‘Leave it in the Lake’ - Red Hot Chilly Dippers
Hanging out in beautiful Vermont, US, the Red Hot Chilly Dippers are a fierce group of ice-craving swimmers who are addicted to experiencing the many health benefits of cold water swimming. Sledgehammer in tow (when needed), the group head to the icy Lake Champlain in the depths of winter to carefully select the safest spot to dip in the freezing waters.
With up to three dips a day, this fun group of dedicated swimmers has attracted over 6,000 curious followers on Instagram keeping up with their icy adventures. We were lucky enough to chat with Red Hot Chilly Dipper founder, Katharine Montstream, about the empowerment of cold water swimming, the positives of dipping in natural locations, and how the community stays safe in extreme swimming conditions.
Red Hot Chilly Dippers began five years ago in Vermont. How did you start cold water swimming and why did you want to introduce it to others?
Five years ago, my friend Elise finally got me in the lake in winter. I had resisted her invitations for about a year and finally got the nerve to join her. I was terrified, but so intrigued.
With my daughter and her friend, we met Elise on a snowy night at dusk in December. There was little wind and we gathered at a beach that got deep quickly. We dropped our winter clothes and ran in screaming. After that, I couldn't wait to go again.
For the next few years, I would go with anyone I could get to commit. Then came March 2020; the beginning of the pandemic. With everything on lockdown and so much anxiety everywhere, jumping in the lake in winter was essential. When I would post a photo, more and more people would ask "when are you going again? Can I come?" This was one of the few things we could do safely - meet outside, with distance and for just a few minutes. It felt luxurious and for that moment, you could smile and see friends.
What was the response like when you first started the group and how has it developed over the last few years?
As more people asked about this practice, I started an email list and thought we should name this group. After a number of boring attempts, my youngest came up with the Red Hot Chilly Dippers, and then there was no turning back. With the urging from the Wild Swim Girls on Instagram, I decided to start a dedicated Instagram page for winter dipping. And so it began in October 2020.
What is it about cold water swimming that feels so empowering and why do you think swimmers keep coming back for more?
Vermont draws a hardy bunch, and the people who want to cold water dip are interested in the community, the endorphins, and the reset that one gets when you come out of the icy lake. It's like a huge relief when you come out. If any negative story is playing in your head and weighing you down, just "leave it in the lake!" and then come out with the good energy.
How many dippers are part of the group and does it change throughout the year depending on the seasons?
Today there are about 250 people on the email list and new people inquiring daily on how to get involved. I organise an "open dip" for anyone who wants to try this crazy practice. We announce a time and then try to help people get in and give them pointers on what socks to wear, and what to do with their hands.
The Instagram page has over 5K followers now and that's feeding into the open dips. We also go in daily and that is driven by the wind, the temperatures, the ice and work schedules. There can sometimes be up to three different dips a day. Once it gets warm in May, we all go off and enjoy summer but often meet to watch the sunset and dip, or meet at a swimming hole in the mountains - the water's always cold there.
Some of the locations where you swim in Vermont are absolutely beautiful! Why do you think natural and outdoor swim locations have such a transformative effect on swimmers?
Natural spaces and beautiful locations bring a huge sigh to us, and we really take that in. The Japanese have it right with their "forest bathing." Being in nature and all it offers visually is so important. I suppose that's why I don't love cold showers, I'm just staring at my stupid shower curtain that probably needs to be cleaned. I like the cold part, but being outside is definitely my jam; I like to say "I'm an outdoor cat."
How does it feel when the first signs of winter begin to emerge and Vermont starts to change for ice swims as winter approaches?
When the first signs of winter come, the dipper community loses their collective minds... AKA, they go bananas. Even as a winter enthusiast, I would sometimes feel slightly blue for a minute in November as the winter starts to take its grip. It seems a little primal thinking how are we to survive in the climate where it will be well below zero °F (below -17 °C) many days. But now when I see it will be below zero, we just freeze our hair upside down at the lake and laugh a lot. This year was my first time going in the lake with the air at 0° F, (-17 °C. With no wind, it felt surprisingly doable, and of course, the lake temperature was 33 °F (0.5 °C. With that contrast, it almost felt warm.
What is the allure of swimming in icy and harsher conditions over others?
The challenge of finding a place to get in is really addicting. Do you need a sledgehammer? Will this edge hold? Can we get back out here? How deep is it under there? Because we know the landscape and where the ledges are, we are able to chop in some places that others wouldn't see. Knowing there is a flat ledge right under a couple inches of ice, that then slides down and flattens out to waist deep water is key. We are able to get in when many would turn back because we know where to go, depending on the wind.
Some days we chase ice, we want to be in the rolling waves that have soft, rounded edges and have been tossed around for a day. Other days the ice is too sharp and we need to go to a different location where the wind pulls the ice out. You become like a sailor watching the wind and its activity to guide your dipping locations.
Are there any precautions needed when swimming in Vermont during the winter?
I think we always think of safety first, although it may seem like we are maniacal dare devils, we really are not. As a rule, we don't go in water over our heads, we don't dip alone, we have safety apparatus with us like ropes, warm water, and extra wool socks. We know where the closest place to get warm is located - and that could be a friend's hot tub just through a fence near the cove. We also watch each other and test the ice with a sledgehammer, not just to make an opening, but to make sure we won't fall through. To put some pressure on the ice where we are stepping is really helpful. Because there is one thing that's predictable about ice, and that is, it's never predictable.
Winter dipping has brought me great joy, friendship, pride, and a community of indomitable humans that I cherish. I like to say "the lake brought you." And it really did. What a gift.
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