Scouting ideal cold swim locations

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When we first decided to continue swimming past the summer and into colder seasons, we really didn’t give much thought to location, instead returning each weekend to our usual swim haunt. Thinking back on it, the water was cool, but not yet cold – fall was late in coming, luckily warm air and sunny skies were still with us. Even as the temperature started to drop, it did so slowly, swimming was still business as usual.

I’m about to digress for quite some time before I get to the main point – either bear with me, or skip to the end if you get bored. But you shouldn’t, some important stuff right here:

Our usual swim spot is typically one of two beaches on Meech Lake, we head to either Blanchet Beach or O’Brien Beach. Located within a provincial park high up on the Gatineau Hills, the lake itself is choice for swimming: water is clean and sparkling, surrounded by tall majestic trees that turn shades of fiery orange in the fall, little fish swim about and occasionally a curious loon will come calling – or as in one day last summer, swim directly beneath me, heading in the opposite direction (to which I let out a startled scream underwater, but apparently, no one heard a thing). I have many cherished memories of swimming with friends here, of making new ones, being with nature, laughing, talking, eating cake and sipping coffee on the beach afterwards while savouring the satisfied tranquility that usually comes over me after a great swim.

There are many popular ways to swim the lake, two of which being to loop around the island off Blanchet Beach (800m) or swim a “beach-to-beach” (4km) from Blanchet down to O’Brien. Some swimmers do that last one twice, lovingly dubbed the “beach-to-beach-and-back” (8km). Swimmers of all sorts come here to work on open water skills: recreational swimmers, wild and open water swimmers, triathletes. Open water etiquette is well understood here by most – one is polite, one shares space at the picnic tables, one respects the water, the beach, other swimmers. One avoids collisions by swimming round the island counter-clockwise, NOT the other way, these rules are now tradition established by those who swim here regularly. And importantly, it feels very safe, with lifeguards watching the beach and several exit points along the shoreline should one need to walk back along the road. The water’s actually too calm to work on turbulence training or other more challenging environmental techniques, but otherwise it’s beautiful, serene, sunny, safe. It’s summer swimming, see you at 8am don’t be late, business as usual every weekend.

Which was part of the problem, to be frank. Those of us that swam on past the summer didn’t stop to consider if business as usual was still best under different circumstances. Fear not, dear reader, nothing went terribly wrong, but as the water and air temps cooled, the realization quickly set in that swimming cold has entirely different conditions, needs, risks. The big moment of consideration came on a brisk Saturday in October, air about 14C, water 12C, gentle breeze. To a hardened cold-water swimmer, 12C water is not really all that cold, but it was my first time at this temp, and I was still learning. It was also the first time water “felt” cold to me; I stood in the shallow end, hugging my torso and doing the silly bent knee shuffle one does when one wants to delay submersion. Brrrrr, water’s chilly, I thought, best head right on in. I fixed my goggles, marched in up to my neck, dove under quickly, and immediately pushed off to start my swim, ahead of the others. My stroke rate was wild, trying to rev up my core temp. We can talk about how stupid all that was here, but more important is what happened next.

Roughly 4 minutes later, and about 200 meters from shore, I was overtaken but a hot heat sensation across my chest and my breathing went short and hard. I stopped swimming and floated quietly in place, also realizing I was alone on the water. Shit, was this the onset of cardiac distress, I thought, shit, feels really weird. I rubbed at my chest wall, I wasn’t feeling any superficial pain, just a strange heat wrapped around the front of my torso. I waited for Gen to catch up, we chatted briefly, laughing about how chilly the water was and how nuts we were to be swimming in it. The sensation of heat remained with me, but a self-check in that moment revealed everything else was just fine, even my breathing had calmed. We swam off, I did 3 laps round the island (2400m), the sensation of heat lessened by the halfway point and was entire gone by the end of the third lap. I later learned that this had been my first time experiencing both cold shock (the body’s natural response to cooling of the skin, which includes gasping and laboured breathing) and significant peripheral vasoconstriction (circulation redirects some blood flow away from the extremities to the torso to protect vital organs, in my case, producing the sensation of heat). It’s possible – most likely, even – that my body had experienced these before but they were imperceptible to me, but at this point in my training, 12C was the threshold point that brought them on strong.

Here are the lessons learned that day:

  • I should have been better informed about what the cold could do to my body before actually swimming in it, there should have been no surprises, cold shock and peripheral vasoconstriction are both well-documented phenomena;
  • I should never have swum off without first (a) allowing cold shock to pass and (b) performing a self-check to weigh in on any concerns. I was too inexperienced at the time to predict and mitigate my own physiological responses to cold;
  • If I had been experiencing cardiac distress, or if I had accidently inhaled water into my lungs as a result of the gasping from cold shock, I likely would have been screwed, I was alone and possibly too far from shore to avoid drowning.

Sure, that last point about being careful is true of any open water swim, but these were physiological reactions specific to cold water. This can’t be stressed enough, cold impacts your body differently and brings with it other considerations. And that’s what got us really thinking about how to continue swimming cold but do so as safely as possible. If I had been screwed, it was early October, beach lifeguards and rescue equipment were long gone – how would an extraction from the water have taken place, would it have been faster to drive to a hospital or dial 911, and how far were we from any emergency services anyhow? We had no clue.

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The 23km route from the beach, out of the provincial park, and back to Ottawa.

So I mapped it out: 23km. We also realized that while Meech Lake is a lovely place to swim, getting there can be tricky; one has to drive slowly through the park along a narrow 2-lane roadway, being careful of cyclists and watchful for wildlife. As well, in the fall there are numerous events and festivals that draw cars and crowds. We decided accessibility was a critical consideration, and nixed Meech Lake as a late season cold-water venue. Over the next couple of months, we scouted other locations, ran into other issues, and finally settled on a small windsurfer’s cove off the Ottawa River.

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We just have to keep an eye out for kite-surfers, fall seems to bring them out in hoards, but they’re pretty chill and we keep respectful distance from one another.

And so now I get to my point, at last. Here’s some of the things we took into consideration along the way:

Method/speed of entry into water

 Walking in from a shoreline: I definitely favour swimming locations that permit gradual and controlled entry into the water, especially in colder water, so typically sandy beaches. I find walking in gives my body a chance to adjust to the water/air temps, and I can fix my cap and adjust my goggles at the same time.

Walking down a boat launch: one venue we swam at was actually a boat launch, with a concrete ramp extending about 10 feet into the water. Seemed like a good idea, however we didn’t realize there were algae on the concrete’s surface towards the end of the ramp, causing me to slip and drop down quickly into 7C water. What started as slow entry ended in sudden submersion and heightened cold shock, and I struggled to catch my breath a bit during the swim. A supporter caught the moment on film, as well as my displeased reaction, in the pic on the right below.

Climbing down off a dock: I have also lowered myself down a rusty ladder off the side of a high dock, and at the ladder’s end had to drop off into the water below, quickly submerging my upper torso – the water temp was 8C, usually comfortable for me, but it took me awhile to catch my breath. I also felt a bit wary of relying on my arm strength to lower myself down, rather than very stable leg strength to walk in; it could be possible to lose one’s grip and fall in suddenly. In warmer water, probably not an issue, but in colder water it’s certainly not ideal. I would never consider actually jumping off the edge of a dock directly into cold water; I couldn’t possibly predict my body’s reaction to such sudden submersion – you’ve got to be a pretty seasoned cold water swimmer for that risk to be lessened. Although apparently local uni students idiots make a game of beer chasers and jumping on in off the dock. Why take the chance?

Most ice swim competitions require participants to quickly climb down a short ladder into the water, so training to submerge quickly is a goal I’m working to achieve. However, in very cold water I only want to practice this in a controlled manner – no rust, no algae, no dangling off the side of a dock.

Conditions of entry point

Obstructions: just as important as how one enters the water is the condition of the bottom they’re standing on or the shoreline on which they have to exit. Rocks, twigs or other obstructions play a significant role, especially upon exit from a very cold swim; my legs can sometimes get wobbly (at my first 2.8C swim, 3 minutes, I walked out like a drunken sailor), I certainly don’t want to trip over anything. Furthermore, cold skin cuts more easily and deeply, and if skin surface has numbed, it’s possible to injure oneself seriously without realizing the extent of damage. In moderately cool or cold temps, I’m less concerned, but when swimming in very cold water, I stick to sand or pebbled surfaces both in the water and on the beach.

Solid footing: in addition to finding a spot free of obstruction, I also look for a good, solid bottom – no mushy gunk. In more extreme cold temps (0-5C), I usually stay in shallow water no more than chest-deep, so that I can stand up at any time. When we swam off the cement boat launch, just after I slipped on the algae, I landed in about a foot of soft muck. I actually couldn’t gain solid footing, I had no choice but to push off and start swimming right away. Except I wasn’t quite ready yet, and no longer had control over my entry. And, if I’d needed to stop or to signal for help, I couldn’t be assured I’d be able to stand up very easily.

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Depth of water: if the water’s too shallow, it takes much longer to enter and exit, which exposes me to air/wind conditions and may greatly amplify how cold I get overall. In the pics below, we tried out a beach that is really shallow for quite some ways, just look at how far away out I am from shore and I’m not even knee-deep in the water yet. That day air temp was -5C, water temp was 2.7C…I got colder exiting than I did on the swim itself. I also make a point of looking out for drop-off points on the bottom, so there are no sudden surprises.

Here’s a few other things we discuss when scouting new locations:

  • Visibility: can we swim about enough but still be seen easily from shore?
  • Extraction: are the conditions such that a supporter could pull you out without endangering themselves as well?
  • Accessibility in/out of venue: could an emergency vehicle make it in quickly? Could we make it back to the car in a rush?
  • Proximity to emergency services: we measured both time and distance to local emergency services (actual emergency, not walk-in clinics)

There’s no perfect spot, really. But we used the considerations above to make better choices, and this made us ready to mitigate any issues that could arise.

Overcautious? Unnecessary? If so, this probably isn’t the blog for you.

Swim safe!

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