trying to get into the cold water at least once a month. It has meant driving all the way to the St Lawrence River to find open water in the coldest months. 

Over the years, a few friends have moved on while new folks have joined. This year, with many pools closed or severely reducing numbers due to the COVID outbreak, outdoor swimming has exploded, and many are still swimming in December. Competitive ice swimming and challenges such as the “ice mile” are also growing in popularity. ( 

Three women wearing bathing caps crowded into a small tent, while a fourth peeks in through the door

This is definitely not an activity for everyone. There is a real risk of hypothermia so we have strict protocols: avoid ice, as you can easily get cut; one person on shore while others swim; get out before you think you need to (a three minute dip is just fine!); layers of clothes with no zippers or buttons work best; there is no room for modesty. In previous years, we would pile into the tent to help each other strip off wet bathing suits quickly, get dried and dressed. We would hug each other in the car until people were sufficiently warm. In the COVID times, we have invested in individual changing tents, and we are keeping our swims shorter than normal so we can maintain physical distancing.

So why do it? Because it’s fun! On sunny days the air is glorious and we feel extra alive. On grey days we have an excuse to get together with friends outside the house. On snowy days, we can feel all bad-ass; there is nothing like passing cross-country skiers on they way for a swim. And almost every day, we have the place to ourselves, so we can be loud – squealing or cursing as required to help us get into the water.

My friend Nadine (on the right) and I are wearing winter hats and bathing suits, lounging in the water as we support our elbows on the ice

Diane Harper works for the federal government in Ottawa. She loves to break the stereotype of the stodgy bureaucrat by trying new things and pushing limits as often as possible.

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