Editor’s note: Submerging in cold water is potentially dangerous. It could cause hypothermia or worse, and should be done with extreme caution.
This New Year’s, I got an unexpected invitation to take a brisk dip in the Columbia River.
The invite came from Ivana Maclay, who has made the act of getting into cold water a regular part of her life. She also has a personal goal to share her cold-dipping passion with anyone brave enough to endure the embrace of icy-cold water.
Cold dipping, cold plunging, or cold immersion involves deliberately submerging oneself into cold water. Often painfully cold water. In no uncertain terms, it means stepping, literally, outside one’s comfort zone.
I first met Ivana to film her cold dipping passion for OPB’s program “Oregon Field Guide.” I wanted to know a simple question: Why would someone subject themselves to something so obviously uncomfortable? As a reporter, I thought this was my question to Ivana; it turned out, I’ve had to answer the question for myself.
A curiosity for cold
About this time last year, our “Oregon Field Guide” team was catching up on what adventures we’d had over the holidays. Photographer Stephani Gordon shared that she’d waded into the Willamette River with a group of women wearing only swimsuits and Santa hats.
Frankly, I thought the idea a little crazy. But that’s why I asked Stephani if I could meet the ringleader of this cold-dipping cohort, Ivana. I wanted to know what would make someone submerge themselves, not once on a whim, but over and over. Was there something deeper than the surface level of goosebumps and shivering lips?
Part of my interest in making this Field Guide story was the visual possibilities. Temperature is hard to convey through a video screen. I knew that if we merely showed Ivana in a creek in a typical mossy Pacific Northwest forest, it wouldn’t translate to the audience how cold the water actually is during the depth of winter. We needed to see snow and ice.
Ivana was game.
So we loaded up and headed to Mount Hood.
Breaking the ice
The opening scene begins with an aerial view from Stephani’s drone, looking down at an expanse of white snow. Ivana and her friend Zuzka Tichy, who she brought along for both moral support and safety, walk across this plane, which is actually frozen Mirror Lake in the Mt. Hood National Forest. The two women pause at the end of the lake where the ice is the thinnest.
Ivana strips to a two-piece swimsuit. Stephani and I remain bundled in our winter clothes as we film.
Ivana uses a stick to test the ice thickness. After stepping gingerly into water up to her knees, she begins to break off chunks of ice to expand the pool large enough for her body. The ice makes a sharp crack and then slosh as she tosses the pieces.
Stephani grins behind the camera as she captures the moment of Ivana lowering her body into the water. The only parts of Ivana out of the water are her head and her pink stocking hat with fuzzy pom, her shoulders, and her two hands pressed together in the yoga pose Anjali Mudra, often called “hands to heart.”
Even at a safe distance from the thin ice, we can hear Ivana’s deep breathing. The body’s first reaction to icy water is called “cold shock.” It is often an intense minute of hyperventilation, and sometimes can even cause cardiac arrest. But Ivana has trained herself to control her breathing.
“After 20 seconds of that initial shock, it starts feeling different,” Ivana explained. “Your body just creates this warm bubble and then it feels right. Like for a few minutes I can just sit there.”
As a witness, I am incredulous. How is she staying in so long? And still, the unanswered question: WHY?!
Part of what makes “Oregon Field Guide” so special is the element of immersion journalism, where reporters immerse themselves in a situation with the people involved to gain firsthand understanding and insights.
When I did a story on three women who skied around Crater Lake in winter, our small camera team could only get the story if we skied, too. We covered every single mile, slept on the snow each night, and endured the same miserable winter sleet. As the old saying goes, the only way to truly empathize with someone is to walk a mile in their shoes. In this case, it was about 50 miles.
Other times, we’re invited to try our hand at whatever we’re filming — like with the blacksmith of Timberline Lodge, Daryll Nelson. Daryll was making one of his iconic “ram’s head” fire pokers. He let me attempt some strikes of his hammer against the glowing red-hot steel to shape one end of the poker into a four-sided point. Turns out it is a lot harder than it looks.
I am always keen to learn from the people we feature, to get a more authentic feeling of what they do, how they do it, and what mastery it takes.
From the moment I met Ivana, she had been suggesting that it was only a matter of time before I, too, would be feeling the icy embrace of Mount Hood’s frigid waters.
As we hiked down from Mirror Lake after our day of filming, I realized there was no way I could truly understand cold dipping without trying it myself. As long as I remained in my warm winter layers and watched Ivana from a safe distance, I’d never really know the answer to the most important question: WHY?!
Taking the plunge
At a spot where the trail crosses over a log bridge, Ivana and Zuzka stop. Below the bridge, the rushing creek pauses and pools slightly, before it cascades onward down the mountain.
Ivana has dipped twice for the camera, but Zuzka and Stephani — both cold-dipping veterans — are keen for a turn. We are quickly losing light in the short winter day, and this is our last chance before returning to the vehicles and indoor comforts.
As the women take turns submerging in the pool, I contemplate this choice — and challenge. To pass up this moment will mean remaining dry and warm; stepping into the moment means certain discomfort but also the unknown. This was the piece of the story that could only be gained through experience.
“OK, Ian, you ready?” Ivana says, in playful peer pressure.
So I strip my warm layers. Then tiptoe barefoot down the snow bank. I step into the water up to my ankles, and immediately my feet are seized with the acute pain of pins and needles. The further I step into the water, the more my muscles tense. My breath is squeezed out of me. My body is trying to hyperventilate as I dip deeper, up to my chest. I have to remind myself to breathe.
I am mentally overriding a powerful sensation to leap out of the water. Every nerve is sounding an alarm: danger, danger, danger. Get out. This is the fight-or-flight nervous system taking over.
I try to recall everything I’d learned from Ivana. Breathe. Slow. Hold the hands together in the hands-to-heart yoga pose.
The panic sensation subsided. The painful prickliness of the water turned to dull aching numbness.
I understood better why Ivana had found cold dipping at a time in her life when she had experienced both a divorce and losing her mom to cancer. A time, she recalls, with financial struggles and the responsibilities of being a single mom. Cold dipping gave her some vestige of control, a sense of inner strength and a reminder of her own resiliency.
“I’m choosing the level of suffering,” Ivana said. “I am the one in control as opposed to things just happening to me.”
After just a minute of being in cold water, your arms and legs can go numb and lose strength. More than a few minutes, and the body can descend toward hypothermia. So it is vital to “listen to one’s body,” Ivana says.
There is never a moment where the cold becomes pleasure. And that, I realized, is the point. It is only about embracing the uncomfortable moment. Until you are ready to stop, and climb back out.
And then stand, and move arms and limbs to get the blood flowing, the heart pumping.
Clothes back on, we hike. My legs and arms swing in stride. And my blood feels warmer than it did before. My skin feels energized, a tingling sensation, not the pricking of cold, but the glowing flush of blood rediscovering every capillary. I smile with a small amount of pride that I said yes — not to Ivana but to myself. A small victory of overcoming my own limiting voice.
A community comes together in the cold
To capture the final scene in the video story, we went to Sauvie’s Island last winter. Ivana loves to share her passion for cold dipping, and wanted to create a way to gather community.
She wrangled a small group of her Portland neighbors, friends of friends, and folks from the Czech Republic, like Ivana. They all seemed to share a zest and a hardiness for this endurance to cold.
“So we have this collection of people that is just pretty amazing,” Ivana said. “The laughter and the giggles and the happiness. It’s pretty contagious. It’s really inspiring.”
Since filming last winter, Ivana has returned several times to the beach of Sauvie’s Island, bringing together the informal group to cold dip.
Despite my successful first cold dip on Mount Hood, I wasn’t 100% converted. A “one and done,” you could say.
But now Ivana texts just before New Year’s.
Since our first filming with Ivana, the year 2022 was harder than anticipated. This fall, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. On New Year’s, I have great heaviness to release, and need renewed energy to face the coming year.
So I say yes.
We gather at the empty beach. The sky is gray. The water gray. We build a campfire in the sand. We circle it. The conversations stretch, as everyone delays the inevitable. Then warm layers are shed.
We walk into the water as a group.
Like before, my body revolts. It wants to whirl 180 degrees back to shore and sprint back to the campfire. I stay the course.
Waist deep, then deeper. I fight my lungs to draw in air. The water stabs with cold.
And then we circle, hold hands, and wish each other a happy new year.
Soon enough we will be back around the campfire, enjoying a champagne toast, homemade baked goods, and roasted sausages. But for this fleeting moment, overriding the flight urge and choosing to stay in discomfort, it is enough to quietly say to oneself: You’ve got this.