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Northlanders seek renewal with midwinter dips in Lake Superior – Duluth, MN

Feb 11, 2024 | people/passions

DULUTH — Cold air nipped at noses and infiltrated threads, as waves rolled onto the shore.

HEALTH: The Duluth Cold Water Dolphins group attracts members who want to experience the benefits of cold water immersion.

A snowsuited child attempted a sand angel as a group of about 25 people stripped to swimsuits, leaving parkas, hoodies and sweaters behind to step slowly into Lake Superior.

people swim in cold water in December
Members of the Duluth Cold Water Dolphins prepare to enter the water December 15th in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group

With gloved hands and covered heads, they whooped, cheered and chatted, their voices mixing with the music of the waves.

“Right now, I just feel my toes. Really tingly,” said Ellie Korwin, of Duluth.

It was her first December dip in Lake Superior, and she stayed in for about a minute. She said she wants to build her cold tolerance to change “the winter chill from being painful to feeling pleasant.”

people swim in cold water in December
Libby Gaalaas, of Duluth, holds her eyeglasses high while plunging below the surface of the water during a cold water therapy session.
Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group

After she got out of the water, Madeline Fisher, of Poplar, said she went in as far as her knees and she had to remind herself to breathe.

“This is harder than the Polar Plunge because you’re not jumping in. You have to get yourself all the way in. There’s a lot more willpower in that,” she said.

I felt my real personality bubbling up again from under the pain. I had minutes of, ‘Oh, I remember who I am.’

Jocelyn Pihlaja

The practice of cold water immersion, or CWI, isn’t new. It’s happening around the country and the globe, from Ukraine to New Zealand . And, there’s a local group dedicated to it.

Loralee Pasley launched the Duluth Cold Water Dolphins Facebook group for folks who want to experience or learn more about the benefits of cold water immersion.

Pasley started cold plunging consistently in 2022, which led to less joint inflammation in her hips and fewer seasonal affective disorder symptoms.

“I would go in on a Monday and by the end of the week, I’d have a change in mindset: ‘I need the water because I’m getting sad again,” she recalled.

Hands are the only part of the body above water as members of the Duluth Cold Water Dolphins immerse themselves in the Duluth Harbor.
Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group

The online group fostered safety, accountability and motivation to keep it up. It now has more than 800 members. People want to be part of this growing method of health and wellness, Pasley said.

CWI is the most common form of cold therapy. There’s a cold water contrast bath, such as a sauna and an ice bath; whole body cryotherapy, with a large tank and extremely cold air; and the Wim Hof Method , committed CWI paired with breathwork.

Those who struggle with cardiovascular or circulatory issues should avoid CWI, said Cristina Nistler, Essentia Health athletic trainer and Grandma’s Marathon medical liaison.

CWI can take place in a lake or an ice bath. To reach the optimal benefits, aim for temperatures around 40-45 degrees and a duration of 10-15 minutes, said Nistler.

people swim in cold water in December
Greta Watt, 11, of Duluth, eases into the water during her first outing with the Duluth Cold Water Dolphins on Dec. 15.
Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group

The cold water forces blood out of the body’s extremities and the inflammatory byproducts of exercise are moved back into circulation, alleviating soreness, she said.

Submerging the body in cold water also creates hydrostatic pressure, which pushes metabolic waste created by inflammation back into the bloodstream, disposing of it more quickly.

CWI can increase blood concentrations of dopamine, a neurotransmitter behind pleasure and motivation, by 250%, according to the National Library of Medicine.

people swim in cold water in December
Members of the Duluth Cold Water Dolphins practice cold water immersion Dec. 15th in the Duluth Harbor. 
Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group

And, folks who aren’t fans of the cold can achieve a significant amount of the same benefits from a 10- to 15-minute cool-down after exercise, said Nistler.

Studies show that cold water therapy reduces soreness, people report improved well-being and increased energy, but the research is “pretty anecdotal and subjective,” Nistler said.

“If people say they experienced that, I believe they do,” she said.

“My knee is numb, and it’s a blessing,” said Jocelyn Pihlaja.

She suffers chronic pain from a meniscus tear and arthritis in her knee. The pain drove her to tears after a yoga class, when a classmate asked if she’d consider dipping in Lake Superior.

people swim in cold water in December
Jocelyn Pihlaja, left, of Duluth, checks in with Loralee Pasley while taking a dip.
Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group

Two days later, Pihlaja felt exquisite numbness in the icy waters.

“The first time in the lake, and I felt my real personality bubbling up again from under the pain. I had minutes of, ‘Oh, I remember who I am,’” she recalled.

Since then, Pihlaja has been dipping a minimum of twice a week, sometimes daily, since January 2023, and always with family or members of the Cold Water Dolphins.

people swim in cold water in December
Goosebumps appear on the arm of Sarah Ina’amii, of Duluth, while practicing cold water therapy with the Duluth Cold Water Dolphins.
Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group

They have their favorite spots to dip, and they always adjust to avoid large waves and undercurrents.

“I’m intimidated every single time I do it, but the group energy catches me, and it changes everything,” she said.

Unlike the Polar Plunge, a series of cold water jumps, Pihlaja said she enters the lake slowly and intentionally with a focus on deep breaths. By the time the water reaches her shoulders, she’s calm and settled, and she tends to stay in a minimum of 10 minutes, longer than most.

“To be perfectly honest, I think it’s because I have more body fat. Jokingly, I told my doctor that I found my sport. I could do this competitively. … I think I was born for it,” she said.

people swim in cold water in December
Jocelyn Pihlaja, right, and Byron Johnson, both of Duluth, layer up after practicing cold water immersion with the Duluth Cold Water Dolphins.
Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group

After a dip, Pihlaja lets her body warm up naturally, opting for layers of warm clothing and blankets over a hot shower.

“Food tastes better. I sleep really well. I’m generally pretty upbeat and happy, but I feel like I’m flying,” she said.

The practice has changed her relationship with Lake Superior.

“I’ve gone from being an observer of something beautiful and amazing to a participant and a collaborator with it,” Pihlaja said. “It is very powerful.

“I may be walking stairs sideways and living with a brace on my knee, cortisone shots, gel shots, trying not to do surgery, and I at least know that when I get in that lake, I’m going to feel great,” she said. “I’m not going to feel the pain, and I’m going to have a nice conversation I never would’ve had otherwise.”

For Sarah Ina’amii, cold water dives have helped more than her physical recovery.

people swim in cold water in December
Sarah Ina’amii, of Duluth, eases into the water while participating in cold water immersion.
Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group

As a teen, Ina’amii endured a near-drowning experience. She said joining the Cold Water Dolphins in the lake helped her process the trauma.

During her first group dip, Ina’amii lost her footing due to an unexpected drop-off in the lakebed. Panicked, she said she started hyperventilating, when a plunging partner held her arms, reassured and encouraged her to breathe.

“I felt like I just drowned again but … I had somebody walking and talking me through it. After that experience, I have been kind of fearless about it,” she recalled.

Ina’amii committed to dipping at least once a month for a year, but she ended up going two to three times per week. And she feels this practice has validated her cultural beliefs. “The water has its own spirit. Water can heal.”

A year later, Ina’amii said she hasn’t been sick, she feels healthy and strong, and setting a CWI routine has helped her achieve other goals. “Once you have a practice of that level, it makes everything else a little bit easier,” she said.

people swim in cold water in December
Loralee Pasley, left, and Hugh Reitan, both of Duluth, practice cold water immersion.
Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group

For those who want to start, Pasley recommends building up to it with cold showers for 10 seconds and increasing increments.

“It’s a mind-over-matter thing, and once you’re in the water, it feels so amazing that all the fear and nervousness goes away,” Pasley said. “The benefits outweigh the fear and the discomfort, and it’s coming back to nature, connection with others and connection to ourselves.”



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