(Editor’s note: please visit the National Center for Cold Water Safety website for additional information about the possible dangers of immersion in very cold waters—and always have a friend or partner with you when cold plunging.)
Imagine this: You step to the edge of the ocean. You stick your toes in, then wade up to your calves. Then your waist and chest. Then, finally, you dive in. In your mind’s eye, maybe it’s a hot day in the middle of a glorious Whatcom summer. But for many, choosing to brave our frigid waters year-round has become an irresistible practice of courage, stress relief, and community.
Upon first hearing of these “cold plungers,” you might be wondering why on Earth anyone would choose to do such a thing. I myself had that same reaction when my friend and local engineer, Ben LaRoche, first approached me with the idea on New Year’s Eve day.
LaRoche describes the feeling behind these cold plunges as “blood-rushing and endorphin-pumping.” How could I resist? We went to Marine Park on a slate-gray afternoon and hurled ourselves into the drink. I leapt out of the water shrieking, but LaRoche stayed in, floating as if he was in a heated swimming pool.
This wasn’t LaRoche’s first time cold plunging. His initial winter swim took place in Seattle. “My friend invited me to go for a swim on a very cold but beautiful day. I thought he was crazy, but I decided I was a little crazy, too. It was really hard getting in at first; it was cold and terrible. But after a few moments of breathing deeply I acclimated and started to feel really good and calm. When I got out, I ended up really enjoying this experience I thought I was going to hate.”
LaRoche isn’t the only person who finds an unexpected peace in the chilly water. Autumn Meyer is a self-described homeschooling mama, yoga teacher, and Bellingham community member who began cold plunging on New Year’s Day and hasn’t stopped. She was initially inspired by her youngest daughter, who’s always “loved to get into water, even icy glacier-fed lakes.”
They did the Polar Bear Plunge on January 1, as a family. “I just… stayed in,” Meyer says. “It was the space where meditation felt most accessible. Where breath support was a necessity, and where I could feel that space of ‘this is for me, this is for me’ and it was cathartic. I was instantly intrigued.”
Many of those who cold plunge speak of the mental health benefits, the sheer exhilarating joy of feeling alive—plunged into the moment, so to speak. Chance Campbell, another local engineer, says, “I’m driven more by the desire for physical shock. Cold water engulfs one in extreme sensation, but in a safe environment. There’s a shore nearby, and perhaps a towel. It’s a fun challenge to overcome, for some period, the desire to get out of the water. It feels good to try to still oneself and just feel and focus on the cold.”
LaRoche notes something similar. “I keep doing it because it’s a good way of regulating my mood and dealing with anxiety. It’s a small act of courage that livens up your day.”
Meyer agrees that the mental health benefits are numerous. “When I feel dysregulated, this brings me back into alignment. When I’m feeling heavy, sad, or lonesome this brings my mood up but also reminds me of how powerful on my own I am. The impact feels like it lasts all day!”
For those who are interested in cold plunging but might be feeling a little nervous, these winter water veterans have some hard-won wisdom to share. “Wear water shoes, have a coat ready to slip back into, and bring a hot drink,” says Meyer. “Go without expectation. In the water, ask yourself, ‘Can I soften a little more? Can I take one more breath here?’ The more I resist, the colder it feels, but the more I soften, the bigger the relief and calm.”
Campbell adds, “It lasts only moments, and the panic you expect to feel is just that—panic. Quiet yourself and feel the sensation that is the cold water surrounding you. Notice that it is not, in fact, painful. Get out whenever you want, and repeat as needed.”
Campbell loves to cold plunge in alpine lakes, while Meyer enjoys the far ends of Boulevard Park. Marine Park, North Lake Whatcom, and Teddy Bear Cove are universal favorites. Whether they go alone or with loved ones, everyone agrees that this act is deeply connective—with another, with oneself, or even just with the water.
Meyer recalls a particularly memorable plunge with her husband. “When we made it back to shore, where our hot coffee waited, we talked and it felt like a barrier had been removed. The water had washed something away and we’d witnessed each other choosing this uncomfortable and brave experience. What a gift to have together!”
And as for me? I still plunge once or twice a week. Every time, it really does feel like a small act of courage, an act that says: I am here, I am alive. And in that way, perhaps, it is not so small after all.